Assertions

Don likes to take me to task for what he says are assertions in my arguments. I do make assertions, as do we all, because not all points in an argument need to be demonstrated every time they’re used. Indeed, not all assertions can be.

There are assertions that we all accept are likely to be true: the sun will ‘rise’ tomorrow; the Earth is a sphere; evidence is better than no evidence and so on. There are those who dispute these assertions but the onus is then on them to provide the evidence or argument that their counter-assertion is true. Yes, there may come a day when the sun doesn’t rise but it is statistically improbable; the Earth is demonstrably not flat; faith is not an reliable substitute for evidence. There is abundant evidence and sound argument why these things are not the case. But – and this is my point – this evidence does not have to be trotted out every time an argument relies on such probabilities; they can be asserted.

I write, and indeed live my life, on the basis of the fact (‘assertion’) that the supernatural does not exist. Over the last ten years, I’ve posted several arguments why this is the case. I frequently provide a link to these arguments when asserting that, outside of the human imagination, gods, spirits, angels, devils, demons, powers, principalities, ghosts, avatars, heaven and hell do not exist. These arguments form the backbone of any subsequent assertion that the supernatural is not real.

Nonetheless, the onus to ‘prove’ that this is the case does not rest with me. First, because it is impossible to prove a negative. Consider, for example, the Christians challenge to prove their God doesn’t exist. While there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that this is the case, there is no absolute ‘proof’ of God’s non-existence (as I’ve argued before, it all comes down to probability, or, in God’s case, improbability.) Absence of evidence is invariably evidence of absence.

The onus instead lies with the one making the incredible claim. Those who take it as fact that the supernatural and God are real need to demonstrate to the rest of us that this is the case. They have, in my long experience, failed to do this. The best they can do are the various arguments (the ontological, Kalam cosmological, teleological, fine-tuning and the argument from design) that suggest the possibility of the supernatural but fall far short of convincing evidence that the supernatural is real, and further still that the Christian God exists. They depend in the end on the feelings they have in their heads and the Bible (or some other holy book.) This is wholly inadequate

Consequently, I’ll continue to operate from and make my assertion that the supernatural does not exist until such time as Don or any other of his co-religionists demonstrate the probability that it does.

From my assertion, backed up, remember, by earlier arguments, a number of other facts follow:

With no supernatural, there are no gods; YHWH in all his incarnations is a God, therefore YHWH does not exist.

Much follows from this:

If YHWH does not exist, Jesus cannot have been either his avatar, Son or incarnation;

Jesus cannot have been raised from the dead by a being who doesn’t exist;

Stories that he did so must therefore be merely that: stories;

The celestial, eternal Jesus who sits at the right hand of God in heaven is not real;

Any experience people have of this being is entirely within their own imaginations;

The Bible is based on such imagined encounters with these imagined characters;

There is no after-life or judgment;

The Christian faith, including my own, cannot be explained in terms of the supernatural;

Only explanations that are rooted in naturalism, as in science, have any validity.

There are more implications that can be drawn from the premise that there is no supernatural, including the fact that the world makes much more sense (if it makes any sense at all) without drawing gods and demons into it.

Consequently, I shall continue to make my assertions, like those above, supported as always by previous argument. Any religious believer who wants to challenge them is welcome to do so, but must do more than point out the obvious, that they are assertions. They must provide the evidence for the supernatural, and all that follows from it, independent of the goings on in their heads and without reference to holy books written by those with similar subjective feelings.

Making Prophecy Work

Recycled image and still no second coming

Never one to belabour a point, Don Camp has responded to my posts and comments about prophecy over on his own blog, Biblical Musing. This is a modified version of my response to that post.

What you seem to be saying, Don, is ‘leave a selected prophecy long enough and eventually it’ll appear to come true’. Perhaps, but then, if you take any selection of predictions from any source and you’ll find this to be the case. Why? Because:

1) You’ll have cherry-picked from the start so only those ‘prophecies’ that are vague enough or appear to have been fulfilled already will make up the bulk of your selection.

2) The vagueness of many that are chosen will make it relatively easy to scout around and alight on circumstances that seem to demonstrate some sort of fulfilment. You may even invent some that do, like the synoptic gospel writers do.

