Get your false Messiahs here…

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There was this guy who said he was the Son of God and the Messiah of his people. God appeared to him in a vision that enveloped him and changed him completely. Afterwards he discovered he had a knowledge of scripture that he previously hadn’t possessed and a invigorated sense of mission: God had appointed him to redeem his people. He changed his name and began to teach his people with power and a knowledge that all of them testified they had never experienced before. He brought them close to God and showed them how the world was coming to an end and how God would soon establish his Kingdom on Earth. He prophesied too, however, that he himself would die at the hands of the authorities, but that his followers should have no fear, because God would not forsake them: they would be part of the coming Kingdom.

And so it came to pass. At the age of 33, the Messiah died at the hands of the state.

And the name of this guy? Jesus, maybe? Well, it could be, but it wasn’t. Saul/Paul perhaps? Again, possibly… but no.

This guy’s name was David Koresh (real name Vernon Howell), leader of a Christian sect called the Branch Davidians. You may remember him from such massacres as the 1993 seige at Waco, where his church was based. He made all the claims above, just like Jesus and, to a lesser extent, Paul before him. None of his followers, it’s true, claimed to see him after his death, but some of those who survived the seige believe still that he will be resurrected and will return to lead them personally into the Kingdom of God.

I was watching a programme about him recently, a Storyville documentary originally broadcast in the States last year, which showed how easily we create our Messiahs and Saviours. The recipe, it turns out, is easy:

Take one charismatic individual who thinks he’s speaking for God;

Mix in an obsession with scripture;

Add some absurd self-promotion, and

Bake for a few years in the over-heated adulation of some desperate sycophants.

So – Jesus, Paul, Koresh. What’s the difference?

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*Actually, the quote in the picture up top is not Jesus at all; its Koresh, from an interview with the FBI (see first link above.) John 14.6 says ‘No-one comes to the Father except by me,’ which is much the same.

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Love and Kindness

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I’m sometimes I asked what, given I don’t believe in Jesus, I do believe in. I always find this an odd question, presuming as it does that Christianity is really the only thing worth believing in. Implicit in it too is an acknowledgement that faith in the supernatural is irrational, and that sceptics are just as prone to irrationality as believers themselves: ‘you too have faith in any number of unprovable propositions, just like us misguided Christians!’ The question is often an attempt to show that sceptics are just as gullible as Christians.

Recently, Jimoeba said on his blog, The Common Atheist, ‘I believe passionately in nothing,’ meaning, I think, he doesn’t believe in any sort of supernatural nonsense. It set me thinking about what, in fact, I believe in. Do I still have some irrational, unfounded beliefs? Certainly I don’t believe – can’t believe – in Jesus and his support cast of mythical entities, who live in Heaven or just out of sight or wherever they’re meant to be. The same applies to their counterparts in other religions. It’s not that I hold this as a matter of faith; there simply isn’t the evidence to support the existence of gods, angels, demons, eternal beings, heaven and hell (as I discuss here and here.)

In any case, I prefer to know things rather than believe in them. Where there is evidence, there is no need for ‘belief’ or ‘faith’. Yet I still have a suspicion I believe in some things; things that seem intuitively right (never a good measure, I know, of what actually is true) but for which the evidence isn’t as substantial as I’d like. Things like love and kindness. I do believe in these, however cliched it may be to say, ‘I believe in love’. I do. I feel and, I hope, demonstrate love for my family, specially my children and grandchildren. Also to my friends and partners. It seems to me love matters a great deal. There are no doubt good evolutionary reason why we feel particularly strong affection for our offspring; taking care of them increases their – and the genes we share – chances of survival. But subjectively it is more than that. I believe it’s more than that anyway.

I find , try as I might, however, that I can’t extend that love to people I don’t know. Jesus’ command (not that I’m under any obligation to follow it) to love one’s neighbours and enemies is an impossibility, another example of his not knowing what he was talking about. It’s possible to feel compassion for those who suffer, or pity or sympathy, but these, while they’re perhaps components of love, are not completely love in any of its forms. So that’s why I believe in kindness too. ‘Be kind to your neighbour, to strangers and to those you encounter in daily life’ would have been, and is, a far more realistic expectation.

