Ten Reasons To Lose Your Religion

Filed under: Fundamentalism,Winell: Leaving the Fold — Neil Godfrey @ 10:27 pm

b186526756A minister once told me he wished he knew who or what burned me so badly I left Christianity. I didn’t answer. I wasn’t burned. I evolved. — John

Marleine Winell in Leaving the Fold (See earlier Journey Free post) outlines several reasons leave fundamentalist religious systems in particular, but I think some of the points probably work for why people leave behind any religious faith. Her list is not complete or the result of a controlled study, as she herself explains. The purpose of her book is to support readers who have already stepped outside their old religious worlds and to share with them a range of experiences of others who have been through the same journey.

Marlene writes:

In general, people make changes of all kinds based on integrating information from new experiences. Human beings are “wired” to survive and thrive. Thus when we are disappointed with the methods we are using to meet needs, we are likely after a while to seek new methods. Also, change is more likely to occur if we are frustrated and we have access to information about alternatives. In effect, there are forces that push and forces that pull. Formally religious people find other ways to live, without the intellectual, emotional, and ethical discomforts that had become bothersome. New satisfactions add to the impact of the dissatisfactions, and the combination becomes enough to force the break. Thee multiple influences can be subtle and accumulate without clear awareness. (p. 88)

1. Developmental Change

People are growing, changing, maturing beings. Our development into more complex creatures is most noticeable in infancy, through childhood and youth.

This change is not random, but progressive with increased physical skill, emotional maturity, moral and cognitive development.

Personal development continues through adulthood. We integrate experiences as we change and grow, learn to appreciate paradoxes and shades of grey in our lives, learn how better to deal with situations.

That normal development can, however, be arrested. And that’s what happens when someone is diverted into a fundamentalist, black-and-white, dogmatic belief system.

In cases where a believer puts their trust strongly in a religious leader they make themselves vulnerable to disillusionment, even trauma, when that leader seriously fails.

Leaving such a religion can thus be seen positively as simply resuming one’s personal maturing and evolution.

Sometimes such resumptions of personal development come with a major life transition. Winell cites one woman for whom the birth of a child was such a turning point:

I believed the Bible’s promises and prophecies. I declined my parent’s offer to pay for a college education and devoted my time to studying the Bible and volunteering full-time in the ministry. At the age of 28, as I was expecting my first child, my whole concept of life and of the future collapsed. It was as if I had awoken from a dream state and saw reality for the first time. In the midst of the ensuing confusion I was left with the task normally reserved for adolescents: the search for who I am and what I am to do with my life. The nagging doubts that I had been able to hold at bay for years were finally slipping through. (p. 89)

2. The Bible and Fundamentalist Doctrine (more…)


Christianity’s Impotence Before Real Guilt. (Reflections upon the novel “Sufficient Grace” by Amy Espeseth)

Filed under: Cohen: Mind of Bible Believer,Fundamentalism — Neil Godfrey @ 7:49 pm

sufficientgracemindbbIt’s been a long time since I read a novel and in the last two days I remembered why it has been so long. Good novels devour me. I’ve read hundreds (no doubt many, many hundreds if you add novels for children and adolescents that I devoured as a teacher-librarian) and when I’m hooked on one everything else — work, household, sleep — takes a backseat till I finish it. In recent years I’ve chosen to focus on nonfiction — sciences, history, current affairs and media, psychology, anthropology and biblical studies mostly. Reading novels at the same time will put a halt to all that and more, especially since I am a way too terribly slow reader for my liking.

Over the last two days I have read a novel by an American who is now living in Australia, Amy Espeseth, Sufficient Grace. I blogged on this novel a month ago after hearing a radio interview with the author — The Beauty and Pain of Fundamentalist Religion. Since then (partly in response to Amy herself who tweeted me to say she’d be interested to know what I myself thought of the novel) I found a second hand copy on eBay (if I paid full price for every book I own I’d be enslaved to multiple mortgages) and read it as soon as it arrived. I could scarcely resist making it a reading project of mine since I also, after leaving a conservative or fundamentalist type of religion, had often toyed with the idea of writing a novel about my experience, too. Several plot-lines ran through my head.

In some ways the first part of the novel was not quite what I had expected from what I heard on the radio interview. The interviewer, as I recalled, spoke of the church folk living a life of something akin to happy innocence, at least on the surface. The author was said to clearly feel a real sympathy for these people. Yes, I could feel the sympathy. How can we not feel sympathy for many loved ones we have left behind? But Amy Espeseth’s novel is, at least according to the way I read it, many metaphors within metaphors. The families thrive on hunting, and the animals and nature are, to my mind at least, clearly foils setting the stage for the theme that is to soon erupt in lava flows. I felt the hard and cruel signs that something was not quite right beneath the surface of the lives of these God-fearing and self-contained people. Perhaps that’s where my own experiences took over and prepared me well for the horrific tragedy to come. (more…)


Is the Christ Myth a Threat to the Christian Faith? (If not, what is?)

Filed under: Fundamentalism — Neil Godfrey @ 6:19 am

Updated with an added final paragraph 40 minutes after posting

You’ve got to be kidding!

Of course not. Not even the fact/theory of evolution and advances in biological science can undermine any of the “religions of the book”. John Loftus of Debunking Christianity made it clear that one of the worst things he could take up in his efforts to debunk Christianity was to argue Jesus did not exist.

In one of his more recent statements to this effect he wrote:

Christians will be more likely to listen to me than someone who claims Jesus probably didn’t exist at all. (The Christian Reaction to Jesus Mythicism)

John Loftus

John Loftus

He follows with this (my bolding and formatting):

I am a focused, passionate man, who is single mindedly intent on debunking Christianity. This issue [mythicism] will not do the job for the simple fact of what evangelicals like David Marshall think of such a claim. It’s too far removed from what they will consider a possibility.

I’d like to hear of the vast numbers of Christians who abandoned their faith because they were convinced Jesus didn’t exist. I just don’t see that happening at all.

Christians will not see their faith is a delusion until they first see that the Bible is unreliable and untrustworthy, and that the doctrines they believe are indefensible, which is my focus.

Now it might be that Christians could come to the conclusion the Bible is unreliable upon reading arguments that Jesus never existed, but they will be much less likely to read those very arguments because that thesis is too far removed from what they can consider a possibility.

Exactly. I agree 100% with what John Loftus writes here about the value of the Christ Myth idea for debunking Christianity.

The logic of Loftus’s understanding is that espousing the Christ Myth must inevitably be counter-productive for any attempt to “debunk” Christianity.

If the Jews can get along without a literal Abraham . . .

I once asked a member of the Jesus Seminar (long time readers move on, you’ve heard this story before) if he thought Christianity could survive or what the effect might be on Christianity if Jesus turned out not to have been historical. After a moments reflection he began, “I suppose Judaism can get along with out an historical Abraham, so . . . . .”

With mythicists like these . . . . (more…)


The beauty and the pain of fundamentalist religion

Filed under: Fundamentalism — Neil Godfrey @ 4:32 pm

sufficientGraceI happened to catch a fascinating interview with an American writer now living in Australia, Amy Espeseth, talking about her first novel, Sufficient Grace.

It captured my attention for two reasons:

One, I can’t help but take notice when I hear anyone speaking of experiences similar to mine;

Two, the recent suggestion that I and anyone who questions the existence of Jesus and the arguments of “Jesus historicists” is necessarily driven by a need compensate for some past bad experiences with religion and is thus on a vendetta to attack and undermine religion by any means possible.

I have not read the book but I was captivated by, and definitely related to, Amy’s sympathetic approach to the people who are bound to their cult. There is a beauty in their lives. The first half of the novel, I understand, explores this rewarding and charming existence. Then half way through a darkness appears. The child everyone in the community believes to be so wonderful and destined to be their new leader is seen by his cousin as he really is, and it is not pretty.

On the outside the lives of the members appear to be so beautiful. At the same time, however, they are cut off, cocooned from the rest of the world, and in that isolation every family seems to have a dark secret that must be hidden at all costs.

I was surprised by Amy Espeseth’s response when asked if she had any regrets about writing the book. She said Yes, she did. She unavoidably caused pain to some people she loved. (more…)


How I Escaped Fundamentalism — 5 Myths about Ex-Fundies

Filed under: Fundamentalism,Religion — Tim Widowfield @ 11:15 am

Neil keeps telling me I need to add something to the blog to tell people a little bit about my background. That sounds pretty dull to me, but here goes. Oddly enough, one of the posts on Vridar that gets the most hits, day in and day out, is the one on the 10 Characteristics of Fundamentalism. So for this post, I would like to piggyback on that list with my own list of 5 Myths about Ex-Fundies.


HOLY SPIRIT – FOIX (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I grew up in a very strict fundamentalist Protestant denomination called The Church of the Nazarene. We shunned “worldly” things like going to the movies, playing cards, dancing, smoking, etc. We were, literally, “holy-rollers” — believing in a distinct, second work of grace after conversion. First you’re converted; then you’re sanctified by the Holy Spirit. We took the Bible very literally and accepted it as the living Word of God.

At some point in my middle teens that entire worldview became unreal to me. I no longer believed there was a titanic struggle for human souls. I no longer felt “the presence of the Spirit.” I no longer believed there was an angry, jealous God who kept a book with all my sins in it. But it wasn’t a sudden change.

Myth #1: Ex-fundamentalists have a de-conversion experience that mirrors the conversion process



Fear and Loathing in the Bible

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Fundamentalism,Religion — Tim Widowfield @ 1:27 am

Is God mad?

Cover of "I have no mouth and I must scre...

Cover of I have no mouth and I must scream

I grew up in a church that took the Bible very seriously. It was the inerrant Word of God. It was our rock, our comfort. But the funny thing about taking the Bible literally is the unspoken assumption that God is a very dangerous character. He’s interested in every little thing you do, every little thought that crosses your mind, and if he’s displeased — why, there’s practically nothing he won’t do.

For instance, a rather large number of people in my country (all the members of my former congregation, in fact) believe that God once got so angry that he flooded the earth and killed every man, woman, child, fetus, animal, insect, arachnid, etc. If you stop to consider it, this story of wild rage makes every 20th-century dictator look like a piker by comparison.

And yet this story is something children are taught at a very early age. In fact, you can buy Noah’s Ark plush toys from Amazon. Aren’t they cute? I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know the story of the Ark, and how the animals came two-by-two. However, I don’t much recall the details of the stinking, bloated, rotted corpses of the millions of dead creatures that God killed. What, no plush “floaters”?

Seriously, is God mad?

The idea of an insane god with unlimited power and a malevolent personality is a staple of speculative fiction. One well-known example is Billy Mumy’s portrayal of the ill-tempered god-child in the Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life.” (Spoiler alert!) (more…)


What I don’t like about “liberal” Christianity

Filed under: Fundamentalism — Neil Godfrey @ 7:56 pm
Tags: , ,

First the caveats. I do not like a lot about both of the mainstream political parties in Australia. I believe both parties have enacted some legislation that has caused  bitter damage to some peoples’ lives. But I do like a lot of people who strongly support or are even members of those political parties. The point is that one can dislike, even detest, certain viewpoints yet not be a jerk when it comes to human relationships. That includes religious viewpoints. I think I know how to distinguish between ideological (including humanitarian) argument and personal intolerance as well as one who has vehemently and publicly protested recent wars while maintaining a bond with an army-son voluntarily participating in one of those wars.

If you hate reading here is the synopsis of what is to follow: “Conservative” (US) of “fundamentalist (Aus) Christianity may believe a lot of weird stuff but so what? So does “liberal” Christianity, although those who call themselves “liberal” Christians may relabel some of their beliefs as “mysteries” or “unknowns” in place of “miracles”. But as may be distilled from the above paragraph, what really counts is the nature of a person. I have known good and bad people who are Christians, Jews or Muslims — “conservative/fundamentalist” or “liberal”. But though goodness or badness comes down to the nature of the person, it is also clear that there are certain belief systems that tempt, lead astray, deceive individuals into thinking and behaving badly towards their fellow creatures. (more…)


Leaving creationism, meeting a new authority or learning to think for oneself

Filed under: Fundamentalism — Neil Godfrey @ 10:26 pm

There’s an interesting response to McGrath’s recent post. It traces one person’s evolution from a belief in creationism to belief in evolution — and, I think, ironically identifies something that went “wrong” in the process. No, of course I don’t think creationism is right and evolution wrong. So let me explain. First, here is the key part of the comment:

Maybe you had this experience too; but I remember reading a book arguing for creationism, it was well-written, finessed, and aid out all this data, had charts and figures, asked thoroughly compelling questions, and well, just seemed to reveal that the whole academy of science was just wrong- demonstrably wrong. Thankfully, through reading peer-reviewed, academic scientific studies I am no longer a creationist. I realized the lines they were given me were rhetorical, the gaping holes they pointed out that seemed just so persuasive and ground breaking were, once I became more scientifically literate, a chimera of rhetorical making. The questions they strung together just did not make sense once you realized the field,-and I noticed that I would need to read several books just to reveal a error in one dot in their whole join-the-dots technique spread across a chapter.

At the end of it I felt rather embarrassed that I listened to self-published, amateur scholarship, that I didn’t spot that despite the thousands of scientists there were in the world, it seemed to be only those with marginal nor tentative qualifications in the field though this was ground-breaking and became fawning enthusiastic devotees of pseudo-science.

That journey was a little different from mine and I am sure from many others who left creationism. (more…)


Are true believers “insane” like Breivik?

