Category Archives: Religion


Studying Religious Beliefs Without Understanding How Humans Work

by Neil Godfrey


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?

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

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 »


Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal States

by Neil Godfrey


The first Christians shared all things in common; the first people of God began as a nation of twelve tribes. Plato would have been impressed with both beginnings.


Previous in this series:

  1. Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal Laws: Similarities 1:631-637  (2015-06-22)
  2. Plato’s and Bible’s Laws: Similarities, completing Book 1 of Laws  (2015-06-23)
  3. Plato’s Laws, Book 2, and Biblical Values (2015-07-13)
  4. Plato and the Bible on the Origins of Civilization (2015-08-13)
  5. Bible’s Presentation of Law as a Model of Plato’s Ideal (2015-08-24)


Book 5 of Plato’s Laws

Laws 739b-c Acts 2:42-47
The first and highest form of the state and of the government and of the law is that in which there prevails most widely the ancient saying, that “Friends have all things in common.Whether there is anywhere now, or will ever be, this communion of women and children and of property, in which the private and individual is altogether banished from life, and things which are by nature private, such as eyes and ears and hands, have become common, and in some way see and hear and act in common, and all men express praise and blame and feel joy and sorrow on the same occasions, and whatever laws there are unite the city to the utmost-whether all this is possible or not, I say that no man, acting upon any other principle, will ever constitute a state which will be truer or better or more exalted in virtue.

And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers.
And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles.
And all that believed were together, and had all things common;
and they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, according as any man had need.
And day by day, continuing stedfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they took their food with gladness and singleness of heart, 
praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to them day by day those that were saved.

So began the Christian church, one body, having all things common, like-minded, expressing praise and feeling joy together daily.

If we wink at the fact that Luke probably didn’t mean to indicate that the women and children were included in the common property Plato would have said

no one will ever lay down another definition [of a State] that is truer or better than these conditions in point of super-excellence. (739c Bury’s translation)

People in such an ideal state would inevitably be “happy”:

Whether such a state is governed by Gods or sons of Gods, one, or more than one, happy are the men who, living after this manner, dwell there. . . 


Laws 745d Ezekiel 47:13, Numbers 1:44 & Matthew 19:28
And the legislator shall divide the citizens into twelve parts,

and arrange the rest of their property, as far as possible, so as to form twelve equal parts;

and there shall be a registration of all. 

Ye shall divide the land for inheritance according to the twelve tribes of Israel . . . .

These were the men registered by Moses and Aaron and the twelve leaders of Israel.

The Son of man shall sit on the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Plato was imagining an ideal state. Having all things in common he considered to be too idealistic to be practical so he considered next-best options. Twelve tribes was the more realistic option, each tribe named after one of the twelve gods of Olympus. The land was to be divided “equally” but that meant larger allotments would be created to compensate for poorer quality soil in some areas. There was to be a methodical census of all citizens.

We know the story of the twelve tribes of Israel, both the original one from Genesis and the renewed one with the twelve apostles.


Let’s backtrack and start at the beginning. Book 5 begins with the most important things, the gods, followed by those next in rank, the “demons”, then the human soul (our divine part), and finally the human body, and speaks of the respective honours each is owed.  read more »


New Atheism, Tribalism and Ignorance of How Religion and Humans Work

by Neil Godfrey

heatherSometimes the most slap-dash of posts get the most attention and my recent post, Atheism, Cults and Toxicity, is the latest instance. At this moment it has garnered 111 comments and today Heather Hastie of Heather’s Homilies has responded to it with Is New Atheism a Cult? with another 72 responses at this moment.

The irony behind all of this kerfuffle is that I had decided to check out a book Jerry Coyne had cryptically complained about (it was written “by an Atheist Who Shall Not Be Named” he said for some unexplained reason). I only read the first few pages of C.J. Werleman’s book —

(is there some curse pronounced on anyone who names the author? Tough — I don’t agree with Coyne’s totalitarian tactic of erasing from all records memories of those he deems to be his opponents and banning all contrary political thought from his comments pages)

— anyway, as I was saying, I only read the first few pages of this work by an author (named C.J. Werleman) and was immediately struck by how “true” it rang with my own personal experience of exchanges with fervent supporters of Coyne’s, Harris’s and Dawkins’s views on the role of the Islamic religion in Islamic extremism today. It also struck a chord with my very similar experiences with some of the less scholarly advocates of the Christ Myth theory.