3) Some prophecies will indeed come true, but at no greater rate than chance allows. A prophecy you cite may say a particular city state will fall and return to the wilderness from which it was built. To claim that when, centuries later, it does so is not a fulfilment of this prophecy; it is a happy coincidence (for you and your so-called prophet, not so much for the denizens of the city state.) Just look at the number of ancient cities to which this has happened, without there being a preceding ‘prophecy’. It just happens.

4) You’ll ignore your own failure rate, or explain it away: i) discounting those prophecies that have never come to pass, even after millennia; ii) insisting ‘they could still occur! With God a day is like a thousand years!’; iii) reinterpreting them: ‘they’re metaphorical’ etc.

5) You invoke the get-out clause; the god says ‘if you don’t do ‘x’ then I’ll make ‘y’ happen.’ “Well, praise the god, everyone did ‘x’ and the calamity was averted! It’s a miracle!” This then counts, somehow or other, as a win for the ‘prophecy’.

These are your strategies, Don. You use them in combination to demonstrate the ‘fulfilment’ of biblical prophecy. You work really hard at nullifying your own cognitive dissonance, desperately attempting to demonstrate the truth of ancient fantasies. You conclude your post by saying Jesus will return as King soon. No, he won’t. You need to apply every one of your strategies to believe this is ever going to happen.

Prophecy: The Bible’s Track Record

In earlier posts we saw how the authors of Mark and Matthew’s gospels rooted around in the scriptures for anything that might be passed off as a prophecy. They then turned what they found into stories about Jesus.

What though about passages in scripture that actually declare themselves to be prophecy? How do these fair in the fulfilment stakes? As you might guess, not well. There are many failed prophecies in both Testaments; here I’ll take a select few, just to give you a flavour of how hopeless they are:

In Exodus 23:27, YHWH declares that all of Israel’s enemies will run from them:

I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run.

Oops! The scriptures themselves are replete with examples of the Israelites’ defeat at the hands of their enemies.

In Ezekiel 29:8-12, the Lord proclaims his intentions towards the hated Egyptians:

The Nile is mine; I made it, therefore I am against you and against your streams, and I will make the land of Egypt a ruin and a desolate waste from Migdol to Aswan, as far as the border of Cush. The foot of neither man nor beast will pass through it; no one will live there for forty years. I will make the land of Egypt desolate among devastated lands, and her cities will lie desolate forty years among ruined cities. And I will disperse the Egyptians among the nations and scatter them through the countries.

None of this ever happened.

Isaiah has it in for Egypt too. In 19:1-8 the Lord promises:

The waters of the river will dry up, and the riverbed will be parched and dry. The canals will stink; the streams of Egypt will dwindle and dry up. The reeds and rushes will wither, also the plants along the Nile, at the mouth of the river. Every sown field along the Nile will become parched, will blow away and be no more. The fishermen will groan and lament, all who cast hooks into the Nile; those who throw nets on the water will pine away.

The Nile has never dried up.

In 2 Samuel 7:13-16, the Lord promises that the descendants of David will rule forever:

(David) is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever… Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.

The Davidic line ended with King Zedekiah in about 586BC. Much is made in the New Testament of Jesus’ descent from David on his father’s side (while also insisting he didn’t have a human father!) and this prophecy is altered in Acts 2:29-31 to make it fit Jesus’ supposed kingship. This is neither what it says nor means in its original context.

The deranged Zephaniah, writing in the 7th century BC, prophesies that the end of the world is imminent:

The great day of the Lord is near – near and coming quickly. The cry on the day of the Lord is bitter; the Mighty Warrior shouts his battle cry. That day will be a day of wrath – a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness – a day of trumpet and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the corner towers.

Another failure, unless you’re prepared to consider 2600+ years and counting as being ‘near and coming quickly’.

The earliest prediction we have of the Christ’s appearance on Earth is from Paul, in 1 Thessalonians 1-8. You’ll note how he says how everything he describes will happen soon to the people he is writing to:

Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober… For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.

Notch that up as another non-event.

How about the prediction in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4, thought to have been written circa AD50, that the Christ will not appear from heaven until ‘the man of lawlessness’ takes up residence in the Temple?

Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us – whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter – asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.

The Temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD70 before the man of lawlessness could make his appearance. Unsurprisingly, not a single prophet foresaw the catastrophe. (No, not even Jesus. It is generally agreed that Mark’s gospel was written around AD70 and that Jesus’ ‘prophecy’ about the temple’s destruction was composed after it had happened.)

