Monthly Archives: December 2015

Death of D.M. Murdock / Acharya S

With great sadness we note the untimely passing of D.M. Murdock (a.k.a. Acharya S). She died on Christmas day, having succumbed to breast cancer. Over the years we’ve had our differences with Murdock’s ideas (and her followers) here on Vridar, but we always respected her energy and tenacity.

In the United States, unfortunately, illnesses like cancer can leave the living with large medical and burial bills. If you would like to help Acharya’s survivors, you can donate to a GiveForward fund set up in her name.

Requiescat in pace.

Putting in a Good Word for God

5021775761_20d13050d2_b

No railway lines in West Bank and Gaza so trucks replaced trolleys in the narratives.

Speaking of the Devil or his doppelgänger, God, in my slightly flippant recent “trolley dilemma” post, what should appear in the serious social science research literature but that very trolley problem applied to Palestinian Muslims and Allah.

God usually gets a bad rap among us atheists but fair’s fair so when the research tips in favour of the Ineffable One integrity demands we duly acknowledge it.

Our findings cast doubt on the notion that there is something special about religious faith, including Islamic belief, that invariably favors promotion of violent intergroup conflict.

PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) has published Thinking from God’s perspective decreases biased valuation of the life of a nonbeliever by researchers Jeremy Ginges, Hammad Sheikh, Scott Atran and Nichole Argo. (The supporting data is also published as a supplement.)

Here is the article’s own statement of its significance (as usual, all bolding and formatting in quotations are my own):

Significance

Religious belief is often seen as a key cause of human conflict because it is said to promote preferential treatment of adherents and to harden group boundaries. Here, we examined a critical aspect of this link in the context of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, a multigenerational violent conflict with significant religious aspects.

We find that although Muslim Palestinian participants valued Palestinian over Jewish Israeli lives when making difficult moral choices, they believed that Allah preferred them to make moral decisions that valued the lives of Palestinians and Jewish Israelis more equally.

Beliefs about God may promote more equal valuation of human life regardless of religious identity, encouraging application of universal moral rules to believers and nonbelievers alike.

Gulp! How can that be? Before I discuss details of the article, here’s the overview:

Abstract

Religious belief is often thought to motivate violence because it is said to promote norms that encourage tribalism and the devaluing of the lives of nonbelievers. If true, this should be visible in the multigenerational violent conflict between Palestinians and Israelis which is marked by a religious divide.

We conducted experiments with a representative sample of Muslim Palestinian youth (n = 555), examining whether thinking from the perspective of Allah (God), who is the ultimate arbitrator of religious belief, changes the relative value of Jewish Israelis’ lives (compared with Palestinian lives).

Participants were presented with variants of the classic “trolley dilemma,” in the form of stories where a man can be killed to save the lives of five children who were either Jewish Israeli or Palestinian. They responded from their own perspective and from the perspective of Allah.

We find that whereas a large proportion of participants were more likely to endorse saving Palestinian children than saving Jewish Israeli children, this proportion decreased when thinking from the perspective of Allah. This finding raises the possibility that beliefs about God can mitigate bias against other groups and reduce barriers to peace.

Ouch! Possible that religion can be a force for peace? Well, “religion” is a loaded term. That’s not quite what the study is addressing. So here are some details. . . .

read more »

The Religious Thrill and Bond of the Islamic State

There is a serious and intense poetry associated with the jihad. There are captivating a cappella chants, and the serious sharing of night time dreams that characterise the culture of the Islamic State. A deep part of the human experience common to premodern cultures but increasingly absent from ours (and whose power and meaning the neo atheists and neo clausewitzians just don’t get) . . . .

 

People have flocked to the Islamic State for different reasons and one of these is the religious experience it offers. That religious experience runs much deeper than its apocalyptic hopes for “the end times”.

Atheism, not anti-theism

I am an atheist and deplore the immeasurable damage “religion”, both organised and personal, has wreaked upon so many lives. At the same time I cannot deny that many people find deep spiritual meaning for their lives in religion. (I use the word “spiritual” for convenience and sometimes use “religious” as a synonym. Normally I’d prefer to speak of the rich emotional life many find through the awe of existence and experiencing the universe, and as well as through companionship and the arts, music, and so forth.) It is for this reason I cannot bring myself to be an anti-theist. If it is true that “it takes religion to make a good person evil” it is also true that “it takes religion to turn bad person good”. I personally wish people could find some other idea or experience to make them good or in which they can find personal fulfilment, but that’s how people are.

