Tag Archives: Author profiles

Strange book packages

Sometimes a book is delivered in the post to me in packaging that is, well, curiuous.

I recently received a huge cardboard carton that felt very light and wondered what on earth it could be. I opened it to find at the bottom a very, very thin book that a publisher had sent to me for reviewing. (A task I have still to do.) Why? presumably it was oversize by height and/or width for normal packing so the next extreme step was the only alternative.

But yesterday was something else. This was one of those bags that you imagine is used for a sack of potatoes but it was marked “Swiss Post”. It was tied up in the middle with one of those plastic twist ties and delivery label and down at the bottom of the bag was the book you see beside it in the photo.

It’s a heavy book. Perhaps that had something to do with it. But strange. Very strange indeed.



On Being a Librarian

How it happened

I never planned to be a librarian. An academic career was stymied as a consequence of joining up with the Worldwide Church of God. That episode brought chaos into my life that led to my early departure from advanced studies. Some years later after more advanced studies I was offered the opportunity to enter a master’s course but by then I was married with young kids and financial commitments and still involved with certain demands of the church so simply could not see that as a realistic option.

I only became an academic or university librarian after another tumultuous turnaround in my life that eventually took me out of the church. Librarianship promised a nice easy nine to five type job that I could leave behind at the end of each day (unlike secondary school teaching) in order to focus on other higher priority personal issues.

Those other issues eventually became past history and there I was, needing stimulation from my nine-to-five cataloguing job. Political and community activism and organizing became one happy outlet.

But when an opportunity came for me to advance up the ladder the job changed and once again I often found myself working extra hours to master all I wanted to master and make the best contribution I could. From there the job opened up international travel and eventually an international posting in a very senior position at the Singapore National Library Board.

What I have enjoyed the most

  1. Understanding how information and resources are organized to the extent that one can most effectively assist students and academics,
  2. The appreciation of students and academics for the assistance provided,
  3. Participating in the change from hard copy to online and internet systems, keeping up to date with the technological changes, watching the way they expand a library’s service potential and learning of the many technical and legal and policy and ethical issues related to these changes.

A metadata librarian

Those are the background pluses one experiences over the years as both a cataloguer and reference librarian. More recent years have seen a complete change in my own responsibilities so that it became hard to even describe myself as a librarian in any meaningful sense to others. I worked in a library building but I no longer touched books or journals. It was all about metadata. I became a metadata librarian.

This shift was all about making publicly funded research in Australian regional universities publicly available through open access and research reporting repositories of digitized research publications and datasets. That over time was expanded to doing the same for special cultural collections.

All of that requires changes in academic culture and university workflows. The public standing and reputation of the researchers is to be advanced and that means close involvement with the researchers themselves on the one hand and the technology teams tasked with building and maintaining the systems that make it all possible on the other.

I was very lucky. I was involved in the very early days of a project to move libraries in this new direction so before long found myself for a while being possibly the only person in Australia who had a handle on what was required metadata-wise across different university sizes and specialties and the different technologies they all used. (Metadata, basically, is about the different languages required for organizing and accessing the different types of data — data for the content, data for the carriers of that content, data for the authors of the content, and so on — one of the many facets required to make the operation workable.) So being a pioneer in a new niche area I was very employable. It has been a stimulating and challenging and most enjoyable time. Helping create major changes for the benefit of researchers and publicly funded research programs, of the public, of cultural groups (in particular Australian indigenous communities) has been the most satisfying time professionally in my life.

The ongoing relevance

I have regularly turned back to some of the professional training I was given to become a librarian even when blogging on Vridar. One of the most valuable areas of that education was in information and knowledge management. Coming to have a clear understanding of the distinction between “public knowledge” and “specialist or research knowledge”; the distinction between data, information and knowledge; the distinction between a creative work per se, the expression of that work, the manifestation of that work, and the digital or hard copy of the work itself — being clear about the differences and functions of each particle that contributes to our ability to share and acquire information — all of this has helped me in analysing different aspects of what I read and what I endeavour to understand and write about.

Before all of that, when doing postgraduate educational studies, I specialized in the essences of propaganda and genuine education, and how to guard against one and promote the other. And all of that further involved understanding the relationship between values and knowledge production and evaluation.

