How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

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Back when I was a teacher, in a distant, previous life, there were kids who couldn’t grasp the concept that multiplying a number by zero always results in zero. No matter how often I told them, ‘it doesn’t matter how much nothing you have, it’s still nothing,’ some of them just couldn’t see it.

Those who did understand regarded it as almost magical – they were young children – and would challenge each other with the likes of, ‘What’s 47 trillion, 56 billion, 95 million, 34 thousand, 8 hundred and 22 multiplied by zero?… Zero!’

I imagine these smart kids now say things like, ‘What’s Superstition mutiplied by New Testament scholarship, theology and the intellectualised analysis of doctrine?… Superstition!’

It is immaterial how rigorous the scrutiny of the non-existent is, the non-existent will only ever be non-existent.

No matter how much nothing you have, it’s still nothing.

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Give me some of that ol’… New Testament scholarship?

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Roger E. Olson has deigned to reply to me! He says that every fule know there are multiple Jesuses in the New Testament. All the same, Rog is sure he has a pretty clear picture of the real one, even if this is only in his own head. Then I hit the jackpot! Rog treats me to one of the Christian apologist’s top retorts: those with dissenting views know nothing about New Testament scholarship.

Here’s his response in all its glory:

I hear your suggestion, but I’m not sure what it has to do with atheism. All serious New Testament scholars–including the most conservative Christian ones–already know and admit that the gospel portraits of Jesus differ somewhat from each other. But very early in Christian history all attempts to reduce them to one portrait (one united gospel stitched together from the four in our New Testament) were rejected as heretical. We Christians already know what you say and it doesn’t bother us. I have read numerous biographies of Abraham Lincoln, for example, and the “man himself” stands out in spite of differences of description from different points of view. Your point is simplistic and displays that you know little or nothing about New Testament scholarship.

My reply to this, which Roger hasn’t seen fit to post:

So you think one has to be fully cognizant with New Testament scholarship to be a Christian? Funny, I don’t find any of the Jesuses in the bible saying that. Doesn’t one of them suggest we ‘become as little children’? Still, I expect you’re right: if you need a level of understanding that’s the equivalent of a doctorate to follow Jesus, then I guess I don’t qualify.

As for what my comment has to do with atheism, you were the one who said we see God most clearly in Jesus. I responded by saying I don’t see God in any of the interpretations. If Jesus is the best reflection we have of God, as you suggest, then his failed prophecies, false promises and general ignorance make it probable that the God he, and you, promote doesn’t exist.

If you can cherry-pick which bits of the bible are relevant to your understanding of the divine, Roger (you dismiss, for example, the barbarity of the Old Testament), then it is not unreasonable for others to do the same, even if we aren’t as well versed in Christian mumbo-jumbo theology as you.

Theology: Much Ado About Nothing

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I heard Richard Dawkins speak at the Edinburgh Book Festival recently. He suggested that the best way to understand views that are the opposite of one’s own is to study them for oneself. He was then asked by a smart-alec in the audience, that if this was so, how many works of theology he had read. Dawkins responded by saying he wouldn’t waste his time reading ‘pure theology’ because, in discussing the nature of God or the Trinity or the mechanics of the Resurrection, theology presupposes that the supernatural is real. As there is no evidence it is, there is no point in reading books the sole purpose of which is to discuss the nuances of the non-existent.

It was a good answer. There is no such thing as intellectual Christianity (or Judaism or Islam, or any religion.) No matter how complex the arguments become, they are essentially ones about nothing. Debates about theological matters, within and between the many versions of Christianity, are, as I’ve said before, as relevant as arguments about the colour of the tooth fairy’s dress.*

*Actually she wears a white dress to symbolise healthy teeth. I know this because of my deeply held faith and personal experience of tooth fairies.

The Sect Hiding in Plain Sight

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With thanks to David Eves.

Back at the start of Christianity, the cult was divided into numerous factions; not unlike its modern counterpart. Acts’ claim that all the new converts – the church – got on famously, sharing all they had and generally taking part in one big love-in is spin, a lie concocted by its author, ‘Luke’. Its not the only lie he invents; later in Acts he tries to present the new faith’s ambassadors, Paul and the original apostles, as being largely in agreement about what the Christian message was about. We know from Paul’s own writing that this wasn’t so.