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Fundamentalism — Neil Godfrey @ 9:31 pm
Tags: ,

I’m thinking of the true believer who believes in another reality as more real than the real world here and now.

The lawyer for Breivik has said his client appears to be insane because he is convinced that “only he understands the truth”. The rest of the world, he believes, will understand him 60 years from now. He has a completely different perception of reality, for instance believing torture exists in Norway’s prisons.

If that is insanity, then how do we describe those who believe the whole world lies in wickedness under the rule of the Devil while only they understand the truth? Or those who believe that Jesus will return in only a few years and demonstrate his favour to them before the whole world, to show the world that they were the ones who were right all along? Or what of those who believe in behind-the-scenes 666 world-takeover conspiracies, weird things about atheists, Catholics, Muslims, gays, the beneficence of the treatment of Bradley Manning, or weapons of mass destruction?

Breivik kills people but true believers don’t do that, do they? Breivik, we are told, used drugs and other aids to help him keep his nerve through it all. True believers don’t do that, but when acting as part of a much bigger institution upon which they can hang their personal responsibilities, like a nation or national government, they have been known to actively support mass murder, torture and other forms of systemic violence.

And on a personal level how many are prepared to “suffer persecution” for their willingness to cause heartache by forsaking and breaking up their families, removing themselves from healthy social intercourse, allowing loved ones to die from treatable illnesses, covering up sexual abuse for the “greater good”, all “for Christ”. And what of those who really are prepared to sell everything, lose or leave their jobs, all in the belief that they are soon going to be “taken away” to a better place?

I’m so thankful I got out of the true believer status myself. And so thankful I did not go the way of some of my former friends who likewise left but only turned to other brands of “true believer”. I have wondered why some other ex-fundamentalist atheists come across as so bigoted and arrogant when speaking of those who are still trapped in the same place they once were themselves. What happened to growth in self-understanding? I think the WIkipedia article on Eric Hoffer’s book might give us a clue:

With their collapse of a communal framework people can no longer defeat the feelings of insecurity and uncertainty by belonging to a compact whole. If the isolated individual lacks vast opportunities for personal advancement, development of talents, and action (such as those found on a frontier), he will seek substitutes. These substitutes would be pride instead of self-confidence, memberships in a collective whole like a mass movement, absolute certainty instead of understanding.

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The need to challenge liberal religion as well as fundamentalism

I’ve been catching up (thanks Mary) with other blog posts addressing atheism, in particular the New Atheists and their strident criticism of religion, in particular those appearing in response to R. Joseph Hoffmann’s views and posts by Stephanie L. Fisher. One that has particularly caught my attention, along with its related comments, is The Irrationality of Atheist Opposition to Atheism by Eric MacDonald. Part of my initial curiosity Eric’s post was learning that it was related to a lead post by Stephanie L. Fisher, and that Fisher’s post had subsequently been taken down. This is the second time this has happened recently — presumably on her own requests after others responded critically. (R. Joseph Hoffmann has since explained in a comment below that he removed Steph’s guest post as a matter of routine policy. I am sure Stephanie will like to repost it somewhere where it can have a more stable history.)

I enjoyed Eric’s post enough, and many of the related comments to it, and was incensed enough over assertions by some who like to be called humanists but object to being called atheists (even though they apparently do not believe in god/s), to join the fray with my own thoughts on the importance of atheists publicly challenging religious belief systems. My own thoughts are amateurish and inchoate compared with those expressed by Eric. But one has to start somewhere. Perhaps feedback can help me sort out with a bit more depth and rationality my own ideas. So here goes. (more…)


Let Christian ID’ers join forces with their Moslem counterparts and prove BOTH the Bible and the Qur’an

Filed under: Evolution, Science,Fundamentalism — Neil Godfrey @ 9:15 am

In following up why there has been a sudden strange peak of hits on my post about Adam’s rib really being a penis bone I find that the post was linked in the course of a creationist or ID discussion. However, the focus was not on the usual Christian fundamentalists, but on a Moslem scientist having articles arguing that the failure of geneticists to resurrect dead cells or create life proves that the Qur’an (why don’t we spell it Koran anymore?) is inspired by God or Allah.

The first post, the one worth reading, is Genomics is All Wrong. At least here in the post and additionally in the comments one learns what the actual arguments of geneticists are.

The second post (and the one including a link to my Adam’s rib post) is less savory in its tone (Wahid is Back).

I wonder what Christian fundamentalists think of Moslem fundamentalists using much the same pseudo-scientific arguments to prove their respective holy books.


The Family: fundamentalist threat to American democracy

Filed under: Fundamentalism,Politics & Society — Neil Godfrey @ 11:06 pm

An article recently published in AlterNet:

The Family: Secretive Christian Group of Conservative Lawmakers Building a ‘God-Led’ Government

Jeff Sharlet, the journalist who helped expose a cohort of powerful lawmakers promoting a Christian Agenda at home and abroad, discusses his new book.

The Family, also known as the Fellowship, is a cohort of powerful lawmakers seeking to create a “God-led government” at home and abroad. Chief among the journalists who brought the Family to light is Jeff Sharlet, author of the new book, C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy. (The title of the book refers to the Washington townhouse that serves as the gathering place and sometime residence of Family members.)


Jewish Ideology and World Peace by Gilad Atzmon

Filed under: Fundamentalism,Israel-Palestine,Politics & Society,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 9:48 pm

If we want to understand religiously backed terrorism that “they” commit, we might first need to appreciate what our own religious heritage has contributed to the mix. The following is another by Gilad Atzmon.

Jewish Ideology and World Peace by Gilad Atzmon

Monday, June 7, 2010 at 11:41AM

” …then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy.” (Deuteronomy 7:1-2)

“…do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them…as the Lord your God has commanded you…” (Deuteronomy 20:16)

I am here to announce as loud as I can, there is no need for any ‘International’, ‘impartial’ or ‘independent’ inquiry into the latest Israeli massacre on the high sea. Though the Israeli opposition to such an inquiry is there to suggest that the Israelis have much to hide, the truth of the matter is actually deeper. If you want to grasp what underlies the Israeli deadly barbarism all you have to do is open the Old Testament. (more…)


The Benign, Attractive Persona of the Bible

Filed under: Cohen: Mind of Bible Believer,Fundamentalism — Neil Godfrey @ 9:54 pm

One of the books I read while in the process of questioning my faith some years ago was The Mind of the Bible Believer by Edmund Cohen. I loved parts and hated much of it. My copy of the book is still penciled through with many indignant notes I made at the time. Now I can look back and see these notes as indicators of how I was struggling at the time with leaving religion and how there was much I could not immediately bring myself to admit.

He begins a chapter on “The Evangelical Mind Control System” with a section headed the same as this post. I have seven penciled marks in this two page section (pp. 170-1), questioning and disagreeing strongly with what he wrote. I read it now and see what a different person I was back then.

He begins:

The best things in the Bible are superficial. . . .

What I mean by persona of the Bible . . . is an apparent relevancy of teaching and promise of benefit that finally turn out to have totally different from what the new inductee was led to think. . . . Little by little, newcomers are brought along to understand the teachings to mean something altogether different from what appeared on the surface — and oriented toward the next life, not this one. But one kind of promise, the kind that indicates a tranquilized, soporific, guilt-assuaging state of mind will be experienced, is kept, albeit by a means with a net detrimental effect on mental health.

This was written in 1988 before the advent of “prosperity gospel” fad. But then again, the idea that God blesses materially the righteous has been around ever since the Protestant Reformation. I recall living in dire economic straits through much of my religious life, and whenever a small blessing or boon, however temporary, came my way, I would be so thankful for such a small or momentary blessing, or slight relief. It mattered not that my basic condition was not substantially better. One learns to interpret the smallest and ephemeral chance lucky breaks as showers of blessings from heaven.

Cohen shows how the believer is weaned away from

the surface notion that ministry to assuage physical want and suffering is called for, toward the view that only ministry of the salvation message is proper, to bring the huddled masses of the world into bliss in the next life so as to make irrelevant whatever whatever they may have suffered in this one, and away from the notion that freedom in the Bible means political freedom, toward the “insight” that there is no such thing as freedom, except from bondage of sin.

This is surely one of the most pernicious of biblical/evangelistic teachings. How many wives endure beatings because they feel they must never let a sinful thought or feeling raise itself against their husbands. How many injustices are observed with an aloofness borne of one self-obsessed with the purity of one’s own thoughts and feelings. Or with a Pharisaical detachment that convinces oneself that nothing significant can be done in this life, so all one can do is pray for the next one to come. (I know, Pharisees weren’t historically like that as a group really. I’m using the term with the meaning it as come to acquire from the gospel teaching.)

the believer must be weaned away from the come-on notion that healing of his own or his loved ones’ physical illness — or this-worldly personal success or prosperity — is in view, or else practical experience will conflict with the religious scheme and discredit it. . . .

Yup. Exactly how it was. And it’s deadly. Too many die in the process. Both from the administration of prayer instead of medical care and from poverty that is inevitably associated with a shorter life-span for a host of reasons.

the more deeply indoctrinated convert softens himself up to be sold some reactionary political teaching, and if he gets well enough indoctrinated to know that teaching to be unbiblical, he goes on doing his discipline relentlessly and ends up despising nothing so much (or so defensively) as genuine human spontaneity and cheerfulness.

And there are real innate radicals and lefties in such religions. But they keep it under wraps and manage to think in some kind of double-bind.

But that last sentence there brings to mind a brief discussion I once had with a Bishop, John Shelby Spong, whom I thanked for his book that helped me on my way to atheism! :-)  He’s heard it all before, of course, because he remains disappointed that his own biblical studies mentor, Michael Goulder, became an atheist. I remarked how much more relaxed and “at peace” I felt since becoming an atheist, which was ironic because I always thought as a believer I was imbued with a real inner peace of God. (Recall, rather, Cohen’s more honest description above: “a tranquilized, soporific, guilt-assuaging state of mind“.) Spong replied that he has noticed this many times with those who leave the faith and become atheists, and noted how there really is “an uptightness” about so many (most, I think) believers. And that’s what came to mind when I re-read that last line of Cohen’s above, “despising nothing so much . . . as genuine human spontaneity . . .” That, thinks the believer, is the way to sin.

If a picture is worth a thousand words a joke is equal to the two pages I discussed here:

Sam and Joe are taking a walk, when they come upon a church. A sign says “CONVERT AND RECEIVE A THOUSAND DOLLARS”. Sam says “You stay here. I’m going in to convert. “Some time later, he comes back out. Joe says, “Well, did you get the thousand dollars? “Sam says, “What’s the matter? Is that all you people think about?”

the joker The Dark Knight

Image by ♠NiJoKeR♣ via Flickr

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Comedy on religion, Bible, creationism and reality

Filed under: Fundamentalism,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 10:13 pm
Tags: , ,

I once posted links here on Eddie Izzard — and have just this evening discovered Lewis Black

on religion . . . .


and then on

Bush, Bible, Fossils, Evolution, and Reality


Okay, I see internet stats that inform me 85% of readers of this blog are in the U.S.A. — so maybe 85% of you already know about Lewis Black videos.

But for the rest, enjoy!

Lewis Black

Lewis Black via last.fm

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God, the Army, and PTSD : Is religion an obstacle to treatment?

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Fundamentalism,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 8:10 pm

Tara McKelvey’s article discusses the impact of war on the faith of soldiers and how “religious ideology has played a central role in denying veterans access to treatment.”

Tara’s article is published in the Boston Review

Also accessible at Information Clearing House


Appealing to Faith in a Search for Truth, Playing Tennis Without a Net

Before you appeal to faith when reason has backed you into a corner, think about whether you really want to abandon reason when reason is on your side.

(This quote and the following post are largely taken from page 154 of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Dennett.)

Many believers in God claim that their faith is something beyond reason and cannot validly be tested by the standards of science and rational thought. This is fine on a personal comfort level, but many believers also insist that it must apply just as meaningfully when they bring their faith into arguments about evolution, origins of life and the universe, and other pursuits for truth.

Philosopher Daniel C. Dennett has a beautiful response to this faith claim. He begins by referring to philosopher Ronald de Sousa who described philosophical theology as “intellectual tennis without a net“, with the net being a metaphor for rational judgment.

Let the believer who insists that the rigour of scientific method or rational argument not be allowed to touch his faith have the first serve, Dennett begins. Whatever the believer serves, suppose the nonbeliever replies:

What you say implies that God is a ham sandwich wrapped in tinfoil. That’s not much of a God to worship!

The believer volleys back demanding to know how the nonbeliever can logically make such a claim that his (the believer’s) opening serve has such a preposterous implication. So the nonbeliever replies:

Oh, do you want the net up for my returns, but not for your serves? Either the net stays up, or it stays down. If the net is down, there are no rules and anybody can say anything, a mug’s game if there ever was one. I have been giving you the benefit of the assumption that you would not waste your time or mine by playing with the net down.

Not that Dennett is opposed to faith per se. What he wants to see “is a reasoned ground for taking faith seriously as a way of getting to the truth . . .”

Before you appeal to faith when reason has backed you into a corner, think about whether you really want to abandon reason when reason is on your side.

Dennett assists the reader in answering this question with a few thought experiments:

1. You and your loved one are touring a foreign land when your loved one is brutally murdered before you eyes. Now in this land the legal system allows friends of the accused to testify their faith in his innocence. The judge listens to friend after friend tearfully, sincerely, movingly testify to their complete faith in the accused’s innocence, and by the end of the hearing this judge is far more swayed by their faith claims than the evidence of the prosecution. Would you be willing to live in such a place?

