Religion

Loss

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From C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, a collection of reflections on the loss of his wife, Joy, in 1960:

It is hard to have patience with people who say ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter. I look up at the night sky. Is anything more certain that in all those vast times and spaces, if I were allowed to search them, I should nowhere find her face, her voice, her touch? She died. She is dead. Is the word so difficult to learn? …

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.

He published it originally under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk, a pun on the Old English for “I know not what scholar.”

Podcast Episode 96: The Abduction of Edgardo Mortara

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On June 23, 1858, the Catholic Church removed 6-year-old Edgardo Mortara from his family in Bologna. The reason they gave was surprising: The Mortaras were Jewish, and Edgardo had been secretly baptized. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of little Edgardo and learn how his family’s plight shaped the course of Italian history.

We’ll also hear Ben Franklin’s musings on cultural bigotry and puzzle over an unexpected soccer riot.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

Sources for our feature on Edgardo Mortara:

David I. Kertzer, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, 1997.

Bruce A. Boyer and Steven Lubet, “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara: Contemporary Lessons in the Child Welfare Wars,” Villanova Law Review 45 (2000), 245.

Steven Lubet, “Judicial Kidnapping, Then and Now: The Case of Edgardo Mortara,” Northwestern University Law Review 93:3 (Spring 1999), 961.

Donald L. Kinzer, “Review: The American Reaction to the Mortara Case, 1858-1859,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 44:4 (March 1958), 740-741.

Alexander Stille, “How a Jewish Boy’s Baptism Changed the Shape of Italy: The Notorious Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,” Forward, Aug. 1, 1997.

“Pope John Paul Faces Politics of Sainthood,” Associated Press, Sept. 2, 2000.

Ellen Knickmeyer, “Pope Moves Two Toward Sainthood,” Spartanburg [S.C.] Herald-Journal, Sept. 4, 2000.

Garry Wills, “The Vatican Monarchy,” New York Review of Books, Feb. 19, 1998.

Garry Wills, “Popes Making Popes Saints,” New York Review of Books, July 9, 2013.

Justin Kroll, “Steven Spielberg Boards Religious Drama ‘Edgardo Mortara’,” Variety, April 17, 2014.

Ben Franklin’s “Remarks Concerning the Savages of North-America” was published in 1784 by Franklin’s Passy Press in France.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Tommy Honton, who sent these corroborating links (warning: these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

The Revelation Game

brams revelation game

Is it rational to believe in the existence of a superior being? In 1982, New York University political scientist Steven J. Brams addressed the question using game theory. Assume that SB (the superior being) chooses whether to reveal himself, and P (a person) chooses whether to believe in SB’s existence. The two players have the following goals:

SB: Primary goal — wants P to believe in his existence. Secondary goal — prefers not to reveal himself.
P: Primary goal — wants belief (or nonbelief) in SB’s existence confirmed by evidence (or lack thereof). Secondary goal — prefers to believe in SB’s existence.

These goals determine the rankings of the four outcomes listed above. In each ordered pair, the first number refers to SB’s preference for that outcome (4 is high, 1 is low), and the second number refers to P’s preference. For example, SB prefers the two outcomes in which P believes in SB’s existence (because that’s his primary goal), and of these two outcomes, he prefers the one in which he doesn’t reveal himself (because that’s his secondary goal).

Brams finds a paradox here. If the game is one of complete information, then P knows that SB prefers not to reveal himself — that is, that SB prefers the second row to the first, regardless of P’s choice. And if SB will undoubtedly choose the second row, then P should choose his own preferred cell in that row, the second one. This makes (2, 3) the rational outcome of the game; it’s also the only outcome that neither player would choose unilaterally to depart once it’s chosen. And yet outcome (3, 4) would be preferred by both to (2, 3).

“Thus,” writes Brams, “not only is it rational for SB not to reveal himself and for P not to believe in his existence — a problem in itself for a theist if SB is God — but, more problematic for the rationalist, this outcome is unmistakably worse for both players than revelation by SB and belief by P, which would confirm P’s belief in SB’s existence.”

(Steven J. Brams, Superior Beings, 1983. This example is drawn largely from his paper “Belief in God: A Game-Theoretic Paradox,” in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 13:3 [1982], 121-129.)

Electrical Fault

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In 1969, California attorney Russell Tansie sued God for $100,000 on behalf of his legal secretary, who blamed Him for destroying her Phoenix home with a bolt of lightning in 1960:

Plaintiff is informed and believes that defendant (God) at all times mentioned herein is responsible for the maintenance and operation of the Universe, including the weather in and upon the State of Arizona, and that on or about August 17, 1960, defendant so maintained and controlled the weather, in, around and upon Phoenix, in such careless and negligent manner as to cause lightning to strike the plaintiff’s house, setting it on fire and startling, frightening and shocking the plaintiff.