There are other things I believe in too – trying to steer people away from irrational belief in deities, saviours and magic books, obviously – and I’m not always consistent in my application of love and kindness. But I do try to be. I know they’re not absolutes, nor even universal values; they’re not delivered from on high because no values are, being entirely humanly derived, and they’re not practised by everyone either, not even aspired to by some. There’s no need to go around preaching about love and kindness, nor do they need a mythology created around them. Nevertheless, they’re what matter – to me, anyway.

I believe in them.

So it begins…

Jesus Lazes

A true story:

They didn’t see it coming. No-one did. It couldn’t have been predicted. He came into their lives unexpectedly one summer evening and none of them would ever be the same again.

He met Maddy first, then Andrew and soon after that the rest of the group. He was quiet, diffident even, but from the start his personality shone, his smile captivating them all. Some fell in love with him immediately, others later but either way, there was no escape. His zest for life was infectious, his gentle, thoughtful ways drew in all who encountered him. He didn’t demand change or presume to tell them how they should live, but his unaffected presence changed them all and added immeasurably to each of their lives.

And so the cult of Salvatore began, in the way that all cults begin, with a charismatic personality. When that individual seeks to manipulate and control others, particularly if he or she has Messianic aspirations, then before long an agenda emerges: unquestioning obedience; the belief that only this leader has the Truth; the demand that acolytes abandon family, friends and society for the cause; the proselytising to increase followers; the expectation that others acknowledge the leader’s power and glory; the rejection of those who fail to do so. This is how it was with Jesus, Muhammed, the Buddha, Joseph Smith, Mary Eddy Baker and so many others

The Salvatore cult won’t come to this; the man himself is neither controlling nor manipulative, though there are those who would do anything for him. Myself included.

Abandon Reason all ye who enter the Faith

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The question of whether religious believers are less intelligent than non-believers surfaces every now and again. The atheist blogs I read are usually courteous enough to say that of course believers are not less intelligent, and there are no studies that I can find that have considered the matter.

Evidently there have been intelligent Christians; C. S. Lewis comes to mind, Francis Collins of the Human Genome project and William Lane Craig are evidently intelligent men. (I can’t think of any obviously intelligent women who subscribe to religion; I suspect intelligent women are intelligent enough to avoid superstition altogether.) It seems to me though that what those who profess religious belief are prepared to do, is sublimate whatever intelligence they have and sacrifice intellect in the service of faith. They suppress their critical faculties, usually through a form of cognitive dissonance, and press rationality into the servitude of beliefs that have been arrived at irrationally. I might be wrong of course, but this what the evidence suggests to me.

A recent commenter on this blog by name of tides99, does seem to support to this hypothesis. tides99 originally wrote to say how his chosen superstition, Catholicism, is the one true way (aren’t they all) and that while I’m right to criticise Protestantism, I really should investigate Catholicism for myself. When I declined his very generous offer, tides99 responded – you’ll find his comments in ‘the author’ section above – with a number of points about the limits of human reason. It is these I take apart respond to here.

tides99: I have a PhD in philosophy, so I certainly would not believe in anything that goes against reason or requires one to repress or contradict one’s critical faculties.
For one who professes a PhD in philosophy, tides99, there is some very sloppy reasoning here and throughout your argument. Already in this first sentence we see the contradiction between belief and reason; they are not the same and can’t ever be; belief doesn’t require reason. That is why it is often called ‘faith’.

Criticsl (sic) reason is only one way of encountering and assessing reality… You’re right, tides99, but not for the reason you think. Critical reasoning is one way of assessing reality, but is insufficient on its own. It needs the support of evidence. Evidence is supplied by science and the methods used in scientific enquiry that seek to eliminate, as far as possible, human bias and presupposed conclusions.

and there are aspects of reality that reason cannot adjudicate because it cannot access them. If there are aspects of reality that reason cannot ‘adjudicate’ (whatever that means) and that science cannot access, then how do you know these supernatural aspects exist? You feel them? Your church says they do? You’d like them to? Maybe so, but none of these mean that these mysterious ‘aspects’ really do exist. You’re sneaking supernaturalism in through the back door here, tides.