Why are people like this? To help us with answers we have our own experiences to draw upon and works like Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the spell : religion as a natural phenomenon (2006),  Scott Atran’s In gods we trust : the evolutionary landscape of religion (2002), Newberg, D’Aquili & Rause’s  Why God won’t go away : brain science and the biology of belief (2001) and especially Pascal Boyer’s  Religion explained : the evolutionary origins of religious thought (2001), along with dozens of others on fundamentalisms, new atheist critiques, and more.

Merely attacking religion’s unscientific and illogical beliefs and moral failings is entirely misdirected energy.

Merely attacking religion’s unscientific and illogical beliefs and moral failings is entirely misdirected energy. That approach only advertises the barrenness of the author’s understanding of the psychology of religious belief. Perhaps some New Atheists who are the most savage of critics of religion would modify their approach if they paused to investigate what some of the literature has to say about the origins of religion and why it is so deeply embedded in the human experience.

Thomas Hegghammer

Thomas Hegghammer

Thomas Hegghammer, a specialist in Islamist violence, wrote in an article in The New York Times (Dec 15, 2015)

When jihadis aren’t fighting — which is most of the time — they enjoy storytelling and watching films, cooking and swimming. The social atmosphere (at least for those who play by the rules) is egalitarian, affectionate and even playful. Jihadi life is emotionally intense, filled with the thrill of combat, the sorrow of loss, the joy of camaraderie and the elation of religious experience. I suspect this is a key source of its attraction. (Soft Power of Militant Jihad)

In seeking to understand the world of jihadis Hegghammer made it his business to understand everything they do, delving into “autobiographies, videos, blog posts, tweets and defector’s accounts”, and what he found he overviews in his NYT article which he titled The Soft Power of Militant Jihad.

Weeping, music, poetry

read more »

Why Did Matthew’s Nativity Story Have References to Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh?

Whenever I hear the word “myrrh,” I can’t help but remember a comedy bit by Cathy Ladman (note: you may not be able to view that video in your region). She tells us:

My best friend is Lutheran and she told me when Jesus was born, the Three Wise Men visited him and they brought as gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Myrrh? To a baby shower?

So in my head, “myrrh” is always pronounced with a New York/Brooklyn accent.

But seriously, why did those mysterious men from the East bring those three particular gifts to Bethlehem?

St. Albans Psalter, The Three Magi following t...

St. Albans Psalter, The Three Magi following the star (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gifts fit for a king of kings

In general, modern scholars have explained Matthew’s choice of the three gifts as simply items fit for a VIP. We shouldn’t worry too much, they argue, over their specificity. For example, in his commentary on Matthew, John Nolland says:

No particular symbolism should be attributed to the individual items making up the present from the Magi: as expensive luxury items the gifts befit the dignity of the role for which this child is born. An allusion to Is. 60:6 is possible: Israel being glorified in the person of the messiah by the wealth of the nations. (Nolland, 2005, p. 117)

According to this view, Matthew intended no deeper meaning. And yet we still have that nagging suspicion that something more is going on here. After all, as Nolland himself notes more than a thousand pages later, Mark wrote that Jesus, while hanging on the cross, had refused wine mixed with myrrh. But Matthew changes the story so that the wine contains gall instead of myrrh, and rather than simply refusing it, Jesus tastes the mixture before turning it down. Did Matthew consciously move the myrrh from Jesus’ death scene to his nativity?

Myrrh oil for anointing

Margaret Barker, in Christmas, The Original Story, reminds us that myrrh was originally a vital component in the oil of the temple, however: read more »

So God is Only Human?

For God so loved the world that he did what many other people would have done — only to undo all his good with a much worse act later.

trolley-switchOne mind-game that keeps recurring in my recent and current readings in the nature and origins of our moral sense is the trolley experiment.

You see a trolley is running out of control along railway tracks and is about to kill five people hedged in by high banks on the track ahead. You have the option of pulling a lever to re-route the trolley to a side-track but there is another person similarly trapped there and who will die of you do.

Is it permissible to pull the lever so the trolley kills the one but saves the five? Most people say it is.

Then it occurred to me that isn’t this a bit like what the Christian gospel is about? God sees many people doomed to die, so he flicks a switch so that only one dies instead. (Okay, there are more theological trappings to this: those five have to repent or believe or they’ll find themselves in the same situation again and then God will decide not to pull the lever and they’ll all die anyway!)

