Sam Harris: Intellectual Coward or Misrepresented Victim?

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by Neil Godfrey

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 5.45.07 amThe following are my notes from the the video of my previous post. I have pulled out just the section discussing Sam Harris and will post the remainder later (after listening to Kyle Kulinski’s earlier video “cease-fire“.)

This discussion goes to the heart of the controversy over Sam Harris: why so many of his supporters insist that he has been misrepresented, lied about, slandered — that all he ever means is something quite ordinary and uncontroversial . . . . So why, then, is he so often “misunderstood”?

The minutes/seconds markers are approximate. Unless otherwise indicated the coloured indented quotations are by Glenn Greenwald. Uncoloured text is paraphrase.


“And I do think Sam Harris is a uniquely kind of inflammatory figure for a whole variety of different reasons in a way say that Richard Dawkins or even Christopher Hitchens aren’t and weren’t”


“I’ve never encountered in my entire life a public figure who immediately brands any of their critics as being not just wrong but [cannot catch his words] liars. It’s almost impossible to criticize Sam Harris without him claiming that you’re wrong or mistaken but that you’re viciously smearing and lying about what it is he’s saying — in a way Christopher Hitchens never did or that Richard Dawkins doesn’t do.”

[My own comment: Amen. This observation also explains why some of Harris’s defenders are so offended by any criticism of Harris and likewise accuse “us” of “misrepresenting” and “lying” about Harris. — And this is exactly the problem we have experienced from the followers of Acharya S/DM Murdock, too.]


Kyle Kulinski says Sam Harris seems to be becoming more rational. At first he sounded like he was in favour of racial profiling and people said “Hey! What?” but then he said “All I meant was….” — his hedges make his arguments a lot less bad…. read more »


Glenn Greenwald talks about the New Atheists

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by Neil Godfrey

This is a “watch this space” post — PZ Myers has posted his own paraphrase of some points on the following discussion on his blog and I expect to be make my own notes to place here on Vridar asap.

The line that caught my eye was “New Atheists are engaging in rank tribalism. See Ashley Miller.” (I recently posted a reference to Ashley’s post here, as some readers will know.)

Updated 6th Oct 2015:– follow up post at Sam Harris: Intellectual Coward or Misrepresented Victim?



Another Biblical Scholar (Richard Bauckham) on Historical Jesus Studies

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by Neil Godfrey

Richard J. Bauckham, FBA, FRSE (born 22 September 1946) is an English scholar in theology, historical theology and New Testament studies, specialising in New Testament Christology and the Gospel of John. He is a senior scholar at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. — Wikipedia (4th Oct 2015).


Richard Bauckham is probably best known to the wider public for his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony in which he argues that the gospel narratives about Jesus were derived from reports of eyewitnesses. Is it reasonable to ask if Bauckham’s thesis was the product of disinterested historical inquiry?

Anyone who has read the first chapter of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses will know that my overall concern in the book was to help Christians recover the confidence that the Jesus they find in the Gospels (rather than in some dubiously reconstructed history behind the Gospels) is the real Jesus. 

(2015-09-01). I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship (p. 27). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Does this entitle us to be suspicious that the arguments might have been tendentious?

I did not think this prejudiced the purely historical argument that followed because I am accustomed to making sure that my historical arguments stand up as historical arguments.

I have covered in depth what his “historical arguments” look like in a detailed series of chapter by chapter posts now available in the archives. One of the more bizarre of Bauckham’s “historical arguments” is to compare the gospel narratives of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus with testimony of another “unique” event, the Holocaust of the 1940s. To approach the testimony of survivors/eyewitnesses with a hermeneutic of “radical suspicion” is “epistemological suicide”. Normative approaches of critical analysis of the evidence, of testing the evidence, are set aside in preference for a choice between either believing or rejecting the testimony, for either cynically rejecting the “astonishing testimony” of something unspeakably unique or charitably trusting the words of a privileged eyewitness report. Ad hoc rationalisations dominate: if passages such as the crucifixion narratives are replete with biblical (Old Testament) allusions it is because the eyewitnesses were overawed by their memories of the events; yet if passages such as the resurrection narratives contain no biblical allusions it is because the eyewitnesses were even more overawed by their memories of something that “defied reality”.