2. You are about to be operated on by a surgeon who tells you that whenever he hears a little voice telling him to disregard his medical training and do something different, he listens to and follows that still small voice. . . . .

Dennett concludes:

I know it passes in polite company to let people have it both ways, and under most circumstances I wholeheartedly cooperate with this benign arrangement. But we’re seriously trying to get at the truth here, and if you think that this common but unspoken understanding about faith is anything better than socially useful obfuscation to avoid mutual embarrassment and loss of face, you have either seen much more deeply into this issue than any philosopher ever has (for none has ever come up with a good defense of this) or you are kidding yourself. (The ball is now in your court.)

From http://gssq.blogspot.com/2008_02_01_archive.html

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The Cost of Christian Zionism / Judeo-Christianity

It is encouraging to be reminded that Christianity is not uniformly pro-Zionist-Israel. I would rather that those opposed to it pushed more substantial flesh and blood reasons for their critique than the medieval notion of religious heresy, but at least tiny glimpses of some of the flesh and blood human reasons for opposing it are captured in Charles’ Carlson’s article, The Unacceptable Cost of Judeo-Christianity; Its Legacy of Pain.

Gosh darnit, it is really is gobsmacking to read how so very slight, narrow and US-centric are the human costs cited in this article. But any effort from within “the belly of the beast” addressing an audience with little access to an international perspective probably should be applauded. (My personal energies will be directed in support for the likes of the ISM.)

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Surely not ALL reports of alien adbuctions, haunted houses and miracles are erroneous?

Filed under: Evolution, Science,Fundamentalism,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 7:00 pm

Eddy and Boyd in a classic case of special pleading argue for the reality of demon-possession today:

We do not wish to dispute that some, if not the majority, of these reports [of “demonization”] may be explained in naturalistic terms. But what justification is there for assuming that all such reports of the supernatural can be reductively explained in naturalistic terms? (The Jesus Legend p.70)

Roy Williams uses the same special pleading to argue for the reality of miracles:

My own view is that the consistency of such reports through human history is suggestive that miracles do — rarely — occur. Has the Catholic Church always been wrong when, as a precondition to conferring sainthoods, it has accepted reports of miracles? I doubt it. (See earlier posts on God, Actually)

This is the same as saying:

We know that natural explanations have been found for most things that we observe in the world, but there are still a few things we have not yet explained. Therefore we can have confidence that anything as of today that is still not understood in terms of natural processes is the work of supernatural powers.

Or even

If there was a natural explanation for cancer we would have discovered a cure for it by now, so we can be assured that only prayer and exorcism have the power to cure cancer.

This is certainly a strong indicator of a will to believe despite all first hand evidence to the contrary. The grounds for one’s belief are removed to hearsay, to the word of a friend of someone who knows someone who read about someone of impeccable honesty who said they saw someone who . . . . and so forth.  Or simply, my devoutly religious granny says she experienced an angel visiting her and she wouldn’t lie.

Or if we do experience something unexplained or mysterious first hand, how often are we willing to investigate alternative explanations or simply hold an opinion in abeyance until the answer does emerge.

I used to experience sleep paralysis, but since I had no idea what it was at the time, and being very religious, and comparing the experience with other reports I heard from fundamentalist friends, I did fear I was being visited by demons. One can begin to see all sorts of shapes and movements in the dark in that condition.

The Nightmare
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Later when I read about some people’s experiences of alien abductions I recognized much of what they described as nothing more than that very mundane (admittedly scary) “sleep” condition. How one interprets or explains it depends on one’s cultural environment. Even though those alien abduction or visitation accounts added a few details that did not exactly fit sleep paralysis, I could recognize a tendency to somewhat exaggerate or mix one’s interpretations with the actual experience itself and so present something that was just a wee bit beyond the actual experience, even if personally believed to be part of it.

In a pre-scientific age there is really no way of arriving at a “scientific” explanation for such experiences, of course. So when Eddy and Boyd, and with them Roy Williams, suggest that there is no justification for believing that ALL prescientific (or current nonscientific) reports of unusual experiences have a natural explanation, they are sort of arguing in a closed box.

A passage in Mark’s gospel reminds me of The X-Files: I Want to Believe. Many people today still want to believe there is something to magic after all, that there is or was an Atlantis, that aliens do regularly visit us, that BigFoot/Yeti/Yowie really does exist, that King Arthur’s or the Bible’s adventures really happened, and that angels do exist and miracles happen today just as they always did, as we read about in the New Testament.

I seem to recall that as a child there were some stories I read that I agonizingly wished were true.

I once even had a dream in which I was playing with a toy truck, and so in love was I with this toy truck that as I felt I was coming out of a dream, my dream state told me that if I held on to the truck as tightly as I could in my dream, that when I woke I would find the truck in bed beside me. Well, I did wake up, and was disappointed, but not surprised, to find my clenched fists were holding absolutely nothing! :-(

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40 years ago: Denis Rohan and the Road to the Apocalypse

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Some of my old friends in what was the Radio Church of God, which was later renamed the Worldwide Church of God, will remember well enough Denis Michael Rohan who in 1969 brought their cult religion (and Australia) into international notoriety when he started a fire in the Al Aqsa mosque in order to hurry up apocalyptic end-time events.

Australian Radio National has what looks like a fairly comprehensive archive of interviews, videos, images, literature, court proceedings about Denis Rohan and what can lead a person to do such a thing. See their Background Briefing archive Rohan and the Road to the Apocalypse.

I suspect members of the Herbert Armstrong cult (Radio Church of God) at the time were more focussed on what the publicity meant for them — cultic fear of persecution and all that — to have noticed that this one time one person crazy event had a profound significance on Arab politics vis a vis the State of Israel. This is discussed in the Background Briefing archive. It appears that the threat of the destruction of this mosque actually catalyzed a united front on the part of the Arab states that not even the 1967 war only two years earlier had failed to accomplish.

One interesting point that emerged (new to me at any rate) was the notion of the Jerusalem Syndrome. Apparently (unsurprisingly) there is something about just being in the vicinity of Jerusalem that can activate unstable mental tendencies in some.

There’s an interesting comment by Tel Aviv Professor of Religion and expert on the Jerusalem Syndrome, Alexander Van Der Haven, at the end of a program interview:

You can either use religious language to make people more extreme, make people jihadists, or you can try to in the case of Islam, you can try to emphasise more moderate beliefs in the Qu’ran, more moderate traditions. So this is the very interesting thing of religion, that people tend to regard religious beliefs as very absolute, they mean one specific thing. But in reality you can do many different things with it. Somebody might have been able to convince Denis Rohan that that you shouldn’t act upon your beliefs, this is something allegorical, instead you should pick flowers in this and this garden , and one might have been able to convince him. I think what you can learn from these cases, religion is very flexible, it can lead to the most aggressive destructive behaviour and it can also lead to more quietistic behaviour. The Jerusalem Syndrome is an instance of people who act in a very strange way on certain religious discourses and stories, which of course religion has, especially in Christianity, you have the Book of Revelation, in Judaism you have this emphasis on the Temple and the hope for the restoration of the Temple. So our religious scriptures offer these extreme possibilities. I think basically you can manipulate these for the good and for the worst.

It appears Rohan was converted to the beliefs of the Radio Church of God by well-meaning members while he was in a mental institution. Rohan came to see himself as The Branch prophesied to become king over Jerusalem — partly as a result of a message given from the “Rowan tree” outside the window of his mental institution room.

I seem to recall a rumour that he also found his name in the Bible as Nahor, which of course was the Hebrew right to left reading of Rohan.

The interesting potentials that can arise from our propensity to look for and find patterns around us!

Background Briefing also includes an interesting article by Scott Lupo, University of Nevada, describing one of the processes by which Armstrong persuaded many to join his church.

No doubt Rohan found religion helped him become an outwardly healthy person in many ways, giving him a sense of purpose in life. But like so many things dear to humans, it is also a two-edged sword.

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7 predictors of belief in God; and the different reasons why “I” and “They” believe

Why Darwin Matters contains several sharable nuggets of dot-points findings and here’s one more. In 1998 Frank Sulloway and Michael Shermer surveyed 10,000 Americans about their beliefs in God. Here are the summaries (pp. 34-37):

The seven strongest predictors of belief in God are:

1. being raised in a religious manner
2. parent’s religiosity
3. lower levels of education
4. being female
5. a large family
6. lack of conflict with parents
7. being younger

They also asked respondents whey they believed in God and the top 5 reasons were as follows:

1. The good design / natural beauty / perfection / complexity of the world or universe (28.6%)
2. The experience of God in everyday life (20.6%)
3. Belief in God is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life (10.3%)
4. The Bible says so (9.8%)
5. Just because / faith / the need to believe something (8.2%)

But an interesting thing happened when they were asked why they thought others believed in God. What had been the mainly rational reasons for each respondent believing (concluding design required a designer, thinking about life experiences) were dropped to last and third places when asked why they thought others believed in God. Others — not themselves — were mainly thought to believe for emotional (nonrational) reasons.  Belief in God is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life (26.3%)

  1. Religious people have been raised to believe in God (22.4%)
  2. The experience of God in everyday life (16.2%)
  3. Just because / faith / the need to believe something (13.0%)
  4. Fear death and the unknown (9.1%)
  5. The good design / natural beauty / perfection / complexity of the world or universe (6.0%)

Related post — Why people do not accept evolution

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The Voyage That Shook the World

Filed under: Evolution, Science,Fundamentalism — Neil Godfrey @ 6:55 pm

2009, the 150th anniversary year since the publication of Darwin’s On The Origin of Species, Creation Ministries International have released a documentary film on Darwin, The Voyage That Shook the World, through Fathom Media, their specially created “nonreligious-looking” front organization. 6836voyage-shock-worldA Christian fundamentalist friend asked me to view it, which I eventually did. Unfortunately, predictably, there is nothing new in it as far as creationist anti-evolution arguments are concerned.

Deceptions from childhood?

The film is bracketed by references to Darwin’s own admission that he loved to fabricate (“lie”) tall stories as a child and his ability, or “gift”, to create an illusion that a simple story of origins could explain all there was to know about nature. In between (approx 45 minutes) there are numerous references to Darwin being so fixated on Lyell‘s uniformitarian ideas that he simply failed to see, or ignored, or “shoehorned” evidence that did not support what he was “looking for”. In other words, the film’s tenor portrays Darwin as entrapped by self-deceit. This is entrenched from the outset with references to both Charles Darwin’s grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgewood, as “free-thinking rationalists and humanists”, and regular reminders that Charles was influenced by Erasmus’s writings on evolutionary ideas. And finally it is noted that a notable contribution of Darwin was his ability to tell a story that could appeal to the public, and an ability to persuade readers to at least entertain some of his ideas for a while.

This, of course, is calculated to imply that the whole theory of evolution is itself grounded in delusion and denial. There is little if anything in this film to remind or alert audiences that scientific enquiry itself is all about constantly examining and questioning the assumptions underlying its interpretations of the evidence, let alone taking on board new evidence for testing.

Genesis more scientific than science?

Rather, the film attempts to convince viewers that it is the creationists who are the more scientific than evolutionists. Twice the film asserts that scientists from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries traced back to Greek philosophers their conviction of fixity of the species. Against these it is claimed that anyone who believes in the story of the Flood and Noah’s ark is also likely to believe in the adaptation of species. The message is that the wisdom of science, grounded in pagan philosophy, had either no explanation for the variation of species across geographical spans, or could only erroneously deduce that each variation had its own discrete origins. The Bible, on the other hand, is said to oblige one to believe that since all animals today originated from Noah’s ark, all the variations of species that we see “proves” that species are not fixed but can and do adapt. Within limits, of course.

The Debate rages?

The film also strongly implies that the primary debates over evolution within the scientific community are currently “raging” between those who support evolution and those who do not. Firstly the narration boldly claims that just such a debate “rages” today. The film also presents mainstream scientists who believe in evolution alongside other “doctors” and “professors” who are Christian creationists, yet without informing viewers of this distinction. Against this obfuscation it is amusing to compare the film’s consistent description of Charles Lyell as “a lawyer”, as if that disqualified him from being taken seriously as a geologist in his day!

Thus when an evolutionist (Peter Bowler) is quoted as saying that the evidence for Darwin’s theory today “stands up pretty well — with lots of additions and modifications”, another name (Cornelius Hunter) with similar academic titles is quoted to make his words sound like an indirect admission that the substantive evidence on which evolution was originally founded has since crumbled into uncertainty. The audience is left with the impression that it is the mainstream scientific community that is struggling in self-deception — evidence supposedly failing to support evolution is said to be euphemistically circuited by describing it all as “research problems” — in order to continue upholding the theory.

Mainstream scholars who are interviewed have protested that they were initially misled into appearing in a Creationist film. See their public statement in the History of Science Society Newsletter. They were unaware of the context through which their statements were being filtered and presented.

Additions and modifications are bad signs?

The film is similarly deceptive towards its viewing audience for conveying the impression that “lots of additions and modifications” to a theory represents serious foundational trouble for a theory. They are not presented with the evidence for evolution that has emerged in truckloads since Darwin. They are not, for example, informed of the predictive power of the theory of evolution and how such power establishes its superlative strength as a theory. Shubin, for example, discusses this in his recently published Your Inner Fish (to which I referred in another recent post). The similar pattern in limb bone structures across different species today, if interpreted according to evolutionary theory, means one is entitled to predict that the same structures will be found back in the fossil record in species that predated those with limbs. This is indeed the case, as with the bone structures of fins in the earliest fish. Conversely, inefficiencies in mammalian design today, such as the wastefully convoluted nerve path from the rear of the brain to the eye, for example, can be shown to be the result of gradual “stretchings” as species adapted further away from the simplest and most direct pathway in earlier marine species.

