Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Atheist Prayer Experiment?

Back in 2010, Christian philosopher Tim Mawson published an interesting paper under the title, "Praying to stop being an atheist." From the abstract:
In this paper, I argue that atheists who think that the issue of God's existence or non-existence is an important one; assign a greater than negligible probability to God's existence; and are not in possession of a plausible argument for scepticism about the truth-directedness of uttering such prayers in their own cases, are under a prima facie obligation to pray to God that He stop them being atheists. [link]
Recently, Mawson was called upon by Justin Brierly, host of the Christian radio/podcast show Unbelievable, to help turn his challenge into an unofficial 'experiment.' During September and October 2012, each atheist who signed up was asked to pray sincerely to god for a few minutes a day for a full length of 40 days. In that time, several contributed their thoughts to the show's forum, to Brierly by email, and through their own individual blogs. Finally, the participants were then asked to report their belief (or lack of belief) at the end of the 40-day period. The results can be found on the show's website [link], and are discussed both in text and over the course of two episodes. Out of 71 participants, only 2 converted after praying.

I've been a regular listener to Unbelievable for several months now, but my reaction to the atheist prayer experiment has been mixed ever since it was announced. To their credit, Mawson and Brierly were immediately forth-coming on the unscientific nature of the project. They also acknowledged the concerns of many Christians who felt that the experiment was too open to interpretation, perhaps even in violation of the command to not put the lord to the test. So, long before things began, it was made abundantly clear that, whatever the results, no conclusion can be rationally drawn from the study about whether or not god exists. One might wonder then, as I have, what the point of the atheist prayer experiment actually was.

To hear Mawson and Brierly pontificate over the whole thing, you'll find out that the point was something as vague as appreciating the other side, opening up minds, etc. That's all well and good, but I can't shake the suspicion that there's more to it than that. How many times have you heard a Christian tell a non-believer that if they'd only humbly go before god and ask him to reveal himself, then he would? In the second episode of the show covering the experiment, Brierly reads a remark from someone who expresses much the same attitude: 'God will give an answer. It may take days, months, or even years, but he will answer.' In fact, Justin goes so far as to quote Matthew 7:7 in defending the experiment against accusation that it's testing god: "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you."

When I was a believer, I shared this conviction that god would always answer the sincere seeker. To many people, prayer is not the Magic 8 Ball which some atheists characterize it as, but it's a direct, reliable, and consistent means of communicating with the wise and all-powerful creator of all things. It would be unthinkable that god should ignore or refuse any honest heart that wants to know him. If someone persists in disbelief, it must be that they were either insincere or god is just taking his time to reach out to them. You can find a diverse mish-mash of this on a thread about the experiment on the Orthodox Christianity forum [link]. To these believers, prayer - when it's done out of humility and sincerity - is absolutely 100% foolproof. Let me say that again. Absolutely 100% foolproof.

So when Mawson and Brierly comment on the value of the atheist prayer experiment, I can't help but think that they have cards they're not showing. No, the study was not intended to prove the existence of god, but more atheists using the foolproof prayer method means more souls stand the chance of being won for god. It also means more of an opportunity to talk to atheists about the 'proper' way to pray, how god responds to prayer, and so on. The atheist prayer experiment is just another evangelism tactic, under the clever guise of an impartial study. It's no secret that atheists are big on science, and what says science more than "experiment"? I have to wonder why they picked a name that sounds so scientific, instead of a more general one (which would be more accurate, as they admit), like the Atheist Prayer Challenge, Ask an Atheist to Pray, or Pray the A Away!

Mawson's paper isn't any better. He uses the analogy of being in a dark room where multiple people have told you they previously met someone (we'll call him Tom) and spoke to him, yet you have so far not met this person. Wouldn't it be prudent of you to call out for this Tom, rather than to assume he doesn't really exist? 

Well, there are all kinds of problems with this analogy. I've known very few Christians who claim to have heard an audible voice. To make the analogy more fitting, then, say that these other people mention that Tom communicates via telepathy, and that's how they know he exists. However, simply meditating and trying to reach him telepathically won't work unless you approach him like a student approaches a teacher. If you're not to Tom's liking, he won't say hi, so be sure you're humble when you try to contact him... and cross your fingers too, just in case he doesn't see your humility the way you do. But don't expect an immediate response either, even if you are the pinnacle of humility. Tom's a very busy man and knows what's best for you - although you two have never officially met - so he will greet you all in good time. Suddenly it starts to become more prudent to question these Tom-ites than to try your own luck at telepathically reaching their strange and fictional sounding friend.

I would also disagree with Mawson's contention that atheists are "not in possession of a plausible argument for scepticism... about uttering such prayers in their own cases." The notion that we have to experience something ourselves in order to justifiably hold a contrary position is demonstrably false. Each year, the legal system rightly convicts countless criminals on the basis of DNA, phone records, video recordings, testimony, and other kinds of evidence, while the judge and jury have no personal experience of the crime at all. It seems to me that Mawson carelessly swipes away centuries-worth of arguments both for and against the existence of god, all so that he can prioritize one of the arguments for god that is extremely subjective. We can't look at the evidence neutrally - you have to come onto our turf and do it our way. 

Why stop at prayer, though? Why not just say that atheists are obligated to accept the holy spirit into their lives, since it's the only way to truly experience god, according to many Christians? It's doubtful as many atheists would have responded to that sort of challenge, and thus the evangelizing purpose would be lost. But prayer is 'harmless' and it doesn't require any commitment. As Mawson says several times, praying and not experiencing god can be used as evidence against god for atheists, so you've got nothing to lose! Rings a little familiar to Pascal's Wager, doesn't it? Of course, Mawson doesn't think getting no answer is actually an argument against his god, so it seems his aim is really about recruitment, not making any real significant point.

Finally, let's talk about the results. In the two episodes of Unbelievable that discuss the experiment, Kendra and Kelly - the converts - are contrasted with several atheists who have remained unbelievers, despite some of them having odd and interesting experiences. What you hear from each group says a lot. Kendra came to the conclusion that belief in god is more satisfying to her life than disbelief. It seems to have had little to do with prayer, which prompted some listeners to suggest that she be disqualified. Kelly, on the other hand, pregnant with her first child, prayed to god and one day witnessed a rainbow that she interpreted as a sign. She describes her former disbelief as stemming from the fact that she didn't feel she was being answered when she would pray before. The atheists who remain unconvinced offered possible alternative explanations to their experiences and reflected on their interactions with believers.

Yet another issue I have with this 'experiment' is that it misses the ultimate point atheists always try to drive home. It's not about atheism versus religion. It's not even about doubting god versus faith in god. For many atheists, their opinion on god and religion is the result of critical thinking and skepticism, which, judging from the interviews, it doesn't appear that Kendra or Kelly have much of, to be frank. I have never denied that some atheists do convert, and I don't think any atheist has denied that fact. But I am a skeptic first and an atheist second. My conclusion is not from a bad experience with Christians, or from feeling ignored when I would pray; it comes from years of study and thought, as sounds to be the case with many of those in the experiment whose views have not changed. Now, I don't deny that some intelligent atheists have become believers, but I think one has to already be in a fairly receptive and uncritical state of mind to convert after a mere 40 days (or less) of on-again-off-again prayer.

In sum, the atheist prayer experiment was a resounding success at being the only thing it was ever truly going to be: another slick marketing tool for the Christian faith.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: End of Days

Deathspell Omega
Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice (2004)
When I was a Christian, there were certain records and certain bands that seemed "possessed" to me, as if the sacred or profane were speaking through the musicians. Of course, I no longer believe in the supernatural, but I do think there are some artists who may occasionally tap into human experience and emotions in ways that surpass most other creative endeavors. Many of the albums I've discussed do not actually approve of the gimmicks they sell. Nick Cave does not encourage murder, Slayer doesn't really worship Satan, and Black Sabbath probably don't endorse the occult. Deathspell Omega is an entirely different matter.

Despite their somewhat comical name, the band is very serious about its music. So serious, in fact, that its members have chosen to remain anonymous in the hopes of putting the focus on the music rather than the musicians. What is known about them, and what is widely confessed in their lyrics and imagery, is that they are Satanists. No, not like Slayer; not even like Anton LaVey and other so-called satanists who are basically atheists under another name. The members of Deathspell Omega are theistic Satanists, meaning that they do believe in a "being" called Satan. But this is not the same Satan envisioned in Protestant Christianity, and it may not even be accurate to call it a "being." From what I've gathered out of lyrics and interviews, the Satanism of Deathspell Omega is an interesting blend of gnostic, hermetic, Abrahamic, Qabalistic, and various occult beliefs. They regard Yahweh/Jesus as the demiurge - a misguided, or harmful, and deluded being that created this universe - while Satan is seen as the figurehead among 11 deities that are all manifestations of the true god, who rules the realm of Chaos, into which our universe will some day be subsumed.

Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice is Latin that translates to: "If you seek His monument, look around you." Latin is used several times throughout the album, not only in song titles, but in lyrics as well. The first track is one of three prayers that serve as introductions and interludes. These prayers are predominantly instrumental, though a couple feature ominous chanting. "First Prayer" is accompanied by a picture in the CD insert of a horrendously emaciated man, arms outstretched, as the invocation is delivered:

Lungs filled with embers and regurgitating boiling blood
I say Praise the Lord, praise, O servants of the Lord...
We will sing a new song to thee, O God:
A psaltery of thirteen Stations,
May scoria bury Eden and blind the light of hope...

With the first actual song, "Sola Fide," (faith alone) we enter into the morbid chasm of a new breed of black metal. Here, minimalism is no concern, and so the music walks a fairly progressive line for the genre, while the production is a slightly murky one that manages both to suit the darkly abrasive style of music and to be clear enough to be audible and enjoyable. The compositions feature blistering blast-beats as well as mid-tempo hooks, dissonant doom rhythms, and slow, demented sounding melodies. Ambient effects and even choral arrangements are worked in at a few points too, as Deathspell Omega defies genre expectations in pursuit of their message.

Speaking of that, if you're interested to try and decipher the message of Si Monumentum, be sure to have a philosophy dictionary and a theology textbook ready. Many of the lyrics will appear confusing and obscure to those who aren't familiar with the beliefs I mention above, but if one thing is certain, it would be that the album is dead sincere in its blasphemy and its praise of evil. "Blessed is he that taketh rewarde to slea the soule of innocent bloude," the third prayer says. "Blessed is he that murders Christ in himself and in his fellow men."

A review of this brevity can't do justice to this record. It flirts with insanity, depravity, and every dark, disgusting, and depressing thing. Undoubtedly, Si Monumentum is best experienced as a whole; if you listen to it, make sure you hear it in its entirety the first time. This is the first installment of the band's trilogy relating to god, Satan, and man's relationship with the two. The follow-up, Fas, descends rapidly into chaotic madness unlike anything most of us have heard, and the final part of the trilogy, Paracletus, reaches a staggering resolution between the two previous works.

For their intelligent lyrics, unique and unholy music, and uncompromising devotion to their art, I have to consider Deathspell Omega among my top three favorite bands. If there is one record ripe for any wicked occasion, for me it's Si Monumentum. The darkness of it may be a bit much for some, but those who are open to an unforgiving musical experience crafted in the furthest void of Chaos might find a lot to enjoy here.

Monday, October 29, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 12

Robert Johnson
King of the Delta Blues Singers (1961)
You've probably heard the story of the aspiring musician who, desperate to become a legend, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for unnatural talent. This long perpetuated rumor goes back most famously to Robert Johnson, a guitarist and singer who recorded between the years of 1936 and 1938. According to the tale, from a young age Johnson had a strong desire to become an accomplished blues musician. One night as he was traveling, he met a large black man at the cross roads of Highway 61 and U.S. 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Yet this man was no mere mortal, but was actually Lucifer himself in human form. Robert made a deal with the devil to master the guitar in exchange for his soul. The man took the instrument from him, tuned it, played on it, and returned it to him, before (presumably) vanishing into the shadows, disappearing in a cloud of smoke, or descending below the road in a burst of flames.

There has been much speculation to how this legend originated, but Mr. Johnson certainly didn't make any effort to stem the tide of rumors. His song "Cross Road Blues" gives a nod to the story, as does "Me and the Devil Blues." His unsolved death at the age of 27 may have played a role in fomenting suspicion, not to mention that he allegedly had a habit of practicing in a graveyard to find quiet. In fact, very little is known of Johnson's life in general. Accounts differ on the year of his birth, his gravesite remains unknown, and the only documentation relating to him seems to be two recording sessions in Texas in '36 and '37, as well as a death certificate found thirty years later in 1968. Additionally, take a look at the photo in the video below. It's one of two known photographs of Johnson... and what is that up and to the right of his guitar... is that a face? The man from the cross roads, showing his approval?

Why has this made it onto a list of wicked albums? Though you probably wouldn't get the impression from most artists in the genre today, the blues was once considered the devil's music. Before the antics of Elvis Presley, before the lyrics of Led Zeppelin, the sad and depressing moan of the blues not only pushed the boundaries musically, but it caught the attention of women too. To capture the fancy of the ladies through skillful playing suggested you were too skilled, that you must have been granted some special power others didn't have. And whose job description includes stirring up lust in the hearts of young girls? On King of the Delta Blues Singers, Robert Johnson sings primarily about two things: women and the devil. If you have a hard time believing there's wickedness in blues, take some of the lyrics from "Me and the Devil Blues" as an example.

Early this mornin'
When you knocked upon my door
And I said, "Hello, Satan,
I believe it's time to go."

Me and the Devil
Was walkin' side by side
And I'm goin' to beat my woman
Till I get satisfied

You may bury my body
Down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit
Can catch a Greyhound bus and ride

Granted, this may not be wickedness on par with Darkthrone or King Diamond, but I'd say walking alongside Satan, beating your woman, and being buried near the site where you supposedly made your pact with the Prince of Darkness qualifies as being pretty wicked. Other tracks like "Hellhound On My Trail," "32-20 Blues," and "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" deal with similar themes. The guitar work is a little sad sounding, but is made increasingly dreary by the dated quality of the audio and the worn-out feel of the guitar itself. The hardships of the Depression can definitely be heard, and along with the chains of racial oppression and the difficulties of life in general, Johnson delivers harrowing guitar melodies accompanied by a chillingly beautiful yet sorrowful voice. To call his performances "ghostly" in this digital age might be an understatement.

The reasons I find this album enjoyable and haunting are almost the same reasons I find Darkthrone and many other black metal bands enjoyable and haunting. They use a deceptively simple production to achieve a vast atmosphere that captures the imagination. The music is minimalist, though full of sadness, pain, anger, and darkness. The lyrics speak from the heart, even when that heart expresses itself in blasphemous and unconventional ways regarded as ugly or forbidden by many. King of the Delta Blues is likely not the blues you're used to, much as modern black metal is a phantom of what it used to be - now sanitized, commercialized, and adapted for a different audience. The beauty of these kinds of records is that they're brutally honest in laying bare all they've got, almost like a deathbed confession. In Johnson's case, some of these tracks actually were recorded shortly before his death. If you can handle a different kind of darkness, this album - which has influenced so many since its release - could make for quite a surreal Halloween.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 11

A Blaze in the Northern Sky (1992)
If I were less concerned with being fair and providing some variety, I could easily fill this list of thirteen evil albums with nothing but black metal releases. What could possibly be more wicked than a whole genre founded around the Dark One himself? The early black metal recordings have rawness, aggression, and dissonance to them that feels utterly primal and profane. Though the first hints of it emerged in the 1980s with the English band Venom and the Danish band Mercyful Fate, the genre really took off in Norway in the 1990s with outfits like Mayhem, Burzum, Emperor, Immortal, and Darkthrone. The last of these, Darkthrone, became a legend in their own right for consecutively putting out three of the most highly-regarded contributions to the black metal scene.

A Blaze in the Northern Sky represents a turning point in the band's career, as well as a melding of old and new music. Prior to this album, Darkthrone actually played death metal for their debut, Soulside Journey. For their sophomore effort, they decided to throw the label a curve ball that came in the form of a wall of fuzzy distorted guitars, roughly mixed and overpowering drums, and hoarse, distant screams - not to mention songwriting far more minimalistic than anything off the debut. Even so, the material does constitute somewhat of a 'bridge' between the old death metal style of the band and their newer style, which would be refined into a purer form for the two follow-up albums, Under a Funeral Moon and Transilvanian Hunger. Many of the riffs are heavy death metal chords 'translated' to the new style. According to Fenriz, the band's drummer, this decision was not received well by the label, but A Blaze has turned out to be one of the iconic releases in black metal.

One reason why I love this album as much as I do is because it took a lot of inspiration from Bathory and Celtic Frost, but used it in such a way to create something darker, bleaker, more intense, and more evil. Bathory and Celtic Frost were two of the godfathers of the black and death metal genres, each with very distinct styles and infectious melodies. A Blaze is like the unholy offspring of these bands. It opens with a deep, ominous ambient soundscape, where single tom hits on the drums echo every few seconds, before more eerie noises and sinister chanting begin, and a tortured voice leads up to the sudden explosion of a pounding black metal pulse, as if some wretched monstrosity was summoned up from the pit of Hell. The intro, aided by the cover, provides the mental picture of a cult of robed figures chanting infernal words in a circle around an altar in the middle of the woods, as the wind and some unseen malignant forces hum softly at first, before building up to a frightening bellow.