What about Bauckham’s personal faith interest? Does that shape his work in any way?

Maybe (but how could I ever know?) I would still love God if I came to the conclusion that there was no shred of real history in the New Testament. But, to say the least, I would find it more difficult to believe in God if I did not believe that God became incarnate as the man Jesus, who died and rose bodily from death and is alive eternally with God. (Here I differ profoundly from people who find it easier to believe in God than in the incarnation and the resurrection.) This gives my love of God an indispensable stake in the historical credibility of the Gospels. For as long as I have thought about it, it has always been clear to me that, for Christian faith to be true, the Jesus Christians find in the Gospels must be the real Jesus . . . 

(2015-09-01). I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship (p. 24). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Does this mean that Bauckham invariably knows that he expects to find his faith confirmed in all of his studies? He does at least permit himself to change his mind on a number of issues so no-one can say he does not courageously follow wherever the evidence leads . . . Coincidentally the three changes of mind that he admits to having arisen out of his studies have all been in the direction of establishing the “truth” of a more conservative and traditional view of his faith: read more »

You Can Count Me out of Atheist Tribalism

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by Neil Godfrey

Libby Anne had a somewhat similar religious background to mine and has consequently acquired, like me, an enhanced ability to notice wherever cultish or tribal or fundamentalist types of behaviours and attitudes surface in other (supposedly religion-free) areas of society. Back in March this year and in the wake of the Craig Hicks’ murders of three Muslims she wrote You Can Count Me out of Atheist Tribalism. She writes:

There are a lot of differences between the Chapel Hill killings and the Charlie Hebdo killings, but both demonstrate what hatred and demonization of “the other” can lead to. I would think we should all be able to admit this and condemn it—right? Wrong. I’m absolutely flummoxed by Sam Harris’s insistence that crimes committed by atheists by definition have nothing to do with their beliefs.

I have bolded a section below because it so perfectly mirrors my own experience:

To put it simply, atheists who are quick to blame terrorism committed by Muslim individuals on Islam and just as quick to excuse atheism from any role in atrocities committed by atheists are using a glaring double standard.

Unfortunately, I have a lot of personal experience with these sorts of double standards. I grew up in an atmosphere where Christian atrocities were dismissed through ample use of the No True Scotsman fallacy. In fact, I believed that by definition, a Christian would not commit atrocities, and that if someone claiming to be Christian did so, they must not be truly Christian. It was a very handy way to excerpt my in-group from criticism while eagerly lobbing criticism at everyone outside of it.

I, for one, am not eager to repeat that. 

And she concludes — with the same reason I have come to distance myself in recent years from some sort of fan-following of any New Atheist popularizer:

I didn’t leave one tribe, with its demonization of other groups and tribes, ample use of the No True Scotsman fallacy, and insistence on valuing in-group loyalty above all else, to join another tribe doing the exact same thing.

Ashley Miller’s turn

Yesterday, in the wake of Christopher Harper-Mercer’s killing spree, it was Ashley Miller‘s turn. Taking her cue from Chris Hitchins’ book title God Is Not Great; How Religion Poisons Everything Ashley has written Atheist Tribalism Poisons Everythingread more »


We are not historians; we are Christians — (“I know what you mean, but don’t say it like that!”)

