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2014 AHA Conference Postmortem

Before I say anything else, I should say that I’m incredibly glad I went to the conference. It really isn’t often I get the opportunity to have conversations with so many intelligent people who agree with me about the important things (when that’s already established and understood, we can proceed to much more nuanced and interesting material rather than rehashing old battles, which is quite refreshing). And beyond that, many of the people I was able to meet and converse with are people whose writing and speaking etc I’d been previously familiar with due to their roles in the movement; perhaps my perception of their fame is skewed, but I inevitably feel a bit star-struck and it then astonishes me that such people are interested in talking with me and hearing what I have to say. (It was even more shocking that the handful of them I’d previously met remembered me, especially since the most recent of such meetings was nearly two years ago.)

In addition to that, I had the privilege of listening to some truly excellent talks; if that takes second place in my estimation to socialising (and sometimes having debates) with the other attendees, it is only because I often watch talks online etc and it’s not quite so different in person.

The only downside of my having gone was its effect on my sleep schedule; after nearly four full days of conference, I did little other than sleep after I returned home on Sunday and then lost quite a bit of Monday to sleep as well. I think I might dislike hypersomnia even more than insomnia, honestly; if only I could do something other than oscillate between the two.

I must also admit that the conference gave me quite a lot of ideas to write about; hopefully I’ll get some of those pieces finished and posted here relatively soon.

(To those of you to whom I gave the address of this blog at the conference, if you’re here: welcome! I hope you stick around.)

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Posted by on June 10, 2014 in mitchell

 

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Mitchell Recommends: Steve Reads Christian Apologetics

Here is the link to Steve’s youtube channel, and the specific playlists for the apologetics series can be found here. (No affiliation)

Steve Shives has a series on youtube called “An Atheist Reads”, in which he examines works of Christian apologetics and criticises them (or rants about them). While I don’t always agree with 100% of what he says, the vast majority of his criticisms are spot-on and I really enjoy listening to him do this. It’s certainly much more pleasant than reading the apologetic works would be. I’ve found that Steve does a good job of presenting the arguments the books are making while he criticises them; he definitely doesn’t quotemine or strawman, and while it’s obviously not the same as reading the books yourself it’s still a very good way to get a sense of what they argue. The snark and anger make it bearable, and he is very thorough. He’s also usually very good on sexism and gender issues.

I’ll admit this certainly isn’t for everybody – the videos can be rather dry most of the time, and if you don’t have a preexisting interest in the subject I suspect they may bore you. But if it does sound like something you’d be interested in, you should definitely check him out; if you have the time for it, his videos are well worth watching (or at least listening to; while watching will allow you to see some hilarious facial expressions, and he usually displays the text of quotes as he’s discussing them, you can get all of the substantive content auditorally).

(For the record, I was originally made aware of these videos by Daniel Fincke at Camels With Hammers, some time ago)

 
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Posted by on May 27, 2014 in mitchell

 

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Thinking about “Theology”

I’ve been listening to a lot of Bob Price’s lectures and podcasts recently, largely for entertainment purposes, but in so doing I’ve been led by him to think about some semantic distinctions that are well worth making. This is going to be a pedantic essay, and probably a very boring one, so consider yourself warned.

Really, the question I want to attempt to answer here is, how can I simultaneously agree with the sentiment expressed by Richard Dawkins and those like him that “theology isn’t even a subject at all”, or with Hector Avalos, whose book The End of Biblical Studies [amazon] quite convincingly argues that academic biblical studies as currently practised are most often not undertaken in good faith (or, to put it another way, involve too much “good faith”), and simultaneously find value in the kind of study that Price does?

The answer I’ve come to is that I think a distinction needs to be drawn between “doing theology” and “studying theology”. (I told you this was going to be a semantic argument!)

By this I mean that a distinction needs to be drawn between theology as a form of religious praxis, or a first-order engagement with the ideas (e.g. theorising about the nature of gods and supernatural entities from the standpoint that such things exist), and the study of theology as a second-order engagement with these ideas (looking at the thinking of various people as they do theology from a first-order level, and trying to parse out the kinds of distinctions they are drawing and what it says about how people think about religious ideas). The latter is what I think Price does (and, for that matter, so does Avalos), and it seems clear to me that that can have value from, e.g., an anthropological or sociological perspective, in understanding the history and development of belief systems, and so on. In a world which is populated in majority by believers, understanding these kinds of thought can be an important tool in attempting to navigate such a world. The former, meanwhile, is the type of thing derided by Dawkins et al, and I can simultaneously agree with this – when there is no evidence such beings exist at all, there can obviously be no value in attempting to make statements about their nature. So in that sense, I agree that theology is not a subject. Or in the terms I’ve proposed, “doing theology” in the first-order sense is futile, but “studying theology” in the second-order sense can be deeply useful.

