Whatever happened to the Golden Rule?

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So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7.12: New International Version)

In everything, treat others as you would want them to treat you, for this fulfils the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7.12: NET Bible)

I went to see a performance at the Edinburgh Fringe on Saturday. Actor David Benson presented a one-man show about the Cato Street Plot, which was an 1820 plan to assassinate the British Prime Minister and government (or possibly not.

During the show, Benson riffed on some of Jesus’ sayings, including the one above, about how we should treat one another in a country that claims to be Christian (as Britain did in 1820). ‘Do unto others’ has become known as The Golden Rule and like most rules it is largely ignored, even (or especially) by many who profess to be disciples of the man said to have formulated it. The principle is of course much older than the gospels.

When I returned home I caught up with some of my favourite blogs and read about:

A military organisation that promotes the separation of church and state in the U.S. on the receiving end of Christian hate mail.

A preacher who thinks the comedian Sarah Silverman should have her teeth smashed before dying prematurely and being sent to Hell.

The same preacher promising that the Jews, who he says are not God’s Chosen People, will be made to bow down before male Christians, who are.

A different pastor who recited Bible verses while allegedly assaulting an under-aged girl.

The cover-up of the sexual abuse of minors by the Jehovah’s Witness cult.

A Baptist Preacher charged with sexual assault.

Thousands of hateful messages, many from Christians, sent to Montreal Pride organisers.

They just don’t get it, do they? Being a Christian means doing what Jesus says (doesn’t it?) and he says that in everything we should to treat others as we ourselves like to be treated. Note how all encompassing that is: in everything, meaning ‘in every circumstance, with no exception’.

My guess is that the majority of Christians like to be treated fairly, with kindness and respect. I know they do because they whine endlessly when they think they’re not being. Yet so many of them won’t extend the same fairness, kindness and respect – in every circumstance – to other people.

I recently saw a slogan that said ‘Why be racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic when you could just be quiet’; too many Christians can’t even manage that. They feel compelled to hurl vitriolic insults and threats in defence of the most powerful being ever imagined (and he is imagined). Others think that people more vulnerable than themselves, children included, exist only for their own sexual gratification. These Christians have no interest in ‘In everything, treat others as you like to be treated’. It just doesn’t apply to them.

Strike up another failure for their Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

 

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Crawling from the Wreckage

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I’m occasionally accused of criticising only evangelical Christianity. It’s an easy target, I’m told, and I should spend some time investigating the more sophisticated and respectable version of Faith: intellectual, liberal Christianity. In fact I already have, and have written about it before. This ‘respectable’ version of the Faith is every bit as dishonest and intellectually lazy as its more excitable counterpart.

It has always seemed to me that evangelicalism and fundamentalism do at least take the most indefensible parts of the bible seriously. They may ignore them when it comes to applying them (loving enemies and giving to all who ask, for example) but at least they accept them, if only metaphorically, as part of ‘God’s inerrant and infallible Word’. Intellectual Christians on the other hand sidestep what they find uncomfortable, selecting only that which fits with what they think the Faith should be:

A Loving Father? Then we’ll disregard the parts where God is clearly anything but.

A wise and compassionate Jesus? We’ll pretend the bits where he’s cruel, ignorant and just plain wrong aren’t really there (or are later additions to the gospels; the mistaken beliefs of the early church.)

Church as inclusive community? We’ll have some of that and ignore all the unhelpful nonsense about most of humankind being destined for eternal torture. (That, after all, is just Paul, or whoever, getting carried away.)

I know they do this, because when my own faith was in its death throes, I did too.

Back in the early ’90s. I’d given up on evangelicalism but desperately wanted to salvage something of the Faith that had once meant so much to me (even as it completely messed up my life.) I wanted a God of Love, so persuaded myself there was one – disregarding what I knew of the hateful, unsavoury aspects of the God of the bible. I also really wanted Jesus to have some meaning; if not as personal saviour then as one who exemplified a purposeful and compassionate life. To do this I had to overlook Paul’s theology of a vengeful God, hell bent on punishing everyone.

In the end, however, I had to be honest with myself and accept that the nice God I was trying to believe in was no more real than the nasty one. What I wanted had no bearing on the nature of God, nor on whether he existed. Similarly with the nice Jesus, who could be unpleasant and unreasonably demanding as well. I was being entirely selective, as most Christians are, about how I constructed my own personal Jesus.