Before that, as a teacher, I found much of my time devoted to working on how to make new concepts clear and as easily understood as possible.

So though I missed out on an academic career I did find a very rewarding way to make a living nonetheless. And that demon that set me on the wrong course at the outset, the religious cult, in the end directed me into seeking to understand as completely and truly as I could the nature of religious belief, cults, radicalization, and even the origins of the Bible and Christianity themselves. One other carry over from that life-destroying demon: the experience has left me with an indelible awareness of just how easy it is for any of us to be wrong, and the importance of doing one’s homework as thoroughly as possible at all times.

Robert M. Price Doing Satan’s Work

Robert M. Price sees himself as acting the role of the original Satan who was God’s envoy tasked with testing the true character of those who professed fealty to God. I’ll leave you to read his post where he explains the analogy. What interested me were the following sentiments:

I have too much experience, much of it quite positive, with religion in general and Christianity in particular, simply to fight against it tooth and nail. It would be pathetic and quixotic. It would say more about me than about Christianity. I would have turned into a crazy, bitter ex-boyfriend. No thanks.

Ditto for me.

I have seen so much of Christians of all stripes and of Christianity in its many variations that I cannot pretend there is no good side to it. There is much to be loved, and I still love it. And this sentiment seems to me basic to any study of religion, period. You have to try to understand Islam, Buddhism, etc., from all sides including the inside. Unless you see what is loveable about it, you will never see why its adherents love it.

Mmm … I’m not quite in sync here. No, I can’t say I “love” any of it, still, though I am awed at the architecture of some of the older churches I’ve seen in Europe. But yes, one does need to try to understand religion “from the inside” in order to appreciate why people do love it — and that’s where I do think too many anti-theists fail. My perspective is more from the psychological side, though. What is it that happens in our brains when we imagine and pray to other-worldly beings? Such questions don’t lead us to love religion so much as they lead us to a deeper appreciation for our fellow creatures, for an acceptance of what we ourselves are made of. Maybe that has more to do with “self-love” or “self-understanding” and appreciation than “love for any aspect of religion”.



Meeting the Hispanic Atheist

What an enjoyable read! I have caught up with Luciano Gonzalez’s latest response in our little exchange and found myself appreciating overall where he is coming from as an atheist and with his earlier comments. I am sure our different perspectives are primarily the product of our different cultures. I cannot say I would not embrace the same approach as Luciano were I living in a Latin American and/or Bible Belt culture. No doubt being an atheist in Australia is a strikingly different experience.

We may have different views relating to the psychology that is related to religious beliefs and ways of living, but that is a minor issue in the context of this exchange of views.

I confess I had assumed from the outset that Luciano was a “card-carrying” Atheist+’er because of his Freethought Blog (FtB) platform, but he has said he is not. So there we go. Never judge a post by its blogging platform. I also admit my interpretation of Luciano’s original post was coloured by recent exchanges I had here over my “no extras atheism” post as well as the flurry over developments in the FtB circle having to do with Richard Carrier. I loathe the way the knives come out publicly, the slander and character attacks, and especially the self-righteous justifications for the same. I am referring to both sides of that sort of issue, and to its history – the Carrier episode is not the first. (There are other more respectable ways to administer discipline in a group. The Atheist+ MO looks to me to be even worse than some of the ways the religious cults handle their wayward members.)

Anyway, this is just to say Hi again to Luciano, and to say I’m glad I’ve made your acquaintance. I strongly appreciate your perspective now that I understand more fully where you are coming from. I wish you a happy and fulfilling adventure as an atheist in your thickly religious environment.


Previous posts in this series:

What I “want” as an atheist — Luciano

What I want as an atheist a human — Me (Neil)

Vridar response — Luciano

Vridar response . . .

