The Amazing Virgin Pregnancy

by Eliezer Yudkowsky3 min read24th Dec 2007272 comments


Personal Blog

People who grow up believing certain things,
even if they later stop believing them,
may not quite realize how the beliefs sound to outsiders...

(SCENE:  A small cottage in Nazareth.)

Joseph:  Mary, my dearest fiancée, there's something I've been meaning to talk to you about.

(Mary's shoulders slump.  Slowly, as if under a heavy burden, she turns around to face Joseph.)

Joseph:  You seem to be getting fat around the waistline, and throwing up in the morning, and, er, not getting any periods.  Which is odd, because it's sort of like -

Mary:  Yes!  I'm pregnant!  All right?  I'm PREGNANT!

Joseph:  How is that possible?

(Mary's shoulders slump further.)  Mary:  How do you think?

Joseph:  I don't know, that's why I'm asking you.  I mean, you're still a virgin, right?

(Mary looks up cautiously, and sees Joseph's face looking blankly puzzled.)

Joseph:  Well?

Mary:  God did it.

Joseph:  You had sex with -

Mary:  No!  Haha.  Of course not.  I mean, God just snapped his fingers and did one of those miracle things and made me pregnant.

Joseph:  God made you pregnant.

Mary:  (Starts to sweat.)  Yes.

Joseph:  Mary, that is just so... completely...

(Mary's eyes squeeze shut.)

Joseph:  ...COOL!

(Mary opens her eyes again, cautiously.)

Mary:  You think so?

Joseph:  Of course!  Who wouldn't think so?  Come on, we've got to tell everyone the news!

Mary:  Maybe we should keep this between just the two of us -

Joseph:  No, no, silly girl, this is way too important!  Come on!

(Joseph grabs Mary's wrist and drags her out of the house. SCENE:  The gathering square of Nazareth.  A dozen well-dressed men, and the town's head rabbi, look on Joseph and Mary impatiently.)

Rabbi:  What's this all about, Joseph?  I trust there's a good reason for the fuss?

Joseph:  Go ahead, Mary!  Tell them what you told me.

Mary:  Um...  (She swallows.)  God made me pregnant.

Rabbi, looking stern, yet understanding:  Now, Joseph, you know you're not supposed to do that before -

Joseph:  No, no, you don't get it!  She's still a virgin!  God made her pregnant directly!

(There's a long pause.)

Man #1:  So, what you're saying here, basically, is that Mary tells you she's a virgin.

Joseph:  Uh huh!

Man #2:  And you haven't had sex with her.

Joseph:  Uh huh!

Man #3:  And now she's pregnant.

Joseph:  Precisely!

Man #4:  So you think that God did it.

Joseph:  What other explanation could there be?

Rabbi:  Joseph, that is just so... unbelievably...

(Mary holds her breath.)

Rabbi:  NEAT!

(Mary exhales.)

Man #5:  A miracle!  A miracle right here in Nazareth!

Man #6:  Wow!  I thought that miracles only happened in Jerusalem!

Man #7:  Come on!  Let's spread the good news!

(They depart.  SCENE:  Mary is alone with her friend, Betty, in Betty's house.)

Betty:  "God did it."

Mary:  I panicked!  It was all I could think of!

Betty:  So who's the real -

(Mary lifts an eyebrow significantly.  There's a brief pause.)

Betty:  Ah.  So that's why the rabbi went along with it.

Mary:  Well, he thinks he's the father, anyway.  Why, does it matter?

Betty:  It puts some things in a different light.

Mary:  Like what? 

Betty:  The rabbi has been telling all the pretty young girls that you, Mary, are the ultimate embodiment of feminine virtue, and when they grow up, they should be just like you -

Mary:  I just feel so awful about the whole mess.  What kind of thing is this to have hanging over my child's life?

Betty:  You've got to put things in perspective, dearie.  You told one little white lie.  It's not as if you caused the fall of the Roman Empire.

Mary:  But what if the Romans hear about it?  I don't want my baby to end up being crucified!

Betty:  No one's going to obsess about it that long.  In a couple of months this whole thing will blow over.

Mary:  I hope you're right...

(Exeunt Omnes.)


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The crazier a thing you believe as a result of trusting your community, the stronger a tie to your community that shows. So when we signal loyalty via beliefs, those beliefs can get pretty crazy.

Very funny.

But even if god did get Mary pregnant, given my bayesian priors on seeing such miracles (I have seen none, nor do I know anyone who so it), I would have to be skeptical. Would it be too much to ask god to merely make one conspicuous miracle every generation or so, in a conspicuous place, so we could be sure? Then I would follow his rules more meticulously (eg, about not shaving, swearing).