Rationalism is itself based Upon faith, of faith… Oh dear, this old chestnut.

in the ultimate intelligibility of the universe, and its perfect transparency to human reason. Is rationality really based on these things? Scientists concede there may be aspects of the universe which, while we might observe them or extrapolate mathematically, we might never properly understand or be able to explain. This doesn’t, to my knowledge, prevent the exercise of rationality.

This of course cannot be proven, yet you believe it anyway. Scientists and free-thinkers rarely go in for ‘proof’. Your use of the word makes me suspicious of your claims about your credentials. Things can be proven mathematically, it’s true, as can matters in a court of law (beyond reasonable doubt) but by and large science is more interested in theories, working models and demonstration. So, no-one is looking to ‘prove’ that the universe is ultimately intelligible and no-one ‘believes’ it is perfectly transparent to human reason. This is a strawman argument, tides.

It’s quite superstitious to have such faith, but yet have nothing really to ground it on. Whatever reason and rationality are based on, it is not faith in the universe’s intleligibility or transparency. The use of reason and the application of the scientific method are nothing like ‘faith’. Both are tools, and they are the best we have.

The truth is that the reason why reason exists is because the universe is ordered… Beware any statement that starts ‘the truth is’! Reasoning is a manifestation of the human brain. It is not something that has discreet, independent existence. It has not been floating around for aeons, out there somewhere, waiting for advanced apes finally to discover it and make it their own. The only reason reason exists is because the human brain evolved to the extent it became capable of reasoning. All the same, the brain did not leave behind its capacity for irrationality, unreasonableness and disorderly impulse. Might we not then claim, this being an equally viable proposition, that because these are human traits of even longer standing than our capacity for reason, that the universe must therefore also be irrational, unreasonable and disordered? Of course not, because the universe’s characteristics are not a reflection of the human brain’s abilities, and vice versa. The inclination to project human behaviour onto an impersonal, indifferent environment – to anthropomorphise the universe – exemplifies our irrationality, not rationality.

But, just a minute, we have another contradiction here, tides99. You have already speculated that there are aspects of reality beyond our grasp – and yet here you are telling us that, along with the rest of the universe, these supernatural aspects are ordered. How do you know this? How do you know anything about parts of reality which reason cannot ‘adjudicate’ and science cannot access?

and the reason why it’s ordered is, of course, because there is an orderer, namely God. And there we have it. It’s God. Of course it is. Far from demonstrating that the universe is ordered, you now conjecture that the order you claim for it has an orderer behind it. Yes, it’s another leap of faith, reason be damned. Anthropomorphising the universe leads inevitably to deities and, ultimately, the Christian god, who is merely ourselves writ large.

Speaking for myself, anyway, I can say this much. When I was an undergrad I came across the saying that learning a little philosophy leads you away from God, but learning a lot of philosophy leads you back. As a young man who had learned a little philosophy, I scoffed. But in later years and at least in my own case, I would come to see that it’s true.

It’s no good blaming a surfeit of philosophy, tides99. If what you say were true, all philosophers with PhDs would have reached conclusions similar to your own. The majority haven’t.

To summarise your argument, you claim – without evidence – that there are supernatural aspects to the universe/reality which reason and science can’t detect. You assert that nevertheless the universe as a whole is ordered and it follows therefore that there must be an orderer. This orderer, you then go on to assume, is the very God you’ve chosen, for entirely irrational reasons, to worship.

Science and reason tell us that every one of these assertions is wrong. You are projecting your beliefs onto the universe as you perceive it, tides99. Project away, by all means, but remember, these beliefs and your version of reality are only in your head. The real universe as science, and, I’d venture to say, reason demonstrate, is busy doing something else entirely.

 

The Resurrection Explained

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The earliest reference to Jesus being raised from the dead appears in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: 

Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers (Corinthians 15.3-6).