So I posted a few chunks of Werleman’s early pages that I believed hit the nail on the head in their description of the toxic tone of these Harris-Coyne-Dawkins and Murdock supporters with respect to the specific question of Islam and religion as forces of evil today.

Before I continue let me say that yes, I do agree that Islam’s teachings are socially retrograde in many respects but I also recall how it is only in recent years that Christianity itself and some Indigenous belief systems have begun to struggle out of many medieval and prehistoric values that have brought misery and even death in their wake; I oppose toxic and oppressive religions as anyone who has read anything about my past knows; and I do fully support any and all constructive programs aimed at encouraging liberalization with humanistic values in all faiths.

But let’s back track a step. This current flurry began when I attempted when Coyne posted the following words of mine directed to him:

Jerry, what concerns me about the various statements made by yourself along with Dawkins and Harris is that they are not informed by specialist scholarship — sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists et al — in Islamic and terrorist studies. Rather, they seem to be fueled by visceral reactions without the benefit of broader understanding and knowledge that comes from scholarly investigations into these phenomena. It almost appears to some of us that your criticisms are willfully ignorant of the scholarship. I find these visceral responses coming from trained scientists difficult to understand.

read more »


Highlights of the David Fitzgerald-Daniel Gullotta Discussion on Miami Valley Skeptics

by Neil Godfrey

For anyone who was too lazy or too busy or too technically challenged to listen to the discussion between David Fitzgerald and Daniel Gullotta on the historicity of Jesus here are my notes.

Of course things said on the fly are not always what we would exactly say in more considered writing so I welcome any corrections from both speakers. And we can always think of what we “should have said” in hindsight. (In a couple of places I have changed the original where an obvious slip of the tongue was made and in others added an amendment in square brackets without colour coding]. Daniel G has posted some corrections or clarifications on his blog.)

DF = David Fitzgerald [in bluish text]

DG = Daniel Gullotta [in reddish text]

HJ = Historical Jesus

JM = Jesus Myth or Jesus Myth theory

NT = New Testament

TF = Testimonium Flavianum

1:24 = approx time on audio file in minutes and seconds

Bold — the questions asked by the interviewer.

This is not really a transcription. Most of it is my own paraphrasing and precis. Only sections in quotation marks are actual “transcription”.


What led to your interest in the historicity of Jesus? 

2:30 DF: Never considered possibility of no historical Jesus until took an interest to know what he really said and did. Then red flags arose and discovered other people were also having same questions. Two years later realized he did not exist at all. Then wrote Nailed.

3:30  DG: Doing Undergrad degree in Theology specializing in Biblical Studies. Began with interest in how Jesus fitted in with his time historically, became bored with that so turned to Paul. In his undergraduate years the Zeitgeist documentary was making the rounds. That was his first intro. Then “3 Christmases ago” his younger brother re-introduced him to the to HJ notion — “If he existed!”

In same year Bart Ehrman released Did Jesus Exist? and Carrier was about to come out with his book, released a few months later.

With scholar Roland Boer at University of Newcastle (Australia) DG was more interested in studying the question of the reception of the JM.

6:30 Who has burden of proof?

DG — Burden of proof is on the one making the claim. Having said that, Paul’s letters, the Gospels, the writings of the later church and the sheer explanatory power are very weighty, so to argue against HJ is to go into an entirely different paradigm and for that one needs good evidence and the JM theory doesn’t have it.

DF – Agrees regarding burden of proof. It’s not really about HJ but about how Christianity started. It’s to make the best sense of the evidence we have.

