Tuesday, December 29, 2009

the historical jesus, part two

John Dickson - genial, enthusiastic, but a fatally flawed 'historian'

Canto: Well,I'm discovering that the videos I linked to last time only provide snippets of the Christ Files program, just as John Dickson provides tiny snippets of his various books on his website. Dickson strikes me as a genial, energetic young fellow, keen to give Christianity a good name, but as an already-committed Christian, there's little chance of his being objective. In an excerpt from the intro to his book, The Christ Files, he writes blithely of the numerous mentions of Jesus by other writers in his time, which flatly contradicts the evidence.
Jacinta: Yes, Dickson sneaks his claims in under the guise of ingenuous scholarship. He points out, rightly, that this period [which he extends from 100 BCE to 200 CE] was one of rich literary activity, which was lucky for the small-town preacher Yeshua/Jesus, as he 'happened to rate a mention in several of the writings of the period'.  No mention that this Yeshua purportedly drew a great multitude to him, which would certainly have drawn attention to him, were it true, and no mention of the authors of these 'writings'.
Canto: Yes, well the facts are well known. Let's look at the contemporary mentions of Jesus. First, there was Paul of Tarsus, some of whose letters are generally believed to be the earliest of the New Testament writings. Even so they were written twenty or more years after Jesus's alleged crucifixion. Paul makes no mention whatever of any of the 'facts' of Jesus's life as recorded in the gospels - apart from the resurrection. It is generally accepted that he never met or even laid eyes on Jesus. Jesus seems to be little more than an abstract conception for him.
Jacinta: Yes, not all the letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament are now believed to have been written by him, but whoever wrote them didn't know Jesus, it seems likely.
Canto: Letters attributed to 'James' and 'Peter' suggest that they knew him, but this 'knowledge' is only mentioned cursorily - no details of his life, his healings, his trial, anything. Of course, the resurrection is mentioned, as this provides the whole point of the early Christian community...
Jacinta: Well, really, New Testament mentions don't count, as those writers were completely dedicated to claims about Jesus's reality, not only as a person, but as a god. They're anything but disinterested observers.
Canto: Right, so we need to go to non-Christian sources of the time. We should also, just as an aside, discount the so-called gnostic gospels, many of which were first found at Nag Hammadi in the twentieth century. These texts can be traced no further back than the second century CE, and most show all the hallmarks of mythmaking. As to the non-Christian sources, well there are none at all that are exactly contemporaneous with Jesus. All of these accounts, therefore, are based on hearsay. Probably the most important and most controversial mention in the couple of generations after Jesus's supposed death comes from Flavius Josephus, the famous Jewish historian - born a few year after the alleged crucifixion. This mention occurs in The Antiquities of the Jews, written in 93CE, and it's known as the Testimonium Flavianum. Trouble is, this favourable testimonial gets no mention from the early Christian writers until the fourth century CE. Now when you consider that those early writers were obsessed with establishing the authenticity of Jesus as a person and as 'the Christ', this omission is telling. On the other hand there are claims, disputed by some, that the work of Josephus, or at least the Antiquities, was unknown to any of these writers. In any case, there's a lot of controversy surrounding the authenticity or otherwise of the Testimonium Flavianum. But even if it's authentic, it's still a hearsay account, as are the mentions in Tacitus, Pliny and Suetonius, which are all very brief. Suetonius in fact mentions a Chrestus, a common name of the time, and nobody can really be sure if he was talking about Yahweh's little boy.
Canto: So, no historical evidence really, whatsoever, other than evidence, from the second century sources, that the Jesus movement was starting to grow.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

