Friday, 22 April 2011

I: Why it's funny to see people Fail

Having discussed why we laugh in my previous entry, I was going to post an article now on what makes us laugh specifically, in other words, what exactly is funny and why. The argument, however, proved far more ambitious than I anticipated, and it seems I shall have to deal with it in a series (four more entries including this one, I'm expecting). So you'd better get used to the topic of comedy because it's going to dominate the writing on this blog for a while...

Ok. There's a wealth of different 'genres' or types of humour, but in my opinion most of them can be resumed into a few central modes, with the other types being mere combinations, variations or spin-offs of these modes. Black humour, for instance, employs a specifically macabre tone or imagery compared to its alternatives, but the comic mechanisms it makes use of are not unique to the genre. In fact they're identical to those you find in other types of jokes. Similarly, you can make distinctions between romantic comedies, coming-of-age comedies, pants movies, British comedies, comedies of errors and what have you, but the difference between all of these is not the way they make us laugh. They've got great tonal variations, and they touch on different topics, and they may have different presentations or stylistic traits, but when it comes to the funny bits, they still return to the same principles. What are these principles, and how many of them are there?

Broadly speaking, I can think of four foundational classes of humour. I shall dedicate this blog entry to the first of them. The other three will be dealt with on my blog over the coming thirty days or so, time permitting.


I wasn't sure how to call the first class of humour. I was thinking of 'Contrarian' or 'Thwarted intentions,' but ultimately I just adopted Fail. It's not a name I particularly like (and I may change it in future articulations of the argument), but it's familiar jargon by now thanks to the Americanism of using 'Fail' as a noun rather than as a verb (with greater emphasis – the 'epic fail!'). You can find endless collections of Fails in google images and on Youtube, and you'll also frequently hear expressions like 'goalie fail' when a goalkeeper scores an own goal, or 'relationship fail' when a girlfriend is disappointed by something her boyfriend just did (or viceversa). It's always very simple stuff, relating to accidents or bloopers or mistakes. Usually the idea seems to be that anything going contrary to a person's intentions is funny, but the core principle is even more primal than that, and we can describe it more or less like this:

Anything that doesn't work is funny, as long as it belongs to someone else.

This is just an application of the principles described in the Why do we laugh entry. The crucial aspect is that the subject of the Fail has to be a distinct, recognizable OTHER. If the 'victim' is a skater on Youtube who falls from a concrete step, we're bound to laugh to a degree proportional to how spectacular his fall (and therefore his failure) is – provided that an excessive damage isn't caused, in which case the reverse sentiment of empathy gets switched on and we feel concern instead of amusement. Exactly how much damage is 'excessive damage'? Our personal sensitivity and our own experiences will have an influence (if I've once broken my leg while skateboarding, I'm less likely to laugh at a falling skater) – and this goes to show, again, how unpredictable the homo sapiens individual is. But a good guideline is this: the more alien the victim from ourselves, the more pain we can tolerate him/her to take before it stops being funny. If a member of my family falls from the skateboard, or my girlfriend, I'm far less likely to laugh than if it is the anonymous skater on Youtube. Were I to read about a group of people accidentally blowing themselves up with a grenade, I wouldn't find it funny; but if it's a band of raving Nazi skinheads attempting to throw the grenade into a synagogue, I'd probably laugh a bit or at least smirk, because they are so remote from my social circle that even such a horrible disaster fails to cause empathy (and in fact has an ironic ring given their original intent).

The degree to which someone or something is alien or external is contextually determined. As usual with homo sapiens, you can't just categorise things and make broad sweeping rules. I'm never going to laugh at my brother if he gets hurt in public and other people are laughing at him as well, because I recognise him as closer to my social circle than all the other people. He is, after all, part of the tightest social circle of them all, which is the family. But I may laugh at my brother if it's just the two of us, or us two and our parents, and he trips on his laces and falls (without getting too injured, obviously), because in this case it's enough for him not to be me to invest him with a foreign aura. Similarly, I probably wouldn't laugh even at the Nazi soldiers if they blew themselves up while in combat with, say, a horrible alien species invading our planet – because in that case, they still have more in common with me than with the other element. Their failure would be my own. Commonality, the measure which determines how much pain can be taken before something stops being funny, is not absolute but relative.