Dramatic? You bet your ass, and that's part of what makes it so great. In fact, the entire record sounds like the band took some battery-powered equipment out to a clearing in the forest and musically unleashed the demons in the dark of night. The reverb and lo-fi production give it that sound of a tortured soul crying out from somewhere deep in the darkness. And as one might expect, the lyrics are all about the occult and Satan, indicated by such tracks as "In the Shadow of the Horns" and "The Pagan Winter." Darkthrone lives up to their name, producing albums that consistently sound cold, dark, and abrasive. While their black metal style is arguably perfected on the two follow-ups to this record, A Blaze in the Northern Sky establishes a gritty, malevolent atmosphere that they don't quite succeed as much in capturing, I feel.

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 10

Epicus Doomicus Metallicus (1986)
When we're talking about metal, everything goes back to Black Sabbath. Power metal, thrash metal, death metal, black metal - whatever the subgenre, it owes its existence to the heavy, dark, and occasionally aggressive style basically pioneered by Ozzy, Tony, Geezer, and Bill. Yet if there is one genre that has really taken the most influence from the Sabbath sound, it would have to be doom metal. Doom rests on slow, often ominous riffs characteristic of such Sabbath songs as "Electric Funeral," "Into the Void," and, of course, "Black Sabbath."

After Ozzy and company paved the way, bands like Pentagram and Witchfinder General carried on the genre, but doom would not be refined much until Candlemass' 1986 debut. The album title, Epicus Doomicus Metallicus, gave the name to the new subgenre of epic doom metal. This is a take on the dark and heavy formula that revolves around long songs, operatic and choral vocals, and bears a fair amount of inspiration from classical music. The bluesy, rock 'n' roll side to some of the early doom bands, particularly Sabbath, is more or less absent from Epicus, where the atmosphere is purely one of sorrow, mystique, and evil. The opening line of the first track, "Solitude," says it all: I'm sitting here alone in darkness, waiting to be free...

From this debut, Candlemass created an impressively unique and powerful style for themselves, much as Sabbath did with their own debut back in 1970. Bassist Leif Edling is the mastermind to a lot of the band's music, but Mats Ekstrom re-imagines drumming in the doom genre by incorporating double bass kicks (very scarcely used before then), and guitarist Mats Bjorkman lays down some amazing guitar harmonies and crushing riffs. Interestingly, though, some of the other unique aspects of the album seem to have come about more out of luck. The vocalist on the record, Johan Langquist, is a classically trained singer who was hired for the session and did not return for subsequent Candlemass albums. On Epicus, he delivers haunting baritone vocals in an operatic style that became a major component of the epic doom genre. Guest guitarist Klas Bergwall also contributes leads that have a bit of a classical touch to them, further adding to the somber, antiquated feel of the music.

Lyrically, the debut deals almost entirely with fantasy and mythology, particularly the supernatural and occult. Wizards and sorcerers, fortune-tellers and demons, Epicus tells story after story in dramatic fashion, which certainly makes for great Halloween material. One could argue whether or not that qualifies it for being wicked, but once you listen to the indescribably epic and sinister "Demons Gate," you'll find that it alone earns this album a place of recognition. You won't find any odes to Satan on Candlemass' debut, yet you will find music that embraces darkness and doom in a different way. Candlemass is another one of my favorite bands, and Epicus is a masterpiece, in my opinion, so give it a try if you're looking for the mystical, elegant, and elaborate kind of wickedness while celebrating All Hallow's Eve.

Friday, October 26, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 9

Black Metal (1982)
Do you believe in god?
He's chained up like a dog
And every hour he screams,
"Satan rules supreme!"

Before there was Slayer, Possessed, Mayhem, or any of the other 'devil-worshiping' bands that forged their own infernal genres, there was Venom. In 1981 they burst onto the scene with Welcome to Hell, an album full of raucous music with the most blasphemous, Satanic lyrics the world had yet to see. The follow-up record, Black Metal, amped up the darkness and irreverence and has become a classic in extreme metal, inspiring countless musicians since its release, and even being inducted into Robert Dimery's list of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

I would have to classify Black Metal as one of those albums that's so shamelessly bad that it's good. The songs are raw and simplistic, the musicianship is sloppy, and the lyrics are so ridiculously over-the-top with the Satanism gimmick that it almost comes across as a parody of itself. Mantas uses his guitar more as a weapon than an instrument as he fires off noisy and imprecise riffs through a murky, reverb-coated tone. Cronos belts out the vocals with an unmistakable, acidic, and gravelly voice, while hammering away on his distorted bass as if it's another guitar. Abaddon haphazardly assaults his drums like he's trying to bash in the skull of an angel. Furthermore, despite the album name, Venom plays music that's more like speed metal or NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal). With the typical lo-fi production of black metal, plus the blistering aggression of the songs, flaws are easily overlooked. But imagine a slightly out of tune, occasionally off time rendition of Judas Priest, cranked up in speed and featuring a vocalist who doesn't really sing as much as he yells... and then you'll begin to get the picture.

If Venom had taken themselves seriously, this album probably would have been little more than a laughable footnote in history. What makes this work is the fact that the band is clearly quite aware of how they sound, and it seems to have been their intention all along to do something shocking, controversial, and downright ugly in so many senses of the word. How else would the devil's music sound, anyway? The strength of Black Metal is its confidently defiant attitude. The energy and atmosphere don't make it easy to ignore the flaws, but actually make you appreciate the flaws. The unrestrained intensity of the music practically guarantees that flubs will be part of the process. Those who say chaos is beautiful do not mean that it's orderly or perfect. Rather, to borrow the common phrase, it's only perfect in its imperfection.

The songs on Black Metal are infectious, great for headbanging, and absurdly fun. The best known track is the fantastically catchy "Countess Bathory," written about the Hungarian noblewoman who was rumored to have tortured and murdered young girls, bathing in their blood to preserve her beauty (the 'bloody countess' has been the subject of many metal songs and albums over the years). "Buried Alive" is like a lumbering zombie, quietly awakening at first, breaking out of the grave, and plodding along into the next song, "Raise the Dead," which is an upbeat ode to necromancy. As one might expect, "Sacrifice" details a story of virgin sacrifice to the dark lord, and "Don't Burn the Witch" is about... well, sparing witches from persecution. By far the oddest track is "Teacher's Pet" - a nice and vulgar little fantasy that makes Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" seem like gospel music.

I must confess: Venom is one of my favorite bands and Black Metal is one of my favorite albums. I can't pretend to be unbiased, and perhaps my background has influenced my strange love for defiantly blasphemous things, but since this is a list of the most wicked horror-themed albums, I think the bias is no impediment. Black Metal will get your blood pumping, your head banging, your hand raising the horns, and your Christian friends and family will be screaming and convulsing on the floor as the mighty power of His Satanic Majesty overcomes them. Well, ok, maybe not that last bit, but if you're looking for evil and darkness for Halloween, you can't go wrong with this classic metal album.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 8

Seven Churches (1985)
Would you believe that before joining Primus, guitarist Larry Lalonde played in a death metal band? Well, not just any death metal band, but the death metal band that practically started the genre. Although today their music may sound more akin to thrash, Possessed are widely regarded as the innovators of death metal for a few reasons, not the least of which is the fact that their debut album concludes with the aptly titled track "Death Metal." There is still some argument over whether Possessed or Death actually made the first death metal record, but for me the answer is clear. Many of the gods of the genre, from Morbid Angel and Cannibal Corpse to Deicide and even Death, have hailed Possessed as a major influence.

This review is not about debating the genre of the band, however, and were we to concede that it is thrash, it's still very different from most of the other thrash albums of the 80s. Larry Lalonde and Mike Torrao create a chaotic churning maelstrom of madness with their guitars while Mike Sus pounds away relentlessly on his kit and Jeff Becerra roars into the microphone with a ferocity more demonic than Tom Araya at his prime. The raw production also plays a role in the unique feel of the album, particularly how everything is soaked in reverb, sounding like malignant spirits crying out from beyond the grave.