I want to expand on Robin's comment. Some have hypothesized that promoting crazy beliefs helps a ruling coalition keep hold of power because the coalition's repressive efforts can be concentrated on the fraction of the population that shows signs of not believing the crazy beliefs. In other words, they can stay in power by cracking down on those who won't get with the program.

Maybe it is "puerile", but it is also much more likely than the common belief.

9Raw_Power11yIn a relative sense, yes, but in an absolute sense, it's still more probable that the woman had a reputation for virtue, which actual virtue makes more likely. She didn't need to be a slut, the rabbi was more than sufficient, although it needen't be him, Josef himslef is even more likely. The "He think's he's the father" line was unnecessary.
0SkyDK10yNot at all; discretion, social manipulation and control should do the trick. Powerful alliances would be better as well. Why? Well; sinful behaviour+ discretion+ political capital has a higher probability of leading to a good reputation than good behaviour and bad political standing.

Eliezer: Hindsight bias? No crazier to believe at the time than many truths.

Hey Betty, your disease was given to you by countless little flying monsters, as many as the sands in the desert, but no one can see them. And they make babies by tearing themselves in half. Most of your ancestors were like that.

"Maybe it is "puerile", but it is also much more likely than the common belief."

I agree it is more likely and that "virgin birth" is a silly belief, but that's not the point. Elizer comes across like a fifteen-year-old who has just discovered the joys of provocation.

The books composing the New Testament were written many years after the events they describe, so the whole "virgin birth" story may have been made up long after Joseph and Mary were no longer around to contradict it.

This may be the stuff of urban legend, but . . . wasn't this just an issue of mistranslation? I had heard that the Hebrew word (or whatever the extant language was) for 'young woman' or 'young bride' had picked up some virginal baggage before making it into the Canon. Is there any basis to this version of events?

ScentOfViolets: Yes, the Greeks mistranslated "young woman" to "virgin" in the Septuagint. Standard story.

LemmusLemmus: I was never a Christian, so I don't bear the same deep abiding grudge that I do against Judaism for alienating my family from me.

But why should I be more fond of religion than of any other massively self-destructive folly?

And if you're shocked by my blaspheming the Virgin Mary, you may have some traces of reverence left that you need to get rid of. I mean seriously, think about the storyline here. Alleged virgin. Pregnant. "God did it."

The way this post got started was that I was talking to a friend recently who had been exposed to an attempted conversion by Scientology, and he was shaking his head in wonder. And then he said, "I don't understand how Scientology converts anyone, it's so ridiculous. At least the Christian religion has a powerful story. You can see how people would be converted by that."

I said to him, "I don't see that one story is any less ridiculous than the other. You're an atheist now, but you were raised as a Christian, right? You grew up being told about Christian beliefs, but not Scientologist beliefs. You may not realize how the Christian story sounds if you're not raised thinking it's normal. I mean, consider the Virgin Mary -"

0HBDfan6yThis explains the post well.

Thank you - that's exactly what I've heard, but I didn't want to get lost in quibbling over the details. Since we are in agreement then, why post this story? Given the existence of Jesus (one can argue persuasively that there is not sufficient historical evidence that such a creature ever existed), this story would never have happened, would have been, well, silly. If it's about the priors of committed Christians, it doesn't work - a god that can create an entire universe in seven days just to lavish attention and affection upon the peoples of a certain small globe certainly wouldn't cavil at a virgin birth.

a god that can create an entire universe in seven days just to lavish attention and affection upon the peoples of a certain small globe certainly wouldn't cavil at revealing his existence to a heretical farmer through golden plates that require a magical gem to translate

Fixed that for you.

Surely, the repentant Xenu - who ordered the genocide of countless billions of intelligent beings - could, if he chose, decide to reveal the true nature of their sufferings to the denizens of the planet Earth through the writings of a science-fiction author of questiona... (read more)

I'm looking forward to part II, set in the year 28, in which the rabbi comes forward to the Nazareth Tablet claiming that he, not God, is actually the father of our Lord and Saviour, resulting in a prolonged war of words and claims in the media. Mary will finally win out by signing a 5m dinarii deal to write her memoirs (entitled 'Virgin: My Story').

Happy Bayesmas everyone! Have a rational, thoughtful, productive, faith-free nonspecific secular midwinter festival!

Eliezer, The claim isn't that you should not hate religion. The claim is that sociologically, this post is a bit like giving the Hated Enemy a kick in the pants. The point in it is fairly obvious (though, as people point out with the chronology, possibly historically false). People who already want to laugh at religion get to go "har-har", and people who for whatever reason want to not laugh at religion get to feel alienated from whatever it is you're up to here.