Due to its communal and social nature, Fail humour is at the heart of racist and sexist jokes, among other things. More frequently than not these jokes are poor on irony and wit. They simply take a (usually degrading) trait attributed to the category in question and augment it by hyperbole. How do you kill a nigger in a car? Place his head out of the window and let his lips slap him to death. There isn't really a 'reversal of intent' there, or an ironic construction. There's barely even an insult, because 'big lips' isn't much of a degrading trait (unlike jokes which compare blacks to shit or describe women as stupid... though of course the joke is still offensive, inasmuch as it seems to imply that there is a 'correct,' and therefore non-criminal, way of killing black people). There's just an image which exaggerates a trait supposed to belong to (and identify) black people, that is to say, the big lips. The thing that makes this 'funny,' to racist sensitivities anyway, is that it draws a line between us and the Other(s). 'They' are different from 'us' and we can distinguish them because their lips are so big. The communal nature of the laughter mechanism then kicks in, and we define our 'alliance' as white people by laughing (this would have been useful in tribal communities – a group of people laughing at you looks threatening - remember that laughter is also a way of baring teeth - and denotes confidence and dominance, so a tribe laughing together at another tribe are sending a very clear signal).

Note that laughter kicks in only if the highlighting of this difference is done in terms of a Fail – in this case, the black person's death. Yes, you can have jokes based on the same mechanism which seem to have no failure in them and in fact sound almost complimentary, such as quips on the length of a black man's penis, but there's still a Fail in there, and it's still racist: the Fail is that of the black man to be defined by anything else other than his sexuality. Jokes based on the idea of black people having super-schlongs are projecting blacks as no more than walking dicks, and are therefore degrading them (though I think you could use this premise to change the object of the racism, if you were to make a joke where the implied Fail is that of the white man and his smaller penis. But I can't really bring to mind jokes which do this, given how little anti-white racist humour I've encountered). This same exact process is at work when we make jokes or sing jingles about supporters of a rival football team, for instance. Again, the degree to which this is funny depends on the subject: the more racist s/he is, the funnier it will seem, because s/he will feel the 'alliance' more deeply.

Discrimination humour mingles with other forms of humour, the way they all do. There's racist/sexist/homophobic jokes which actually demonstrate clever, witty or ironic constructions. A 'pure' racist joke is in fact not as easy to find as you may think – even the 'big lips' one I mentioned earlier makes use of other funny principles aside from mere discrimination (and we shall come to these principles in future entries). When it comes to the Fail class of humour, it's so primal that other than the 'video of the guy falling down,' you can't do much with it unless you throw in other comic genres as well.

But before this type of amusement gets completely defamed, I should say that the Fail mechanism doesn't have to be discriminatory. If targeted towards individuals rather than ethnic, national or sexual groups, then it won't be socially divisive (even if it may be offensive). Here's how Jerome K. Jerome, one of the greatest of comedic writers, informs us of his mates' ineptitude at packing suitcases. When George is hanged, Harris will be the worst packer in this world. This double insult thrown almost casually into the phrase is funny because it implies a.) the social failure (or 'fail') of Harris, who can be expected to be hanged some day, and b.) his otherness with respect to our (social / intellectual / moral) group, since we subsist under the same law and community but are not under threat of being hanged. The casual quality of the tone implies that it's something we all already know, and therefore reinforces the sense of community and alliance.

I said that most jokes based on Fail also make use of other forms of humour. Correspondingly, Fail humour is itself employed by other, more sophisticated comic genres. I'm thinking that comics and animation make use of anthropomorphised animals partly because it makes their slapstick easier to digest. By dressing their fundamentally human characters in the robes of animals, they make them more alien and therefore easier to laugh at. They also diminish them considerably as human beings: these are not men, but men degraded to the status of animals, and so not legitimate in our moral group. (This makes sense in light of the Aristotelian statement that comedy is about people who are slightly worse than we are. I'm assuming he meant morally).