Tansie added that God “did this with full knowledge and that the act was committed with malice and ill will.” He hoped to win a default judgment when the defendant failed to appear in court. I don’t know the outcome; maybe they reached a settlement.

Celestial Mechanics

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Being an angel is hard work. In his 1926 essay “On Being the Right Size,” J.B.S. Haldane writes, “An angel whose muscles developed no more power weight for weight than those of an eagle or a pigeon would require a breast projecting for about four feet to house the muscles engaged in working its wings, while to economize in weight, its legs would have to be reduced to mere stilts.”

And this takes no account of the weight of the harp. In The Book of the Harp, John Marson notes that gold is about 10 times heavier than willow, once the favorite wood of Celtic harp makers. He calculates that a harp of gold would weigh 120 pounds, far more than the 70-80 pounds of the largest pedal harp.

Should we worry about this? Let us not forget that it was angels who destroyed Babylon for its people’s wrongdoings. In the Book of Revelation, chapter 18, verse 21 tells us: “And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying, ‘Thus with violence shall that great city of Babylon be thrown down.'”

This becomes a public health matter. Even if harps aren’t thrown at us deliberately by vengeful angels, Marson writes, “there is always the danger of one being dropped accidentally from a great height, resulting in the kind of damage caused on occasion by meteorites — unless, of course, the Bible is indeed correct after all, and angels do not play harps.”

See Hesiod’s Anvil.

Faded Glory

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“It is a curious thing that every creed promises a paradise which will be absolutely uninhabitable for anyone of civilized taste.” — Evelyn Waugh

“I have read descriptions of Paradise that would make any sensible person stop wanting to go there.” — Montesquieu

“In heaven, all the interesting people are missing.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

“Of the delights of this world man cares most for sexual intercourse, yet he has left it out of his heaven.” — Mark Twain

“I should have no use for a paradise in which I should be deprived of the right to prefer hell.” — Jean Rostand

A Better Promise

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In 1889, the Northern Paiute spiritual leader Wovoka introduced a circle dance that he said would drive the whites out of America and restore the country to the Native Americans. As the Ghost Dance spread throughout the West, an alarmed U.S. government ordered it stamped out, which led to several violent encounters. When the Chicago Tribune published an editorial condemning the dance, Massa Hadjo, a Sioux, responded:

You say, ‘If the United States army would kill a thousand or so of the dancing Indians there would be no more trouble.’ I judge by the above language you are a ‘Christian,’ and are disposed to do all in your power to advance the cause of Christ. You are doubtless a worshiper of the white man’s Saviour, but are unwilling that the Indians should have a ‘Messiah’ of their own.

The Indians have never taken kindly to the Christian religion as preached and practiced by the whites. Do you know why this is the case? Because the Good Father of all has given us a better religion — a religion that is all good and not bad, a religion that is adapted to our wants. You say if we are good, obey the Ten Commandments and never sin any more, we may be permitted eventually to sit upon a white rock and sing praises to God forevermore, and look down upon our heathen fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters who are howling in hell.

It won’t do. The code of morals as practiced by the white race will not compare with the morals of the Indians. We pay no lawyers or preachers, but we have not one-tenth part of the crime that you do. If our Messiah does come we shall not try to force you into our belief. We will never burn innocent women at the stake or pull men to pieces with horses because they refuse to join in our ghost dances. … You are anxious to get hold of our Messiah, so you can put him in irons. This you may do — in fact, you may crucify him as you did that other one, but you cannot convert the Indians to the Christian religion until you contaminate them with the blood of the white man. The white man’s heaven is repulsive to the Indian nature, and if the white man’s hell suits you, why, you keep it. I think there will be white rogues enough to fill it.

Three weeks later, at Wounded Knee, the U.S. Army killed more than 200 Lakota.

(Massa Hadjo, “An Indian on the Messiah Craze,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 5, 1890.)

Podcast Episode 71: Godless in Missouri


In 1880, freethinking attorney George Walser tried a new experiment in the American heartland — a community dedicated against Christianity, “the only town of its size in the world without a priest, preacher, saloon, God or hell.” In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll tell the story of Liberal, Missouri — its founding, its confrontations with its Christian neighbors, and its ironic downfall.

We’ll also puzzle over how a woman can suddenly be 120 miles away in just a few minutes.

liberal plat

Sources for our feature on Liberal, Mo.:

J.P. Moore, This Strange Town — Liberal, Missouri: A History of the Early Years, 1880 to 1910, 1963.