It is one of those posts that makes me wonder more acutely what you are up to he... (read more)

Sometimes puerile humor serves a purpose. Some people, apparently, still need to be shocked out of their deference for tradition.

I feel like Anna. I don't understand what this post accomplishes, and I would like answers to the questions Anna asks.

Well, let's see. First, while a mere kick in the pants is not funny, there's a long and extremely respectable tradition of satire that happens to involve a kick in the pants. "The Virgin Mary is a slut, haha" wouldn't be funny.

If you're asking what the higher purpose of this post is, it's right up at the top: If you grow up believing something, or even if the people around you seem to think it's "normal", then you may not notice the inherent absurdities in it. How many people hear the story of the Virgin Mary? How many see the humor in it, even after they become atheists? This is a kind of sleep, and one of the ways you wake up is by noticing that the people around you, and even yourself, are selectively overlooking flaws that would be obvious if the beliefs were only believed by one person.

"Mere messiahs" is along the same line. The point of "Mere messiahs" is not to attack Christianity, because superhero comics have the same problem. If only a single person had walked right up to you and said, "Here's this Superman guy - I really admire him!" and no one else had ever heard of Superman before, then you might be more likely ... (read more)

I doubt this is one of those posts that takes 8 hours, and it is the holidays!

People not raised deeply in religion (like, say, the Orthodox Jewish community), and who didn't have to wait 'till they were in their 20s to 'come out' as atheist, probably don't appreciate the level of militancy folk like Eliezer display. I'm 2nd generation, and despite my militant materialism, I don't share my (Catholic) parents level of hostility to religion. YMMV.

Anyway, here's some festive viewing for y'all.

People not raised deeply in religion (like, say, the Orthodox Jewish community), and who didn't have to wait 'till they were in their 20s to 'come out' as atheist, probably don't appreciate the level of militancy folk like Eliezer display.

Correct. If you were raised in a family of gentle and convenient religion, and you don't like having militant adult atheists running around, then outlaw serious religious impositions on children under 18 (study of Torah for half of each school day, fasting without food or water for 25 hours while walking a couple of miles to synagogue). Maybe then you'll see less bitterness from the adults! D'you think?

Wouldn't support such a law? Neither would I. But bear in mind: Not everyone has a childhood that makes "religion" a cute little teddy bear.

Religion is this cute voluntary thing, with no harmful side effects, that only Scrooge would attack? How strange that anyone would hold a grudge? A bizarre public belief, which everyone repeats, but which is right up there with the Virgin Mary for inherent absurdity. If just one person came to you and said such a thing, you would laugh at them...

This post did start out as just for fun. Sometimes I can feel the world trying to strip me of my sense of humor.

7FeepingCreature11yJust for what it's worth as a very belated reply - I was raised in a family of gentle and convenient religion, and would strongly support such a law, as well as outlawing advertisement targeted at children.
4Raw_Power11yY'know what? Children shouldn't be baptized. None of that "confirmation" nonsense. You get to decide once you're in your twenties.
7CronoDAS11yThere are some Christian denominations that agree with that.

Eh, coming from a modern orthodox background but with "gentle and convinient" modifications here and there, that's not all fun and games too.

"Okay... so you're saying that being overly fanatic, absolutely strict in absolute observance of the Torah is a bad thing? But you're saying you believe the Torah is the absolute one true word of God, who must always be obeyed... But, rejecting this other stuff here is fanatical and over the top? uh....."

"Okay, so you're saying times were different then... so you're saying you don't believe th... (read more)

Here is my ranking of religious people, in lessening order of how irritating I find them:

  • Fundies that don't try to make sense, have an inconsisten set of beliefs, which ends up boilng down to societal rules that are abhorrent to the Liberal Social Democrat Humanist. They will behead you if you meet a certain number of more-or-less reasonable criteria. They will not feel sorry about it.

  • Moderates that don't try to make sense, , have an inconsisten set of beliefs, which ends up boilng down to societal rules that are pleasant to the Liberal Social Democrat Humanist. They will not behead you, ever. They might feel guilty about not doing it.

  • Fundies that do try to make sense, have a mostly consistent and sensible set of beliefs, which is based on the literal revealed text, understood as well as possible, using the original language, with all the modern tools of hermeneutics and linguistics, who don't care about any sensibilieties, modern or traditional, only about those of their chosen Prophet(s). They will behead you if you meet a certain number of clearly established, sensible, consistent criteria that are applied at all times to everyone. They may or may not feel sorry about it,

... (read more)
0orthonormal11yFormatting note: You're missing a space between the asterisk at the beginning of a paragraph, and the letter following it.
1Raw_Power11yFrankly, I expected to be downvoted to hell for this... Why did the opposite happen I wonder?

