On Blasphemy

I am regularly accused of blasphemy. Instead of trying to communicate my ideas through a comment box I thought it would be easier to explicate my understanding of the word here. Blasphemy is a term commonly used to describe an apparent crime that was originally outlined in the 10 commandments given by Moses to the Israelites but it seems to mean different things to different people and is taken far more seriously by some than others. It has, in the modern world, come to mean and unnecessary use of the word ‘God’, including the shorthand ‘OMG!’. In most Western countries this is not seen as either a crime or a social faux pas, although many people still find the mocking of religious figures offensive and distasteful despite the lack of criminality attached to it. However, in many conservative religious cultures, especially Islamic ones, any mocking or negative depiction of god can attract severe penalties, even death in some cases. Before criticising the notion of blasphemy I thought I’d try to define what it is by using the books from which the law is derived:

“Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain” – King James Bible
“Do not use my name for evil purposes, for I, the Lord your God, will punish anyone who misuses my name” – Good News Bible
“Do not subject GOD’s name to your casual swearing, that you may appear righteous, pious, or to attain credibility among the people” – Qur’an
“You shall not take the Name of Adonai Your God in vain, for the Lord will not clear the guilt of one who takes his Name in vain” – Torah

Clearly I don’t speak Greek, Arabic or Hebrew and have relied on the translators involved for the veracity of their translations, the first two are ‘official’ translations that have been published, the latter two are reliant on the websites I used, please correct me if you are aware of a better translation of either. The Good News Bible is often criticised for its uniliteral translation used in order that its reader may find it easier to understand, the differences are clear here, with the emphasis on ‘evil purposes’ rather than simple everyday misuse.

In order that a notion of blasphemy be derived from these laws, one must first establish what is meant by ‘in vain’, is it to be equated with the ‘evil purposes’ of the Good New version or the ‘casual swearing’ of the Qur’an? The follow-up ‘that you may appear righteous, pious, or to attain credibility’ adds extra significance for me as it gives an indication of how the author of the text perceived the misuse of the name of god in the context of his environment. While many historically Christian societies have decided to define blasphemy as an unnecessary use of the name of god, a much broader definition is evident in the Qur’an and many Jews to this day refuse to utter the name of god in any context. Who is right in this matter? Aside from the fact that I don’t believe god exists so I couldn’t really care less if his name is used in vain or not, I’d like to say that all the books are pretty consistent while their interpretations may not be. However, the differences in interpretation are merely quantitative rather than qualitative, the essence or spirit is the same it is just the degree in which they differ.

Personally, by using the four texts quoted above, I would describe the notion of blasphemy as being one of using the name of god in order that your speech may be given added weight when its use is not needed or required for the point to be intelligible. This would of course include saying ‘Oh God!’ when you stub your toe, or texting ‘OMG! I can’t believe you got the job!’ – Most religious believers would be with me so far. I would also include anyone who attributes any apparent good fortune or luck to an act of god as being blasphemous. ‘God saved me from dying in that car crash’ and ‘God healed my cancer’ aren’t so far away from ‘OMG! I can’t believe you got the job!’ and there is no evidence of divine intervention in any of those statements despite the regularity with which one hears them (or similar). To be so vain as to purport to have knowledge of god’s will merely from observing the outcomes of events you have been unable to predict is, in my opinion, the very essence of the notion of blasphemy. This does not of course stop at positive events, we have all heard people saying things like ‘Aids is a punishment from God’, which is being presumptuous even for a fundamentalist. Anyone who describes themselves as a believer and/or member of one of the three Abrahamic/monotheistic religions of which the ten commandments are a part, should not be declaring their ability to describe any earthly (or cosmological) occurrence as an act of god without realising the hypocrisy of their declaration. I would extend this still further to those who extricate their own personal morality from the bible by quoting arbitrary verses that fit in with their own opinions. ‘Gays will go to hell’ is really just an extension of the above definition of blasphemy.