So far, apart from the theological monstrosities, does not God’s great act of salvation appear to be little more than a perfectly natural human act in accordance with perfectly natural human ethics?

The mind-game gets more interesting if we introduce some variations. What about tossing a very heavy bulk of a man onto the track to stop the trolley if there is no lever to save the five; or what about pulling a lever that will drop the heavy bulk of a man on to the track so you don’t actually push him, and so forth.

Then there are other types of variation to introduce. One of these is having the solitary person on the side track being a close friend or relative of yours, perhaps your child? What if the five people are all staunch supporters of [fill in your most hated politician/party here]?

Then try the variants of scale. What if not just five people were doomed but an entire city by something accordingly matching the trolley?

If you saw the entire population on earth was doomed and the only way to save them was to allow your child to die, what would you do? It would be horribly painful but I suspect some, even many, people would even sacrifice their child.

Would God, then, have been any better than many mere mortals?

(Come to think of it, how many mere mortals, lacking awe and mystery, would then doom that entire population in a re-run if they failed to believe God had not lost his child after all but had magically brought him back to life?)

Why have discussions about Islamic terrorism turned out like this?

I was lamenting the way so many discussions about Islamic terrorism turn out to be not really discussions at all with a friend this morning and he reminded me of a few basics that sometimes slip my mind.

I’m referring to my previous post here. Nick Cohen was not responding to the actual arguments of the other side. He was reading right past the actual words spoken and using them as signals to assess what he believed to be the values, the beliefs, the intentions of the other side of the debate.

The other side is a “regressive left”, they would have us all sympathize with the terrorists and blame the West and limit our freedoms so that no-one offends any Muslim, and anyone who dares criticise the religion of Islam is labelled an Islamophobe. It is not difficult for me to interpret some commenters on Vridar as thinking the same of me on the basis of what I write.

So why are such absurdly false charges made in the first place?

I was reminded of the answer. It is to shut debate down. If the other side is shown (it is believed) to be on the side of the enemy then that settles the matter.

That led me to thinking about my analogy with the study of the rise of Nazism in the Germany of the 1920s and 30s.  read more »

Fearing to Understand Terrorism and ISIS

Several excellent articles have appeared recently on the nature of ISIS and terrorism, and some appalling ones have also been published. I normally prefer to share what I understand the experts themselves to be saying, but here I’m stepping back a minute to pause. Some (it sometimes seems like most) readers do not want to hear the experts, or they read into their words almost the very opposite of what they are attempting to convey. Discussions too often (not always but certainly very often) degenerate into exchanges where one or both sides are merely scanning for keywords from which to leap into their own polemic.

Jerry Coyne not so long ago wanted his readers to enjoy an article by Nick Cohen because, Coyne pointed out, Nick Cohen may be seen as an heir to George Orwell for his intellectual insights and honesty! So I read the article and had to rub my eyes into the third paragraph to grasp that Cohen set out with a complete distortion of John Kerry’s remarks about the factors underlying terrorism.

Cohen’s conclusion underscored his ability to see black where he had read white:

Every step you take explaining radical Islam away is apparently rational and liberal. Each takes you further from rationalism and liberalism. In your determination to see the other side’s point of view and to avoid making it “really angry about this or that”, you end up altering your behaviour so much that you can no longer challenge the prejudices of violent religious reactionaries. As you seek rationales for the irrational and excuses for the inexcusable, you become a propagandist for the men you once opposed.

“Explaining radical Islam away”?

“In your determination to see the other side’s point of view . . . you end up altering your behaviour so much that you can no longer challenge the prejudices of violent religious reactionaries.”??

“As you seek rationales for the irrational and excuses for the inexcusable”???

Who on earth does all of these things?

I once studied the rise of Nazism and Fascism in Germany and Italy in the 20s and 30s, and also the rise and history of Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts in Britain. Never once did it cross my mind that understanding how a host of international policies, economic and social turmoil, the particular psychologies of key individuals and social psychology more generally, and the history of specific ideas, — never once did it cross my mind that acquiring such an understanding, of coming to see the point of view of those who followed Hitler, Mussolini (and Mosley) so well, was an act of “explaining fascism away” or “seeking excuses for the inexcusable”.  read more »

Where Morality Comes From – a Rawlsian view

Revised some hours after initial posting.