Intriguingly, human characters themselves can play important roles in animation films where the protagonists are animals. Think of the old ladies in Tom and Jerry or Sylvester and Tweetie, who are NEVER the 'victims' and always the 'punishers.' Their human appearance goes hand in hand with this role: if they were the ones who Failed, then they'd be represented as animals. No-one wants to laugh at an old lady getting hurt (for that matter no-one wants to laugh at a cat getting hurt, but remember that Sylvester and to a slightly lesser extent Tom are not cats, but humans degraded to the level of cats). There's exceptions, like the rival of Bugs Bunny, that bald guy who consistently gets the shit beaten out of him. In that case something slightly more complex is at work, I think there's more than just Fail humour coming into play, but the Fail element is probably that of a man so inept that he is overpowered by a rabbit (among the most harmless of creatures).

Aside from the old ladies, though, I'm musing on the figure of the mindless 'baby' who constantly and innocently endangers him/herself and has to be rescued by the despairing protagonist(s). It's a common figure which has been given its most interesting expression, to my knowledge, in the Roger Rabbit mythology (link to an exemplary short). Of course, the baby *cannot* get hurt. There is no figure more immune to Fail humour than that of the infant. Roger Rabbit, by contrast, as the human character so idiotic that he is no better than a rabbit, goes through all sorts of injuries and we still laugh at him. (To an extent, anyway, because after a while the degree of injuries gets so extreme that we start rooting for Roger over the baby, Tom over Jerry, and so on. This is a familiar feeling to anyone who's watched a bit of cartoons).

Fail humour is the most basic and primal type of comedy. Other types follow on from this genre, but complicate it to the point that it becomes something recognizably different. The second of our four classes of humour will be the subject of my next blog entry.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Why do we laugh?

Most discussions I hear or read on the question of why we laugh tend to treat it as a quasi-mystical issue. The argument goes, more or less, that since it's one of those things that distinguish us from animals, like our sensitivity to music, then it must be something profoundly spiritual, deep and hard to fathom. I'm probably not well versed enough on the subject, but it doesn't seem like such a complex question to me. I also don't understand why you don't find an explanation of why we laugh in so-called common knowledge, like GCSE Biology textbooks. Maybe my own understanding of this subject is wrong? Am I missing something?

Anyway, I'm going to throw down some thoughts which I'd ruminated upon quite the while ago, but never committed them to writing – the issue seemed too obvious for this to seem necessary! But since I haven't found a lucid and basic explanation elsewhere (mostly the question seems to be discussed in psychoanalitical essays which are far more complex than I feel they should be), I'll just write this all down, because otherwise I'll just forget, and then what's the point of having thought of it at all? I don't expect I'll be saying anything particularly original, but it may make for a differently interesting read from the usual cultural criticism.

So then – why do we laugh?

Most of the sounds, gestures or smells produced by the human organisms (excluding, therefore, external agents like the sound of an object impacting with someone's body or an odour resulting from contact with a foreign substance) are social signals. Like the howl of wolves or the singing of birds, their purpose is to indicate something to the group we live in. If infants cry, for instance, it usually serves to call for help from their mothers. Unsurprisingly, we tend to cry much less when we grow up – and women, who are less capable of physically defending themselves and therefore more likely to require protection, cry more easily than men in most cases.

Laughter is, similarly, a useful social signal. Its purpose is that of defining and consolidating social hierarchies. It may seem a somewhat redundant or bizarre behavioural trait, to produce these loud cries convulsively, but then we must consider that homo sapiens is among the most complex of social animals, and the (evolutionary?) mechanisms required to sustain its societies are correspondingly very complex – or at least, more subtle than those of other social animals.

Ants, termites, bees and other social insects, for instance, determine their hierarchies genetically. Once a drone is born, it will stay a drone all its life. It will never behave like any other thing (potentially, circumstances can lead an ant to change caste, perhaps to substitute a dying queen, but again the event is highly scripted and predetermined, and can be reproduced with different hives in fairly simple laboratory conditions). Human societies are less predictable. What an individual will become within a group, and what his/her social use/contribution will be, depends on a very sophisticated combination of variables, many of which are determined by the conditions in which s/he grows up. The process of mating exemplifies the differences as well. Termites reproduce according to scripted and mechanical processes. A hive's reproductive history is, to my knowledge, pretty much the same for any given one, with variations only in the rate of success (which is determined by the resources available, not by the 'personality' of the termites mating). When it comes to humans, predicting who we're going to fall in love with, why and when, or how any given relationship is going to go, is a task so unearthly that the subject is ubiquitously treated with even more mysticism than laughter.