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by Neil Godfrey

Scot McKnight is an American New Testament scholar, historian of early Christianity, theologian, speaker, author and blogger who has written widely on the historical Jesus, early Christianity, the emerging church and missional church movements, spiritual formation and Christian living. He is currently Professor of New Testament at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, IL. McKnight is an ordained Anglican with anabaptist leanings, and has also written frequently on issues in modern anabaptism. — Wikipedia (4th Oct 2015)

believeI cited Scot McKnight in my first serious attempt to point out the differences in the ways biblical scholars approach their study of Jesus and Christian origins from the ways other historians handled sources and investigated other historical persons and events. In Jesus and His Death McKnight quite rightly notes the general ignorance among his theologian/biblical studies peers of the methods followed by other historians and their debates over the very nature of their craft. He notes that the reliance upon criteria of authenticity (“criteriology”) is both unique to historical Jesus studies and fallacious. In another early post I quoted McKnight’s view that historical Jesus scholars are in fact fooling themselves when they claim their reconstructions of Jesus are derived solely from the evidence:

While each may make the claim that they are simply after the facts and simply trying to figure out what Jesus was really like—and while most don’t quite say this, most do think this is what they are doing— nearly every one of them presents what they would like the church, or others with faith, to think about Jesus. Clear examples of this can be found in the studies of Marcus Borg, N.T. Wright, E.P. Sanders, and B.D. Chilton—in fact, we would not be far short of the mark if we claimed that this pertains to each scholar—always and forever. And each claims that his or her presentation of Jesus is rooted in the evidence, and only in the evidence. (Jesus and His Death, p. 36)

McKnight has elaborated on some of his views about historical Jesus scholarship and the nature of biblical source material in a new publication,  I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship.

The Bible is God’s true and living word

McKnight does not hide his view that his historical studies are investigations into “God’s true and living word”. Don’t call him an inerrantist, though. Rather, each book in the Bible adds to the previous one, “sometimes agreeing, sometimes even disagreeing, but often expanding and adjusting and renewing — the previous texts. God’s inspiration then is at work in a history and a community as expressed by an author for a given moment.”

It was not until many years later that I read Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel when he gave me the best words for what is happening in the Bible and not least in the Synoptics. There is an inner dialogue at work and once one begins to see the dialogue one sees the Bible for what it really is. It is not one self-contained text added to the previous but one text interacting with — sometimes agreeing, sometimes even disagreeing, but often expanding and adjusting and renewing — the previous texts. God’s inspiration then is at work in a history and a community as expressed by an author for a given moment. This experience of underlining the Synoptics one word and one line after another led me to think that words like “inerrancy” are inadequate descriptions of what is going in the Bible. I have for a long time preferred the word “true” or “truth.” The Bible is God’s true and living Word is far more in line with the realities of the Bible itself than the political terms that have arisen among evangelicals in the twentieth century.

(2015-09-01). I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship (pp. 167-168). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

So when Scot McKnight was criticizing the scholarly methods used by his peers to investigate Jesus he was not calling for them to turn their backs on fallacious “criteriology” and turn towards the methods of other professional historians (such a turn would have meant a revision in even the very questions they asked as historians) but he was, rather, declaring that historical inquiry was not capable of uncovering very much of relevance for the Church.

As a Gospels specialist I entered into the historical Jesus debates, first with an invitation from Craig Evans and Bruce Chilton to sketch the teachings of Jesus in the context of his mission to Israel (A New Vision for Israel) but then even more intensively in a book called Jesus and His Death (Baylor University Press). Two things happened to me — at the deepest level of my being — through that decade of study. First, I became convinced the historical method used in historical Jesus studies yields limited conclusions. My “aha” moment was sitting at my desk realizing I can prove that Jesus died but I can never prove that he died for my sins; I can prove that Jesus asserted that he would be raised from the dead but I can never prove he rose for my justification. . . .

Interesting that the two details that McKnight singles out as subject to unequivocal “proof” are the two points central to the Christian faith itself. He follows by affirming the importance of traditional Church belief over the findings of historical studies. . . read more »


What Biblical Scholars Say About Historical Jesus Studies

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by Neil Godfrey

Dale C. Allison (November 25, 1955-) is an American New Testament scholar, historian of Early Christianity, and Christian theologian who for years served as Errett M. Grable Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Early Christianity at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He is currently the Richard J. Dearborn Professor of New Testament Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. — Wikipedia (2nd Oct 2015)

historicalchristI like reading Dale Allison. He is open and forthright about his methods. When some biblical scholars indignantly insist that their field is faith-neutral (after all it includes atheists and agnostics and Jews!) and that they are as on the level as any other historians could possibly be, I wonder if they have ostracized Dale Allison from their community.