To deny the lay population the ability to use the name of their god in an anything but positive or praising manner is how blasphemy laws have been used to deny free expression or belief in all monotheistic cultures since the dark ages. If a person knows that they will be punished for merely expressing an opinion that some part of a holy text may be factually inaccurate or morally deviant, they will be far less likely to do so. To know that they cannot even utter the name of their god outside of prayer is oppressive the extreme and while the laws on blasphemy have been relaxed in much of the modern world, there is still an underlying, nagging feeling among many people that open criticism or mocking of not just the established church but of god himself is in some way taboo and should not be allowed. These are not feelings that have come about from an actual learning of the ‘sacred’ text the they feel needs protection, they are feelings left over from a childhood of loosely shrouded Christian (or Islamic/Judaic) indoctrination. A relic of being told that god and his words need to be treated in a different way to other things, that the normal societal rules need not apply.

I would not class myself as a blasphemer, even though I do not recognise it as a crime. To use a name in vain is one thing but I only ever use ‘god’ as a descriptive term to describe either a psychological phenomena or a character from a book (unless in quotes), I give the word no more import than any other in either my thought or my speech. If a word has no special significance attached to it and by using it one is not trying to add gravity to one’s argument, the word has not been used in vain, hence it is not blasphemous. That is not to say that some who do attach special significance to ‘god’ will not be offended by my views or will not think that what I have said is blasphemous but it is only blasphemous when seen through their eyes, not mine.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

On Tolerance

I like to describe myself as a tolerant person. Not tolerant in terms of being patient with incompetence or having a high pain threshold, I tolerate difference. I have no problem with people thinking differently, looking differently or acting differently to the way I would (or at least the way I’d like to think I would). I think that tolerance of the differences between people is a fundamental part of any modern, humane society. I think many of the world’s problems could be solved if the starting point was tolerance and the next step was discussion. I’d like others to be tolerant of me in the same way that I am tolerant of them. Many are not.

“Conventional people are roused to fury by departure from convention, largely because they regard such departure as a criticism of themselves” – Bertrand Russell

It is not just religion that breeds intolerance and bigotry (although that is the largest driving force behind it in the modern world), uninformed ideology can also contribute, although many of the features of religion are present in fascism and communism and some would describe them as secular religions. There is an underlying force behind all of this, when people become divided on any grounds and the two sides become somehow ‘other’, it becomes all to easy for those in authority driving the divide to dehumanize the two sides, separating them still further. Humans are tribal by nature and putting people into boxes which suffice to summarise their entire character without any direct contact happens without any conscious effort. There are clear evolutionary benefits from this tribalism, being more wary of people who have less genetically in common with you is an obvious way of keeping you (and your close family) safe. People from other tribes who are not related to you will ‘look after their own’ first and if this means an action that is detrimental to your safety, so be it. Altruism towards people who you have less genetically in common with at the expense of those with whom you share more genetic material doesn’t work in evolutionary terms. It seems perfectly natural that when people are separated into groups, the feelings or needs of the group to which you belong become more important than those of another.

The easiest and I think most obvious way of combating the inherent tribalism within all of us is to cut it off at its source. The only reason people are ever seen as different or ‘other’ is because they are (but only in a geographic or social sense). Separating people of difference without encouraging a full and all-encompassing mixing (to avoid dilution and assimilation) is the theory behind multiculturalism, it doesn’t work and only serves to strengthen the feelings of difference. It has been tried in almost all major cities in Western Europe and many others around the world. When people are allowed to mix naturally without the fear of their own culture being in any way harmed or lessened by pressure from outside, the ignorance that exists between separate groups evaporates and the clear common ground that exists between all people regardless of race, culture or religion becomes apparent.

What exactly do we mean by tolerance? To some it may mean voting for a candidate who believes that homosexuality should not be illegal, to others it means smiling through gritted teeth while your son brings home his first boyfriend, while to others it means being the proud parent at your son’s gay wedding. Personally, to me tolerance means treating people in an equal way whatever difference they may have from you (or each other) to the point of ignoring the difference, not even noticing it. A person’s choice (or inherited genetic tendency) of lifestyle, should not be judged by the way it affects them but by the way it directly affects those around them, not in a ‘I don’t approve’ way but in a ‘their children aren’t safe’ or a ‘driving like that is dangerous’ way. Not doing what you would do in a given situation is not grounds for persecution, doing something that has negative affects on other people is. Maybe ‘acceptance’ is a better word to use but tolerance is the word in common usage on the subject so I’ll continue with that.

