Category Archives: Religion


2016-04-07

I Believe I Should but I Don’t, and Vice Versa (Do Muslims Have the Same Psychology as the Rest of Us?)

by Neil Godfrey

Connections between beliefs and behaviour are not routine and when they happen they require explanation. Personal experience and a passing acquaintance with a thing we call the subconscious both tell us that.

I am sometimes a little taken aback by the forcefulness of some people’s claims that “of course beliefs determine what people do”. The context in which this is dogmatically asserted is discussion relating to Islam. I really can’t imagine the same dogmatism surfacing if almost any other mainstream religion or non-religious belief system were being addressed.

If a terrorist shouts “God is Great” before opening fire or blowing himself up in a crowded place then bizarrely that one phrase is taken to represent the entire motivation of that act. To point to videotapes and other remnants of far more wide-ranging conversations and arguments in the lead up to that murder will not change some minds.

So I quote here a piece that has long been in waiting to be included in my next post on Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko’s book on the causes of radicalization and terrorist acts, Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us. It won’t hurt to use it now and repeat it later:

Opinions and attitudes are not always good predictors of action. Of all those who might say they want to help starving children, how many would actually donate to UNICEF or work in a local soup kitchen? But for the Russian students of the 1870s, radicalization in opinion was often associated with radicalization in action. How are we to understand this unusually high consistency between opinion and behavior?

One possibility is the degree to which the era was swept up in a culture of change. Tectonic plates of Russian society were shifting, and the young generation who grew up amidst this change, themselves beneficiaries and victims of new hopes and new norms, felt that it was their job to rewrite history. 

Social psychologist Robert Abelson advanced a similar perspective in relation to student activism in the United States. Abelson reviewed evidence that beliefs are not automatically translated into feelings, and feelings are not automatically translated into behavior. He then identified three kinds of encouragement for acting on beliefs: seeing a model perform the behavior; seeing oneself as a “doer,” the kind of person who translates feelings into action; and unusual emotional investment that overcomes uncertainties about what to do and fear of looking foolish. Abelson brought these ideas to focus on 1970s student activism in the United States: 

3. Abelson, R. (1972). Are attitudes necessary. In B.T. King and E. McGinnies (Eds), Attitudes, conflict, and social change, pp. 19-32. New York: Academic Press.

   . . . it is interesting to note that certain forms of activism, for example, campus activism, combine all three of the above types of encouragement cues. Typically. the campus activist has at least a vague ideology that pictures the student as aggrieved, and provides both social support and self-images as doers to the participants in the group. A great deal of the zest and excitement accompanying the activities of student radicals, whether or not such activities are misplaced, thus may be due to the satisfaction provided the participants in uniting a set of attitudes with a set of behaviors.3

As U.S. students of the 1970s discussed, dared, and modeled their way to the excitement linking new ideas with new behaviors . . . , so too did Russian students of the 1870s. [Friction, Kindle version, bolded emphasis mine]

It happens in reverse, too, as we well know (except when some of us have Islam on our minds). Most of us have heard of the Milgram experiment where an unexpectedly high number of people behaved contrary to their beliefs about how they should treat others and suffered emotional stress for a time as a consequence.

 


2016-04-06

Josephus Scapegoats Judas the Galilean for the War?

by Neil Godfrey

This post is the sequel to Did Josephus Fabricate the Origins of the Jewish Rebellion Against Rome? It is my take on Professor James S. McLaren’s chapter, “Constructing Judaean History in the Diaspora: Josephus’s Accounts of Judas” in Negotiating Diaspora: Jewish Strategies in the Roman Empire.

In the previous post we covered McLaren’s analysis of the contexts, style and contents of the respective references to Judas the Galilean in both Wars (written shortly after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE) and Antiquities (completed some twenty years later).

McLaren’s next step is to assess the situation (both geographical and socio-political) of the author of these references.

When the war broke out Josephus was in Jerusalem. He was in a position to have a fair idea of what was going on. The war itself was initiated by the priests of Jerusalem refusing to sacrifice to the Roman emperor.

25. The view that it was Jerusalem-based aristocratic priests who were instrumental in starting and leading the revolt concurs with the general picture of ‘native’ revolts in the Roman Empire (Dyson 1975 = “Native Revolt Patterns in the Roman Empire”, ANRW II.3: 138-175). The silver coinage issued in the first year of the revolt helps confirm the crucial role of priests in instigating and leading the revolt. See McLaren 2003 = “The Coinage of the First Year as a Point of Reference for the Jewish Revolt (66-70 CE)”, Scripta Classica Israelica 23:135-52.

It was the priests who were among the prime movers at the start of the war when they ceased offering sacrifices on behalf of Rome and the emperor, not nameless revolutionaries or insurgents. Josephus should be placed among these priests who publicly rejected Roman rule in 66 CE. He, therefore, went to Galilee, the likely direction from which the Romans would attack, as an active rebel leader commissioned by those in Jerusalem who had decided to defy Rome.25 (101)

McLaren insists that Josephus himself was one of the rebels who initiated the break with Rome. In 66 CE he was not a moderate trying to soothe ruffled feathers or a reluctant participant.

