God’s Music (Part 2)

A while ago I posted about my favorite music ever written in praise of (mostly the) Christian god. Consider this part two.

Blind Willie Johnson (1897 – 1945), an almost preacher who picked up a cigar box guitar as a child, decided the life of the bluesman was preferable to a life of the cloth. Although he left behind god’s calling, his music was infused with faith, the cross, and revelation (for example, John the Revelator was one of his go-to hymns).

As I’ve stated before, I love gospel and praise music. The lyrics don’t affect me; it’s the melody, the emotion, and cadence. Most blues music is strictly secular (despite being played by a hugely religious demographic), but Blind Willie Johnson bucked that trend. Below is my favorite Blind Willie song, “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning,” and it’s chock full of explicit references to his lord and savior. Behold:

Also don’t forget to check out a more contemporary recording by the Tedeschi Trucks Band (song #1 in a 3 song set. The other songs are by Elmore James and Bob Dylan):

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The GOP and Pornography: And Why Should We Protect Children from Sex?

According to this article in Fortune released today, GOP delegates meeting in Cleveland have been contemplating their party’s platform language. Among their points of contention include pornography, which is no surprise considering the amendment being contemplated was offered by the sex-obsessed Family Research Council.

The article quotes the amendment:

Pornography, with his harmful effects, especially on children, has become a public health crisis that is destroying the life of millions. We encourage states to continue to fight this public menace and pledge our commitment to children’s safety and wellbeing.

The point of urgency here is that pornography damages the minds of children. Children are put in harm’s way due to the ready availability of pornography, or so the GOP contends. I’m not quite certain how, exactly, children are harmed by porn, but we might venture a guess—Tony Perkins is just looking out for their immortal souls.

I call bullshit on this whole thing. Public displays of sex are nothing new to children.

According to the late Moya K. Mason, MLIS, researcher and fact checker, “the bedroom was largely an invention of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Until then, all but the most privileged colonists lived in one or two rooms, and beds stood throughout their homes when not in use.”

Until the inclusion of the bedroom into average middle- and lower-income homes, where do you think mom and dad had sex? It would be quite absurd to think mom and dad sought privacy away from the privacy their single room homes provide. Their children spent their entire childhoods witnessing mom and dad get it on. And to what detriment? Seriously, what kind of negative impact did exposure to their own parents fucking have on them? None. In fact, according to Dr. Ian Kerner, sex counselor,

No studies have shown that a child who sees his or her parents having sex is going to be psychologically damaged. Interestingly, children who are raised in homes with parents who are comfortable with nudity – those who change clothes and bathe in front of the kids – are found to be more sexually healthy.

Being exposed to sexuality and nudity helps children develop. Because we no longer live in societies where it is common to witness your parents having sex (due to the invention of the private bedroom), children’s exposure to non-virtual sex is rather limited. So porn to the rescue!

But what kind of impact does porn have on adolescents? Well, I’ve pursued the literature. Most is unhelpful, but those that were appear to offer very few negative impacts. For example, one study called it a “normative experience“—that is, socially ideal. According to another study, pornography viewership was described as positive and helping college students explore their own sexualities. The worst I’ve come across—a meta analysis—finds a correlation between pornography consumption in adults and verbally aggressive behaviors (and to a lesser degree physically aggressive behaviors), but this aggression is likely the product of being predisposed to aggression and/or violence and seeking out explicitly verbally aggressive and/or violent porn.

In summary, the GOP wants to tackle porn because of the impact sex can have on children’s developing minds. But keeping sex private from children is 1) a brand new phenomenon, 2) unhealthy, and 3) socially deconstructive. There are a lot of positive effects porn has on people, including sexual growth and social development, and yes, there are also some negative effects. But these effects pale in comparison to a true “public health crisis that is destroying the life of millions.”

If the GOP wants to protect children from porn, they should start by first tacking “child” to the word, and then going after their own pastors.

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Rant about Brexit and Hume’s Guillotine

[[Per the title, this post really is a rant.]]

As a political scientist whose background includes an extensive study of international cooperation, the Brexit referendum was an event that drew out the most curiosity I’ve ever felt during my career. I have my own political views on the referendum, and I won’t litter this blog with them. Instead I wish to write about—again—Hume’s Guillotine, the tragedy of which becomes apparent especially when politics meets religion.

