Walking Disaster, Chapter 17, Part 1

This is a chapter-by-chapter review of problematic romance novel ‘Walking Disaster’ by Jamie McGuire. Posts in the series will all be linked back to the initial post, here.

This was initially a companion series to the magnificent Jenny Trout‘s review of the original novel, ‘Beautiful Disaster’. Jenny has since stopped her review, not wanting to give McGuire any further publicity in the wake of her attempts to run for office.

Content warning: Sexism.

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Calling any history buffs who like book deconstructions…

Or anyone who likes book deconstructions, for that matter, but I’d love to find at least someone who wants to read a book description who also knows a lot about world history. World history from the fifteenth century on with a focus on the Americas, to be specific. This is not for anything I’m doing, but for the latest book deconstruction project over on The Slacktiverse, which is going to be Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption Of Christopher Columbus. (I did choose the book, but the deconstruction will be done by the blogger there, SilverAdept.)

Without going into too much detail, Pastwatch is about Christopher Columbus and about counterfactual history and possible changes to history. SilverAdept does brilliant reviews and I’m really looking forward to seeing what they (1) and the commenters over there have to say about this one, but my happiness with the subject will be complete if we turn out to have anyone there who knows enough about history to be able to point out any places where the plot wouldn’t work, or where it could have/should have been done differently. I figured it couldn’t hurt to put out a call on here. Even if that isn’t you, I heartily recommend the blog for anyone who likes reading book deconstructions (the sort of detailed review I do, pointing out the problems but also discussing what works well); SilverAdept does an awesome job over there, and the blog deserves a larger commentariat than it currently seems to have. Posts go up every Thursday. Come along, read, and have your say!


(1) Might have initially misgendered; my apologies. Just saw that in the post that’s currently the most recent, SilverAdept refers to themself as ‘they’. I’ll go with that unless I hear otherwise.

‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter Eight

‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price, argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never existed on earth in any real form but was an entirely mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and mainstream) view that Jesus was originally a human being of the 1st century about whom a later mythology grew up. I’m therefore reviewing Price’s book to discuss his arguments and my reasons for disagreeing.

The first post in this book review is here. All subsequent posts will be linked at the end of that post as they go up.


Chapter Eight: Apocalyptic and Messianic Stories That Preceded Jesus

Price starts off with a pertinent question:

If the real-life Jesus is a fictional invention of the author of Mark, who was the Jesus being worshiped prior to the writing of that story? We know that Paul was worshiping someone named Jesus before the Gospel of Mark was written, so what was Paul talking about?

That would indeed be a useful question for Price to address in this chapter, but unfortunately he doesn’t do so. He did, however, briefly give his views on the subject back in the introduction, so let’s skip back to what he says there:

What set the Jesus cult apart was their belief that the kingdom established by the messiah would not be on earth, but rather it would be in heaven. They believed that the material world was hopelessly corrupt and that the “kingdom of God” could never be established on earth. Thus, they believed that an immaterial heavenly messiah would be required to destroy the evil material world and establish a perfect kingdom in heaven. The creation of an immaterial heavenly kingdom required an immaterial heavenly messiah.

Although Price has been vague about how the belief in a crucified messiah, or a messiah as sin sacrifice, fitted in with this, the implication so far seems to have been that this belief would also have been part of the original or early cult (and we do know for certain that such a belief was there by Paul at the latest as it’s in his letters, although we can’t rule out the possibility that it originated with Paul, who very much went his own way where theology was concerned). So, as far as I can see, under Price’s hypothesis the original cult would have also a) believed in the crucifixion (though presumably believing it took place in heaven rather than on earth), and b) interpreted it as a sin sacrifice. I’m open to correction if Price has a different hypothesis regarding that point.

So, on to the next question, which is the topic that Price does in fact try to address in this chapter. How likely would it be that Jews of the time would come up with such a cult?

Well, Price believes the answer is ‘very likely’. To support this, he quotes various stories of the time and lists the many points of similarity between those stories and the Jesus story, concluding that ‘nothing really distinguished the pre-Gospel Jesus cult from many other similar cults in the region’. Unfortunately, this is once again the equivalent of looking for white swans instead of black ones; Price is so busy focusing on the similarities that he’s missing the fact that there are important differences.

Judaism and the origins of Christianity: where Christianity differed

Here is a list of significant points on which the hypothetical cult Price has described differs from typical Judaic beliefs of the time:

  1. The belief that the material world was hopelessly corrupt and evil and would need to be destroyed. Judaism’s view of the material world has typically been strongly positive, with much emphasis on the joys of earthly pleasures; the longed-for Messianic age has normally been pictured as an improved physical world with the harmful parts removed, not as a heavenly world.
  2. The belief that all humans are so hopelessly mired in sin that they cannot be saved from damnation without a sin sacrifice. While sin sacrifice was obviously a key part of the Judaism of the time, this was within the context of a strong belief that humans have the ability to become ever closer to heaven by their own efforts in keeping God’s laws, that the good we do will be counted to our credit when we are judged, and that individuals have the ability to live good enough lives to achieve favourable judgement and heavenly reward.
  3. The belief that this sin sacrifice must be a once-and-for-all uber-sacrifice which will wipe out all necessity for the Temple sacrifices from then on. The Jewish scriptures clearly taught that the Temple sacrifices were required by law and should continue permanently.
  4. The idea of a heavenly being as a sacrifice. The sacrificial system in Judaism has always used animals. The idea of sacrificing a heavenly being would have seemed shocking and pagan.
  5. The idea of sacrifice taking place by crucifixion. Sin sacrifices in Judaism were carried out by cutting the throats of animals carefully selected to be physically perfect specimens. That was the mental image of sacrifice for practicing Jews of the time. Crucifixion, on the other hand, was associated with humiliating punishment.

Now, one very obvious point which should be made here is that Christianity clearly did somehow develop or acquire all of the above beliefs at a fairly early stage. Beliefs 2 – 5 are certainly present in Paul’s letters, and I would say that at least some degree of 1 is also there, although I’m open to correction on that one if anyone wants to make a case to the contrary; in any case, it certainly seems to have become a part of Christianity as time went by. So the question is not whether a cult of the time and place could have developed such beliefs – clearly, this one did – but whether the fact that this did happen is better explained by a historicist or a mythicist scenario.

How did the differences start?

Firstly, how might Christian beliefs have developed under a historical-Jesus scenario? Here’s the theory that makes the most sense to me:

  1. An actual charismatic rabbi gains followers convinced he’s the Messiah.
  2. He’s then crucified, leaving his shocked and grieving followers trying to make sense of this turn of events.
  3. Rather than give up their belief in him as the Messiah, they conclude that his crucifixion must also have been part of God’s great plan, and that God has miraculously restored him to life with a view to returning him to finish the job.
  4. The cult gradually acquires more followers over the next few years, including some with more Hellenised backgrounds (either Hellenised Jews or pagans) whose mental images of sacrifice and divine forgiveness would have been formed in the context of more pagan backgrounds and beliefs.
  5. One of these people reinterprets the crucifixion as a once-and-for-all sin sacrifice and the only way in which humanity can be saved from otherwise irredeemable sin.

How plausible are each of the points in that hypothetical sequence of events?

  1. Highly plausible. This really would have been a typical cult for this time and place.
  2. Also plausible. Crucifixion was a standard Roman means of executing rebels, and having a crowd loudly claim you were the true King of the Jews come to kick out the Romans was the sort of thing about which the Romans would probably not have been all that happy.
  3. Possible. This sort of rationalisation is in line with how people have been known to react to events that should theoretically shatter their most deeply held beliefs.
  4. Possible. While it’s highly doubtful that early Christianity showed the massive rate of growth that Luke tried to depict in Acts, there are always plenty of people around in search of passionate leaders who give them a dream to follow.
  5. Plausible, since this hypothesis fits very smoothly with what we know about one particularly famous and influential Hellenised member of the early church; Paul. We know that he taught a theology that he believed he’d learned from visions, that he saw these visions as a better and more valid source of information than the teachings of the existing church, and (from Galatians) that he had at least one clash with the existing church over differences in teachings. We don’t know the details of the theological differences (because we have no pre-Pauline writings from the original church) and so can’t confirm whether ‘Paul reinterpreted the crucifixion as a sin sacrifice when the original church hadn’t seen it that way at all’ was the actual point of contention, but this is, at the least, a very plausible point at which that belief could have arisen.