Hanging on to fragments of faith was futile. I could no longer sustain the cognitive dissonance required to embrace the parts of Christianity that made me feel good, inspired me or made me kinder, while ignoring the downright nasty bits. If I was experiencing the good things (and I was) I had to accept they were coming from somewhere other than Christianity; if I was to go on experiencing them I had to acknowledge that and cultivate them by other means.

It seemed at first that this would be difficult outside of a church but in fact there are numerous groups committed to helping and inspiring others, without the superfluous and irrelevant presence of religion. It simply isn’t necessary to hang on to selected scraps from a discredited belief system; life lies, in abundance, elsewhere.

This is why I have no more respect for intellectualised, liberal Christianity than I have for evangelicalism. There is nothing intellectual about the cognitive dissonance needed to be an ‘intellectual’ Christian. It is, in the end, a largely content free version of Faith, the spiritual equivalent of a homeopathic remedy. I mean, really: why bother?

Hasa Diga Eebowai*

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I went to see The Book of Mormon at the weekend. It’s offensive, blasphemous (if there is such a thing) and very funny. I recommend it. I’d say that, by and large, it represents the Mormon faith pretty accurately, mocking the Latter Day Saints’ belief that Jesus visited America about a year after his resurrection. Beaming into the proto-U.S.A, he converted the Nephite civilisation and turned them white, while the Lamanites, who were ‘so wicked’, God eventually curses ‘with (a) dark and benighted and loathsome condition’ (he made them black.) Sadly, all the archaeological evidence for these two civilisations has since been lost.

Three centuries later one of their number, a fictional character guy called Mormon, wrote down their adventures with Jesus on some gold plates that happened to be lying round. After Mormon died, his son Moroni buried these plates for safe keeping, as you would. 1500 years later still, Jesus prompted a chancer called Joseph Smith to dig them up again and, with the help of the returning Moroni and some magic stones, Smith translated them from the original Gibberish into stilted English. The plates and stones were never seen again, but every true Mormon knows that he/she will be resurrected after they die, provided, of course, they are wearing their special underwear. According to some, they’ll then be given their very own planet to rule.

Ludicrous, right? How could anyone invent such twaddle, let alone believe it and allow it to determine their lives? Yet, they do. But is it any more far-fetched than the fantasy on which it’s based? A guy called Yeshua goes round spouting platitudes and proclaims himself king of the New Age that’s coming soon. He gets killed and after 36 hours comes back to life, walks through walls and takes off into the sky. Not long after, a crank who never met him, decides this Yeshua must really have had super powers, and that all anyone has to in order to live forever is believe in a magic spell he, Paul, just made up! More than this, he’s convinced Yeshua will return to the Earth soon, when he’ll condemn most of its inhabitants to an eternity of hellish torture. Unbelievable! Literally unbelievable, and yet millions do believe it.

Joseph Smith’s hokum deserves all the mockery The Book of Mormon and others heap on it, but the original story is every bit as preposterous. Why can’t mainstream Christians see it?


*The phrase ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ appears in The Book of Mormon. It definitely doesn’t mean ‘no worries’.

All in the Mind

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Christians dispute that those who saw the Risen Jesus after his death were merely experiencing hallucinations or ‘visions’ in their own heads. Despite the fact that the only first-hand eye-witness report we have of a resurrection sighting is of precisely this nature – Paul’s, in Galatians 1.16 where he says that the Risen Christ was revealed ‘in’ him – Evangelicals in particular insist that Jesus rose physically from the dead and was seen by numerous ‘witnesses’.

And yet, in the two thousand years since he supposedly ascended into Heaven, no-one has seen Jesus in his resurrected, physical body. This doesn’t stop believers today claiming that they experience him in ‘real’ ways. As the old song goes, they walk with him and talk with along life’s narrow way. Or they think they do.

Back when I was a Christian I used to hear Jesus speaking to me. He’d create a thought in my head, telling me to act in a certain way, to speak to some lost soul about him, for example. At the time I was convinced these promptings were really ‘the Lord’. How could they not be? I had his Spirit living inside me, a sure-fire way of experiencing the living Jesus. His presence felt very real, as it does still for millions of Christians. What greater proof of the resurrection could there be?

In fact, Jesus’ ‘voice’ was no more than the vague recollections of Bible verses I half remembered. The sense of his presence I felt was a trick of my own mind, conditioned by hours of sermons, Bible reading and the mutual reinforcement provided by fellow-believers.