Hypothesis: People agree.

Alternate hypothesis (of which I am a single data point): People think it was a well-written, interesting comment, despite disagreeing with its conclusion on several points.

3Raw_Power11yEither way, Ureshi!
7Costanza11yI take it Bart Ehrman [] followed a similar path...learning Greek in order to learn New Testament "scripture"...only to find out that nobody knows for sure what the "original" really was. This is a common problem for all the Abrahamic scripture-based religions, whether they admit it or not (they mostly don't.) It's really, really hard -- I would say impossible -- to prove that variations or changes have not been introduced since the time of a hypothetical original text, copied from handwriting scribe to handwriting scribe. And the harder, fundamentalist versions of the Abrahamic religions always ascribe HUGE importance to the integrity and wonderfulness of the text.
0TobyBartels11yThis is why some fundies interpret their scripture to say that God will magically make it such that whatever text they happen to have on hand is the right text! Example []. Logically, this is as circular as the people who interpret their scripture to say that the scripture is inerrant, but of course it's good enough for them.
1wedrifid10yAnd rocks. Don't forget the bit with the rocks.
0TeMPOraL8yIt might be hard or even borderline impossible, but I do respect people who honestly try. I know for instance, that Jehovah's Witnesses did a lot of work in cross-corelating as many different copies of the scriptures as they could get their hands on to weed out mistranslations, copy errors, etc. when developing their own translation []. So for whatever it's worth, it's nice that some people at least try.
1DSimon11yAgreed that consistency is very important. However, I think that your #3ers, even though they correctly push their system very hard, are actually behaving in a very irrational way. Being willing to let inconsistencies slide (as the #1ers and #2ers do) violates the important rationalist rule of noticing when you are (or ought to be) confused. However, it's a much less dangerous response than chasing down confusion but refusing to let the results adjust your moment-to-moment world model! In other words, #3ers are only doing the first half of a scientific or mathematical process, which eliminates most of the benefit, but still is enough to give them a false sense of confidence in their own assertions. The "fuzzy" thinkers, #1 and #2, are just sitting back and letting society guide them along the path of least resistance, often acknowledging (particularly in the case of #2ers) that they have only minimal confidence in their own knowledge. That's not particularly rational, but it at least isn't actively pushing things in a bad direction. I guess to put it another way: not all changes make things worse, but anything that makes things worse must be a change. The volume of choice-space that makes the world a crappier place is much smaller than the volume that makes things better. Because of that, overconfidence can be much worse than underconfidence, though both are bad.

"Sometimes I can feel the world trying to strip me of my sense of humor."

If you are trying to be funny, the customer is always right, I am afraid. The post wasn't productive, in my opinion, and I have no emotional stake in Christianity at all (not born, not raised, not currently).

What makes Elizer so sure Mary wasn't a slut?

Anna, if you're still reading this thread, do you have a blog? I read some of your comment on earlier religion posts and was intrigued by your point of view.

Of course the story above is not at all the story that Christian's tell. But yes, if someone believed in a virgin birth after hearing the above story they would be crazy.

Merry Christmas!


There are a variety of possible scenarios under which absurdly vast positive and negative utility could be generated, e.g. strange laws of physics. If a scenario for vast utility or disutility appears internally inconsistent and strongly disconfirmed by empirical evidence, as with Christianity, it can easily be dominated by the possibility that we will discover exotic physics enabling the generation of vast positive utility. Then, if promoting more rational thought and action enhances our likelihood of achieving such an outcome (e.g. by creating supe... (read more)

Am I the first to laugh at Eliezer's scenario?

It's very simple: Mary was much more likely to be a liar than a virgin mother. This is true even if you assume that there are virgin mothers who are their own granny.

And the point is even simpler: don't ignore the outlandishness of a claim just because everyone believes it.

(But I would also not advise you to judge a claim according to an unbeliever's caricature. Make sure it's not a strawman.)


Are you sure the dilution of Hellworlds would work if, given that you do something today that causes you to be damned, all future copies you make of yourself will spend eternity in Hell?

This is especially true since so many people believe that she was and by your own beliefs you must give this some weight.

Except that no sane person, Eliezer possibly included, believes this.

"Sometimes I can feel the world trying to strip me of my sense of humor."

Don't worry Eliezer, I found it funny even if others didn't! =D Merry Christmas from a fellow non-believer.

Maybe I'm mistaken, but I think this is a pretty good example of how easily people get hung up on a false dichotomy.

