Guilty, asshat!

That’s what Scott Roeder, murderer of abortion provider George Tiller, just got from a jury after a scant 37 minutes deliberation. Roeder had, of course, hoped to turn his trial into a media circus and referendum on abortion. By arguing a manslaughter defense and hopefully getting away with a mere five years — the thrust of the defense being that Roeder had an “unreasonable yet sincere conviction” that he had to shoot Tiller in order to save babies, because guys like him care so much about the babies — he and his ideological brethren at Operation Rescue hoped to make his trial the first shot across the bow in the war to eventually overturn Roe v. Wade.

The jury, comprised of the sensible Kansans, wasn’t having any. Instead of seeing a valiant superhero of the Lord courageously protecting the unborn, they saw a cowardly, first-class douche canoe who willingly popped a man in the back of the head in public, and handed him a first-degree murder conviction. The prosecutor says she will seek a “hard 50″ sentence, meaning Roeder will have to serve at least 50 years before eligibility for parole. This is effectively the same as life without parole for a man who’s already 51. Once behind bars, if very unlucky, Roeder may have to face an entirely different kind of “hard 50.”

Never fear, Scott. Once they’re done with you in there, at least you won’t need an abortion.

A day without abusing the Texas SBOE is like a day without sunshine

What never ceases to amaze me about the Texas State Board of Education is the dazzling arrogance with which they blindly soldier on in the face of almost total loathing from everyone in the state who isn’t a rabid fundagelical teabagger. This is a pretty conservative state, gang, but when you get an editorial like this from the newspaper in Denton — just a short drive north from the DFW Metroplex, so it’s not exactly the tree-hugging lefty Sodom that is Austin — you know you’ve gone so far over the top in your demagoguery that you’ve literally lapped yourself and gotten jammed up your own ass. The lead to this piece is pure win, and the rest ain’t bad at all. All you have to do to show how dire things are at the SBOE is simply to describe what they do.

Being ignorant is nothing to be ashamed of, but it is nothing to be particularly proud of either. A large and disruptive segment of the Texas State Board of Education is not only ignorant — a state that we all share at various times and on various subjects — it is proudly and aggressively ignorant, which goes beyond simple ignorance and ventures into the territory of malignant stupidity.

Gold. Of course, the defining characteristic of the extremist ideologue is to take the fact that everybody hates you as validation of your perfect and utter rightness in all things. After all, as Dan McLeroy has so bravely said, somebody’s gotta stand up to alla dem expertses!

We don’t make this stuff up, gang

Lately we’ve been getting a series of barely literate emails from a guy who’s following the usual pattern: Asserting his beliefs as facts, backing them up with variants of “Look at the trees!” and “Study the Bible!”, then bitterly protesting how rude we are for dismissing him as a dimwit. Here’s one excerpt for you to get the general gist.

You see why do you insult me, that shows that your mine is block.
You see finding the truth comes with humility not pride. So i think you should write with respect.
well it looks like you have not really studied the Bible, you call it a book of fairy tales.
While one of the greatest scientist like isaac newton call it the word of God and studied it.
Thats kind of surprising to here those words from a renowned scientist.

And it goes on like that. Amusing, I suppose, the way utter ignoramuses think they’re so humble the way they spout ignorance with smug condescension. But that’s what religion offers: the confidence of faith in ignorance over actual knowledge.

A personal AETV loss

Via email today, I learned the sad news of the passing of Ashlea Doty at the age of 34. When I was host from 2002-04, Ashlea was part of the AETV studio crew. She was enormously good humored, and was one of the four of us who visited a Halloween “Hell House” at a local Pentecostal church the first year any of us did that (my report on that night appears to have been scrubbed from the internets following the discontinuation of GeoCities). After I left the show, she had already drifted away from ACA, but I’d still see her on occasion working as a vet tech at the clinic where I took my dog. She’ll be missed by those who knew her, and to everyone else, remember that every day above ground is a good day. Make them all count.

