Monthly Archives: April 2018

New Perspective on the Gospel of Luke; part 1

Shelly Matthews

Professor of New Testament Shelly Matthews has a different take on the Gospel of Luke. Different, that is, from one that I have for a long time generally embraced on this blog. I have written positively before about Shelly Matthew’s work and find myself doing so once more here. This time I am discussing her article in the Journal of Biblical Literature last year, Fleshly Resurrection, Authority Claims, and the Scriptural Practices of Lukan Christianity.

Why Stress the Flesh of the Resurrection Body?

Unlike the earlier gospels Mark and Matthew, Luke 24 focuses readers’ attentions on the fleshly nature of Christ’s resurrection body:

39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

40 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence.

The Gospel of John is usually understood in a similar vein, not least because of the following scene in the 20th chapter:

27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

But as Matthews points out, Luke and John have quite different purposes for their respective body of flesh scenes. The fourth gospel uses the physical wounds of Jesus as identifying marks so that Jesus can know who is standing in front of him: it really is Jesus who was crucified by being nailed to the cross and then speared in the side.

The need for Thomas to see the wounds may be a Johannine employment of a common topos in Greek literature evident as early as the Homeric tradition—as with Eurykleia in the Odyssey, who does not recognize Odysseus until she has touched his scar. Yet the high point of the recognition scene is not Jesus’s affirmation that the body demonstrated to Thomas is fleshly but rather a rebuke of faith that requires sight. Thomas sees the wounded Jesus and confesses, “My Lord and my God,” to which Jesus responds, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (20:29). (Matthews, p. 168)

Contrast Luke’s focus on demonstrating that Jesus’ body is flesh, just as it was before he was resurrected:

37 They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.

40 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, Do you have anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence.

In John 21 Jesus does not eat the fish but distributes it among his disciples. In Luke 24 Jesus eats the fish to prove he is a fleshly body.

The question that follows, of course, is why would Luke want to make such a point.

Matthews’ answer is that the author of the third gospel is using the fleshly body of the post resurrection Jesus as a vital element in establishing the supreme authority of the twelve apostles against others (various visionaries such as Mary and Paul) who were looked to as authorities in his day.

Details to follow.


Matthews, S. (2017). Fleshly Resurrection, Authority Claims, and the Scriptural Practices of Lukan Christianity. Journal of Biblical Literature, 136(1), 163–183.


 

The Curious Silence of the Dog and Paul of Tarsus

Following up my previous post I came across another interesting discussion of the argument from silence. Since I am among those who have compared the argument from silence to the Sherlock Holmes’s famous inference from the dog that did not bark and even spoken of such a nonauditory argument as deafening, after reading Mike Duncan’s discussion I feel as if my presentation of such an argument in the past has lacked finesse. Mike Duncan has made his article publicly available on Academia.edu:

The Curious Silence of the Dog and Paul of Tarsus: Revisiting The Argument from Silence

 

This is what biblical studies should look like

This is what biblical studies should look like – pushing, prodding, challenging, and thoughtful. I have mentioned before that academics tend to defend, but scholars almost always attack; this is yet another example of this law (let’s call it the Law of Scholarly Aggressiveness) in effect.

That’s from Mike Duncan’s blogpost on his thoughts after reading Robert Price’s The Amazing Colossal Apostle. (I have added Duncan to our Who’s Who list after being alerted to him and his views on Jesus mythicism by James McGrath.)

On Price himself Duncan has this to say:

It is always a pleasure to read a book by a real scholar. Price is often dismissed as a fringe figure, but to me he has that special combination of feisty aggressiveness and being well-read that marks someone that demands to be reckoned with. It is no longer fashionable to take Baur or van Manen seriously, but Price does, and it is refreshing to see a lengthy analysis of the Pauline corpus that refuses to yet again reinforce the middle of the road.