Seven Churches begins with the haunting theme from The Exorcist, right before appropriately launching into an unyielding onslaught of audio terror. The first time I heard the opening track, it almost felt painful to my ears. Possessed couldn't have picked a better name, playing very dissonant, tremulous, and noisy riffs through that reverb-overkill production job in a manner that grates on your nerves and confuses your mind. Unlike much of modern death metal, Possessed also doesn't stay on the lower end of the strings, but freely moves about from pummeling chord attacks to screeching strangulation of the higher notes, like some sort of apparition gliding frightfully through the night air.

Lyrically, the band was clearly competing with Venom and Slayer to write the most evil Satanic songs they could come up with. Practically every track dishes out the devil and hell, not in a very creative way, but like blunt force trauma to the head. Lines such as "Pounding death from my hands / Spreading Satan through the lands" and "God is slaughtered, drink his blood" are characteristic of Seven Churches. Here you get the best of both worlds: shameless blasphemy and Satanic pride. Combined with the equally irreverent music, what you will hear on this record is wicked indeed (as if the inverted cross and demon tail on the cover don't give it away). By no means would I recommend this for everyone, but if you're curious about the origins of death metal, or you're willing to try something a bit crazy, you may just someday find yourself congregating at the Seven Churches.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 7

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Murder Ballads (1996)
On the last review, I noted that I have a personal preference for the "malevolently supernatural" in the horror genre. It may seem strange then that among this list of wicked albums I have Murder Ballads, a record that doesn't deal in the occult, the Satanic, or anything of the sort, but rather revolves exclusively around the all-too-human act of murder. The cover art brings to mind Stephen King's Misery, which toys with the balance between our fear of isolation and our fear of other people, and this is also a recurring theme throughout the album. We are social animals, some of us desperate to avoid loneliness, and others who manipulate this desire to destructive ends. In Murder Ballads, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds give us a reflection of the inhumanity in humanity.

For me, a great amount of the appeal to this album comes from its interplay of dark and light, yin and yang. There are tracks like "Song of Joy" and "The Kindness of Strangers," which inundate the listener with a somber and sorrowful mood. Then there are tracks like "The Curse of Millhaven" and "O'Malley's Bar" that turn up the tempo to a fun, playful beat. Lyrically, there are songs that tip-toe through subtle implications designed to let the imagination wander, such as "Lovely Creature." On the other hand, there are songs that are unapologetic in their dark and direct storytelling, like the already mentioned (and ironically named) "Song of Joy." Stylistically, the killings come in a wide variety, from blues and rock 'n' roll to slow dance ballads and jazzy country. Nick Cave has quite a range to his voice, but usually sticks with a deep and smooth baritone. Often times it's the bizarre combination of vibrant music with dismal lyrics and vocals that makes for the creepiest experiences on the album.

To touch briefly on the stories told in the songs, they take a variety of forms too. "Where the Wild Roses Grow" - probably the best known track off the album - tells the tale of a man who seduces and murders a woman, leaving her among the roses. "Henry Lee" is about a woman who kills a man out of jealousy and/or because he spurns her advances. "Song of Joy" presents the murder of a man's family as told through a recounting of the details to a bartender (it may be implied that the father was the murderer). "O'Malley's Bar" is a 14-minute description of how a disgruntled townsperson goes on a killing spree in a bar. Thus, rather than continually heaping depression upon the listener, Nick Cave and co. at least try to keep things entertaining by throwing in variations on their central theme.

Murder Ballads does conclude on a more positive note, too, with a cover of Bob Dylan's "Death is Not the End." I can't recommend this album for everyone, especially not for those who might be bothered by some fairly graphic murder stories, but it is one wicked record that may appeal to horror fans who prefer less heavy and aggressive genres, as well as those who like to vary things up from time to time or are generally open to diverse styles of music. The overall atmosphere is beautiful and yet brooding, like storm clouds brewing over a blood red sunset. An integral part to a lot of horror is that ray of light that allows for the slimmest glimmer of hope. The darkness may be strong, but the winter will pass, as it always does, and the harvest time will come again.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 6

Hell Awaits (1985)
Like Black Sabbath, Slayer is a band that probably needs no introduction. Well known for their style of speedy thrash metal, wild chromatic guitar solos, the tortured yell of vocalist Tom Araya, and their over-the-top Satanic and anti-religious lyrics, Slayer cemented themselves as one of the preeminent bands of the genre with 1986's Reign in Blood. However, for me personally, Hell Awaits has to take the cake not just as their wickedest record, but arguably their best effort overall too. But before any rabid Slayer fans want to throw down with me in the pit, allow me to explain.

There's no arguing that the first five or six releases (including the spectacular Haunting the Chapel EP) are some of the finest thrash albums, as well as the best moments of Slayer's catalog. In my opinion, though, what sets apart Hell Awaits from Reign in Blood is the raw ferocity in the production, songs, and even the lyrics, to an extent. The album begins with feedback, the slow beating of drums, and a backwards message that says "join us." If that isn't a creepy enough intro, the march-like progression of the opening riff will draw you a nice picture of thousands of souls filing one by one into the dark depths below. Following the titletrack, we have other standout songs of uncanny evil, such as "Kill Again," "At Dawn They Sleep," and the vile and disturbing "Necrophiliac."

Slayer's early material is marked by a fascination with the occult and the shock value Satanism gimmick, and this already started to fade by Reign in Blood, where we see tracks focused more around death, insanity, and religious mockery. It's good for bands to mature and not fall into the same tired old monotony as so many others (I'm looking at you, Deicide), but when I want to get the Halloween spirit, I go for the malevolently supernatural. It may seem strange, being that I'm an atheist, yet when you look at the success of otherworldly horror stories/films against the purely naturalistic ones... it doesn't take a genius to know that horror can't all be based in verifiable reality, or else it loses its appeal, becomes predictable, and so forth. I also happen to like some mythos and mystery with my horror.

Hell Awaits feels like something channeled from the bowels of Lucifer's domain: it's rough, uncompromising, aggressive, sadistic, and sinister. It's the dark descent into Hades after Show No Mercy, and prior to the ascent into fame and glory that is Reign in Blood. The guitar work on the album is moderately progressive for Slayer, with loads of riffs, hooks, and moments of creativity that shine through in some of the longest songs in their repertoire. Alongside South of Heaven, this is one of the more innovative points in their career, making for music that isn't just fast and chaotic, but can be cryptic and enchanting at the same time. After the brief 37 minutes of Hell, you won't want to leave.

Monday, October 22, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 5

Iced Earth
Horror Show (2001)
No other album says Halloween to me like Horror Show by the heavy metal band Iced Earth. Many artists have adapted popular tales of terror to musical form, especially when it comes to the famous Universal Studios monsters. In my opinion, though, few have had the success Iced Earth displays on this album. Not only does it cover the gamut from Dracula and Frankenstein to the Omen trilogy and the Phantom of the Opera, but the songs are packed with an impressive mix of brutality, suspense, epic-ness, and evil that one would expect from such a collection.

For those who may be unaware of Iced Earth, you might say that their style is a slightly modernized take on Iron Maiden and Metallica. There is the thrashy, aggressive side of Metallica that makes it into many of their songs (such as "Jekyll & Hyde" and "Dracula" on this record), but also the melodic and climactic power of Maiden that often comes out in longer tracks (i.e. "Damien" and "The Phantom Opera Ghost"). Memorable Maiden-like guitar harmonies are also a staple of Iced Earth's music. The vocalist, Matt Barlow, is versatile enough to change from a gruff yell to an operatic wail and even a Halford-esque, high-pitched scream. The track "Dracula" is a shining example of how he pulls it all off in a beautiful yet demonic-sounding way.