Irony meter explosion in 3…2…1…

Okay, so that preposterous, demented d-bag Mike Adams has noticed all the ridicule he’s been getting online, and has, like most deluded narcissists, taken it for validation of his awesomeness. In a new post, he offers the following observation, which deserves an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in Clueless Projection. Now, remember this is the guy who wrote a trillion-word attack on skeptics that led Orac to call him “a pyromaniac in a straw man factory”… Salient hypocrisy boldfaced.

[Skeptics] also tend to jump to false conclusions about what people are really saying. In my previous article, for example, I never stated whether I believed in God, or whether I was an athiest [sic], or whether I followed organized religion and yet people read the article and they leaped to conclusions, assuming I was promoting organized religion, for example, or that I was condemning atheism.

Actually I never stated my position on those matters in the article at all, but the skeptics leaped to the conclusion that I did. This speaks to their tendency to warp all incoming information and restructure it to conform to the beliefs they already carry about the subject at hand.

ROTFL! You silly little bitch.

Fred Edwords: Sailing the Rising Tide of Reason

Since some people may be missing The Atheist Experience this week, I’m posting the video from a recent ACA Lecture Series lecture.

Fred Edwords from the United Coalition of Reason on “Sailing the Rising Tide of Reason”.

Over the past few years, with the rise of the “New Atheism,” interest in Freethought and humanism is growing. And the more recent billboard and bus campaigns have stoked the fires of enthusiasm. How can Freethought and humanist groups benefit from this secular “coming out”? How can they capture this interest to help their memberships grow? Fred Edwords, a former executive director of the American Humanist Association, is now the national director of the United Coalition of Reason. Over his thirty-year career as a humanist leader he has lectured, debated, and taught on humanist philosophical issues and effective outreach techniques. He has appeared on national and local television in the United States and Canada, has been interviewed on radio and for newspapers around the world, and has lectured in North America, Europe, and India.

“Sailing the Rising Tide of Reason”

Mp3 audio is available here.

Beatdown! Fractally-wrong altie pulls a Yomin over losing Twitter “award”

This post wins the internet!

A little context: Recently an alt-med wackaloon called Mike Adams — who runs the antiscience site NaturalNews.com and calls himself the “Health Ranger” — was in the lead for something called the Shorty Award. It’s the sort of thing where people vote for their favorite person in a certain category, by tweeting. It’s not an actual award, just a Twitter popularity contest.

But to Mike, it must have been like the Nobel. Because when he lost the award to DrRachie, an actual cell biologist, he also totally lost his shit!

There are awesome articles by PZ, Orac, and Phil Plait discussing the side-splitting melodrama. (For one thing, it was found that Mike was violating the Shorty rules by getting votes from brand new Twitter accounts created just to tweet a vote for him. However it was done, by Mike himself sockpuppeting or some of his fans doing it too, it was against the rules, and didn’t help him in the end anyway.)

Mike has just been “pulling a Yomin” over and over at his site. In addition to threatening to sue people, he’s now posted an absolutely hilarious “exposé” of skeptics. Apparently we’re “agents of death” who don’t even believe we’re alive. I won’t link to the article, because there’s no need. The very first link in this post goes to a magnificent demolition of Mike’s endless rant over at Dubito Ergo Sum. It’s truly epic in every way. Mike Adams is a person so completely divorced from reality it’s a wonder he can tell up from down. He doesn’t build a straw man in his lunatic screed. It’s a whole straw army. Mike Adams makes Ray Comfort sound sensible. Think about that.

“Unknowable” basically means “who cares?”

Occasionally we’ll hear a believer define his god as an “unknowable” being. Bizarrely, these folks tend to think that’s a real gotcha! moment, because obviously, that means we cannot disprove its existence, and so unless we want to be “closed-minded,” then we must admit there is at least the tiniest possibility that it might exist, because we don’t know everything, now do we.