This post introduces the general idea of the fundamental principles of morality being universal and innate in human beings, yet being tweaked and expressed in different ways according to culture, much the same way different languages derive from the same basic principles of grammar that are part of our unconscious makeup.

According to this theory, we rationalise moral judgments and respond emotionally to them. That is, the moral judgments to acts that we witness come first (intuitively, unconsciously) and we react emotionally to these and may attempt to explain our judgments rationally. But reason and emotion are not the origins of our moral judgments, as Kant and Hume thought respectively.

Kant

Kant

Immanuel Kant: It is through our reason and rationality that we determine what is right and wrong. Emotions incite us to acting selfishly and foolishly so true morality ought to be guided by reason alone. We should use our reasoning faculties to determine general moral obligations that would apply universally. Hence his “categorical imperative:

I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will my maxim should become a universal law.

This principle meant that we should never treat people merely as a means to an end, be we should respect others as having their own desires and goals.

hume

Hume

David Hume: Our moral judgements come to us through our emotions. Just as we recognise immediately a beautiful painting or an ugly one, so our emotions tell us immediately when an act we witness is virtuous or immoral. Some personality traits, Hume said, are innate, while others are acquired through our culture. An innately generous person who gives to charity is recognised as doing a morally good thing. One who has learned from society the importance of acting fairly and who resolves to act fairly even against self-interest, is also recognised as a morally good person.

It is our emotional response to some action that is the basis of our judgment on whether or not the act is moral.

rawls

Rawls

John Rawls: Not emotions, nor reason, but unconscious principles drive our moral judgements. We accordingly cannot always explain why a certain action is right or wrong — it just “is”.

We possess an innate moral grammar akin to the Chomskyan notion of an innate and universal linguistic grammar.* Just as we have a faculty for language, one that is hidden beneath our conscious awareness, so we also have a faculty for moral judgments. read more »

The Myth of Nero’s Persecution of Christians

Abstract of a recently published article by Princeton University Professor of Classics, Brent D. Shaw:

A conventional certainty is that the first state-driven persecution of Christians happened in the reign of Nero and that it involved the deaths of Peter and Paul, and the mass execution of Christians in the aftermath of the great fire of July 64 C.E. The argument here contests all of these facts, especially the general execution personally ordered by Nero. The only source for this event is a brief passage in the historian Tacitus. Although the passage is probably genuine Tacitus, it reflects ideas and connections prevalent at the time the historian was writing and not the realities of the 60s. 

Brent D. Shaw (2015). The Myth of the Neronian Persecution. Journal of Roman Studies, 105, pp 73-100 doi:10.1017/S0075435815000982

I will attempt to outline some of the points I found of particular interest in his article.

760px-Siemiradski_Fackeln

The Torches of Nero, by Henryk Siemiradzki. According to Tacitus, Nero targeted Christians as those responsible for the fire.

Shaw argues that the famous story of Nero burning and in other ways torturing Christians as punishment for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 C.E. never happened. (As usual, bolded font and formatting are my own.)

Nero’s spectacular executions of large numbers of Christians in the aftermath of the fire that raged through the city of Rome in July of 64 is commonly regarded as a foundational event in the history of Christian martyrdom. They were the first executions of Christians performed at the behest of the Roman state. In almost every history of the early Christian Church, the event is marked as a dramatic turning point in the relations between Christians and the imperial government.

Given the surprisingly widespread acceptance of the great significance of this axial event in Christian history, the thinness of the evidence on all aspects of it is quite striking. The paucity and weakness of the data, however, have not prevented acceptance of the historicity of this ‘first persecution’ as an undisputed fact. Indeed, the degree of certainty in the Neronian persecution stands in almost inverse proportion to the quality and quantity of the data. Those who have expressed even modest scepticism about the historicity of the one explicit passage in the historian Tacitus that attests to the executions have been voces clamantium in deserto.

The simple argument of this essay, deliberately framed as a provocative hypothesis, is that this event never happened and that there are compelling reasons to doubt that it should have any place either in the history of Christian martyrdom or in the history of the early Church.