 

The never-ending “brother of the lord” proof for the historical existence of Jesus

James McGrath has posted that it is time to return to the Jesus mythicism question. He writes:

It’s time to return once again to the subject of Jesus mythicism, the stance that denies the overwhelming consensus of professional historians and scholars that there most likely was indeed a historical Jesus of Nazareth.

Translated, that means it is “time to return to addressing those who question the conventional wisdom bequeathed to us from our society’s Christian heritage.” The use of the word “consensus” makes it sound as if the belief in the the historicity of Jesus is a position arrived at by serious research on the part of all those “professional historians and scholars”. But we know that is not the case because Bart Ehrman let a terrible secret out of the bag when he wrote:

Odd as it may seem, no scholar of the New Testament has ever thought to put together a sustained argument that Jesus must have lived. To my knowledge, I was the first to try it . . . 

I also find the phrase “most likely” confusing in the context. “Most likely” suggests to me that there is some room for doubt, however slim. The words suggest something short of “definitely” or “without doubt”. Yet the very suggestion of any doubt at all is what appears to offend McGrath.

Another framing word in his introduction is “denies’. That word allows him to follow up with “denialist” to characterize sympathy with the mythicist argument. Denialism suggests irrational stances and is hardly a fitting word to be used of scholarly disagreements. Would not the word “disagrees” be more appropriate and accurate?

Next, McGrath comes to the immediate point of his pot:

Evidence about his brother James (Jacob) is an important factor in historical reasoning on this subject.

By adding Jacob in parenthesis beside the name James indicates to the reader that the author is aware of subtleties in the primary sources and so is presenting a scholarly argument.

But what follows is a quotation by someone who regularly demonstrates a lack of awareness of the fundamentals of methods of historical research and who routinely uses personal insults to smokescreen the weaknesses and fallacious nature of some of his arguments.

The post to which McGrath directs readers rests on the most fundamental errors of historical research. Its author, Tim O’Neill, simply assumes that the letter to the Galatians that he sees before him is just what a mid-century Paul originally wrote. To raise the well known fact that textual variants were the norm for ancient letters, especially Paul’s, and that there is indeed evidence that points to the possibility that Paul did not write those words.

After more loaded language and ad hominem aspersions against mythicists (they are too predictable and too numerous to bother discussing one by one here) McGrath does actually say something that I fully agree with:

Each piece of evidence needs to be evaluated on its own merits. And the fact that some evidence does not confirm something should never be treated as undermining what the positive evidence shows.

Exactly.

Unfortunately, McGrath appears to be so committed to the historicity of the central person of his own religious faith that he can allow no room whatever for any suggestion of doubt. That one piece of “evidence” (I would call it “data” waiting to be interpreted to see whether or not it is evidence for or against a proposition) appears to be all he needs to establish not merely “most likely” but that there “definitely without any shadow of doubt” was a historical Jesus.

If you know my sibling and they mentioned me, but you have also heard a number of improbable things about me (whether that my parents won the lottery just in time to pay the medical bills after I was born, that I have been interviewed by MTV News and E! Online, or that I have a tenure track position at a university), the latter details should not be evaluated as reasons to doubt my historicity. This sort of probability calculation may be appropriate to figuring out the likelihood that some individual in theory would happen to have my unique combination of characteristics. But once my existence is established, even ludicrous claims that turn out to be false do not make my existence less likely.

I have bolded and italicized the last words. Here McGrath contradicts his opening claim in which he indicated that the historicity of Jesus was the “most likely” explanation to account for the data. Rather, he concludes by saying that there is nothing that could make the existence of a person any “less likely” once it has been established by the meeting of one known to be the person’s sibling. That sounds to me as though he takes Galatians 1:19 as definitely, unequivocally, establishing the historicity of Jesus.

I think at this point it is time to examine each piece of evidence and evaluate it on its own merits. And that means going back to the most fundamental rules of assessing the nature of the documents we have and the totality of data that bears upon the question. That’s what I have tried to do in my post Does “Brother of the Lord” settle the Jesus myth question?