Hume’s Guillotine can be summed up thusly: We’ve discovered A, therefore we should X, but X does not logically follow from A.

That is, in this case, London has a Muslim mayor, therefore the UK should leave the EU. Or we could focus on the alleged cause of London having a Muslim mayor (even though it’s a weak argument, but even if it’s true it’s meaningless). Roughly one-eighth of London’s residents are Muslim, therefore the UK should leave the EU.

These two things—the fact and the normative statement—are completely unrelated. Many have argued that they are related (A is causing B. X can stop B), but I find this argument lacking. UK immigration policy is a product of the UK, not the EU. And even if the reverse were true if the UK wants to continue trade with the EU it would be bound by EU standards of decency. Don’t believe me? Ask Turkey.

The Remain side has a different argument: Nationalism is racist/dangerous/etc., therefore we should have a second referendum. How does that follow?

Anyway, this isn’t even where this post is going. This is merely an illustration using Brexit as a model.

Americans have very strong opinions about the Brexit referendum, and for the past ~week I’ve been inundated by friends, students, and family members seeking my validation of their positions. I’ve mostly left them dissatisfied with a canned sound byte: The outcome of the referendum is a realist’s wet dream and a liberalist’s blue balls. Regardless of my attempts to explain the phenomenon instead of take a side or validate their positions, I’ve been hammered with emotional arguments, and many of them are strange. One stands out as dreadful.

Per a family member: Christianity is declining in Europe, therefore the EU should collapse. That is the basic. The whole argument laments secularism and the removal of the church from the sphere of influence within Europe. They believe the EU is to blame for the waning cross, and they believe the UN, EU, and NATO have too strong an influence on American politics. If America is to be great again it needs to do it alone. And they believe the outcome of the referendum is a sign that Christ will come back to Europe and, by extension, to the US.

I do not know where to even begin with this one. “If there is no EU, Jesus will magically endow the US with all the money and power it could ever need. Eden will be restored between the southern Canadian and northern Mexican borders (and Alaska and Hawaii).” In other words, the normative statement relies on Christian supernatural agency intervening in extra-biblical ways.

The Brexit referendum is intensely interesting to me. It will impact how we explain international cooperation for years to come. Old models must be reformed, and new models must be developed. It will create entire volumes of literature that will be taught at universities. And I can guarantee you there’s a working paper from me somewhere in there. I would really like to be able to model this new development in a reasonable, rational way, without people coming to me trying to inject Jesus into this blatantly non-Jesus event. And from my own professional position, the US will either increase its wealth and power or decrease it according to how it is able to interact with its neighbors. It will take no supernatural intervention based on a 51 to 48 vote in the UK.

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Update: Orlando Shooter Did Have an Expressed Goal

A couple days ago I published a post asking what the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooter’s goal was. In it I mentioned that as far as we knew he made no demands during his 911 calls to the police. As it turns out he did.

According to a recently released excerpt from his 911 call by the FBI, Mateen stated that he was killing Pulse patrons to compel the US to cease its military campaigns in Iraq and Syria. He went on to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State.

I still find Mateen’s methods curious, despite knowing his motive. The US is hardly a state that gives into terrorists’ demands. In fact, I can recall only one time in the US’s history that a terrorist organization’s actions compelled the US to withdraw from an occupied or war torn country. In 1983 Hezbollah allegedly suicide bombed the US marine barracks in Beirut, killing 305 American and French soldiers. The US responded by packing up and leaving Lebanon forever. This would be an incredibly successful terrorist attack against the US if it were not for the fact that Hezbollah was attacking a legitimate target (a military post). In other words, the Beirut barracks bombing was an act of war—not a terrorist attack. Regardless of what we call it, however, it took an act of armed conflict against two militaries to achieve such success. Proving to military brass that they are vulnerable and will suffer if they do not high tail it and run is how to achieve your goals—not attacking the military’s constituency.

Mateen walked into a gay nightclub and killed innocent civilians that had nothing to do with military campaigns in Iraq and Syria. All that Mateen proved was that civilians are vulnerable to attack—something the military is aware of. The military is also aware that its sole responsibility is to defend the US from enemies, foreign and domestic. Mateen therefore proved that the US military has to do more, not less; otherwise it breaks its oath to the American people.