Further, although the mechanisms of the evolutionary process are debated today, this is the inevitable result of deeper understanding about cell structures and behaviours that were simply unavailable in Darwin’s time. Further explorations, discoveries and questions about processes do not undermine the substantial evidence for the fact of evolution.

Randomness again?

The idea of “randomness” makes a solitary appearance through creationist and biochemist, Matti Leisola. To the less well informed, one would be left with the impression that evolution itself is based on the notion that all changes are random. (“We cannot change bacteria into anything other than bacteria.”) Randomness is, of course, only a part of the picture. And the creationist notion that evolution is comparable to a Jumbo jet being assembled by chance from junkyard materials is simply misinformed. (Not saying Leisola himself drew this comparison but it is common enough among creationists, and his discussion of randomness was surely enough to remind creationist audiences of such arguments.) Without further qualification I found this snippet in the film conveying yet another  misleading message.

Uniformitarianism versus catastrophism?

Uniformitarianism takes a heavy beating. Darwin is chastised for not taking more account of catastrophic changes that can be introduced by earthquakes or “dambursts” from the transition from the glacial eras. But it is misleading to suggest that one must choose between the basic ideas of uniformitarianism and catastrophism. Both have played their parts in the shaping of the earth. And there can be no doubt that the former has been at work over spans of “deep time” despite punctuations of major instabilities in the earth’s crust.

Getting personal

Finally, The Voyage addresses Darwin’s deep conflicts over the idea of suffering in nature (from the loss of three of his own children to the wasp that lays its eggs in a living caterpillar it has paralyzed) and the notion of a good God. The film makes the point several times that Darwin was seeking to remove God from the workings of nature, as if his motivation was in some sense anti-theistic or anti-biblical. No suggestion is made in the film that his motivation could have been “pro-science”. It is a pity that the film did not take up the discussion we find in Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design by Michael Shermer that Darwin made a point of avoiding public religious debate. One major reason was that he had no wish to cause personal offence to religious members of his own close family — his wife in particular.

Such a positive personal trait would have made a nice balance to the film’s readiness to elaborate on some remarks of Darwin that today are racially offensive against nonwhite races. It is also regrettable that the film neglected to point out that the modern falsification of the notion that “race” is a manifestation of core biological differences has been the work of  biologists who are themselves predominantly evolutionists.

Among other reviews online are:

The Lippard Blog review

By PZ Myers – Pharyngula

The Dispersal of Darwin



“Christ crucified” — Was Paul’s message really anti-imperialist as Borg and Crossan assert?

In a recent post I mentioned a new publication, The First Paul, by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. I said it contained some interesting bits, but also some bits that one might suspect are arguably on the dubious side of method and logic. I discussed a positive for my first post, now for a negative.

In the first-century setting of Paul and his hearers, “Christ crucified” had an anti-imperial meaning. Paul’s shorthand summary was not “Jesus died,” not “Jesus was killed,” but “Christ crucified. This meant that Jesus had been crucified by imperial authority . . . . In Paul’s world, a cross was always a Roman cross.

Rome reserved crucifixion for two categories of people: those who challenged imperial rule . . . and chronically defiant slaves . . . The two groups who were crucified had something in common: both rejected Roman imperial domination. Crucifixion . . . carried the message, “Don’t you dare defy imperial authority, or this will happen to you.

To proclaim “Christ crucified” was to signal at once that Jesus was an anti-imperial figure, and that Paul’s gospel was an anti-imperial gospel. The empire killed Jesus. The cross was the imperial “no” to Jesus. But God raised him. The resurrection was God’s “yes” to Jesus, God’s vindication of Jesus — and thus also God’s “no” to the powers that had killed him. (p. 131-2)

I admit I have much more to read on this topic, including a few books in my personal library like the twelve year old Paul and Empire by Richard Horsley which I am embarrassed to confess I still have only half read. So the argument of this post is restricted solely to the discussion as found in Borg and Crossan’s new popular book.

I have been recently blogging about the ostensibly pre-gospel passages about the crucifixion of Jesus (latest post here), arguing that this foundational event is entitled to be questioned as to its historical status, widespread opinion among biblical scholars notwithstanding. My conclusions differ radically from Borg’s and Crossan’s as cited above. So time to address their claims:

Paul’s shorthand was not “Jesus died” . . . Really?

Yes, “crucified” is the term used in chapters 1 and 2 of 1 Corinthians. But this is scarcely enough to persuade anyone familiar with Paul’s letters as a whole to think that for Paul the central act of the gospel embedded an intrinsically anti-imperialist message. In fact, it seems B’s and C’s claim here is based entirely on two chapters in but one of Paul’s several letters.

1 Corinthians

By the end of the letter it seems Paul decided to tone down this supposedly “anti-imperialistic” rhetoric and let the Jesus followers off the hook by reminding them that they were acting out Jesus’ death only in their ritual meals, not his crucifixion:

11: 26 . . . you do show the Lord’s death till he come.

2 Corinthians

In chapter 5 Paul writes three times that “Jesus died” without a hint of “anti-imperialist” crucifixion.

5:14 . . . if one died for all . . .

5:15a . . . he died for all . . .

5:15b . . . him who died for them . . .


1:1 . . . who raised him from the dead . . . [darn it! Paul just missed an excellent opportunity to drive home his anti-imperialist gospel by pronouncing God’s Yes to Jesus and No to Empire: why did he not think to write, “who raised him from the crucifixion!”? What happened to God’s “yes” to Jesus and “no” to the imperial power that crucified him?]

2:20 . . . I am crucified with Christ . . . [Gosh! So Paul deserved those floggings in Acts, and he really was justifiably executed as an anti-imperialist rebel in the end?]

2:21 . . . if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain . . .

3:1 . . . Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you . . . [Why did governor Pliny not pick up on such anti-imperialist sentiment when he asked Trajan how to handle the Christians?]

5:11 . . . if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? then is the offence of the cross ceased. . . . [Whoah a minute here! Does Paul really mean that the anti-imperialist message of the cross can be nullified by preaching circumcision??? Yet that is what acceptance of Borg’s and Crossan’s assertion would lead to! Ditto for 6:12.]

5:24 . . . And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. . . . [So drunkenness and fornication are sending anti-imperialistic messages?]

6:12 . . . they constrain you to be circumcised; only lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ. [See 5:11 above.]

6:14 . . . But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world. [This passage simply makes nonsense any attempt to read into the crucifixion an anti-imperialist message.]


Maybe it was because he was writing a letter to Christians in the imperial centre of empire, but Paul makes but one solitary reference in this letter to Jesus being crucified. But hold on, the fact that he was writing to Rome should not decide the matter in this case, because in the same letter he actually says that Christians are to see themselves as subject to a daily “crucifixion with Christ”. Is he really writing to devotees living in the shadows of the imperial palace to acknowledge that they are “anti-imperialists” by their daily conduct? See 6:6 below:

5:6 . . . Christ died for the ungodly

5:8 . . . Christ died for us

5:10 . . . the death of his Son . . .

6:6 . . . our old man is crucified with him . . .

14: 9 . . . Christ both died, and rose . . .

14:15 . . . for whom Christ died

1 Thessalonians

4:14: . . . Jesus died and rose again . . .

5:9-10 . . . our Lord Jesus Christ who died for us . . .


2:8 . . . even the death of the cross

3:10 . . . being made conformable to his death . . .

3:18 . . . enemies of the cross of Christ . . .

If “Christ crucified” were Paul’s shorthand for his gospel in order to stress its anti-imperialistic message, it appears from the above citations that this was a point he did not wish to emphasize very often, and even sometimes a wording he wanted to infuse with an alternative meaning, probably just to throw the secret police off the scent! :-)

Did Imperial Rome really hold the crucifixion patent at the time of Paul?

The answer to this question depends on our starting assumptions. If we assume before commencing our enquiries that the Jesus story and Paul’s mission as per the Book of Acts are truly based heavily on historical accounts, then the answer will be “Yes”. Paul according to this assumption knew only Roman rule and that only Roman rulers administered crucifixion.

But if we attempt to put ourselves into the minds of first century moderately informed people, then we will know we have to allow for the idea of crucifixion having many provenances. Popular “novels” of the era not uncommonly include a dramatic crucifixion scene as part of the adventurous plot, including:

In the influential philosophical treatise, Timaeus, Plato describes the gateway between the corruptible realm where our earth resides and the incorruptible divine realm as a cross, in reference to where the celestial equator and ecliptic intersect.

Neighbouring peoples such as the Persians and Seleucids had carried out crucifixions. I cannot know if Rome’s neighbours at the time of Paul did, but crucifixion was not unique to Rome. Jews, in particular, would have held a cultural memory of how one of their kings, Alexander Jannaeus, had crucified 800 Pharisees. Josephus records this for us.

Paul speaks of “princes of this world” as crucifying Jesus, suggesting that it was not Rome but some other powers (compare the information we glean from Daniel) responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.

A near Jewish contemporary of Paul and Jesus was Philo who also wrote about the crucifixion in ways surprisingly similar to Paul’s usage — allegorically, although not with any hint of anti-imperialist connotations.

Where is Philo?


So often I see Philo referred to in scholarly studies of biblical matters in order to clarify the intellectual context of the times. Curiously he has been overlooked by B and C. Here is Philo’s paragraph 61 from section XVII of On the Posterity of Cain and his Exile:

(61) Now the soul that subjects itself to bodily compunctions has the beforementioned inhabitants. Acheman, being interpreted, means, my brother, and Jesein means “outside of me,” and Thalmein means, some one in suspense; for it follows of necessity, that the body must be thought akin to the souls that love the body, and that external good things must be exceedingly admired by them, and all the souls which have this kind of disposition depend on dead things, and, like persons who are crucified, are attached to corruptible matter till the day of their death. (62) But the soul that is united to virtue has for its inhabitants those persons who are preeminent for virtue, persons whom the double cavern has received in pairs, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebeckah, Leah and Jacob, virtues and those who possess them; Chebron itself keeping the treasure-house of the memorials of knowledge and wisdom, which is more ancient than Janis and the whole land of Egypt, for nature has made the soul more ancient than the body, that is than Egypt, and virtue more ancient than vice, that is than Janis (and the name Janis, being interpreted, means the command of answer), estimating seniority rather by dignity than by length of time.

A discussion of Philo’s allegorical use of the crucifixion image can be found on pages 186-7 of David Chapman’s Ancient Jewish and Christian Perceptions of Crucifixion available on Google Books. If this Jew living under the same Roman imperial power as Paul did not associate “crucifixion” with imperialist or anti-imperialist sentiments, why should we think that Paul was compelled to do so?

Back to Borg’s and Crossan’s context of 2 Corinthians

After noting all these other passages above from the widely accepted genuine Pauline corpus, it is tempting to have a second look at the context of those passages B and C use to argue their case for an anti-imperialist message in the crucifixion.

1:23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness

If Paul were writing at a time of various seditions and troubles preceding the outbreak of the Jewish rebellion against Rome, how plausible is it, really, to suggest that Jews found an anti-imperialist gospel an offence of some sort? One would think from Josephus’s account of the various anti-Roman movements in the lead-up to the war that such a gospel would have been enthusiastically endorsed by a vast bulk of the Jews.

2:8 . . . [the princes of this world] would not have crucified the Lord of glory [Compare Daniel chapters 10 and 12 which reveal that there are divine or angelic Princes of Persia, Greece and Israel]

I am reminded of the claim of Jesus before Pilate in the Gospel of John 19:10-11

Then saith Pilate unto him, Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee? Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.

Paul clearly could not have had anything like the “tradition” that reached the author of the Gospel of John, since Paul speaks explicitly of plural princes of the world crucifying Jesus while the gospel has one human governer under the power of God alone or a single agent of God. More likely Paul had access to a narrative or treatise or group-think that could be traced back to Psalms 2: 2

The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed. . .

(The author of the Gospel of Pilate may well have used this verse too when in the surviving opener of the manuscript he appears to have pictured Herod and Pilate sitting together at the judgement of Christ.)

Long time anti-imperialist bias

11 08_6972 John Dominic Crossan

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Crossan’s earlier work, The Historical Jesus (and its popular format, Jesus: a Revolutionary Biography), was often criticized for letting show his Irish Catholic anti-

British-imperialist heritage. Methinks nothing has changed in that respect, and just as Crossan’s Jesus happened to preach Crossan’s politics, so Crossan’s Paul preaches Crossan’s politics as his gospel! How else to explain such a powerful assertion about a political message underpinning the phrase “Christ crucified” on the basis of so few citations and in defiance of so many more?

Methinks there is a stronger case for a non-historical origin for Paul’s use of the crucifixion image, but that’s another story.

But there’s more (maybe later)

I had intended the above point to have been covered in 6 lines when I started, and to follow up with B’s and C’s use of Acts and pitiful 20th century social analogies to justify their additional claims about the meaning of Paul’s message of both crucifixion and resurrection. But I’ve run out of beer and need to take a break.

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eyewitness testimony . . . . if false, they would not have said . . . . Paul teaches . . . .

You can never find a Christian who has acquired this valuable knowledge, this saving knowledge, by any process but the everlasting and all-sufficient “people say.” In all my seventy-two years and a half I have never come across such another ass as this human race is.

– Mark Twain’s Autobiography

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The Medieval Origins of the “Christ paid the penalty for us” Gospel.