 

Why We Connect Moral Judgments to God(s)

. . . . religious concepts are parasitic upon moral intuitions 

How is it possible to live a moral life if we don’t believe in a god?

Without belief in God, some believers shriek hysterically, we would have no moral code. We would believe we would be free to kill and steal and do all sorts of other horrible things.

Christians, Muslims, Jews claim that their God gave humanity its moral laws or codes. Other believers attribute moral interests to their respective deities, too. Gods are so interested in the morality of our actions, we are told, that they will even punish or reward people according to whether they have been good or bad.

What follows is from a book first published a decade and a half ago so others more in the know may be able to contribute more current insights or simply alternative explanations. Pending those updates here is Pascal Boyer‘s explanation for why people connect moral interests to gods or spirits or ancestors that he set out in Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought.

Boyer writes:

[W]e know that religious codes and exemplars cannot literally be the origin of people’s moral thoughts. These thoughts are remarkably similar in people with different religious concepts or no such concepts. Also, these thoughts naturally come to children, who would never link them to supernatural agency. Finally, even religious people’s thoughts about moral matters are constrained by intuitions they share with other human beings, more than by codes and models. (p. 191)

Boyer begins by addressing the many cross-cultural studies that demonstrate beyond all doubt what all parents have always known: that even young children have moral intuitions. They don’t need to be taught by a thunderous voice from heaven that it is wrong to intentionally deceive someone else with misleading information. No-one taught my infant that it is wrong to lie before he  told his first lie with clear signs of associated guilt. Further, young children know the difference between “moral principles” and “conventional rules”. In a classroom, for example, they know the difference between shouting out in class and stealing someone’s pencil case. They also know that stealing an eraser is not as serious as hitting others.

Most significantly, they know that

social consequences are specific to moral violations. (p. 179)

If they forget or disregard an instruction not to leave their notebook beside the fireplace they will not be surprised or troubled by the worst consequences in the same way they expect to suffer social ostracism or condemnation for being caught stealing.

So experimental studies show that there is an early-developed specific inference system, a specialized moral sense underlying ethical intuitions. Notions of morality are distinct from those used to evaluate other aspects of social interaction (this is why social conventions and moral imperatives are easily distinguished by very young children). (p. 179)

There is something remarkable about such moral intuitions in the story of our development to maturity. Certain actions are seen as immoral for their own sake no matter what, and that understanding does not change into adulthood. Stealing an eraser is wrong, period. Now there might be circumstances where you, the thief, think stealing it is justified — the owner doesn’t care; its owner stole something from you earlier so stealing the eraser is rationalised as “just deserts”; etc. — but the fact remains we know that stealing the eraser is nonetheless a moral breach.

So it is all the more interesting that no such change is observed in the domain of moral intuitions. For the three-year-old as well as for the ten-year-old and indeed for most adults, the fact that a behavior is right or wrong is not a function of one’s viewpoint. It is only seen as a function of the actual behavior and the actual situation. (p. 180, my highlighting in all quotations)

read more »

The Idea of an Atheist Movement is Nonsense

I have some disagreements with PZ Myers but I also have some ironclad agreements, such as his post back in mid-March:

I ought to be getting used to atheists embarrassing me

He concludes (with my own emphasis)

You want to defend the skeptical and atheist community? We’re going to have to face up the fact that the popularity and persistence of terrible people who wave the banner of atheism has already compromised us, and realize that when some of our ‘heroes’ go further and commit sexual harassment, that doesn’t mean that they’re exceptional, but are perhaps more representative than we like to admit. At the very least, we have to recognize that being a misogynistic scumbag does not disqualify you from claiming to be an “amazing” atheist.

Further, that so many atheists insist that no moral stance can be assigned to atheism means that the awful people can not be repudiated as atheists; we can do so as individuals, as human beings, and as humanists, but the lack of any principle but “there is no god” in atheism means there are no grounds for forswearing or dismissing these people within the atheist movement.