Luciano has written a new post — Vridar Response — responding to my response — What I want as an atheist a human — to his post — What I want as an atheist. (Should I explain that with a diagram?) It’s been a very busy day and I haven’t had a chance to read Luciano’s response yet, apart from his opening paragraph:

I enjoy being a morning bird. My writing isn’t extremely well-known, but I get the occasional response and sometimes I manage to be awake as they are published. Today is one such day. My post about what I as an atheist, “wanted” was seen by Neil Godfrey of Vridar, and got a response from him. I really liked his response but there are certain things that I think deserve a response. The ending is directly addressed towards Neil, but as usual I welcome any comments and or thoughts on the post and hopefully on a greater discussion about skepticism and atheism. I want to respond to individual bits and pieces before responding to the overall post (the last few paragraphs are where I respond to the overall post). So with that little bit of context, let’s get started!

I look forward to reading what he has to say, but till I get that chance some readers here might like to check out his comments and comment there, here, before I do.

What I want as an atheist a human

What I want as an atheist
What I want as an atheist

This post follows on from (a) the discussion that took place in the wake of my Atheism without the extras, please post and (b) as a direct response to another Atheist+ (Freethought Blog) post that has recently been published by Luciano Gonzalez: What I Want As an Atheist. I really hope before reading the following you read Luciano’s post (I have modeled my own post on his paragraph points) or even the earlier discussion on this blog. So here’s saying Hello to Luciano — thanks for your post, and I hope you can appreciate my response even if you don’t agree with it.


As an atheist who takes his atheism, like his right-handedness, for granted, I rarely get involved in discussions about my beliefs. If one were to ask me “What do you want as an atheist?” I would agree with Luciano that it is a silly question and probably reply, “to be free not to believe in any gods.”

I used to be something of an anti-theist. That was in my first flush of leaving my coffin of religion behind and when I was still struggling to come to terms with what had happened to me (and the pain I had caused others) in all those fantasy years. Religion was a baleful influence in the world and its purveyors needed to challenged or excluded from activities that they were using to promote their ‘good works’ propaganda to the public.

I lost that angry antagonism after I came to terms with myself and my own experience with my past destructive cult experience. A huge help in that direction (among a number of sources of assistance) was psychologist Marlene Winell’s book, Leaving the Fold. I not only came to understand why I had got mixed up with the outfit in the first place, but most importantly, I learned to forgive and accept myself. And from that position I found myself forgiving and accepting others, too. I understood where other religious people were coming from and even felt for their situations.

I was not interested in supporting groups dedicated to attacking religious cults. Such attacks only fueled the persecution syndrome of the cultists themselves. The harm done within cults is enough to prise out defections. What is important is that such members who begin to question their beliefs have support, and that’s what I was very keen to offer. (I have described some of my activities at this time several times before: for those not familiar with the story, it involves newspaper advertising, community group meetings, etc. – and eventually even this blog.)

What do I want? read more »


For the record I was interviewed by Phil Robinson for Nuskeptix. Tech problems mercifully (for me, not being in my comfort zone) cut the interview short and it may be completed at a future date. What I would like to do is expand on some of the questions in future posts. One point in particular was the question regarding the human form of Jesus in the gospels, in particular the first gospel, that of Mark. What I had in mind was that even in Jewish mystical writings (e.g. Ezekiel’s visions) we find the Glory of God depicted in the form of a man who gets up off his chariot and walks around Jerusalem; and then again we have other writings referencing an Ideal Heavenly Man, and a Son of Man figure in heaven — I would think that such a background would make it almost inevitable that at some point someone would imagine, especially in parable form, a celestial figure acting out a human-earthly career. So

Nazzeyes, Clavdivs, and the Pentatoik

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

A view to a kiln

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

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

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

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

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

I worked in The Building

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

What R. Joseph Hoffmann Does Not Want (Anyone) To Believe About Me

R. Joseph Hoffmann on his blog The New Oxonian has been complaining about “the language and style” of “mythticists” — those he, Hoffmann, calls “disease carrying mosquitoes” and “buggers” — saying that they, the “mythticists”, lower the tone of the debate. In support of this assertion he has Tim O’Neill along calling mythicists’ arguments “conspiracist gibberish and pure bile”. I would love to ask Hoffmann to give examples of his own (and O’Neill’s) style of insulting language in any of Earl Doherty’s or Robert M. Price’s or Thomas Brodie’s books, but I don’t think he likes me very much and he is very selective about what comments of mine he allows to appear there.