I'm trying to remember where I read the theory that the original Jamesian Christians (really a sect of judaism) didn't believe in the virgin-birth but that it was later added in to appeal to pagan/Hellenistic cult-followers who had plenty of stories of miraculous children-of-gods.

It's interesting that everyone gets into a tizzy whenever someone looks at religion and just tells it like it is, but the same doesn't happen with any other subject. We have some strange reverence for religion that we just don't have when it comes to something like economic models. The fact that everyone is so incredibly offended by religious beliefs being criticized doesn't justify avoiding the topic; we don't need to keep our mouths shut just because someone might irrationally be offended by frank and honest commentary. I don't think that any economist i... (read more)

It's interesting that everyone gets into a tizzy whenever someone looks at religion and just tells it like it is, but the same doesn't happen with any other subject.

I think you could get similar results for insisting that nations are just something people made up and should be judged on utilitarian grounds.

8RichardKennaway11yLarry Summers, Julian Assange, Stephen McIntyre, and Bruce Charlton might disagree, unless you redefine "religion" to mean all the things that people get into a tizzy about in preference to discussing the evidence. (As some [] would.)
8NancyLebovitz11yYou can add Jocelyn Elders [] to your list, and matters relating to sex and young people generally. Thanks for the Charlton reference-- I'd never heard of him, but he seems somewhat sensible about depression.
3katydee11yJulian Assange doesn't tell it like it is, though the point in general stands.
3RichardKennaway11yDo you mean that you disagree with what he says about the value of transparency in government, or that he disagrees with what he says? In listing those four people I did not intend to imply that the things that these people have famously said are all true, only that all of them would see themselves as telling it like it is -- that is, expressing what they judge to be true, in spite of pressures to the contrary. And they are doing so in various areas other than religion. Nobody has a hot line to The Truth. Everyone who is not lying believes they are telling the truth, whether what they are saying is true or not.
2shokwave11yUnsure of your point. Unless you are talking about his public statements (I will grant you that), Assange provides factual documents created by the organisation in question. These are records of corruption or abuse. This is about as 'telling it as it is' as you can get, unless you mean the semantic difference between "Assange tells it like it is" and "Assange leaks documents that record companies telling it like it is".
4katydee11yWell, just look at the "collateral murder" case. The official government story there was actually closer to the truth than the WikiLeaks version-- WikiLeaks provided more information, yes, but they did so in a skewed/biased way that actually acted to obscure the truth.
1shokwave11yIIRC they released a video from an American helictoper, calling it "collateral murder". The video showed a bunch of people, some with guns, milling about in the street. The gunners misidentify the journalists' cameras as weapons. They open fire on the group, then later open fire on a van that attempts to pick up one of the badly wounded men. The official government story [] was that American troops were hit by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, called in reinforcements and attack helicopters, and in the ensuing fight 9 insurgents and 2 journalists were killed. “There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force,” from Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl. Were these the official government story and the WikiLeaks version you were familiar with? Because by any reasonable definition of 'truth', the government's version is factually wrong and obscures the entire situation, whereas the WikiLeaks version is factually correct and obscures nothing, excepting its use of the word murder.
3katydee11yYes. The fact that the journalists' cameras were misidentified as weapons is a red herring, because they were still with a group of people armed with assault rifles and at least one rocket launcher, and engaging the group was justified. WikiLeaks focuses on the single (irrelevant) misidentification and also frames the engagement as "murder," neglecting to point out the weapons that the others were carrying. In my view, the government version is not factually wrong-- nine insurgents and two journalists were killed, after all, and the other engagements mentioned were not shown in that video-- and the WikiLeaks version is. If that means I have an unreasonable definition of 'truth,' so be it, but the case seems fairly clear to me.


Basement-level universes with Christian gods are much less probable than a chance at vast computing power through exotic physics. Christian gods must split their computational power across large numbers of beings, while my future selves in universes with vast resources could focus a large fraction of their capabilities on simulating their pasts.


you are misreading me.

I did not argue that belief in virgin birth (which many, possibly most, Christians do not believe in anyway) is unridiculous. It is ridiculous. I explicitly called it "silly".

But the post did not just argue that Mary's pregnancy came about in the normal way, you had to suggest that she had had sex with multiple men - a behaviour which most Christians would feel is deeply wrong.

The post is not meant to educate, it is meant to offend.

And that is both unhelpful and puerile.

Devil's advocate (literally) on xmas day, here we go:

Premise 1: The Bible contains some useful guidelines regarding interpersonal ethics. Premise 2: SOME people may not adhere to such guidelines absent metaphysical threats (e.g. damnation) or a public shaming (for going against doctrine).