So what’s the point of the atheist movement? There is none. It’s killed itself.

Agreed. So when theists mock “angry atheists” I cannot deny that many atheists deserve that charge.

The idea of an atheist movement gives those atheists who do not welcome a tribalist or group mentality are going to be embarrassed by those who do.

Some will say, But hey, look at the encouragement the atheist movement has given to atheists suffering persecution in places like Bangladesh. My reply is that such people would find encouragements in any atheist author in the West or anywhere else. I did not become an atheist because of any “atheist movement” and I suspect the same is true for many others.

An “atheist movement” seems to me to invite a tribalist mentality with all the negatives and intolerant attitudes towards outsiders that that brings.

 

Crossing the water: Comparing Buddhist and Christian imagery

Source: Alamy. In this version Buddha calls on a cloud to transport him across the Ganges.

René Salm is way ahead of me in posting on Hermann Detering’s newest release on Christian origins arguing for links between early gnosticism in Egypt and Buddhism from India. He now has four comments online.  I have since tried to elicit the main arguments from the second section of Detering’s article via a most welcome but unfortunately less than 100% clear translation of the German original. Last post I outlined Detering’s survey of early allegorical and other gnostic interpretations of the Exodus and how some of these conflated or replaced Moses with Joshua as the central figure. In the next section, part 2, Detering addresses comparable analogies in Buddhism and the Upanishads.

The Eastern allegories place greater stress on the water representing ignorance and fear.

In one Buddhist story the Buddha asks his followers if it makes sense to carry around with them the rafts they had made in order to cross a river to reach him. No, of course, is the answer, since the purpose of the rafts has been met and they are no longer needed. Detering does not make the comparison but I was reminded of Paul’s teaching in Galatians that the law was only a temporary requirement to bring people to Christ and is no longer necessary for those who have become Christians. (I am not saying that Paul derived his teaching from Buddhism but only pointing to the similar concepts.)

In another Buddhist parable the water barrier symbolizes the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. It represents the world with its passions and desires. The rafts represent Buddha’s teachings.

So the metaphor in Buddhism is that the water represents “stream of existence”, monks are the ford-crossers, and those seeking to cross the river to Nirvana are tasked with cleansing themselves from desires and passions.

Walking on water

As for the image of walking on water I have seen in Buddhist temples murals of Buddha standing or walking on a river with his disciples following after him in boats. But I do not suspect that these images were painted before Christianity was known in these parts of Asia. Detering discusses the scholarly research into the origins of such an image in the Eastern tradition and that concludes the motif cannot be later than around 200 BC to 50 AD. If so, the image is certainly independent of the gospels. (The stories of Buddha’s crossing vary in how they describe the act: did he actually walk? or was he transported just above the surface of the water? in some he was not seen walking at all but simply mysteriously appeared on the other side leaving his disciples mystified as to how he crossed.)

Detering points to “close parallels” between the 39th Ode of Solomon and a verse in Buddhist literature depicting disciples of a master teacher struggling to find a way across an expanse of water, but some being swept away in a raging torrent or storm. I am too uncertain of the details to offer a translation or precise citation here so we’ll have to await the translation of Detering’s argument.

In the next section Detering discusses closer apparent links between the Therapeutae near Alexandria in Egypt and Buddhism.

One more for who’s who?

Just when you think a job is done…..

John Loftus of Debunking Christianity posts this:

Former Pastor Dr. Calvin Kelly Leaves His Faith, Recommends Joseph Atwill’s Book “Caesar’s Messiah”

I copy here the newspaper extract that John Loftus posted on his site. But John has more personal comment than I do so I don’t want to appear to be stealing his post. The treatment Calvin received from those he had long thought of as his family is horribly familiar, too.

Sigh… one more html edit for the Who’s Who page….