Allison acknowledges the circularity at the heart of historical Jesus arguments and that the Gospel narratives are largely midrashic parables. But he is a serious historian nonetheless (according to the lights of historical studies within theological circles) and does the best he can to know “the historical Jesus” despite the challenges thrown up by the nature of the sources:

Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned. (See Dale Allison on Memory and Historical Approaches to the Gospels)

In The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus Allison clarifies what he means by the above:

What matters is not whether we can establish the authenticity of any of the relevant traditions or what the criteria of authenticity may say about them, but rather the pattern that they, in concert, create. It is like running into students who enjoy telling tales about their absent-minded professor. A number of those tales may be too tall to earn our belief; but if there are several of them, they are good evidence that the professor is indeed absent-minded.

Dale C. Allison Jr.. The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Kindle Locations 839-841). Kindle Edition.

(Think that “historical method” through for a few moments.)

With thanks to Anthony Le Donne for alerting me to Dale Allison’s The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus here are a few more of Allison’s insights worthy of note:

I have never been without theological motives or interests. Until a few years ago, however, I had not attempted to pursue those interests with much diligence or to examine my motives with much care. Recent circumstances have pushed me out of my historical-critical pose. After accepting a teaching post at a Protestant theological seminary, I soon discovered that future pastors are not interested in undertaking historical labor without the prospect of theological reward. In order, then, to keep my audience, I was compelled to complement my critical inquiries with theological deliberations.

Dale C. Allison Jr.. The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Kindle Locations 20-23). Kindle Edition.

Don’t misunderstand. Dale Allison firmly believes he is professional enough to recognize (at least in hindsight) when his historical reconstructions of Jesus have been guided by theological interests as the following quotations will demonstrate. Before making those acknowledgments, however, he draws on his experiences in the wider field to recognize what his peers are also doing.

In recent years we have seen works by Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham arguing for the earliest “Christians” attributing to Jesus a very high divine Christology from the very beginning of their faith. If you have wondered if these professors might be influenced by their own conservative faith, Allison encourages your suspicions. He tells us we can also predict the personal beliefs of scholars who flatly reject any form of high christology:  read more »


Slippery Slope to Terrorism

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by Neil Godfrey

aa656-chernyshevskyPrevious posts in this series looking at Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us by Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko:

Starting at the Top: Rejecting Violence

Place: Russia
Year: 1875

Adrian Mikhailov was a talented Russian orphan who wanted more than anything else to use his skills to help lift impoverished peasants out of their miserable existence.

It was in boarding school, in the library attic, where his vision of a “new Russia” was inspired by writers like Chernyshevsky (author of What Is To Be Done?) and Dobrolubov. A scholarship enabled him to move to the University of Moscow where he mixed with like minded idealistic students. Their strategic vision (inspired by writings like What Is To Be Done? ) was to go to the peasants, live among them, become one of them, discuss their conditions with them and raise their awareness to understand how political action could lead to a better life. Adrian’s small commune started their own farm to work among “the people”.


Place: USA – Syria – Canada – Egypt – Somalia
Period: 1999-2001

Omar Hammami

Omar Hammami was baptized a Christian in his home state of Alabama. His mother was a Christian but Omar fell in love with the culture and people of Syria when he visited his father’s family in 1999 and soon afterwards became a Muslim. Though at first he had defended Osama bin Laden as a freedom fighter 9/11 prompted him to study his religion more seriously and he took a strong turn against politics. He turned to a Salafist interpretation of the Muslim religion that rejected involvement in politics totally. He condemned the killing of innocents and believed political interests only compromised the true values of Islam. Jihad, for Omar, was entirely a personal spiritual struggle.

