Ideas: Part 5: Let’s Be Skeptical

Ideas come from somewhere, they have a context; yet the older the idea the harder it is to pin down its exact point of origin or to make the conscious decision to abandon or retain it. The average Christian isn’t aware that:

The ancient Hebrews were not always monotheists but began as polytheists and then became polylatrists and finally monotheists: in the 8th century BCE Israel was broken into two kingdoms, i.e. the Northern Kingdom of Israel had as its patron god El and the Southern Kingdom of Judah’s patron was Yahweh. Assyria captured Israel in the 8th century; it was commonly understood in the ancient world that when one’s kingdom was defeated so too was your patron god. This is when Yahweh became ascendant in Jewish thinking and El was regarded as defeated. The ancient Jews believed not only their gods existed but so too did the gods of other civilizations (this made them polytheists), e.g. The ancient Israelites fell into worshiping gods other than their own on multiple occasions; they themselves had a pantheon of gods, e.g. “…let us [plural pronoun] make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26); there was a council of gods of which El was supreme or the “high councilor, e.g. “You are gods, you are all sons of the Most High” (Psalm 82: 1-8). Present day Christians wonder why there’s such a dramatic difference between the God of the New (all the love) and Old Testaments (all the smiting and killing). In the Jewish pantheon, Yahweh was a warrior god destined to kill a sea serpent (“the Leviathan” Job 41:1-34 and Isaiah 27:1 in some future battle). There are other references to the warrior-like nature of Yahweh when he puts his weapon down (a rain bow) promising never to destroy humankind again as per Noah’s Flood (Genesis 9:13). The Israelites eventually became polylatrists when they finally abandoned the worship of gods other than Yahweh (over the course of centuries following the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BCE). Polylatrists believe other gods exist, only that their patron god is the one truly worthy of worship. Polylatrisn was a stepping stone towards monotheism. There are hints of this patchwork of theisms in the Torah:

Some other things for your consideration:

  • The Old Testament was not written all at once and is instead an anthology of books written for various purposes, in varying contexts, over centuries assembled into its final form by the 2nd Century AD.
  • That Genesis, far from being history, also contains explanations for the origins of giants and the sexual union of angels and humans (almost all ancient writings, even the rationalistic works of the materialistic Greeks, attempted t to explain what happens in the world and why by making reference to supernatural beings).
  • That the average Christian in the 21st Century generally does not understand the significance of Jesus not being a Greek thinker but a Jewish one; and that he almost certainly did not look like a northern European.
  • That Jesus had brothers named James, Joseph, Simon and Judas and at least one sister (his mother Mary incidentally was, at the very least, not a virgin for her entire life);[1]
  • It is dubious that the gospels were actually written by the apostles whose name they bear; it was common practice in the ancient world for a writer to append the name of someone of authority to a piece of writing to endow it with authority.
  • That the early Christian community was a Jewish one who worshiped not in churches or on the basis of doctrines like trinity or original sin; instead, prior to the destruction of the Temple in 65 CE Jews were not a people of the book or doctrines but a community constructed around Temple observance and rituals/ceremonies reflecting the people’s dependence on agriculture in a 13 month calendar. See Michael Goulder’s Five Slings and a Stone for more.
  • That the various New Testament authors purposely used allegory (not history) to draw parallels between the significance of Jesus and stories predicting the coming of the messiah in the Old Testament to demonstrate scripture had been fulfilled the crucifixion