For McLaren,

26. Obviously there are pitfalls with any interpretation that incorporates an argument from silence. However, given that the only eyewitness account is trying to suppress what actually happened, the absence of direct evidence is no surprise. If anything, what could be seen as most puzzling is why there is any reference to the war cry at all; surely no mention at all would be better. Clearly that would be one way of dealing with the problem, unless others were still alive who could counter the oversight with their own version, especially as Josephus had no guarantee that his would be the only account written. Another approach would be to find a scapegoat, as suggested here. 

The key contention is that Josephus and his fellow rebel priests advocated rebellion against Roman authority, using as a rallying-point the claim of ‘God alone as master’. No direct evidence for this view remains in the War account of 66. It has been deliberately edited out of 66 CE and the war cry has been relocated to another time, group and place, namely, Judas from Galilee and the supposed fourth philosophy.26 (102)

McLaren argues that the conflict sprang up quickly. It was not apparently an eventual eruption that had been building up through pressures for decades prior. Human folly of the moment was more likely the culprit.

In the wake of the recent census in 65/66 (War 6:422-23) and the subsequent dispute regarding the outstanding tribute (War 2:293-96, 404-407) some of the Jerusalem priests decided to take drastic action. (102-103)

That coins were minted to mark the beginning of the revolt and the decision to stop sacrifices for Rome are strong indications that the Temple establishment was a principal actor. The symbols and inscriptions on the coins and Josephus’s discussions elsewhere (especially in Apion) point to the priests leading the revolt under with the ideological belief in the rightness of God’s rulership through his priests. Josephus, after the war as a de facto captive in Rome, transferred the slogan to a group as far from himself and his associates as possible. Josephus needed to justify the mercy shown to him in allowing him to live and prosper anew in the city of his nation’s destroyers so his the former ideological rallying cry of “no master but God” had to be sloughed off and planted on others.

Judas the Scapegoat

read more »


2016-04-05

Did Josephus Fabricate the Origins of the Jewish Rebellion Against Rome?

by Neil Godfrey

Josephus lays the blame for the Jewish rebel movement squarely on the shoulders of Judas the Galilean who led some sort of movement to oppose Roman taxes around the time of the infancy of Jesus — 6 CE. From this Judas arose what Josephus labels the “Fourth Philosophy”. The other three were the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes. The Fourth Philosophy is depicted as an undesirable conglomeration of upstart rebels who brought down ruin upon their nation.

Professor-James-McLaren1

Professor James S McLaren

Recently I was posting about my doubts concerning the evidence for Jewish messianic movements prior to the First Jewish War (66-73 CE) and Giuseppe alerted us to a study by James S. McLaren in Negotiating Diaspora: Jewish Strategies in the Roman Empire. McLaren’s chapter is “Constructing Judaean History in the Diaspora: Josephus’s Accounts of Judas“, pages 90-107. Thanks, Giuseppe. Until I read that chapter I never quite knew what to make of Judas the Galilean because though scholars often say he led the first military rebellion against Rome I have not been able to find unambiguous evidence for that claim in Josephus. It seemed some historians were simply repeating the hearsay of their guild. Hence I have held back from commenting on him when I have discussed other rebels and bandits on the Judean stage either side of the time of Jesus. McLaren’s chapter is the first work I have read that squarely confronts and addresses the ambiguities and inconsistencies that have bothered me in Josephus’s account.

Conclusion: Josephus created Judas the Galilean as a foil to bear the responsibility for the humiliation of the Jewish defeat. I’m not saying that Judas did not exist (though he may not have) but that Josephus has been forced to modify his account with each retelling of his role in starting the rebellion. These variations indicate that Josephus is creatively rewriting history to deflect blame for the war from his own class of aristocratic priests.

This study shows that we can no longer assume that this Judas presented by Josephus is an historical figure who engaged in some activity in 6 CE. It is not simply a case of claiming that Josephus may have exaggerated the account of Judas’s career and its impact by adjusting a few details here and there. Rather, Josephus’s apologetic has constructed Judas, making him a vital part of the explanation of what happened in Judaea in 66-70 CE. Who he was, what he did and what he advocated, if anything at all, need to be established afresh, outside the framework provided in War and Antiquities. (108: bolded emphasis is mine in all quotations)

Now McLaren is working like a real historian — a welcome change from some of the tendentious works we have discussed elsewhere. He examines the nature of his source material before deciding to take its claims at face value — and that means literary analysis . . .

This discussion will be presented in three parts. In the first, I offer an analysis of the textual location of the references to Judas.

and study of provenance:

The second part will be devoted to a reassessment of the geographical and socio-political location of Josephus in 66 CE and in the years that followed the revolt. The third and final part will outline how these locations result in Judas being presented as a scapegoat by Josephus. 

Further, he understands the necessity of evidence external to his source material for corroboration.

Who he was, what he did and what he advocated, if anything at all, need to be established afresh, outside the framework provided in War and Antiquities.