(Some interesting supporting evidence for this last point, by the way, comes from the second half of Acts 21, in which Luke describes an incident in which the council tell Paul of their concerns about the reports that he’s been telling Jews to abandon Jewish law. In Luke’s account, the council assure Paul that all that’s needed to solve the problem of these accusations is for Paul to undergo a purification rite at the Temple to indicate his continued commitment to the Jewish law, which Paul does. However, Luke’s story of a council who clearly would find it a big problem for someone to be teaching Jews to abandon the Jewish law, put together with the evidence we now have from Paul’s letters that Paul was indeed teaching precisely that, gives us indirect but strong evidence that this was indeed a point of contention between them. And, since Paul’s belief that the Jewish law can be abandoned stems directly from his belief that the crucifixion was a once-and-for-all sin sacrifice that rendered it obsolete, this makes it likely that he and the Jerusalem church differed on that vital point as well.)

So, overall we have a sequence of events under historicity that seems plausible. If anyone disagrees, please let me know why. Two key points to note about it are that a) this sequence of events gives us an actual crucifixion, meaning that we don’t have to look at why someone would have invented that part, and b) the reinterpretation of this crucifixion as a once-and-for-all sin sacrifice could have happened at a slightly later stage once the movement contained more members from Hellenistic or pagan backgrounds who would have been interpreting the story through a somewhat different cultural lens.

Historicity gives us a plausible theory. How does Price’s theory hold up as an alternative?

Based on this chapter, not well. Price shows no sign he’s even recognised that most of the above are issues; he probably hasn’t. However, he does address one question, which is the question of how people of the time could have come to believe in a crucified Messiah. So, I’ll now look at Price’s explanation, which he finds in martyr stories of the time such as 2 Maccabees.

Price’s theory and the Maccabean martyrs

2 Maccabees, written in the second century BCE, tells the story of a family of seven sons and their mother who were successively tortured to death for their refusal to break kosher laws. 4 Maccabees is a later commentary which interprets the family’s commitment to their faith as highly pleasing to God. Price believes that this indicates that Judaism of the time did have a concept of human sin sacrifice:

Four Maccabees, written after 2 Maccabees and by a different author, comments on the seven martyrs in 2 Maccabees and states that their sacrifice was a “ransom for the sin of our nation.”

[quotes from 4 Maccabees 17]

We see in the stories of the Maccabees the torture and sacrifice of people at the hands of foreign rulers presented as scarifies [sic] to God for the atonement of sins. This shows that the concept of human “sin offerings” was certainly one that existed in Jewish thought and theology shortly prior to the rise of the Jesus cult.

There are quite a number of problems here.

Firstly, Price has a fairly fundamental misunderstanding here of the difference between sin sacrifice and martyrdom. In sin sacrifice, the animal in question was killed because Yahweh directly wanted it killed and because its blood would magically expiate sins. In martyrdom, a person dies for their commitment to a cause; their commitment to their belief is so strong that even death is preferable to violating their belief. What’s pleasing to Yahweh (or other deity) in martyrdom narratives isn’t the death for its own sake, but the level of commitment to Yahweh’s cause that it indicates.

In 2 Maccabees, the boys and their mother were’t killed because of some abstract belief that their blood would be pleasing or appeasing to God; they were killed because of their refusal to break Jewish dietary law. And it’s clear that the author of 4 Maccabees interprets it in this light. In his interpretation, their blood was pleasing to God because it indicated their level of commitment to the law; they were so strongly committed to keeping the Torah commandments that they were willing to be tortured to death rather than go against God’s will by breaking Torah law, and that is what was supposedly pleasing to God. Price has mistaken this for an indication that human sin sacrifice was considered desirable, but that isn’t the case. (Judaism, in fact, historically made quite a big thing out of being against human sin sacrifice in contrast to all those clearly inferior backwards religions that required it.)

Secondly, another key point Price has missed is that the author of 4 Maccabees seems to have believed that 2 Maccabees was a true story. Whether or not it was, the 4 Maccabees author seems to have been responding to it on that basis. What this passage shows, therefore, is that, in response to a story of martyrdom that could easily be interpreted as a meaningless tragic waste of life, a Jewish author came up with this interpretation as a way of retrospectively making it meaningful; an actual story of torture and murder was retconned into ‘but this was pleasing to God’. The author’s starting point was not to show how sin can better be expiated; it was to attempt to make sense out of what would otherwise be a tragedy. Again, this does not fit well with mythicism, which requires that the founders of what would become Christianity came up with the idea spontaneously. Under historicity, there would have been an actual story of a specific executed human to retcon; mythicism wouldn’t have had that head start.

And thirdly, let’s remember once again that Price’s theory is that the original cult believed Jesus to be an immaterial heavenly being. That doesn’t fit well with the Jesus-as-martyr theme that Price is trying to argue here. Martyrs are humans who suffer and/or die for a cause in a way that lets other followers of the cause hold them up as an example to emulate. It doesn’t make sense, therefore, to think in terms of an immaterial heavenly martyr. Price thinks that because Judaism of the time had stories about heavenly beings and stories about martyrs they could easily have combined the two, but he doesn’t seem to have noticed that these are two themes that it doesn’t make sense to combine.


The mythicist theory requires some person or group spontaneously to come up with several ideas that would have been very unusual within Second Temple Judaism:

  • That God wanted a once-and-for-all uber-sacrifice to do away with the need for the Law
  • That this sacrifice was to take place via a method that was completely conceptually different from the sacrifices that everyone of the time was used to
  • That this was to take place up in the heavens rather than on Earth:
  • That all of this had now happened already (in other words, the belief system somehow jumped from ‘this needs to happen’ to ‘good news, this has all happened!)

Under historicity, however, at least some of these problems vanish. If the original group were following an actual man who was believed to be the Messiah and was crucified, then the third point isn’t an issue at all and the second and fourth are straightforwardly explained by the group having had to deal with their supposed Messiah having actually been crucified (in other words, they were having to make sense out of an actual situation facing them). We’re still left with the question of how the crucifixion was so dramatically retconned into ‘sin sacrifice’, but we now have only one strange and unprecedented event to explain in this context rather than a combination of them, and we have, in what we know of Paul’s story, a plausible potential explanation of how this could have happened.

So, once again, historicity provides a plausible sequence of events for something that seems more difficult and complicated to explain under mythicism.

Walking Disaster, Chapter 16

This is a chapter-by-chapter review of problematic romance novel ‘Walking Disaster’ by Jamie McGuire. Posts in the series will all be linked back to the initial post, here.

This was initially a companion series to the magnificent Jenny Trout‘s review of the original novel, ‘Beautiful Disaster’. Jenny has since stopped her review, not wanting to give McGuire any further publicity in the wake of her attempts to run for office.

Content warning: Violence against property. Pushy stalkery-type behaviour with complete lack of respect for boundaries.

[Read more…]

Long to reign over us

So, as you have probably heard, it has been a rather interesting few days in the UK. An era has ended. For the past two years I’ve made a point of watching the Queen’s speech at Christmas in full awareness of the fact that it might be the last chance we get to do so, and now, of course, that has proved to be the case.

I feel a little sad, not so much about the death of a lady who led an extremely long and full life and died comfortably (as far as we know) in her home in the company of people she loved, but about the end of an era. The main thing that bothers me is the inevitable change we now face in the lyrics of our national anthem. (Yes, I do recognise the irony of posting that on here given the wording of both versions of that anthem. Shut up, I’m having a moment.) For my entire life, the title and wording has been ‘God Save The Queen’, and it feels deeply strange to know that it won’t be that again in my lifetime. I mean, I can’t actually remember the last time I sang the national anthem (it might well have been the time in my 20s when I was on a coast-to-coast bus tour in the USA and one evening around the camp fire we all decided to take turns singing our respective anthems/any others we happened to know), but I always knew that that would be the wording if I did. And now it isn’t.

While acknowledging the controversy over the very existence of Her Majesty’s lifelong job as well as the ways in which that role has been shockingly abused over the centuries (neither of which I wish to debate further on this post, because, for goodness’ sake, there’s a time and place), I still have enormous respect for her for the way she did it. It’s often assumed that because she was astonishingly privileged in many ways this must mean her life was easy or frivolous. It was, in fact, immensely hard work, and I respect and admire her for the dedication she gave to it and the dignity with which she carried out the role. I wish her son all the best as he takes over that same role, and I wish comfort to him and to the rest of her grieving family, as well as to all those families that are less publicly affected by bereavement every day. RIP, HM Queen Elizabeth II.

‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter Seven

‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price, argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never existed on earth in any real form but was an entirely mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and mainstream) view that Jesus was originally a human being of the 1st century about whom a later mythology grew up. I’m therefore reviewing Price’s book to discuss his arguments and my reasons for disagreeing.

The first post in this book review is here. All subsequent posts will be linked at the end of that post as they go up.

Chapter 7: Non-canonical accounts of Jesus

This chapter looks at whether there’s any support for Jesus’s historicity in what are known as the non-canonical gospels (the various early-ish stories of Jesus that, for various reasons, weren’t considered bona fide and didn’t make it into the official NT).

In this chapter, I don’t actually have much on which to disagree with Price. The non-canonical gospels, like the canonical gospels, were written by unknown authors many years after events, and thus aren’t very helpful in terms of figuring out what did or didn’t happen. They do, of course, add at least somewhat to the general problem that I raised in the last chapter; if gMark really was just a fictional work, how on earth did it lead to so many people being so convinced it was real that they were writing detailed embroidered versions of the story? Price has yet to address that problem. However, as far as specific points are concerned, there’s only one detail on which I wanted to comment.

It isn’t actually about the apocryphal gospels directly but about one of the passages Price quotes from the standard gospels. Near the end of the chapter, Price is talking about passages that gThomas appears to have copied from gMark, and brings up the Parable of the Tenants. I agree with the point he’s making – yes, I think the author of gThomas copied this from gMark – but I wanted to comment on the passage itself, because it raises yet another problem for Price’s theory.

What is important about this particular scene and literary allusion is the fact that it clearly makes the most sense in the context of the First Jewish-Roman War and the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 CE. In concluding the parable, Jesus says “What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.

The “vineyard” is Israel, the “owner” of the vineyard is God, the Jews are the “tenants,” and the “others” are the Romans. This is all a very clear and common interpretation, but of course this interpretation only makes sense in the light of the First Jewish-Roman War. This parable is written by the author of Mark as a way of spelling out the meaning of his entire story; it basically explains the meaning of the Gospel of Mark.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that the idea that Mark was alluding to the first Jewish-Roman war is, while a perfectly probable and very widely accepted one, not quite the certainty that Price seems to think. Mark portrays Jesus as describing various scenes of dreadful but rather nonspecific disaster that would befall the Jews. While this might well indeed have been a retrospective interpretation of the war, it’s also vague enough that it might just be either Jesus’s or Mark’s beliefs in a coming apocalypse in which sinners would be destroyed. These sorts of beliefs seem to have been fairly common amongst Jews of the time (as they are amongst fundamentalist Christians today), and thus it’s hardly outside the bounds of coincidence for someone to have come out with such a ‘prophecy’ shortly before an actual disaster occurred. I think gMark could have been written either before or after the war.

However, all that is by-the-by; there is a more important problem for Price’s theory in this whole parable. In the parable, what have the tenants/the Jews actually done that’s led the owner/God to decide to ‘destroy the tenants and give the vineyards to others’? According to verses 3 – 8 of the chapter, the answer is that they’ve repeatedly beaten and/or killed the slaves sent to them by the owner to collect his due, eventually killing the owner’s own son. In the analogy, of course, the slaves are analogous to previous prophets and the son is analogous to Jesus, thought of by Christians as God’s son. In other words, the wrong for which Mark is blaming the Jews in this analogy is… killing Jesus. Or, at least, killing or attacking a series of prophets, culminating in killing Jesus in the same way that they supposedly killed other prophets.

Which, of course, fits perfectly well if Jesus was a historical man who actually was killed; under that theory, Mark is blaming the Jews for this and blaming disaster (whether the actual disaster of the war or an imagined imminent disaster) on them for this action. But, according to Price’s theory, gMark is meant to be an entirely fictional allegory blaming the Jews for something else (Price seems a little fuzzy on what, but clearly in Price’s theory it can’t be for killing Jesus). So how does Price’s theory fit with this parable?

I did raise this point in a previous post. Price replied:

[Mark’s] creating that narrative in his story. Clearly the Jews kill Jesus in his story. The parable relates to the narrative.

OK. Why is Mark creating that narrative in his story? Price believes that Mark wrote this gospel as an allegory in order to convey a message about why he thinks the Jews had brought/would bring disaster on themselves. He’s clearly stated, above, that this parable is Mark’s way of ‘spelling out the meaning of his entire story’. Why would Mark be spelling out that the meaning of his entire story is ‘the Jews are at fault for killing Jesus’ if he was not trying to convey that the Jews were at fault for killing Jesus?

Price is welcome to come up with an explanation, if he’s got one. But it’s yet one more to add to the list of details that make much better sense if the figure on whom our Jesus stories was based was actually a real person.

Thoughts on ‘Rite of Passage’

Alexei Panshin died on Sunday. My condolences to those who knew him, should any of them stumble across this.

The news naturally made me think of the only work I’ve read by him; his most famous one, Rite of Passage, in which a young girl from an insular future society on a spaceship faces a harsh coming-of-age test and makes some initial steps in questioning her own prejudices. I discovered the book some time in my preteen or early teen years, at the polytechnic where my mother used to lecture; she’d occasionally bring me along when she had to go in for something during the holidays, and I’d spend the time in the library. Most of the books there were textbooks, but there was a small fiction section and this was one of the books there. The copy didn’t have a cover blurb (I think it was a hardback with no dustjacket), but when I opened it to see what it was about I was drawn into the story straight away.

Since I only spent a few hours in that library on an occasional basis and always decided to start over at the beginning when I went back, I ended up reading Part One several times before I read the rest; for years after that it felt surprising that there was a middle and end to the book. (This somehow felt oddly appropriate for the story, in which a period of stagnation in the protagonist’s life is followed by a period of change that makes her start to recognise the stagnation in the society around her.) I can’t remember when or where I eventually ended up reading the whole thing, but for me the book will always carry memories of hours spent browsing in that library.

Anyway, looking back at the book now, I have some thoughts about different aspects about it, and this is something I’ve vaguely planned to post about at some point. With Panshin’s death coinciding with the start of my annual leave and some actual spare time, now seems like a good point. This post will contain significant spoilers.



Trial, the eponymous Rite of Passage in the story, is absolutely crucial to the book’s plot from a literary point of view. However, from an in-story point of view it doesn’t seem to make all that much sense. Why do the Ship-dwellers expect all their fourteen-year-olds to survive a month on an alien planet to prove their fitness for adulthood? Especially when quite a lot of them don’t survive?

Mia tells us that it’s essential for population control on the Ship, but it clearly isn’t; they keep careful control of births to make sure the population stays within limits, so the actual effect would be a gradual attrition of their numbers over time (as demonstrated by Alicia MacReady, who’s banned from further pregnancies even though none of her children survive Trial, and expelled from the ship when she won’t abide by that rule). The teacher of the pre-Trial classes tells them, in the title grab speech, that it’s ‘a formal way of passing from one stage of your life to another’ which all societies have, but, in fact, the latter part of that isn’t true; the highly industrialised societies from which the Ship’s population came don’t normally have this sort of survival test to surmount in order to make it to adulthood. While he’s probably right about it making adulthood more meaningful due to having been earned, it’s hard to imagine the Ship’s society deciding that this is important enough to put their children through the risk of dying as teenagers through sheer bad luck. Trial does fit with the general unstated theme of ‘survival of the fittest’, but it’s hard to picture the Ship’s society deciding that the one attribute they want their children to prove in order to remain part of society is the ability to survive on a planet, when this is an ability they’ll then never need for the rest of their lives.

Like the hand-cutting in the Choosing Ceremony in Divergent, Trial is something that works really well on a symbolic level and not at all when you try to picture such a custom developing in reality.

One last thought on this point: What happened in terms of Trialists interacting with the colonists? We know that a fair proportion of the people on Trial spent the month exploring their surroundings, and it seems likely that many of those would have had some kind of encounter with the locals. We know that the very negative encounters that Mia’s group had were considered very much the exception. Logically, therefore, there must have been a large proportion of the Ship who had some personal memory of having positive interactions with people they’d previously been taught to see as inferior peasants. It seems like the number of Shipdwellers who questioned their prejudices about colonists should have been higher. But then, they’d all have returned to spend the rest of their long lives in their insular and bigoted society, so maybe not.