In other words, I'm not convinced that widespread indoctrination MUST always yield worse results (in terms of the ethical behaviors within a group) than a widespread 'understanding' that all people are to think for themselves.

Say we come up with a (more or less comprehensi... (read more)


Get over yourselves. It's Christmas! If you're offended by the post, you're seeking to take offence.

I like the reference to 'coming out as an atheist'. I had to wait to leave my little town for university before I threw off the Catholic mantle, but I know deep inside that the inherent sense of guilt they spend all their time fostering will be with me for a long time. Inherent Guilt Bias - deconstruct that one.

How is a post like this any more offensive than a person trying to convince you that the virgin birth is actually a fact?

How is a post like this any more offensive than a person trying to convince you that the virgin birth is actually a fact?

"How is a post like this any more offensive than a person trying to convince you that the virgin birth is actually a fact?"

I, for one, never said so. But I hold some people to higher standards than others. Call it a bias if you like.

The post is not meant to educate, it is meant to offend.
It wasn't meant to educate as it's filed under humour (or a word spelled somewhat similarly). Don't forget--especially during the festive season--the possibility of alternate explanations, you might not share his sense of humour?

James D. Miller:

In the extremely unlikely case that the whole Christianity thing is true, there may be 10^30+ future souls at stake depending on the combined decisions of at most 10^10 people; from an expected utility point of view those should dominate all decisions, unless you think you're forced by rationality to consider your own afterlife more important than that of (say) a billion billion others.

The post is not meant to educate, it is meant to offend.

Sometimes being offended is a necessary part of one's education.

Right. It's one thing to send up the inanity of the Jesus myth. But it's quite another to cast Mary as sexually liberated. Eliezer, how dare you!

There's nothing offensive about the post. I just wish it were funnier and less predictable. I'm with LemmusLemmus on this: it's too bad that the fifteen-year-old's tone of provocative discovery ends up distracting from Eliezer's obviously valid point -- that, yes, the story of the virgin birth is pretty wacky as stories go.

I didn't think it was tremendously funny. But I thought it was funny enough to recite the whole thing to my wife while she sat at her own keyboard, instead of just send her a link. She didn't think it was tremendously funny. But she politely stopped typing to listen, and she laughed some.

It seems to me like at least a B effort. The humor was in everybody wanting to believe.

In reality, wasn't there a claim that the midwife confirmed Mary was a virgin? If I lived in the village I'd probably accept that as sufficient evidence, though in my namesake's traditio... (read more)

There's a lot of confusion here. 1) Don't confuse respect for religion (unreasonable) with respect for people who have deep religious beliefs, however daft. In some abuse of religion I sense a lot of contempt for religious people. I try to fight my contemptuous side, knowing how strong it is. 2) Don't confuse 'the harm done by religion' with harm done by people, who would have done it anyway , who find in religion a convenient cloak. 3) This is not the place for a post on the human need for religion or the rag-bag of needs it subsumes (social, political... (read more)

with respect for people who have deep religious beliefs, however daft.

Why should we respect people who have daft beliefs?

Jey, I think the dichotomy between religious and other beliefs (in how much offence disagreement causes) isn't so stark as it's sometimes painted. Random example: US politics; how would a staunch Reaganite Republican react to the suggestion that Reagan's policies were all deliberately designed simply to funnel money to his big-business pals? For that matter, how do biologists generally react when creationists accuse them (in effect) of a gigantic conspiracy to suppress the truth? I think there's at least some offence taken in both cases, and those accusati... (read more)

"There's a lot of confusion here."

Yes, and I'd say the biggest confusion is construing Mary's promiscuity as an accidental, gratuitous part of the joke. The whole point of the joke is that such promiscuity would be the first, most natural inference to draw were a self-proclaimed virgin to tell us that she'd been made pregnant by God.

Caledonian, one reason to do that is that everyone has daft beliefs once in a while. It isn't surprising that you ask the question, however, since you show no respect for those with whom you disagree on Overcoming Bias. Since you disagree with them, you presumably think that their beliefs are false, and consequently (according to your logic) that they themselves are unworthy of respect.

Sorry, that last comment was mine; didn't want to leave it unsigned.

"Sometimes I can feel the world trying to strip me of my sense of humor."

That might be one way to look at it. Another is that the prior information you have about your sense of humor isn't as informative as you think it is - :)

One way to look at the Christmas story is to compare it to another story (Easter) in the same religion. The Easter story looks coherent even when the serial numbers are filed off. The experiment was done by C. S. Lewis, who was able to write a coherent story (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) that included a disguised version of the Easter story. As far as I know, that hasn't been done for Christmas. This makes the Christmas story look less coherent.