And then, finally, prophecies about the end times, whether from the scriptures or from Paul, are inserted into the synoptic gospels so, miraculously, they become the words of Jesus:

‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ (a quote from Isaiah 13:10; 34:4.) At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens. Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away (Mark 13.34).

And thus, Jesus is likewise made into a false prophet.

Then again, what other sort is there? Prophets are zealots who believe they’ve been granted special access to the Lord’s plans. There are still fantasists today who believe the Lord speaks to them with portents of future disaster. It would be generous to say that all of them – those in the Bible and their modern descendants – are wrong far more often than they are right. In fact, they are always wrong; it is impossible to know the future. Meanwhile, so-called interpreters of prophecy, like Matthew, Mark, Luke and their equivalents today, alter ‘prophecy’ and unrelated statements to suit their needs, shaping their stories to create the illusion they have been miraculously ‘fulfilled’.  

How Prophecy Works

Like many evangelicals and others afflicted by Christianity, Don Camp believes that the Old Testament is jam-packed with prophecies about Jesus; his origin, background, mission, teaching, sacrifice and resurrection. He quotes a couple in one of his recent comments, which we’ll get to soon, and thinks that the general direction of travel is from ancient prophecy to later fulfilment in Jesus. Don and those like him will not entertain the possibility that this is an illusion created by those who constructed the Jesus’ stories.

Here’s how the illusion was created: the gospel writers, and Paul too, looked back at the Old Testament (‘the scriptures’) and found there what Don describes as ‘indistinct’ references to events they believed had happened in their own time. From these and other sources, they built their stories about Jesus. More often than not, these scriptural references were not in themselves prophecies or predictions of Jesus’ life, death or resurrection. We know this by a) reading them in their original context, b) recognising that the Jewish scriptures as a whole never speak of a Messiah who must die an ignoble death for his people, and c) noting the number of times these ‘indistinct’ statements have to be altered by the gospel writers and others, to make them ‘fit’ their conception of their God-man.

Let’s start with one of Don’s picks, from Isaiah 53:11:

After he has suffered, he will see the light of life.

It has to be conceded that all of Isaiah 53 does indeed look like it’s a prophecy of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. In context, however, the suffering servant it describes is Israel itself, as surrounding chapters make clear. Furthermore, on closer inspection, some of it doesn’t seem to apply to Jesus at all. Verses 2&3 really don’t describe a man followed around by multitudes and later worshipped by millions:

He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Unsurprisingly, Don doesn’t quote these verses. Sure, it’s possible to make them fit; to say that these verses 2-3 describe Jesus on trial with the crowd baying for his blood; but it’s a stretch. We’ll come back to Isaiah 53 shortly.

Don then refers to ‘the prophecy about (Jesus) not seeing corruption as a dead body’. This is actually Psalm 16:10:

You (YHWH) will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay.

And, my, yes it does seem to fit Jesus once again, if we believe he died and rose again before his body could deteriorate. But it isn’t about him. It’s about the writer of the psalm, traditionally David, expressing his belief that his God will preserve him. Plucked out of context, it can sound like it’s Jesus being described, just as any number of other verses can be said to be about future events when they’re not. For example, some Christians, including Pat Robertson, are currently claiming that Ezekiel 38:1-2 is a prophecy of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine:

Son of man, set your face against Gog, of the land of Magog, the prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal, and prophesy against him.

That works, don’t you think?

No. Me, neither. Such nebulous statements can easily be applied to much later events on which they have no actual bearing.

Which brings us neatly to the gospels. These claim that the events they describe were foretold by the prophets of old (Luke 24:44). It would be truly remarkable if, as Don believes, all of the prophecies about Jesus in the scriptures were actually fulfilled by him. Some Christian sources claim there are as many as 300. But, as we’ve seen, some of these are so vague they can be made to apply when in fact they don’t.

And this is how the Jesus story came about; it is structured around many of these indistinct prophecies. The authors of the gospels, and Paul too, knew their scriptures and built up a story about the Messiah using them. Like Paul, Mark had little knowledge of the circumstances of his Messiah’s earthly life, so he set about creating a biography for him using ‘prophecies’, scenarios and statements from the scriptures. We might ask here why he should do this if Jesus was as remarkable as early cultists claimed. There is no need to invent stories about a remarkable figure if that figure has already lived an amazing life that is widely known about. Be that as it may, Mark and the other gospel writers set about creating an elaborate life for their hero, largely based on ancient scriptures.