The evils of overpopulation

This is a significant theme in the book, and it’s interesting to look back on it now, because it’s very much a product of its time in the way it’s presented. ‘Rite of Passage’ was published within a few years of Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (the book that would become ‘Soylent Green’), and Max Ehrlich’s The Edict. Reading Panshin’s Wikipaedia page, I was entirely unsurprised to learn that his introduction to science fiction was Heinlein’s Farmer In The Sky, which dates from a couple of decades earlier but presents a similar view of an overpopulated Earth. Panshin’s/Mia’s description of an Earth shortly prior to destruction is strongly reminiscent of these:

In 2041, there were eight billion people on Earth alone, and nobody even had free room to sneeze. There were not enough houses, not enough schools or teachers, inadequate roads and impossible traffic, natural resources were going or gone, and everybody was a little bit hungry all the time, although nobody was actully starving. Nobody dared to raise his voice because if he did he might disturb a hundred other people, and they had laws and ordinances to bring the point home – it must have been like being in a library with a stuffy librarian twenty-four hours a day.

It’s interesting to compare this with our situation now that we almost have reached the eight billion level. Some of it, of course, is accurate, though the situation with housing/teachers/traffic is more due to mismanagement than to actual raw material shortages; but it’s notable that Panshin – like Harrison, Ehrlich, and, earlier, Heinlein – thought that the biggest problems with this level of overpopulation would be global food shortage and unmanageable physical overcrowding. It has, of course, turned out since then that the biggest problems are actually the devastation caused to the climate and environment by this number of people. Our problems are no less significant than the ones predicted by the science fiction authors of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, but the way in which they affect day-to-day life is rather different from the picture that was imagined then.

(I was also struck by the contrast between the line ‘everybody was a little bit hungry all the time, although nobody was actually starving’ and the modern-day situation. Panshin might have been too pessimistic about our potential for global food production, but he was way too optimistic about how fairly we’d end up sharing the food we had.)

The other feature that’s strongly reminiscent of the time is Panshin’s assumption (reflected in the characters’ assumption) that the only way of preventing overpopulation is by strict laws controlling the number of children allowed. Hence, when Mia sees a family with eight children while on her Trial and realises the planet of Tintera has no such laws, she’s horrified by what she believes to be the implication; she assumes this world will go on to be overrun by overpopulation and eventually destroyed. This view is shared by the people of the Ship, and, while it’s not by any means the only factor in their eventual decision to destroy Tintera, it’s certainly a significant one. Mia’s father, addressing the Ship assembly, even describes a planet without population control laws as a ‘cancer that must be destroyed or it will grow and grow until it destroys its host and itself’, as though the people of Tintera were somehow going to pile on top of one another as the population grew until they extended out into space, filled the galaxy and overran the Ship. Nobody points out to him that this is a nonsensical metaphor.

And yet, what we’ve actually seen happen over the decades since then is very different; in country after country, the reproduction rate has dropped below replacement level. And this is traceable to two main factors: effective low-risk widely-available birth control so that anyone with a uterus has practical ways of avoiding using it when they don’t want to, and widespread social acceptance of the idea that women will probably want to do other things with their lives apart from motherhood. As far as I’ve been able to find out, in every single country in which these two factors have become generally available, even imperfectly, the reproduction rate has shown this kind of drop.

The reproduction rates that Panshin and his peers thought were an unstoppable flaw in humanity have actually turned out to be due to the fact that most sexually active people had limited alternatives. On average, most people with uteruses don’t actually want to spend their entire reproductive lives using them; all we needed was the chance, both sociologically and practically, to avoid doing so. Yes, there are always individual exceptions who want large families; it’s just that they’re more than outweighed by the number of women who choose to stop at one or have none at all. The existence of the occasional eight-child family in a society demonstrates nothing whatsoever about the overall reproduction rate in that society.

All this does raise a question that is not addressed in the book and that I haven’t seen addressed in any of the reviews I’ve read; how effectively could the people of Tintera or other colonists have controlled their reproduction rates? The Ship’s stated policy – hotly debated in the epilogue, but ultimately upheld – is to withhold technical information from the planetary colonies in order to give themselves bargaining power in exchanges with the planets and hence to continue their parasitic existence, and thus the colonies are deliberately kept at a more low-tech level. What would the effect of that be on population growth?

One council member in the final debate does link the two in a heavily paternalistic way; the poor dears are too primitive to be expected to know any better, all our fault for not teaching them better ways. But nobody mentions a much more practical link; a low-tech society is simply not going to have very effective contraceptives. There are certainly going to be methods; they’re just going to have high failure rates. I was struck by the irony of the Ship criticising Tinteran society (on extremely limited evidence) for failing to control their reproduction satisfactorily while simultaneously making it impossible for them to do so.


The vote on Tintera

Reading this section over again, I was struck by how the motion for voting was phrased.

After a heated two-hour debate that started on the specifics of Tintera’s case but rapidly moved on to a general debate of whether the Ship should continue with the status quo of living off the colonies or whether it should choose some other route such as becoming self-sufficient or mining an unoccupied planet for raw materials, the Chairman phrases the vote on Tintera’s fate thus:

“[…]The basic question seems to be, what shall be done with Tintera? That is the purpose of this assembly. Those who agree with Mr Persson on a policy of containment, and I don’t know what else – re-education perhaps? – will also be voting for a change in our basic way of life along one or more of the lines that Mr Persson has suggested or some similar alternative. Those who vote with me for the destruction of Tintera will also be voting for a continuation of the policies we have been living by for 160 years.[…]”

In other words, the specific decision on whether the Tinterans should have their planet destroyed for being Bad Colonists is explicitly tied to the different, and much more far-reaching, question of whether the Ship’s members are going to make radical changes to their own lifestyle. Talk about weighting the scales; anyone who might have had some sympathy for Tintera but doesn’t like the idea of having to change their lifestyle and possibly be forced into the mining industry themselves is going to have a strong reason to vote for Tintera’s destruction. Tintera was probably doomed anyway, but this definitely would have skewed things. Poor Tintera.


I noticed other details (why did they keep horses on the Ship? And tigers?? Why were dishes cleared up by incinerating them, when it would have been so crucial to reuse or recycle all their limited resources? I think Panshin sometimes got carried away by his vision both of Futuristic Life and of Pioneering Into The Unknown and didn’t think about the practicalities), but the above covers my main thoughts. If any of you have read ‘Rite of Passage’, I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

Questions! Questions for atheists!

Ahem. Sorry for the slight overexcitement. Another person has posted a list of respectfully-asked questions that at least seem to be aimed at a general discussion rather than just point-scoring, and this is catnip to me. You know, I should have thought of giving this as an answer last time a Facebook friend of mine asked for things that made us unreasonably happy; in my case, it’s questions from people who want respectful debate. All right! (rubs hands) Let’s get to it!

Is Your Atheism Based on Study or Experience?

Study. I spent a great deal of time looking at arguments for or against God’s existence, and eventually had to conclude that there just wasn’t any evidence for God that stood up to examination.

Do You Have Purpose and Destiny?

Second, would you say that even as an atheist, you still have a sense of purpose and destiny in your life, a feeling that you were put here for a reason and that you have a mission to accomplish?

I included part of the follow-up clarification because I wanted to comment on a bit of (most likely unintentional) question-begging; I don’t feel that I was ‘put here’, full stop, so asking whether I was put here for a reason is kind of a meaningless question. I was certainly conceived for a reason, the reason being that my parents wanted children, but I don’t think that’s what Michael Brown was getting at. In the same vein, I’m not sure that ‘destiny’ makes much sense here, since that kind of implies someone/something having some sort of destiny in mind for me, which I don’t think is the case (and, my goodness, it sounds rather grandiose!)

However, the answer to whether I have purpose is ‘Yes’. In general, I’m trying to live a good and useful life that gives back to the world. In terms of missions to accomplish, mine are to go on being a good doctor who helps patients, to be a support to my children and do what I can to raise them to have happy and hopefully fruitful lives, to speak up against dishonesty or injustice where I can, and to get all the damn excess clutter cleared out of my life. Works for me.

Does God Exist?

Well, by definition an atheist is obviously going to answer ‘No’, but from the follow-up clarification it seems that this wasn’t actually your question:

Third, would you say that you are 100% sure there is no such being as God — meaning, an eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing being? Or would you say that, for all practical purposes you have concluded that this God does not exist, although it is impossible to prove such a negative with absolute certainty?