the historical jesus, part one

Canto: It's December 25, the day when Christian propaganda comes to the boil. Today I was outraged and infuriated by a presentation on Channel 7 called 'The Christ Files', dubbed 'a search for the real Jesus'. Familiar territory? Of course - the Jesus Seminar, and its successor, the Jesus Project, has been engaging in this task for many years now. The difference is that the creators of 'The Christ Files' are far more interested in propaganda than research.
Jacinta: Yes, I noticed that this show was given a 'G' rating. Anything by the Jesus Project would probably be rated MA, as confronting the innocent with disturbing truths about the bullshit being fed to them, and the children before them, for centuries. But for a more accessible argument for the likely non-existence of Jesus, try this site. The grammar is often execrable, and the language a bit tortuous, but it provides a good summary and starting point. But let's have some fun with The Christ Files.
Canto: Well, I couldn't bear to watch more than five minutes of the TV program, but I'm trying to recover a certain scholarly distance. The website claims that it is 'neither a work of fanciful scepticism nor of Christian propaganda'. As for the 'fanciful scepticism' dismissal, scepticism about Jesus is based on plenty of real problems. Firstly, if Jesus existed and drew all the crowds mentioned in the gospels, why is there not a single contemporary comment about him outside the gospels? Not even Philo Judaeus, a precise contemporary of Jesus who wrote extensively about Judaeism in Jerusalem at the time, makes any mention of this figure, presented as so towering in the gospels. There is no contemporary evidence of Jesus whatsoever. That's not fanciful scepticism, that's fact. Secondly, all of the more outlandish claims for Jesus link him to mythical figures of the past, such as Horus, Mithras and Hercules. There is more evidence that the Jesus persona was cobbled together from earlier myths than that he actually existed. There is no evidence, for example, of his trial or execution. And as for the 'Christian propaganda' denial, it so happens that Dr John Dickson, the author of The Christ Files, is the 'Director of the Centre for Public Christianity', somewhere in Australia. You could surely not get a more vested interest than that. If I was writing a satire on some dude pushing his religious barrow while claiming to be objective, I couldn't think of a more worthy public title for him than that.
Jacinta: Actually we'd be wary of using such a title, people would think we were being too heavy-handed.
Canto: Absolutely. Well our exuberant narrator and author, John Dickson, in a series of videos available online, tries to convince us of the authenticity of Jesus. First he tells us that two billion people believe in him, as if that counts for something.
Jacinta: Far less than two billion people believe in the theory of evolution. Must be a crock.
Canto: Yes, it's about evidence, not a popularity contest. He then goes on to talk about the message of Jesus and how it has transformed individual lives and modern culture. But just what is this message? Is there any coherent take home message from the gospels? I think not, and our companion at the new ussr has been examining the gospels painstakingly to see if he can uncover some clear moral message, but without much luck.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