Mark quotes Isaiah 53 directly in 15:38 and makes extensive use of the chapter in his account of Jesus’ passion. Let me stress: Isaiah 53 is not a prophecy of the passion, it is the blueprint for it. Mark’s account is Isaiah 53, down to Jesus’ silence at his trial and his being buried ‘with the rich’.

Matthew and Luke later embellished Mark’s efforts by doing more of the same thing, adding fresh episodes to Mark’s core gospel. Most of these embellishments  are based on ‘prophecies’ that Mark somehow missed. None of them necessarily happened – I’m persuaded they didn’t – but are ‘actualisations’ of parts of ancient scripture. We know this because of mistakes Matthew made in expanding the story, using the additional ‘prophecies’ he ‘discovered’ in scripture. We’ll get to these mistakes next time.

 

The ‘F’ Word

Don Camp is defending Christians in the comments. They’re in the process of becoming ‘more like Jesus’, he says.

What does this even mean, Don? How can you know what Jesus was like when there are so many disparate versions of him in the Bible (as has been pointed out to you)? Does becoming more tempestuous, impatient, impossibly demanding and Jewish count? These are some of the traits his propagandists show him as having.

You then tell Jim not to measure Christians ‘by his (own) experience’. What other measure is there? Christians aggressively promote their beliefs on the internet, have infected politics and, at a lower level, are encountered as judgmental evangelicals and sanctimonious street preachers; these are the Christians of our experience and like it or not, the fragrance ain’ that sweet. As Jesus is supposed to have said, ‘by their fruits shall you know them’. We sure do.

Bottom line, Don: you Christians have had two thousand years now to make the world a better place by being ‘more like Jesus’. On balance, you’ve failed. Not surprising when Jesus himself failed even more. Where is he, Don? Following his ‘return’, the Righteous should have been living in peace and harmony for the past two millennia, tediously worshipping him and his Father in God’s Kingdom on Earth. They haven’t been, even though Jesus, Paul and several other NT writers said they would be ‘soon’, relative to their own lifetimes. 

Argue it how like, Don (and you will), Christianity merits one big ‘F‘.

Battle Of The Magic Books

Don Camp replies (in blue) to my previous post. My responses are in black.

There are multiple reason for rejecting Mormonism. The primary reason is similar to discerning between a fake $20 bill and the real thing. The fake just doesn’t feel like the real thing. Of course, that test requires that one knows what a $20 bill feels like. Anyone who does not know is easily fooled.

In fact, if you don’t know what the real thing is like, it is impossible to identify a fake. You might notice an ink smudge and a difference in paper, but who is to say one is fake and the other is not?

This presupposes that your version of Christianity is ‘the real thing’. For a Jew, Judaism is the real thing and Christianity the Johnny-come-lately fake. All you’re saying here is that you ‘feel’ your version of Christianity is the real thing and you ‘feel’ Mormonism isn’t. This isn’t persuasive. I know, for reasons other than intuition, that Christianity isn’t the real thing. To use your analogy, it is the twenty dollar bill received in change when in the UK a twenty pound note is the ‘real thing’.

But since you have a knowledge of literature, Neil, why not apply those standards? Nice concession there, Don. The Bible is indeed literature and as such deserves to have the same standards applied to it as any other work of fiction.

Is the Bible and the narrative in the Bible coherent?? No. Its central character is ridiculously inconsistent. Described as an unchanging God, he changes from book to book and most noticeably between the Old and New Testaments. As someone commented on Debunking Christianity recently, it’s as if he ate a Snickers bar between the two. (He does get hungry again towards the end of the NT, when he reverts to being an omnipotent Putin.)

As the protagonist undergoes his major rewrite, the plot also suddenly deviates, becoming a completely different story. It starts by being about this poorly conceived character’s ‘everlasting covenant’ with his chosen people, but then two thirds of the way through, this everlasting covenant is scrapped and replaced with a new, largely incoherent deal involving a human sacrifice that the unchanging God has previously said he finds abhorrent.

Does it stick together and develop a single theme across the whole? No, it doesn’t ‘stick together’, not unless you ignore the gaping inconsistencies in character and plotting, and its overall implausibility.