Of course, there is also a sense in which even “studying theology” is of limited use – in some ways I do think Avalos is right when he argues in The End of Biblical Studies that even this is largely a leisure pursuit for privileged intellectuals. I am not sure I agree with him that it is as equally pointless (outside of personal gratification) as solving sudoku puzzles – as I said earlier, in navigating a world filled with religious people, understanding religious thought is not useless. But that does not necessarily mean, at the same time, that it is important to dig into long-buried minutia which are almost completely irrelevant to modern believers unless you are somebody like me (or, presumably, like Bob Price) who enjoys overanalysing things.

I’m not sure if I have a conclusive point to make after saying all of this, except that I think the “doing/studying” distinction is a useful one to keep in mind. Or to put it another way, the distinction between a “theologian” and a “scholar of theology”.

And if you do happen to be interested in listening to Bob Price analysing the minutia of Biblical history and Christian thought, The Human Bible is a great place to start.

 
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Posted by on May 17, 2014 in mitchell

 

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Some thoughts on Passover, and a soup recipe

My family still celebrates Passover for some reason, despite nobody really believing any of it (I’m the only one who identifies positively as an atheist, I think because I’m more interested in these issues and actually care, but my family are thoroughly secular Jews). I asked why and nobody really seems to know, aside from “tradition” – I guess it’s as good an excuse as any to get together with family and eat foods we don’t normally eat. Most of us don’t bother keeping kosher for Passover outside of the actual seder meals though, it’s just too much hassle and thoroughly unpleasant (especially for me, being a vegetarian).

During our hilariously abridged seder last night (because none of us really felt like reading any of the material in the haggadah but we thought we had to do something, so we rushed through and tried to hit the main highlights in as little time as possible) it occurred to me that the central message of the Passover story is “God is an asshole, but he’s OUR asshole”. Which is refreshingly honest compared to a lot of other religions – or would be if I thought it was actually what they intended it to be.

I mean, look at the English name – Passover (in Hebrew it’s Pesach, the meaning of which is less clear; it’s usually translated as something similar but could also have to do with the Passover sacrifice and/or God’s protection). It explicitly refers to the portion of the story in which God instructs the Jews to paint their doorposts with the blood of a sacrificed lamb so that he will know to ‘pass over’ those houses when killing all the firstborn sons in Egypt. Let’s not be coy about this: this is explicitly celebrating being excluded from a genocide which God committed on the Jews’ behalf. It gets worse when you consider the predominant versions of the story have the pharaoh only being obstinate because “God hardened his heart”, meaning that God set up this whole scenario for some other reason than freeing the Jewish slaves; if he’d just wanted to free them he wouldn’t have had to prevent the pharaoh from changing his mind. Which means that, if we take this seriously, there has to have been another motive – God was showing off. Possibly to impress the Jews with fear so they would worship him like he wanted. Like I said, God’s an asshole.

Now of course I’m an atheist and I don’t believe any of this happened, but I still think it’s in poor taste to happily tell that story and celebrate it (okay, there is a moment in the seder where you’re supposed to feel sorry for the Egyptians over the ‘plagues’ and remove a drop of wine from your cup for each plague, but that’s always struck me as the bare minimum of token acknowledgment that it wasn’t all-good). Especially when archaeologists have failed to find any evidence that there ever were Jewish slaves in Egypt at all (and, to boot, they now think the Pyramids were probably built by freemen). It is also hypocritical when you consider that in many places the Tanakh (or the Old Testament as Christians call it) condones slavery so long as it is Jews enslaving non-Jews.

Let me run the risk of Godwin’s Law here and say that I think it’s also a bit odd that we continue to celebrate Passover (with the genocide of the Egyptian firstborn) and have not reevaluated it any after the Holocaust; how can we celebrate a genocide that benefited us (even one committed by God) while also mourning the victims of one committed against us? I’m reminded of this post and comment thread at Pharyngula  which discussed some Israeli soldiers’ attitudes toward Palestinians. It seems like many have taken the wrong message from the Holocaust – not “genocide is wrong” but “genocide is wrong when it’s done to us”, which I find truly appalling.