This is pretty much the most desperate form any apologetics can take. For one thing, it reduces “god” to the smallest and most insignificant thing it could possibly be: a thing that cannot be known or comprehended at all by our “feeble” human minds. (Yes, I know, why would a god waste his time creating us at all if he just wanted to give us “feeble” minds?) God could not be any more useless than to be indistinguishable from something that, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t even exist. Moreover, when an apologist starts arguing like this, you’d do well to point out he’s pretty much at variance with Christianity and every other major world religion, as they emphatically are run on the premise that their deities can be comprehended just fine, thank you.

Here’s part of a recent exchange with a theist emailer I’ve been having, which illustrates how wrong this line of thinking is.


The fellow starts:

I am composing this letter in an attempt to prove god exists. I believe god is an electron orbiting the nucleus of a hydrogen atom in the brain you are using to analyze this letter, as well as every other thing in existence or has existed or will exist in this universe or the others if there are others. According to the Heisenberg uncertainty principal, and because we feeble minded humans could not possibly conceive of how everything was created in the first place, I also believe that god is inherently unknowable.

Have I just described something that does not exist? How did I do that? If you could tell me that my god does not exist how could you do that? Better yet how could you even think that? I understand this is an agnostic theist point of view however I cannot see how it is in error.

My first reply went like this:

All you’ve done in this argument is come up with a new name for the electron: God. It’s like new-age people who call “the Universe” God. All they’ve done is come up with a new word for universe.

If someone were a sun worshiper, and told me in all seriousness the sun was his god, then yes, I suppose I’d have to concede his “god” exists, though I would disagree that the sun possesses any sort of divine powers. And if he agreed with me the sun had no supernatural powers, he’s just happy worshiping it as God, then he’s simply come up with another word for “sun.” What you’re demonstrating by your argument is that theists really do create gods as an exercise in trying to understand things they don’t otherwise understand, and making the universe more superficially comprehensible by anthropomorphizing it. Conceptually, “God” is a placeholder for ignorance. (And yes, gods typically are defined in ways that defy direct examination, allowing them to retain their divine mystique because “you can’t prove it DOESN’T exist!”)

He replied today, and here is his letter with my responses in bold.

Hello Martin,

Thank you very much for responding . I am not sure you understand what I have stated in my letter. I have offered an explanation for and thereby proof god exists in that god is the totality of everything. I believe it fits quite nicely the definition of god.

Well, like the new-ager I described in my previous response, it looks to me like you’ve simply come up with a new word for “the totality of everything.” My question would be, how is this helpful? What is the utility of doing this? Does calling “the totality of everything” a “god” increase your understanding of this totality? Does it help you comprehend plasma physics, dark energy, the way in which the expansion of the universe appears to be accelerating rather than slowing down? What does this label “god” contribute to any of this? What do I gain in insight or knowledge by thinking that the atoms in the lettuce in the salad I’m eating right now are somehow “god”? Or is it a label you like for emotional reasons?

At this point I find myself wondering if your only definition of god is “something that simply does not exist”. If this is the case then it seems to me this is a closed minded point of view. Is atheism a closed minded point of view? If so, I find it less likely that it is an intelligent view, thou it still may be the correct point of view.

If you admit it might be a correct view, why would be it be less intelligent? Usually one’s intelligence can be measured by how correct one’s views are. A person who thinks 2+2=4 is more intelligent, in my estimation, than a person who thinks 2+2 might equal 4, but might also equal, for arcane reasons, 728.

As an atheist, I do not define god. All I can do is respond to the definitions (and there are many) of god that are presented to me by believers. I examine those to see if 1) there is evidence to support them and 2) if they provide anything in the way of practical understanding of the world, that could not be achieved through the time tested means of the scientific method. I have to confess that I’ve not yet heard a definition of god that passes those tests.

