Monday, July 26, 2010

Testin' somethin' new.

This is a test post.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Notes on Lee Strobel's The Case for the Real Jesus

Recently, I brushed up against Lee Strobel on the blogosphere. When researching Simon Peter, I almost read some of his work into the historicity of Jesus but after a little work I didn't because, well, I have little interest in Christian apologia. I was looking for history. (I didn't find any. What I did find was a vast perversion of history and archeology concerning Bible subjects, ugh, but that's a different rant.) But in my blogosphere brush with him, he tried to come off as a reasonable man with training in law and journalism who had studied all the available evidence and believed that anyone, upon seeing the evidence, would be drawn to the conclusion that Jesus existed much as said in the Gospels, that the evidence shows he is the "Son of God", that he died on the cross and rose from the dead and ascended into the Christian heaven. Not that he believed these things as an article of faith, but that the proof, the historical and archeological proof, when viewed honestly would lead a person to the inevitable conclusion that Jesus was the the true reborn and ascended Messiah of Biblical prophesy. I always hope that people who are acting reasonable are acting in good faith because, otherwise, it increases the cynicism of the world and a person who might initially come off as reasonable is turned into a crude manipulator of people's hopes.

Because I clearly hate myself, I picked up and plowed through Strobel's The Case for the Real Jesus. In this book, Strobel purports to address six arguments that people make to discredit the evangelical Christian view of Jesus. Each section of the book first briefs the audience on the argument and then he conducts a single interview with a single person about the subject. While the section where he briefs the subject demonstrates that he has reviewed the material in sufficient depth, all of the subsequent discussion is in the form of interviews with single scholars about the subjects.

The interviewees and subjects are:

#1: Craig A. Evans and "Scholars are Uncovering a Radically Different Jesus in Ancient Documents Just as Credible as the Four Gospels". Evans teaches at the Acadia Divinity College, located in Nova Scotia. From the intro for prospies: "Pastors today need to be proficient in many areas, and ADC helps our students rise to this challenge by preparing Christian leaders with a wide range of skills that will equip them for a challenging and rewarding ministry to this world that God so loves. ADC also works closely with the Convention of Atlantic Bap[t]ist Churches to prepare our Baptist students for Baptist ministry beyond the classroom." Yes, I had to correct the spelling of the world Baptist that I C&P'd from their website. That wasn't just snark on my part.

The thrust here is that the Nag Hammadi library and Dead Sea Scrolls pose a challenge to Christianity because their antiquity provides demonstration that during the first century CE there was no consensus on who Jesus was or Jesus' message. Which is, of course, true. Evans "refutes" this by basically saying that the Nag Hammadi library and the Dead Sea Scrolls were the work of crazy people who didn't know what they were talking about and that the integrity of the Gospels is therefore intact. He does this largely through assertion and circular reasoning. If those other texts were so good, why didn't they become the basis of Christianity instead of the books that did? He says it's preposterous, furthermore, that Constantine had the power to tell the Nicean bishops what to do - which is, itself, preposterous given Constantine's absolute authority and, y'know, the legion of hardened veterans he had with him at the Council of Nicea. (For the record, I don't think Connie much cared what they decided on, just that they did get the agenda settled. He was much too practical a man, in my opinion, to worry too much over the specifics of the theology, just that the religion he was grooming to unify his empire was itself unified enough to serve as his tool. Which isn't even to say that Connie didn't "believe". I'm neutral on that subject but I don't see why he couldn't believe in the fundamental tenets of Christianity while being indifferent to a lot of the specifics.)

#2: Daniel B. Wallace and "The Bible's Portrait of Jesus Can't Be Trusted Because the Church Tampered with the Text", another theologian, this time at the Dallas Theological Seminary, and one of the contributors to The upshot here is that . . . aw, I don't even fuckin' know, hehe. I mean, the real argument is that the Christian god wouldn't allow that to happen, so all the "differences" and "changes" are, at worst, grammatical and have had no substantial impact on meaning. Weirdly, the fact that none of the Gospels agree with each other is not touched on. I guess that ground has been sufficiently trod about apologists that Strobel felt no need to repeat it.