Updated: Who’s Who among Mythicists and Mythicist Agnostics

I have updated the Who’s Who among Mythicists and Mythicist Agnostics page.

The original intent of the page was to test the claims by a number of New Testament scholars that the questioning the historical existence of Jesus was motivated by anti-Christian bias and generally a reaction against prior negative experiences with extreme fundamentalist cults. Hence I have divided the page into different religious backgrounds and given prominence where I can to the background of each name and their current attitude towards Christianity, if known.

The names listed in the table are a mix of scholars of various backgrounds and lay people. I have included both names associated with academically rigorous arguments alongside others that are less so. Hopefully my colour coding, bolding and hyperlinks will enable interested readers to quickly identify which is which.

I am sure there must be names I have overlooked. I encourage anyone who sees omissions to bring me up to date.

 

 

 

 

Gnostic Interpretation of Exodus and Beginnings of the Joshua/Jesus Cult

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crossing_the_Red_Sea#/media/File:Dura_Europos_fresco_Jews_cross_Red_Sea.jpg

Recall that Hermann Detering was a work out about the gnostic interpretation of the Exodus and the beginnings of the Joshua/Jesus cult. See my earlier posts:

Since then René has posted a second installment. Meanwhile, on Hermann Detering’s page we see that a translation by Stuart Waugh is due to be “published soon”.

Here I set out my own notes from the first part of the work. I don’t read German except through machine translators, alas, so if anyone who has read the German original can see I have misstated something do let me know.

Gnostic Interpretation of the Exodus

Philo

The earliest Jewish allegorical interpreter of the Exodus is Philo of Alexandria, Egypt, in the first century CE. In Philo’s Allegorical Interpretations II we see that Philo interpreted Egypt as a life of pleasure, a symbol of physical passions, in contrast to the wilderness, representing the spiritual life of the ascetic.

But notice that Philo extends his allegory of the exodus from Egypt to the wilderness by inclusion of the crossing of the Jordan River, apparently conflating this event with Moses’ (not Joshua’s) leadership.

Therefore, God asks of the wise Moses what there is in the practical life of his soul; for the hand is the symbol of action. And he answers, Instruction, which he calls a rod. On which account Jacob the supplanter of the passions, says, “For in my staff did I pass over this Jordan.” {Genesis 32:10.} But Jordan being interpreted means descent. And of the lower, and earthly, and perishable nature, vice and passion are component parts; and the mind of the ascetic passes over them in the course of its education. For it is too low a notion to explain his saying literally; as if it meant that he crossed the river, holding his staff in his hand.

The passage through the Red Sea is symbolic of the transition from the worldly to the spiritual life.

The Therapeutae read more »

Expulsion of the Palestinians, Part 11

This series of posts has put a spotlight on the historical evidence that despite certain public comments to the contrary the pre-1948 Zionist movement was dominated by the intention to cleanse Palestine of its Arab population to make way for the settlement of Jews from Europe and elsewhere. Much of the evidence surveyed has come from archival sources such as the Israel State Archives and the Central Zioist Archives (CZA), as well as from personal diaries of key Zionist leaders and minutes of Zionist meetings. This is the eleventh post of what are my notes from Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of “Transfer” in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948 by Nur Masalha.

This post begins with a look at one more transfer plan that interested many Zionists even though it failed in the end to be implemented:

Edward Norman’s Plan of Transfer to Iraq, 1934-48

Edward Norman (1900-1955) was an American Jewish millionaire deeply involved in fund-raising for the Jewish settlement in pre-1948 Palestine, the Yishuv. With the collaboration of Yishuv and other major Zionist leaders he spent much time and energy working on a transfer plan throughout the years 1934 to 1948.

Norman’s first plan, 1934, was titled An Approach to the Arab Question in Palestine. The premise of this 19 page memorandum:

immigration and possession of the land by definition are the basis of the reconstruction of the Jewish homeland.