But that hardly means I’m ‘closed-minded’. Terms like ‘closed-minded’ and ‘open-minded’ are thrown about very loosely by believers who want to rebut skeptics, but I don’t think they understand the terms. It is not ‘open-minded’ to believe claims that lack evidence simply because those claims are emotionally appealing; it is simply gullible. It is not ‘closed-minded’ to demand strong evidence for claims before choosing to believe them; it is simply rational. Skeptics are indeed open-minded, but note that it’s the ‘mind’ in that term that counts. What we are open to is evidence.

Now, looking at your definition of god, it’s problematic for a few reasons, and hardly the “proof” you think. First, you simply slap the label “god” on everything that exists, down to the subatomic level, rendering the word basically meaningless. If every molecule, every atom, every gluon, every cigarette butt on the pavement is “god,” then it means nothing to be god, and every religion in the world might as well pack it in.

Then you make your big mistake: after offering that definition, you promptly do an about face and declare god “inherently unknowable,” something “we feeble minded humans could not possibly conceive of.” Setting aside my disagreement with your low opinion of human intellect, if god were really “inherently unknowable,” then nothing whatsoever can be said about god. You haven’t even got any justification to say god is “an electron orbiting the nucleus of a hydrogen atom in the brain you are using to analyze this letter, as well as every other thing in existence or has existed or will exist in this universe or the others if there are others.” Because to say that means you’re claiming to know something about god, which you could NOT do if god were unknowable. “Inherently unknowable” means exactly that. There is nothing at all that can be said about an inherently unknowable concept, because it is inherently unknowable.

And this brings us to yet another problem: what exactly is the difference between an “inherently unknowable” thing, and something that does not exist at all? Practically there is none. Now, that isn’t proof that something unknowable couldn’t ever exist. But as we could not study it, evaluate it, observe it, or say anything about it whatsoever, then for all intents and purposes, it’s as good as nonexistent anyway. So why care?

“God” is either something, or it is nothing. If it is something, either it is something we can know (and all the world’s religions pretty much run on that premise) or cannot know. If the latter, its existence is of no relevance, as it cannot be distinguished from a nonexistent thing in the first place.

You state that “god is a
placeholder for ignorance”. Is there something wrong with that? We have finite minds and therefore could not possibly understand completely this concept that humans have called god.

Read what you wrote here again and see if you cannot answer your own question. What exactly is the sense in embracing a concept that you admit “we cannot possibly understand” as if it were some kind of valid explanation for things? (I think you’ve seen, to a small degree, the problem with your position, which is why you’ve slipped the qualifier “completely” into the sentence above.)

You’re basically saying this: “There are things about the universe I am ignorant of, and so to explain them, I will conceive of a thing called ‘god’ that itself cannot be explained, let alone understood.”

How is that a better way of grasping reality than A) finding out the real answers to those questions, and B) if there are no answers yet, simply accepting that. If you don’t know the answer to a question, the honest thing to say is “I don’t know,” and then making that a springboard for continuing to study. It is not honest simply to place your ignorance on an altar and call it “god.”

I believe that we can however take some comfort in the fact that so long as our mind are open that we can live better lives through the small amount of understanding that we have of god.

We’re still talking about this “god” you say is “inherently unknowable,” right? Sorry, but you’ve singly failed to explain how we can “live better lives” by choosing belief in some “unknowable” concept in lieu of increasing our actual store of knowledge. I think history will show that we humans are much better off with the greater knowledge of the world we have today through science than otherwise. People in medieval Europe didn’t exactly take much “comfort” in their unknowable god while they were dying in their millions from plague and famine. How does ignorance and reliance on belief in the “unknowable” offer a “better” life than one where your worldview actually conforms to reality?