I get the strong impression that Horror Show was a labor of love for guitarist Jon Schaffer, and possibly for the other members too. Iced Earth evolved out of Shaffer's earlier band Purgatory, which had put out three demos, among which was one actually titled "Horror Show." This 1986 demo included songs about Dracula, Jack the Ripper, and Jason Vorhees, and although there's probably no real resemblance to the later release under the same name, it's cool to note that Schaffer has had such a long-lasting interest in the horror classics - an interest which definitely comes out to much acclaim on Iced Earth's Horror Show

The lyrics especially are fantastic, not the silly or generic kind some bands have written on characters like Jack or Count Dracula, but the kind that seethe with mythology, darkness, and mystery. A number of tracks take lines and choruses straight from the old movies. "Damien" incorporates the little poem from the first Omen film, as well as Sam Neil's blood-curdling soliloquy in the third film:

Nazarene, what can you offer?
Since the hour you vomited forth from the gaping womb of a woman
You have done nothing but drown men's soaring desires
In a delusion of sick sanctimonious morality
I was conceived of a jackal
Your pain on the cross was but a splinter compared to the agony of my father
I will drive deeper the thorns into your rancid carcass
You profaner of Isis
Cursed Nazarene
I will avenge thy torment

If that isn't wicked, then nothing is! However, my personal favorite on the album may have to be "The Phantom Opera Ghost," where guest vocalist Yunhui Percifield sings in the role of Christine alongside Barlow's phantom. The two create a chilling contrast of beauty and beast, victim and madman, and the addition of an ethereal organ keyboard effect and some powerful transitions between electric and acoustic help to make this an outstanding finish to an incredible album. I could go on and on about this record, touching on the phenomenal drumming of Richard Christy, the bass lines by renowned bassist Steve DiGiorgio, or the awesome artwork on the CD insert, but I'll save that for you to discover yourself. Horror Show is one wicked album I would recommend to any fan of rock and metal. You won't see much else on this list that comes from the 21st century, and perhaps that's because this is just that good.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 4

III: November-Coming-Fire (1986)
Two years ago I had the pleasure of seeing Danzig live on the day before Halloween, along with some other great bands like Marduk, Toxic Holocaust, and Possessed. It was easily one of the most unforgettable concert experiences I've had. However, choosing a favorite album out of Glenn Danzig's career for a list like this is not so easy a task. He's best known for being the frontman of the Misfits, the legendary punk band of the early 80s that established the "horror punk" subgenre. After leaving the Misfits, he started up Samhain, which integrated more elements of rock and gothic music. By 1987 Samhain evolved into a new band simply called Danzig, dropping most of the punk influence for a bluesy rock and metal style inspired by Black Sabbath.

I would have to say that Danzig is my favorite project in Glenn's career, although I enjoy the others too. But for this list, the album has to be something sinister, lyrically and musically. The Misfits took a good deal of their material from cult sci-fi and horror films of the 50s and 60s, and yet their music has an upbeat, almost happy thrust to it, like a lot of the early punk bands. Danzig, on the other hand, probably has some of the darkest songwriting, and some of the evilest lyrics, but occasionally we're thrown a love ballad or one of several songs about gettin' down and dirty. Samhain is kind of a cross between the styles of the Misfits and Danzig, with lyrics that border more on the occult than the fun, horror movie influence of his earlier work. The name Samhain comes from the ancient Celtic New Year celebration that served as part of the origin of Halloween.

So why pick III: November-Coming-Fire? This record has an ominous touch to it that many of Danzig's other records don't have, I would argue. It may be the goth elements, such as the reverb-drenched production, the chorus-laden guitars, and the eerie ambient keyboard effects. Add to that the Presley meets Jim Morrison style of Danzig's singing and you get music that winds up sounding not just wicked, but oddly creepy and tense too. "To Walk the Night" and "Halloween II" bring this out the most, and then there are also hard-hitting guitar-driven tunes like "Mother of Mercy" and "Let the Day Begin." Unfortunately, though, the album ends with the bluntly sexual lyrics of "Human Pony Girl," which is definitely the record's low point. Otherwise, III has a great haunting atmosphere that is fairly unique and seems to have vanished all too quickly from Danzig's music.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 3

De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (1994)
When it comes to evil music, the black metal genre is impossible to ignore. Though today it has been heavily commercialized and reduced to just another gimmick for many bands, it caused a firestorm of controversy in the early '90s, not only for the overtly blasphemous and Satanic lyrics, but for its association with several church burnings, a few murders, and cases of suicide. Mayhem, one of the Norwegian innovators of the genre, is perhaps as well known for their music as they are for the dark and tragic events surrounding their history.

De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is the first full-length by the band, coming years after their 1987 debut EP, Deathcrush. The album title is Latin that is meant to translate to "Lord Satan's Secret Rites," although the phrase is reportedly somewhat ambiguous. Writing for the record actually began shortly after 1987, but the final release had to be delayed for multiple reasons. In 1991, Mayhem's original vocalist, Dead, slit his wrists and throat and shot himself in the head with a shotgun. Euronymous, the band's guitarist, found the body and took several photographs (one that made it onto an infamous live bootleg) before fashioning necklaces out of bits of the skull, which he gave to other musicians in the black metal scene. This act provoked the departure of Necrobutcher, the band's original bassist, who was replaced by Varg Vikernes, from the one-man band Burzum. Two years later, Vikernes - previously convicted of three church burnings in Norway - murdered Euronymous, allegedly over musical differences. The drummer, Hellhammer, and Necrobutcher worked to finish up the rest of De Mysteriis in tribute to their friend, releasing it at last in 1994.

The story of these events (and similar cases in the early black metal scene) is related more in-depth in the book Lords of Chaos, suffice it to say that it has become a notorious legend in the history of 'the devil's music.' Were that not enough to qualify this as a heinously wicked album, the music itself stands quite well on its own too. From the frantic tremolo-picked, blast-drumming frenzy of "Funeral Fog" to the simple headbanging groove of "Pagan Fears" and the slow icy crawl of "Freezing Moon," the songwriting on this album is infectious and evil-sounding indeed. It may be worth listening to just to hear the mad precision and technique behind Hellhammer's drumming, often held up as some of the best in the genre. I can't be sure if Euronymous either captured the spirit of Norwegian black metal guitar playing or if he actually did his part to establish it, but whatever the reality is, his work on De Mysteriis is certainly noteworthy as well.

Most of the lyrics are written by the former vocalist, Dead, and Euronymous, but are performed by Attila Csihar on the record. They deal with death, darkness, the occult, and, of course, Satanism. One of the biggest complaints listeners make against De Mysteriis is Attila's vocals. To be honest, they get on my nerves at times too, but I don't feel that it's the end of the world. Sometimes he can do a good growl or a great scream... other times he sounds more like Gollum. He does bring something unique to the album, though, even if it's not for everyone. On a side note, there are live versions of several of these songs that feature Dead on vocals, such as those on the Live in Leipzig release, recorded in 1990.

De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is often cited as one of the most influential black metal albums of all time, and whether you love it or despise it, there's really no doubting its impact. Among the black metal genre, Mayhem covers are practically as commonplace as Bob Dylan covers are among the rock genre. Some people like their horror to be more about the story and build up than the really dark and disturbing stuff. But some of us can't get the same enjoyment out of the mundane, and some of us like variety too. This is one album I can't recommend for everyone, but if you're intrigued by what you've read here, then give it a try. I'm not much of a fan of Mayhem's other material, yet I regularly bust out De Mysteriis when October rolls around.

Friday, October 19, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 2

Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath (1970)

Black Sabbath is a band that needs no introduction, and no list of the best evil-sounding albums would be complete without them. The name comes from a 1960s Italian horror film starring Boris Karloff, which has become a classic in its own right. In their time, Black Sabbath was considered one of the darkest rock bands around, due to their lyrics and musical style that sparked rumors of Satanic influence. Today they have inspired countless new artists, spanning genres from rock and metal to punk and industrial. They might rightfully be called the godfathers of all dark, heavy, and aggressive music.

I wrestled with deciding which of their albums to include on this list, eventually settling on the debut for a number of reasons. Firstly, their namesake song, "Black Sabbath" is not only one of the most diabolical and memorable tunes ever written, but it's a hell of a way to begin a record. The sounds of thunder, rain, and the tolling of a distant bell bring us into a calm yet dreary atmosphere, just to be shattered seconds later by the sudden explosive detonation of the first chord, as if a portal to the underworld were violently forced open. Then we hear the other notes that follow, forming an interval known as a tritone. The dissonant and sinister sound of a tritone provoked religious composers and church officials to forbid its use for centuries, branding it the diabolus in musica, or "the devil in music." On top of this, Black Sabbath's signature song features lyrics inspired by an experience had by bassist Geezer Butler, who, after reading a book on the occult before going to sleep, awoke to see a figure in black standing at the foot of his bed.

From the very first song, Black Sabbath dives into darkness, and it keeps pushing deeper with tracks like "Behind the Wall of Sleep" and "N.I.B." The former is inspired by horror author H.P. Lovecraft's story Beyond the Wall of Sleep, and the latter is a tale of evil promises made from the perspective of none other than Satan himself. On the other hand, there are more light-hearted tracks such as "Evil Woman" and "The Wizard," yet the general feel of the album remains one of tension, murkiness, and occasionally malevolence. Aside from the opening song, the record probably won't send many chills down your spine, though it may give you the experience of surreal unease... in a good way!