politicians, souls and fighting words

Canto: Today, we're going to start in on some general, speculative chit-chat about religion, and see where it leads us...
Jacinta: Well I want to start off by getting strident, and expressing my disappointment and disgust at the continuous attempts to inject religion into politics in this country. We now have two 'dyed in the wool faith-heads' leading our two main political parties, and it's clear that their religiosity is affecting law-making and decision-making, even if only in a few marginal areas.
Canto: Not marginal to everyone of course, if you're talking, say, of gay marriage.
Jacinta: Think of political areas, or areas of social policy, where religion tends to rear its ugly head.
Canto: Easy. Hatches matches and dispatches, which covers just about everything.
Jacinta: Yes, births deaths and marriages. And what ties them all together? The religious notion of the 'sacred'.
Canto: Which always seems to pertain only to us humans. 'Every sperm is sacred', the satirical song goes, but only every human sperm. Only human abortion is an affront to Fred - something which is not sufficiently picked up on.
Jacinta: Which raises the question - why is only human life sacred? Why aren't we worried about aborted chimp foetuses? And does sacredness only belong to homo sapiens? What about homo erectus?
Canto: Augustine of Hippo proved, at least to his own apparent satisfaction, that humans had souls - which was what made them so sacred. His argument was in fact remarkably similar to that of Descartes more than a thousand years later. Unfortunately neither of them brought their great insight to bear on homo erectus, homo neanderthalensis, Australopithecus afarensis or Ardipithecus ramidus. Is it possible to be semi-sacred, or semi-demi-sacred? Is the soul digital? Can it be broken up, or is it of whole cloth designed to fit each god-worthy being? Of course the new green Christians or green theologians will want to claim all life as sacred, but does that also include microbial life?
Jacinta: Oh they'll argue that some life is more sacred than others, and deny the self-serving nature of the argument. But I was talking about public figures, political figures, and their religious agendas.
Canto: Well, so was I, but I don't think we need worry too much, we have the best arguments.
Jacinta: But what does that matter when they have all the political power? We know that the refusal to allow gay marriage is a triumph of religio-political power over reason, but what can we do about it?
Canto: Uhh, we can go back to the future, I mean the seventies, and say that marriage is an outmoded bourgeois institution we're all better off without?
Jacinta: Yeah, funny how nobody says that anymore. The thing is, homosexual couples aren't even allowed the right to a civil marriage ceremony, are they?
Canto: Dunno, presumably they can go in for all the ceremony they want, it just won't be recognized by the state. Though the state will give them all the legal entitlements of a married couple, except the entitlement to legally call themselves 'married'.
Jacinta: Which just makes it all the more insidious.
Canto: Do you think this is really a religious scruple, or just a traditionalist one?
Jacinta: I think the established churches like to flex what little muscle they have left from time to time, so I think, yes, it's organised religions working frantically behind the scenes, doing their little bit to cause a bit of misery where they can. I mean, I haven't investigated the campaigns of the pressure groups that would've had the ear of our Jesus-loving PM, but it's highly likely that such campaigns existed and were successful. It was a small, pathetic, petty victory, but a victory nonetheless.
Canto: Fini la rigolade! We shall fight them in the pubs, and in the pulpits, we shall drive them from our schools and our armies, we shall outshine their feeble firmaments with our fourteen billion year old universe of scintillating supernovae, we shall tell true tales of evolving and adapting forces, threading their way forward through a world of struggle and death, which will knock their creation stories and original sins and sacred yearnings into a midden of putrescent puerilities...
Jacinta: Eh, Can my boy, time for a cup of tea and a lie down.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

mirabile dictu

Canto: So is Mary Mackillop deserving of sainthood?
Jacinta: She's deserving of the highest recognition, I'm sure. I think we're both agreed on the sainthood business. It's tainted by the official chase for nonexistent miracles.
Canto: I'm not sure if I would use the word tainted. Spiced up is better. It does provide some fun after all. Miracles, funny gestures, glittering outfits, secret societies, sex and scandal - the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church has something for everyone...
Jacinta: And then there are those on the coal-face, honestly trying to provide opportunities for the disadvantaged, leaving the world a slightly better place.
Canto: You're right, Mary M left a finer legacy than Jesus himself. What did he ever do for kids' education?
Jacinta: The question is whether her becoming a saint will highlight her real achievements or obscure them.
Canto: Very wise, Jass. So tell us more about these essential miracles.
Jacinta: Well, Mary was beatified in 95. That's after she got her 'heroic virtue' gong in 1992. Apparently the beatification miracle took place in 1961 - a woman was dying, someone prayed over her in the name of Mary M, who, being in heaven, got on the local line to Fred, and the woman was still alive and well in 1995, mirabile dictu, when Mary M became Blessed. Don't know if she's still kicking today.
Canto: Right, so we need to know what the woman was dying of, we want medical records, test records and so forth.
Jacinta: Well apparently they get their miracles more or less exclusively from the medical field these days....
Canto: The safest option, people get sick a lot, and if they don't die, they get better. I mean, this happens to millions of people a year, and a substantial fraction of these recoveries aren't easily explicable medically.
Jacinta: Very wise, Can. Apparently this 1961 woman was dying of leukemia, but if you think it's going to be easy to find her medical records, to check whether it really was leukemia, or to read the reports of the [presumably Catholic] doctors assigned to determine the miraculosity of her cure, then think again. We're talking about the Catholic church here, hardly the most open organisation on the planet.
Canto: Yes and of course the media are treating all this with the usual supine complacency - no questioning of these claims, not even a trace of irony, nothing more than a reporting of them, as if miracles are simply matters of fact.
Jacinta: Yes, and not without a certain jingoist fervour - our Mary to become a saint, fancy that! And I notice in this Melbourne article that they're claiming her as purely Victorian, though she did far more of her educational work in South Australia.
Canto: Now don't be jingoistic, Jass. But the best thing about that article, in which some nuns try to claim that Mary Mackillop had a hand in the survival of the recently unconjoined twins Trishna and Krishna, is the scathing critical response to this sort of claptrap.
Jacinta: Yes, the mainstream media might need to get with the program, hear what educated Australians are saying, or risk being sidelined as irrelevant. Anyway, I doubt if I'll have much luck tracing any details of this first miracle - can't even find out what the woman's names was - but the second miracle is reported on in the Sunday Mail somewhere [I can't find the link now], en passant of course, a woman who recovered from inoperable cancer in 1995. No names, no details. I suspect this is partly because the newspapers are embarrassed to spend too much time on something as questionable as a miracle, preferring to focus on the 'honour' of our Mary being granted sainthood.
Canto: Not granted, Jass, remember. Here sainthood has been discovered at last. But I think also its probably about the active suppression of names and details by the Catholic investigating committee. They would clearly be actively opposed to anybody independently investigating their investigation.
Jacinta: But again, I noted the scorn and scepticism directed at the Catholics in the comments. All very healthy, methinks. The Catholics will have their saint, and everyone else will have their laugh.
Canto: Okay, that's enough fun with Mary, unless we uncover more dirt on these miracles.
Jacinta: Yes, it's time to get serious again.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