At the Texas SBOE, the fail flows like a river

If you’ve been following the Texas Freedom Network’s blog, odds are your heart rate has been boosted to lethal levels over the insanity of the Texas State Board of (Mis)Education’s attempts to rewrite American history so that social studies textbooks reflect right-wing Christianist agitprop. (McCarthy was a hero, Phyllis Schlafly is as important as the Founding Fathers, and the Civil Rights Movement was really overrated.) This is dangerous stupidity. And the degree to which these assclowns are so wedded to wingnut ideology that they cannot do basic fact checking is illustrated by the revelations in this article. Just go read it for yourself. It’s a jaw-dropping level of idiocy. Clearly, there is no bottom for Terri Leo and her ship of fools to scrape.

How to Read Mythology, 101

All of us understand that fables are not to be taken literally, and it’s an absurdity to expect them to conform to criteria imposed by reality. When a friend starts a funny story with, “A turtle walks into a bar and asks the bartender for a beer…” You don’t stop him, incredulous, and ask him to explain how in the world a talking turtle could exist. You understand it’s just a story, and you immediately suspend your expectation that this story should conform to the rules of reality as you understand them.

The Problem
What we often see with religion is a confusion where the believer suspends his expectation that the story conform to reality, but also asserts the fable is literally true and does, or rather must, literally, conform to reality.

While AETV viewers are well acquainted with the humor value of watching this on an individual level, it’s a bit unbelievable when you realize how many individuals seem to adopt this mode of misreading mythology, regularly, with regard to their respective religions.

Some things have come to the TV-list that drove home for me, with clarity, something most of us have long recognized: These people read fables as though they’re reality. We all know what it means to read “literally.” And as the joke example shows, we also know how to read non-literal tales. But our conversations with theists become confused with regard to currently regarded religious mythologies, because it’s read as literal by some, or even by many. So, while there is little debate when we talk to another modern human about how to read a story about Apollo’s firey chariot, we encounter substantial and very real communication interference when we expect everyone to also understand that modern religious mythology requires the same type of reading.

Consider this a “How to Read Mythology 101.”

What Prompted this Post
I replied to someone on the list who asked where we got the idea that the character of Jephthah was revered in the Bible.

The main character in the tale, Jephthah, is a Judge, a title briefly given to Hebrew leaders in the days before the tribes were ruled by kings. He was also a warrior. And one day during battle the Bible says the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah and he made a deal with Yahweh that if he won the skirmish, he would sacrifice to Yahweh the first thing that came out of his house to greet him upon his return.

Jephthah is victorious. And upon his return, the first thing out of his house to greet him is his beloved, only child—a daughter. Jephthah keeps his promise and sacrifices her as payment to fulfill his obligation to Yahweh.

Many, many, many centuries later, in the New Testament book of Hebrews, chapter 11, Jephthah is heaped with praise as a man of surpassing faith, of whom the world is not worthy.

Many Christians are vaguely familiar with the Old Testament story of the sacrifice, but not the brief mention in Hebrews where Jephthah is held up among the mythic heroes of Hebrew antiquity, revered as icons of faith to Yahweh. If you ask Christians about their view on Jephthah, you’re likely to get back a response like, “Who?” When you tell them, “the guy who sacrificed his daughter to god in the Old Testament,” if the person knows the standard Christian Bible stories, they’ll then know who you mean and, in general, reply that Jephthah was a rash man whose story serves as a cautionary tale about not making rash promises. In other words, they perceive Jephthah’s story as a symbol of a negative social value about how not to behave. And if you ask them what else Jephthah was known for, most of them won’t have a clue.

But if Jephthah’s role in the Bible is to serve as a symbol to others representing how not to behave, that leaves the New Testament reference in Hebrews as a very baffling statement. He’s clearly highly praised, not just as a good person, but a great one, and as someone who demonstrates what the rest of us can only hope to achieve in regard to a relationship with Yahweh.

The author of Hebrews assumes at least two things about his readers: (1) that centuries after the story was written, his audience will still recognize the name of “Jephthah.” And (2) they will recognize him as a positive literary symbol of surpassing devotion to Yahweh, who should be praised and revered for the faith demonstrated by his actions. The character of Jephthah then, unlike today, was apparently not perceived as a fool, but as heroic. His was not, according to the author of Hebrews, a cautionary tale, but an inspirational one.