The latter. Although, in this context, I think it’s worth pondering the question that made me realise I should be an atheist rather than an agnostic; why is it that the various versions of the above question only get asked about God, and not about beings such as fairies or ghosts that are believed in by some and disbelieved in by others?

Can Science Explain the Origin of Life?

Fourth, do you believe that science can provide answers for many of the remaining mysteries of the universe, including: how the universe began (including where matter came from and where the Big Bang derived its energy); the origin of life; and DNA coding?

Again, these questions are not intended to “stump you” or prove that science can’t answer everything. Instead, I’m genuinely wondering if you feel comfortable saying, “We may not be able to answer all these questions now, but over time, we’ll get the answers — and we won’t need a God to fill in the gaps.”

Since science has an excellent track record with answering questions that once seemed unanswerable, yes, I think it’s a very fair assumption that scientific investigation will provide us with more and more answers over time, just as it’s already provided at least partial answers for some of the above. But I also think it’s worth adding that, even if science doesn’t answer every question (and in fact I think it’s pretty fair to anticipate that it won’t), then that still won’t mean that the answer has to be ‘Because God’. It’s hardly uncommon for us not to know the precise cause of something that clearly wasn’t divinely committed – we don’t assume that every unsolved murder has to have been God smiting the victim – so unanswered questions aren’t a good reason to assume a divine being as the answer.

Have You Questioned Your Atheism?

Fifth, have you had any experiences in life that caused you to question your atheism?

Now you come to mention it… no. I’ve done plenty of questioning along the way, but by the time I started identifying as an atheist, I’d been actively looking at the whole question for something like fourteen years (during most of which time I’d considered myself an agnostic). So, by the time I reached the point of ‘OK, it makes more sense to be an atheist’, I’d spent a lot of time looking up and considering basic arguments and going through the questions, the what-ifs, the ‘is God trying to speak to me?‘, the ‘well, let’s give God the benefit of the doubt here and think about ways in which this particular issue could still be compatible with the existence of a divine being…’. I don’t want to say “I’d done the questioning” because that phrasing frames ‘the questioning’ as something that can be completely over and done with and relegated to the past, and I don’t think that should ever be the case. But in practice, since moving to “well, guess I’m an atheist” I just haven’t seen or thought of any pro-theism arguments that have not been at most a variation on a theme of ones I’ve already exhaustively seen, considered, and eventually concluded don’t hold up.

Are You Materialistic?

Sixth, are you completely materialistic in your mindset, meaning, human beings are entirely physical, human consciousness is an illusion, and there is no spiritual realm of any kind?

Whoa, I think that phrasing should be ‘are you a materialist?’. ‘Materialistic’ means someone who prioritises getting money and possessions! Anyway… I don’t think it makes much sense to say that consciousness is an illusion, and I think a more accurate phrasing of the materialist position on consciousness would be that it’s the product of material things/physical laws. (As are illusions, come to think of it.) But other than that, yes, this sounds correct.

Would You Be Willing to Follow God?

Seventh, if you were convinced that God truly existed — meaning the God of the Bible, who is perfect in every way, full of justice and mercy, our Creator and our Redeemer — would that be good news or bad news? And would you be willing to follow Him and honor Him if He were truly God?

Depends which part of the Bible you’re talking about when you say ‘God of the Bible’.

From reading the earlier part of the Old Testament, I remember a god riven with petty jealousy, orchestrating hideous mass deaths, with archaic views on rape and slavery and some strange gaps in his scientific knowledge. The existence of this god would be bad news.

In the later part of the Old Testament, I glimpsed a different and better kind of god; the god of Ezekiel 18 and similar passages, expecting us to take personal responsibility but also willing to see our virtues and our efforts and to judge us fairly. The existence of this god would be good news, and, yes, I would follow and honour him.

And in the New Testament, we get the most hideous god of all; the one who condemns all non-Christians to an eternity of torment, who blames the Jews for sticking to the laws that he himself strictly instructed them to keep to forever, who expects us to overlook the ways he acted back in the early books, and who tries to convince us that all these things are really signs of great love and concern on his part. The existence of this god would be terrible news. And, to answer your other question, I could never honour such a god, and while I suppose I’d follow him because ‘Or burn in hell’ isn’t really much of a choice, it would never be willingly.

How I changed sides on the abortion rights issue

First, before I get into any of what is going to be a very long story: we have a podcast on the topic of abortion, later on today, in which I’ll be participating (and probably telling a much briefer version of this story). If you’re free then, please watch the livestream and ask questions! For those who don’t get to watch it live, the recording will remain up at that link.

On to the post.

I’ve mentioned before that, in my late teens, I was strongly pro-life – as in, anti-abortion – for about a year and a half, eventually changing my mind and becoming pro-choice. That’s a story I’ve been meaning for a long time to tell, and so I’m going to tell it now.

Some thoughts first:

This is a really long post, but after thought I decided to leave it as a single post rather than splitting it up. Thanks in advance to anyone who chooses to read it all.

A quick note on terminology: I will mostly be using the term ‘pro-life’ for the anti-abortion position. I’m extremely well aware that there are many anti-abortionists for whom this term is hideously inappropriate, but there are also a lot of anti-abortionists who genuinely hold that position because they care about fetal life, and I was one of them. Also, although there are good reasons to use the term ‘pregnant people’ rather than ‘pregnant women’, I’m writing about my views back in the ’80s when awareness of transgender issues was vastly behind where it is now; as such, I use the term ‘pregnant women’ throughout because it represents the language I used at the time when thinking about the issue. Finally, since I’ll be talking about my former pro-life views I will sometimes be using the phrase ‘unborn babies’ because, again, that was how I thought at the time.

Finally, you guys are good at keeping it civil and respectful in comments. Keep that up! As always, I will enforce if needed. Feel free to ask anything you want about my beliefs then or my beliefs now; but keep it polite. Thank you.


How I became pro-life

“Sarah, I HOPE,” my classmate declared, appearing in front of me, “that when you’re a doctor you’re not going to be one of the ones that KILLS POOR LITTLE UNBORN BABIES.”

“Er…” I said, or something equally articulate. It was first thing on a schoolday morning and I’d just walked into the Upper Sixth common room, thinking about homework or Venture Scouts or whatever I thought about in the mornings; whatever it was, it probably hadn’t been the upcoming school debate on abortion. But two of my classmates (both Catholic, although that wouldn’t occur to me until much later) had taken the opportunity to go for full-on pro-life campaigning, so next thing I knew I was sitting down and reading through a stack of leaflets.

It was early 1988, two decades after abortion was broadly but not universally legalised in the UK by the 1967 Abortion Act, and I was seventeen. Like many people, I hadn’t previously had a definite opinion one way or the other on abortion beyond “it’s complicated”. I could see that unwanted pregnancies could make life really difficult for women, and didn’t know how best to balance that against vague ideas that ‘killing unborn babies’ was not a great thing. This was the first time I’d read all-out arguments for one side.

I read the fetal development screeds, with their heavy emphasis on the cuteness and fingers and toes. I read the arguments as to why each human life started at conception and was thereafter a continuum with no logical place after conception where a line could be drawn. I read the scare lists of horrible risks and side-effects. I read the claims about how easy, how obvious a solution, it was for women with unwanted pregnancies just to put their babies up for adoption by a couple from the queue of couples desperately longing to be parents. I read the whole kit and caboodle of arguments aimed at simultaneously appealing to and bypassing my sense of logic. Naive and unfamiliar with the tricks of propaganda, I was a pushover.

Despite my classmate’s best efforts at passing the same leaflets round the debate audience, the pro-life side lost resoundingly (51 – 13, according to the diary I kept sporadically at the time), but she’d made at least one convert; I was utterly convinced.

What happened next

Well, next I pretty much forgot about it for a while.

I had plenty of other stuff on my mind; my A-levels coming up that summer, the ongoing worry over whether I should convert to Christianity/Judaism/neither, the ongoing stress of being an insecure social misfit despite my best efforts. Then, on one of my regular bookshop browses, I came across a book called ‘Two Million Silent Killings’, which, as you can possibly deduce from the subtle clue in the title, was a virulently anti-abortion book. It all came flooding back. The unborn babies being killed! In horrible ways! With alarming-sounding risks to the pregnant woman! When clearly it would be easy and straightforward to instead have those babies adopted! The logical arguments in favour of life starting at conception! I think the phrase we’re looking for here is ‘hook, line, and sinker’. I was a committed, hardcore, no-exceptions-except-for-life-of-the-mother pro-lifer.