The Jewish idea specifically of a messiah has been interpreted differently throughout the history of Judaism. How this messianic figure is understood depends entirely upon the contemporary historical circumstances of the people doing the interpreting. The messiah is first mentioned in the Book of Isaiah (a book written over a span of two-hundred plus years around the 8th and 7th centuries BCE). While Isaiah was being written Jews lived in exile in Babylonia as an underclass of laborers. At the time, the messiah was understood as something akin to a spiritual figure (one well-versed in Jewish law and observant of its commandments (Isaiah 11:2-5)). The understanding that this messiah was a spiritual leader represented the desire of Jews to return to their ancestral homeland. After several centuries of exile the Jews returned home. According to Jewish (not Christian) tradition anyone was potentially a candidate to be a messiah or masiach, i.e. It has been said that in every generation, a person is born with the potential to be the mashiach. The mashiach was, in a word, a teacher or a guide. However, by the time the Book of Daniel (2nd Century BCE) was written the fortunes of the Jews had changed once again. The Macedonians (and later the Romans) took over Israel. The Jews lost control of their homeland; and in this context the Book of Daniel was written (2nd Century BCE)—and the messiah transformed from a spiritual teacher into a warrior prince who would destroy Israel’s enemies and free them. So in the first instance (Book of Isaiah) the messiah was someone who would help the Jews return and in the second instance (Book of Daniel) the messiah would free Israel. John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious, p. 172-174.

  • That no Jews at any time—in the 1st century CE to the 21st—accepted the doctrine of Original Sin (invented by Augustine in the 4th Century).
  • That it is unlikely a devout Jew, lawyer and pharisee like the Apostle Paul believed the various letters he wrote, to the early Christian communities scattered around the Roman world, would or should be regarded as co-equal in authority with the Torah; nonetheless, there are Christian teachers today who regard Paul as either the equivalent or, even, exceeding the authority of Jesus himself.
  • That Paul used the Greek word pistus for faith which does not mean “belief” but “trust” (which has implications for biblical literalism and atheism).
  • That the doctrines of Trinity and the Divine Maternity were not adopted by the Church until the 4th and 5th Centuries respectively (four centuries after the fact of either Jesus or Mary’s existence); and that the Comma Johanneum, or the biblical basis for the doctrine of the Trinity, was literally added word for word, e.g. Father, Son and Holy Spirit, etc. to the Book of John sometime after 335 AD;[2] In all three cases, doctrines were developed through so-called “revealed truth” which is just a fancy way of saying Church fathers decided everything through debate.
  • That the New Testament did not descend from Heaven intact “as is” but is an anthology of works written over two and half centuries assembled into its current form in around 390 AD.
  • That God didn’t sort out which books were eventually incorporated into the Canon but men did through a process of debate and deliberation
  • That early Christians prayed while standing with hands outstretched and the Catholic Church adopted the practice of kneeling during prayer to imitate the fealty ceremony as practiced by liege lords during the time of feudalism in the Middle Ages (a tradition practiced to this very day); that the doctrine of papal infallibility emerged in the 19th century less as a reflection of God’s will and more out of the Church’s practical political considerations to deal with the challenges posed by modern science, e.g. evolution.
  • And that saying 12 attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas clearly states James and not Peter was to be the head of the Church,[3] etc.

Time heals all wounds as they say; likewise time’s passage blinds us—robbing religion, history, even language, of its original meaning or context encouraging us to forget how things were, or too assume the way things are, is how things have always been or worse still were destined to be.

The purpose behind all these assertions is less to disprove God’s existence or place into question the wisdom of practicing religion. I present them more with the intent of challenging some long-held assumptions so that these might be re-evaluated by the individual adherent. Some theists remain completely unaffected by any such challenges—they wonder why I should have the temerity to question comforting things people choose to believe. Being something of an optimist, I assume reasonable people if given the opportunity and knowledge, would like to know more about those things they have come to believe; and in the process come to appreciate things aren’t always what they seem; belief does not a thing make; that ideas come from somewhere;[4] and that in the end it is better to live with a healthy understanding for how the world really works instead of persisting in delusion—no matter how comforting doing so might be. When we re-evaluate our beliefs we risk changing our minds. We risk leaving behind certainty (which is really just an illusion); yet, as I see it doubt is real while belief the bringer of false promises.