Reading the Fable of Jephthah
The character of Jephthah illustrates particular positive values held by ancient Hebrews and early Christians, many of whom were also practicing Jews. And for a person to read the story with a positive central character is not hard if we read it using a different value set:

Jephthah, moved by the god, Yahweh, during battle, promises Him He can have anything from his house—bar nothing. And by not naming the payment price, rather than being rash, he’s being as magnanimous as any adherent could possibly be. Jephthah is declaring that Yahweh may name His price for his victory on the field. Rather than leaving it to random chance, which the “cautionary tale” reading asserts, Jephthah is leaving it to divine providence, blindly trusting and submitting to Yahweh’s choice, a reading that aligns perfectly well with what the author of Hebrews asserts. The character in the tale isn’t expecting to sacrifice some insect to Yahweh, some bit of vermin that crawls across his tent’s threshold; he’s expecting Yahweh to choose something of value from his household and usher that thing out the front door the moment he returns home—thus revealing to Jephthah Yahweh’s required price for his Yahweh-assisted victory.

The fact it is his daughter, if we use this reading, is no chance, and no surprise, it’s the price god was told he could dictate when the bargain was struck: Whatever comes out my door, I will sacrifice to you. You ensure my success in life, and I will withhold nothing. And Yahweh, when it comes to sacrifice, always demands the best.

Yahweh is never satisfied with weak, sick, thin nor flawed “sacrifices.” Killing off the things you don’t care about isn’t “sacrifice.” Sacrifice meant then what it means today, times a thousand—giving up something you’ll really miss. And while our own tales of self-sacrifice demonstrate similar commitment, there is a marked difference in degree between “Gift of the Magi” and “Abraham and Isaac.” There is a difference between self-sacrifice for love, and demanding sacrifice from someone else as a demonstration of their love. We all want to give the best we can to those we love; however, Bible stories carry this value to emotionally manipulative and brutal extremes, when compared to our current values.

Cultural Myths Reflect Cultural Values
Faith in the Old Testament did not mean what it means today. Today we have an idea of “faith” in the existence of god; but in the Old Testament, people like Abraham actually spoke to and even interacted with Yahweh directly, so there was no “faith,” in the modern sense, required. Faith to the Hebrew heroes meant belief that Yahweh was trustworthy. This belief was demonstrated by blind devotion, obedience, and sacrifice to an authority who would, in return, allow them to prosper materially.

Operating using our modern Western values, it would be considered “bad” to be in a relationship with someone who demands sacrifices from you as a demonstration of your love for them. Surely, one would have to wonder if the person doing the asking really loved in return? Our culture, despite our adoption of Hebrew myths into our religious sphere, does not consider that value honorable outside of religion. And even within religion, we reject that the cha
racter of Jephthah was praiseworthy, in defiance of the declaration of the author of Hebrews, whom we tend to simply overlook—as did the theist who wrote to us asking how we could possibly believe Jephthah was praised in the Bible.

Themes Throughout
Many Old Testament mythological themes are repeated throughout the Bible. And the story of Jephthah is one of those. The theme of sacrificing the “only child” is not isolated to Jephthah. Who hasn’t heard the fable of Abraham and Isaac?

I relayed this fable as well in my reply to the theist who contacted us. In this fable, one day god decides to “test” Abraham and tells him to offer up his beloved, only child, Isaac as a human sacrifice. Abraham offers no protest to Yahweh, who makes preparations to carry out Yahweh’s instructions.