9:00 Without HJ how could Christianity begin? read more »


Understanding Extremist Religion

by Neil Godfrey

An inevitable question arising out of my preceding two posts that attempt to set out the fundamentals of Neil Van Leeuwen’s analysis of the nature of “religious belief/credence” is where extremist views fit in. This is a topic I’ve broached several times before from different perspectives and hope to again as I get through more readings from various fields (e.g. anthropology, philosophy). In this post I add Van Leeuwen’s comment.

First, to recap:

Characteristics of Factual Belief

1. Factual belief is independent of its practical setting

We can believe our ancestor can see but this credence is elicited by ritual or religious moments and never changes our belief that the ancestor is a lifeless corpse. 

2. Factual beliefs have cognitive governance

The reverse is not true: we may imagine people really do turn into animals but do not worry we are eating a person when eating a pig. 

3. Factual beliefs are vulnerable to evidence

Failed predictions like the Y2K fear are forgotten; failed predictions in religions are maintained by adding further credences to them.

Characteristics of Religious Credence

1. Religious credence is dependent on its ritual and religious places and moments; it is not independent of its practical setting

We can believe our ancestor can see but this credence is elicited by ritual or religious moments and never changes our belief that the ancestor is a lifeless corpse.

2. Religious credence does not govern factual beliefs

We may believe people turn into animals but do not worry we are eating a person when eating a pig. Creationists rely upon clusters of other religious credences to maintain their opposition to the facts of geology.

3. Religious credence is not vulnerable to evidence

Failed predictions like the Y2K fear are forgotten; failed predictions in religions are maintained by adding further credences to them.

4. Perceived Normative Orientation

Credences structure behaviour towards “the good” and away from “the bad”.

5. Free Elaboration

Credences can be elaborated and imaginatively extended (e.g. God is more angry with people in your city today than with those in Hell); one cannot elaborate factual beliefs.

6. Vulnerability to Special Authority

Devotees can accept empirical failings in a guru but not moral hypocrisy.


Van Leeuwen sees extremist credence as another cognitive attitude that needs defining.

So what are the characteristics of extremist credence?  Note that 1 and 2 overlap with properties of factual beliefs: read more »


Religious Credence is Not Factual Belief: 2

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Religious Credence is Not Factual Belief: 1



In the previous post we saw the three core features of factual beliefs as understood by Neil Van Leeuwen; we also saw that religious “beliefs” or credence do not share any of these characteristics of factual beliefs.

Van Leeuwen distinguishes factual belief from what he terms secondary cognitive attitudes — that is, factual belief has different characteristics from fictional imagining, hypothesis, assuming for sake of an argument, and so forth. Among these secondary cognitive attitudes he places religious credence. But religious credence is different again from these other secondary attitudes because of three characteristics. In this post we identify those three distinguishing properties.

But before continuing, however, I’ll jump to Van Leeuwen’s conclusion where he explains how religious credence and factual belief relate to one another in the mind of the religious person:

An agent’s religious credences comprise a map she uses for short- and long-term orientation in life. The map is colored with features that are taken to have normative force in virtue of their being part of the map at all; the colors represent sacred, sinful, eternal, righteous, holy, and the like. The map, in more or less detail, is determined by the dictates of individuals who are taken as special authorities in the community of the agent. But the agent herself also freely elaborates on the credence map in ways she finds useful for normative orientation. The map colors the authorities as holy. Other individuals in the community are painted as faithful. This map doesn’t just represent normative properties, however; it also represents objects, people, places, events, and supernatural beings that make the normative properties memorable or salient.

But the agent is always using another map: factual belief. This map comes to be in a different way from the religious credence map. It is generated chiefly by perception and rational expansion thereon. It helps us avoid falling in ditches and eating poisonous berries. The religious credence map lies on top of the factual map like a colored transparency, so that the objects, events, people, and places in the factual map can also appear religiously colored. Thus, only by careful scrutiny do we see the two maps are distinct. (My bolding)

So that’s how Van Leeuwen sees the two types of cognitive attitudes co-existing. Now to those points that make religious credence a stand-alone. read more »

Religious Credence is Not Factual Belief: 1

by Neil Godfrey
Neil Van Leeuwen

Neil Van Leeuwen

I’m looking here at a thesis on the nature of religious belief, <em>Religious Credence is Not Factual Belief</em>, by Neil Van Leeuwen that was published in the journal Cognition last year. The author has also made his article publicly available on A commenter brought the article to my attention in the context of disagreements over the relationship between religious beliefs and Islamic terrorist attacks. One reason I am attracted to Van Leeuwen’s ideas is that they appear to be consistent with anthropologist Scott Atran’s views of the nature of religious belief that I have discussed previously.