Fortunately, I never got round to doing anything practical about this; it never occurred to me to join a pro-life group or do any campaigning. Instead, my new interest manifested itself in hate-reading anything I could find on the pro-choice side so that I could think smugly about how wrong they were; I diligently checked every feminist book I found (quite a lot) to see what each one had to say about abortion. Unfortunately, every author I read took their readership’s pro-choice beliefs so much for granted that it didn’t occur to any of them to debunk any of the claims from the anti-abortion movement. My smug Sense Of Rightness was fueled further; clearly they didn’t know what they were talking about, and I was entirely correct to continue as a pro-lifer.

However, over the course of the next however-long-it-was between me reading ‘Two Million Vocal Attempts At Blatant Propaganda Silent Killings’ and the summer of 1989, various things happened that… didn’t alter my view, but certainly rocked it somewhat. I can’t remember in what order they happened, so I’m just going to list them, and the order might or might not be correct. None of them changed my mind at the time, but, looking back, all of them contributed.

The multiple choice book

One of our neighbours was a GP who, enthusiastic about my plans to go to medical school, gave me some of her old textbooks, including a book of practice multiple choice questions for medical students. It was in a different format from the O-level and A-level multiple choice papers I’d done before; instead of a choice of five answers, the book presented a series of statements that had to be marked as true or false. The other side of each page listed the answers, with a brief explanation of each.

I flipped it open for a look. Most of the questions made no sense whatsoever to me at this pre-medical-school stage, when even the parts that weren’t literally Greek to me were very much metaphorically so. However, one caught my eye, because it was about abortion. The statement that had to be marked ‘true’ or ‘false’ was that early abortion carried lower maternal risk than a full-term pregnancy.

OK, that had my attention; I turned over the page to check out the answer. ‘True’, the book stated. The explanatory line informed me that the risks of a full-term pregnancy were always higher than the risks of early abortion.

I had, of course, read all the scary things the pro-life books had to say on the risks associated with abortion. It hadn’t occurred to me until this moment that they hadn’t had anything to say about how these compared to the risks of not having an abortion. And now I realised that they hadn’t directly lied (well, actually, knowing everything I’ve learned since then about the level of dishonesty in anti-abortion propaganda they probably had, but I didn’t know that then)… but they had deliberately left out an important part that significantly changed the interpretation of this particular information.

It was, I think, my first encounter with the way that propaganda can mislead you. While it didn’t change my mind, it did make me realise that things weren’t quite as clearcut as I’d thought. And it made me realise that I hadn’t been told the whole truth.

Time limits

One thing that had been stressed in the pro-life arguments I read was the folly of declaring abortion all right up to a certain point and then illegal after that. How could viability be a logical reason for drawing a line? Or birth? Or any other stage of fetal development? The only logical place to draw a line, they assured me, was conception. If we drew a line at any place not backed up by solid reasoning, then what was to stop a series of slippery slopes moving it further and further out until it was five minutes before birth, then five minutes after birth, then a free-for-all on infanticide and probably wholesale murder of any other groups society found inconvenient as well? The logic was unassailable; it convinced me completely.

Until one day, apropos of nothing much, I thought “So… when is this supposed to be happening, then?”

I realised that abortion had, by that point, been legal in the UK for over twenty years. That seemed like more than ample time for the slippery slope effect to kick in. By now, surely the limit ought to have edged out at least to the infamous Five Minutes Before Birth point, with campaigning mobs all ready to push it that last step of the way into infanticide. What was actually happening, however, was that we still had exactly the same time limit as we’d had back in 1967, with a distinct lack of anyone marching up the local streets demanding that it be changed.

I was quite confused by this; after all, the pro-life argument as to why this extension of time limits would happen seemed utterly watertight. But I couldn’t really dispute the fact that it clearly wasn’t happening. The hypothetical future I’d been taught to fear came smack up against reality, and that’s an encounter in which reality holds the trump card.

Early pregnancy

If you’ve read many pro-life arguments, you get familiar with detailed descriptions of embryonic/fetal development that put a lot of emphasis on the cuteness aspect. They would always take care to mention just when the fingers and toes would develop, and how early this was. I didn’t think to ask what the hell fingers and toes had to do with the right to life. But I wasn’t meant to, was I? I was meant to absorb the whole description in a general haze of adoration for the cuteness/lifeworthiness of the fetus, and I did that just fine.

Until I started thinking about what it would be like to be in the very early weeks of an unwanted pregnancy, and my mental spool of all those compelling developmental features faltered. While there’s plenty of developmental stuff going on in the earliest weeks after conception, it isn’t the kind of stuff that bypasses logic to grab straight onto emotions in the same way that the fingers-and-toes screeds do. (Let’s face it: ‘formation of the neural tube and branchial arches’ just doesn’t seize the heartstrings in the same way.) Thinking about a creature that didn’t yet have such basics as a properly-formed face or brain… well, it was harder to find justification for the idea that a woman at that stage of pregnancy shouldn’t have an abortion at any cost.

I still believed it, mind you. After all, I reasoned (or the anti-abortion arguments in my brain reasoned for me), if you don’t draw the line at conception, where do you draw it? There are no other clear and logical lines in development. I thought of it as the Sherlock Holmes argument; however improbable it was that an embryo should be treated as a human with rights from the one-cell stage onwards, it was impossible to find any other clear lines to draw. It just didn’t feel as obvious as it once had.


Benefits‘ is a feminist novel by Zoe Fairbairns, written back in… goodness, 1979. I recall it as being a pretty good novel, but what’s relevant here is one specific line; I can’t remember the exact wording, but when the protagonist is thinking about her reasons for not wanting an abortion if she finds she’s pregnant, there is a passing mention that she’s read all the anti-abortion propaganda with the pictures of dead fetuses and it leaves her cold.

That startled me. Up until that point, I’d assumed that the reason people were pro-choice was because of general ignorance on the subject of fetal development. Surely they just hadn’t read the arguments against abortion and would change their minds if they did? But here was an author describing someone who hadn’t reacted that way at all (yes, this was a fictional character, but the author clearly thought this viewpoint was realistic). That must mean that there were people out there who’d read pro-life arguments and didn’t find them convincing. While I still didn’t fall into that category or understand people who did, it did seem to indicate that the arguments weren’t quite as unassailable as I’d thought.

The kidney analogy

Which is, of course, now something of a cliché, but was a new thought to me when it first occurred to me. I was thinking about the issue and realised that a pretty close analogy to abortion was being required to donate an organ in order to keep someone else alive; hard on the heels of that, I realised that that analogy didn’t really come out on the side I’d wanted it to. We don’t expect people to donate organs to keep other people alive, because we accept that the right of people to make important decisions about what does and does get done to their own body is so fundamental that it even outweighs the obligation to keep others alive. I’m sure my mental phrasing at the time was less eloquent, but I definitely recognised, in that moment, that kidney donation wasn’t compulsory and that there was a rather worrying contradiction between that and my views on abortion.

Maybe I’m projecting back… but I do have a clear memory of pausing and thinking “Now what do I do with this one?” Because it was comfortable, having at least one issue in a confusing life on which my mind was made up and I knew which side I was on. I’d thought about it! I’d read about it! The arguments were clear! And I didn’t quite know how to cope with the idea of changing my mind or accepting I’d been wrong about something of which I felt so comfortably sure. So, in a classic case of cognitive dissonance, I shelved it and moved on.

Operation Rescue

How the hell did I find out about Operation Rescue? I have a clear memory of reading collated photocopies of articles about them, stapled together into makeshift booklets; I just don’t remember where I got the articles from. Maybe I’m lumping two memories together and the booklets came from later on, after I’d changed sides and joined a pro-choice group; yes, that’s more plausible, now that I think about it. But how did I find out about Operation Rescue back in my pro-life days? Oh, well, my parents have always subscribed to the Guardian (moderately left-wing UK broadsheet), the paper probably ran an article on the subject which caught my eye.