the making of a saint

Jacinta: Now for some light relief. Apparently the Vatican is on the verge of turning Mary Mackillop into Australia's first saint. It's only a matter of days, folks.
Canto: Isn't she a South Aussie?
Jacinta: Born in Melbourne, she moved to Penola as a teenager, taking up a job as governess at a farm of her relatives. That's where she came into contact with the parish priest of the region, Tenison Woods, and they began to collaborate on providing education, meaning Catholic education, to country towns throughout South Australia, and elsewhere in Australia. They founded a religious order, the Sisters of St Joseph, and Mary travelled throughout the country founding schools and making friends and enemies in the Catholic hierarchy. Much of the time, especially in the early years, she was based in South Australia, and naturally our state claims her as its own, but anyway she seems to have been a formidable figure, and she certainly deserves respect for her education push, especially among the disadvantaged.
Canto: Right, so a good sort, and worthy of remembrance. The Jesus of the gospels would've warmed to her much more than to the pope [I mean the papacy in general]. But what we're really interested in of course is the Vatican and ts sainthood shenanigans.
Jacinta: You bet. MacKillop was beatified in 1995...
Canto: And what, pray tell my love, does that entail?
Jacinta: Well, it's a step toward canonization, and out of it you get to be called Blessed Mary Mackillop.
Canto: In fact, as Wikipedia tells us, it's the third of four steps toward canonization. Apparently beatification became something of a commonplace under the last Pope, John Paul II. He beatified more people than all the other Popes of the past 400 years put together, and our Mary was one of them. But please, what does it entail?
Jacinta: There was a reform of Canon law in 1983, and since then one miracle has to be proven to have taken place through the intercession of the one to be beatified. I think the last step requires another miracle, something like that.
Canto: No, no, I want precise details Jacinta - give us the whole four-step process, then I want the dope on our Mary's rocky road to sainthood.
Jacinta: Okay well originally there was no formal process for becoming a saint of course, but even in the early days it became clear that a process had to be set in place. This process has been knocked into different shapes over the years, but we'll focus on the current situation, pertaining since 1983. It starts at the local level, naturally. What they call the diocesan level. The local bishop gives the OK for a heroine of the congregation like Mary M - actually ex of the congregation, for she has to be dead at least five years - to be investigated as to her virtues, her worthiness and so forth.
Canto: Actually the five-year dead/waiting period was waived in the case of Mother Teresa.
Jacinta: Blessed Mother Teresa, though she hasn't been canonized as yet either. Anyway, while this process is underway, the candidate is given the title 'Servant of God'. Her writings, her activities, her connections are exhaustively analysed. Often a guild of sorts is set up to gather all the info - basically an advocacy group. Next, when sufficient info is gathered it's sent to the Roman Curia, the Papal Court. More specifically, it's sent to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, The candidate, I mean the Servant of God, is assigned a postulator, basically an official advocate. Mary M's postulator was Father Paul Gardiner, now it's Maria Casey. Now, get this for a next step:
"Declaration 'Non Cultus'" At some point, permission is then granted for the body of the Servant of God to be exhumed and examined, a certification ("non cultus") that no superstitious or heretical worship or improper cult has grown up around the servant or his or her tomb is made, and relics are taken.
 Canto: Yes, yes, you'll notice how so much of this is about orthodoxy, emphasizing and re-emphasizing the central role and power of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church. Anything else is surely the devil's work. Read, for example, 'The mirage of theological correctness', in Chapter 8 of Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained. It helps us understand the established hierarchy's obsession with heresy, and its ruthlessness in the suppression of same. For trained, orthodox  priests, unlike, say, trained medicos, are no more efficacious than 'alternative priests' in the making of good citizens or the saving of souls, whatever it is priests are supposed to do. The more precarious the 'special knowledge' of the orthodox, the more obsessed they will be in patrolling the boundaries of their territory and defending their privileged position.
Jacinta: All true, Canto, but I'm just wondering who's been rummaging around in Mary M's bones.Anyway we won't go there. The congregation, if it's happy with the Servant of God's qualities, makes a recommendation to the pope that he proclaim her 'heroic virtue'. From this point forward, our Servant of God becomes Venerable. Then a miracle has to be shown to have occurred through the intercession of the Venerable one, in order her for to be beatified. and then another miracle, and she's a saint.
Canto: Right, so to summarize the four-step process, she becomes a Servant of God, then she becomes Venerable, then she becomes Blessed, then she becomes a Saint.
Jacinta: You got it. Except that, really she isn't made a saint, or any of the other things leading up to it, according to the doctrine. She's always been a saint. The hierarchy have merely discovered her saintliness, or proved it. Just like white folks discovered the great southern land centuries ago, or proved its existence, as great, and southern.
Canto: Well thanks for the general summary. Now what about Mary Mackillop's road to sainthood, and her miracles?
Jacinta: Next time, my love.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