I want to stop here and note another value difference between modern society and ancient Hebrew values. Many modern Christians will assert that if god asked them to do such a thing, they would not believe it was Yahweh, since He would never ask a person to execute such a horrific act. However, note that the author of the “Abraham and Isaac” tale does not seem to have anticipated that objection, and certainly did not feel a need to write that into his plot. Just as the author of Jephthah has him issue no protest when his daughter comes out to greet him, neither does the author of Abraham and Isaac feel any need to make Abraham protest that “the real” Yahweh would never command or allow such an atrocity. Both men accept that this is within the character of Yahweh to ask, and they both submit without question, and are later both praised in Hebrews as men of great faith—examples to us all.

The author of Hebrews says, in chapter 11:17-19, “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son…Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.”

In other words, the interpretation at the time Hebrews was written was that Abraham believed Yahweh intended to have him execute Isaac as an offering. And Abraham was intent on doing it. But even with the caveat that the early Christians had reasoned Abraham must have thought Isaac would be magically resurrected (this assumption is not included in the Old Testament tale), if this act were portrayed in a modern story, it would still violate our modern values. Even if the modern character believed the dead could be brought back to life—would we then really consider that murdering his own children to appease someone else’s insecurity about his level of devotion would be praiseworthy, rather than sick and twisted? The action in a modern tale could be arguably interpreted as ever so slightly mitigated—perhaps? But praiseworthy? It is something we might expect from a story about a powerful dark sorceress given over to bloodlust and cruelty.

But again, the myths simply reflect the values of the culture. And cultural values change over time. In our case, we have become more independent and compassionate, and less brutal. Even Disney changed the endings of Andersen’s stories to give them happier resolutions. And movies like V, where heroes commit morally ambiguous acts in order to struggle against symbols of evil, raise discussion. In our myths, we like our heroes, generally, to wear the white hat and be always in the right. They kill symbols of evil, the “bad guys”—not children.

Ultimately, however, an angel stops Abraham and god declares that because He sees Abraham won’t withhold the thing most dear, god is satisfied and he doesn’t have to continue with the commanded infanticide.

You Know You’re Reading a Myth When…
But here is an interesting point. When I included “Abraham and Isaac” in my response to the theist who contacted us, I asserted Isaac was Abraham’s “only child”—that he was simply one of the “sacrifice your only child”-themed myths demonstrated in the Bible. Why is that interesting? Because Isaac was not Abraham’s only child. Abraham had a first born son named Ishmael.

My first instinct was to cringe. How could I have made such an obvious error? I knew about Ishmael. And if I were a fundamentalist, I’d jump all over this mistake: Isaac’s story is not an example of the “only child,” because he was not an only child—how much more of a problem could I be confronted with? But more importantly, in considering the myth—why did my brain assign Isaac to “only child” status in this story?

Frankly, it is because Ishmael does not count, if we are reading the myth and not the literal content. Myths are symbolic, just like certain dreams. And as anyone with PTSD can tell you—if you have stress in your real life, it often leaks into your dreams. If we are experiencing something in life that leaves us stressed and feeling like we’re not sure what to do, we might have something called the “maze” dream that will recur. Let’s say we have the following three dreams during a week:

First Dream: I’m on my way to a doctor’s appointment and I get to the building. I get on the elevator and realize I don’t know which floor I’m supposed to go to. In the dream I am going floor to floor trying to find some sign to tell me where this doctor’s office is. I’m getting increasingly frustrated and concerned that I’m missing my appointment. But no matter where I go or what floor I try, I can’t find the office.

Second Dream: I’m driving down the highway, and I take a wrong exit. I try to get back on the highway, but I end up back on heading the wrong way. Meanwhile, I keep seeing signs I don’t recognize, with place names that don’t match anything on my map. The roads are getting more convoluted with twists and turns, and I’m getting upset.

Third Dream: I’m thirteen, and hiking in the woods. It is getting dark and I need to get home. But when I turn to go back down the path, it looks unfamiliar. The trees are not the same species, there is more underbrush, and a creek that wasn’t there before. I desperately try to find the way back. And suddenly I’m aware of something ominous in the woods with me—a wolf or some such thing. I’m beginning to panic.