These are the methodological principles I have been saying ought to be applied to the gospels even if the result might lead to the conclusion that a central character has possibly been a creation of the author rather than a true historical figure. I notice that McLaren’s background is strong in ancient history and not restricted to biblical studies.

So what are McLaren’s arguments? I’ll take them in the same order as McLaren with this post covering McLaren’s analysis of the respective locations of Josephus’s references to Judas.

Warning: the following post is for those with a serious interest in the question of Josephus as a historical source. read more »


2016-04-04

Little White Lies: Is the NT the Best Attested Work from Antiquity?

by Tim Widowfield
Frederick Fyvie Bruce

Frederick Fyvie Bruce

What does it mean to say that a written work from ancient times is “well attested”? If you browse Christian apologetic web sites, you’ll read that the manuscript evidence for the New Testament is superior to anything else from antiquity. The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM) site, for example, tells us that our “New Testament documents are better preserved and more numerous than any other ancient writings.”

This argument, of course, is not new. F. F. Bruce often argued that we hold the NT to an unreasonably higher standard than any other ancient document or set of documents. He lamented that people tend to dwell on the mistakes and discrepancies in the manuscripts. Back in 1963 he wrote:

In view of the inevitable accumulation of such errors over the many centuries, it may be thought that the original texts of the New Testament documents have been corrupted beyond restoration. Some writers, indeed, insist on the likelihood of this to such a degree that one sometimes suspects they would be glad if it were true. But they are mistaken. There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament. (F. F. Bruce, 1963, p. 178, emphasis mine)

As you can see, apologetic victimhood is nothing new.

Ever so much greater

In a more recent work he said that the NT gets unfair treatment. He complained:

The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning. And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt. (F. F. Bruce, 1981, p. 10, emphasis mine)

In the foreword to the same book, N. T. Wright gushed: read more »


2016-03-27

Historical Conditions for Popular Messianism — Christian, Muslim and Palestinian

by Neil Godfrey

A number of readers have questioned my own questioning of a popular belief and claim by Richard Carrier that

Palestine in the early first century CE was experiencing a rash of messianism.

I suggest on the contrary that evidence for popular messianism does not appear until the Jewish War in the latter half of the first century. See post + comment + comment and links within those comments to earlier posts. Certainly popular counter-cultural leaders prior to that time (but still well after the time of Jesus) did not imitate any known Danielic or Davidic notion of a messiah expected to challenge Rome.

In this post I will address some general background information that we have about popular messianic movements. If we are to be good Bayesian thinkers then we need to set out as much background knowledge as we can before we begin. This post will put two or three items on the table for starters. Other background data has been covered to some extent in the above linked “comment(s)” and “post”.

Medieval Messianism

cohnA classic study of popular millennial movements is Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium . After surveying such movements in the Middle Ages Cohn concludes:

They occurred in a world where peasant revolts and urban insurrections were very common and moreover were often successful. . . .

“Revolutionary millenarianism drew its strength from a population living on the margin of society – peasants without land or with too little land even for subsistence; journeymen and unskilled workers living under the continuous threat of unemployment; beggars and vagabonds – in fact from the amorphous mass of people who were not simply poor but who could find no assured and recognized place in society at all. These people lacked the material and emotional support afforded by traditional social groups; their kinship-groups had disintegrated and they were not effectively organized in village communities or in guilds; for them there existed no regular, institutionalized methods of voicing their grievances or pressing their claims. Instead they waited for a propheta to bind them together in a group of their own.

Because these people found themselves in such an exposed and defenceless position they were liable to react very sharply to any disruption of the normal, familiar, pattern of life. Again and again one finds that a particular outbreak of revolutionary millenarianism took place against a background of disaster . . . 

Excerpt From: Cohn, Norman. “The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages.” iBooks. (My own bolded highlighting)

Examples of those camel back-breaking disasters and related messianic movements:

  • Plague –> the First Crusade and the flagellant movements of 1260, 1348-9, 1391 and 1400;
  • Famines –> First and Second Crusades and the popular crusading movements of 1309-20, the flagellant movement of 1296, the movements around Eon and the pseudo-Baldwin;
  • Spectacular rise in prices –> the revolution at Münster.
  • Black Death –> The greatest wave of millenarian excitement, one which swept through the whole of society . . .  and here again it was in the lower social strata that the excitement lasted longest and that it expressed itself in violence and massacre.

Islamic Messianism

read more »


2016-03-24

Carrier, Lataster and Background Knowledge Element 4: A Quibble

by Neil Godfrey
File:Brooklyn Museum - The Magi in the House of Herod (Les rois mages (Wikimedia)

File:Brooklyn Museum – The Magi in the House of Herod (Les rois mages (Wikimedia)

It will be a little while before I set aside the time I would need to prepare a proper review of Richard Carrier’s book, On the Historicity of Jesus, and Raphael Lataster’s Jesus Did Not Exist, but till then I can drop the odd comment on this or that point.