ending with an overview

scarily irrepressible vitality

Jacinta: It raises the question of what would constitute evidence for the virgin birth.
Canto: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. I'd want DNA evidence. Or rather, evidence of no DNA, since clearly the god that did it doesn't have any DNA.
Jacinta: Yes, I was thinking there might be DNA from Mary's side, but then that would make Jesus only a demi-god, and what a theological problem that would make.
Canto: The Arrian heresy would return with a vengeance.
Jacinta: Of course this question is allied to the larger one. What would constitute evidence for the existence of a deity?
Canto: Well, scientists tend to rule out supernatural claims from the outset. Russell Berg, a microbiologist, has written a little essay in a recent issue of Philosophy Now, in which he provides 'fifteen criteria  for scientificness'. His very first criterion is 'Does the theory use natural explanations?' Here is his rationale:
Thales of Miletus, the first recorded natural philosopher, believed that natural events have natural explanations, not divine. This rejection of explanations invoking gods or spirits led to the need for natural explanations and the development of the scientific method. Untestable supernatural explanations act as stoppers which prevent or retard further enquiry or research.
 Jacinta: Well hallelujah to that, though I think Berg has it the wrong way round. It was the need for reliable, consistent, testable explanations, and our gradual uncovering of these explanations, that began to undermine the need for invoking gods and spirits. But let's wrap up our treatment of this Williams essay. Does Williams make any valid or worthwhile points?
Canto: Well, he criticizes Grayling for his treatment of the religious as irrational - though he's unable to quote Grayling as actually saying this, and then he launches into a defence of religion as practised by many people who are far from irrational. Again he quotes John Gray: 'Unable to account for the irrepressible vitality of religion, [humanists] can react only with puritanical horror and stigmatize it as irrational'. But the fact is that 'humanists', or secularists or sceptics, or atheists, or antitheists, or agnostics, or non-believers, are an even more diverse breed than Darwin's barnacles, and many, in fact I'm sure most of us, recognize the everyday reasonableness of the religious, and also of flat-earthers and numerologists and homeopathists. Williams wants to encourage dialogue 'on the common ground of our shared humanity', and that is probably a good idea, but it is hard work. Our scientific understanding of the world has reached the sophistication it has today by ignoring religion rather than by seeking an accommodation with it. Flat-earthers and creationists rarely change their minds. People don't actually enjoy beating their heads against a brick wall, they prefer to keep the company of like-minded types - but that too has its dangers.
Jacinta: Yes but it's hard to know what to say to someone who believes that his particular god suspends the laws of nature occasionally. Of course, as with someone who claims to have been abducted by aliens, you can point out the unlikelihood, the difficulties involved in something happening to her without the rest of the world detecting it and being affected by it, and so on. But it's such hard, and often unrewarding work. The writings of so many so-called 'new atheists', it seems to me, display much of this frustration and fatigue. Yet they've unleashed something, it seems, something that flatly contradicts John Gray's ridiculous assertion that 'secular ideology [sic] is [being] dumped throughout the world..' It's a new fighting spirit, full of wit and eloquence, as well as a new enthusiasm for exploring religion and belief systems generally, how they're made and maintained, what they mean in evolutionary terms, their place in our individual and collective psyche. I'm enjoying the show.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