Such were the positions from which Adrian and Omar began their respective slides into terrorism.

They both were opposed to violence, especially the murder of innocents, but both eventually found themselves in the thick of terrorist actions.

The Slippery Slope to Violence

read more »


How Widespread Is McGrathian Old-Earth Creationism (MOEC)?

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by Tim Widowfield

Mega Millions tickets

Mega Millions tickets (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Several years ago, my much-adored and much-missed mother-in-law came to visit us. This was back when we lived in Ohio. I loved her almost as much as my own mother, which is the only reason I agreed to buy her lottery tickets. She had a different, perhaps “old-world” view of the universe. Dreams could tell a person what number to play the next day. Doing certain things in a certain order might cause desired numbers to “come up.” The future was foreordained, and if you were lucky, God might drop you a hint.

As a materialist and well-documented anti-supernaturalist, of course, I consider the investment in the lotto as a tax on people who don’t understand math. With great embarrassment, I asked the clerk at the counter for the tickets. Climbing back into the car, I handed them over and said, “I hope you realize you’re the only person on Earth I’d ever do this for.” And she smiled.

I don’t recall exactly what happened after that, although I can tell you she didn’t win. Normally, when the local station showed the pick-3 and pick-4 numbers during Jeopardy!, she’d claim those were the numbers she was going to play. “Shoulda played it. Nuts. Tsk-tsk.”

Earlier, I referred to that kind of thinking as old-world. But maybe “old-school” is more apt. In any case, if you think God can affect or predict the outcome of random events — if you think he runs a rigged table — then this is the logical conclusion. God plays dice, and they’re loaded.

When James McGrath takes potshots at Mythicism or Young-Earth Creationism (YEC) (often comparing one with the other), I’m often reminded of those lottery tickets I bought over a decade ago. Was my mother-in-law right? Is my view of randomness wrong?

Take a look at what the people over at BioLogos have to say on the subject. read more »


Nazzeyes, Clavdivs, and the Pentatoik

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by Tim Widowfield

I grew up in a small city in eastern Ohio, right on the border with Pennsylvania, a tiny place called East Palestine. The story goes that back in the 19th century to escape higher taxes in their home states, a number of industrialists set up shop in the first town on the Ohio and Pennsylvania Railroad (later called the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago Railway). That’s how my little town became a base for the pottery industry from 1880 on into the 1960s. Border towns like Steubenville and East Liverpool also attracted the pottery manufacturers. Those cities used the Ohio River to move goods, while our little town relied on the Pennsylvania Railroad to take our wares to Chicago or Pittsburgh (and beyond).

A view to a kiln

A bottle kiln in Gladstone Pottery Museum, England

A bottle kiln in Gladstone Pottery Museum, England (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My mother worked in one of those potteries. Many women did. As I recall, my dad’s mother and at least one of his sisters worked there too. On that side of the family, they still called it the pott’ry, following their English forebears. My mother didn’t. She grew up on a farm, and all her folk called it the pottery.

Once when I was very young, I visited my mom at work, and watched her as she affixed handles to cups. They were still soft and pale gray. She would quickly wipe them down with a damp sponge to remove any excess clay and to smooth out the surface.

“I’m getting them ready for the kiln,” she said. She pronounced it KILL, and so I was taken aback. They were going to be killed? She noticed my confusion and explained that it was a huge oven that baked the clay. And even though we spell it “k-i-l-n,” everyone there pronounced it kill.

Not only did everyone in the pottery call it the kill, but they used it as a marker. Only an outsider would get it wrong. Everyone on the inside knew the “right” way to pronounce it.