But one thing I can say about Lataster’s book is that it provides an excellent chapter by chapter synopsis of Carrier’s larger work. Most of what Lataster says I agree with so overall I can say I have very little to add. The only point that I don’t recall being made is that I think it would be an excellent idea if Carrier or someone on his behalf re-wrote On the Historicity of Jesus without any of the Bayesian jargon. Perhaps then (we can dream) those academics who appear to have read it will not be able to excuse themselves from the main thrust of its argument by happily lamenting that “Bayes is not their speciality so they can’t comment”. Does anyone know of any critic of Carrier’s book who has actually dealt with the chapters on “Background Knowledge”? What I have seen in the few critical reviews to date are a complete bypassing of this absolutely critical section and a zeroing in on a controversial scriptural interpretation or two. In other words, they are not dealing with the argument at all. If the scriptural interpretations they disagree with are indeed crucial to Carrier’s argument they need to demonstrate that — but none has, as far as I am aware.

A Quibble

Anyway, there is one quibble I do have with one of Carrier’s “Elemental Background Knowledge”.

Element 4: (a) Palestine in the early first century CE was experiencing a rash of messianism. There was an evident clamoring of sects and individu­als to announce they had found the messiah. (b) It is therefore no oddity or accident that this is exactly when Christianity arose. It was yet another messiah cult in the midst of a fad for just such cults. (c) That it among them would alone survive and spread can therefore be the product of natural selection: so many variations of the same theme were being tried, odds are one of them would by chance be successful, hitting all the right notes and dodging all the right bullets. The lucky winner in that contest just happened to be Christianity.16

This element is often denied, or its basis not well understood, so I will pause to establish it before moving on. (OHJ, p. 67)

I might be one of those who denies it. Lataster supports Carrier, assuring readers that he supports the point well enough with evidence. I am not so sure, however. Though I should say at the outset that I do acknowledge a messianic fervour in the mid to late first century and on into the second century and that the gospel authors (“evangelists”) were influenced by this later development.

The Gospels as Supporting Evidence?

One piece of evidence Carrier cites is in the gospels themselves. There we read that Jews were so eagerly anticipating the Messiah that they could be plausibly portrayed as “seeing” Elijah among them raised from the dead. John the Baptist is also said to have been preaching a messianic message. My problems with Carrier’s argument here are:

  • the scenario of Jews thinking they see Elijah among them is an evangelist’s conceit; a theological foil to the larger theme of Jesus’ identity;
  • John the Baptist in the gospels is another artificial construct conveying the evangelist’s theological message of Jesus superseding the Prophets, and he is quite unlike the John the Baptist found in Josephus — where he is not a messianic preacher.

read more »


2016-03-22

Scrutinizing the Case for Q: Why Luke Sidestepped the Baptism of Jesus by John

by Neil Godfrey
Jesus Resurrecting the Son of the Widow of Naim (oil on canvas) by Bouillon.

Jesus Resurrecting the Son of the Widow of Nain (oil on canvas) by Bouillon.

Michael Kok is addressing the arguments for and against Q on his blog where he explores the “history and reception of New Testament writings”. In his latest post he raises the question of whether Luke knew Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus. Unfortunately his comment policy does not encourage responses from outsiders hence this post.

My own view is that Q is too easily dismissed with assertions like “it is only a hypothetical document” and “Occam’s razor suggests Luke knew Matthew” without actually investigating the arguments in its favour. The questions debated by those who are more aware of the arguments also can often by narrowly focused; historical inquiry ought to begin with a clarification of the broader context of the evidence being evaluated.

I argue below that an anti-Marcionite agenda explains well the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s baptism scenarios.

Before comparing the Gospel of Luke with anything it is worth clarifying what we understand by that Gospel and the scholarship surrounding its genre, its development and its appearance in the historical record. If we find the arguments of Joseph Tyson plausible then we begin with the probability that our canonical gospel emerged in two stages: first a proto-Luke; followed by a heavily redacted treatment of that earlier document to give us our Luke-Acts. Tyson does not dispute Q, by the way, and his model does have “Luke” use Q and Mark, but at the same time he brings together a wealth of other scholarship relating to the question of Luke’s development and emergence in the record that is of relevance to Kok’s discussion.

It is relatively uncontroversial to suggest that an early form of the Gospel of Luke began at 3:1, which has been described as “a very good place to begin a gospel”:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene . . . .

This is also the place where Marcion’s gospel began. Marcion’s gospel did not include the John the Baptist narrative, however. The opening verse was followed with Jesus’ entry into the world (probably starting at Capernaum) preaching the gospel.

For readers not familiar with Marcion: The Marcionite “heresy” flourished in the early/mid second century and taught that Jesus was sent by a Higher God than the lesser Creator God of the Jewish Scriptures. Marcionite teaching held that the Law and Prophets had nothing to do with the true Messiah and were in fact given to the Jews by a fickle god and prophesied of some other earthly messiah of relevance to the Jews only and who was of no account beside the Son of the Highest God.

Although the “tradition” of the Church Fathers held that Marcion’s gospel was a mutilated form of the Gospel of Luke we really don’t know whether or not the original form of Luke contained the baptism episode. The “proto-orthodox” had a motive for arguing Marcion deleted the passage; Marcion had a motive for arguing his gospel was the original one. (One can explore more deeply the related evidence on either side at this point but I am skimming the surface of the argument for the sake of a relatively short blog post.)