For example, he begins his blog post by saying that this blog, Vridar, is some sort of rallying point for “a clutch of historical Jesus deniers” (deniers??) and that the reason for my role has something to do with my “conservative Christian background”. He was referring to my years in the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) though much of the 1970s and 80s. He and his fellow “Jesus Prospect” participants — he once posted a long list of these but to my knowledge only two others have ever posted anything on his blog: Maurice Casey and Stephanie Fisher. I don’t know any of them personally but all three have psychoanalysed me and concluded I have been left as some sort of twisted mental and emotional cripple from my years in the WCG.

I at first thought this to be a perverse and tendentious reading of everything I have ever published on my experiences with the WCG and how I left that cult and how I managed my life and readjustment after it. So when Hoffmann re-posted the same article I tried to briefly point out to him and his readers that he was being very one-sided in his view of me.

Hoffmann and Casey have attacked my character and person viciously in recent years. That’s a pity, because Hoffmann once complimented a post of mine in which I discussed an article about the “history of Jesus” over the past two millennia. And there was much I liked in his thesis on Marcion. So there was once hope we could hit it off. But I spoiled it by pointing out his inexcusably false accusation of Earl Doherty in one of his print publications on Goguel. I do hate it and am always enraged when I see public intellectuals abusing their status by telling outright porkies. (Some scholars have interpreted this as meaning I am somehow “against all scholars”. Do some really think they are all liars by profession?)

Hoffmann has from time to time continued to go out of his way to direct some insult this way, but I decided this time to try to correct the record when he recycled his year old post. I wrote:

LOL. Oh Hoffy, you are hard up for material, aren’t you. Firstly, I was brought up in a very liberal Methodist church and was most happily in an even more liberal Anglican one before I decided to abandon faith altogether. So what is my theological agenda now that I have posted and support the views of Thomas Brodie who is one of several Catholic scholars who have acknowledged that Christianity can indeed survive without an historical Jesus? Sorry to disappoint you if I am not an angry atheist hell bent on attacking Christianity as you seem to need me to be doing.

Stephanie Fisher (she’s a doctoral student of Casey’s so we must presume she really does have fundamental reading comprehension ability when she tries) jumped in with this:

From minimal research into various Christian cults I would describe the WCG (Worldwide Church of God) as a particularly terrifying fundamentalist Christian cult and one which would take great strength and support to get out of, even leaving one quite bereft and possibly emotionally injured. I would not include ‘happy’ and ‘liberal’ if describing a devotee.

Er, yes, the WCG was certainly not liberal but what did Steph’s comment have to do with what I said?

My pre-atheist and pre-Vridar background

So I wrote the following to try to explain a few facts. Hoffmann deleted the comment. He did not allow facts to get in the way of a good kick-Neil session. I asked him again to post it but he declined: read more »

A little biographical footnote

Sometimes it seems important to others who are hostile towards anyone who even offers a platform for a presentation of mythicist arguments to label them as extremists or weirdos, the evidence being that some of them once belonged to “an unusually weird religious background“.

For what it’s worth, in my own case, my formative religious years were in a relatively liberal (we were allowed to play cards and dance) Methodist church. I did opt to spend too many years in a religious cult but was eventually renounced by that cult. My sin was that I was always seeking to understand and question a little more deeply — no problem with that so long as it is kept private — and that this eventually led me to compile a bibliography that I posted (snail mail) to multiple scores of fellow cult members. That bibliography was a list of sources that members could turn to in order to learn “the other side of the story” about our cult.

You see, members are protected from information that helps them understand the full story of what they are a part of. I made it possible for many to locate that information if they so wished.

For my efforts I am proud to say that I was publicly denounced from pulpits throughout Australia as being “in the bond of Satan”. I am told that members were instructed to burn any letters from me or hand them in to the ministry unopened.

So what did I turn to? read more »

Why and how I came to question the historicity of Jesus

This is a continuation from my previous “little bio” post.

An earlier version was accidentally published about half an hour before I had completed it. This is the completed version.