Do you know what the theme of the Bible is, Neil? Yes, thank you, Don. Condescending of you to ask. Any apparent consistency is because the writers of the second part of the story had access to the first part. They plundered it for their own purposes, drastically altering it so that it suited their new theme. That is why much of the Jesus story appears to be foreshadowed in the Old Testament. The Jesus story – and it is a story – is built on events and episodes they found there.

Remember that the Mormons tell us that the Book of Mormon is an extension of the Bible and that the people of the Americas were related to the Jews and held to the basic truths of the Jews. (Remember also the Mormons believe that Jesus appeared to these people in the New World shortly after his resurrection.) So if you put the Torah and the Book of Mormon together, is the narrative coherent? Does it develop a single theme? The Old testament and the New Testament are a coherent whole, but I do not think the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon are. As you can tell, I dispute that the Old and New Testament are a coherent whole. The Old Testament and the Book of Mormon aren’t either. That lack of coherency becomes even more obvious when we compare God in the Old Testament with God in the Book of Mormon. The person of Jesus is also inconsistent in the Book of Mormon with the Bible.

But they’re inconsistent within the Bible too, Don. Compare John’s Jesus with Mark’s. Compare Paul’s beatific Christ with Revelation’s grotesquely super-powered warlord.

Of course, the standard explanation by Latter Day Saints is that the Bible has not been adequately translated, though I know of no place where they can demonstrate that claim. There are significant translation problems with the Bible, which mainstream scholars consider at length. Mormon desperation to resolve these conflicts is the same as that demonstrated by Christian theologians.

Finally, there is a matter of provenance. We know in very good detail where the Bible came from.

We do? We know who Matthew, Mark, Luke and John actually were? No, we don’t nor do we know where they wrote or what their sources were. We don’t have the autographs (originals) of any of the New Testament documents but we do know some of them are forgeries and others have been tampered with.

There are many copies, especially for the New Testament, and there are many commentaries of both the OT and NT from very early in the their history. Proving what? Only that they were copied, frequently inaccurately. The copies are all much later than the probable time of composition. The commentaries are similarly far removed from them; there are commentaries on the Book of Mormon much closer to its composition.

What is the provenance of the Book of Mormon? It apparently appeared magically out of nowhere pretty recently. No mention in any other literature of its existence. It did appear magically! Oh ye of little faith! God sent an angel, like he does numerous times in the Bible, and told Joseph Smith to translate the golden tablets. The NT books were similarly created, with God breathing his word into cult followers as they wrote. God, angels, Holy Spirit, magic – all of a muchness, don’t you think?

No copy is available to examine. Nor of the original copies of anything in the Bible.

That is not to speak of the total lack of any archaeological evidence for the Mormon claims of Jews in the Americas. Mormons dispute this, of course. There are similar problems with some locations mentioned in the Bible. More fatally, most of what the Bible promises has proven false. For example: Jesus’ imminent return, his guarantee of miracles, believers becoming new creations. (Paul spends much of his time ticking off these ‘new creations’ who remain resolutely unreformed.)

So, I would say the Book of Mormon fails on all levels.

I would too. As does the Bible for the reasons I’ve outlined, and despite your special pleading. You don’t apply the same rigour in your consideration of the Bible that you do to Latter Day Saint fiction. Why is this, Don?

How Do Christians Explain Those Who Renounce Their Faith?

Aka The Death of Ananias by Raphael (Acts 5)

What was original Christianity like, long before it acquired that name? Before Paul’s ideas took hold? Clearly the cult existed prior to Paul. He tells us so himself: worship groups were around – the one he writes to in Rome, for example – before he  established his own. 

The early faith seems to have emanated from the visions of early believers such as Cephas and James. Quite what they ‘saw’ is open to debate but it led to them setting up a sect within Judaism that focused on the saving power of a risen celestial being.

And everything was absolutely hunky dory within these early communities. Members shared all their possessions (except when they didn’t, in which case they were annihilated on the spot) and lived in perfect harmony together, worshipping Jesus and experiencing miracles on a daily basis.