I’m not trying to make an argument for or against military action in the Middle East. Rather, my argument is that, despite Mateen having an explicit political goal in mind, which I was not aware of in my previous post, Mateen was an idiot because his only success is to compel the US military to do the exact opposite of what he wanted.

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What Was the Goal of the Pulse Nightclub Shooting?

Last week’s terrorist attack against patrons of the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which claimed the lives of 49 people, has me scratching my head. Although coming to terms with such a tragedy is difficult enough, the most puzzling aspect is that it was completely meaningless. There appears to be a trend by fundamentalist groups to engage in utterly futile attacks of terror that express nothing of socially relevant substance.

Terrorist attacks have many definitions, but the most common, most accepted in academic circles can be summed up as this: attacks performed by non-state actors against a civilian population with the explicit goal of changing a social or political policy. In other words, terrorists attack because murdering civilians—especially in democratic societies—helps these groups achieve their social and political goals.

With this definition in mind, what exactly was Omar Mateen’s goal? What did he hope to change in the American social or political landscape? Was he merely trying to kill gay people? If so his act was of trivial consequence to the LGBT population at large. ~4 to 5% of Americans belong to this umbrella social group, which can be rounded to approximately 16 million Americans. Although this is harsh, murdering 49 out of 16 million doesn’t accomplish much.

Was he trying to compel Americans to draft laws outlawing homosexuality? Fat chance. Societies tend to liberalize, especially in wealthier and more secure countries. Convincing a liberal society that—at worst—tolerates the LGBT community to pass laws criminalizing homosexual behavior defies everything we know about how societies evolve. In societies that have enacted protections for the LGBT communities, such as anti-discrimination laws in the US, this is essentially impossible.

Was he trying to compel the US to cease its hostilities against the Islamic State? Despite media attention on his self-proclaimed allegiance to ISIS, I doubt this. Mateen appears confused about competing Jihadist organizations. During his 911 call he claimed support for ISIS on the one hand, while on the other pledged support for al Nursra, ISIS’s arch nemesis. Furthermore, he supported al Qaeda and Hezbollah. These four organizations are diametrically opposed, even—in some cases—down to which version of Islam is the correct one.

But moreover, the US is unlikely to withdraw from its missions in Iraq and Syria due to the homicidal acts of one person—a person the US, undoubtedly, views as mentally unstable. All of these things combined—plus the fact that as far as we know Mateen never made any demands that the US leave the Middle East—paint a picture of a man with no political goal. And as far as we know he never demanded the release of Jihadist prisoners. He never even called upon other Muslims to engage in similar acts. What was the political point of this attack? [[EDIT 20 June 2016: According to released excerpts of the 911 calls by the FBI, Mateen did make demands asking the US to stop bombing Iraq and Syria. He additionally stated that this was his goal.]]

Thankfully, whatever goal he might have had appears to have backfired. Although a small few evangelicals are praising the murder of innocent people at a gay nightclub, the vast majority—essentially 100%—appears to condemn this tragedy with the strongest language possible. Mateen appears to have brought together disparate social actors on an issue they never believed they’d agree upon—that anti-gay language sometimes has tragic results.

The Orlando attack at Pulse is tragic, and its tragedy is compounded by the fact that Omar Mateen murdered 49 people for absolutely no reason. Terrorism without a goal, or terrorism misplaced in a society unwilling to accept its message, is not a way terrorists want to operate. While Omar Mateen might go down in history as a homicidal mad man, we can chalk up his actions as an utterly failed act of terror.

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Quran Contradictions #9: Did Allah Create the Heavens or Earth First?


In this rather silly contradiction in the Quran there seems to be a lot of confusion about what came first, the earth or the heavens.

In the second and forty-first books of the Quran it’s explicitly claimed that Allah created the earth before he created the heavens. But later in the seventy-ninth book the entire process is reversed, and heaven is created before he created the earth.

A retort I might hear is that Allah created seven heavens in total, meaning he didn’t have to create them all prior to creating the earth. He could’ve created a few heavens first, then the earth, and then the rest of the heavens. This apology would be false (according to the Quran). The contradiction is complete by reading the first two links; in them Allah created the “seven heavens” (no fewer than seven) after creating the earth.

Ok, maybe there are eight heavens then. We’ll just add an additional secret heaven to the list to make the contradiction disappear.