I was about to start the next post in my series attempting to justify seriously questioning the “bedrock fact” status of the crucifixion of Jesus when I came across a new publication by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul : Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon.

There are some interesting enlightening details in it, and, (sorry to say, but Borg and Crossan are big enough to take and deserve it) some incredible howlers of both method and

conclusions that I would never have expected in a work by scholars of such high repute. Maybe this is because they were leaning more to accessing a popular reading public than the scholarly guild with this one. I am reminded of earlier posts where I have expressed some disgust against scholars who know better yet see fit to short change their popular readership like this. For my most recent protest, see my remarks on Pagels and King in A Spectrum of Jesus Mythicists and Mythers. I’ll address one of these lower high school level howlers in a future post. But first, something good and interesting from the book. (Anyway, I guess that’s one of the reasons for my blog — to attempt to make a bit more accessible some of the thinking of scholars on these sorts of topics.)

On page 127 they write:

For many centuries, the death of Jesus has been understood by most Christians as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin, as a substitutionary atonement, as this theological understanding is called.

This way of seeing the death of Jesus is very familiar. Most Christians today, and most non-Christians who have heard anything about Christianity, think that the cross means, in slight variations:

Jesus died for our sins.

Jesus is the sacrifice for sin.

Jesus died in our place.

Jesus is the payment for sin.

For this understanding, the notions of punishment, substitution, and payment are central. We deserve to be punished by God for our sins, but Jesus was the substitute who paide the price. The issue is how we may be forgiven by God for our sin and guilt.

Then follows what must be a bombshell for most fundamentalists in particular:

But this understanding is less than a thousand years old. (p.128)

So where did it come from?

Borg and Crossan answer: It came from a theological treatise, Cur Deus Homo? = Why Did God Become Human? by Anselm of Canterbury, first published in 1097.

Anselm of Canterbury
Image via Wikipedia

This is Anselm’s argument:

  1. All people have disobeyed God. So all people are sinners.
  2. Someone has to pay for our sin. Forgiveness means that compensation must be made for the offence or crime. If no payment was required for sin, then it would imply God does not think is anything very important.
  3. Since God is infinite, our debt to him is also infinite. But we are finite, so are incapable of paying the price owed.
  4. Jesus is infinite, and when he became human he could pay the full cost of the penalty for us as a substitute sacrifice. So we can be forgiven.

And this has been the understanding of Christianity in general ever since! Well, I never knew that! Just Kipling Just So story, only it’s probably true! ;-)

Mel Gibson and his “patron pope”, John-Paul II who apparently loved his The Passion of the Christ movie, have both preached the same Anselm Cur Deus Homo? doctrine.

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Can a fundamentalist believer avoid pejorative language among friends?

Filed under: Fundamentalism,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 7:08 am
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(slightly edited 18th june 2009)

A strongly religious friend of mine recently wrote me, in kindness, that she understood I was not the first to decide to stop following God. This may have been the only way she knew how to express something she wanted to raise with me and maybe she had no awareness of how judgmental, pejorative, such a statement really is. Did I really knowingly, with arrogance or bitterness, turn my back on a great divine power, regardless of whether I thought such a phenomenon was worthy of worship or not? Yet that’s clearly what is implied.

Because I wanted to find a way to keep our friendship on an even keel over time, I replied that no, there was no question of my choosing not to follow God, but rather, that after much study and thought, I realized the only way I could be honest with myself, and true to the best lights I had sought out, was to no longer accept the existence of God. I concluded that each of us has to walk according to the lights we have, and we are all at different places in our life’s journey.

To recast that decision, that at the time was for me a matter of integrity, and even at the time involved considerable personal cost, into an assertion that “I chose to no longer follow God”, is judgmental.

I do not address my believing friends by telling them they are superstitious, or deceived, or too closed minded and fearful to investigate their faith rationally. To do so would of course be, well, rude and judgmental. I might think such things in a general sense of many believers, but there’s a difference between addressing these issues in a general or public way on the one hand, and in addressing friends in normal day-to-day getting along on the other.

If my religious friends wish to preach a jeremiad, let them do so on a street corner or from a soapbox in a park or at their keyboards. But to bring in the pejorative language when communicating with friends only runs the risk of losing those friends over time.

Maybe part of me is becoming more sensitive as a result of living in truly multi-cultural and multi-religious Singapore. The only people I have heard of here in the news (where Buddhists and Hindus and Moslems and Christians truly do rub shoulders daily, and where the State has even decreed national holidays for each of the religions’ holy days) who have gotten into trouble over their religious practices are a couple Christians who were penalized by the courts for distributing offensive literature to peoples of other faiths (especially Moslems).

By no means do I recommend Singapore as a model society for others to follow, yet nor can I deny the good things about Singapore. There is something very encouraging about living in a society where, for most part, the different religious and ethnic groups do generally express respect, even harmony, living and working together. At least publicly there is no sign of pejorative statements made against one another. The government even has a positive option for atheists or any nonreligious people who have to fill out official forms identifying their religious status: “Freethinker”.

Now that might be the better way to approach my friend next time the pejorative language emerges. “Nope, officially you are a Christian, she’s a Buddhist, he’s a Moslem or Hindu, while I’m a Freethinker”.

In a three-way discussion with my friend, I did ask our other colleague if she was also a Christian. She replied, No, I’m a Freethinker! It has a very nice positive ring to it.

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Fundamentalist Logicide: killing word meanings (a blog post for franscisco et al)

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Fundamentalism,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 10:55 pm
Tags: , ,

Affection is expressed and felt in all human cultures. Empathy is found throughout the whole of humanity. Empathy and affection are human universals. One might call these expressions and feelings of love.

Tragically there was a time when I reinterpreted love to mean “keeping the commandments of God”. Francisco’s comments on my recent blog post about Joseph of Arimathea brought back shameful memories of my past in a fundamentalist type of religion. (As Darwin might have said, this is like confessing to a murder, now.) Such a definition of love is a form of logicide. It is a perversion, a destruction, of the meaning of “love”. And it causes pain.

When I left that church, the truth was made as starkly distinct as night is from day. Friends whose love I had for so many years known and felt was predicated solely on my belonging to their church and having the same ideas about God and the Bible. Once it was clear I had come to think differently, those friendships (most of them) dissolved like fairy floss in the rain. Only then did I see that it was never me that they loved, but only my active support for their belief system and way of life.

True to the “commandments of God”, which I believed was “true godly love, agape, etc” I also “put on” (as in the command to “put on the new man”) a persona of love for those “in the world”, family included. But I know I hurt them terribly when I shunned participation in certain rituals and customs that I (or my church) declared to be “pagan” or “worldly”. In hindsight, I can see that they were not being pagan or “worldly” at all, but simply following normal cultural mores that represent or signify your one’s identity with them, one’s living within their orbit of trust and fellowship. Sure rituals like that are a game at one level, but they are also human universals that mark where friendships and communities and families are supported. Participating in them, even when it might be personally tedious at times, is an act of genuine love.

Fundamentalist logicide very often (falsely) describes “human love” as either “lust” or “selfishness”. To do this, they must withdraw so totally from others so as not to attempt to know or understand them on their own terms. Rather, their view of others (outsiders) is defined (brainwashed) by a book that says “the whole world lies in wickedness”. This is not a loving thought. But to justify it, the fundamentalist must resort to actively witnessing his or her own interpretations and ways “like lights in dark places”.

I found genuine, yes, human, love, when I left fundamentalism. I came to feel in place of my old view that the world was divided into two opposing camps a sense of one-ness, identity, with all others — even fundamentalists. I even felt a one-ness with all living creatures, especially of course other sentient creatures. The natural world and our place in it awed me, in a poetic (some might have said “spiritual”) sense. Realizing how fragile we all are, and how alike we all are, and how unpredictable and heartless the natural world can be, and the shortness and pains and joys of existence, all of this gave my natural sense of empathy for others a sharper edge. It became all the more an imperative to make the  most of my time here, but especially to assist others in any ways I could to also have a richer and more fulfilling existence. It’s nothing special, this sort of empathy. He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother. The sentiment is found throughout the most religious and non-religious places I have experienced — Cambodia, China, Thailand, Singapore, Korea, Japan, Turkey, Czech Republic, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland and others. And my job has meant I have had to work closely with people from a dizzying array of different nationalities and languages/accents and religions. Natural human affection and empathy cuts across all of these.

Preservation of the planet, and causes of peace and justice, attracted me and filled a need in me to be actively involved in an organized and meaningful (meaning truly “impactful”) way. Such causes attract all types. But they also attract many who are likewise motivated by nothing but an empathy, a love, for people, the world, and other living creatures.

I have a deeply devout Christian friend at work. We agreed to have a time to discuss our different viewpoints one evening. We exchanged frank views in friendship, but I never had the heart to point out to her all the fallacies I believed were underlying her faith. It would have hurt her too much, stressed her, provoked a negative response, etc. It would not have been a loving thing to do. I reserve my comments for a blog where anyone interested is free to take up my thoughts. But it would be unloving and arrogant of me to attempt to sit someone down and tell them where they are all up the creek without a paddle flogging a dead horse. We are all where we are at, and that’s that (Dr Seuss, presumably.)

And I still love my children more than myself, like most parents do. And my love for my partner is far deeper than lust, though I know she appreciates a bit of that too.

The tragedy is that the Francisco’s will find fault with many of my words here and judge me entirely through the bible words in their heads, and not from a position of wanting to understand or come to know me or others as we are. And the tragedy is compounded by their idea of love wreaking so much pain and discomfort on others, and their withdrawal from cooperative efforts to make this a better world, and to do even just a little bit to make life a little more worthwhile for others, even “sinners”. They may do good deeds, and nothing wrong with that, whatever the motive. But it would be better if they could step outside their persecution and the-whole-world-lies-in-wickedness God complexes.

This post won’t achieve that of course. But who knows, maybe something will be planted that at some future date, when time and circumstances are right, will begin to blossom.

A related post of mine: Why oppose godless morality?

Recommended reading: The Mind of the Bible Believer (inspiration for my use of the term “logicide”) and Leaving the Fold (See my notes on Winnell in the Book Review section and also link to her Recovering from Religion site in my blogroll)


Timothy Keller’s “The Reason for God” — does it get any “better”?

A colleague and friend, concerned over my being an atheist, invited me to read Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God so I started to do so. I had not known who Timothy Keller was so I googled and found this wikipedia entry re this particular book:

Keller’s book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism was named Book of the Year for 2008 by World Magazine, a conservative evangelical news magazine. It rose as high as #7 on the New York Times Non-Fiction Best-Seller list in March of 2008.

That looked promising, so I looked at its table of contents and then flipped to his chapter titled “The Reality of the Resurrection”. I began reading on page 203:

The first accounts of the empty tomb and the eyewitnesses are not found in the gospels, but in the letters of Paul, which every historian agrees were written just fifteen to twenty years after the death of Jesus. One of the most interesting texts is 1 Corinthians 15:3-6:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have died.

Here Paul not only speaks of the empty tomb and resurrection on the “third day” (showing he is talking of a historical event, not a symbol of metaphor) but he also lists the eyewitnesses.

Yep, that’s what Timothy Keller wrote in his award winning best seller. That the letters of Paul not only contain “accounts”, plural, of “the empty tomb”, but a passage that he quotes and that all can see contains not a thread of a whisker of a mention of an empty tomb is boldly claimed to speak of the empty tomb!

I guess this is called argument by bluff. Just hold up a piece of paper which contains the word “was buried” and declare confidently enough that what the audience sees is something else and you just might get away with it, especially if your audience wants to believe. (Anyone who is bamboozled still needs to check the meaning of burial.)

But Keller is just warming up here. On page 205 he gives readers a double whammy,

Firstly he explains that the women were the first witnesses of the resurrection. He runs through the usual commentary on this point:

  • low social status of women meant they could not testify in court
  • no advantage to the church to publicize women being the first eyewitnesses
  • to admit women were the first eyewitnesses, Christians would know would undermine their credibility

And then the usual coup de grace (or fallacy of the false dilemma): “The only possible explanation for why women were depicted as meeting Jesus first is if they really had.”

Nothing new there, but what caught my attention was the next bit:

N.T. Wright argues that there must have been enormous pressure on the early proclaimers of the Christian message to remove the women from the accounts.

Why of course! THAT’s why Paul did not mention the women in the passage Keller had just cited! Paul succumbed to the pressure to avoid reference of the women being the first witnesses because it would undermine his credibility!

Keller continues:

They felt they could not do so — the records were too well known.

Woops. So Paul was found out? The Corinthian audience laughed when they read his pretence that it was men only who first witnessed Jesus?

But wait. There’s more. And it’s all on the same page.

Keller cites Wright again with the assertion that what really convinced people about the resurrection was not simply the eyewitnesses, nor simply the empty tomb.

If there had been only an empty tomb and no sightings, no one would have concluded it was a resurrection. They would have assumed that the body had been stolen. Yet if there had been only eyewitness sightings of Jesus and no empty tomb, no one would have concluded it was a resurrection, because people’s accounts of seeing departed loved ones happen all the time. Only if the two factors were both true would anyone have concluded that Jesus was raised from the dead.

If only Paul had the hindsight of Wright and Keller! Earlier Keller had remarked on Paul’s reference to the 500 witnesses of the resurrected Jesus.

Paul was inviting anyone who doubted that Jesus had appeared to people after his death to go and talk to the eyewitnesses if they wished. It was a bold challenge and one that could easily be taken up . . . . Paul could not have made such a challenge if those eyewitnesses didn’t exist.