Black Sabbath blends blues, rock, folk, and acoustic in this album along with some relatively twisted and bizarre lyrics for an interesting and enjoyable result. The second reason I chose this over the band's other releases is because the mood is fairly consistent. There's no overtly pro-religious pandering like there is with "After Forever" on the otherwise outstanding Master of Reality, there's no ridiculously silly tracks like "Fairies Wear Boots" on the equally outstanding Paranoid, and although I do love their other Ozzy-era albums like Vol. 4, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and Sabotage, I think the earlier material is stronger - and perhaps darker - on the whole.

As a third reason for preferring Black Sabbath, there is the creepy artwork too. Paranoid's cover art is downright goofy, and the other albums have rather unimaginative designs, with the awesomely demonic Sabbath Bloody Sabbath being the one exception. Moreover, the debut's sleeve art originally had an inverted cross with a track listing, line-up info, and a pretty dismal poem inside it. While the poem is still on later pressings, the upside down cross is no longer there, which was allegedly the idea of the record company that the band eventually pulled from future releases.

Initially panned by critics, Black Sabbath's debut album has since become a classic. Undoubtedly, the atmosphere surrounding this record - from the lyrics to the music to the symbolism in the artwork - played a not insignificant role in its success. The wickedness of this album may pale in comparison to some of the music put out these days, but Black Sabbath is like one of those old horror film classics that, despite having dated special effects and all, succeeds at capturing the imagination far more than most modern attempts. 42 years later, this record is still haunting the minds of new generations of fans.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 1

Every October I break out some of my favorite horror-themed albums to get myself in the mood for Halloween. This year I've decided to do a list of thirteen of these albums over the course of thirteen days leading up to All Hallow's Eve. What constitutes a horror-themed record? For me, it's basically an album with music and lyrics that are dark and sinister. The lyrics revolve around anything from demons and Satanism to zombies, vampires, serial killers, and so forth. The music is almost always in a minor key or a key that sounds mysterious or eerie. Generally speaking, the record has to have a wicked feeling overall. That means no Green Day, no Justin Bieber, and no albums by other artists that would better be described as horri-ble rather than horror-themed. In terms of genre, however, this list is non-discriminatory, although most of it will probably be rock or metal, being that those genres are the ones I'm most familiar with, and they are arguably more dark and sinister than, say, polka or indie pop.

With that said, on to the first wicked album of the first day in the 13 days of Halloween!

King Diamond

Abigail (1987)

I'm not sure there's a better album to start this kind of list with. Released ten days before Halloween in 1987, Abigail is a spine-tingling tale of horror set to some quite macabre metal music. King Diamond is the eponymous solo project of the frontman from the Danish heavy metal band Mercyful Fate. King has quite possibly one of the most haunting falsettos in music history, like a cross between the creepy disembodied voice of a deceased child and the bone-chilling shriek of a banshee. While many musicians of today make use of falsetto in a soulful or feminine style of sorts, King's sounds downright evil and probably unlike anything you've heard before. As you might imagine, this suits the story and atmosphere of Abigail exceptionally well.

The album opens with a funeral speech informing us of the burial of Abigail la Fey, stillborn on the 7th of July, 1777, and nailed to her coffin with seven silver spikes. Years later, in 1845, a descendant of the family, Jonathan la Fey, comes to visit the mansion with his pregnant wife Miriam, and over the course of the record we are told of ghostly apparitions, supernatural signs, demonic possession, and murder. Like every good horror story, this one is chock full of occult symbolism, not just in the number 7, but in the family name as well, which is an obvious reference to Anton LaVey, infamous founder of the Church of Satan. Conceptually, Abigail has practically everything one could ask for from a gripping tale of terror, as the lyrics even work to build suspense. Take the second track, "Arrival," for example, telling of Jonathan and Miriam's journey to the mansion:

Through the summer rain of 1845
The coach had finally arrived.
To the valley where the crossroads meet below,
And where all darkness seems to grow.
People blame it on the hill....
The hill where no one dares to go....
The mansion...where no one dares to go.
The coach had stopped, and from the window you could see
Seven horsemen in the night.

I should note that the storyline and lyrics of the album are all written by King Diamond, which is an impressive feat to say the least. Admittedly, I'm a sucker for concept albums, but Abigail goes above and beyond any other horror-based concept albums I've heard. You can easily tell that King is a big fan of the genre and knows it well indeed.

Musically, the album is heavy metal in the vein of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Mercyful Fate, and other similar bands of the 80s. Lead/rhythm guitarist Andy LaRocque carved out quite a reputation for his work in King Diamond, seen in the infectious riffs of tracks like "A Mansion in Darkness" and the titletrack, as well as screaming neoclassical-influenced solos such as those on "The Family Ghost" and "Black Horsemen." While King Diamond's first solo effort, Fatal Portrait, is a good album in its own right, Abigail is arguably one of the best records of his entire career, thanks in part to the incredible songwriting that mixes hard rocking intensity with moments of twisted frightfulness and slow, creeping suspense. For a lot of metal fans - hell, for a lot of music fans - this is nothing short of a horror masterpiece that remains unrivaled after more than 20 years.

If there is one criticism I would direct at the album, it would have to be some of the "monster" voices, a few of which sound pretty goofy nowadays. It's nothing that will really detract from the overall feel or experience, but they are likely to elicit some laughs. I actually heard Abigail for the first time when I made an impulse buy at a store right before my family took the annual road trip to Kansas for Christmas. Listening to it in the dark of night on a long drive through open countryside is something that I'll never forget, since it made for a pretty chilling Christmas (pun intended). This is one album I will highly recommend to everyone willing to give it a chance. King's vocals may take a bit of getting used to for certain people, but if Abigail doesn't immediately catch your appreciation, she will grow on you... or is it in you?

Friday, September 7, 2012

What is a Divinely Inspired Text, Anyway?

As some of you may know, I'm in the process of writing a book, and one of the issues I want to tackle in it is the question of divinely inspired texts. We often hear people assert their beliefs in the divine inspiration of a text like the bible or Qur'an, and we also hear many apologists defending these beliefs by appealing to things like scientific and historical accuracy, as well as prophetic fulfillment. Consequently, a great number of atheists (myself included) have critiqued these 'holy' books on very similar terms. However, this all seems to me like putting the cart way ahead of the horse. Perhaps we ought to reach a conclusion on what it means for a document to be divinely inspired before we go defending or criticizing anything. What are the criteria a text must meet in order to be considered as a product of divine inspiration?

With this question in mind, I listened today to an episode of the wonderful podcast Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot, where this very subject was discussed by the atheist host Luke Muehlhauser and his guest, Christian philosopher Thomas Crisp. Professor Crisp has published an article in Analytic Theology, "On Believing that the Bible is Divinely Inspired." In the podcast, Luke interviews Crisp about his article, wherein he argues that it is rationally justifiable to believe in the divine inspiration of the bible. What is his argument? You are justified in believing the bible is divinely inspired - or in believing any text is, for that matter - because the experts say it is.

Yes, you read that right, and no, it's not a misrepresentation of Crisp's view. As he states numerous times in the interview, he believes that because we cannot research every nuance of a claim in our lifetimes, and because we take the word of scientists and historians on matters involving their disciplines, we are justified to believe that the bible is the word of god because the theologians and scholars tell us it is. Well, not all theologians and scholars. There are more than a few experts on Christianity who don't accept the bible as a holy book. How does Crisp navigate this objection?

Counter-claims do not change one's justification for believing in a divinely inspired text, he says. It's all about the authority you consult. Crisp even disagrees with Luke on the value of majority consensus. In other words, if you're raised in an Evangelical Christian environment and the 'experts' around you tell you that the bible is the literal and inerrant word of god, you are justified in believing it, according to Tom. On the other hand, if you're raised in an environment where authorities recognize the Qur'an, or some other text, as divinely inspired, then you are justified to believe that. You're even justified to accept the word of experts about the bible being nothing special.

I could hardly believe my ears when I heard Professor Crisp offer this as a serious justification for faith in the bible. His contrast of religious authority with scientific or historical authority is also extremely dubious. An appeal to authority is not fallacious in all cases, but it always depends on the claim, the expert, and other factors like probability. We are justified in believing the earth is round even if we don't verify it for ourselves, because scientists have verified it for us. In disciplines like science and history, there is actual content that can be verified and examined, and which takes many years of intense study to acquire. Appealing to people with demonstrable expertise is what is important to make an appeal to authority non-fallacious.

In the case of religious authority, only certain subjects can boast of having experts with demonstrable expertise. Biblical archaeologists, textual critics, and religious historians have a lot of factual knowledge that can be relied upon, to a good extent. Yet the idea that a counter-claim would not undermine their authority is sheer nonsense. When you cast serious doubt on the expertise of the expert on a given subject, then they can no longer be accepted as an expert - at least not in the area concerned. If a biochemist like Michael Behe asserts that evolution cannot happen, and the vast majority of his colleagues contradict him to show that it can and does happen, then his credibility as an expert is undermined until he is able to rationally defend his position and refute the arguments of his detractors.