Rabbi: Joseph, that is just so... unbelievably...

(Mary holds her breath.)

Rabbi: NEAT!

You know, Eliezer, sometimes that's the way things like the Friendly AI effort (and Alcor, and a few other things) strike me.

I want to believe.

Does that make me as gullible as Joseph, or as opportunistic as the Rabbi?

Too soon to tell.

You know, Eliezer, sometimes that's the way things like the Friendly AI effort (and Alcor, and a few other things) strike me.

I want to believe.

Does that make me as gullible as Joseph, or as opportunistic as the Rabbi?

As gullible as Joseph, unless you profit by it somehow, in which case you would be as opportunistic as the Rabbi.

But there are much nicer things to believe in than Friendly AI or Alcor. Why not believe you'll go to heaven regardless, and trump mere FAI and mere cryonics combined, so long as you're believing things you want to believe?

Joseph, I think the externals of the Christmas and Easter stories (virgin birth arranged by God; agony, death, resurrection, again arranged by God) are pretty much equally coherent. (Coherence isn't their problem.) But the point of each story, for Christians, is something much harder to swallow: Christmas is supposed to be about the Incarnation (with Jesus somehow being entirely human, just as much as we are, and entirely God, etc.) and Easter about the Atonement (where the whole death-and-resurrection thing somehow enables God to forgive the sins of human... (read more)

Caledonian, one reason to do that is that everyone has daft beliefs once in a while.

That is not a valid reason to reject the idea that daft beliefs are just cause to hold someone in disrespect.

Is that actually the best you can manage?

You are aware that this line of thought is about 1950 years old, right? The story that Jesus was the bastard son of somebody has been around for about as long as the line that he was born of a virgin. It's always sounded absurd, which is why it has always been the first thing Christian apologists have had to defend, after the resurrection.

It was a mildly amusing variation, but I think it still falls in the category of Godzilla and a house. It was probably funny in the 2nd century, but it's gotten pretty lame by now.

In the spirit, from Life of Brian:

"Oh, it's blessed are the MEEK! Oh, I'm glad they're getting something, they have a hell of a time. "

Why not believe you'll go to heaven regardless, and trump mere FAI and mere cryonics combined, so long as you're believing things you want to believe?

Because then I won't get to go to Dresden Codak's Secular Heaven. It's a Catch-22.

Eliezer, I'd like to refer you to your post on awful political art. What purpose does the above sketch serve? Is this is a new argument why the orthodox religious christological position is invalid? Are you expressing a newly adopted belief? Do you believe that your readership hasn't considered the possibility that the virgin birth might have been a sham? Or are you just slugging The Enemy good and hard and laughing about it? How is this different than an atheist adaptation of a hymn? It introduces no new information and serves only to delineate the bounda... (read more)

Caledonian, if you add the premise that some people should be respected, it is a logically valid and necessary conclusion (given that all people at some point have daft beliefs) that not all people who hold daft beliefs should be disrespected.

However, that is certainly not the best I can do. I could think of a long list of reasons for respecting such people: much the same reasons why you would do much better to show some respect for the authors and readers of Overcoming Bias. For one thing, you would have a much better chance of persuading them of your pos... (read more)

K Larson, I think Eliezer was wrong about bad political jokes, for two reasons. Firstly, a joke depends on its context, and it may not be possible to depoliticize a joke without losing something essential in the context. Secondly, like it or not, most of us do find it funny to see a disliked powerful figure get their comeuppance, which means that when assessing how good a joke is it's an error to penalize it for getting some of its laughs that way.

(But he was right when he said that finding what would otherwise be a bad joke funny is evidence that its targ... (read more)

Caledonian, if you add the premise that some people should be respected, it is a logically valid and necessary conclusion (given that all people at some point have daft beliefs) that not all people who hold daft beliefs should be disrespected.

No, it doesn't. You're ignoring the possibility that respect can (and should!) vary across time. What if the "some people" who should be respected is the set of people who aren't holding daft beliefs?

More importantly, your belief that everyone holds daft beliefs at some point is daft.

You should be more careful about making assumptions.

"Check of proof: would this have any value AT ALL if "Joseph" and "Mary" were swapped out for "Mike" and "Helen" and "Rabbi" were changed to "Mayor Wilkins" and "God" to "Elvis"?"

K Larson, I tried that and I found it much more funny that way.

However, I couldn't help but think about Jesus while I was reading the story, and that probably had something to do with it. I'm afraid it turns into an even more effective political joke against Jesus when it's Mike and Mayor Wil... (read more)

0Kenny9yJoshua: A Parable for Today []

Caledonian, can you give an example of someone who has never held a daft belief?