According to Acts, that is. According to Paul, by the time he came to be involved, it was all very different. Many of the early ‘churches’ were characterised by squabbling, greed, legal disputes, confusion about doctrine, sleeping around, visiting prostitutes and power struggles (Galatians 5.20; 2 Thessalonians 3.14-15; 1 Corinthians 1.10, 4.21; 1 Corinthians 6.1-10; 1 Corinthians 6.12-20; Galatians 1.6-9; 1 Corinthians 5.9-13 etc.) Worse still, there were defections by converts who came to their senses and left the cult.

How can this be when, according to Paul these people were inhabited by God’s holy spirit and saved once and for all by the redeeming blood of Jesus? Just as today, early believers, including Paul, had a hard time explaining how a person could be once saved and then lose their faith. They came up with various excuses how this could happen:

Excuse #1. Apostates were never really been saved: they were faking it in some way, their faith hadn’t been deep enough or Satan had snatched it away from them. One enterprising and influential cult member even came up with the sneaky idea of putting these explanations into the mouth of Jesus (because of course he would have foreseen the problem.) So arose the parable of the sower. According to Mark 4.1-20, the ‘word’ doesn’t always ‘take’. It might seem as if it has but sometimes it is uprooted by the cares of this world. Alternatively, it falls on stony ground and really doesn’t stand a chance of growing. Or Dick Dastardly Satan intervenes and destroys the faith of those who once believed. As a cultist called John later put it,

They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us… (1 John 2.19)

Which really says nothing: ‘they left, so really they weren’t part of our gang to begin with.’ A brilliant bit of exposition.

Excuse #2. Apostates are still saved. In direct contradiction of the parable of the sower, some Christians invented a different way of accounting for those who had ‘fallen away’: the ‘once saved always saved’ argument, based on a few cherry-picked bible verses. Despite appearances, those who’ve left the faith are nonetheless still savedThe ‘reasoning’ is that because salvation is a work of God, it cannot be undone, no matter how much one refutes the faith, or provides reasons for leaving it or demonstrates the untruthfulness at the heart of it. Salvation is like a tattoo you regret getting but with which you’re stuck for the rest of your existence. (Except not really, for a whole host of reasons but principally because there’s no God to work the magic in the first place.) This line of reasoning runs entirely contrary to the acknowledgement in the parable of the sower that there are always those who will leave the faith.

Excuse #3. Apostates have been hurt by the church and as result have abandoned the faith (but Jesus is waiting for them to return!) While I don’t know anyone who has renounced Christianity for this reason alone, it does play a small part in some defections. Why? Because self-serving and vindictive Christians are evidence that Christianity simply doesn’t work. It doesn’t make ‘new creations’, infusing people with a holy spirit that makes them better people. Believers, despite their claims, are no more moral than those who are unsaved. You’ll know this if you’ve been on the receiving end of Christian judgment or condemnation. When Christians themselves undermine the claims of their religion it creates a justifiable scepticism in one-time brothers and sisters.

Excuse #4. Apostates just want to wallow in sin. Back to the parable of the sower for this one: ‘Satan has ensnared you into life of sin and debauchery and you have abandoned the one true way’. I have to say this is not true of any ex-Christians I know.  They’ve dispensed with the wholly religious idea of ‘sin’, and now live their lives as authentically as they can, looking after their loved ones and helping others where possible. Then again, so what if people want to wallow a little bit?   

The one reason that causes others to leave the fold that is never recognised by Christians is the gospel itself. No sir. That some people are able to see how irrational, contrived and downright untrue it is, is not a possibility Christians are willing to entertain. Jesus himself, however, seems to recognise that some people are just too intelligent to go along with it:

I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children (Matthew 11.25).

Even he knew – or, far more likely, the sect that put these words into his mouth – that for anyone capable of a modicum of critical thinking (‘the learned and the wise’), the cult’s claims simply don’t stand up to inspection.

The Jesus Story v. Reality

Recycled picture, new post

Whenever the Jesus story comes face to face with reality, it fails. The nativity stories, which only Matthew and Luke think to invent include, are a case in point.

  • Luke tells us the Emperor Augustus decreed there should be a census in what we now know as 4BC. He didn’t. The closest Roman census was in AD6, ten years later and it didn’t entail hordes of people trailing back to their ancestral village.
  • Matthew claims that Herod was so enraged about the birth of the ‘royal’ baby that he killed all little boys under two years old. Except he didn’t. This never happened.
  • According to the same story, a host of supernatural beings appeared announcing that a young woman who’d never had sex with a man had given birth, while a wandering star shone directly over her house.