I worked in The Building

Many years later, I had a similar experience while working in the intelligence field. In those days, we were reluctant even to utter the words “National Security Agency” or even the letters “NSA.” We’d sometimes refer to it in public as “No Such Agency.” When my wife and I lived on Ft. Meade, we’d often use the euphemism The Building, as in the sentence: “I’m headed over to The Building.” read more »


The Memory Mavens, Part 8: Chris Keith, Post-Criteria Scholar? (2)

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by Tim Widowfield

Today’s text comes from Molière’s play, Le Médecin malgré lui (The Doctor in Spite of Himself). We join in as Sganarelle, a poor, drunken woodcutter, posing as an eccentric but brilliant physician, pretends to diagnose Lucinde, the daughter of a wealthy couple. Her parents, Géronte and Jacqueline, along with their servant, Lucas, watch and comment as Sganarelle bamboozles them with a stream of nonsense. Sganarelle seeks to explain why Lucinde has lost the ability to speak.

Front page of Le Médecin malgré lui (1666) by ...

Front page of Le Médecin malgré lui (1666) by Molière (1622-1673) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sganarelle: . . . But to come back to our reasoning. I hold that that interference with the action of the tongue is caused by certain humors, that, among ourselves we scientists call humors peccantes. Peccantes, it should be said — humors peccantes. Moreover, as the vapors formed by the exhalations of the influences which originate in the region of the affected area come, — that is to say — ah — do you understand Latin?

Géronte: Not a word.

Sga.: You don’t understand the Latin?

Ge.: No.

Sga.: Cabricias arci thuram catalamus singulariter nominative heac musa “la Muse” bonus, bonum, Deus Sanctus, estne oration latinas? Etiam “oui” Quare, “pourquoi?” Quia substantivo et adjectivum concordat in generi, numerum, et casus E —

Ge.: Ah, why didn’t I study Latin?

Lucas: Yes, it is so beautiful that I do not understand a word of it.

Sga.: Now, these vapors of which I talked, as they come to pass from the left side, where the liver is, to the right side where the heart is, find themselves at the lungs as we call it in Latin, armyan, having communication with the neck that we name in Greek by means of the venicava, that we call in Hebrew cubile, encounter in their way the aforesaid vapors, which fill the ventricles of the shoulder blades, and because the aforesaid vapors — pay close attention to my reasoning, I beg of you, — and because the aforesaid vapors have a certain malignity — listen carefully to that I conjure you —

Ge.: Yes.

Sga.: Have a certain malignity which is caused — attention, if you please —

Ge.: I am attending.

Sga.: Which is caused by the accretion of humors engendered in the concavity of the diaphragm, it comes about that these vapors. . . . ossidbandus nequeys, nequer, potarinum, quipsa, milus. Behold, this is exactly the cause of your daughter’s speechlessness.

Jac.: Ah, that’s well said, my man.

Ge.: No one could reason better, but there is one thing that has shocked me. It is the place of the liver and of the heart. It seems to me that you have placed them otherwise than as they are, that the heart is on the left side, and the liver on the right.

Sga.: Yes, certainly it used to be that way; but we have changed all that, and we now practice medicine by an entirely new method.

Ge.: That’s what I didn’t know, and I beg pardon for my ignorance.

Sga.: No harm done. You are not obliged to be as learned as we.

Sganarelle utters a line near the end which many of us learned in the French: “Nous avons changé tout cela.” It has become a sort of cliché for anyone sweeping away the old ways of doing things, replacing it with something new — anything new, often radically new, occasionally nonsensically new. Sometimes this new thing is so beautiful that we, like Lucas, don’t understand a word of it. read more »

New Testament in the Greek Literary Matrix

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by Neil Godfrey

Dionysus -- From Wikipedia Commons

Dionysus — From Wikipedia Commons

Recently an interesting collation of observations on thematic and literary similarities between New Testament narratives and wider Greek literature was posted by commenter John MacDonald. I’ve set his points out again here (with only slight editing) for those interested. (John’s more complete comment can be read here.) Some of the parallels are actually less to do with the Biblical narrative itself than the subsequent Christian tradition — something I am looking forward to addressing in a future post (from a perspective I have not read elsewhere, by the way). Reference is made to haggadic midrash — which Jewish scholars themselves note is a feature of the Gospels — but in relation to Greek texts I think it might be more correct to speak of intertextuality and mimesis.