If the subsequent stage of the Gospel of Luke was indeed an anti-Marcionite embellishment (as Tyson and several other scholars have argued) — and the evidence for this canonical version of Luke only makes its appearance after the mid-second century — then it is surely safe to conclude on chronological grounds that the “canonical redactor” did indeed know of the Gospel of Matthew.

Further, it is surely relatively safe to think that our redactor had an interest in shaping the baptist scenario to rebut Marcionism.

The question to ask then is whether canonical Luke functions as an anti-Marcionite document, and in particular to ask whether the treatment of Jesus’ baptism functions the same way. If so, does the suggested political context (anti-Marcionite) explain Luke’s differences from Matthew’s baptism scenario?

I think a case can be argued that they do indeed. read more »


2016-03-16

Atheism, Fundamentalism and the Liberal Christian (conclusion)

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from the previous post. A dialogue with Samantha Field’s post.

It’s perpetually frustrating to me, though, that there’s a certain movement of atheists that brand me as an idiot because I’m religious, or that I’m incapable of being reasonable or logical because I have faith. To this type of atheist, if I don’t accept fundamentalist Christianity as the Only True Way of being a Christian, I’m being inconsistent. Over the course of many conversations, I’ve usually found out that they were at one point Christian fundamentalists.

Religious people are not being idiotic, unreasonable or illogical. Their belief systems are very logical given their …. beliefs. We have fairly good understandings now why people are prone to believe in supernatural beings or dimensions. I’d like to see atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris educate themselves about our progress in this area. They need not fear that making an effort to learn more about the nature of religious practices and beliefs from anthropological and psychological perspectives will somehow “make excuses” for the harm done in the name of religion. Would criminologists be making excuses for crime by understanding the range of sociological, psychological and genetic factors that contribute towards criminal behaviour? Of course not, but the more we understand the more tools we have to minimize criminality. Ill-informed and emotive responses towards criminals may make us feel good but at the same time only increase the problem.

. . .  To many, Modernism is the only “correct” way to reason, and Truth and demonstrable, provable, physical fact are inseparable.

I was fortunate in the way my faith evolved. . . . All of that prompted me to do the same, and the end result is that I didn’t use the same framework I’d always used to evaluate evidence and questions. I didn’t rely purely on Modernist reasoning in order to deconstruct my faith system and start building it back up.

I’m drawn to dichotomies, to absolutes, to if then statements, and either or views of reality. . . . I have to force myself to live in the tension, to think of arguments as a matter of degree and nuance rather than totally right or totally wrong.

These are the words of someone who is drawn to belief even if belief is in a mystery, in irreconcilable oppositions. As an atheist (I’m sure I’m not alone) I feel no need to “believe” in anything. I don’t “believe” in the scientific [Samantha’s “Modernist”?] explanation for life, the universe and everything. I simply accept it knowing that it is always subject to change or even revision. Believers generally seem to have a hard time “believing” that anyone else is not also a “believer”. Atheism is not a faith. It is not a belief system. Even the word “atheist” scarcely has any truly coherent meaning.

On the other hand, it’s almost as equally frustrating when people don’t understand fundamentalism, and what it does to people. They don’t know that fundamentalists are ruled by logical consistency before any other consideration. What may seem like utter nonsense to you or me makes perfect sense if you understand the premise they’re working with and follow it to its conclusion.

This is too simplistic. Whatever we believe we are all in our own lights “ruled by logical consistency”. Even Samantha’s own decision to believe in “nuance” and contradictions in tension is a logically consistent conclusion when you understand her premise. It’s a paradox but not logically inconsistent. Fundamentalism is far more than being logically consistent. See 10 Characteristics of Fundamentalism. Logical consistency does not mean valid arguments as we know from games with various syllogisms. What counts is the premise. Religious fundamentalists are trapped in circular arguments and that’s why their logic is fallacious.

Take the fact that fundamentalists can be gigantic assholes to their friends and family. To an outsider, it may seem like we did nothing but endlessly bully and criticize each other– how in the world could we possibly be friends, let alone like each other? If they were to ask me when I was a fundamentalist why I behaved like this, I would’ve said “faithful are the wounds of a friend,” along with a quip about how being harsh and exacting is the only way to be loving. That sounds absurd to the rest of us — being an asshole is not loving– but to them, it’s the only possible outcome. You must “edify” your friends toward righteousness. Anything less is the opposite of loving.

The situation described here demonstrates the way fundamentalists are trapped in double binds and contradictions they cannot escape. They need to redefine words like love and adopt a new persona. Yes there is logical consistency at work there is far more at work that underlies that mental rationalisation. Generally everyone justifies their behaviour by logical reasoning. As Ben Franklin said,

“So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do”

Moreover, Samantha’s example is not a question of logic so much as firm conviction in some anti-social precepts.

Sciences have publicists promoting their research. I’d love to see more publicists promoting the research into human behaviour, including religious behaviours. Both believers and atheists are being shortchanged.