Where in reality do these kinds of things happen? That’s right: in myths and stories. They are typical literary tropes found in fantasy fiction. The ‘miraculous’ events of the nativity are of this genre.

  • Christians who delude themselves into thinking theirs is an intellectual faith concede the nativity is mythical, its events symbolic. They’re not usually so hot on what they’re symbolic of but say the story conveys truth. Still, they insist, the rest of the Jesus story is true. Evangelicals go even further and say it’s literally true. So, Jesus walking on water really happened (or if your faith is, oxymoronically, intellectual faith, it didn’t.) After all, the illusionist Dynamo walked across the Thames a few years ago (see it here), and if he could walk on water then how much more capable of doing that was the Son of God. Except the modern illusionist‘s feat was – yes, you guessed it – an illusion. So even if Jesus did the same thing, his trick was also an illusion. Those who say the story is included in Mark and Matthew because it’s actually only a parable about faith (or something) are conceding, again, that it didn’t actually happen.
  • Likewise when Jesus turns water into wine, calms the storm, raises the dead, chats with apparitions of long dead Jewish folk-heroes and does every other ‘miracle’ he’s credited with. If they’re only symbolic then, by definition, they didn’t happen. Nor did they happen, if, as Evangelicals believe, they’re being passed off as real events. ‘Miracles’ do not happen in reality. Never have, never will. They happen only in stories.

Well, okay, more enlightened Christians might say, but nonetheless Jesus conveyed to the world what God wanted us to know. He was wise and compassionate and told us how our sins could be forgiven. Except his wisdom comes directly from Jewish scriptures; he had nothing new to say. He was no more compassionate than anyone else and could in fact be an absolute s**t. He was inconsistent across the gospels about how sins were forgiven and much of his teaching in the original Gospel (Mark’s) is lifted from Paul or reflects the beliefs of the early Christ cult. Jesus the holy man is a construct – or rather a series of constructs, a literary device, not a real man.

So, okay; the nativity didn’t happen as depicted. The astounding feats attributed to Jesus didn’t happen and Jesus is whoever the various gospel writers and Paul want to make him. Nothing we’ve seen so far is factually, historically or really (as in reality) true.

But, the crucifixion and resurrection are! Oh yes. The rest is made up, but these two events most certainly are not.

  • Even though Jesus’ trial is historically inaccurate and is, as a consequence, highly implausible.
  • Even though there was no-one to record Jesus’s snappy repartee (or silence depending on which gospel you read) with Pilate or Herod.
  • Even though there was no such Roman custom as releasing a prisoner on the Passover.
  • Even though the synoptics have Jesus crucified on Friday while John says it was a Thursday.
  • Even though characters like Barabbas, Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdelene and the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ are evidently and entirely fictional.
  • Even though there was no eclipse of the sun that lasted for hours.
  • Even though there was no earthquake that shook zombies loose from their graves before Jesus had a chance to rise and shine himself.

Such things are not historical. They’re not even feasible. They did not happen in reality. Well, if not the crucifixion per se, Christians say, then definitely the resurrection: that most unlikely of all unlikely events. That really happened.

  • Even though the reports of it are completely at odds with one another.
  • Even though angels are involved once again.
  • Even though Jesus behaves entirely like a ghost, walking through closed doors, altering his appearance and vanishing at will.
  • Even though he levitates into the clouds.
  • Even though some of the disciples find it impossible to believe he’s back.
  • Even though dead people rise only in stories, myths, legends and fantasies.
  • Even though, in reality, dead people do not come back to life after three days, which is why Jesus didn’t either.

Still, I’m sure I’ll be told when I go to a carol service with my friends in a few days, that the story of Jesus’ birth, emotionally powerful as it is, is true from start to finish. Why? Because people’s capacity for believing fantasy stories knows no bounds.

Religion Is Bad For You. Always.

There is no upside to religion. All of them, not just Christianity (though certainly including it.)

Religion makes its adherents judgmental. Those who don’t share their beliefs are ‘other’. Consider the terms that religion has spawned to describe non-believers: infidel, heathen, goy, kafir, lost, dissenter, apostate, scoffer, profaner, blasphemer, paynim, idolater, deviant. Needless to say, none of these is designed to flatter. If not being ostracised – ‘be not unequally yoked with unbelievers,’ says Paul with his usual magnanimity – then non-believers are viewed as sinners in need of redemption or enlightenment, as souls to be won, fodder for evangelism. Never as people to be respected or accepted for themselves.