#3: Michael Licona and "New Explanations Have Refuted Jesus' Resurrection". His website identifies him as a Christian apologist straight off the bat. He's a Ph.D candidate at, of course, theology in the University of Pretoria after doing his undergrad work at Liberty University. To me, this was the most bizarre section. I didn't know that there were any "new" explanations to refute Jesus' resurrection. That it was an initiation ceremony or something of that nature has been floating around since the Roman Empire, as were conspiracy theories that Pilate was a secret Christian who spirited Jesus to safety or that Jesus' body had been moved. At the root, the question here is one of magic: either you believe it's possible for the dead to rise as described in the Bible or you don't. If you do believe that Jesus is the resurrected god, belief in the Biblical narrative is possible, indeed, likely. If you believe that when a person dies it sucks for them but is party time for the worms, then obviously something else happened. Which is the position that Licona inevitably takes - that the resurrection happened as described in the Bible therefore alternate explanations are wrong. Lots of circular reasoning.

#4: Edwin M. Yamauchi and "Christianity's Beliefs about Jesus Were Copied from Pagan Religions". He's one of the founders of the Oxford Bible Fellowship. So, this guy has his own church. Anyway, OBF are "[d]oing everything we can by faith through the living Word of God and in the power of the Spirit to equip this next generation in the love of Christ for a lifetime of service throughout all the world."

The argument Yamauchi uses is that Judaism was impervious to Hellenism, to sum it up. Or, in the case of Mithraism, Christianity predated the "mystery cult" of Mithraism, making a bizarre distinction between the "mystery cult" Mithraism and the Mithraism practiced by the people of, uh, Tarsus. The same Tarsus the apostle Paul came from. That Mithraism wasn't a mystery cult at the time (or, at least, the nature of the religion was uncertain because Cilician pirates aren't known for their exact records) is taken by Yamauchi to prove that there was no way that it could have influenced Christianity. And the rest of the Hellenic, Persian, Egyptian, Babylonian, etc., religions that surrounded the area and resembled Christianity's narrative of execution, resurrection and redemption had nothing to do with Christianity because the Jews were immune to that kind of thing - after all, their religion was true as opposed to those false religions, right? The imperviousness to the Jewish religion to outside influence is taken as a given by most religious historians, unsurprisingly.

#5: Michael L. Brown and "Jesus Was an Imposter Who Failed to Fulfill the Messianic Prophecies". Probably the most pernicious person in the book. While I think that Strobel's work is largely in bad faith, one of the sections is basically an attack on Judaism and Brown's the interviewee for that section. Brown is a former Jew who is now an evangelical Christian. He's now the pastor and founder of ICN ministries who is taking the Christian message to Israel to convert all those heathen Jews. The book is totally shameless on several levels, but this in particular - given Christianity's history of antisemitism - I found most galling. Here, better than anywhere in the book, the sick bias attacks. Because Christians are in a spot with Judaism - Jesus was, well, a Jew and Christianity broadly seeks to distance themselves from Judaism which rejects Jesus as a messiah. So, to do this, rather than just present the standard Christian line that the Jews are wrong, he gets "one of their own" to reject Judaism's claim that Jesus is no messiah. I found it to be in extremely bad taste, far moreso than the other interviewees.

For the record, did Jesus fulfill the Old Testament prophesies? The short answer is "no". My favorite part of the Gospels are the genealogies of Jesus on Joseph's side. The damn book goes on to say that Joe isn't Jesus' father but they trace his descent from the House of David from Joseph's side. Comedy abounds. (When asked about the specific point, they'll go on to say that Mary is also descended from the House of David, though there's no evidence of that even in the Bible. This is also typical on how contradictions are explained away - Christians create an additional narrative that has no textual or historical support whatsoever. But that is also another rant.) The longer answer is . . . that the prophesies are so badly worded and unclear that it's possible to read a lot into them.