There's always got to be one...

In explaining the phenomenon, it will be remarked that you never laugh about 'good' things. If you laugh, it always means that something has gone 'wrong.' Among the simplest funny things is the sight of someone tripping, slipping, or otherwise falling down while in the middle of normal activities. Often seeing people getting hurt is funny, provided they don't get too hurt (in which case other mechanisms kick in and we become worried for the person in question). Even seemingly innocuous jokes with language, like puns or double entendres, make us laugh only inasmuch as they represent an *error.* Even though no-one gets hurt, there's been a failure of some type (specifically, communication), and we laugh at this failure. The greater the failure, the funnier the situation – a respected professor's blooper is funnier the more embarrassing it is and the richer its unintended suggestions are, and this is the principle of irony. I'll say more on this and other specific types of humour later, but in the meantime, I'll point out that this is what led Robert Heinlein, in his milestone novel Stranger in a Strange Land, to conclude that laughter exists to suppress pain. We laugh at painful things because otherwise there would be just too much pain to deal with. This interesting argument made me think a lot when I was a kid.

The mechanism of empathy, it can be agreed, has developed in homo sapiens because it makes societies work better. If we feel bad at the sight of other people feeling bad, and we want to prevent them from feeling that way, then of course it's going to foster cooperation, and a group that cooperates has far greater chances of survival than one internally broken. So empathy makes perfect evolutionary sense for social animals. Laughter is, I think, the opposite of empathy. It leads us, at least to a certain extent, to enjoy the ill-fortune of others. Why would this be useful from a social/evolutionary point of view?

Laughter always implies other people. As Freud famously stated, you never laugh alone. Now we can agree that other people laughing *with* you is one of the best things in life, while other people laughing *at* you is one of the least desirable. Try picturing what this means in a social group. If two males engage in a conflict which will have consequences in terms of the leadership of the group, people will laugh at whoever they do not recognise as legitimate leader. They will laugh WITH their 'candidate' of choice, and AT his adversary. So it's almost a natural expression of democratic vote. Chances are, the laughter may be so effective at outlining the social situation that physical conflict may even be averted. But laughter does more than that. It also consolidates alliances. Three women who dislike a man will laugh at the latter's back. In this way, even without any hostility being openly expressed, or even formulated, the three individuals will have silently (or, well, not so silently) defined themselves as allies. They don't need to SAY to each other, 'Let us be allies against that man.' That would expose the one who proposes this idea to considerable danger: if the others don't agree, she's in trouble, because she has defined herself as the 'traitor' figure. But laughter will arise spontaneously among three people who agree, with no need of being publically defined and, as importantly, with almost no need of anyone taking the dangerous 'first step,' because laughter escalates simultaneously and reciprocally (as we know, laughter is contagious), and all it takes to 'begin' is an innocent and non-committing smile. The alliance will hold, at least until other laughter comes to dispel, modify or redirect it.

So it seems quite straightforward to me that laughter isn't a mystical mysterious thing, at least not in terms of the knowledge we have today. In a species which isn't as predictable in the behaviour of its members as ants or bees, it's a fundamental signal for people to understand where each other stands. The fact that it has evolved in homo sapiens is logical. Without laughter, social processes would be much more complicated, and far more verbal communication would be required, which is less effective (and more dangerous) at this type of social game than laughter.

Obviously, I'm not proposing a purely utilitarian/materialistic understanding of laughter. It is precisely humanity's unpredictability that allows laughter to transcend its original function. While it still helps social dynamics, like allowing friendships to coalesce more quickly, or in the process of seducing a partner, it's now understood to be mainly recreational. Similarly, even though the purpose of sex is reproduction, people make love nowadays at least just as much for the sheer enjoyment of it, and only a minority of our sexual partners will actually bear or rear our children. This distortion of the original evolutionary purpose means that we experience laughter in ways and occasions which do not always have a social purpose. If we sit on a chair and watch a funny video on Youtube, we laugh on our own, which defeats the biological point. Furthermore, laughing at dramatic representations (i.e. comedies) has a certain function of gelling people together, but mostly it too is abortive, because there's no-one being laughed at. We're laughing at a screen. How then is our 'vote' expressed by laughter any relevant, when there aren't even any candidates?