Religion causes its adherents to abandon their critical faculties, accentuating their irrationality so that even those with some intellectual capacity sacrifice it to subscribe to a primitive, superstitious mind-set. They believe in miraculous resurrections, eternal life, covenants with the gods that necessitate the genital mutilation of children, prayer, ‘prophets’, demons, spirits, pantheons of supernatural beings and myths about the end of the world. There’s no evidence for any of this fantasy material, yet the believer trades in their good sense to embrace all of it to one degree or another.

Religion cultivates delusion. Otherwise intelligent believers are convinced their god talks to them in their heads while they, in turn, are capable of projecting their thoughts into the deity’s mind. They take part in rituals they believe appease him, assume  specific body positions and dress up in items of clothing they think, for some unfathomable reason, will help them gain favour in his sight. They believe they’re possessed by the spirit of the deity that enables them to do miraculous things, not least survive their own deaths.

Religion discourages thinking for oneself. Believers are told, either by a ‘holy’ book or by those who claim they know gods’ thoughts, what they should think about vaccinations, abortion, women, homosexuality, politics, guns, the significance of climate change, the state of the world and all those godawful infidels. Woe betide the believer who dissents from the views of their particular cult or sect.

Religion compels its adherents to deny reality. Believers are in a constant state of denial: about the world, evolution, education, the rights of others, the fact people can be moral without religion and death itself. They deny that the universe and nature are as they would be if there were no gods; that religion has contributed nothing to our understanding of the world, has discovered nothing, invented nothing. All of this is the equivalent of sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears and singing na-na na-na. Who needs facts when you’ve got third rate fantasy?

Religion causes hatred. There are those within every religion who seek to eliminate their enemies. They fly planes into buildings, shoot and stab innocent people in the street because they regard them as profaners or blasphemers, and call for the death penalty for those they regard as deviant.

Religion prevents people from being themselves. It convinces them they are worthless sinners in dire need of forgiveness and then imposes an inauthenticity on them. It makes them assume a role that reflects, or so they think, the nature of their saviour or prophet. It’s all an act, held in place by the collective pressure of fellow believers, in churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and kingdom halls. It is not life affirming but life denying. It is a lie.

Anyone care to defend religion? One particular version of it? What has your pet religion contributed to the world? What good does it serve?

Are You Born Again?

Someone handed me the above card in town yesterday. ‘Are you born again?’ No, mate, and neither are you. As Bart Ehrman shows in Jesus Interrupted, and as I’ve written about before, the story of Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3 is a literary construct (as are the gospels in general.) The pun between ‘born a second time’ and ‘born from above’ only works in the Greek, where ἄνωθεν (anothen) can mean either ‘again’ or ‘from above’ (though it’s usually the latter.) Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely Jesus spoke Greek. Here’s Ehrman:

  In the Gospel of John, chapter 3, Jesus has a famous conversation with Nicodemus in which he says, ‘You must be born again.’ The Greek word translated ‘again’ actual has two meanings: it can mean not only ‘a second time’ but also ‘from above.’ Whenever it is used elsewhere in John, it means ‘from above’ (John 19:11, 23). That is what Jesus appears to mean in John 3 when he speaks with Nicodemus: a person must be born from above in order to have eternal life in heaven above. Nicodemus misunderstands, though, and thinks Jesus intends the other meaning of the word, that he has to be born a second time. ‘How can I crawl back into my mother’s womb?’ he asks, out of some frustration. Jesus corrects him: he is not talking about a second physical birth, but a heavenly birth, from above. (Jesus Interrupted, p155)

So Nicodemus is made to misunderstand Jesus, confusing ‘born again’ with ‘born from above’, and Jesus has to tell him what a twit he is. Translators of this chapter haven’t understood the point of the story either, making Jesus say, in John 3.3, ‘you must be born again’, when the rest of the narrative makes clear he means, ‘you must be born from above’ (i.e: be renewed by God who sits in Heaven on high.) 2000 years later, Christians, thanks to these translators, still make the same mistake.

There’s even more poppycock on the back of the card. The born again, it seems, avoid sin like the plague. Sure they do. Just ask all those kids molested by priests, preachers and Christian youth workers.