The ancients invented gods to explain their fears and otherwise inexplicable cosmic processes.  Eventually, gods morphed into a single god (as was the case with the Jews). I wonder: if humankind developed the scientific method prior to their penchant for religious abstraction, would gods have even been invented? We have science now yet people persist in believing god necessary. Why is this so?  Is it habit?  Conditioning?  Need?  A lack of scientific literacy in the present day? I suspect it’s all the above to some degree.

The ancient Greeks called the Cosmos the “Milky Way” believing the white background aura to be the breast milk of Zeus’ wife Hera. The name continues in use despite the fact no one believes in Hera any longer. Is the idea of god like our galaxy’s namesake?  Have we forgotten its original reason for being?  Are we unaware, blissfully passing god on from one generation to the next? Similarly, the archaic phrase “one True God” reflects a world-view now lost to us, i.e. a time when people believed in the existence of many gods (and by people I mean the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, and the Hebrews). The peoples of these civilizations understood one another’s respective gods to be equally real. In the context of the ancients, the phrase “false god” did not mean this or that god “did not exist”; it meant foreign gods could not be trusted; you did not place your trust in them; you practiced fidelity to your tribe’s specific god. The ancient Hebrews would have understood this perfectly (the modern Christian not so much because they have only ever known monotheism). The constant backsliding of the Israelites into the worship of “false” gods is proof not only of their opportunism or infidelity but also their polylatrism.[5]  You don’t learn this stuff in Sunday School that’s for sure. Instead, well-meaning teachers dutifully feed the young the self-same stories they themselves were fed; and so, from one generation to the next, the same beliefs are propagated out of context—where we mistake our current understanding for the same held by the ancients.[6]

Theology relies purely on the exercise of reason.[7]

Certainly a reliable historical basis exists for certain aspects of theology like Jesus and his mother Mary existed. However, the stories surrounding these figures—in particular Jesus—are far from certain. As a kid I was taught Jesus raised people from the dead and something called the Holy Spirit descended on to the apostles in the form of a dove. How did I know this to be true? I didn’t. I just believed it mainly because I didn’t know any better (a sort of habit of believing things people in authority told me because I myself lacked the proper faculties of discernment or expertise); also, I belonged to a family whose members took its religion somewhat serious. (We didn’t handle snakes or believe in the Rapture; nonetheless, we went to Church regularly, observed holidays and made a point of praying before meals (when my paternal grandparents visited). I remember missing Mass one Sunday due to sickness. At the time I was staying with my paternal grandparents—uber Catholics—and when I told my grandma I couldn’t go to Mass because I felt ill she thought I was faking. The fact I was pallid, feverish, my vision clouded with black spots, and my back felt like it was on fire every time I sneezed, meant little. She was convinced I was just trying to dodge my obligations. True: sitting in a Church pew for a half an hour listening to people belt out the Rosary followed by an hour of alternative standing and kneeling wasn’t exactly the way I wanted to spend my Sunday morning. Nevertheless, there are probably some bigger reasons why religious observance in the present day needs to be re-evaluated.

How can a person sincerely accept or reject religion if they aren’t first given the freedom to assess the trustworthiness of its propositions? I was pressed to believe; I believed because I didn’t want to disappoint my parents; I believed because I was young, credulous and I didn’t want to go to Hell—a fate I was led to believe awaited non-believers and which I now regard as one of the more perfidious of religious notions. In terms of biblical stories I was required to accept them prima facie. I suspect I am more the rule than the exception when it comes to being raised a theist. Theists are made, not born. No reasonable person can read “Jesus walked on water” and assume they are reading history. Yet, that’s precisely what I was expected to believe; it’s definitely what the theist asks the non-theist or agnostic to accept. These are stories not history—and quite unlike what is assumed by religionists opinions can exist on things that do not.[8] The main problem affecting theology is that there are no objective tests one can conduct to prove this doctrine is true as opposed to that.  Well, that’s not entirely the true. You can conduct comparisons: you can test whether or not new thinking contradicts or agrees with old thinking. If a new idea conforms to old patterns it is likely to be received well and incorporated into official doctrine; when a new idea contradicts orthodoxy it is discouraged. Yet, despite the fact ideas are being systematically tested through comparison, we are still assuming inherited ideas, e.g. Adam eating a piece of fruit leading to humankind’s apparent fall from grace making Jesus necessary, etc. are trustworthy in the first place—not because elder ideas are empirically verified facts so much as the basis of existing custom and observance. What were the very first theological opinions tested against?  I would hazard a guess they were, as they are now, simply assumed true.[9]