To begin with, there is no evidence that Christians were crucified as a penalty for their faith. The key reference here is Barnes, T. D. 2010: Early Christian Hagiography and Roman History, Tübingen. So much for the late legend of Peter being crucified, let alone crucified upside down. The late tales of the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul appear to have been expressions of what second century Christians wanted to believe. In the Gospel of John there was a prophecy that Peter would meet an undesirable fate and it seemed appropriate that he should die by crucifixion as had Jesus. For all we know from the available evidence Peter died in the 50s, in Jerusalem, peacefully in his sleep. Paul, according to Acts, was in trouble not for being a Christian but for being a disturber of the peace.
read more »

“Five Reasons Why Mythicism is Disappointing”

6444921433_cf424a9405_bDontcha love the patronizing tone of the header? “Five Reasons Why Mythicism is Disappointing”. Our author was SO hoping for such good things to emerge from mythicism, now, wasn’t he. How mythicism has disappointed him!

The post is a response to Valerie Tarico’s Here are 5 reasons to suspect Jesus never existed

Our disappointed scholar explains why Valerie only has 5 “really bad reasons” for even raising the question of the historical existence of Jesus.

1) She says that there are no secular sources about Jesus, neglecting to mention that the notion of secularism did not exist in that time . . . 

In fact Valerie Tarico explains exactly what she means by “secular sources” by quoting 171 words from the historicist scholar Bart Ehrman.

“What sorts of things do pagan authors from the time of Jesus have to say about him? Nothing. As odd as it may seem, there is no mention of Jesus at all by any of his pagan contemporaries. There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references – nothing. In fact, if we broaden our field of concern to the years after his death – even if we include the entire first century of the Common Era – there is not so much as a solitary reference to Jesus in any non-Christian, non-Jewish source of any kind. I should stress that we do have a large number of documents from the time – the writings of poets, philosophers, historians, scientists, and government officials, for example, not to mention the large collection of surviving inscriptions on stone and private letters and legal documents on papyrus. In none of this vast array of surviving writings is Jesus’ name ever so much as mentioned.” 

Really bad reason #2:

2) She points out that things like the virgin birth only appear late, as though that is evidence against the historical value of our earliest sources.

That’s odd. Valerie’s original point was “details of Jesus’ life”, “the most basic biographical facts and teachings of Jesus”, the twelve apostles of disciples of Jesus, the ministry and miracles of Jesus — and oh yes, the virgin birth, too.  read more »

ISIS is a Revolution, born in terror (like all revolutions)

A long essay by Scott Atran comparing ISIS to past revolutions to find out what is new, and what likely can and cannot be done against it. . . .

ISIS is a revolution

World-altering revolutions are born in danger and death, brotherhood and joy. This one must be stopped

Excerpts follow —

Asymmetric operations involving spectacular killings to destabilise the social order is a tactic that has been around as long as recorded history

The revolution:

What the United Nations community regards as senseless acts of horrific violence are to ISIS’s acolytes part of an exalted campaign of purification through sacrificial killing and self-immolation: Know that Paradise lies under the shade of swords, says a hadith, or saying of the Prophet; this one comes from the Sahih al-Bukhari, a collection of the Prophet’s sayings considered second only to the Qu’ran in authenticity and is now a motto of ISIS fighters.

This is the purposeful plan of violence that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s self-anointed Caliph, outlined in his call for ‘volcanoes of jihad’: to create a globe-spanning jihadi archipelago that will eventually unite to destroy the present world and create a new-old world of universal justice and peace under the Prophet’s banner. A key tactic in this strategy is to inspire sympathisers abroad to violence: do what you can, with whatever you have, wherever you are, whenever possible.

The study:

To understand the revolution, my research team has conducted dozens of structured interviews and behavioural experiments with youth in Paris, London and Barcelona, as well as with captured ISIS fighters in Iraq and members of Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria). We also focused on youth from distressed neighbourhoods previously associated with violence or jihadi support – for example, the Paris suburbs of Clichy-sous-Bois and Épinay-sur-Seine, the Moroccan neighbourhoods of Sidi Moumen in Casablanca and Jamaa Mezuak in Tetuán.

While many in the West dismiss radical Islam as simply nihilistic, our work suggests something far more menacing: a profoundly alluring mission to change and save the world. . . . 

read more »

How Young People Become Radicalised

A former jihadist is interviewed for his views on the question “What makes vulnerable young Muslims prone to being recruited by groups like the Islamic State?”