And that's really what rational justification should be about: arguments, based on reason and evidence. In fact, an appeal to authority, when correctly used, is an argument based on reason, and perhaps evidence, too. Suppose you find statistical evidence saying that 99% of plumbers know how to fix a leaky toilet. Your friend Joe is a plumber. You infer that Joe, being a plumber, is highly likely to know how to fix your leaky toilet. Thus, we see there's an underlying, unstated premise missing from Professor Crisp's reliance on expert testimony. His argument would only justify our belief to the extent that our inference about the skills and knowledge of the expert is reliable. So who has the demonstrable expertise to responsibly declare that the bible is the inspired word of god?

Sure, thousands of apologists and theologians have made arguments for the bible's inspiration, but are they actually capable of proving what they assert? Liberal and moderate Christians see no problem with accepting historical inaccuracies and scientific errors in their bible, and there really doesn't seem to be any logical inconsistency with the notion of a divine being inspiring a text that has some mistakes in it. The idea of a perfect being is not quite the same as a divine being, but even then one might appeal to metaphor as explanation for mistakes. Was only the original text divinely inspired, and then it was corrupted by humans? Did the divine being only inspire the central message? How to identify divinely inspired documents without starting on an assumption is, in my view, one of the most troubling problems that faces believers in any textual revelation.

Crisp comes close to touching on this significant flaw in his argument when he brings up epistemology. Religious claims are not on the same epistemological footing as scientific or historical claims. Many religious believers recognize this, and most scientists and historians do. There is a point at which faith comes into the equation, and this is vigorously discouraged by the methods employed in science and history. We don't accept "because I said so" or "because they said so" in either of those disciplines. Even in the case of a historical source like Josephus, scholars still dispute some of Josephus' reports, finding them lacking in evidence or contradicted by evidence.

Theologians, ministers, and apologists are not experts on determining divine inspiration. Neither are biblical archaeologists, textual critics, or religious historians, for that matter. And let me state, unequivocally: atheists cannot be experts on it, either. No one is, because we still lack a conclusive definition of divine inspiration and do not have useful criteria for identifying a divinely inspired document. The knowledge has to exist and has to be demonstrable before anyone can be claimed as an expert. I say this not to downplay the knowledge of any of these educated scholars, who often can serve as very helpful sources on a number of issues. They just can't be considered experts on the question Crisp is addressing.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sexism in the Atheist Movement

I started attending meet-up groups within the atheist movement back in 2007. Almost from the very beginning, I met men who would often tell everyone about how we need more women in the movement. One person in particular has made mention of this at just about every gathering he's been at, typically to anyone that talks with him. It's always frustrated me that his remarks (and those of many others) usually are accompanied by references to how women will make atheism more attractive, how he'll finally be able to date again, and so forth. In other words, atheism needs more women because women have sex appeal.

Well, women have started to become more prominent in the atheist movement. Ayaan Hirsi Ali joined the voices of the 'New Atheists,' Susan Jacoby has taken to defending church-state separation, Valerie Tarico has published some excellent works on the psychology of religion, Eugenie Scott is a potent thorn in the side of creationists, Rebecca Watson and the women at Skepchick are doing wonderful work promoting skepticism, Julia Sweeney is drawing attention to atheism in her comedy acts, and the Atheist Experience streaming live show often features Jen Peeples and Tracie Harris as rotating hosts. In short, these men got their wish; more and more women are participating in the atheist movement.

Over the last year or two, some of these atheist women have begun to speak up about the things that make them uncomfortable in the atheist movement. There are too many stories to recount here, but sexual propositions, misogynistic statements, and generally crude and thoughtless behavior are recurring themes. Much of this conflict has come to a climax around "Elevatorgate," an incident in which Rebecca Watson found herself alone with a man in an elevator at an atheist convention, and this guy felt it appropriate to invite her to have coffee with him in his room at 3 o' clock in the morning. Rebecca's polite and cordial request for men not to do this sort of thing at conventions unleashed a firestorm of insults and threats. Jen McCreight expresses her frustration with it all in a recent blog post.

I personally know some of these women in the atheist movement who have received threats of rape and been treated like dirt for sharing their honest feelings. In general, a lot of the vitriol against them tends to revolve around their support for feminism. I noticed this especially when interacting with other people in the comments section of my video defending feminism and equality from mischaracterizations of it made by imbeciles like TheAmazingAtheist. The video wasn't up for five hours before other atheists were accusing me of being a self-hating male, a homosexual, or having ulterior motives, like wanting to get laid. I imagine some of these same people are quick to criticize religious believers when they dismiss an atheist by accusing them of "just wanting to sin" or being "blind to the truth," and yet they're quite comfortable with making such wild presumptions about anyone who supports feminism.

For the most part, I do my best to educate myself on a subject before I form an opinion that I will debate with anyone. But conversing with some anti-feminists has never given me the impression that they know what they're talking about. The claim is frequently made that feminists are man-haters who vilify male sexuality, want to control men, and seek to abolish all pornography. Although some of these attributes may fit certain women, I'm never given examples, and it really wouldn't say anything about feminism anymore than citing Stalin or Mao tells us anything about atheism. There are always those fringe nuts who take things to an extreme, but it would be ludicrous to assume the extreme is the norm. I have read Stanton, Anthony, Steinem, Goldman, and other well known feminists, and I've found nothing akin to misandry. Many of these historical feminists advocated the rights of men while they fought for their own rights.

These women of the atheist community are being attacked for the terrible crime of asking for common courtesy. They don't want to be invited back to your hotel room. They don't want to be hit on by every guy they meet at a gathering. They don't want to be objectified just because they title an awareness campaign "Boobquake," as a jab at a sexist Muslim cleric (it's pretty sad that some of these men didn't recognize the hypocrisy in behaving like a misogynist at an event designed to speak out against misogyny!). But most outrageous of all is the unwillingness of conventions and organizations to adopt anti-harassment policies. Though many have, the fact that there's also been a backlash is depressing. In her blog post mentioned above, Jen McCreight notes that she no longer feels safe in the atheist community, and she calls for a new wave of atheism to root out the sexist element.

Some will argue that atheism is not an ideology, so it can have no "waves," perhaps no movement either. However, a movement was initiated through the efforts of the New Atheists circa 2006, and being that it centers around atheism, I find nothing wrong with calling this what it is - a movement of atheists. Likewise, the different waves of feminism did not depart drastically from their overarching concern for women's liberation, though they did each focus on distinct goals that were relevant to their time. Atheism is not an ideology, but neither does it need to be one to have "waves" within the movement revolving around it.

But whether a new wave of the movement begins or not, it is clear that things need to change. If women are beginning to feel unsafe or uncomfortable participating in events and hanging with other atheists, then something is wrong. This is not just the complaint of a few man-hating feminist bloggers, but is a story I'm hearing from more than a few atheist women. I understand that common courtesy doesn't come naturally to everyone, and I think these ladies understand it too. Yet when someone asks you nicely not to proposition them, or when they specifically tell you they feel unsafe, you need to pay attention and respect their wishes. It's not an infringement on your "rights" to be considerate for the feelings of another person. In fact, I'd venture to bet it will get you in much better standing with women (and men) than the alternative will.

I am not a freethinker because I reject religion. I'm a freethinker because I value reason and critical thinking above faith and prejudice. Part of that means seeing past the irrational and misogynistic nonsense of anti-feminists, just as it means seeing past the irrational nonsense of religion. I count myself among the true freethinkers like Robert G. Ingersoll, who understood the full implications even when blacks were not free and women could not vote. If you have deluded yourself into believing there is some conspiracy of man-hating feminazis out to spoil all the fun for men - and these feminazis have infiltrated the atheist movement too - you may still be an atheist, but you can hardly call yourself a freethinking atheist.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Women at the Empty Tomb

Lately, I have been listening to a lot of debates on Christianity and the resurrection, and one particularly astounding claim keeps coming up. According to apologists, an indication of the historicity and reliability of the resurrection of Jesus is the fact that the gospels mention women were the first to discover the empty tomb. This, they say, is too remarkable to be fiction in a time when the testimony of women was not valid in court. I have heard this claim made on many occasions by William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, Mike Licona, Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, and others.

The big problem with this idea is that it rests on an assumption about Mark's intent with the material (I mention Mark because most scholars consider it the earliest gospel and one source used by Matthew and Luke; John's reference to women at the tomb may or may not be independent of the synoptics, but could just as well come from some other source material). In his debate with Richard Carrier, Mike Licona argues that if the gospel authors had invented the empty tomb story, they would have portrayed the male disciples as the first at the tomb, because it would have been more believable in that era.