Norman understood that Jewish colonization was “a general cause of concern” for the Palestinian Arabs because it entailed

taking over Palestine without the consent of the indigenous population.

The crux of the problem for the Yishuv, therefore, in Norman’s view, was that Jews were to gradually take over Palestine while simultaneously finding a new place for the Arab population to live.

The solution, he suggested, was “the kingdom of Iraq”. What he wanted was for the Iraqi government to agree to donate agricultural land for the Palestinian Arabs and to facilitate their free transfer, along with all their cattle and other property. The Arab press would have to support the plan, too.

What is interesting here is Norman’s assumptions about the character of Arabs: no matter how long they had been settled agriculturalists they were still nomads at heart —

It must be remembered that a transportation such as suggested by Arabs from Palestine to Iraq would not be a removal to a foreign country. To the usual Arab there is no difference between Palestine, Iraq, or any other part of the Arab world. The boundaries that have been instituted since the War are scarcely known to many of the Arabs. The language, customs, and religion are the same. It is true that a moving of any kind involves leaving familiar scenes, but it is not a tradition of the Arabs to be strongly attached to a locality. Their nomadic habits still have that much influence, even among the settled elements. (Masalha, p. 143)

Norman feared that anything other than economic inducements for the Palestinian Arabs to evacuate their homes would backfire in the long run. He wanted to avoid a situation where the Jewish settlers looked as though they were pressuring the Arabs to leave:

If the Jews ever succeed in acquiring a major part of Palestine a large number of Arabs perforce will have to leave the country and find homes elsewhere, if they are forced out inexorably as the result of Jewish pressure they will go with ill-will and probably will cherish an enmity towards the Jews that might persist for generations and that would render the position of the Jewish homeland precarious. The rest of the world, too, easily might come to sympathize with the Arabs. (p. 143)

How to initiate the plan

The first step was to involve influential and sympathetic Jewish persons and to make very discreet investigations into Iraq’s willingness to assist. The costs of moving Arabs village by village to Iraq would have to be ascertained without raising any public alarms. The necessary meetings with the British Colonial Office were also mapped out. The first Arabs to be moved would be the ones along the Palestinian coast since their agricultural ways were the more easily transferable to Iraq in the initial stages.

Revision 1

In 1937, however, violent confrontations between the Yishuv and Palestinians led Norman to expand and revise his plan. He had to acknowledge an unsavory fact: read more »

Reconstructing Papias and a new look at the Synoptic Problem

After five years of guilty looks at my unread copy of Dennis R. MacDonald’s Two Shipwrecked Gospels: The Logoi of Jesus and Papias’s Exposition of Logia about the Lord, I finally overcame my fear of reading its 700 pages of radically new argument addressing the “synoptic gospel problem” — and was very pleasantly surprised. I enjoyed it. It was not fearsomely complex at all. It was a positively challenging and thought provoking read. Speculative in places, yes, but speculation is always tethered to the rocks of data; it is not free-floating speculation. And much of the discussion is a close examination of composition and density of those data rocks with a view to testing the explanatory power of the thesis.

Before I outline MacDonald’s suggestions let’s refresh our memories of the most common prevailing views of the synoptic problem. The most common view is that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke independently drew upon the Gospel of Mark and another (mostly sayings) source now lost to us, Q:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synoptic_Gospels

Still a minority view, but one that appears to be gaining a little more ground since Mark Goodacre’s The Case Against Q is a revamping of the Farrer thesis:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synoptic_Gospels

You can see other proposed solutions to the question of the relationship between the synoptic gospels if you go to the wikipedia link I have added to each of the above models.

Enter Dennis MacDonald and his thesis that includes the writings of Papias. Papias? We know about him from what others like Eusebius and Irenaeus have said about him. You will remember that he was the early second century name associated with a rather bizarre story about Judas (he swelled up until he exploded) yet more soberly with discussions he held with certain elders and accounts of the gospels of Mark (it was a record of Peter’s memories but Mark got the order of events all mixed up) and Matthew (Matthew originally wrote his gospel in Hebrew but he got the order of events right).