#6: Paul Copan and "People Should Be Free to Pick and Choose What to Believe About Jesus". Another seminarian, shocker, and yet another unabashed Christian apologist. As a philosopher, this part was pure lulz because, y'know, outside of Christian apologia, apparently, almost all philosophers agree that not only are people intellectually free to pick and choose what we believe but it is inevitable (er, assuming they believe in free will at all, hehe, that'll be my caveat, here - the subject is reasonably complex amongst philosophers, which Copan is by education, but outside of Christiania the question of free will assumes that if we have it, well, we have it; I, myself, don't believe in radical freedom for honesty's sake). So, Copan and Strobel, even if they agree with a traditional evangelical position about Jesus, chose to do so. Furthermore, because almost all Christians believe that the choice to believe must be freely made, without trickery or coercion, well, yeah, even from within a very traditional Christian point of view they're free to choose what they believe about Jesus. (Tho' there is another school of thought amongst Christians who are, obviously, quite comfortable coercing the decision in a number of ways, even while mouthing platitudes about free will to justify the existence of evil. It's all very intellectually corrupt.)

Right off the bat, not only are all of them Christians, they're all a particular kind of Christian - evangelical. Not only does he ignore all nonbelievers, he also ignores all non-evangelical types of Christianity. No Catholics, no Episcopalians, no one who might be termed a "moderate Christian". Also, no women. And five of the six men are lily white. All of them come from reasonably advantaged backgrounds.

He says at the beginning of the book that he's going to take a hard, skeptical look at the subject. He has certainly reviewed the material, but when he presents the case it is extraordinary one-sided - it is largely the case of white, male evangelical middle class Christians. He truly runs the gamut of possibilities from A to B.

So, while his reading of the material seems to be broad, his journalism is dishonest and lazy. He claims that he's going to take a skeptical look and really address the questions about the person of Jesus but just looking at his interviewees I think that claim is entirely discredited. Comically so. Deceptively so. His research has all the honesty of a person asking questions about intelligent design whose sole stop along the way is the Discovery Institute (the rumor is that's where Strobel gets these guys from in the first place). What is particularly galling and what makes him a liar is that in the intro he goes on at some length about how, when he was working for the Chicago Tribune, he made the reporters under his watch get elaborate proof for the things they published, making sure that they authenticated the information accurately to meet high standards - but in his own book, his entire proof consists of one interview with one person about one subject, and that person is massively biased.

Further, while I am a vocal atheist, I believe I can tell the difference between an honest apologia and dishonest swill. So, while I might disagree with John Shelby Spong I do not doubt his integrity. It's stuff by people like Strobel that confuse the hell out of me. Because he's, well, a filthy liar judging him on his own standards. He said in the introduction that he was going to really, seriously look for the truth behind the various challenges to concerning the identity of Jesus. He didn't. He didn't even try. After reviewing the material, he went to well-off evangelical Christian men to (often crudely) discredit the questions Strobel raised concerning the identity of Jesus without the least bit of critique of their position or even the acknowledgment that, as evangelical Christians, there might be bias. In short, he lied when he said he was seriously going to consider the questions he posed. Which is what confuses me about all of this. Christians are supposed to have a religious attachment to the truth, and there's a huge difference between being wrong and lying. But that's what Strobel does, and he does it obviously and, apparently, shamelessly. I would think that his books would be rejected by Christians, even if they agree with the conclusions, because of the dishonest way Strobel reaches those conclusions. (F'rex, if I say my car is white because pixies sprinkle it with pixie dust, and that I went down to the factory and saw the pixies, you're going to conclude I'm a liar or a madman even if my car is white. Full disclosure - it's sort of gray because I find car washes to be a wasteful use of water, hehe.) But when looking at reviews of the book, I didn't find a single self-identified evangelical Christian who said what I feel is obvious: that the book is a giant lie. It does not seriously answer the questions he poses, he doesn't even try, and the book is an insult to everyone who honestly struggles with difficult questions.

Needless to say, I didn't like the book. Oh, no, not at all.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Bad, survey, bad!

I was going through PZ Myers' blog and he posted about this survey, Coming Out as an Atheist.

I couldn't finish it. I mean, not because I didn't come out as an atheist - I think, fairly obviously, I have quite a bit come out as an atheist. But like many of these surveys, I find that the choices I'm given for the answers simply don't make any meaningful sense for me.