I never actually visualised Jesus, though many claim to. They see him in burnt toast or cloud formations; they dream about him or think he has visited them in the night, standing at the foot of the bed. Some have near-death experiences when they (imagine) they travel to Heaven and are welcomed by his outstretched arms. Others ‘know’ he has rescued them from calamity, or purposely sent them a sign (by leaving a Bible unscathed after a storm destroyed a house, as happened this week in Indiana.) Still others, a mite more credibly perhaps, have a sense of Jesus being present in a wishy-washy mystical way. He seems especially real when they’re caught up in the ecstasy of worship or a mighty and wondrous healing is being staged taking place. What a blessing! After all, didn’t Jesus promise in Matthew 18.20 that ‘when two or three are gathered in my name there I am in the midst of them’? (Probably not, but Christians believe he did and that’s what matters.)

My point is this: if this is how Jesus ‘manifests’ himself today – in whispered messages, inner-visions, emotions, dreams, blessings and ‘signs’ – and if these are enough to keep today’s believers convinced he lives again, then isn’t it likely that this was exactly how his earliest followers experienced him after his death? Not as a real, physical body but in these same ‘spiritual’ ways, conjured up by minds deep in the thrall of religion? If illusions of their own imaginations are enough to persuade the susceptible of the Risen Lord’s presence today, then surely they were more than enough to convince a handful of superstitious zealots in the first century.

I mean, just look at Paul.

The Gods of Christianity

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Christians who argue that only their God is real and that life is futile without him, are like the person who jumps up and down on thin ice insisting the ground beneath him is solid.

The various forms of Yahweh belief have rarely been monotheistic. While Isaiah declares there is only one God, the Jewish scriptures also refer to ‘him’ as ‘Elohim’ and ‘Adonai’, plurals meaning ‘deities’ and ‘my lords’ respectively. Other gods abound, with Psalm 82.1 relating how Yahweh presides over an assembly of other deities. From the beginning – certainly the beginning of the bible – a belief in other supernatural agents has been a requirement; Satan and angels are both present in Genesis and throughout the Old Testament. There are also the cherubim and seraphim of Genesis 3.24 and Isaiah 6:1-8 who do Yahweh’s dirty work for him. All of these beings are supernatural entities of immense power; gods in everything but name.

And this is before we get to the New Testament where several new superhuman characters are introduced. Most notable, of course, is the Christ, the invention of cultist Paul. This eternal being is capable of rescuing human beings from the wrath of God and has the power to resurrect them after death. He is, in Paul’s eyes, on an equal footing with Yahweh himself, a god in his own right (Philippians 2.6-11). While the Christ himself has resided in heaven for the past two thousand years (or for eternity, give or take thirty years), his spirit haunts the Earth to this day, possessing members of the Christ cult. The three of them together – the Christ, the Spirit and Yahweh (re-imagined as ‘The Father’) – are the chief gods of Christianity. The church has spent almost two millennia trying to explain how there is only one god who is simultaneously three distinct deities. The Vatican declares the Trinity to be the greatest mystery of all, though of course it is only a mystery in the same way something that makes no sense whatever can be considered a mystery.

According to the gospels, Jesus himself believed in yet another collection of supernatural agents; demons who caused all manner of illness and mischief, opposing Jesus wherever he went. According to the writer of Ephesians (6.12), these ‘wicked spirits’ and ‘principalities’ rival God in terms of power, and are, together with their overlord, Satan, the real rulers of this world

For Catholics, this pantheon of three-in-one gods, angels, devils and demons is supplemented by another layer of super-beings. These are humans who have attained the status of divine immortality, and who are prayed to and worshipped by acolytes on Earth. Mary, the supposed ‘mother of God’ is the most significant, followed by ‘saints’ who have been translated to Heaven and now have free access to the chief gods, ‘interceding’ with them on behalf of ordinary mortals. While no doubt Catholics would dispute that these figures are themselves gods, it’s difficult to see how they are not: they’re immortal, eternal, possessed of great power and in direct communication with the Big Three. They are the equivalent of the Titans’ offspring in Greek mythology.

There is nothing monotheistic about Christianity (nor Judaism) despite the protestations of those who claim to follow the one true God. Christianity has, like most of its predecessors, a pantheon of gods. This not surprising when history repeatedly demonstrates the extent to which humans are inclined towards ensemble theistic imaginings.