Anyway, however it happened, I remember that at some point during my pro-life days I learned about Operation Rescue, the US anti-abortion group that got, um… proactive about their beliefs. Actually, looking back, what I learned was a strongly edited version. I’m not sure whether the rose-coloured glasses came from whatever my source was or from me, but somehow or other I came away with the message that, apart from the occasional shooting or firebombing which I successfully rationalised to myself as being the work of a few nonrepresentative extremists, their regular activities consisted of stopping women outside abortion clinics for polite discussions about why abortion was wrong.

Which… seemed like it should be a good thing, surely? Giving women the information to help them make decisions? Explaining to them what abortion was really all about before they made the decision to have one? Why did the thought make me feel so uneasy?

I realised that, however good I felt about my reasons for being against abortion when the whole subject was comfortably theoretical, it felt distinctly different to think about taking the argument to actual women who would be struggling with actual problems as a result of being pregnant. And this time the issue wasn’t something I could just push aside, because of my future career plans.

Those future career plans

Under British law, abortion is only legal if two doctors agree that the woman fits at least one of a list of criteria. Since the criteria in question are broad enough that in practice they cover everything short of the mythical third-trimester-abortion-for-convenience that never actually happens outside the minds and propaganda of pro-lifers, it’s easy, in practice, for a sympathetic doctor to authorise an abortion whatever the details behind the request; on the other hand, it has also been rather too easy for a doctor opposed to abortion to stall a request. These days, the NHS avoids that problem by commissioning services from clinics run by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, who will allow people to self-refer; as far as I know (though I’m open to correction), this applies across the UK, meaning that no-one has to go via their own GP at all. However, this wasn’t the case back in the ’80s. Unless a woman could afford to go to a clinic privately, she would have to get referred by her GP to a gynaecologist who would also have to agree, and so an anti-abortion doctor had quite a lot of scope for making things difficult.

And I’d applied for medical school. I was planning to become a doctor, and I anticipated (correctly, as it happened) that there was a fair chance I would want to be either a gynaecologist or a GP. I was going to be in a position of deciding whether requests for abortion should or shouldn’t be granted.

So, once Operation Rescue had got me thinking about the morality of trying to talk women out of abortions, I found myself thinking about how this particular aspect of my chosen career was going to work in practice. I would be in the position of deciding for a woman that she had to stay pregnant, while both she and I knew damn well that I wouldn’t have to take any further responsibility for her problems the moment she walked out of the door, that she was the one who’d be lumbered with all the consequences of that pregnancy. I believed, logically, that stopping abortions was what I should be doing, the right thing to do… so why did this prospect feel so wrong?

And this was where I was up to by the summer of 1989.

The turning point

Just after I turned 19, I holidayed in the US, and the reading material on the plane was some sort of news magazine. Topic: abortion.

If anyone has any idea what magazine this could have been, by the way, I’d love to know; I checked out the covers of Time magazine back issues and it doesn’t seem to be any of them. It would have been in July or August of 1989, and the cover showed a pro-lifer at a march, holding up a sign that said “Unborn women have rights too: Baby had no choice!” I remember that cover, all right, because it summed up everything I felt about being pro-life. I felt my shaken beliefs rise up and rally one last time. Yes! Of course unborn babies had a right to life that trumped everything else! Of course abortion was wrong! How could I doubt it?

Then I opened the magazine and read one of the stories in it.

It was a first-person story by a woman who’d had an abortion in a clinic picketed by Operation Rescue. She’d become pregnant when she and her boyfriend were both students and in no position to be able to take care of a baby, and, although she’d have liked to give birth and give the baby up for adoption, there was a further problem; she was taking lithium, which has a high chance of causing cardiac abnormalities in a developing fetus. She knew that babies with disabilities, unlike healthy babies, were unlikely to be adopted. This was the first time I could remember seeing anyone address the ‘why don’t women just have their babies adopted?’ argument, and, because I hadn’t at the time been able to work out for myself why giving away a baby after nine months of pregnancy might feel impossible or why even going through pregnancy and birth might in many cases be too much of a burden, this argument had always been one of the trump cards that had kept me believing. But here was the story of someone who’d thought about that route and couldn’t do it.

I read how she felt when she found out about the protestors picketing the clinic; not only was she going to have to have an abortion when in better circumstances she’d have wanted to proceed with the pregnancy, but she was going to have to run a gauntlet of people screaming and ranting at her while she did it. I read how upsetting it was for her to hear a protester shouting “Why don’t you just have your baby adopted?” when she would have loved to do just that, had it been a feasible option for her. I read what she said about the other clinic patients; about the irony of protestors screaming “Don’t punish a child for the sins of its parents!” when one of the patients was a twelve-year-old whose pregnancy might have been the result of rape by her own father, about another patient muttering “Are they going to take care of this baby for me so that I can go to college, then?”

I don’t remember the rest of the story. I just remember recognising that that was it; I could no longer support the idea of trying to stop women from getting abortions. The wobbling needle finally swung round the full one hundred and eighty degrees. I was pro-choice.


All of this had a couple of lasting effects on me besides, of course, the fact that I was henceforward pro-choice with the passion of a convert (a convert who tended to get pretty passionate about things even without the ‘convert’ factor).

Firstly, I’d learned the extremely valuable lesson that, even when a group’s arguments sound superficially convincing, it’s still worth hearing the other side before you make your mind up. (This was one of the things that would, later, save me from falling for creationist propaganda.)

And secondly, I’d learned that it’s possible for people to hold a completely opposing position for entirely well-meant, even if utterly misguided, reasons. And this plays a large part in my lifelong commitment to keeping discussion civil (well, all right, sometimes snarky, but my aim is to avoid stooping to insults or ridicule) and to explaining why arguments are bad or inaccurate instead of just trying to be the person who yells the loudest. I fully accept that in most situations this just isn’t going to work and that there need to be a lot of people out there who do keep yelling loudly, or equivalent. And I’ve learned that, in individual situations, sometimes the best thing you can do is walk away and not engage. But I think there’s an important place for people who say “This is why I disagree with what you say” and take the time to explain why.

I hope this post has gone some way towards doing that with this particular issue, and I’m happy to keep doing the same in the comments. If you made it this far, then thank you for reading.

My nonconversion story, follow-up: Resurrection addendum

I hadn’t initially planned this post as part of the series, but OverlappingMagisteria had a question in comments that I thought deserved a full post to answer. On top of that, I also wanted to thank you all, because I was delighted by all the interest, the questions, and the positive comments. I spent months planning this series (not to mention years prior to that of having it in the back of my mind as something I wanted to write), but I didn’t know whether anyone would actually want to read it; I’d braced myself for everyone either being bored or telling me the whole thing was stupid. So, I’m thrilled that people liked reading it, and thank you for all the feedback.

By the way, I was also extremely amused that the site BibleStudentGuide.org (which seems, as far as I can see, to be some sort of bot-run Christian site) picked up the last part of my series and posted the entire thing on their site. It’s very bad form that they’ve made it look like work from their site rather than crediting it properly, and in any other situation I’d be highly annoyed by that; but the fact that their bot has managed to post something explicitly anti-apologetic is so delightful that I’m just going to leave it be. I hope someone sees it and finds it useful.

Anyway, on to the question I’m answering here:

Did you ever have any resolution to your question of why the disciples would say that Jesus was resurrected? Or did that just fall away along with the rest of Christianity with what you described in this post?

Yes! Yes to both, in fact; once I’d finally established that the answer clearly wasn’t ‘Because he actually was resurrected AND, HEY, THE BIT ABOUT HELL IS TRUE AS WELL’, I stopped worrying about it. But the topic still interested me, so I was thrilled when, years later, I started finding potential answers on the Internet. Back in Part 3, where I first mentioned this, I did link in passing to the two articles on the subject that I’d found most helpful; but it’s probably worth writing a bit more about it, since it was important to me and is probably important to at least some of the people out there. So here we are.

First, however, a pre-emptive point. There are now a number of apologists trying to counteract these arguments, and the counter-arguments most often used boil down to ‘That can’t be the explanation because it doesn’t explain X, Y, and Z about the story’. What that doesn’t take into account, however, is that the early development of Christianity was – like most turning points in history – almost certainly multifactorial. It’s perfectly reasonable to look for a combination of plausible events that could explain it, rather than holding out for The One Uberexplanation To Explain Them All.