Actually, the figure of the comedian may seem a bit puzzling, in light of the arguments I proposed. Given the humiliating power of laughter, wouldn't anyone's priority be to *avoid* being laughed at, in whichever way possible? Isn't a professional comedian an absurdity, then, since s/he seeks to be laughed at as much and as long as possible, and indeed feels gratified when s/he succeeds in this task? (There's a lot of pronouns coming up and I don't want to repeat him/her and s/he at every line, so I'll just use the masculine for the next paragraph...).

But there is no puzzle here. As I mentioned, in comedies there's no-one being laughed at. What we laugh at is not the comedian himself as an individual, but at the representation he is projecting. A comedian *simulates* an accident; he pretends to fall down or get hurt. If it really were an accident, that person wouldn't be a comedian, because you can't professionally have accidents – it's a total contradiction in terms! (The Jackass show aims to contradict my statement, but though they obviously play on the principles we discussed – of pain/injury to others as funny – their skits are still scripted and controlled, and therefore aren't accidents. It would be an accident, with them, if they did NOT get hurt – and yes, that would be funny too, seeing them botching up a sketch and all of them coming out unscathed). And so a comedian is never being laughed at himself, but people are laughing *with* him at his representation. He is essentially presenting something and saying “Look, this is really funny.” And if they agree with him, of course they would feel gratified – they are, in a primordial sense, telling him that they want him as their leader, or at least that they are his allies.

I hope I've put up a decent argument as to the functions and purposes of laughter. The question that follows naturally from this discussion is that of comedy. Given why we laugh, *what* do we laugh at? Which events are funny and which are not, and why? Are there different types of laughter, and if so, what categories do they fall under? Is there an ethical distinction to be made in laughter, that is to say, are there good and bad types or ways of laughing, and if so, what are they?

To all of these questions my next blog-post is going to be dedicated. It normally takes me a few days to conclude a two-part text, but this time the subject is difficult and it will require patience (besides, I'm back to working on the ship and I'm so busy I could die!). At least a week, then, but probably longer than that, and we'll have a post on The Question of Comedy.

Monday, 4 April 2011

The "Special Status" of Christianity

I've been reading the blog of Jack Hudson for a while now. He's without doubt one of the most interesting and thought-provoking advocates of Christianity with whom I've had the pleasure to exchange views. While he doesn't always have time to answer my questions, the discussions are interesting and extensive enough that I don't have to feel like it's filler if they get too long and post them on my blog (as opposed to his comments section).

Jack has recently engaged Mike Doolittle in the comments section to one of his latest blog-posts. I'd like you to extend on a couple of the points you made, Jack. I'm copying and pasting them here, with my own questions below them. Mind you, I'm not posting them here in an attempt to disprove or contest what you're saying. To the contrary, I'd like to see you elucidate your views. Unfortunately while I appreciate your civility and intelligence, I often find your arguments to be too broad and sweeping to give me a clear sense of what you're saying. So I still haven't made my mind up whether they denote a genuine, valid system of thought which deserves further investigation, or whether they turn out to be full of hot air under further scrutiny. If you can find the time to address my responses/meditations/objections (call them what you like), I would be very grateful. If you can't, no hard feelings (though I probably will have to stop engaging with you other than just reading your blog - my time, like yours, is too precious to use it on formulating questions to remain unanswered).

To the point(s), then. I've tried to sketch a central objection to your arguments, an issue which seems recurring in your writing, so you can give a condensed single reply rather than having to pick my whole text line by line.

Jack says: I wasn’t referencing Harris, but if this is his point, then he is plainly wrong – science as a methodology is largely the result of Christian thinkers (like Newton, Pascal, and Bacon) who readily intertwined their scientific thought, philosophy and theology. But science and Christianity are different in their effects on the acquisition of knowledge in this respect – Christianity forms the basis of societies, cultures, and institutions in which human thought can operate in such a way as to allow human flourishing. Science has no creative power in this regard. While science is the product of such societies and can be used as a tool within such societies for much good it is not itself useful as a foundation for human culture; and the outcomes of trying to use it that way can be horrendous.