It never occurred to me that the historical existence of Jesus could be questioned until I came across Earl Doherty’s website. Till then I had been a happy atheist for quite some years, still fascinated by the Bible and its place in our society, so much so that I continued to study it from a range of perspective — literary and historical — in order to understand and share what I learned about its original nature and origins. I was particularly interested in sharing information about cults, the damage they can do and the tricks tactics they use to win members. Personal experience was a cruel but effective teacher. The thought of questioning the historical existence of Jesus never crossed my mind — until I stumbled across Earl Doherty’s Jesus Puzzle site.  (It had a different domain name then. Oblio something.) read more »

It is good to question biblical scholars: a little bio, 1

It is good to question any scholar, biblical or otherwise, but my focus here is on those who specialize in biblical studies.

Every authority, political,  professional, intellectual, should be held to account and made to justify itself. Most recognized intellectual authorities have little trouble doing this but there have been instances of fraud nonetheless.

But I am addressing biblical scholars in particular because they can be seen as important contributors to our knowledge and understanding of the Bible and Christianity, and it is the Bible and Christianity that enjoy central places in Western culture. And the Bible and Christianity have most definitely played vital roles in my own life, both for good and ill, which is probably true for most of us. read more »

Unsettled, settling

I’m at the blue dot — Darwin

I have recently moved (again) to take up a better position, still in the field of making research publications, cultural and other resources available online to the widest target audiences possible or appropriate into the long-term future, his time at the top end of Australia. So recently blogging has been much more of an ad hoc distraction than usual. My job is one of those new fangled types that can never be really explained to those not in the know, and I have been very lucky to have been in the right place at the right time, and to have met the right people, to have a forefront seat in the way everything is moving with digitized research and cultural collections globally. And some exciting directions are being initiated up north here in Australia. But my professional life has nothing to do with my Vridar hobby-horse so I maintain quite distinct online accounts.

Once I’m settled (again) I hope to resume more systematic blogging following through coherent themes. If others kindly contribute with a post or two to this blog, then of course they do so without implying they concur with any other topics I blog about here, in particular those with a political or social commentary.

A Darwin local told me that this region is one of the most egalitarian in Australia. If so, I wonder if the geography has something to do with encouraging that. Where there are no hills, where the landscape is flat and the same dry in all directions, and where one cannot help but sense a vulnerable isolation from the major cities amidst green hills and rivers, where all 119 ethnic and cultural groups here feel the same heat and humidity, and prepare annually for the same cyclone season, how much room can there be for class conscious uppitiness. This is one city where rich and poor can be found alongside each other in the same neighbourhoods, even the same streets.



Why I am Not a “Mythicist”, and why I challenge mainstream methodology

This cartoon has nothing to do with the post, but I like to add a bit of colour, and blue is my favourite colour, and I like mermaids, and I can’t find anything else appropriately mythical.

I suspect [ETA: strongly suspect] Jesus originated as a theological and allegorical creation, that he was “a myth” if you like. I do not know it. I cannot prove it. But I can see some very good arguments in favour of this proposition. I can also see some very good reasons to question the standard methodology of mainstream scholars based on the assumption that Jesus was a historical figure. And the same questions I raise about this methodology also open up questions about the standard mainstream arguments for the historicity of Jesus.

But I have never thought of myself as “a mythicist” because that sounds to me like I am entrenching myself in a position that I will defend at all costs.

I have posted this sort of remark before, but given that James McGrath and others continually label me “a mythicist”, I will repeat it once more. I do not see the point of “defending” a “mythical Jesus” position.

That is not what historical inquiry is about.

Would any scholar bother to spend a career arguing for or against a historical or mythical Socrates? Some mainstream scholars really do question the historical existence of Socrates, but no-one calls them “Socrates mythicists”. It is a ludicrous proposition when we see it in the context of nonbiblical studies. The existence of Socrates has been occasionally raised as a minor side-point that is really quite irrelevant to the real historical questions about the origins and nature of early Greek philosophy.

My interest is, to repeat, in exploring the origins and nature of early Christianity.

I think that this historical inquiry has been held captive by mainstream NT historical methods that begin with the presumption that the narrative of Gospels-Acts is in some sense related to real events. What I have questioned is the rationale for this assumption. read more »