Hence… yes, I do know these explanations aren’t sufficent in themselves to account for why the gospels report multiple group appearances/a physical Jesus who could share the disciples’ dinner and show off his wounds. But that’s a total non-issue to me, because that has never been the part I had trouble explaining; even reading those stories as a teenager, I could see how exaggeration as the story got passed along, or people flat-out making things up to make it sound better to potential converts, could account for those parts. Similarly, ever since I read Maccoby’s The Mythmaker I’ve known that Paul’s influence is the most likely explanation for how Christianity developed such anti-Jewish ideas as traditional Christian salvation theology and a Messiah who was divine. (While Maccoby’s theories are highly speculative and it’s entirely plausible that he had the details wrong, we do have good evidence that Paul was highly influential in the church’s development, was going with what he believed theologically even where this conflicted with what the Jerusalem group were teaching, and had a much more Hellenised educational background than the disciples seem to have had, so we have a recipe for things going off in a new and unexpected direction.)

So, I was already OK as far as explanations for those parts were concerned. The part of the puzzle I was looking to fill in was, specifically, how the disciples could have originally come to believe that Jesus worked miracles and was resurrected. (And, as per apologist teaching, why the early church’s opponents wouldn’t just go and retrieve Jesus’s dead body as evidence if he was really still dead; however, I now recognise the obvious answer to that one because I’m no longer a teenager with an utter lack of understanding of how other human beings work. Just in case there’s anyone out there who’s still wondering who isn’t me or an apologist, the short answer is that, however much people might want to prove a point, they do not normally resort to grave-robbing in order to do so. You’re welcome.)

So; explanations. Let us now flash back to the turn of the century, when I found the infidels.org website and first read historian Richard Carrier’s detailed multipart essay Why I Don’t Buy The Resurrection Story.

It was very much a ‘Where has this been all my life?’ moment (rhetorical question to which the answer was ‘Nonexistent, for the most part’; Carrier only wrote it a few years before I found it online). It was exactly the kind of detailed breakdown and debunking that I’d longed for. By the way, it also indirectly became how I found FreeThoughtBlogs in the first place. I randomly wondered one evening many years later what that guy who wrote the resurrection debunking was writing these days, and it turned out that at the time the answer was ‘a blog on a blogging platform that seems to have quite a few interesting posts on; should hang around and check this out’. And the rest is history. (Including the part where Carrier left the site three months later under a major cloud and then tried to sue us, so that was an unforeseen twist in the whole story. But I digress.)

Anyway, Carrier did exactly what I’d always wanted to see someone do; he went through various possible explanations in detail. He thought the most likely explanation to be that the disciples had had some sort of grief hallucinations that they took for appearances of a resurrected Jesus, and that the story spread from there; however, he also weighed up the chances of other explanations, concluding that even the vanishingly unlikely ones couldn’t be ruled out completely. Finally, I had some plausible suggestions for possible explanations as to what could have ignited the resurrection belief.

Carrier also, separately, wrote about how common it was at the time for people to claim and/or believe miracle stories. Apologists often talk as though the disciples would have been hardcore naturalistic skeptics, or at least would have had to convince hardcore naturalist skeptics in order to get anywhere; but those assumptions don’t really hold up. I began to see that the question here could more accurately be framed as “In a culture where belief in divine miracles was widespread, how could a group of people who desperately wanted to believe that their admired leader/their Messianic hopes were still alive have possibly come to believe such a thing?”, and to realise that perhaps that wasn’t, in fact, the kind of inexplicable mystery that required nothing short of a genuine bona fide resurrection to explain.

The other particularly helpful article was one I found several years later. I had by then discovered the blog of postgraduate history student Matthew Ferguson, who has produced some delightfully interesting posts debunking apologetic claims (such as his superbly comprehensive takedown of the oft-made claim that we have more evidence for Jesus’s life than for Caesar’s). This particular post, however, was a guest post; Kris Komarnitsky’s The Rationalization Hypothesis: Is a Vision of Jesus Necessary for the Rise of the Resurrection Belief?

Komarnitsky’s hypothesis builds on a feature of human psychology that’s been increasingly well explored in recent years; our responses to what is formally known as ‘cognitive dissonance’. In simple terms, cognitive dissonance refers to the sensation of holding contradictory beliefs or values, and the study of cognitive dissonance looks at the effects this has and the various ways in which we deal with it.

In most cases, we’re talking about simple ordinary day-to-day issues (for example, if you’ve ever wanted to have that bar of chocolate but also wanted to lose weight, that’s cognitive dissonance), but it’s also known that people who desperately want to hang onto a belief in the face of the evidence can sometimes come up with extreme rationalisations. Such as, for example, people who are faced with evidence that should logically shatter a powerfully-held religious belief. Some people deal with this by reluctantly accepting that their religious belief was incorrect, some deal with it by ignoring evidence to the contrary… and sometimes people, unable to do the latter or to face the former, manage to find a new explanation that will let them hang onto the previous one in the face of evidence to the contrary, even if the explanation seems to fly in the face of evidence or logical sense. Komarnitsky presents several case histories of religious or cult groups in whom this behaviour has been observed, of which all are interesting but the most notable, in this context, is the last one; the case of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Schneerson was a rabbi widely believed by Hasidic Jews to be the long-awaited Messiah… a belief barely dented by his death from old age in June 1994. That’s right; just a few years after I struggled with apologists’ insistence that nothing short of an actual resurrection could have led Jews to believe that their dead would-be Messiah was still alive, a group of Jews started insisting that their dead would-be Messiah was still alive. Almost thirty years later, his followers still insist he’s the Messiah, and there have been several reported sightings of him since his death.

I haven’t seen much about the Lubavitcher Rebbe in apologetics, in case you were wondering, but I did find this essay by Michael Brown insisting that the differences between this story and the Jesus story are enough to prove that the claims of Jesus’s resurrection can’t possibly be due to cognitive dissonance but must be the real thing. It’s reminiscent of those God of the gaps arguments in which the gaps keep shrinking; a ‘resurrection of the gaps’ argument. Make of it what you will, but the fact remains that we do now have conclusive proof that it’s possible for people to become convinced that their dead would-be Messiah is still alive even in the absence of an actual resurrection. I think it’s pushing it to require a documented example of a naturally-caused situation that turned out exactly the same way as the Jesus stories before believing that those stories might have been caused by something other than a genuine resurrection.

But, finally… what I’ve learned is that it’s OK not to know exactly what happened, and that that doesn’t mean we have to default to believing in the resurrection. When my daughter was little and would wake up scared in the night, she would sob to me that she’d heard a funny noise and thought it was a ghost coming to get her. And, when I didn’t know what had caused whatever she’d heard, she would say “But how do you know it’s not a ghost?” So there I was, in the middle of the night and half asleep, trying to explain to a three-year-old that the probability of our house being the one place ghosts would ever show up after ghost-hunters had utterly failed to find convincing evidence of them anywhere else was actually negligibly low, unlike, say, the probability of the funny noise having been air in the pipes or some other natural explanation. And, no, I don’t think I explained it as well as that at the time, though I think I eventually got the message across. But I also got the message myself.

Setting aside, for a moment, anything you do or don’t believe about the existence of gods or miracles or resurrections (or, if you prefer, assuming for the sake of this argument that all of them might exist)… Christian theology would require me to believe that Yahweh raised Jesus from the dead in order for him to show himself to what can be calculated on even the most optimistic estimates to be an infinitesmally small fraction of all humanity, in order to get across a message that was supposedly vital for the salvation of all of said humanity despite conflicting with what Yahweh explicitly told his people in the past. And, yes, yes, gods are gods and they get to do whatever they want even if it seems incomprehensible to mortals and all that, but the problem is that Christian theology also requires me to believe that Yahweh considers this message of vital importance for every human soul to hear… and that is extremely at odds with a method of delivery that would miss so many (not to mention that it would be deliberately ignored by so many others on the grounds of contradicting what were supposedly Yahweh’s express words). It’s not just that Christianity asks me to believe incredibly improbable things, it’s that it asks me to believe impossibly inconsistent things.

So, when Christianity is claiming that all of the above is the explanation for a sequence of events for which we do, in fact, now know of plausible natural explanations, then, no, I’m not going to believe that that is the case. Yes, I’ve loved getting actual alternative explanations after all the years of wondering. But, even without knowing exactly what caused the funny noises that my daughter heard in the middle of the night, I still think it’s fair to conclude that it wasn’t a ghost; and even without knowing the exact sequence of events that led the disciples and then Paul to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, I still think it’s fair to conclude that it wasn’t Jesus actually rising from the dead.