What are the limits of tolerance? Should I tolerate unlawful behaviour? Unethical practise? Cruelty?

No, these are not things I think anyone should tolerate. They all have a clear victim, all freedoms of action have a boundary around which stand the other members of society who could be affected by those actions. Granted there are many examples of ‘victimless crimes’ such as drug use but I don’t really want to get into the whole ‘legalise drugs’ issue. Suffice to say that in this piece I mean crimes that have a clear victim (I would include children of substance abusers in this category). Poor ethics are not constricted to the corporate world, we all know examples of religious leaders driving expensive cars and wearing designer suits, while the charities and causes they claim to support struggle with lack of funds (or no funding at all if they dare to break one of the requirements set down by the church). There are many examples of cruelty that are only permissible in law due to dietary restrictions, or bodily requirements placed on the religious. These actions are still cruel, whoever or whatever orders you to do them. Tolerance does not extend to allowing actions against an unwilling victim (I include all children in this) or to slaughter any animal in a way that causes any more than the bare minimum of suffering and for any reason other than necessary pest removal or food.

These are so far examples of toleration with regards to behaviour, what about tolerating intolerant thoughts and views?

Many people may disagree with me on this but I cannot allow the suppression of intolerant views to be more important than the freedom to express them. I do not believe that they are (or can ever be) correct or valid but for tolerance to be truly tolerant it must cover all members of society not just those who I agree with. It is only through frank and open discussion that the enemies of tolerance and freedom can be engaged, silencing one’s critics without exposition is a surefire way to encourage them, ensuring their continuance. Deconstructing and refuting their arguments in front of those they are attempting to convert in the most public forum possible is the only way to show people the falsity of their claims. The irony of the religious fanatic standing on a street corner screaming about the evils of free speech is not lost on me but it almost certainly is on him or her. However, tolerance of this sort is not really comparable to the tolerance spoken of above, if a person has views you do not agree with it is not only your right but also your duty (time and place allowing) to challenge them, point out any errors, inconsistencies and errors before expressing your own opinions and backing them up with the reasons you hold them and any evidence to support your claim. Just shouting ‘Shut Up You Nutter!’ before walking off without giving them the option of reply won’t convince anyone of anything other than your own intolerance and inability to accept criticism.

“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” – Voltaire

We all live here, in this now global society, it is no longer enough to peer through the once murky camera lens of a far away country, wondering how people could treat each other like that. Metaphorically walking by when one witnesses harassment, bullying or victimisation of any member of society be they part of a vulnerable minority or just unlucky enough to be surrounded by ignorant idiots is not an option anymore. It is only by standing up and confronting the peddlers of hate head on that we can start to build a world we would be proud for our children and grandchildren to live in.

We are not just members of society, we are society.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

Why You Can’t Argue With God – Part 2

Once again I have been doing what I said I wouldn’t, arguing with those who cannot be argued with. I really should stop commenting on posts by people who have no interest in listening to my point of view. It’s normally quite clear from the post how strongly their opinions are held and how loosely they are based in factual knowledge, I don’t know what it is but once I click the ‘atheism’ tag and scroll through looking at some of the utter rot that is being spouted, despite the underlying knowledge that my attempts at education will be futile, I simply cannot help myself.

Having said that, if you’re able to not comment, there are a lot of posts out there with a high comedic value. One of the best logical arguments I heard recently was this (paraphrased) :

  1. All universal physical laws must be the equally applicable, regardless of space and time.
  2. Humans have not visited and checked these laws everywhere in space and time, therefore:
  3. All universal physical laws do not exist.