It’s commonly said that the central message of most Jewish holidays is “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!” Which is mostly pretty innocuous, until you consider things like the above.

I may be pilloried from all sides for saying this but I don’t care.

On a completely unrelated note, it occurred to me that you can see part of where the stereotypes of Jews as shrewd with finances come from in the Afikoman tradition, which is basically a form of ritualised extortion. Afikoman is roughly translated as ‘thing eaten last’ or ‘dessert’ and is a piece of matzo which is supposed to be the last thing eaten at the seder (traditionally, the seder is not permitted to end until the Afikoman is eaten). An adult hides it somewhere in the house and the children search for it; after it is found, they are then supposed to hold it hostage and negotiate a price for its return, because without it the seder cannot end. As I said, ritualised extortion. (In my family we never quite did this, and it was usually a fixed amount of money given to all of the children who participated in the search with maybe a bonus to the one who actually found it).


On a slightly happier note, I made a vegetarian matzo ball soup this year which was generally well-received and I thought I’d share the recipe. (Please note this soup is not vegan, the matzo balls contain eggs). Matzo ball soup is traditionally made with chicken broth, but it’s not too hard to come up with a vegetarian version which works equally well (and actually several people this year said they preferred mine to the traditional one my aunt made. Not that I intend to disparage my aunt’s cooking; far from it, since my version is based on the recipe she uses). It’s also quite easy to make.

Ingredients for the broth (I think the pot I used was 2 gallons which I filled maybe 5/8ths with water, adjust these quantities accordingly if making more or less soup):

Vegetable stock cubes (I like Knorr vegetarian vegetable bouillon*, which comes in large ‘cubes’, and use 3 of them; they look to measure about 2cm by 2cm by 1cm. Other brands seem to make cubes about 1 cubic cm, so four of those should be roughly equivalent to one of the Knorr)
1 large onion or 2-3 small onions
3-4 stalks of celery
1 pound of carrots (I used pre-cut baby carrots and just cut them in halves or thirds, but it also works with whole carrots if you peel and slice them)
1 bunch of fresh dill (remove the stems and use only the leaves)
Garlic powder (optional – I don’t use it because the Knorr bouillon contains garlic already, but I’m not sure if every brand does)
Salt and black pepper may be added to taste

Bring the pot of water to a boil. Once it is boiling add the stock cubes, vegetables (if you want to leave them in the final soup, chop the onion and celery first; I like to do this for a more substantial soup, but the traditional version leaves them whole and removes them after cooking so that only the carrots remain), and dill. Reduce to medium heat, cover, and cook until the carrots are soft, about 30-45 minutes. At this point taste the broth, if it tastes too thin add more stock cubes or more dill and cook a bit longer.

Bring the soup back to a boil and add the matzo balls (see below), then cover and reduce to a simmer for about 30-40 minutes until they are cooked thoroughly. At this point the soup is ready to serve.

For matzo balls (this recipe is taken mostly from the packaging of Manischewitz matzo meal with a few minor modifications. The packaging claims this makes 8 matzo balls but I like to make them larger and get about 4 from it, and I double these quantities to go with the amount of soup the above recipe makes, so the soup has about 8 large matzo balls in it):

1/2 cup matzo meal
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons water (some people recommend using carbonated seltzer water to make the matzo balls fluffier; I found this unnecessary but many swear by it)
1 teaspoon salt

In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs. Add the rest of the ingredients to the eggs and blend together until uniform. Cover the bowl and refrigerate (the packaging says 20 minutes but I recommend giving it at least an hour) to allow it to solidify a bit.

Using hands (the packaging recommends wetting them but I find it’s actually easier if you don’t), form this mixture into balls and drop them into the boiling soup. When making the balls try not to pack the mixture too densely; ideally, they should float. Cover and simmer for 30-40 minutes until the matzo balls are cooked thoroughly. At this point the soup is ready to serve.

*The Knorr vegetable bouillon contains autolysed yeast extract so may not be, strictly speaking, kosher for Passover (I also did not see a kosher label on the packaging so it may not be kosher for anytime); this is technically a Passover-style soup only. I am not sure about other brands of vegetable stock cubes, that may be something worth checking if you care about this sort of thing (though I am not expecting it to matter to my readers).

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2014 in mitchell

 

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