To fight a thing, you have to know a thing.

Amen.

 

 


Atheism and Fundamentalism: Why atheists don’t understand religion and why believers don’t like atheist criticisms

by Neil Godfrey

I recently lamented in a comment that some atheists appear incapable of understanding any argument about religion that is neither attacking nor defending it. Atheism, fundamentalism, liberal Christianity, religion generally — they do not all seem to be equally well understood as many heated arguments testify. Are ex-fundamentalist atheists still very often fundamentalists at heart as some believers claim? Are liberal Christians (and by extension many Muslims) hypocrites or at least just kidding themselves for not following the harshest precepts of their Scriptures as some atheists declare? Is the only good atheist necessarily a militant anti-theist?

fieldIn the context of the above questions I was alerted to a post by Samantha Field, THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON FUNDAMENTALISM, and because I felt it was being misinterpreted by one liberal Christian who sometimes comes across as a little frightened of certain atheists, and partly because I agreed with much of what Samantha wrote but had a different perspective on other aspects, I began to write up my own response. It turned into something of a dialogue and I had to cut it short for sanity’s sake.

I’ve written many other posts on fundamentalism going back to 2007 — they (and some of Tim’s) are all archived here — so this one will be added to that pile. I’ve learned much more about religion and cults since 2007 but my basic position may not have changed all that much.

Samantha is protesting against those atheists who appear to be recycling what in her view are fundamentalist approaches to religion. Her post begins:

I grew up in Christian fundamentalism, and now I’m a progressive Christian. Surprisingly, at least to me, that particular path is an unusual one, although probably not rare. Speaking from personal observation, it seems like the more usual route out of Christian fundamentalism isn’t liberal Christianity, but atheism.

I grew up in a liberal Christian household (that branch of Methodists that allowed card-playing and dancing and belief in evolution). After a period of teen turmoil I ended up in the Worldwide Church of God (that outfit that was led by Herbert Armstrong and published The Plain Truth magazine). My exit from that cult was gradual. I continued to attend as a regular member for quite some time before I took actions that led to my departure, as I have explained elsewhere. At first I sought for replacements in some of the denominations that were relatively close to my previous beliefs such as seventh day observance (but not the SDAs) and adult baptism. Ongoing questioning of my own beliefs opened my mind to wider horizons and I eventually found myself quite comfortable regularly attending a liberal Baptist (and later for a short spell a Roman Catholic) church. I was exploring. And questioning. Anything that smacked of the old cult-like approach to faith and practice I shunned. Then I heard a radio interview with a psychologist who herself had been a devout fundamentalist (Marlene Winell) discussing not only the fundamentalist experience but even why people believe in God. That startled and worried me. I had never stopped before to think there might be any other reason why I believed in God apart from the “irrefutable proofs of creation” with all the “wonder and awe” of the universe, “fulfilled prophecy”, “answered prayer” and “spiritual conversion” that all supposedly testified to his existence.

Why had I never questioned God before? Up until that time whenever I explored a question I found myself arriving at a new wall that I felt would never be breached. Though I had questioned the teachings and ways of my church I never thought I would question the Bible. That was bedrock. I “knew” that was the sure word of God. When I first came across critical studies of the Bible I had a very hard time accepting their perspective. That was another gradual process. But I still had God and Jesus firmly entrenched in my belief systems and would never lose them . . . . until, again, a catalyst from somewhere would daringly suggest it really was possible to question if anything lay behind that new wall. Questioning the very existence of God was the final barrier between my old life and the unknown (even frightening) world of atheism. The experience was traumatic as I have discussed elsewhere.

So my path out of fundamentalism was via progressive Christianity and only gradually on into atheism. Back to Samantha:

Unfortunately, it seems like there’s a lot of atheists out there who gave up on their religion, but didn’t give up fundamentalism. A little while ago I remarked on Twitter that it seems like atheists have more in common with Christian fundamentalists in their views on the Bible than they do with me. A few people were surprised by this. In short, it can be summed up by a saying in survivor communities: you can take the person out of a fundamentalism, but you can’t always take fundamentalism out of the person.

What I’m not saying is that this is inevitable– many of my close friends are atheists/agnostics who went through a time of being progressive Christians first. Their ultimate problem wasn’t fundamentalism, really, it was lack of belief. I think that’s true of most (if not all) atheists, even the ones who haven’t let go of a fundamentalist understanding of religion; they may not like their understanding of Christianity, but that’s not why they’re atheists.

Here’s where things get a bit messy. Some atheists are at some fault here, but so are some of the religious believers, I think. I’ll pick on the liberal Christian first. read more »


Sacred Scripture or Me? The Quran/Bible or the Believer? Who is to Blame?

by Neil Godfrey

I am posting here the main part, with minor modifications, of a comment I left at my previous post. I get the impression some readers just drop by to leave a polemic comment without bothering to return to see what anyone else might have said in reply or to follow up any broader discussion.