Scholars are generally agreed that Paul is quoting from a very early creed, created within a few years of Jesus’ death. Ftbond, a commenter on Escaping Christian Fundamentalism, asks that if this creed was in existence

within a year or two or three after Jesus crucifixion (and, obviously, claimed resurrection), then one must ask: What was so important, so astounding, so amazing, so desirable, so attractive, so encaptivating (sic) and charismatic about that person that anyone would think him to be a “candidate” for resurrection in the first place?

It seems to me all of these questions and attendant adjectives are irrelevant and that ftbond is looking at the resurrection claims the wrong way round.

First, the creed doesn’t refer to ‘resurrection’. ‘He was raised’ is the term favoured by these earliest of Christians, one that doesn’t suggest they could only have had a reanimated corpse in mind.

There is no justification for supposing that ‘he was raised’ meant the same, either in Paul’s mind or that of the creed writers, as ‘bodily resurrection’. To assume they’re the same is to impose all the later accretions of the latter term onto the much simpler earlier one. We know Paul’s ‘risen Christ’ was a ‘revelation’ in his own head (let’s call it an hallucination) and nowhere does he suggest that Jesus was brought back to life in his old body. Paul talks only of Jesus being raised as ‘a life giving spirit’, not a ‘corrupt’ body of flesh at all (1 Corinthians 15.46).

Hallucinations of a ‘raised’ Jesus, then, long preceded the idea that he had returned in the same physical body that two days earlier had died on the cross. The notion that he was alive again resulted from the ‘visions’ – quite possibly dreams – that two or three of his early followers had. They took these visions to mean that Jesus had returned spiritually from beyond the grave.

Others came to believe in the risen Jesus, not because they personally experienced a vision or dream about him (though Paul insists there were some who did), but because of the reports of others experiencing them. Still more became believers as a result of reports of reports (of reports.) These experiences were then incorporated into creeds like the one quoted by Paul, and ultimately into the gospels when they were written 40-100 years later. By that time the original hallucinations were being worked up into real encounters with a Jesus physically resurrected in the flesh.

No-one needed to find Jesus ‘captivating’, ‘astounding’ and all those other adjectives ftbond applies to him; most converts, like Paul, would never even have met him. It is all a matter of interpretation; either a few early believers convinced themselves they’d experienced their late charismatic companion alive again, or, if he didn’t actually exist (and he is so mythic this is a possibility), they concocted a back story for their mystical experiences. The result was the creation of stories about Jesus, largely cobbled together from the ‘Scriptures’ (as Paul all but admits.)

This seems to me to be the most likely explanation of the ‘resurrection’. There is so much special pleading in the gospel accounts, so much that is clearly invented and designed to fulfil prophecy, so many inconsistencies and anomalies, that the entire enterprise smacks of imaginative invention, designed to lend credence to a few people’s innervisions.

It all comes down to feelings and subjective experience

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Argue with Christians (Hi there, Jim! Hi there, Don!) about the veracity of their faith and they will tell you it’s true for two reasons: the Bible and their own personal experience. ‘Christianity is true and Jesus is real because the Bible says so – and, whatsmore, I feel it.’

Or, as William Craig Lane likes to put it, the inner witness of the Holy Spirit testifies to the truth of Christianity. It’s a beautifully circular argument: ‘Christianity and its holy book are true; I know this because the Holy Spirit who lives in me tells me so; I know the Holy Spirit lives in me because the Bible says he does; therefore, I know Christianity and the Bible are true because the Holy Spirit tells me so’.

But equally, Mormons claim that they ‘know’ a completely different set of improbable beliefs are true because they experience a ‘burning in the bosom’ that tells them so. Roman Catholics say their faith is true because they experience Christ through the Eucharist, while Muslims know theirs is true because they have a real sense of Allah’s presence.

All of these spiritual convictions are not, as a liberal theologian like Karen Armstrong might claim, evidence that there is Something-Out-There that loves and communicates with us, but more obviously that human beings’ brains are adept at creating whatever ‘inner witness’ is required to support the beliefs and convictions they have arrived at. William Lane Craig concedes this when he acknowledges that

Anyone (or, at least any sort of theist) can claim to have a self-authenticating witness of God to the truth of his religion. But the reason you argue with them is because they really don’t: either they’ve just had some emotional experience or else they’ve misinterpreted their religious experience.