In particular, there were two political ones, right in a row - asking one's political views, ranging from very conservative to very liberal. I held my nose and clicked very liberal. I mean, I'm not a liberal. But, generally, my views are leftist - in the sense that I'm somewhat to the left of Karl Marx - so I held my nose and clicked. But the very next question was how I generally voted, ranging from . . . all Republican to all Democrat. The real answer is, "Well, mostly socialist, if applicable and in many races there there are only Democrats and Republicans running I don't vote for either." Right or wrong, I feel that choosing between Republicans and Democrats, in most instances, is like choosing between Coke and Pepsi - the ad campaigns might make a big to do about it, but the differences are really quite superficial between the two.

So then I stopped taking the quiz. The people who gave it couldn't envision atheists as being anything other than liberal or conservative, Democrats or Republicans. It never entered their mind that around 5% of all Americans vote, fairly regularly, as independents of various stripes. Their inability to imagine a world that wasn't split between two parties, largely identical in a great many ways, far more ways than they're different, made me close it down.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Let's change the date of Christmas!

I largely like PZ Myers. But, like many atheists, he's in denial about Christmas. He says, here, and a number of other spots, that Christmas is really a secular holiday.

Which is why it's the busiest day of the year for Christian churches, right? The secularness just packs the Christians into churches. Ugh. It's not a secular holiday, it's a religious one, by and large, and obviously so.

But Myers quotes some thing or the other about how the US courts have largely claimed that Christmas is a secular holiday. I feel that's an appalling ruling. I think that's a clear and transparent attempt to keep this religious holiday on the federal books - because, again, it is clearly a religious holiday for the overwhelming majority of people who celebrate it in the United States. And given such preponderance, to call it secular is absurd.

And I can prove it! If Christmas is a secular holiday, well, let's move it. There are good reasons to do so. In particular, it is criminally irresponsible to encourage people to drive on icy roads. Auto accidents shoot way up in December compared to both November and January - and the reasons are clear. People do lots of driving on lousy wintry roads. So, why not change it the date of Christmas to September, when the roads are a lot better, to minimize the thousands of preventable injuries. It'd be a much better idea to do shopping in late August instead of December!

I will take it as given that everyone reading this knows that could never happen. Not because of the inertia of it, either. Holiday dates have been changed plenty, and they will be, again. But I think we all know that Christmas can't have it's date changed for reasons founded in religion. That the Christians could not endure it because they view Jesus' birthday as December 25th and so to celebrate Christmas at any other time violates their religious beliefs.

Still, the date should be changed. It's crazy to encourage people to crowd the roads on days that are often icy. It's downright irresponsible.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Tony Blair = gutless coward and lousy Prime Minister

It wasn't until Tony Blair was out of office that he admitted he was Catholic. Oh, but not because he couldn't be a British Prime Minister, oh, no, that had nothing to do with it!

Likewise, as the article makes clear, he hid his religion from his constituents for the duration of his time as a politician. He was afraid of people dismissing him as a "nutter".

Yeah, Tony, that's the point. Your constituents needed to know how you made decisions so they could meaningfully support or oppose you. So you decided to engage in decades of deception because you know your real thoughts and feelings would be bad for your political career. And in some bizarre way no one seems the least bit, oh, I dunno, feeling weird or betrayed over this?

But mostly what I'm thinking is that Blair is a gutless coward. I mean, here's this thing, and if you listen to what religious people say it's the most important thing there is, and he hid it. And not because he and his family would be hurt or even disgraced. Tony Blair is rich, he's been rich for a long time. No, no, he hid his true feelings about what religious people claim is the most important thing there is because he was worried that people would call him a "nutter". I don't think being a Roman Catholic makes you a nutter - tho' switching from the Church of England to the Catholic Church is basically as exciting as switching from Coke to Pepsi, IMO - but I do think hiding it like he has and for the reasons he has makes him a hypocritical gutless coward.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Traditional Christmas rant - oh, I loathe Christmas

I deeply dislike Christmas. Since around the time I was twelve or so I haven't actually liked gifts - my mother was terrible at giving them, not the content of the gifts but how she gave them; on my birthday one year she pretended to have forgotten my birthday and waited until I exploded about how she'd forgotten and then exploded back at me about how she did get me presents and she did remember my birthday but she was just trying to build tension by pretending she'd forgotten. There were several experiences like that, so I actually dislike gift giving as a Pavlovian thing. When I was a child, however, I still liked the religious aspects of it, church and singing and such.