What chance did he have of persuading the Corinthians of the resurrection if that’s the best he could do? He should also have told them that Jesus was resurrected from an empty tomb and to not only consult the eyewitnesses but also to take a pilgrimage to see the empty cave for themselves. After all, any of the 500 could have been just imagining a vision of their beloved messiah. Even though other accounts say there were no more than 120 loyal followers remaining. Maybe 380 of them had died by the time Luke wrote Acts so that he could not in good conscience include them in his narrative by that stage. ;-)

Those were the first three pages I read of this 2008 book of the year. How to break this gently to my friend . . . . :-(


Miraculous proof of the truth of the Moslem faith?

Filed under: Fundamentalism,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 10:57 am

A current Newsweek story:

The Guard Who Found Islam

Terry Holdbrooks stood watch over prisoners at Gitmo. What he saw made him adopt their faith.

Many Christians — myself included when I was one — have at some time been inspired by the stories of early martyrs whose courage in the face of persecution led to the conversions and baptism even of the soldiers charged with escorting them to their fates.

The archetypes of this story are two biblical narratives: one of Paul almost appearing to almost convert his judge, king Agrippa by his testimony; and another of the Philippian jailor of Paul and Silas who was baptized after hearing how happily Paul and Silas sang in their prison cell, and subsequently on hearing them happily announce that they had not taken their chance to run away when an earthquake shattered open their cell door and shook off their chains.

Thereafter Christian writers inspired pride in the astonishing examples of other martyrs that likewise led at times to the conversions even of their prison guards. Polycarp’s military escort were so moved by Polycarp’s apparent piety and good character that they “repented” that they had had anything to do with his arrest:

After feasting the guards who apprehended him, he desired an hour in prayer, which being allowed, he prayed with such fervency, that his guards repented that they had been instrumental in taking him. He was, however, carried before the proconsul, condemned, and burnt in the market place. (Fox’s Book of Martyrs)

Some Christians look on stories like these as signs or evidence, even proofs, of the truly divine source of their faith.

So it is instructive to read in the current issue of Newsweek the story headlined as at the beginning of this post.

Interested readers can access the full story by Dan Ephron online

in original page context

as a single page for print

or as a backup in Information Clearing House


Eddy and Boyd, The Jesus Legend. Overview impressions.

Eddy and Boyd’s book, The Jesus Legend, reminds me of Intelligent Design literature. It is an attempt to guise faith in serious sounding academic garb. While ID aspires to be accepted as an equal explanation beside evolutionary theory, The Jesus Legend aspires to be accepted as an alternative scholarly historiographical hypothesis to explain Christian origins. (Indeed, at least one of the authors is associated with a website promoting Intelligent Design.)

It is also a book that could only have been written by religionists from the USA. The authors at times appear to equate surveys of U.S. beliefs regarding miracles and the supernatural with the experience of the vast bulk of all human experience at all times, against which are pitted only a few sheltered Western academics. They seem oblivious to the implications of applying their reasoning to anything other than their religious interests, such as popular beliefs in astrology, common superstitions and folklore, aboriginal dreaming, etc. They also naively (regularly) equate a gospel narrative and reported sayings with direct tangible evidence that such and such was really seen or experienced as historical fact.

In a recent post I showed how Eddy and Boyd misrepresented David Hume’s argument against the rationality of believing in miracles, and only subsequently noticed that E & B hinge the relevance of their entire book on their supposed demonstration of the fallaciousness of Hume’s argument.

Hume’s argument renders all possible historical arguments in favor of Jesus’s rising from the dead virtually irrelevant. For no conceivable historical evidence could possibly overturn such an overwhelmingly improbable claim — if, again, Hume’s argument is valid. (p.42)

So until someone can demonstrate that their argument about David Hume’s sceptical position is indeed valid, I can conclude that it’s entire argument is a waste of time.

Another fatal flaw in Eddy’s and Boyd’s argument is its inflexibility in the range of alternative naturalistic explanations they appear willing to consider. Finding a weakness in one naturalistic explanation for the origins of Christianity would normally prompt historical researchers to refine that explanation or consider alternative (naturalistic) hypotheses. Eddy and Boyd, however, drive home their supernaturalistic hypothesis at each and every sign of a weakness in a single naturalistic hypothesis.

This is a bit like Renaissance astronomer Kepler discovering that the model of circular orbits of planets did not fit the recorded observations, and deciding to opt for angels interfering with planetary orbits from time to time in preference to testing the evidence against a model of eliptical orbits instead. Fortunately for us it was Kepler who was working at giving us the understanding of how planets orbit the sun and not Eddy and Boyd. The latter may well have decided that since God can cause the sun to stand still and a star to stand over a manger that there was no need to attempt any naturalistic explanation of planetary movements — their supernaturalistic hypothesis had the power to explain everything!

Another feature of “interest” is the way Eddy and Boyd massage the naive reader with word-play. They emphasize, with italics, that the assumptions of the naturalistic approach to historical enquiry are not proven.

This assumption . . . does not have to be proven: it is presupposed. (p. 44)

Naturalistic assumptions are a fatal flaw in the whole naturalistic enterprise? Eddy and Boyd complain that by approaching the world through naturalistic assumptions one tends to be able to explain the world naturally. There remains no room for the miraculous, they protest. (Assumptions are generally of the nature of values and perspectives that by nature are not “provable”, but “recognized”, in scholarly discourse.)

Not surprisingly, the results “worked out in the whole field of her activity” serve to demonstrate the validity of the assumption. (p.44)

But the fact is that the naturalistic approach to historiography is not as circular as E&B imply. The assumptions of naturalism rest on the successful testing of the model in the field of the physical sciences. This success gives very strong grounds for viewing the entire world of human experience through the same presumption of naturalism.

Consistently applied, this reasoning of E&B would need to find even stronger grounds for the reality of miracles (that questions of nature are more generally best explained by miracles than by natural law) to justify replacing the naturalistic presumption underlying modern historiography.

As time permits I’ll try to address various other aspects of The Jesus Legend hypothesis in some detail. It does, after all, appear to be something of a ‘standard’ to which many fundamentalists appeal.


Miracles 2: another misrepresentation of David Hume’s sceptical argument

This post should be Part 2 of my ‘reviews’ or notes re “God, Actually” by Roy Williams (1).

The subtitle of Roy Williams’ book is “Why God probably exists, Why Jesus was probably divine, and Why the ‘rational’ objections to religion are unconvincing”.

Roy Williams wishes to define a miracle in terms that do not presuppose a god, so embraces English philosopher Brian Davies’ definition of a miracle as

an event that cannot be explained in terms intelligible to the natural scientist or observer of the regular processes of Nature. (p.163)

That’s hardly a very good definition. It would mean that any event that is not currently understood by science is miraculous. It would mean that if Einstein had not been born or no-one had postulated the theory of relativity at the time that a star’s light was seen to actually bend around the sun at the time of an eclipse, then that bending of starlight would have to be defined as even more miraculous than the bending of Uri Geller’s spoon. Did lightning only cease to be a miracle after the discovery of electricity? The role of science has been to uncover natural explanations for things that once could not be explained naturally. Still a wee way to go too.

Roy Williams distils David Hume’s argument against the possibility of a true miracle being honestly reported into four points (p.165):

  1. no such testimony has ever been given by enough people of adequate learning and intelligence;
  2. people are naturally gullible and untrustworthy;
  3. reports of miracles tend to emanate from ‘ignorant and barbarous nations’;
  4. and different religions report different miracles, and this invalidates all such reports.

Of the first three points Williams writes:

they amount to saying that no human observer can ever be completely trusted. This seems to me a cynical generalisation, a prime example of reductionism.

With this dismissal, Roy Williams’ dismisses David Hume from the remainder of his discussion of miracles, apart from a later section where he treats point 4 separately.

Williams depicts David Hume’s scepticism as extremist and even unnatural in its relationship to the rest of humanity. My own scepticism has been accompanied by a deeper sense of affinity with the rest of human kind, and David Hume’s argument never struck me as so cynical. Compare Roy Williams’ rationalization for dismissing David Hume with what Hume actually wrote in his famous section on miracles:

. . . we may observe, that there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men, and the reports of eye-witnesses and spectators. . . . It will be sufficient to observe that our assurance in any argument of this kind is derived from no other principle than our observation of the veracity of human testimony, and of the usual conformity of facts to the reports of witnesses.

Far from coming within two miles of even suggesting that “no human observer can ever be completely trusted”, Hume flatly states from the start that acceptance of eye-witness testimony is the most common, useful and even necessary of “species of reasoning” we all have.

Were not the memory tenacious to a certain degree; had not men commonly an inclination to truth and a principle of probity; were they not sensible to shame, when detected in a falsehood: were not these, I say, discovered by experience to be qualities, inherent in human nature, we should never repose the least confidence in human testimony. A man delirious, or noted for falsehood and villainy, has no manner of authority with us.

There is no room in the passage from David Hume for Roy Williams to dismiss his writing as a “cynical generalization” against the normal course of eyewitness testimony of fellow human beings. On the contrary, Hume begins with “the charitable” position that most people are generally inclined to tell the truth about what they witness throughout life. Most people, Hume asserts, have no wish to be disgraced by being found out to be liars.

This passage from David Hume pulls the rug from beneath Roy Williams’ reasons for dismissing Hume’s arguments, and obliges Williams to seriously return to engage with the detail of Hume’s actual argument.

So if Hume asserts that it is natural and necessary to rely on eyewitness testimony as a general rule, under what circumstances does Hume then open the way to doubting others? He explains:

We entertain a suspicion concerning any matter of fact, when the witnesses contradict each other; when they are but few, or of a doubtful character; when they have an interest in what they affirm; when they deliver their testimony with hesitation, or on the contrary, with too violent asseverations. There are many other particulars of the same kind, which may diminish or destroy the force of any argument, derived from human testimony.

So how does Hume treat accounts of miracles in books that have a reputation of being authored by historians, or even just from any person with a reputation for being of good character?

The reason why we place any credit in witnesses and historians, is not derived from any connexion, which we perceive a priori, between testimony and reality, but because we are accustomed to find a conformity between them.

Hume argues that the reason we tend to believe historians and others is because our experiences have conditioned us to expecting them to tell the facts.

But when the fact attested is such a one as has seldom fallen under our observation, here is a contest of two opposite experiences; of which the one destroys the other, as far as its force goes, and the superior can only operate on the mind by the force, which remains.

But if an historian or otherwise honourable person proclaims a miracle, then our experience that miracles do not happen is enough to alert us that in this case the otherwise trustworthy person is mistaken. Hence most readers of Josephus today may take many of his details of the history of the Jewish war as factual, but will not treat his reports of miracles as having the same level of credibility. Similarly ancient historians like Herodotus and Livy pass on many historical details that we are at liberty to assume as factual, but no-one embraces their tales of miracles with the same certainty.

Hume argues for consistency:

The very same principle of experience, which gives us a certain degree of assurance in the testimony of witnesses, gives us also, in this case, another degree of assurance against the fact, which they endeavour to establish; from which contradiction there necessarily arises a counterpoize, and mutual destruction of belief and authority.

The reason we generally accept certain information from historians as factual is the same reason we dismiss their reports of miracles.

Many fundamentalists and other Christians who dismiss the miracles in pagan histories yet believe in the Bible’s miracles are being inconsistent. They treat the “facts” in pagan histories as historical for the same reason most people do — readers are accustomed to finding correlations between the writings of historians and true facts. And they find it as easy as any sceptic to dismiss as untrue any event (a miracle) that goes against their experience of nature and the world. But they treat the Bible differently (as a book whose words are permitted to assume greater authority than our own personal experiences) and therefore the miracles of the Bible must be accepted.

David Hume does not write cynically or with sweeping generalization against the trustworthiness of people. I have quoted his writings on how he approaches normal eyewitness testimony to show that he is hardly a reductionist (as Williams suggests).

In the first part of his essay on miracles Hume presented the rational argument against believing in them. In the second part of his essay he discusses four reasons for disbelieving the testimony that does exist for miracles. Williams dot-pointed these 4 (above) and Hume’s discussion of each of them can be found in part 2 of his essay.

Disappointingly, after dismissing David Hume’s scepticism as cynical and reductionist, Williams discusses the miracles of Jesus as if they are known to us all from multitudes of eyewitnesses. Of course, we only have four gospels, with at least two and very likely three all largely mutations from the original one (GMark) — not multitudes of eyewitnesses at all.  The fact that one author wrote a story about multitudes of witnesses, and that that story was modified by others, and that it was not testified till the second century c.e., is scarcely credible evidence for miracles being performed a century earlier. We have more reason to believe the historian Tacitus who “reported” miracles by the emperor Vespasian within a decade or two of his lifetime.

But I will leave the last word to Roy Williams here and leave it to readers to ask the obvious follow up questions it leaves hanging. Roy Williams argues against Hume’s fourth point as follows:

My own view is that the consistency of such reports through human history is suggestive that miracles do — rarely — occur. Has the Catholic Church always been wrong when, as a precondition to conferring sainthoods, it has accepted reports of miracles? I doubt it. (p.293)


Miracles: fundamentalist misrepresentation of David Hume’s sceptical argument

Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd are widely reputed among fundamentalist circles for having authored a “most important book . . . for critical assessment of the Gospels”, “a powerfully argued defence of the historical reliability of the Synoptic Gospels”, “a thoroughly compelling cumulative argument – one of the very best available – for the reliability of the Synoptic Jesus tradition”, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus tradition. Average Amazon.com rating is 4 and a half stars out of a max possible of five!