It’s interesting to ponder the relationship between the Bible and the Greeks.

To take even one example, the parallels between Jesus and the dying-rising Greek god born of a god and a mortal woman, Dionysus, have long been posited, either in traditional myth or in places like Euripides’ ancient play ‘The Bacchae,’ with work ranging from scholars like Bultmann and others in the 19th century, to the more recent studies of scholars like Martin Hengel, Barrie Powell, Dennis MacDonald, Robert M. Price, and even popular writers like Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy.  Parallels, for example, in the play ‘The Bacchae’ can be drawn as to general overarching themes, as well as to specific details of the New Testament Narratives.  In ‘The Jesus Mysteries,’ several striking parallels are drawn out between The New Testament and the ‘Bacchae,’ the latter being a much earlier work.  To begin with, Freke and Gandy in Jesus Mysteries write: 

According to the gospels, Jesus is an innocent and just man who, at the instigation of the Jewish high priests, is hauled before the Roman Governor Pilate and condemned to die on spurious charges.  Exactly the same mythological motif is found five centuries earlier in Euripides’ play The Bacchae, about Dionysus.  Like Jesus in Jerusalem, Dionysus is a quiet stranger with long hair and a beard who brings a new religion.  In the gospels, the Jewish high priests don’t believe in Jesus and allege that ‘His teachings are causing disaffections amongst the people.’  They plot to bring about his death.  In The Bacchae, King Pentheus is a tyrannical ruler who does not believe in Dionysus.  He berates him for bringing ‘this new disease to the land’ and sends out his men to capture the innocent godman …

read more »


Studying Religious Beliefs Without Understanding How Humans Work

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by Neil Godfrey


From http://www.nature.com/scitable/content/plasmodium-falciparum-life-cycle-14465535

Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne have in a recent Youtube discussion and publication both explained how they studied religion, read lots of theology, before undertaking their anti-theistic critiques. Harris begins by informing us that in his twenties he read a wide range of religious traditions; Coyne tells readers he read much theology as he “dug deeper” into the questions that troubled him and as he did so he “realized that there were intractable incompatibilities between science and religion” that accommodationists “glossed over”. Heather Hastie has taken exception to a recent post of mine and pointed out that in her own research into terrorism she has downloaded a dozen issues of an online terrorist recruiting journal for study.

It is one thing to read what religious beliefs and claims are made by converts. It is quite another to study why they have embraced those beliefs, why those beliefs have the hold over believers that they do, and the relationship between those beliefs and claims and the extremist behaviours of adherents.

Gullible and weak minded?

There is a widespread perception among people who have never had much or anything to do with religious cults that people who join them are somehow the more gullible or weak-willed than average. Such popular perceptions are problematic. Some cult members demonstrate superior intelligence and knowledge in other studies in their life; and many of them are exceptionally strong-willed to the point of undergoing extreme sacrifices and hardship, even giving up their own lives and even the lives of loved ones when tested on their faith. That certain cults can generate a public presence beyond their actual numbers often shows they must have some extraordinary skills and determination to maximise the impact of their meagre human resources. The nineteen men who planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks were far from having lesser intelligence and from being weak-willed.

Recently I have been sharing snippets from anthropologist Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained and in follow up comments have added a few more quotations addressing common views that people embrace religion because we they are seeking explanations to big or ultimate questions, or because they are gullible. In the past I have posted some explanations of how religious thinking differs from other types of thinking. (Understanding extremist religion; Religious credence part 1 and part 2; Science and religion; Fantasy and religion)

If we want to find a way to counter potentially dangerous extremist acts in the name of religion or simply wind back daily oppressive practices of some religions (e.g. choosing death over medical care, child abuse, denial of women’s rights) we will need to do more than simply present rational arguments. The converts do not shield themselves from opposing arguments; they are prepared for them and know how to counter them. Religious thinking does not work in the same way – we need to understand that.