It seems a silly question to many. After all, they’re Muslims. They believe in a holy book that commands them to kill, kill, kill. What else is there to know? If a specialist scholar in Islamic studies and advisor to government anti-extremist programs fails to mention the word “religion” when summing up the essential radicalisation process in a Time article then many will dismiss his words as an apologetic whitewash. If innumerable Muslims are themselves the victims of Islamic terrorism (with death tolls higher than Westerners by orders of magnitude) it seems to make no difference to the determination to insist that it is the Muslim religion itself (whatever that is) that is to blame!

Well this article was an interview with a former jihadist, not an ivory tower egg-head.

For those interested in garnering a wide expanse of data from which to prepare a hypothesis on the reasons for radicalisation I point to We Spoke to a Former Jihadist About How Young People Become Radicalized. Others can ignore this post, return to an Islamophobic [I use the term of those who express a phobia of anything Islamic] or other hate site for reassurance that their viscera are on the right cerebral track, and perhaps return to share their convictions and denounce whatever is expressed here. Others interested in genuine dialogue, questions and alternative suggestions are most welcome.

The question asked was this:

What makes vulnerable young Muslims prone to being recruited by groups like the Islamic State?

The interviewee was Mubin Shaikh. Who is Mubin? . . . .

Born in Toronto and raised Muslim, Mubin Shaikh became a radical Islamist after a trip to Pakistan in the 1990s. Back in Canada, Shaikh recruited other young Muslims for the cause of jihad. But 9/11 led him to question his path. After a stint in Syria studying the Quran, he returned home changed once again, this time determined to fight the militarism he had espoused. Working with CSIS, Shaikh was a government agent in the “Toronto 18” case, where a group of mostly young Muslims were convicted of plotting to attack Canadian institutions. Today, Shaikh campaigns against Islamophobia while also trying to stop radicalization in his own community, using social media to engage directly with Islamic State sympathizers. And while he still works with Western governments, he’s not afraid to criticize Western policies that he says fuel the radicalization he fights.

And here is Mubin’s answer to that opening question:

You’re dealing with a social movement. It’s beyond a terrorist group. And social movements have grievance narratives. The reason why those grievance narratives resonate is because they are based in fact. It might not be complete fact and it might be their way of interpreting world events, but the reality is that when they say that their grievance is about Western foreign policy, particularly the bombing of Muslim countries—they’re not wrong when they say that.

When I was around in 1995, we would watch videotapes [of jihadist propaganda], and then [DVDs] came out and we watched DVDs. But what modern day social networking has done is it’s accelerated that exponentially. You’re sitting there at a television screen or computer screen, you’re watching these images over and over and over—it’s traumatizing you. Your eyes will be overwhelmed with visual images of death, destruction, killing, torture, oppression [of Muslims].

The psychological term is “vicarious deprivation.” So now, I’m not deprived myself individually, but I’m watching these videos about my people being oppressed and suddenly their deprivation and their oppression becomes my deprivation and my oppression, and enter that extremist message, “OK, you see that now? You feel that now? What are you going to do about it?”

Following questions:

And what are the social conditions that young Muslims live in that make them susceptible to that?

You’re involved right now in efforts to stop Muslims from being radicalized, how do you go about that? What do you tell them and what do they tell you?

But you have the Islamic State themselves and also [critics of Islam] like the New Atheists, quoting passages like Chapter 9, Verse 5 saying, “Kill all the non-believers.”

I won’t take the time to discuss. It appears this discussion is more about polarisation than it is about mutual learning. There are several additional follow-up questions, too. (Only) For those interested.

 

 

Tom Dykstra on Mythicism: Erhman, Brodie and Scholarly Conduct

From http://www.cautionary-tales.com/

From http://www.cautionary-tales.com/

Tom Dykstra writes “a cautionary tale” concerning the unpleasant rift between mythicists (those who dispute the historicity of Jesus) and historicists (those who defend the historicity of Jesus). His primary exemplars are “historicist” Bart Ehrman and “mythicist” Thomas Brodie, Ehrman and Brodie on Whether Jesus Existed: A Cautionary Tale about the State of Biblical Scholarship.

His first warning is against the overconfidence of the historicists: mythicists do raise some serious questions that historicists ought to take more seriously;

Dykstra offers an alternative approach to the question in an attempt to break out from the “he-did-exist” versus the “no-he-didn’t” polarity that he suggests is buttressed by a an over abundance of confidence that too often surfaces on both sides.

Finally Dykstra excoriates the hostile tone and outright insults fired from both trenches. Yes and no; here I find myself unable to fully agree with Dykstra’s moral of the story.