I have repeatedly been urged by fundamentalists to read it for myself. So now I have begun to do that. I really had hoped for something substantial after the hype, but so far have been a bit disappointed.

To take just one point here, — Eddy and Boyd’s argument against eighteenth century Enlightenment sceptical philosopher David Hume‘s writings against belief in miracles — pages 61-63 of The Jesus Legend. (I have already addressed another point or two of theirs and will, no doubt, address more. The complete set will be found in the Eddy and Boyd link under BOOK REVIEWS & NOTES on the right margin of this blog.)

Here’s how Eddy and Boyd sum up David Hume’s argument against believing in miracles:

Hume defined a miracle as “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agents.” With this definition in hand, Hume concluded that it is always irrational to believe a miracle had occurred. To Hume’s way of thinking, one must weigh the probability of a claim that a “transgression” of a natural law (a miracle) had occurred against . . . every confirmed instance of this law being confirmed . . . (pp. 41-42)

Thus against a report that one man had risen from the dead must be counted the number of times people who die stay dead. Eddy and Boyd rightly conclude that such an argument means that no historian can ever rationally believe a report that one man rose from the dead. But they go further and argue that this argument is invalid, and they argue it is invalid by directly misrepresenting what Hume actually wrote. (I’d like to think they had not read Hume directly for a long time, or being rushed they over-relied on common wrong assumptions about what Hume wrote.)

They continue:

The Perfect Bridge Hand – A Circular Straw Man Fallacy

(E&B cite N.Geisler’s The Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, 1999, for this)

One problem with Hume’s line of reasoning is that he seems to associate rational thinking with adding up evidence rather than weighing evidence. To rationally determine whether one has been randomly dealt a perfect bridge hand, for example, one wouldn’t simply add up all the possible alternative hands one could have been randomly dealt and compare it with the odds of getting a perfect bridge hand (1,635,013,559,600 to 1) Were this the case it would obviously never be rational to accept that one had been dealt a perfect bridge hand — even if, as a matter of fact, one was holding one!

Eddy and Boyd have subtly twisted Hume’s argument in the above passage. Where Hume made a case about the likelihood of predicting a certain event, Eddy and Boyd give the impression that Hume would dispute the possibility of a past event known to have happened.

Eddy and Boyd:

The way a rational person goes about determining whether or not he or she has been randomly dealt a perfect bridge hand is by looking at the empirical evidence. Is the person in fact holding a perfect bridge hand?

And THAT is exactly what David Hume was arguing. Eddy and Boyd appear not to have brushed up on Hume’s argument before attempting such a “refutation”.

So to let David Hume speak for a moment from his famous passage on miracles, Section 10 of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

Though experience be our only guide in reasoning concerning matters of fact; it must be acknowledged, that this guide is not altogether infallible, but in some cases is apt to lead us into errors. One, who in our climate, should expect better weather in any week of June than in one of December, would reason justly, and conformably to experience; but it is certain, that he may happen, in the event, to find himself mistaken. However, we may observe, that, in such a case, he would have no cause to complain of experience; because it commonly informs us beforehand of the uncertainty . . . . All events follow not with like certainty from their supposed causes. . . .  so that, in our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence.

A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.

In other words, Hume is arguing that the odds of experiencing worse weather in any one week in June than in December are small, but not impossible. And the mathematical odds of being randomly dealt a perfectly bridge hand are so astronomical that it would be irrational to expect to be dealt one, but if one was dealt one, then one knows just how astonishingly rare such an event is.

Hume says that past experience teaches us that we can have absolute certainty about some things happening or not happening (e.g. the sun rising or dead cats not rising). Our experience teaches us that there has never been an exception to those events so we can have the highest assurance they will remain true tomorrow.

The chances of being dealt a perfect bridge hand are quantifiable numerically, so they are not infinite. One can say that a tossed coin will have a 50-50 chance of landing heads up, so one can have a rational fifty-fifty assurance that it will land heads. But experience also teaches us that a coin may land tails up many times before it really does land heads up. The rational expectation (50 -50 chance) is not invalid, however. The question of the perfect bridge hand is merely an extension of the degree of expectation, of assurance, one can have. One knows it is possible by the “laws of probability” while at the same time confessing that one is not likely to see it happen in one’s lifetime.

In between these two extremes one might place the odds of “YOU” winning the Lotto. Not likely, but possible, so “you” keep dreaming, and paying.

Eddy and Boyd distort Hume’s argument. Hume is arguing that it is our physical senses, including reason, that inform us of the likelihood of an event happening. And that it is our physical senses, including reason, that also inform us either directly or indirectly whether an event has really happened. Hume would not deny that he had been dealt a perfect bridge hand if indeed he had, but he would be extremely confident he never would be dealt a second, and that he may even have been the only person in history who ever will be dealt such a hand. It is a straw man argument for E & B to say he would not believe it if it happened because the odds, not even infinite odds, are against it.

It is also a circular argument that E & B make, because they are assuming that the resurrection of Jesus can be proven. It is only with this assumption that the odds against a raising the dead can be reduced to a finite, and therefore a technically possible probability ratio.

The Unusual and The Impossible – they really are not in the same peapod

Eddy & Boyd further stretch (distort) Hume’s argument by writing:

Second, if carried through consistently, Hume’s methodology would render it unreasonable to conclude that anything unusual ever happens, since, by definition, there are far more usual events than unusual ones. . . . In fact, Hume’s methodology would justify denying that a miracle occurred even if one witnessed it personally. (pp.61-62)

The same passage from Hume that I copied above demonstrates the failure of Eddy and Boyd to understand Hume’s argument.

Hume indeed discusses unusual experiences (e.g. having a finer week of weather in June than in December). All that this means is that we are surprised that something unusual has happened, and we talk about it. The fact that something happened against the odds is the very definition of a “surprising” or an “unusual” event.

Eddy and Boyd cite the conquests of Alexander the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte as so “unusual” (they use the adjective “mind-boggling” to describe the exploits of these men) that according to Hume’s argument, a sceptic must not believe they ever happened.

Thus, E&B conclude, one must “weigh” the evidence, not merely “add up” the evidence. They mean one must not judge the likelihood that an event has happened according to mathematical probability (adding up the evidence). Rather, they argue that one must “weigh” the evidence. “Weighing” is (instructively, I would suggest) left as a vague and undefined concept in their book.

But of course E and B know as well as anyone that there are very real naturalistic explanations (economic and geo-political etc) for the unusual moments of conquests of extraordinarily large areas by military leaders throughout history. There are no naturalistic reasons for believing that cats, or any other mammal, run over by trucks or skewered to stakes, ever comes to life again.

Eddy and Boyd vainly try to squeeze a supernatural event, a defiance of the laws of gravity, of physics, of cellular biology, into the realm of “possible” and therefore “probable” to some extent.

Hume, in fact, argues that while our experiences teach us that some events may possibly happen, they can be expected to happen only very rarely, and maybe never in our own lifetimes. A wise man looks at the evidence, including that of his own experience, Hume wrote, and from there he makes a rational assessment of the probability of a similar event happening again. If there are NO instances at all of inexplicable gravity defiance (an apple or man “falling” upwards and taken up by the clouds and angels “into heaven”) then the likelihood of such an event happening in the future is zero, infinitely improbable.

E&B conclude by effectively charging Hume with biased reasoning against the supernatural:

Hume’s reasoning about miracles, it seems, was filtered through his a priori convictions about the probabilistically inviolable laws of nature, which rendered it virtually certain that miracles do not occur. (p.62)

Note E&B’s reduction of the laws of nature, let’s take gravity as an example, to a matter of (finite mathematical) probability and to what is “virtually certain”. Is it really a matter of finite mathematical probability that a rock will sink if you throw it into deep water? Is it only “virtually certain” that if you are caught out in the rain without cover you will get wet?

I find it somewhat amusing (also somewhat hypocritical) that fundamentalists resort to the relativity of post-modernism to push their anti-scientific, anti-enlightenment and psychologically and socially retrograde agendas of black-and-white absolutes.

There’s another side to David Hume’s argument about belief in miracles that Eddy and Boyd do not address at all in their book, but I’ll save that one for another post.

(P.S. Yes, yes, I know that the laws of physics don’t behave in the same way the closer we get to the singularity or the speed of light etc, but fundamentalists don’t believe in the big-bang anyway. Also I know that one day something might crash into the earth knocking it to smithers so there’s no more rising of the sun, etc etc. But the discussion that interests me is the one of human experience in the here and now)


Psychologist Dorothy Rowe: “Churches keep me in business”

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Fundamentalism,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 10:54 am
Tags: ,

One of my favourite interviewers, Philip Adams, discusses the role of religion in depressive disorders with world renowned psychologist, Dorothy Rowe.

She spends a lot of time talking with her patients, not only about their problems, but about their philosophy of life – which is unusual in a psychologist. But for her it’s essential because she says that our ideas about life and death, the afterlife, about good and evil, are the window to our sense of self. And much of our unhappiness stems from having an insecure sense of self.

Download the podcast (about 12 MB and about 15 or 20 minutes of discussion) and check the blurb here.

Some clients, she says, can’t be cured because the rewards from their belief systems and consequent depression are too great for them to change. Clients of different belief systems become depressed in different ways. But the root of it all is the sense of sin and guilt and unworthiness that churches inculcate.

Dorothy’s website: http://dorothyrowe.com.au/

Philip Adams interview and podcast:  http://www.abc.net.au/rn/latenightlive/stories/2008/2413425.htm


An Open Letter to Sarah Palin

Filed under: Fundamentalism,Politics & Society,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 8:47 pm

An open letter to Sarah Palin, from Marlene Winell, Ph.D.

Dear Sarah,

As a former fundamentalist, I’d like to call you on what you are doing.

This is not about disrespecting your private beliefs.  But you have a huge conflict of interest here by running for office and you can’t have it both ways (see Jesus’ words in John 2:15).

You have not been honest about the most important thing about you:  the fact that you are a born-again, literal Bible-believing, fundamentalist Christian.   Voters need to know you are not merely a “Christian” – a follower of Christ’s teachings.

Most people who have never been entrenched in the subculture of fundamentalist Christianity may not understand what this really means, but I do.  Like you, I was raised in the Assemblies of God and I was a zealous part of the Jesus Movement.  Like you, my life was consumed with seeking God’s will for my life and awaiting the imminent return of Jesus.   It’s clear to me that you want to do the Lord’s will; you’ve said and done things like a true believer would.  You are on a mission from God.   If that is not true, then I challenge you to deny it.

Former fundamentalists like me know that your worldview is so encompassing, authoritarian, and powerful that it defines who you think you are, the way you view the world, history, other people, the future, and your place in the world.  It defines you far more than hockey mom, wife, woman, hunter, governor, or VP candidate.

You believe that every bit of the Bible is God’s perfect word.  You have a supernatural view of reality where Satan is a real entity and where good and evil beings are engaged in “spiritual warfare” (Ephesians 6:12).   Like Queen Esther, you believe that God has “called” and “anointed” you to lead America.  This is why you have accepted blessing for office through the “laying on of hands” and prayer to protect you from witchcraft.

So what does this mean for governing?  What could Americans expect with you at the helm?

You cannot affirm basic human decency or capability, because according to your dogma, we are sinful, weak, and dependant on God. And so, your decisions would not be based on expert advice or even your own reasoning, but on your gut-level, intuitive interpretation of God’s will.   This would allow you to do anything and claim you were led by God.

Your thinking necessarily is black or white.  People and policies are either good or bad.  After all, Jesus said, “He who is not with me is against me” (Matt. 12:30).  Under your leadership, diplomacy and cultural nuance would be less important than not blinking.  In a spiritual war, you don’t negotiate with the devil.

Regarding social policy, as a believer in individual salvation, you would emphasize individual morality and responsibility, not a community approach with structural solutions.  You would be judgmental and controlling of personal choices regarding sex, reproduction, and library books instead of addressing global warming, torture, poverty, and war.  Your belief in eternal hell-fire, your deference to a literal Bible despite its cruelties and vengeful god, and your indoctrination to disbelieve your own compassionate instincts, are likely to leave you numb at your moral core.  You might recall the verse, “If a man will not work he shall not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10).  However, faith-based initiatives would be okay because they would use caring to evangelize.

How about science?  As it has in your governorship, your interpretation of the Bible would trump scientific scholarship and findings.  You would deny the human role in global warming because God is in control.  More importantly, you would not make the environment a priority because you do not expect the earth to last.

International affairs?  Since your subculture has identified the establishment of Israel in 1948 as the beginning of the end, you would see war, epidemics, climate change, and natural disasters, all as hopeful signs of Jesus’ return.  You would be a staunch supporter of Israel and deeply suspicious of countries like Russia identified with the antichrist in the end times literature.  (You have publicly said that you expect Jesus to return in your lifetime and that it guides you every day.)

The Christian fundamentalism that has shaped your thinking teaches that working for peace is unbiblical and wrong because peace is not humanly possible without the return of Jesus (1 Thess. 5:2,3).  Conflict, even outright war is inevitable, for Jesus came not to bring peace but a sword (Matt: 10:34-37).  Like millions of fundamentalist Christians, you may actually find joy in global crises because these things portend His return (Luke 21:28).

But all of this certainty and fantasy in today’s complex world is dangerous, Sarah.  There was a time when all of humanity thought the world was flat.  Today, the stakes for such massive error are much higher.