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Bible Contradictions #56: Magic?


I remember as a young teenager watching the Disney adaptation of Moses’ story, titled The Prince of Egypt. In the film storytellers and animators inject a lot of comedy slapstick into the story where god commands Moses to out-magic the Pharaoh’s magicians (Exodus 4:2-6). In other words, fight black magic with black magic! Here god seems to explicitly approve of humans conjuring supernatural powers. There are other stories in the OT that support god’s nod towards the dark arts: In Numbers 5:27 the bible provides a magic potion that can determine whether or not a wife has stepped out on her husband (by causing her serious pain and a divinely-forced abortion). And in Numbers 21:8-9 god gives Moses a magical cure for snake venom. At first glance it seems like god of the OT is a huge fan of magic.

But not so fast. Several passages in the OT are hugely critical of both magic and its practitioners. In Deuteronomy 18:10-12 god commands that magicians are vile and must be driven out of their societies. In Leviticus 19:26-31 god curses witches and wizards. In both Exodus 22:18 and Leviticus 20:27 god commands that witches must be executed. And in 2 Kings 18:3-4 god breaks his tolerance for Moses’ magical hijinks and praises a man who destroys Moses’ magical venom-curing staff (as mentioned above).

Searching for a coherent answer is frustrating. As mentioned even when god gave Moses a magical staff meant to cure people of snake bites, he hates the device so much that he is pleased when it is destroyed. But worry not. Magic is bullshit. It doesn’t exist.

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Moses’ Invisible Pen: How the Pentateuch Destroyed Any Hope of Faith

In the early years of Rayan, I steadfastly rejected religious claims, but for the most part I did so silently. It’s not that I had complaints about the telephone game, extraordinary claims, or even the utter implausibility of the stories in the bible; I really merely did not believe what people were saying about the bible. I was a de facto atheist without knowing what that word even meant. Today I was thinking about this period in my life—where, presumably, I had no reason to reject the teachings of my grandparents’ parishioners, and I believe I’ve pinpointed the exact moment where disbelief became my default position.

It was Moses.

Although my parents—despite their Christian leanings—never asked me to attend religious services as a child, my grandparents did, and I accompanied them to no fewer than 20 Sunday services. It was at these services that I discovered my first critical view of religious teachings.

Initially, I was taught by Grand Mommy and Pop Pop that the Pentateuch was written by Moses. I remember fondly my grandmother sitting down to finish an Old Testament-inspired puzzle and discussing Moses’ authorship of the first five books. She would sit me on her lap and read from the OT, insisting that it was penned by Moses himself (despite his writing about his own death in the third person). I remember her pointing out the bible verses to support this claim. But when they took me to Sunday school and dropped me off with the other children I learned something different.

The Sunday school teacher insisted that Moses played no role in the books’ authorship, but rather his life’s tales and teachings were documented by lay eyewitnesses and eventually compiled into the first five books of the bible. This caused in me great discomfort.

The bible was obviously wrong! To be honest, I put more trust in the Sunday school teacher than I did my own grandparents, but to also be fair no reputable, modern biblical scholar would ever claim the bible was correct about its authorship (for a bibliography, see the bottom of this link). And also to be fair the teacher cited her own pastor as an authority on the authorship of the OT.

In other words, a foundational question about the bible had contradictory answers. Should I accept what the bible says, or should I accept what people who study the bible say about it? I obviously went with the latter, but from that day forward I was filled with a healthy dose of skepticism that has followed me to this day. In a very short matter of time I went from a de facto atheist to a full-fledged religious critic, demanding answers to unanswerable questions, and I would never develop any level of belief even remotely akin to religiousness.

Thank you grandparents.

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Should Social Expectations Follow Naturally from Anyone’s Beliefs?

I’m vegan. I chose this lifestyle for personal, moral reasons. Living a life that causes the least amount of harm as possible is the only way I know to live. I gave up animal products on August 1, 2007, and I never looked back. For a brief time between leaving the US Navy and beginning an 8-year-long (and counting) academic journey, I even worked at PeTA, believing naively that I could make a difference by changing people’s minds about eating animals. But while I have never second guessed my decision to abstain from animal products, I really don’t give a fuck about what other people eat (as long as it’s not my cat), and this position is precisely what I meant in my last post (which will be reiterated here) and a good learning experience for people with religious ideas about how society should behave.