 

 

[1] I recall my Grade Nine Christian ethics teacher dutifully transmitting the Catholic Church’s official teaching on “James, Jesus’ brother” (Galatians 1:19). She insisted Paul did not mean to imply James was a blood relative of Jesus. They were just really close friends. Like most kids I didn’t know Scripture well enough to challenge her; but if I could go back now (I’d tell my former self to attend public school and) I’d ask the teacher: if James was not a blood relative of Jesus then why was James specifically referred to as his brother not once but twice?  The connection between James and Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (13:55) is even more obvious, e.g. “Is this not the carpenter’s son [Jesus]? Is not his mother called Mary?  And are not his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judah?”  James wasn’t just a friend. The author of Matthew was clearly connecting Jesus with this family.  This passage absolutely contradicts the official teaching of the Catholic Church; moreover, it seems reasonable James was Jesus’ brother because James succeeded Jesus as head of the Church in the first decade following Jesus’ crucifixion. Saint Paul for his part has zero problems implying Jesus and James are blood brothers.

[2] There have been 21 councils throughout the history of the Church. In particular, the Council of Nicea in 335 AD was the first and, arguably, last such council where dissenting or competing opinions had a real chance at adoption. The Council of Nicea addressed a long standing conflict between two competing beliefs—Dualism (Father-Son) and Trinity (Father-Son-Holy Spirit). There was a genuine debate between Bishop Arius (defender of dualism) and Athanasius (advocate for the trinity). The Church, which cannot really be said at this time to be centrally organized in the strictest sense of the word, neither had an official teaching on the topic nor the authority to decide the question by appealing to fiat; thus, the council was called to decide the matter. Arguments could be made in support of either view, I.e. Both sides of the debate used scripture to support their respective position as well as Greek philosophy. Athanasius’ argument carried the day, however, and formed the basis of the Church’s official doctrine extant to this day. His work On the Incarnation is indeed a solid argument for accepting the god-three-in-one position. I remember reading it in my early 20s and found it utterly convincing at the time.  Unfortunately, no method was available to Athanasius to falsify dualism other than deduction and logic. Ultimately, the debate may very well have been decided in Athanasius’ favour simply because he was the stronger of the two debaters or had more powerful friends than Arius or the zeitgeist favoured the adoption of Trinity.  Given, then, debate decided the issue isn’t it possible the Dualist position might still be correct despite Arius’ failure to convince a majority to support it? Or, by implication, might there exist a third option, e.g. God doesn’t exist, etc.

[3] The Church of course would assert the Gnosticism present in Thomas (~150 AD) is what disqualified it from being accepted as part of the official Canon. Of course the fact saying 12 places James and not Peter (who the Church traditionally traces its authority from based on Matthew 16:18) as head of the Church had nothing to do with this controversial gospel being dumped into the Apocrypha.

[4] In North America (2011 AD), an 85 year old and a 20 year old both enjoy democratic freedoms but for different reasons. The senior of the two literally fought for freedom at Omaha Beach while the young person inherited that freedom. The older person lived through the turbulent 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement, War in Vietnam, Women’s Liberation, etc. while the young person has grown up in a world where women are equals and a person of colour is the president of the United States. The 20 year old inherited freedoms and rights he did not earn. He takes it for granted these freedoms have always existed as they are. He has no direct knowledge (perhaps even no awareness) of the existence of the guns of Normandy, the killing of anti-war protestors in Chicago by the government or that fire hoses and dogs were used by police to intimidate demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama. Beliefs, ideas, rights, etc. evolve and change over time—to understand them we don’t look at them as they are but rather as they were; and though freedom is just as real to the young as it is to the old it can be said with great certainty the old appreciate it differently. So it is with religious doctrines, i.e. they are inherited, passed on from generation to generation, their original reasons for being lost to us with the obscuring effects of time making them appear timeless.