I must thank Dan Jones for revitalising my interest in this question and providing me with new readings to follow up. I have already studied a few works on “how religion works” but need to do much more.

In the meantime, here is an alternative approach to what is required to understand how people acquire the religious mind. (Alternative, that is, to simply reading the theologies and ramblings of the religious texts themselves and thinking, “how bizarre!”, “how frightening!”).

The author, an anthropologist, would compare the methods of Harris, Coyne and Hastie to studying in depth the malaria pathogen — such a study alone will never explain how malaria spreads among some people and not others or the symptoms it produces. read more »


Is Religion Somehow In Our Genetic Makeup?

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey


Here is an answer to that question that I found interesting. It is from Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, pp. 3-4:

Does this mean religion is “innate” and “in the genes”?

I—and most people interested in the evolution of the human mind—think that the question is in fact meaningless and that it is important to understand why.

Consider other examples of human capacities. All human beings can catch colds and remember different melodies. We can catch colds because we have respiratory organs and these provide a hospitable site for all sorts of pathogens, including those of the common cold. We can remember tunes because a part of our brain can easily store a series of sounds with their relative pitch and duration. There are no common colds in our genes and no melodies either. What is in the genes is a tremendously complex set of chemical recipes for the building of normal organisms with respiratory organs and a complex set of connections between brain areas. Normal genes in a normal milieu will give you a pair of lungs and an organized auditory cortex, and with these the dispositions to acquire both colds and tunes. Obviously, if we were all brought up in a sterile and nonmusical environment, we would catch neither. We would still have the disposition to catch them but no opportunity to do so.

Having a normal human brain does not imply that you have religion. All it implies is that you can acquire it, which is very different. 

The reason why psychologists and anthropologists are so concerned with acquisition and transmission is that evolution by natural selection gave us a particular kind of mind so that only particular kinds of religious notions can be acquired. Not all possible concepts are equally good. The ones we acquire easily are the ones we find widespread the world over; indeed, that is why we find them widespread the world over. It has been said of poetry that it gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. This description is even more aptly applied to the supernatural imagination. But, as we will see, not all kinds of “airy nothing” will find a local habitation in the minds of people. (Formatting mine)



Sam Harris modifies his views on Islam — Encouraging step forward

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

I have just finished watching both Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz discuss their book Islam and the Future of Tolerance and was pleasantly surprised.

I don’t recall reading anything by Maajid Nawaz but my introduction to Sam Harris was his 2005 book The End of Faith, a book that disturbed me for reasons I explained in my review back in 2006. Since then I have written a few times in response to anti-Muslim bigotry that has sometimes referred to Harris for its backing. But after viewing the above video I really do hope for something more positive to be coming through Sam Harris in this wider discussion. Harris continues to struggle with his painfully ill-informed views on the nature of religion and the relationship between beliefs and behaviour but — and this is a major step I think — he has moved in his understanding of the difference between Islam and Islamism.

Thanks to his dialogue with Maajid Nawaz. As I said, I don’t recall reading anything by Nawaz but I have from time to time heard negative things. If anything I suspected Nawaz may have been one of those ex-religionists/ex-cultists who turns on his erstwhile faith with as much venom and ignorance as any other bigot could possibly muster. But no, — without knowing any of the background or reasons for criticism, I have to say I agreed with almost everything Maajid Nawaz said in the discussion with Sam Harris. (I maintained my reservation on one detail that I am currently exploring through wider reading.) (Jerry Coyne, sadly, has not moved forward very much, it seems, and is still preoccupied with the negatives of his “apologists for Islam”…. Still, there is hope…. a little…?)

As I listened to the video I took a few notes. The minute markers are only a rough guide — Where I write, say, 12 mins, the relevant section could appear anywhere between 12 and 13 mins or even a little later.

Here are my notes for anyone who wants to see a reason to watch the video for themselves …  read more »