First point to notice (and it is critical to the entire argument) is that Van Leeuwen chooses to speak of “religious credence” as opposed to “religious belief”.

Many philosophers and cognitive scientists have a habit of using the word “belief” as though it refers to one simple sort of cognitive attitude. . . . But, I will argue, if we examine the matter carefully, we will soon find empirical reasons to think this habit is a source of confusion. 

We tend to focus on differences in the content of “beliefs” (evolution, creationism; death is final, immortal soul) but in doing so we may be talking about distinctly different attitudes that fall under this one word. He draws the analogy of jade. In popular usage there may be only one kind of jade, but to chemists there are two distinct entities:

jade (2)

The general “taken for granted” assumption is that the only difference between a scientific and a religious belief is the content and that it is the different contents that guide behaviour.

Here is an adaptation of a diagram Van Leeuwen uses to portray the general understanding that there is only one kind of “belief” that is set against other cognitive attitudes. Belief (of any kind) by its very nature stands opposed to other forms of cognitive attitudes:


Van Leeuwen argues against this understanding of belief and believes that on closer inspection that religious “belief” has characteristics in common with other attitudes like imagining, hypothesising, acceptance in a context and conditional assumptions. Factual beliefs, he says, do not share these characteristics. To keep the distinction clear he uses “credence” when speaking of the cognitive attitude associated with religion:


So what are the characteristics that set religious credence apart from factual belief in Van Leeuwen’s view? And what is the relationship between factual beliefs and religious credence? Do they really have more than their content to distinguish them? read more »


Suffering Messiah is a Very Jewish Idea

by Neil Godfrey
Daniel Boyarin

Daniel Boyarin

Daniel Boyarin is a Jewish scholar of some repute. His work is worth consideration alongside what often amounts to little more than Christian apologetics thinly disguised as disinterested scholarship. In The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ Boyarin argues that the Christian belief in a suffering messiah who atones for our sins was far from some bizarre offence to Jews but in fact was itself an established pre-Christian Jewish interpretation of the books of Isaiah and Daniel.

Morton Smith’s argument is that the offence of the cross was Paul’s claim that it meant the end of the law, not that the messiah had been crucified.

“But what about Paul writing to the Corinthians about the cross of Christ being an offence to the Jews?” you ask. And in response I will step aside and allow a professor of ancient history at Columbia University, Morton Smith, to explain that most Christians have badly misunderstood that passage: see Was Paul Really Persecuted for Preaching a Crucified Christ?

So this post will look at Daniel Boyarin’s argument for the very Jewish (pre-Christian) understanding of the suffering messiah.

The idea of the Suffering Messiah has been “part and parcel of Jewish tradition from antiquity to modernity,” writes Boyarin, and therefore the common understanding that such a belief marked a distinct break between Christianity and Judaism is quite mistaken.

The evidence for this assertion? This post looks at the evidence of Isaiah 53. (Earlier posts have glanced at Boyarin’s discussion of Daniel in this connection.) Christians have on the whole looked at Isaiah 53 as a prophecy of the suffering Messiah. Fundamentalists have viewed the chapter as proof-text that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah). Jews, it has been said, reject the Christian interpretation and believe the passage is speaking metaphorically about the people of Israel collectively. Before continuing, here is the passage itself from the American Standard Version:  read more »


Bible’s Presentation of Law as a Model of Plato’s Ideal

by Neil Godfrey

Previous in this series:

  1. Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal Laws: Similarities 1:631-637  (2015-06-22)
  2. Plato’s and Bible’s Laws: Similarities, completing Book 1 of Laws  (2015-06-23)
  3. Plato’s Laws, Book 2, and Biblical Values (2015-07-13)
  4. Plato and the Bible on the Origins of Civilization (2015-08-13)

Book 4 of Plato’s Laws

For Plato the ideal state must begin with the new citizens arriving to settle in a land that has long been uninhabited and that is well distant from potentially corrupting influences of any neighbouring state. They mustn’t have it too easy or materially abundant, though, or self-indulgence and the usual corruptions of wealth are sure to overtake them, so the land must be rugged enough to keep them working hard for their well-being.

israel-wildernessThe biblical authors likewise narrated a story of new laws being given to a people leaving one “home” and moving to settle in another but of course there was a significant difference.

They were placing an ideal set of laws upon a land that contained a mixed population and was surrounded by potentially corrupting kingdoms. The same author(s) knew well the problem, though, and stressed the absolute necessity to drive out all the inhabitants of the land (Deut 7) and avoid any marriages with their neighbours (Deut. 17:14-20) lest they be led astray from keeping their perfect laws. The whole meaning of “holiness” and being a “holy nation” is separation from others.

Ath. And is there any neighbouring State?

Cle. None whatever, and that is the reason for selecting the place; in days of old, there was a migration of the inhabitants, and the region has been deserted from time immemorial.

Ath. And has the place a fair proportion of hill, and plain, and wood?

Cle. Like the rest of Crete in that.

Ath. You mean to say that there is more rock than plain?

Cle. Exactly.

Ath. Then there is some hope that your citizens may be virtuous . . . . There is a consolation, therefore. .  . owing to the ruggedness of the soil, not providing anything in great abundance. Had there been abundance, there might have been a great export trade, and a great return of gold and silver; which, as we may safely affirm, has the most fatal results on a State whose aim is the attainment of just and noble sentiments

In the story of Israel great wealth did flood the land in the time of Solomon so that “silver was as common as stones” (1 Kings 10:27) and that was the turning point in the kingdom’s history, as we know.

Purpose of the Laws

The ideal laws of both Plato and the Bible are said to be instituted to make people virtuous. They are not simply about maintenance of justice, keeping the peace and protecting sacred values but are intended to produce personal excellence of character or righteousness. This surely alerts us to a very strong probability that the Bible’s laws which had the same purpose were of philosophical/theological origin rather than being historically instituted as day-to-day law.

Ath. Remember, my good friend, what I said at first about the Cretan laws, that they look to one thing only, and this, as you both agreed, was war; and I replied that such laws, in so far as they tended to promote virtue, were good; but in that they regarded a part only, and not the whole of virtue, I disapproved of them. And now I hope that you in your turn will follow and watch me if I legislate with a view to anything but virtue, or with a view to a part of virtue only. For I consider that the true lawgiver, like an archer, aims only at that on which some eternal beauty is always attending, and dismisses everything else, whether wealth or any other benefit, when separated from virtue.

Compare Deuteronomy 6:25 and 4:6 read more »


How Religious Cults and Terrorist Groups Attract Members

by Neil Godfrey

frictionThere are interesting parallels between the processes that lead some people to join both religious cults and terrorist groups. If you once joined a cult you will very likely recognize some of the pathway others have walked to become members of a group responsible for violent terror attacks.

If you joined a religious cult you knew that others thought you were a bit weird. Numerous accounts of those who joined terrorist organizations show that those becoming interested in an extremist group were aware their families and wider society would try to talk them out of it so they kept their interest secret from everyone except others, if any, whom they knew shared their views.

Joining either means turning one’s back on society and immersing oneself totally in an alien way of life.

Jerrold Post appears to have been the first to recognize that cult recruiting can provide a useful model of terrorist recruiting. The analogy begins by noting that individuals who join either a cult or a terrorist group are likely to be characterized as “crazy.” Both a cult and a terrorist group require a level of commitment that most people find difficult to comprehend.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 1709-1711). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. — (My bolding and formatting in all quotations)

McCauley and Moskalenko in Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us take up this comparison.