Then I became an atheist. Because Christmas was, for me, always a religious holiday, when I became an atheist I gave up Christmas. It was actually out of respect for the religion. I don't celebrate Christmas in the same way I don't celebrate Ramadan or Holi or Shavuot. At this time I didn't particularly dislike Christmas, either. Indeed, part of me still yearned for it because I did enjoy the music and church and the rest of it, but a yet bigger part of me would have felt disrespectful for celebrating a holiday for a religion that I found quite absurd.

Then this really weird thing happened. People would ask me what they should get me for Christmas and I'd say, "Nothing. I don't celebrate Christmas. I'm not a Christian." Then they'd try to talk me into celebrating it! They'd say it was a secular holiday (it is, weakly, but it is much more a religious holiday) so my reasons were silly or wrong somehow. Almost inevitably they'd end up by telling me that they'd get me a gift, anyway.

I really hate that. That's the proper word. Hate. Because what it does is ignore me. It ignores the way that I, Chris Bradley, really feel about gifts in general and celebrating Christmas in particular. This has caused me to see Christmas in an entirely different light. I feel Christmas is a very selfish holiday. Everyone gets so wrapped up in whatever it is that they are feeling, well, they don't really have time to be honestly generous or loving or even peaceful.

Take this Christmas season - a Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death. The customers broke down the doors of the Wal-Mart and when this regular guy tried to stop them from literally invading the store they trampled him to death. Beyond the death itself, how does that show any "Christmas spirit"? How is that about generosity, love or peace? Everyone is in such a hurry! Traffic accidents skyrocket, violence skyrockets, people are brusque and rude, everything about Christmas - except a few parties - is pretty unpleasant really. And deeply selfish. Like those people at Wal-Mart - and tens of thousands of other places all across America - where people started the holiday season by mobbing stores.

So, in actual behavior, I feel there is a real deep hypocrisy about Christmas. People aren't being generous. Generosity isn't giving your kid an Xbox 360. Generosity is . . . creating a society with no poor. Not giving to a food bank once a year (often just cleaning out canned goods from your cupboard) or giving something to a Toys for Tots thing, but eliminating the social need that makes people that vulnerable in the first place. Generosity is feeding the poor all year long, making sure our schools are good, making sure that everyone has medical care, outreaching to people in countries poorer than ours (all of them) to make sure they've got enough food to eat and their kids go to good schools and have medical care. It is not about trading gifts with people. That is a parody of generosity - giving people who don't need anything things they don't need!

It's not about peace. If it was about peace, instead of going shopping and to parties, people would be petitioning the government to get out of Iraq, to shut down Guantanamo Bay's illegal prison. It would be about working to end the scourge of war both here and abroad. But you can't do that because to get political wouldn't be in the spirit of the season, which is absurd.

It's not about love, because you don't need - indeed you can't - buy love. Love is something you feel, and while you can work on feeling love, greater love, both for those you know and those you don't, there is nothing about Christmas that invokes love with the possible exception of the actual Christmas feast. (Eating good food with people you love is a way to keep the bonds of love strong. Companion is Latin for "people you share bread with".) Shopping, gifts, all that, has nothing to do with love.

So, when I tell people I don't celebrate Christmas and they try to talk me into it, often with emotional manipulation and always over my (I feel) reasonable objections, they're being selfish and offensive. They show no generosity, charity, peace or love for me by ignoring my clearly expressed, reasonably and easy to follow request to be left out of Christmas. They focus on their need or desire to force others into celebrating this holiday. They show, indeed, quite a bit of contempt for me - that my requests aren't worth following. It pisses me off. And it happens so damn often that it's entirely poisoned the season for me. Entirely.

Since I stopped celebrating Christmas, I have grown in understanding. I understand that many atheists and agnostics are cultural Christians - Christianity is a foul religion, true, but it is also an integral part of European and American civilization - our history is bound up in innumerable complex ways with Christianity. And much like people can go to medieval recreation societies, or Civil War recreation societies, and appreciate how feudalism or the Confederacy shaped their history without wanting to recreate feudalism or the Confederacy, people can celebrate Christmas without endorsing Christianity. I see that.