So, beware those who tells us they know what the one true God wants, what he approves of and what he condemns: that ice is exceedingly thin and already cracked. It has been from the very beginning.

Proof of God

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Amateur apologist and C. S. Lewis wannabee, Don Camp, makes the argument that as human beings have always believed in gods (have they?), it must mean that gods exist. They – or at least one of them – must have planted an instinct for worship within us from the outset. Don, of course, feels it is ‘self-evident’ that the god he believes in (the Christianised version of the Jewish tribal god, YHWH) is the One True God and consequently the deity who imbued us with the god instinct. Eventually, after millennia, during which humans misdirected their god-instinct to create thousands of false gods and imaginary supernatural beings, this One True God revealed himself and made known his expectation that he be acknowledged as the only God.

Where to begin?

It is not ‘self-evident’ that the tribal god of ancient Jews is the One True God. It is not ‘self-evident’ that this god exists while all the other gods humans have created (current estimate: 28,000,000) do not. The people who created these other deities were equally convinced they existed. Some had texts setting out the expectations the gods had of their human acolytes; most had rituals and forms of worship that had to be adhered to; they had experts – priesthoods – who knew exactly what the gods required; many encouraged adherents to serve the gods in their daily lives.

These other deities were every bit as ‘real’ as YHWH. There is nothing that singles ‘him’ out from them; nothing that makes him any more real than they were. He is indistinguishable from them in every way. It cannot be argued that they don’t exist, while, ‘self-evidently’, the Christian god – a very late arrival on the scene – is real.

What of the god instinct then? Where does it come from if not from the gods themselves? As others have argued (Dawkins and Harris, for example) it appears to be a misfiring of our need to know. The ancient peoples who devised gods to explain their world were doing their best with what little knowledge they had. Attributing agency to the activities of nature is an understandable mistake to make. Early people had first-hand experience of human agency and it was not an unreasonable assumption that agency must therefore lie behind other phenomena. We know that very early religions did precisely this in respect of animals, weather and the stars (animism; while astrology, in which celestial bodies control human behaviour, survives to this day.)

We now know, however, that such attribution was wrong. Inanimate phenomena do not possess agency. They do not possess it because they are not cognitive beings; any cognition we think we detect is our own, reflected back at us. The entities earlier humans created to explain what they took to be the purposeful activities of nature had no independent existence.

Our imaginary creations have no counterparts in reality; none of the 28,000,000 gods that humans have conjured up have actually existed. Is it reasonable to assume, then, that one of these otherwise imaginary beings really does? That YHWH is the exception; the one god, who, just because we’re more familiar with him than any of the other 27,9999,999 deities, is one hundred percent real?

What do you think?

Try praying

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I was in Edinburgh recently and spotted posters, like the one above, on the backs of buses, advising people to ‘try praying’. There is, naturally, an entire web-site devoted to the campaign, created by Christians with more money than sense.

Here’s a thought: try praying that the bus on which one of these ads appears waits for you as you run for it and it pulls away from the stop. You think that would work? (No more than chance would allow.) Or try praying that if you do catch it, the driver will let you on, even though you’ve left your purse at home and can’t buy a ticket. Try praying that the pain you’ve experienced all day be taken from you as you set off walking home. Try praying for or about anything and see what God’s response is. Prayer, ‘tried’ or not, is no more effectual than wishful thinking or chatting with the fairies at the bottom of your garden.

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While in Edinburgh, I visited St Giles’ cathedral in the centre of the city. A friend I was with wanted to see a commemorative plaque there and I saw a chance to rest my aching legs. At the entrance was a sign that said the cathedral welcomed a donation of £5 ($6.55) per visitor to help with daily running costs. Evidently the ecclesiastical administrators haven’t realised they could ‘try praying’ and ask God to fund a building, the sole purpose of which is to honour him. Or perhaps they had ‘tried’ prayer and had discovered God wasn’t willing to provide the hundreds of pounds needed every day to keep it going.

Whichever, the only way churches like St Giles can survive is to have those humans who think they serve some meaningful purpose, fund them themselves. God couldn’t care less whether they flourish or not. If he did he’d keep them going from his abundant supply. That he doesn’t demonstrates not only his non-existence but also tells us that the church is an entirely human enterprise. Without human effort, and liberal amounts of filthy mammon, they invariably fail.