Likewise the united church. We know that there was part of the cult that had a very different theology and soteriology (doctrine of salvation) from Paul. They didn’t subscribe to his incantational magic about a dying god-man who would save them if they claimed his death for themselves. Instead, this group believed that the way to find favour with God was to be ‘righteous’, by doing good works and generally expending oneself on others. Its members promoted, and probably practised, a yin and yang measure-for-measure philosophy: God would show forgiveness, mercy and compassion, they said, only to the same extent that a believer demonstrated them him or herself. Because they believed Jesus had commanded it and God favoured it, they denounced wealth and advocated a self-deprecating way of life. They were predominantly Jewish. They believed Jewish Law was still valid and should still be followed by cult members. They were, however, hostile towards those who, unable to see any value in the new cult, remained within Judaism. The sect invented anachronistic stories about Jesus sparring with the Jewish leaders of their time, half a century or more after Jesus died.

Though it is unlikely any of members of this sect had ever encountered Jesus in person, they believed he was going to return to the Earth while they were still alive in order to judge humankind. Naturally he would vindicate them while condemning all others, particularly the rich and powerful. He would do this because they were the ones who were doing as he commanded – helping the sick, the hungry and the homeless – which would ensure the returning Lord would look on them favourably. None of them had seen the resurrected Jesus but nevertheless they valued the stories they heard about those who supposedly had, and they promoted these stories themselves.

How do we know this? Because this particular sect left behind a record of their beliefs. They imbued them with authority by putting them into the mouth of a preacher who had lived more than fifty years earlier. Who knows, maybe he did say such things. The sect either believed that Jesus had actually contradicted Paul’s notion that the Jewish Law was no longer valid or they felt it necessary to to make Jesus say so themselves. Likewise, they rejected the magical mysticism preached by Paul that was beginning to take hold in those early days. The group’s beliefs were radically different and their writing specifically designed to counteract ideas they opposed with a passion.

Where will you find this group’s writings? In the bible, at the very start of the New Testament in the book called ‘The Gospel According to St Matthew’; this book is their writing, give or take the odd bit of tampering from later on. Matthew’s gospel details the sect’s beliefs about Jesus, their measure-for-measure morality, their recipe for righteousness and their beliefs about salvation and the coming judgement.* So different are these from Paul’s ideas that the gospel can only have been created to counteract his doctrines. The community that produced Matthew had no truck either with Paul’s theology or his soteriology.

Read Matthew for yourself and see how much it is at odds with Paul. The discrepancy is there for all to see, yet Christians have always convinced themselves, if they’ve thought about it at all, that not only is Matthew’s gospel compatible with the mumbo-jumbo that follows it, but that its ‘good news’ and Paul’s are identical. Nothing could be further from the truth.

 

* I’m happy to provide chapter and verse from Matthew’s gospel to support all I say about it.

The Myth of Intellectual Faith

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Reading other sceptics’ blogs, I am struck by how often Christians dismiss what they say on the basis they’re not well read enough, or don’t appreciate the subtlety of the cognoscenti’s cerebral faith. ‘If you knew Faith as I do, if you’d read about it as much as I have,’ they say, ‘and approached it with the intellectual rigour I do, you wouldn’t make such juvenile criticisms of it.’

But isn’t the Christian faith meant to be simple? Simple enough for the uneducated and the childlike to understand it? Jesus himself says so in Matthew 11.25:

I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.

As does Paul in 1 Corinthians 1.26-29:

Consider your calling, brethren; there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.

And isn’t the Bible sufficient in itself for ‘teaching, correction and training in righteousness’? 2 Timothy 3:16-17 seems to says so. Why then is an entire library of additional books required to make the bible comprehensible? Isn’t that tough on the ‘unintelligent’, ‘weak’ and ‘foolish’?

But I dispute that there’s an intellectual form of Christianity, one that is the result of reading widely and extensively, and comes from thinking through the nuances of a deep and complex theology.

There is no subtlety to a belief-system built on the presumption of supernatural beings. There is nothing intellectual about a philosophy dependent on the irrational interpretations of ‘visions’, dreams and hallucinations. Those who impose intellectualism on such things do just that – impose their own intelligence on something that has none of its own.

So argue all you want that there are subtleties to a transcendent God that those of us (deemed to be) of limited intelligence can’t begin to comprehend and I will show you how those nuances derive from your own mind – you are unable to demonstrate that there is a god, let alone one of almost incomprehensible complexity. Similarly, when you talk about the Trinity, I will show you an idea that is ‘mysterious’ only in the sense it defies all rationality. When you insist on the true meaning of salvation – whether it’s the role of blood sacrifice, forgiveness, works, substitutionary atonement or some other magic that only the initiated can understand – I will show you a book so muddled it presents all of these as incompatible explanations of redemption.

Impose it all you like, denigrate those who dispute it, there is no intellectual element to Christianity (or any religion). Intellectual faith is an oxymoron, comparable with discussions about whether the tooth fairy wears a green dress or a pink one.