In other words, any experience of ‘self-authenticating witness’ enjoyed by believers in faiths outside Craig’s own brand of Christianity is at best mistaken, at worst fake. But then, how can anyone know, Craig included, that his own conviction isn’t just as much an emotional flush or mere subjective experience? Why is his conviction any more real than that of other kinds of believers? Ultimately, Craig can only say, “because it is”:

a person (possessed by the Holy Spirit) does not need supplementary arguments or evidence in order to know and to know with confidence that he is in fact experiencing the Spirit of God.

In other words, the true believer knows his experience of the Holy Spirit is real because his experience of the Holy Spirit tells him it is. And round the argument goes, though no amount of assertion makes a subjective experience an event in objective reality.

It is impossible for Craig, or any other Christian, to demonstrate that an entity he imagines inhabits his brain, no matter how convincing its presence may seem, has any existence anywhere other than in his brain. What the person who says ‘I believe’ is really saying is that they have no evidence at all for what they are claiming. If they had, they wouldn’t need to believe it; they would know it. They would, whatsmore, be able to point to independent, external evidence for it.

The Bible makes a virtue out of not knowing, of believing when there is no evidence.  It calls the resulting cognitive dissonance, ‘faith’.

Adapted from my book, Why Chrisitans Don’t Do What Jesus Tells Them To …And What They Believe Instead.

Were the gospels ‘fact checked’ by those in the know?

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In a discussion I’ve been having with Don Camp on his blog-site, Biblical Musings, Don has been arguing that the Gospels are completely accurate because a) he wants to believe this and b) the Gospels ‘could have been fact checked by people living who had known Jesus and who had heard the Apostles teach this very story for many years. New and embellished versions would not have been acceptable to these people’ (my emphasis).

Clearly this is not so; John’s gospel presents a very different, highly embellished Jesus from that of the synoptic gospels (a divine being who is preoccupied with himself as opposed to a prophet concerned with ushering in God’s Kingdom), yet nowhere do we have any record of anyone saying, ‘hang on, one of these isn’t right – this isn’t how I remember things.’ Similarly, Paul’s itinerary (not to mention his theology) in Acts differs from that he talks about in his letters. Yet there’s no surviving evidence that anyone pulled Luke up about his inaccuracies.

If it didn’t happen, as far as we are aware, for these discrepancies, then why should we suppose it would have happened for others? It isn’t legitimate to hail the absence of ‘fact checking’ as evidence that everyone thought the gospel writers’ versions of Jesus’ life, despite multiple contradictions and evident embellishments, were reasonably accurate. This absence is not evidence that there was nothing to be disputed; it can be explained in numerous other, more likely ways (no-one was particularly interested in the discrepancies and embellishments because the gospels are literary creations, not historical accounts; the objections weren’t recorded or simply didn’t survive; they were quashed by orthodoxy and so on.)

Still Don insists ‘nobody in the know’ objected to anything in the gospels at the time they were written. This of course is mere conjecture on his part. We simply don’t know whether anyone objected, who did and who didn’t. Perhaps the disciples did object but were overruled (just as they were by Paul over other matters); maybe they objected to being portrayed as idiots, when their interpretation of what Jesus was about was being diminished, and nobody actually cared; maybe they didn’t mind the mythologising of their leader; maybe they never even saw the gospels, written as they were well away from Palestine and long after the events they portray; maybe most of the disciples were dead by the time the gospels were in circulation – life expectancy was short. Yes, I’m hypothesising here, just as Don does, my conjecture being every bit as valid as his.

Finally, Don refuses to see the errors, discrepancies and contradictions in the Gospels, as well as the mythologising of their central figure. Even with their inconsistencies, inaccuracies and flights of fancy (that may or may not have been objected to), Don maintains the Gospels are still ‘true’ and ‘inspired’. He really knows how to stretch a definition to the point of meaninglessness.

As if that’s not bad enough, he now he wants to pray for me.