[5] The ancient Hebrews themselves believed in multiple gods, e.g. Yahweh was the god of Judah (a warrior god) and his competitor was the god El (the great creator), the god of the Kingdom of Israel.  Two distinctive cults existed in two Hebrew kingdoms—Elohists and Yahwists—at the same time. They were not the same god. How did we end up with only Yahweh?  Yahweh triumphed when the people of Israel were taken into captivity (and the god El presumed defeated). The following three sources touch on the topic of Hebrew polytheism and polylatrism: Robert Wright, The Evolution of God (pg.115-133); Karen Armstrong, The Bible a Biography (pg. 17-18); and of course the Old Testament.

[6] Why is it men have more authority than women in every monotheistic culture? In the West, men dominated their societies and it is hardly a coincidence they fashioned father-gods in their own image; it stands to reason therefore that the world-view of a people shapes the nature of their god.  Men are in control; therefore, their god is a male who is also in control. Gods, far from being transcendent, specifically reflect their creators’ needs, wants and world-view. In his memoir Five Stones and a Sling, philologist and scholar Michael Goulder observed biblical scholars do not practice objectivity but go into their studies with certain fundamental assumptions already in mind.  On page 28 of Five Stones Goulder remarked: “My disappointment was due in large part to my inexperience.  I had supposed that scholars were dedicated to the pursuit of truth, wherever that might lead, and that new ideas would always be welcome.  This however is only partly true.  Before new ideas come, scholars have [already] reached a consensus, and their position as authorities depends upon their agreeing with that consensus.  Their teachers, whom they normally honoured, had taught them the consensus; they had written their books assuming it, and therefore, to think that they and their fellow experts had been wrong and that a new scholar, of whom they had not heard, was in a position to put them right.  But there is another problem: most scholars of the New Testament have religious loyalties [going into any study]: they want the text to be orthodox, or historical, or preachable, or relevant.  So any new interpretation which does not fulfil these conditions is not likely to be approved.”

[7] The 18th Century Scottish rationalist David Hume observed, “When men are most sure and arrogant they are commonly most mistaken, giving views to passion without that proper deliberation which alone can secure them from the grossest absurdities.”  Hume was cautioning us not to assume we know something so well, so certainly or so truly no further work or understanding was required.  Hume’s biographer, Roderick Graham, asserted that though Hume championed the cause of reason he nonetheless felt relying on it alone led to intellectual complacency and blindness. Something was needed to prevent people from using reason simply to invent reality; something was needed to dissuade people from falling back on old certainties, e.g. expressly the use of induction (also known as the scientific method).

[8] Anselm of Canterbury echoed the Apostle Paul’s assertion “faith is evidence for things unseen” when he asserted belief in a thing was evidence for that thing’s evidence.  William of Ockham disagreed saying one could believe in unicorns but the belief in and of itself was completely impotent when it came to creating things.  Another example of this can be demonstrated in the subtleties of language, e.g. Angels have wings like birds whereas birds have wings. Invisible things are always like something with which we are familiar because we have no other frame of reference. By the way, Anselm was made a saint and Ockham was charged with heresy.

[9] The theologian Origen (184-253 AD) read scripture through a filter of love. Scripture to him treated un-allegorically meant nothing. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) likewise understood Scripture was not intended to be taken literally (he paid particular attention to Genesis). Andrew of St. Victor (1110-1175) tried a fully literal interpretation of Scripture.  None of these theologians, though differing in their emphasis, ever factored in the non-existence of God in to any of their conjectures.  Instead, they thought along the lines of the following contradictory dichotomy, e.g. God was a mystery but he was also a fact.

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