Papias was said to have written The Expositions of the Logia (sayings and stories) about the Lord in five books. With the benefit of other scholars’ research (especially Norelli’s) into the ancient references to these five books of Expositions MacDonald has attempted to reconstruct some idea of the contents of these respective five volumes.

In the following outline of MacDonald’s resulting suggested (he is far from dogmatic) “reconstruction” I have mostly incorporated extracts from Ben C. Smith’s Textexcavation site.

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The Five Books of the Expositions of the Logia of the Lord

read more »

Douma

A thought-provoking read:

The search for truth in the rubble of Douma – and one doctor’s doubts over the chemical attack

 

Postscript on Atheist Tribalism

I am an atheist but for the life of me I cannot see how atheism is any basis for a social community. There are good atheists and bad ones; atheists on the political left and atheists on the political right; classical-music-loving atheists and hard-rock-loving atheists; atheists who loathe anything associated with any religion and atheists who highly respect the religious mindsets of others; atheists who live by conservative moral standards and atheists who are libertine.

If I want to do my bit to help alleviate suffering among victims of a natural disaster or help raise public awareness of the needs of a disadvantaged group, join a political pressure movement or support a charity, I will not do so as an atheist. I will do so because it is the cause that is my prime concern and my atheism, I believe, is irrelevant.

Churches (and government agencies) may well advertise their identity when they send food and medicines to places wracked with famine but I have no interest in exploiting such opportunities to make a statement about my personal belief system. I am sure churches are often sincere when they give but to do so in a way that draws attention to their church identity strikes me as a little compromised. There are few logos apart from that of the International Committee of the Red Cross that I can support.

Last month I wrote what a piece attempting to think through my experience with an online atheist community. I used the term “cult atheism“. On further reflection I wonder if “tribal atheism” or “atheist tribalism” would have been more appropriate. Soon after I wrote that post a number of people informed me that that atheist community site had begun a somewhat heated discussion about me personally. I thought that was strange since so few persons had attempted to engage me in discussion during my time there. So yesterday I finally caught up with that discussion on the AFA site. That’s one more to-do item I can now cross off my list.

Comment: The Vridar Discusses AFA thread seemed to underscore the comparison I made in my earlier post between cultish (should I rather say tribal?) behaviour and that atheist community. Recall in my first post I spoke of excommunication. Let me expand on that. When one is excommunicated from a cult or fundamentalist sect the members pull together and opine on how bad, how “in the grip of Satan”, the banished person both “is” and “always was”. It is as though the one who is excommunicated takes the place of the Azazel goat of the ritual on the Jewish festival of atonement: all the sins of the community are placed on that goat as it is driven into the wilderness.

The same generally (there may be rare exceptions) occurs when a member leaves the fold, willingly, without any formal excommunication announcement. For the group to engage in introspection, to try to examine if their own behaviour may have been at least partly responsible, is rarely part of the script. Rather, the “lost sheep” will be portrayed according to the stereotypes set out in the Bible: they were never truly part of us to begin with; they are in the grip of all sorts of sins; they are in the bond of bitterness; and so on. I find the parallels with the AFA community’s discussion about me after I left the group to be so very familiar.

Anyway, there was one remark made towards the end of that discussion thread that sparked my curiosity. It was suggested that I should have engaged in an “Ask Me Anything” session prior to leaving. Curiosity did get the better of me and I volunteered to do just that and face my accusers and any others also curious. The AFA Forum rules say that “AFA members especially have a duty to portray to the public a disciplined attitude in postings.” We’ll see what happens, if anything.

Part of me would like to try to contribute where I can and no doubt there are many lurkers or members of the forum who do not share the inconsistent and hostile attitudes of a some of the more outspoken voices there. (We’ll see. If anything.)