However, it's not at all evident that the gospel accounts treat the women as witnesses. To whom are they witnesses? The male disciples? The reader? Would first century readers have recognized their presence as constituting some kind of witness to the resurrection? How could this be when, as the apologists point out, women were not valued as witnesses in that time? The whole thing makes very little sense. Mark tells us that the women went to the tomb to ceremonially anoint the body (16:1), as was the custom of the day. Their presence in the narrative doesn't appear to indicate anything more than the observance of Jewish customs. In fact, we might argue that without this element, the story would have seemed more suspicious at the time.

But perhaps even this much effort is not necessary to debunk this claim. The Jewish historian Josephus shows no discomfort when he relies on the testimonies of two women regarding the events at Gamala and Masada. Richard Carrier provides a number of additional cases of trusted female witnesses, and also exposes some of the weak arguments made in this area by apologists. [1] If there is no veracity to the idea that women were not considered reliable in the ancient world, then this argument for the historicity and reliability of the resurrection account collapses. Nonetheless, countless apologists continue to peddle this nonsense, while - I'm sorry to say - few skeptics seem to properly address it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Certainty, the Rational Mind, and Atheism

Today I finished reading On Being Certain by Robert Burton. Overall, the book is a great reminder of why it's important to question our beliefs and convictions, as the author explores some interesting studies from neuroscience, showing how they indicate the presence of a "feeling of knowing" that lurks in our unconscious mind and may even inform our conscious thoughts and decisions. Burton's book is brief, well-written, easy to read, and has a couple of fascinating thought experiments in it.

One of the things he addresses is the debate between reason and faith, or science and religion, to put it in another perspective. In a chapter simply titled "Faith," Burton takes on Paul Davies and Francis Collins, as well as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. All four men are called to task for certain statements that reflect a feeling of knowing. Davies and Collins make religious assumptions based on their observations of the universe, while Dawkins and Dennett make their own sort of assumptions. I admittedly cringed when I read a quote from Dennett declaring, "I have absolutely no doubt that the secular and scientific vision is right and deserves to be endorsed by everybody".

Absolutely no doubt? I would think a philosopher should know better than to invest such certainty in something. Since I became an atheist, I have always tried to avoid the trap of absolutism that is typically the hallmark of religious faith. I may not succeed every time, but On Being Certain has renewed my understanding of how valuable it is to try. Consider the difference between saying that x is 99.99% probable versus saying that x is 100% probable. I myself used to dismiss the difference and frequently point out that 99.99% is "pretty much" 100%. But as Burton rightly points out, these proportions are not "pretty much" the same. To say x is 100% probable is not just to guarantee that x will happen, but it is to also deny the mere possibility of x not happening. 99.99%, on the other hand, doesn't make such a pledge of denial.

We live in a universe of probability, and all that we know and believe is filtered through our unique perspectives. In respect to most questions, there is no single black-and-white answer. Part of valuing reason and evidence means recognizing their limits, and only going so far as those tools will properly allow us to go. Especially with supernatural claims, I do not think we are able to assess their certainty to an absolute degree, except in a slim few instances. When a claim violates one of the laws of logic, like the law of non-contradiction, or the law of identity, then I believe we can be sure of its falsity. This does not amount to a "feeling of knowing," but comes down to the simple fact that logical absurdities are incoherent under any perspective and cannot exist any more than a square-circle can. A universe where x is not x, or where x can be x and anti-x at the same time, is senseless chaos. In our universe, when matter and anti-matter collide, they change into energy. There is never a logical contradiction.

I will grant that the laws of logic are not well understood as far as their origins go. To some, they are foundational axioms that are self-evident; to others, they are just descriptive emergent properties of the universe. Whatever the case, they appear to be the best indicators of the strongest kind of knowledge around. However, the overwhelming majority of religious claims escape the ruthless grasp of logical absolutes. I know there is no god that is perfectly good and perfectly evil, yet I can't rest on such certainty against the resurrection. The two claims are very different in nature and content.

This distinction is one not tackled by Burton, disappointingly. Of course, he is a scientist and not a philosopher, but if he's going to delve into the territory of reason, it seems that he might want to address some of the major components of reason. Logical absolutes and logical fallacies are absent from discussion in the book, and yet these are arguably elements of reason that are mind-independent. The fallacy of composition, for example, will hold true regardless of whether or not minds exist to observe it. A galaxy with lots of tiny planets is not necessarily a tiny galaxy. Even if nothing existed, the law of identity (A = A) would remain inviolate because nothing is nothing, not something (speaking hypothetically here; I know physicists hold a different idea of nothingness from traditional philosophy).

This brings me to my primary criticism of On Being Certain. In a chapter on reason and objectivity, Burton strives to dispense with what he calls "the myth of the autonomous rational mind." As a disclaimer, I have said for quite some time now that I doubt bias is escapable. This has inspired me to stop criticizing those who start with a conclusion and then seek out the evidence. We all do this to some extent. The real problem lies not in attempting to justify our views, but in how we go about doing it. When we criticize someone for putting the cart before the horse, we criticize them for distorting the evidence to fit their conclusion, not for simply starting with a conclusion. In other words, begging the question is a fallacy for how it treats the evidence, not simply for beginning with a particular aim.

However, I take issue with Burton's belief that the mind is somehow incapable of, or hopelessly inept at, analyzing and judging itself. He rightly points out that there is no such thing as complete objectivity - we can't step outside of our minds and consider our thoughts with pure reason. But I don't think that Dawkins and Dennett believe we are capable of this either. Reason is not useful because it turns us into flawless and impartial judges, it is useful because it helps to mitigate our intuitions and emotions, by which we can strive to be a bit more objective. Complete objectivity may be impossible, but why should we assume that all is lost unless we have 100%? Burton elsewhere notes that claiming 99.99% probability is by no means "settling" for something of lesser value. It is not only more intellectually honest and humble, but it is also more accurate, since 100% guarantees are often over-zealous and presumptuous.

I should note that I may be mistaken in my reading of Burton's view on this. While he makes fairly firm statements and criticisms of the autonomous rational mind, he is also a scientist, and he defends evolution against creationism and medicine against pseudoscience, often by appealing to evidence and reason. Burton also distinguishes the "logic of discovery" from the "logic of justification," noting that we have "no mechanism for establishing the accuracy of a line of reasoning until it has produced a testable idea" (p. 151). This I agree with. Logical absolutes and logical fallacies have demonstrated their accuracy by application for thousands of years during which they have been tested time and time again, with no refutation thus far. If these lines of reasoning are reliable and accurate, can they not be useful in analyzing and judging our thoughts? Perhaps Burton would consent to this too, and yet his insistence against an autonomous rational mind provokes the suspicion that he might not.

Something I noticed while reading On Being Certain is that the author doesn't always fully flesh out a thought or claim. In a subject like the mind, this is understandable, but it's also discouraging. Those who don't pay close attention to Burton's juggling of numerous ideas may come away from the book thinking that no mode of thought is better than any other, or that we don't really have our own thoughts. I questioned if this was what he was saying on a few occasions, but found later statements to resolve things toward the contrary.

At the end of the book, Burton advises choosing our words more carefully, suggesting we ought to say we "believe" instead of that we "know." While I do sympathize with him on this generally, I think there is also a point at which certain caveats are implied. I may tell a friend that I know x without stating that I only think it's highly likely, but he will understand what I mean. In this age of postmodernism and multiculturalism, it's become fairly commonplace for many of us to leave some room for doubt and diversity in our views. On the other side of things, saying we "believe" in evolution sets us up for an unending and fruitless argument over whether or not evolution is a belief system rather than a fact or scientific theory. As with everything, there are moments when moderation is good and necessary, and other moments when it is more of an inhibition.

Wrapping up this review, I will say that this is one of the most enjoyable and challenging books on the brain that I have read in recent years. It will leave you thinking about how we think, how we know, and how we think we know what we think we know. It can be quite humbling to reflect on the traps our minds often fall into, and atheists are not inherently any better at avoiding these traps than theists. Despite my disagreements with a couple of his criticisms of Dawkins, Dennett, and atheists in general, I appreciate Burton for keeping the playing field level in his confrontations with science and reason in addition to faith and religion. Our goal should not be destroying religion, or forcing our worldview upon others, but merely to think more critically ourselves. There is truth in the saying of Matthew 7:3-5: we first need to be able to see for ourselves before we go around dishing out advice to others.