A few things to say here. Firstly, I find the statement on the origins of science a bit too convenient, as it wittingly forgets to mention fathers of the scientific method who were famously at odds with Christian institutions or their predominant doctrines (Copernico, Galileo, even Leonardo, all of whom precede your thinkers, incidentally). Far more importantly, though, you try to sketch a difference between Christianity and science without bothering to substantiate your points. Yes, if scientific discourse is selectively adopted as the spine of an ethical system, the results can be disastrous (but bear in mind that Nazism wasn't exclusively the product of eugenetics, perhaps not even primarily - its roots were cultural and historical as well, harkening back to Germanic mythology, romanticised knight-hood militarism, Nietzschean philosophy, among others. The swastika, an ancient mythological symbol, should be an illuminating example, and remember that Hitler was an artist).

What you fail to mention is that Christianity too has led to some horrendous results in societies were it was adopted as the basis. The Inquisition produced a holocaust comparable for scope and atrocities to the Nazi persecution of the Jews. And you know as well as I do that there are many more examples. Yes, you can argue that these societies were based on distortions or misinterpretations of Christianity. But your own sentence on Darwinism applies just as well to Christianity: And it’s not a matter of whether evolution leads to eugenics – evolution did lead to eugenics – this is undisputable history, not conjecture. Whether it should have is another question. If you don’t know this, then you are either ignorant of history or intentionally being deceptive.

Try swapping the words evolution/eugenics with Christianity/Inquisition, and tell me that the paragraph doesn't hold up just as well.

I like your interpretation of the social role of Christianity (though it has, ironically, a faintly Marxist backtaste). But it seems to me that you need to address your bias. Christianity too, like science, is liable to misinterpretations and to our "natural tendency to live immorally." It too can (and has been) readily exploited in the context of power-struggles. In this sense, my question to you is this: why is Christianity exempt from the corrupting influence of power and immorality which plagues all other systems and cultures? Why does Christianity have this 'special status,' when it led to just as much suffering and injustice as, say, Marxism or the French Revolution?

I also have a few other questions. Forgive me if I seem to be demanding, but you've got to keep in mind that your own statements are as provoking as they are vague - in other words, you're calling it, bro!
1. What does it mean for something to be the 'basis' of a culture/society? How does it inform that society in practice? If we're talking about cultural, aesthetic, artistic influence, why is Christianity privileged over something like, say, the Greco-Roman world, which is just as preponderantly present everywhere in our culture?
2. Do you reckon that Hinduism, Buddhism and the like form the 'basis' of the Indian, Chinese, Japanese, etc. societies? If that is so, then do you think it is possible for the basis of a society to be something other than religious? If so, can you provide an example? If not, then isn't your point tautological - aren't you just using the word 'basis' as just a synonim for 'religion'?
3. Are bases of societies necessarily monological - that is to say, is it possible to conceive of a society split in two or more different, competing cultural forces for its basis? Is it possible that the political division of right and left reflects the fact that society doesn't have a single 'base', but more than one force acting in competition with each other, and that these forces put together form the real 'basis' of the society within which they work?

Jack says: What Christianity replaced first and foremost was the magical and superstitious thinking of pagans and animists. Instead of a pantheon of fickle gods who acted according to their own whims and were often indifferent to human life, there was one transcendent God who was the unchangeable source and sustainer of the universe and had ordered and organized the universe in such way that that humans could live in it. God had ordered life to operate according to certain laws, and likewise the universe operated according to certain laws which could be comprehended by human minds since the universe was created for us. Science was merely understood by early developers of science to be the tool for doing this, not the means by which we were to live our lives.

As it were, Christianity led to an equally complex set of superstitions and mythologies on the architecture of heaven, the number of angels and archangels, not to mention saints, as well as demons, witches, exorcisms, vampires and spirits, the structure of heaven and hell (which is completely fictitious, as the details barely appear in Scripture), and cloudy theological mysteries like the Trinity. I'm assuming you've read the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost? They're every bit as colourful as the Odyssey or the Metamorphoses. Again, I have the impression that you're assigning to Christianity a 'special status' of some kind. Much like you burden science with things which Christianity is no less vulnerable to, so you accuse pagan religions of issues which are also present in Christianity.