Lawrence O. Christensen, William E. Foley, and Gary Kremer, Dictionary of Missouri Biography, 1999.

Tom Flynn, ed., The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, 2007.

Steve Everly, “History of Southwest Missouri Town Shows Triumph of Faith Over Skepticism,” Nevada Daily Mail, Dec. 26, 2001.

Marvin Vangilder, “Missouri Town Might Assure Stockton as Atheist Target,” Associated Press, Sept. 4, 1963.

“Necrology,” Missouri Historical Review, July 1910.

“Missouri Geography: Community Experiments,” in Walter Barlow Stevens, Missouri the Center State: 1821-1915, Volume 2, 1915.

George Henry Walser, The Life and Teachings of Jesus, 1909.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener David White, who sent these corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

“To a Baby Born Without Limbs”

From Kingsley Amis’ 1966 novel The Anti-Death League:

This is just to show you whose boss around here.
It’ll keep you on your toes, so to speak,
Make you put your best foot forward, so to speak,
And give you something to turn your hand to, so to speak.
You can face up to it like a man,
Or snivvle and blubber like a baby.
That’s up to you. Nothing to do with Me.
If you take it in the right spirit,
You can have a bloody marvelous life,
With the great rewards courage brings,
And the beauty of accepting your LOT.
And think how much good it’ll do your Mum and Dad,
And your Grans and Gramps and the rest of the shower,
To be stopped being complacent.
Make sure they baptise you, though,
In case some murdering bastard
Decides to put you away quick,
Which would send you straight to LIMB-O, ha ha ha.
But just a word in your ear, if you’ve got one.
Mind you DO take this in the right spirit,
And keep a civil tongue in your head about Me.
Because if you DON’T,
I’ve got plenty of other stuff up My sleeve,
Such as Leukemia and polio,
(Which incidentally your welcome to any time,
Whatever spirit you take this in.)
I’ve given you one love-pat, right?
You don’t want another.
So watch it, Jack.

Misspellings in original. In his memoir Experience, Martin Amis says Yevgeny Yevtushenko asked Kingsley in 1962, “You atheist?” He answered, “Well yes, but it’s more that I hate him.”

Oops

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Robert Barker and Martin Lucas overlooked a crucial not in their Bible published in 1631. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable notes, “The fine of £300 helped to ruin the printer.” Further Bible errata:

  • In Myles Coverdale’s 1535 Bible, Psalm 91:5 read “Thou shall not nede to be afrayed for eny bugges by night” (rather than terror).
  • The “Cannibal Bible,” printed at Amsterdam in 1682, included the sentence “If the latter husband ate her [for hate her], her former husband may not take her again” (Deuteronomy 24:3).
  • In the “Camel’s Bible” of 1823, Genesis 24:61 reads “And Rebekah arose, and her camels [for damsels].”
  • In an edition published in Charles I’s reign, Psalm 14:1 read “The fool hath said in his heart there is a God.” The printers were fined £3,000, and all copies were suppressed.
  • The “Lions Bible” of 1804 contains the phrase “but thy son that shall come forth out of thy lions [for loins]” (Kings 8:19). In Galatians 5:17 it reads “For the flesh lusteth after the Spirit [for against the Spirit].”
  • In the second edition of the Geneva Bible, 1562, Matthew 5:9 reads “Blessed are the placemakers [peacemakers]: for they shall be called the children of God.” (Also, the chapter heading for Luke 21 has “Christ condemneth the poor widow” rather than “commendeth.”)
  • A 1702 edition has David complain that “printers [princes] have persecuted me without a cause.” (Psalm 119:161)
  • In a 1716 Bible first printed in Ireland, John 5:14 read “sin on more” rather than “sin no more.” “The mistake was undiscovered until 8,000 copies had been printed and bound.”
  • The “Affinity Bible” of 1923 contains a table of affinity with the error “A man may not marry his grandmother’s wife.”
  • In the “Standing Fishes Bible” of 1806, Ezekiel 47:10 reads “And it shall come to pass that the fishes [fishers] shall stand upon it.”
  • A Cambridge printing of 1653 reads “know ye not that the unrighteous shall inherit the Kingdom of God?” instead of “shall not inherit.” (I Corinthians 6:9)
  • In the “Wife-Beater’s Bible” of 1549, Edmund Becke inserted a footnote to I Peter 3:7 reading “And if she be not obediente and healpeful unto hym, endevoureth to beate the fere of God into her heade, that thereby she may be compelled to learne her dutye and do it.”

In one edition published in 1944, a broken bit of type in I Peter 3:5 caused own to appear as owl, producing the alarming sentence “For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted God, adorned themselves, being in subjection to their owl husbands.”