I really didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I understand the philosophical argument about whether or not a falling tree makes a sound if nobody hears it but this is based on the definition of sound. If one defines sound as the electrical signals from the ear causing a sensory perception of sound, clearly there must be a hearer for a sound to exist. If one defines sound as a wave of varying atmospheric (or another medium) pressure, all actions produce a sound regardless of who or what is present to experience the sensation. Going back to the reasoning above, one can assume from this reasoning that gravity did not exist before Newton and is different on Mars. Does water flow uphill on the moon? Would it also be reasonable to suggest that all medical knowledge of internal anatomy is rendered obsolete due to our being unable to check before surgery? It goes against the inductive reasoning on which so much of modern science (since the renaissance) is based. Inductive reasoning is not perfect, far from it, the classic ‘white swan’ example emphasises that point but without it we have to act as though we are entirely without knowledge. The argument above would suggest that anything that is yet to be disproved must be incorrect, by this reasoning we can assume that all religious belief is wrong (at least we agree on something) and also that atheism is wrong and that all future religious theories will also be wrong. This is quite a bleak post from a Christian!

Another post I commented on recently contained a curious form of circular reasoning to justify my atheism in his eyes. His piece ended by telling his readers that god was available to anyone who would ‘let him in’ but would not enter uninvited, thus would not be available to the unbeliever. When I pressed him on the difficulty of believing in a god who refuses to show itself to anyone who does not already believe, he told me that my actions and thoughts would determine whether or not god would choose to ‘show himself’ to me. This of course raises the question of all those who have either so little knowledge of the Christian god as to be unable to ‘let him in’ or who have been taught about Christianity in a way that did not indoctrinate them into blind faith, leaving the possibility of god’s non-existence open. How could a person who was ignorant of god or another who was sceptical of his existence ‘let him in’? In short, one cannot believe in god unless one already believes in god.

There have been a number of others:

  1. Finches turning into finches doesn’t prove that apes turned into humans. No it doesn’t but it does show that time, separation and differing selection pressures cause species to change, if you allow this, why not speciation given tens of millions of years? Surely the argument is not different in scope but merely magnitude?
  2. The lack of a known census during the time of Herod in Judea is merely a problem with archaeology not with the accuracy of scripture. So one book written decades after the event is true and all other contemporary sources missed something as important as a census requiring some citizens to travel hundreds of miles to their birthplace? Very credible.
  3. You can’t judge the actions of god or anyone doing his bidding in the Old Testament because you only have a human mind and cannot begin to understand the bigger picture, also you are only using your own sense of morality which cannot be used to judge a being as great and good as god. The ‘bigger picture’? Are you having a laugh? Every single part of the bible takes place within several hundred miles of Jerusalem and is almost entirely centred on an insignificant semi-nomadic tribe who decided to segregate themselves from their neighbours by mutilating their young boys and refusing to eat certain food types. There is no ‘bigger picture’, the bible is about a very small picture in global terms, let alone the galactic scale. I don’t have to use my own sense of morality to judge the actions of god because that would be unfair to god, I can use his as laid down in his book. By his own standards, the ones he expects us to live by, god is a nasty, vindictive, spiteful character who jealously demands total reverence without giving anything in return. A god who sees fit to let his ‘chosen people’ become invaded, conquered and enslaved or murdered on more than one occasion. All things that he explicitly tells people not to do.

Essentially commenting on some posts is not only pointless, its counter-productive because you will be outnumbered by other commentors and it is impossible to properly answer questions put to you in such a small space. There is no hope for persuading them round to your point of view anyway, if they made their judgements based on evidence and reason you wouldn’t have to argue with them about the existence of god.

I have determined a few rules for my comments in the future. Never comment on any posts where the writer speaks about or clearly believes strongly in any of the following:

  • Creationism, both Young and Old Earth
  • Intelligent Design (ID)
  • Original Sin
  • Human Souls
  • Heaven & Hell
  • Any form of Contraception being comparable to Murder

Also, avoid commenting on any posts attempting to refute the validity of or denying the existence of these:

  • The Big-Bang Theory
  • Darwinian Evolution by Natural Selection
  • Climate Change
  • Inalienable Human Rights Regardless of Sexuality or Gender

If you can give me any tips in my quest to reduce my (self-inflicted) frustration by telling me of any other topics I should avoid I’d be glad of the advice.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

Why You Can’t Argue With God

Over the past week or so, I have taken the (not recommended) path of commenting on other people’s blogs rather than posting my own. Partly because I didn’t really have time and partly because I couldn’t think of a juicy topic to get my teeth into. This was probably a bad idea but I did learn some of the strange ideas that people who post under the ‘atheism’ tag have. I say not recommended because it can be incredibly frustrating dealing with people who have already made up their mind about your opinions without even knowing what they are. It is not so much the lack of understanding of the arguments and evidence but the refusal to accept that opinions other than their own are valid which I find so difficult. However, I was given the fuel for this post so I thought I’d share some of it with you.