Yes, McCants is questioning your own dogmatic view about the role of scripture and religion as a cause for violence. Religion is an abstraction. Abstractions by themselves do not trigger actions. Abstractions don’t even exist except in our minds. And what I do with abstractions in my mind depends on a whole lot of other stuff in my makeup and the world around me.

Texts are dead letters. I can read a Nazi tract and it does not jump up and grab my mind and make me a Nazi. I can read anti-semitic literature without its words possessing my mind and turning me into an anti-semite. I have read the Bible and found in it justifications to wage war; I have read it at other times and found in it firm rationales for being a pacifist. I have used the Bible to tear down a family and build up a family.

So what gives here? Is the Bible some manic depressive with demonic power that sweeps me back and forth according to its own mood swings?

Would I have done certain terrible things in my past if I had never come across the Bible? Hopefully not. Yes, the Bible has played a very destructive role in my life and how I have affected others. Does that mean the Bible is to blame for my actions? No, I am to blame. I am responsible. I was responsible for my own beliefs and how I used the Bible to rationalize some very ugly behaviour in the past. There was a three-way negotiation going on there between me and others and a text. I cannot say the Bible made me do it.

Actually there was a four-way negotiation. Another group in my life were trying to talk me out of going the way of the cult. I chose to resist and argue against them. Why did I do that? Why were they also not swept up by the same ugly interpretation of the Bible that I was entering?

Now who or what was responsible for the belief system that I chose to follow? If the Bible, then how do we explain most people trying to talk me out of that view of the Bible? They also believed in and loved the Bible but they believed I was missing the spiritual intent of its dominant message. I believed they were missing the spiritual intent.

Yes, the Bible did play a key role. But other factors led me to open my mind to such a literal and fundamentalist reading of the Bible and they also need to be understood.

I’ve been posting at length about those factors for over a year now. Not everyone is interested in reading ideas that challenge their prejudices, sadly.

 


2016-03-14

Barack Obama and Donald Trump are both wrong about Islam

by Neil Godfrey

Donald Trump is certain that “Islam hates us,” as he said in an interview with CNN host Anderson Cooper and repeated in Miami’s debate. “There’s tremendous hatred.” President Obama is certain that “Islam is a religion that preaches peace.”

Both men are equally wrong. Islam neither hates nor preaches — its followers do. Islam is what people make of it, and they have made it many different things.

I found William McCants’ The ISIS apocalypse : the history, strategy, and doomsday vision of the Islamic State very informative so I was interested to read his latest article:

Barack Obama and Donald Trump are both wrong about Islam: For better and worse, the faith is what people make of it

McCants begins with two contrasting historical illustrations:

Wine drinking is the “work of Satan” and should be avoided, says the Koran. During the reign of the caliph al-Mahdi in the 8th century A.D., government officials would burst into the homes of unsuspecting revelers to smash their jugs of wine. “Vintage wine is waiting, like a virgin, to be touched,” wrote Abu Nuwas, the favorite poet of al-Mahdi’s son Harun al-Rashid, Islam’s greatest caliph memorialized in “A Thousand and One Nights.” Muslims abstain and Muslims drink.

Followed by:

“Monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques” would have been destroyed had God’s people not defended them, reminds the Koran. God’s people defended Christian churches from rioters during Egypt’s recent uprising. God’s people also demolished St. Elijah’s Monastery, the oldest in Iraq, to further the cause of the Islamic State. Muslims defend and Muslims demolish.

And then by another:

“Kill the polytheists wherever you find them,” proclaims the Koran. Aurangzeb, who ruled India’s Mughul Empire from 1658 to 1707, purged Hindus from his imperial service and forced their coreligionists to pay a protection tax or face death. His great-grandfather Akbar the Great abolished the protection tax and treated Hindus as colleagues and fellow monotheists. Muslims kill and Muslims tolerate.

And then one with a contemporary sting:

Gaze on the ruins of past civilizations and contemplate the “fate of those who were before (you),” counsels the Koran. The 8th century poet al-Buhturi wrote the following lines as he gazed on the ruins of Ctesiphon, the fallen capital of the Sasanian Empire conquered by the Arabs: “Built to delight for a time, their quarters / Now belong to grief and mourning. / So it behooves me to aid them with tears / Inalienably bequeathed to them through love.”

Another ancient Iraqi palace, built by Ashurnasirpal II in Nimrud, was detonated by the Islamic State to obliterate Iraq’s cultural connection with its pre-Islamic heritage. Muslims contemplate and Muslims obliterate.

And one more to settle the point:

“Do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies,” orders the Koran. The kingdom of Tripoli was one of the first nations to war with the fledgling United States. The kingdom of Morocco was one of the first countries to recognize the United States in 1778 and sought a peace treaty with it. Egypt and Israel are at peace. Muslims war and Muslims ally.

We will quickly empty the dictionary of verbs if Islam is defined by the actions of its followers.

I wish more people would understand the point Will McCants is making:

When we attribute human beliefs and behaviors to ancient, immutable scripture, we can’t explain change over time. Religiously justified wars once ravaged Christian Europe in the Middle Ages during a time of relative calm in the Middle East; today the reverse is true. Christian intellectuals once fled to Muslim lands to escape the persecution of the Church; today Muslim intellectuals flee to Christian lands to escape the persecution of the State.