I believe animals feel pain. It does not naturally follow from that belief, however, that we ought not consume animal products for food. My belief is my own, and it does not mean others should live by it, but more important—I have not demonstrated that we actually ought not consume animals. Many vegans merely assert it as if it naturally followed their own beliefs. It’s like saying, “I believe I’m right, therefore I’m right.” Ok, those are beliefs. What about facts?

Grass grows. It does not naturally follow from this fact, however, that we ought to cut grass. We can demonstrate that grass indeed grows, but we have not yet demonstrated that because grass grows it ought to be cut. We have merely assumed it ought to be cut because it grows. (For many, tall grass is preferable). And to the crux:

Christian believers tell us we can only enter the kingdom of heaven through Jesus. It does not naturally follow, however, that we ought to follow Jesus. There are two reasons that I touched on in my last post. First, no one has ever demonstrated that Jesus is a bona fide supernatural agent of or part of a divine overlord. Without this demonstration, the ought cannot follow from the is. And second, even if the is is demonstrated—meaning, some future team of scientists demonstrates in a replicable way the truth of Christianity—they are still left with the burden of demonstrating that we ought to follow Christ.

Perhaps we ought follow Christ for moral instruction, the keys to heaven, or some other rule/benefit? But how would we know this? Despite fictional, future scientists demonstrating the truth in Christian claims, does anyone pretend to know what their god actually wants, thinks, or feels? Of course this is meaningless because we can’t demonstrate the truth in Christian claims, and as I mentioned earlier, therefore the oughts do not naturally follow.

In other words, I’m vegan with some deeply held moral beliefs about animals, but I don’t give a fuck if others eat animals because I don’t pretend to have an objective truth that naturally results in a human obligation to abstain from animal meat. I believe many religious people could learn a thing or two from this dilemma. Just because someone has a moral idea a) doesn’t make it right, and b) doesn’t mean anyone ought to do a god damn thing to lend that belief credit.


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Hume’s Guillotine: An Instruction in Explanation

Ask any atheist. The reason we object to religion is because of the harm organized religions inflict upon societies. But the source of our disdain goes deeper than that, and believers are often left bewildered because we do not adequately explain the actual source, and, while religions indeed harm societies, they also help individuals grieve, provide hope, etc., etc. Without an adequate explanation, believers have little to doubt because harm is—in their eyes—a necessary product of a just god. So let me put it in eighteenth century terms to finally explain the source of our contempt.

David Hume’s 1739 A Treatise on Human Nature sums it up:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.

[[Readers with access to APA PsycNET can access it here. Otherwise use google or visit your local library. See p. 469.]]

In other words, people tend to make pronouncements about what ought to be based on their beliefs about what is. This is a serious problem because what we believe ought to be does not necessarily follow from what we believe to be. This problem is exacerbated when we make pronouncements about what is when knowledge about the state of the world is impossible.

In the religious context, as far as I’m aware there are no religions that claim to be the truth with 100% certainty (although many religious people do). This is why religions teach to take things on matters of faith, which is a religious belief consisting of complete devotion despite a lack of evidence. In other words—let’s take Christianity—the followers of Christ follow blindly, yet they base their oughts on imperceptible pronouncements about what is.

Paraphrasing Matt Dillahunty: Demonstrate that your god exists before we can even begin to discuss the merits of your religion.

When Christians, Muslims, Hindus, or anyone else make claims about the way society ought to be without being able to first demonstrate that their god exists and their religion accurately reflects what their god wants, they are pronouncing policies that a) have no basis in objectivity, and b) produce in the mind and flesh of the outsider objective harm.

Hume hits the nail on the head. Before religious people can tell us what ought to be, they must first demonstrate what is: Does god exist? And what does god want? If you cannot answer both of these questions, then what you claim ought to be does not follow from your beliefs. Furthermore, by definition of faith no one claims to even know what god wants.

And as is patently obvious, science is fairly good at telling us what is. Methodological naturalism is the best tool we have for explanation. If we based our social policies on natural—read, secular—explanations then we’d make a lot more progress as a human species, and we’d avoid all the harm religions bring to society. No religion has a monopoly on explaining the is, only science can do that. As for the good that religions bring to society, this can also be achieved through secular means, and we wouldn’t even need to squabble over what a non-defined god wants.

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