The first and possibly most bizarre reaction I got was that if I, or anyone else for that matter, cared enough to comment on a post criticising it, I must think it to be correct and it was my sense of guilt from my sins that were causing me to disagree with Christian teaching rather than any actual lack of belief on my part. I wasn’t really sure how to answer this because really if you start off with that you can’t really go anywhere, anything can just be batted away with the same response. Of course it doesn’t really stand up to any logical argument, one can accuse anyone of secretly agreeing with oneself if one wants but that will never make it true, when I asked why she had posted under the ‘atheism’ tag she (unsurprisingly) didn’t answer. This kind of thinking may work for people who post on conspiracy theories about the moon landings but their suppositions are not taken seriously by anyone who has the power to implement public policy. In short, I don’t comment on conspiracy theorists pages because I don’t care whether they think that or not and their thoughts will not affect me, if one of them got elected to a position of power my view would almost certainly change. Anyway, this doesn’t alter the fact that having a strongly held opinion on a point of view is not equivalent to agreeing with it, although this may be true of some homophobes it is a bit like saying that everyone who campaigns for lower taxes secretly wants to pay more, it really doesn’t hold any water (holy or otherwise).

The next reaction I came up against was an invitation to disprove the existence of god. If you’re reading this (and of course you are), you may have read my previous post ‘There Is No Onus Of Disproof’, where I asserted what is in the title of the piece but there is more to it than that. The burden of proof is put on the believer, not for some arbitrary or ‘standard practise’ reason. That burden has to be put on the believer because it is impossible to prove the non-existence of anything, especially when the believer has chosen to describe the object of his or her belief as being in some way ‘above’ the physical world and therefore impossible to detect using not only current scientific methods but also any possible conceivable or even inconceivable scientific apparatus. We’ve come a long way since the renaissance when we realised that facts about the world needed to be found by real-world experiments and could not be deduced from purely Greek philosopher style rational reasoning, let’s not go back eh?

Now on to one of the ones I love. ‘You must believe in god and his teachings because you’re not in prison for crimes against humanity’. I love it because its one of the oldest ones in the book and is quite easy to counter. That assertion can only work if one of 2 premises is true :

  • Every person who lived before the complete version of the bible was available to them (or was never taught it in their lifetime) had no morality and consequentially they were all serial-killing maniacs or:
  • Morality was injected into the human psyche at the time of creation and has been inherent ever since despite only being written down piecemeal over a couple of thousand years.

The first point is clearly wrong because we wouldn’t have survived as a species if it had been the case, while there have clearly been many examples of them throughout history, serial killing maniacs have to be a small minority or they would be having to kill each other before long and I wouldn’t have thought they’d be too great at procreation, farming or city building. The second point is one that many evolution deniers believe to be factual, yet if it were true, the question wouldn’t need answering. If you believe that god gives you your morality and it is not learnt, how can you question why I have morals? If you believe that it is the belief in god that gives you your morality, we go back to the first point. More on this in ‘The True Origins Of Morality’ and ‘All Morality Is Relative’.