Here we focus on recruitment to the Unification Church (UC) of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. The UC is generally regarded as a cult, and, more important, there is an unparalleled research literature for this group. A 1965 report by Lofland and Stark titled “Becoming a World Saver” chronicled the beginnings of the UC in America, and the surprise value of the report was its emphasis on the importance of social networks in religious conversion.

read more »


The Gospels: Written to Look Like (the final) Jewish Scriptures?

by Neil Godfrey

4evangelists-smThe genre of the gospels is an important question. Genre is an indication of the author’s intent. Does the author want to make us laugh at human foibles or weep over human tragedy, to escape into an entertaining world of make-believe, to be inspired and instructed by historical or biographical narratives, to mock establishment values, to understand and learn a philosophical idea? Authors choose the appropriate genre: treatise, satire, biography, history, novellas…. or their ancient equivalents.

Sometimes authors combine genres. We see this in the Book of Daniel where long apocalyptic passages suddenly break into the middle of gripping narrative adventure.

Another serious amateur researcher, Ben C. Smith, has posted a detailed argument for the gospels being composed as texts that were meant to complement the Jewish Scriptures in The Genre of the Gospels on the Biblical Criticism & History Forum. It’s an idea I myself have been toying with for some time so I can’t help but be a little biased in favour of his argument.

A common view among scholars today is that the Synoptic Gospels at least (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are a form of ancient biography. Ben Smith begins by taking on this popular notion by setting out the clear and distinctive differences between the Gospels and narratives of ancient lives:

Unlike most ancient “biographies” the Gospels are not reflective writings. They

  • are not written in the first person
  • do not self-consciously reflect upon the character of the main figure
  • do not as a rule reflect upon the kind of book they were writing or on their purposes for writing.

Ben sets out detailed illustrations from about nine ancient Lives with readers urged to take note of this: read more »


Who are the true Muslims in these scenarios?

by Neil Godfrey
Jews flee the Old City of Jerusalem, August 1929 (Wikipedia)

Jews flee the Old City of Jerusalem, August 1929 (Wikipedia)

Scene One:  

At least two thousand worshippers, proclaiming, “There is no God but God; the religion of Mohammed came with the sword,” attended the rally and then descended from the Noble Sanctuary [Temple Mount] to the wall, setting fire to Jewish prayer books and other devotional items. . . . .

Friday prayers [the following week] began inauspiciously. The khatib, or preacher, entered. He was attired, as usual, in the traditional green cloak worn by Muslim prelates in Jerusalem. As was also typical, he was preceded by a kavass (guard), who loudly struck the ground with his stave to announce the start of the service. What was atypical was the drawn sword that the khatib ostentatiously displayed. Sheikh Sa’ad el Din mounted the pulpit. After praising and thanking God, he called upon the faithful to defend Islam from the Jews and their plots to seize the Noble Sanctuary. “If we give way an inch to the Jews in regard to their demands at the Wailing Wall, he inveighed, 

they will ask for the Mosque of Aqsa; if we give them the Mosque of Aqsa they will demand the Dome of the Rock; if we give them the Dome of the Rock they will demand the whole of Palestine, and having gained the whole of Palestine they will proceed to turn us Arabs out of our country. I ask you now to take the oath of God the Great to swear by your right hand that you will not hesitate to act when called upon to do so, and that you will, if need be, fight for the Faith of the Holy Places to death. 

The packed congregants raised their hands in unison and swore this pledge. “Then go,” the sheikh instructed them, “pounce upon your enemies and kill that you in doing so may obtain Paradise.” . . . . 

Shouting, “The country is our country and the Jews are our dogs,” and, “The religion of Mohammed came with the sword,” the Arabs descended on the quarter with sticks, clubs, swords, and a handful of rifles. The Arab police again mutinied to join the onslaught, at the end of which twenty-nine Jews lay dead and forty-three injured. . . .

(Hoffman 2015, pp. 29-30)

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