So we want to know, Sarah, Warrior Princess for God —  How dare you presume to take responsibility for our country and our planet when you, in your own mind, do not consider this home?   I mean home for the long haul, not just until your rescue arrives from space.  How dare you look forward to Christ’s return, leaving your public office empty like a scene from the movie, Left Behind?

What if you are completely wrong and you wreak havoc instead with your policies?  If you deny global warming, brand people and countries “evil,” support war, and neglect global issues, you can create the apocalypse you are expecting.  And as it gets worse and worse, and you look up for redemption, you just may not see it.  What then?  In that moment, you and all who have shared your delusion may have the most horrifying realization imaginable.   And it will be too late.  Too late to avoid destruction and too late to apologize to all the people who tried to turn the tide and needed you on board.

And you, John McCain, how dare you endanger all of us for the sake of your politics?  How dare you choose a partner who is all symbol and no substance, preying on the fears of millions of Americans?   Shame on both of you.

Leave this beautiful, fragile earth to us, the unbelievers in your fantasy.  It’s the only heaven we have and you have no right to make it a hell.


Marlene Winell, Ph.D.
October 21, 2008

Marlene Winell is a Bay Area psychologist who specializes in recovery from fundamentalist religion.  She is author of Leaving the Fold:  A guide for former fundamentalists and others leaving their religion. She is the daughter of Assemblies of God missionaries.   A longer article about Sarah Palin’s religion is on Dr. Winell’s website:  www.marlenewinell.net

Some aspects of Marlene’s book, Leaving the Fold, are covered in my Winell: Leaving the Fold category.


Senator McCain the AntiChrist!

Filed under: Fundamentalism,Politics & Society,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 11:56 pm

Biblical scholars in Colorado Springs have uncovered startling evidence that Senator John McCain may be the Antichrist. Their conclusions, while highly controversial, may have a dramatic impact on the 2008 elections, since many Bible-believing Christians have already expressed doubts about McCain’s fealty to Christianity.

The analysis was conducted by the respected True Bible Society, and it will be published next month in the End Times Journal.

Check out the rest of this (only funny coz it’s true) “Election Shocker!” at its source, The Nation’s blog, The Dreyfuss Report.






Leaving your religion?

Filed under: Fundamentalism,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 2:51 pm
following is a notice from Marlene Winell I think might be of interest to some. . . .

It’s not the end of the world!   Join us at a recovery retreat.


August 15-17, 2008, with Dr. Marlene Winell

Do you feel alone in your struggle for healing?  Come to a supportive and powerful weekend with others who can understand you — an oasis from dogmatic teachings and judgmental groups.  We’ll rant and rave, tell our stories, discuss the issues, visualize, role-play, dance and draw – whatever it takes to think for ourselves and reclaim our lives.  A joyful, empowered life is your birthright and you can start now.

WHEN: FRIDAY, Aug. 15, 7PM – SUNDAY, Aug. 17, 3PM.

WHERE: A beautiful house in Berkeley, California,
with hot tub and other amenities.

COST: $320 for the workshop, $125 for room and board. Financial need considered & options available.

TO REGISTER: Call 510-292-0509 or send an email to recoveryfromreligion@gmail.com.  Register soon as group size is limited.

Dr. Marlene Winell is a psychologist & author of “Leaving the Fold:  A Guide for Former Fundamentalists & Others Leaving their Religion.”  She has a practice in Berkeley & also counsels individuals by phone.   For more info, mailing list,  comments about retreats, & Youtube link, visit: www.marlenewinell.net. Or call Dr. Winell for a complimentary discussion about your interest.


Retreat for Those Recovering from Toxic Religion

Filed under: Book Reviews & Notes,Fundamentalism,Religion,Winell: Leaving the Fold — Neil Godfrey @ 12:42 pm

Dr Marlene Winell is running another “Release and Reclaim” workshop for those interested in sharing with others their efforts to recover from the effects of harmful fundamentalist and cultic religious experiences, or are still in the process of coming out of religion. It is to be held August 15-17, 2008, at Berkeley, California.

Details can be found here on Marlene’s website.

She has posted comments on previous workshops here.

And a videoclip of a retreat is available on YouTube.


On J. P. Holding’s response to Vridar critique re authenticity of Paul

J. P. Holding has responded to my earlier article on this blog, Authenticity of Paul’s Letters: Holding versus Detering, with a webpage critiquing my post.

It is an interesting response. I had seen it earlier on a discussion board but dismissed it at the time as not worth the effort of a response. But since then it has appeared in a more stable form as a webpage on his site so I have decided to point out the fallacies and dishonesty in his claims here. Not that I expect Holding to link this response to his page, of course. (more…)


Criteria for authenticity – final post (Fabricating Jesus / Evans)

Continued from More criteria . . . . Again, this post is part of a series of posts in response to Evans’s accusation that “no one trained in history” would ever think the evidence for the “historical Jesus” to be as thin as some of the radical critics assert.

Evans (Fabricating Jesus) lists two more criteria for establishing authenticity of Gospel sayings and deeds: Semitisms and Palestinian background, and Coherence (or consistency),

Semitisms and Palestinian background

This criterion . . . suggests that sayings and deeds that reflect the Hebrew or Aramaic language (Semitisms), of reflect first-century Palestine (geography, topography, customs, commerce) are what we should expect of authentic material. (pp. 50-51)

This explanation hardly lends justice to claiming that “semitisms and Palestinian background” ought to be regarded as a “criterion” for authenticity. I am quite sure Evans does not mean to suggest that if a saying does not reflect a “semitism” or a deed does not point to a specific “Palestinian background” that they must be ruled out as inauthentic!

Evans himself is clearly aware of the weakness of this “as a criterion of authenticity” on other grounds, too. He admits that semitisms detected behind the Greek translation do not mean that a saying was spoken by Jesus.

By all means it is certainly true that if Jesus did speak Aramaic (though in cosmopolitan Galilee is it not also possible he spoke Greek?), and if some of these sayings were handed down and translated into Greek and appeared in that form in our Gospels, then yes, we might expect some of them to retain traces of semitic constructions behind the Greek translation. But it does not follow that such a train of events preceded any particular case of a Greek saying that shows some evidence of a semitic original.

Ditto for the Palestinian background. The mere fact that the story of the gospels is set in Galilee and Jerusalem makes it virtually inevitable that there will be some “Palestinian background” reflected in some deeds and sayings. It does not follow that the narrator is faithfully recording the sayings and deeds of an historical Jesus.

Coherence (or consistency)

Finally, the criterion of coherence (or consistency) is also useful and functions in some ways as a catch-all. According to this criterion, material that is consistent with material judged authentic on the basis of other criteria may also be regarded as authentic. (p.51)

Nothing to say on this that has not already been said, in particular with the discussion of the criterion of Historical Coherence.

Summing up the criteria

Not one of the criteria can be used logically as a basis for judging the authenticity of a deed or saying. At best they can indicate plausibility. All historical events are at face value plausible — simply because they have actually happened. (Some events have appeared to be out of character for the actors involved, and some have happened unexpectedly, but that only means there are degrees of plausibility in hindsight.)

Much historical fiction, propaganda, false rumours and widespread beliefs only ever gain a foothold to begin with simply because they are plausible to the hearers or readers.

Criteria for authenticity that claim to be able to help us second guess what actually was said or done are not a substitute for genuine historical evidence. They are a lounge-chair substitute for primary evidence, if they are indeed expected to tell us as much. But no one “trained in history” can have any justification for placing on them any logical burden greater than they can bear.

The fundamentalist subterfuge

At this point Craig Evans writes:

All of these criteria have their place and can make (and have made) useful contributions to the scholarly study of the historical Jesus. They enable historians to give good reasons for judging this saying or that deed attributed to Jesus as authentic. The problem is in assuming that everything that is attributed to Jesus that does not enjoy support from one or more of the criteria should be regarded as inauthentic. (p.51)

In other words, I believe I am safe in interpreting this to mean that Evans wants just about everything in the Gospels to be believed as authentic even if none of the scholarly criteria for authenticity can support it. “Just about everything” because elsewhere Evans concedes that a few passages like that about the woman taken in adultery in the Gospel of John do not belong in any of the early manuscripts.

I also believe I am on solid ground in detecting dog-whistle language in the above paragraph by Evans. Read carefully, he says no more than that the criteria are “have their place”, “can make useful contributions”, “enable . . . good reasons”. But of course faith does not depend on “good reasons” that are better constructed to assist the tasks of a scholar. And Evans implies the obvious, that the criteria do not “have their place” and can make no “useful contributions” in those cases where a Gospel saying or deed are not supported by any of the criteria.

If I am seeing intellectual subterfuge where it does not really exist then I will be happy to be better informed. But having spent many years of my life within the ranks of fundamentalist believing Christians of various ilks, I think I am safe in saying I know enough of how they think and relate to the (unbelieving) public to make this accusation here with some confidence.

More criteria for authenticity: Historical Coherence (Fabricating Jesus / Evans)

Continuing from 3 criteria for authenticity . . . . (this little series was prompted by Evans accusation that no historian “trained in history” would ever come to the sorts of conclusions about Jesus that some radical critics have arrived at.)

Historical Coherence

When the Gospels tell us things that cohere with what we know of Jesus’ historical circumstances and principal features of his life and ministry, it is reasonable to believe that we are on solid ground. (Fabricating Jesus, p.48 )


I do not follow the logic here. Either something happened or it didn’t. A novelist can create scenes that “cohere” with what is known of the historical period and personalities that are consist the background of their work of fiction. A theologian or preacher may create a moral tale that “coheres” with the historical characters and settings the audience knows. People will often believe false propaganda about an enemy if it “coheres” with what they believe to be known historical facts.

Coherence and/or Historical Fact

A “coherent” story is not any more true by virtue of its coherence. Stalin was known to have distrusted just about everyone. So if I read a historical tale that he trusted Hitler not to invade Russia I can dismiss it, according to the logic underpinning the “criterion of historical coherence”. That the most distrustful of people (as evidenced by the executions and purges of those closest to him) should trust the least trustworthy of men not to commit the thing he feared the most is not “historically coherent”, but of course, it is historical fact. So it is a matter of fact and logic that “historically/biographically incoherent” things can and do happen, and that fictitious events can be and are created that are “historically coherent”.

The criterion of “historical coherence”, it seems to me, suffers the same logical difficulty of circular reasoning as the criterion of Dissimilarity (discussed in previous post).

Is a well constructed plot all that is needed for plausibility? What of authenticity?

Evans continues:

Jesus drew a following, attracted the attention of the authorities, was executed and yet was proclaimed Israel’s Messiah and God’s Son. Deeds and sayings attributed to him in the Gospels that cohere with these major elements and, indeed, help us understand these major elements should be judged authentic.

This of course is completely circular. It does not help establish historicity. It assumes historicity. It assumes that at least some parts of the Gospels are true, and argues that therefore anything that explains those bits of the Gospels must also be true. We know the widow in this crime novel murdered her husband, so we know it was true that she stood to collect a nice insurance payout if her husband died, because that explains why she murdered him.

Historical coherence can inform us of the plausibility of an event or saying within a given context, but it cannot of itself establish its historical status.

If it were that simple, then it one could say that it is reasonable to believe that Jesus ordered a fish to be caught so it could be opened up to yield a coin to pay his taxes, that he walked on water and rose from the dead simply because these are coherent with other statements in the Bible about him. In other words, even the most implausible claims can be raised to a status of credibility simply on the grounds that they are told within a coherent story narrative.

Logically this means that even the miracle stories of Jesus found outside the canonical gospels — e.g. his miraculously extending the length of a piece of timber that his carpenter father had cut too short — are also “authentic” too. Will Christian fundamentalists allow this criterion to be applied consistently across all surviving gospels?

Historical coherence used to disprove the biblical narrative?

Evans is not alone in using this criterion to assert the authenticity of any event in the Gospels that can be interpreted as giving Pilate a rationale for crucifying Jesus.

I find it odd that many fundamentalist Christians will likewise claim that Jesus was crucified by Rome because “it was believed” he was a political subversive. The way this statement is expressed is necessarily a a bit vague because the Bible itself flatly contradicts the claim. The claim is made because it fits a natural historical explanation for a crucifixion, but it is made in defiance of the Biblical narratives. The one thing all the Gospels are clear about is that Pilate did NOT believe Jesus was a political subversive. They are unanimous in asserting that Pilate found Jesus innocent of any such charge. Pilate crucified him, it is unanimously agreed, to please the blood-lust of the mob. This is doubly emphasized in the Gospel of John where the author points out that the title was over Jesus head on the cross was not a statement of his crime (that “He said, I am King of the Jews”) but an ironic image with theological import for the readers of the gospels, or perhaps a statement that Pilate believed he really was the king, albeit innocent of subversion.

So those sayings and events in the Bible that Evans says are “historically coherent” with Jesus being crucified as a political subversive were judged by Pilate — according to all four Gospel authors — to be not at all necessarily coherent with subversive activity.

Or are such apologists claiming that certain deeds and sayings of Jesus are historically coherent with a secular hypothesis that proposes a nonbiblical reason for Jesus’ death?

It’s a little amusing to think that many fundamentalists who use this criterion to “authenticate” certain deeds and sayings of Jesus because they “explain his crucifixion”, do so in contradiction to the Bible they are seeking to defend. And could there ever have arisen a Gospel narrative about the death of Jesus unless the authors told what some moderns seem to think must have been their “holy white lie” about the reasons for it?


As I concluded my previous post, these sorts of criteria cannot establish historicity, only plausibility — within certain contexts. I by no means say that all biblical scholars think otherwise. This post is meant primarily for those who do place more value on them than they are truly worth.

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