Another argument doing the rounds, although only by the more moderate sections of the believing community (I know that it’s not really a community but the word helps with the description) is the whole ex nihilo thing, that nothing comes from nothing. This could be a topic I write a separate post on later but I think I need to touch on it here. The theory goes that if the universe was created in the ‘Big Bang’, there had to have been a cause, this ’cause’ is god, a bit like Aristotle’s unmoved mover (actually a lot like, it’s a total rip-off). This makes assumptions which are not known to be true. Firstly that there was a ‘before’, time itself was created at the Big Bang so I’m not sure it makes any sense to speak of ‘before’. Secondly that all things have a cause, quantum fluctuations do not, it seems sensible to suspend judgement when we cannot know if all things must have a cause. Thirdly and I believe most importantly, why would any cause have to be conscious? The supernovae whose debris we are made of were not conscious and neither is any other creative or destructive force in the universe that we know of (other than our own), it is not a logical conclusion that any ‘first cause’ would be conscious, aware, omnipotent, just or any of the attributes humans so often attribute to god.

When all else fails, I’m usually told that I’ll find out I was wrong when I spend eternity in hell. Aside from the fact that eternity in hell would be no different from eternity in heaven ( I may explain that later), what those who say that don’t realise is that they have just stated knowledge of god’s intentions for me, showing their vanity while using his name. That’s real blasphemy.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

Biblical Myths, Metaphors and Fairy Stories – Part 3

Since I became old enough to understand the differences, I have observed several distinct ways of reading the bible and interpreting the stories contained within it. This is the follow-up to part 1 : http://wp.me/p1TXXQ-5Y and part 2 : http://wp.me/p1TXXQ-6b

Conclusion

Despite writing mostly about the first two books of the OT in my last post, I believe that although those two have a much more mythic feel to them, the ways of reading explained previously can be use throughout the stories in the Books of the Prophets. The general ideas are that god is a real badass, you should listen to him and his messengers or there’ll be trouble such as invasion/exile/destruction. It is also made clear in earlier books that as long as you keep god onside you can pretty much do as you please with the people around you, such as genocide or other various war-crimes. Not to forget the Job story when god (omnipotent?) appears to be gambling with a divine adversary over the will-power of one of his favourites. Essentially do as god tells you without question and the rest is up to you. If one looks at the results, one tends to see that if you believe and obey, you’ll be left alone, if you believe and disobey you’ll be punished but if you don’t believe, you’ll also be left alone by god. As he is meant to be the ‘god of the Israelites’, he doesn’t care if Assyrians of Babylonians believe in him and they seem to do quite well from the worship of idols.

This changes in the NT from religion being about openly obeying laws practises and rituals to being a much more personal and interpersonal religion, how you behave in your daily life toward other people and how you feel becomes much more important than whether you eat the wrong food or work on the wrong day. It is not the word but the spirit of the law that is fundamental to religious life. This is an expected progression from a state of affairs where so many civic and religious officials were corrupt and so many people lived in grinding poverty. Making poverty and asceticism virtues in a world where the vast majority of the population had no other choice but to live in that way would always have been popular but in a world where wealth was beginning to be created by a middle class of merchants and traders unconnected to aristocracy and priesthood, this would become ever more important in maintaining social order.

Finally the points boil down to the stories in the bible being not ‘real’ in the sense of actually happening but being constructs of the scribes writing them. The moral compass given to us in those books was relevant to the time it was written and while many of the guidelines for behaviour are still applicable today, those writers could never have imagine the advances in technology and the immense changes societies around the world have undergone in the years since. Once a person accepts that the rules governing the conduct of semi-nomadic, bronze-age goat-herds have different demands from those of a settled, modern, technologically advanced, global world, one can see not so much that the ways of life described in the bible are necessarily ‘wrong’ but are incomplete due to ignorance.

The writers of those books built stories in order to explain to the masses why they should behave in certain ways rather than others. While Aesop’s Fables, the Grimms’ Fairy Tales and the Bible all have clear moral messages in them, none are definitively modern and the methods used to educate children in the ways of the world are now much more complex. Merely giving examples from stories is no longer enough for the modern citizen, people now need explanations and reasons. This is where some of the messages have been lost, why most people no longer believe homophobia, racism or punishments by execution and mutilation to be positive to society. It becomes difficult to give reasons for bigotry when evidence of its necessity is requested. While I do not think that any reasonable person would sincerely advocate discarding all the messages from the bible, I also think that any sane person must allow the laws of the time to evolve with the society to which they apply.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

Biblical Myths, Metaphors and Fairy Stories – Part 2

Since I became old enough to understand the differences, I have observed several distinct ways of reading the bible and interpreting the stories contained within it. This is the follow-up to part 1 : http://wp.me/p1TXXQ-5Y

I’m going to skip the rest of the Old Testament (OT) and go straight to the New Testament (NT) for a number of reasons, not least of which is that I have much more personal knowledge of it than the later books of the OT, I also think I have more relevant points to make.