But for so long people have been telling me that I'm silly for not celebrating Christmas that it's stripped off the mask. I see the fnords. Christmas is a giant hypocrisy, where selfish people make a mockery of the very principles that the celebration is supposed to be about. Not to mention that so many Christmas celebrants have been rude and arrogant to me, personally, that I have no desire to "celebrate" Christmas. For me, it's just a sad and ugly time that's made all the sadder and uglier because of the hypocrisy of it - that except for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day it's all just a consumer driven holiday, that the Christmas Season is a marketing ploy that pisses over the supposed principles of the season. That instead of being a time of joy, it's a time of stress mitigated by one day's celebration after six weeks of lousy traffic, drunken drivers and chaos in the marketplaces.

Ironically, and I'm poignantly aware of this irony, it's actually religious people who listen to me when I say I don't celebrate Christmas. They always go, "Oh, yeah, I understand that." They might believe my soul is damned to hell, but they grasp why a non-Christian doesn't celebrate the holiday.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Catholic Church tryin' to blackmail America! Seriously!

So, some bishops are trying to hold Americans hostage about abortion. Some bishops have mouthed off that if the Freedom of Choice Act gets signed into law that Catholic hospitals will close their doors. About a third of all hospitals in America are Catholic.

And by "Catholic hospital", well, I mean that only in a narrow sense. Most of their income is actually from fees, and the federal government funds them more than the Catholic Church does through Medicare and Medicaid, not to mention grants from the federal as well as state and even local governments. So, they're only Catholic in a very vague sense. I think that's important to realize.

But the Freedom of Choice Act . . . well, no one has even tried to pass it in fifteen years. So, it's an act that doesn't really, y'know, exist, and it hasn't come before the House or Senate in any form in fifteen years, so who knows what it'll actually say? But the act would presumably force hospitals to give or refer abortions. And the Catholic Church is trying to blackmail the US government with it.

Mind you, the medical profession is already regulated. Catholic, and Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, secular, etc., hospitals are already regulated to do a large number of things if they receive public money. They can't, for instance, deny emergency services. They have to contentiously serve their patients. Stuff like that.

But because abortion is an "intrinsic evil", they feel they can threaten the US government! That they can blackmail us. Because that's what this is - a threat, blackmail.

Me? I hope they do it. I think it'll destroy Catholicism in America - which ain't doin' so well to begin with - if they try that. They love life so much that they'd close down a third of the hospitals in America, causing untold suffering, because, oh-em-gee, they might be forced to give medical services to people after receiving billions in taxpayer money.

Which is part of the key thing, here. These institutions get a lot of funding from the government. They're not private hospitals (which would likely be exempt from the FOCA, or they were as of the last draft of it, fifteen years ago). These are public institutions . . . but also religious ones?

I think that the Catholic Church shouldn't be allowed to get government money. Separation of church and state. If they want to run these hospitals as privately financed charities, they should do that. Make 'em private hospitals. Oh, but they can't afford to do that. To do what they say they want to do - help people - they receive huge amounts of money in the form of grants and Medicare and Medicaid and supplementary state and local programs. So, they want our money, but don't want to follow our laws . . . ? I think that just this threat, alone, is enough to get their non-profit status removed. It's insane that they should try to blackmail the American people!

But what strikes me as interesting is how conservative the Catholic Church has become. I can't think of a single time in my life that I've seen the Catholic Church go after anyone the way they've gone after Obama. Beyond the institutional racism in the Catholic Church (WHEN is there going to be a Latin American or African Pope?! African and Latin American Catholics are the huge bulk of Catholics!), there's been a steep rightward slant to Catholic politics for the past ten or fifteen years. Once viewed as being a center-left organization, now it's basically an all out right-wing organization. While giving tepid statements about how global climate change and war are bad and should be worked against, while very lightly castigating corporate capitalism, the Catholic Church doesn't do anything about any of those things. You don't see Catholic bishops threatening to excommunicate soldiers who work with nuclear weapons (also intrinsic evil) or who fight in illegal and immoral wars, or who serve greedy, soul-destroying corporations that are plundering the wealth of the world - but with abortion you've got these right-wing reactionary bishops threatening to close a third of all hospitals in America and trying to blackmail the American government. Wow. Which really tells a person where their priorities are, huh? War in Iraq? Well, they can work with that. Having to refer abortions? Intrinsic evil and they're willing to blackmail the US government over it!