Also, the cosmology that you advocate is a bit of a free interpretation. The Gospel certainly doesn't encourage scientific enquiry to understand God's laws. I wouldn't say that Acts 19:19 encourages open research, for example: Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men. The Old Testament does include more cosmological statements, though I'd like to see the specific passages by which you sustain an interpretation which seems to me rooted outside of Scripture (where do you get this idea that since the universe is made for us, it follows that we're equipped to understand it?). Also, the God in the OT is not too different from Zeus/Jupiter. A quick comparison of Yhwh in the Bible with Zeus/Jupiter in Homer and Virgil reveals the same fundamental function - an anthropomorphised fulcrum of physical, legal, moral, cosmic authority. The details are different, of course, and Zeus is anthropomorphised more explicitly, but their literary role is the same. In this sense the pagan minor gods have an almost subsidiary role, like the angels (consider the scene in the Iliad where Zeus tells Hera, 'even if every other god in the world pulled a rope in one direction and I in another, it would still go where I'm pulling it.').

Jack says: I disagree that we can’t disprove religious ideas. I would say it is as disproved as humanly possible that the sun isn’t on a chariot being ridden across the sky by Apollo, or that a wolf isn’t eating the moon over the course of the month. But such ideas were gone before science was developed because the worldview of Judeo-Christianity usurped them, clearing the way for scientific thinking (and ironically the comfortable existence of atheism in the Western world).

If Christianity 'cleared the way' for scientific thinking, why is it that the period immediately following its consolidation in Europe was the most stagnant in scientific progress (or any progress) in European history - namely, the Dark Ages? Why didn't science just immediately follow, instead of having to wait almost one thousand years to flourish again? Doesn't this suggest that the direct connection you propound is in fact a fiction?

Furthermore, it is also 'disproved as humanly possible' that the earth and man weren't created in seven days, that a man cannot be resurrected from death or water be turned into wine just by sheer will, nor can blindness be cured by touching a forehead, and that man evolved from the apes. You could claim that some or all of these things are metaphorical, but then, why isn't Apollo's chariot metaphorical as well?

Jack says: Even in the OT you have Jewish laws which advocated practices like sterilization, quarantine, ritual cleansing, avoiding potential disease bearing vectors, not to mention the fact that certain living practices like those that forbade sexual promiscuity which would have avoided a host of diseases (like AIDs, which now plagues Africa).

I understand what you're saying, but do bear in mind that a correct application of guided scientific methods - like contraception - would have been as effective as a correct application of religious ones in preventing the spread of Aids. Once again, you're giving the lip to Christianity - there's many more systems which would have been great for humanity if everybody had agreed to apply them, the problem is that people don't. A doctrine that fails to account for human fallibility is responsible for the evil that is perpetrated as a result of this failure. Marxism, for example.

Jack says: Of course, health isn’t merely the product of scientific knowledge, but of habits and choices. Christopher Hitchens had all the knowledge necessary to avoid the disease that is killing him, but that knowledge alone can’t change human nature and our tendency to live immorally. This is why scientific knowledge alone isn’t sufficient for human flourishing.

I fully agree with the last sentence, but yet again, what's with the special status of Christianity? It never succeeded in changing human nature and our tendency to live immorally. We've had two-thousand years of it and it doesn't seem to me like human nature has changed or wars have stopped. Yeah, of course if everybody followed the tenets Christianity, it would all work well, but that point is moot. Even fascism would ensure stability and peace if everybody were to follow the principles of Obey, Believe, Work. Or Communism, for that matter.

That's it. I do hope that you will address at least some of my points, Jack. It doesn't matter if it takes you a long time, as I've got plenty of that, and my own reply took quite the while anyway. As I said, if there's no satisfying response, I will just have to assume that you either have no answer or can't communicate with me to a satisfactory level - in both which cases I must close my correspondence with you. I'll still read your blog though, no worries about that.