New Testament 

Given that both of these posts have been about the stories in the bible rather than the laws, I will concern this post with only the first 5 books, the 4 Gospels and Acts.

Just as with the OT, there are differing ways of reading the NT.

The near universal interpretation of these books among Christians of all denominations is that not only was the biblical Jesus a historical figure but that all the miraculous stories surrounding his birth, life & death are also historical facts. Some may dispute the accuracy of the calendar (no census in the life of Herod) or the meaning or interpretation of some teachings but to call oneself a Christian means accepting as true certain aspects about Jesus’ divinity. There are minor disputes over the resurrection, (was it spiritual of physical? Was it the actual body of Jesus or just his spirit?) but if you truly believe that the Jesus represented in the early books of the NT was truly divine, all the stories attributed to him become easily believable. Despite these differences, neither fundamentalist or moderate Christians repudiate the historical authenticity of the Jesus story.

There is a modern school of thought (with which I have flirted) that disputes the existence of the historical Jesus, citing the lack of contemporary evidence available. Certainly there is little written of Jesus’ life while he was still living but this is also true of many people of the day. Few citizens had anything at all written about them, it was only wealthy patrons and military or civic leaders who had people writing about them. Poets, teachers and philosophers wrote about themselves but the lives of the vast majority of people are forever lost to history. Literacy within the Roman Empire, despite being very low by modern standards, was much higher than in later times. It would not have been hard to write important records down but given the expense of paper-like materials, the probability of those materials deteriorating without proper care and the fear of persecution for religious authorities, it is not surprising that a small religious sect would have no written records at its outset.

The length of time between the events and their recording, despite being so much less than those in the OT, was still sufficient for the writers to embellish (if they so wished) the life of Jesus to not only fit some of the early prophecies but also appear truly divine to the growing number of gentiles who were beginning to join the early Christian movement while it was still only a sect of Judaism. The factual accuracy of his birth, miracles and death should not affect the validity of his teachings but if a person is seen as an earthly incarnation of god, people are much more likely to  listen to what he has to say.

Given the importance placed in ritual cleansing running throughout Jewish laws, the idea that an earthly divinity would be saved from the physical impurity of conception by coitus is not really surprising. That he should be a child prodigy, learned before his years in the laws of his people is to be expected. As for miracles such as turning water into wine, this can easily be seen as a metaphor for his turning the inner life of a person from mundane to celebratory. Feeding the five thousand is a way of showing his ability to nourish so many people spiritually despite his humble origins. When we come to the resurrection, I believe the reason so many disciples at first despaired, doubted or didn’t even recognise before believing is because there was not true resurrection in the sense of a dead body getting up and walking around. The apostles discovered that even after the death of their teacher, his words and teachings were with them still. In this way he was made ‘immortal’ and it became their purpose to ‘spread the word’. To me, the historical Jesus was man, a teacher who had a lot to say about how people should live in relation to other people rather tha in relationship to worshipping god as had been the case with previous prophets. While these theories may seem blasphemous to many modern Christians, I see them as an inevitable consequence of reverence and a desire to spread the teachings he espoused.

Part 3  to follow soon.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

Biblical Myths, Metaphors and Fairy Stories – Part 1

Since I became old enough to understand the differences, I have observed several distinct ways of reading the bible and interpreting the stories contained within it.

Old Testament

All cultures and religions, both current and extinct have some sort of creation myth behind them. Most crumbled under the pressure of science, many were never meant to be taken literally anyway but the origin myths of the Old Testament have hung around in popular belief longer than almost any other.