Overconfidence 

Dykstra reminds readers of the struggles of past scholars for their critical works questioning the historicity of other biblical characters and events (e.g. Thomas Thompson was to be rejected by the academy for his thesis disputing the authenticity of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob though today his thesis is mainstream).

The message that comes through is that scholars need to be more willing to seriously consider the arguments that challenge the status quo. This is especially so given that scholars who take the historical existence of Jesus for granted at the same time acknowledge that many claims made in the same evidence for Jesus simply cannot be trusted. The most obvious examples are the infancy narratives and portrayal of Pilate as a righteous but weak-willed man.

Dykstra further points to scholars as diverse as Ben Witherington and John Dominic Crossan observing that both the authors of the gospels and scholars of the gospels have been reconstructing the Jesus who personifies their own theological views — hence modern readers are really looking at theology, not history.

Dykstra outlines the key points of Ehrman’s arguments for the historicity of Jesus and points out in each case how Brodie’s challenge to each one leaves the question far from settled.

But at least as important as the arguments themselves, Dykstra points out at some length, are the problematic attitudes of the scholars that set up a barrier against an open discussion.

A prominent feature of Ehrman’s text is repeated expressions of disdain for “mythicists” . . . along with assertions that no reputable New Testament scholar is a mythicist. In a blog post about the book he expresses clearly the confident and dismissive attitude that also pervades the book.

The mythicist Brodie presents a stark comparison:

Like Ehrman, Brodie expresses absolute confidence in the correctness of his conclusion. But he maintains a good-natured sense of humor and a courteous and considerate attitude toward those on the opposing side.

As for the different perspectives, the article takes us through Ehrman’s “pro-historicity” points and pits against them Brodie’s undermining responses one by one.

Thus where Ehrman sees a host of independent witnesses to Jesus Brodie sees a host of variations of a single source. Where Ehrman sees a narrative that no Jew would fabricate (a messiah who is crucified) Brodie finds a narrative that “makes perfect sense as a fresh synthesis of Old Testament texts that ‘deal with the tension between suffering and God’s hope.'”

In these ways Brodie either neutralizes or at least casts doubt on all of Ehrman’s evidence and arguments.

So far so good. It is at the next stage of Dykstra’s article that I find myself taking an ever so slightly different tack — or maybe not. read more »

How Terrorists Convince Themselves to Kill

H/t J.M. Berger‘s intelwire.com, a new article on time.com by William McCants (author of The ISIS Apocalypse),

How Terrorists Convince Themselves to Kill

McCants begins

Although I have studied jihadist culture for a decade, I am still astounded and dismayed by its ability to inspire individuals to take innocent life. The husband and wife team who slaughtered 14 and wounded 21 in San Bernardino were just the latest in a long line of killers who have embraced a violent version of ultraconservative Sunni Islam.

He notes that we can understand States killing innocents since the people at the top aren’t usually the ones doing the actual killing, and the more remote, the easier it is to do. And those who do do the executions generally undergo long-term training to overcome their natural aversion to killing.

But how did sane people like the San Bernardino assassins, independent of experience in a militia and without years of organized training, manage to overcome this natural aversion on their own? How did they convince themselves that the slaughter of innocents was necessary and right?

The answer, in brief:

Culture. Our brain may be wired to love our own group and dislike outsiders, but culture is the software that helps us determine who’s in and who’s out. The less we empathize with someone, the easier it is to kill them.

Jihadist culture is exceptionally good at decreasing empathy for outsiders, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, as the Norwegian political scientist Thomas Hegghammer shows in a forthcoming volume. Jihadists use scripture, stories, songs, art, and poetry to foster group solidarity and encourage violence against a wide circle of enemies. Individuals who adopt the culture make sense of the world through its prism and seek to convince others of its truth. Even the most isolated can connect over social media to find likeminded people who will encourage them and goad them to action.

Is it going to get any better if/when the Islamic State is destroyed? The State is “teaching its vile ideology to children on an industrial scale and ordering them to carry out attacks and execute prisoners” — and those children will be with us a long time to come.

And what of our reactions? It’s not a long article. It can be read very quickly: How Terrorists Convince Themselves to Kill

“Who is William McCants?” you ask. From the time.com site:

William McCants directs the project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution, and the author of The ISIS Apocalypse. He is adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University and a former U.S. State Department senior adviser for countering violent extremism.