My counselor asks me if I’ve had any troubled recurring dreams, and I respond that while I’ve had a number of dreams this week that troubled me, they were all quite different—one was about hiking, one was about driving and one was about a doctor’s appointment. And yet, from a “theme” perspective, the dreams were identical events. And a person who reads a fable as literal reality will not understand the message, the meaning, or the actual significance of the tale. In a word, he will entirely miss the point.

In the fable of Abraham, Ishmael is the son of a slave, not of Abraham’s union with his wife. And Ishmael is sent from Abraham’s house as a youth, and never mentioned in conjunction with Abraham again until he attends Abraham’s funeral. As a “son” to Abraham, Ishmael has no meaning. Isaac is the “only son” in the only sense that matters in a myth. If I had the “dream” of Abraham and Isaac, and also the “dream” of Jephthah, those would constitute “the same dream”—embodying the same theme.

Now, while I see this as reasonable, I could not help but think that any fundamentalist would never accept this. They would assert I’m working up an elaborate excuse for my error. To those fundamentalists, I offer the Hebrews passage above from your own New Testament, where the author calls Isaac, as well, Abraham’s “only son.” But more importanly, the author of the original tale, as it comes to us today in Genesis 22:15-17, agrees with my interpretation as well. This is god’s reply to Abraham, spoken through the angel that stayed Abrah
am’s infanticidal stroke: “The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, ‘I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you…’”

The character of Yahweh, in his omniscience, also seems to have forgotten Ishmael. If I am accused of error for distorting the meaning of the story—so must be the author of Genesis, so must be the author of Hebrews. The fact is that from a mythic standpoint, Ishmael is simply has no meaning as a “son” to Abraham.

He was only an element in the stories meant to account for some of the other neighboring Hebrew tribes. Where did these similar tribes come from? From Abraham as well—but from an inferior mother—Ishmael, the surrogate slave son. So, with some neighboring tribes, it appears the Hebrews admitted or believed some ancient kinship—but still asserted their heritage as the superior bloodline. And Ishmael is the fable accounting for that in the same way Romulus and Remus, twins raised by a she-wolf, account for Roman roots.

The story is legend, which is how it needs to be read. And the authors themselves support this reading. Is it based on some ancient personages? Maybe. But in our time, the idea that the tales are literal histories—undistorted facts—is simply not demonstrated as intended by the authors. We observe the theme of the “sacrifice of the only child”—in a story where the “only child” simply cannot be literally read.

Repeating Themes Flag Symbolic Language
And we see it as well in the New Testament, where Yahweh, the god who, we are told by modern Christians, reviles human sacrifice, executes his grand plan to bathe the word in the blood of the greatest human sacrifice ever made: The sacrifice of Yahweh’s obedient, beloved “only child.”

Once again, primed with stories from the Hebrew past, which show us that killing your only child is the best way to show you care, Yahweh demonstrates his merciful love of humanity (who, not to be forgotten, in no way deserves it), by offering up Jesus as a human blood sacrifice. That’s his master plan of salvation: offering Himself a brutal and bloody human sacrifice, born out of historic themes of infanticide, somehow intended as a demonstration of tenderness. I don’t know whether it’s more amazing people believe this or that they even are capable of understanding it as coherent or reasonable in the modern age? This type of dysfunction would be patently condemned anywhere else in our society outside of religion.

While some may protest Jesus was a god—it’s clear from abundant Biblical references that Yahweh was the father, Jesus was the son, and that Jesus was still described repeatedly as being human. From 1 Timothy’s description that he “appeared in the flesh,” to Galatians’ assertion he was “born of a woman,” there’s no reasonable denying the humanity of Jesus described in scripture—even if, as a modern literalist, you assert he was also in some way god.

This is only one of many repeating themes in the Bible that should signal we’re reading a myth. There are many others to choose from. In fact, Isaac demonstrates another—the usurpation of the first born son. But I’ll save that for another post, since I’m overlong again already.