The first and most obvious way of reading the bible, the way I was taught in primary school, is that of a literal interpretation. The literal interpretation of the bible, which is still believed by some evangelical/fundamentalist Christians (and Muslims if using the Qur’an), is the belief that every word within the book is in some way special, that every story told is absolutely true, with nothing left out or added, that all the words written in a modern-day English translation of a collection of texts originally written in Hebrew or Greek (rather than the languages spoken by the characters in the stories) are utterly without fault and of divine origin. If you, as an adult, still believe this you may as well stop reading. Not because you’ll be upset or offended by my views (although you may be), not because I don’t think you’ll be able to understand the arguments against. I don’t think you should read this piece because if you still, despite all the evidence to the contrary, refuse to question the historical authenticity of a collection of books written thousands of years ago by people who had less scientific knowledge than the average modern eight year old, purely on the basis that you think they had similar religious beliefs to you, it is pointless for you to hear opposing opinions and arguments as you will never be able to see the truth for yourself.

The second and most common way of interpreting the bible involves using the term ‘metaphor’ a lot. It concedes to science, geology and archaeology the hard historical facts about our creation and early anthropological progress. In this view, we know that Adam & Eve weren’t ‘real’ in the sense of physically being the only 2 people on Earth from whom we are all descended, although the idea that god created the universe and our disobedience towards god’s laws is the cause of our suffering in both this life and the next is something that must be believed (especially as it’s been difficult for science to disprove). People of this viewpoint don’t generally believe that god actually killed all the millions he is credited with in the bible, although he may have killed many, it is the moral messages behind the stories rather than the pure factual content that is important (don’t make him angry, you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry).

The third way of reading the bible is purely as one would read a fictional novel written many years after the events were to have taken place. This interpretation sees any correlation between historical fact and biblical story as an intentional coincidence. The authors were writing stories about their tribe’s past and despite having no access to any sort of archaeological method, they could use stories passed down the generations verbally. Although there will always be a ‘Chinese whispers’ effect on stories handed down through the generations without a definitive and unalterable version being written and copied verbatim, it is not surprising that some of them seemed plausible. That a story such as Exodus sounded plausible to those it was written for in no way makes it important, valid or even worth hearing if you do not believe it has any truth or meaning behind it (unless you want to know the story so you can make up your own mind).

On reflection, I think there may be a fourth way of interpreting some of the texts in the Old Testament, especially the creation and foundation myths of the first two books. Given that when first formed they would have been orally transmitted from elders to children and the inevitable deviation this would entail (Chinese whispers), it is not surprising that the originally historical and explanatory tales became more superstitious with time, eventually fitting in with the belief system of the authors who first wrote them down. If one looks at the story of the Garden of Eden, thinks of the knowledge held in the fruit of the tree as that of farming and the lifestyle within the garden as a stylised hunter-gatherer one, the story begins to make sense. Once farming is discovered, despite the many long, hard and painful hours spent in the fields, a settlement that produces its own food will always be able to support far larger numbers than before. There is, in effect, no way back into the garden. If we look at the Binding of Isaac through these eyes, we can see a time when ancient tribespeople practised child sacrifice, followed by a time when their religious leaders told them it was no longer necessary, that an animal would suffice, told through the story of one man, Abraham. Indeed, the story has many hallmarks of one likely to be re-enacted in ritual. Similarly, the story of Noah may be a way of explaining the events following the LGM (Last Glacial Maximum or ‘Ice Age’), when the sea levels worldwide rose suddenly, with high-tide marks being much higher in a person’s adulthood than in their childhood. With many populations supplementing their diets with seafood and living on the shore, this would have been devastating. The early books of the Old Testament are littered with examples of this and many can be found in the more ‘historical’ Books of the Prophets. Given the amount of mythology used worldwide to explain the physical structures evident in nature, I do not think it unreasonable to suggest that the origins of many of the early biblical stories could have their roots in these types of historical explanations. I think the case is further strengthened by the clear similarities between the bible and another major origin myth text of the time and region: ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’. Clearly the two texts had a common source or sources with the time between the oral tradition and the beginning of literature explaining the differences between the details and emphasises.

Part 2 to follow soon.

Thanks for reading.

Rowan

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