The Arabian Peninsula was once home to mystics and music; today it is governed by an austere form of Islam that frowns on religious rapture and playing instruments. Turning to scripture to explain these reversals won’t get you very far.

Changes. McCants points out Pew polls informing us that in 2000 most people in Turkey liked the United States; now they don’t. In 2005 most Indonesians did not like the United States; now they do.

The message, of course, is the need to focus on what people do and to explain people’s actions and to evaluate appropriate responses. Simply putting all the blame on ancient writings and a single belief won’t get us very far.

.

H/T http://intelwire.egoplex.com/

Also linked on the same site: ‘Death to the infidels!’ Why it’s time to fix Hollywood’s problem with Muslims

 


2016-03-13

Explaining Zodiacs in Ancient Synagogues

by Neil Godfrey

We don’t expect to find the sun god Helios and images of the zodiac, complete with near naked human figures, in Jewish synagogues. So how should we understand these pagan mosaics in synagogues? The best (most completely) preserved are at Hammat Tiberias, Beth Alpha and Sepphoris.

Beit_alfa01

At Beth Alpha. Helios in the centre on his four horse chariot.

–o–

ZodiacMosaicTzippori

At Sepphoris

–o–

At Hammath Tiberias

At Hammath Tiberias

I was intending to post about Yaffa Englard’s explanation for these apparent anomalies simply because I found easy access to “Mosaics as Midrash: The Zodiacs of the Ancient Synagogues and the Conflict Between Judaism and Christianity” by Englard in a 2003 edition of Review of Rabbinic Judaism. But one thing led to another and before long I was catching up with Rachel Hachlili’s Ancient Synagogues — Archaeology and Art: New Discoveries and Current Research (2013). Hachlili lists a score of different interpretations. About the only thing most (not all) of them seem to have in common is that they work hard at avoiding any suggestion that the Jewish synagogues indicated an interest in astrology.

It is surprising to find the zodiac design depicted on synagogue mosaic pavements in view of its pagan origin, and all the more so as the mosaics, lying inside the main entrances, would have been immediately visible to anyone entering the synagogue. This widespread use of a ‘pagan’ motif over several centuries invites many questions as to its meaning and function in the synagogue. (p. 386)

The following is Rachel Hachlili’s list of interpretations that are out there. I have broken up her lengthy paragraphs into a numbered list. read more »


2016-03-05

Evangelical Christianity’s Brand Is Used Up

by Neil Godfrey

Another very read-worthy article by Valerie Tarico:

Evangelical Christianity’s Brand Is Used Up

Back before 9/11 indelibly linked Islam with terrorism, back before the top association to “Catholic priest” was “pedophile,” most Americans—even nonreligious Americans—thought of religion as benign. I’m not religious myself, people would say, but what’s the harm if it gives someone else a little comfort or pleasure. . . . . 

Those days are over. . . .

The Evangelical “brand” has gone from being an asset to a liability, and it is helpful to understand the transition in precisely those terms.

I liked Valerie’s list of “what the Evangelical brand looks like from the outside”. Compare them with another somewhat more formal set of fundamentalist characteristics set out by Tamas Pataki that I posted on in 2007: 10 characteristics of religious fundamentalism. That was before the current shenanigans from the American fundamentalist brand.

Evangelical means obsessed with sex

Evangelical means arrogant

Evangelical means fearful and bigoted

Evangelical means indifferent to truth

Evangelical means gullible and greedy

Evangelical means ignorant

Evangelical means predatory

Evangelical means mean

Read her article for her justifications.

 

 


2016-02-22

Nazareth, General Overview of the Evidence

by Neil Godfrey

NazGate_coverNazarethGate by René Salm furnishes readers with far more than the published archaeological evidence for the existence of Nazareth at the supposed time of Jesus. In taking up the task of mastering the research literature on the archaeology of Nazareth Salm has found that archaeologists well-known for their proclamations of finds that are relevant to our understanding of Jesus have a track record of questionable methods and reliability. Hence the pun on the Watergate scandal in the title as well as the subtitle: quack archeology, holy hoaxes, and the invented town of Jesus. Salm has done the work to earn the right to make these judgements.

In my previous post I touched on Salm’s exposure of the “less than optimal” work of Ken Dark. (Compare also A Critique of Ken Dark’s Work at the Sisters of Nazareth Convent.) There is much more. But here I am pausing to set out for easy reference a very general summary of the archaeological evidence for Nazareth. That is, what follows is taken from the scholarly published literature as distinct from unverifiable popular press reports. The former are testable; the latter — even if quoting opinions of certain archaeologists — are not.

Salm is able to point to the apparent influence his earlier book, The Myth of Nazareth, has had on the chagrined re-writing of some of the claims made about the archaeological evidence. Hopefully this new work will help raise a more public awareness of the tendentiousness (even incompetence) of the claims of some of the archaeologists who press claims for evidence that Nazareth was the home of Jesus.

From the Bronze Age to Roman Times

read more »