Other than yourself, of course, since such a suggestion would seem to indicate bias. On the other hand, your disrespect towards all others with whom you disagree (which seems to be everyone on some topic or other) seems to suggest that you believe that they all hold daft beliefs.

That story made my day. So ... Monty Pythonesque. Being a child of former of East Germany I experienced myself how ridiculous such stories sound if you were not raised to believe them.

Caledonian doesn't want to say he's never met a person who had not at some time held a daft belief. I'll venture further on his behalf: he most likely respects some of the people who occasionally hold these daft beliefs, if, on balance, their beliefs end up being good ones and if these people have mechanisms in place to weed out the bad beliefs.

If that's so, then his position is actually quite sensible: it rewards good beliefs, holds people to high standards, and it expresses optimism about possibility of change in those committed to and skilled at it.

A most amusing take on the issue! And yes, all of these tales (or myths, really) sound rather weird to outsiders. If having that pointed out stings, maybe it is the lesson you needed today.

Caledonian, can you give an example of someone who has never held a daft belief?

You've misunderstood the issue. When I find that someone holds a ridiculous belief, I lose whatever respect I might have had for that person. When they reject the belief, I respect their integrity and desire for truth.

No one who, for example, insists that the Earth is hollow and contains Saucer Men which come out and abduct people for sexual experiments, given the existing evidence, is worthy of respect. They are in fact worthy of disrespect, and a great deal of it.

A person who comes to recognize that such a belief is not only incorrect but deeply stupid is worthy of a great deal of respect.

Perhaps this post needs to be rehosted at for it gives no suggestion or hypothesis about overcoming bias. Here are three.

ONE: Friendships with people from different cultures helps one to realise that stuff one was brought up to accept sounds deeply weird to those who first encounter it as adults.

TWO: There are tells: little warning glitches. The trouble is that from the inside the tell doesn't make sense, but human memory depends on embedding items in networks of meaning, so the tells will not embed and get forgotten. An ex... (read more)

I don’t know if any other Christians read this site, but I found the drama compelling enough to share it on mine, with this preamble: “Christians ought to fully recognize the absurdity of their claims. We ought not to expect any understanding or concession from unbelievers. The claims of our creed are completely outside the experience of natural man. Christiandom we are not. The Kingdom of God we are. We ought not to place any expectations on the world except that they will laugh at us, scorn us, and persecute us, just as they did Christ. Thereâ... (read more)

1TobyBartels11yThat's about what Ayn Rand did say. (Edit: Actually, it was Objectivist spokesperson Barbara Branden.) I'm an atheist libertarian who does care for the poor, so I don't actually need you. (I welcome you all the same, of course!)

I think people would find it more apropriate if you tell about any your own bias that you have until e.g. 15 years old, and then debiased yourself, and tell people around you that they are wrong and that they believe in stupid thing.

Great little scene - I wish I'd had the script during drama at school.

An excellent little story!

Two nitpicks: The rabbi should say ‘AWESOME!’, not ‘NEAT!’. (It has appropriate religous tones, while the modern connotations fit the spirt of your text.) Also, Betty should be Mary's cousin, not just her friend. (That's the traditional Catholic position, although Luke 1:36 is not clear.)

1- To be fair, some... features might look different if Mary hadn't actually been penetrated. 2- Historically, I'm not sure if the concept of the white lie as a formal concept had been invented then. If it had been, it almost certainly wasn't called that. 3- Betty wasn't a Jewish name.

8orthonormal11yYou missed the joke. []
2wedrifid11yThat's a good point. If it was not Joseph who knocked her up you would expect he would ask for some evidence of that kind. Even though the test of virginity he had available is vulnerable to some false negatives it is the best he had.
0christopherj8yThough it is quite common for the hymen test for virginity to give false negatives, I've also heard that it could give false positives. Maybe Joseph did check! There was also a much more interesting test [] that Joseph could have done.
1[anonymous]10yIt's not like she was speaking English anyway, so if you're using a translation you could as well use an idiomatic one.

Well, I thought it was fairly funny for the most part, but it wasn't my personal toes getting stepped on.

One Eliezerish aspect which I don't think was mentioned in the comments is the serious possible effects of what seem like small lies.

The rabbi was one of the funniest bits, but he's also terrifying if you think about him seriously-- he's able to con the vast majority of people he talks to, and he takes serious risks with their lives.

I think the usual reaction to that sort of story is to think that the people who were conned were fools, but there are alw... (read more)

I wasnt aware that they had rabbis before Rome expelled the Jews. i thought that was a development designed to help cope with the Diaspora.