more assertions

Canto: Okay so let's move on to other claims by Williams. A whole section of his essay has the title 'Mere assertion', no doubt echoing Mere Christianity, as Williams seems to be fond of C S Lewis. Of course, Williams is accusing Grayling of making assertions without providing evidence, but there are plenty of assertions of the same kind made by Williams. Well, not of the same kind, actually, because, to me at least, the assertions Grayling makes seem eminently reasonable, while many of Williams's assertions are frankly ludicrous.
Jacinta: Let me provide the examples. He asserts that belief in God [i.e. Fred] is reasonable, that belief in miracles is reasonable, and that religious thinkers are generally smarter than non-religious ones. For this last assertion he borrows the words of a cheap polemicist I've had occasion to deal with in the past, namely John Gray:
One cannot engage in dialogue with religious thinkers in Britain today without quickly discovering that they are, on the whole, more intelligent, better educated and strikingly more freethinking than unbelievers (as evangelical atheists still incongruously describe themselves)
Gray is a kind of modern, dumbed-down and pedestrianized version of Friedrich Nietzsche, who prides himself on giving all and sundry a serve, changing his own position at whim in order to do so. The good thing is that his polemical swipes can shake off your complacency and make you wonder if what he's saying might actually be true. So you go off and examine some contemporary religious thinkers, find that they're trotting out the same old bullshit, and you also investigate the secularists, none of whom, of course, are going around calling themselves unbelievers, and many of whom are doing very interesting empirical work on the psychology and evolution of religion, for example.
Canto: Mere assertion indeed. What does 'better educated' mean?  Better educated in theology? A lot of the debate these days revolves around the religion-science nexus, and it's pretty clear from Gray's writings that he knows bugger all about science, so he probably rejects the idea of scientists as properly 'educated'. And 'freethinking' - there's a useful term for allowing anything in. Maybe it's 'freethinking' to argue that the virgin birth is plausible...
Jacinta: Oh yes, let me tackle that one. Williams claims that Grayling's sceptical remarks on the immaculate conception of Jesus...
Canto: Wasn't it an angelfuck?
Jacinta: Whatever, that they were 'pure bluster'. Presumably that's mere assertion with a dose of inarticulacy added to the mix. Here's Grayling:
‘ask a Christian why the ancient story of a deity impregnating a mortal woman… is false as applied to Zeus and his many paramours… but true as applied to God, Mary and Jesus… Do not expect a rational reply; an appeal to faith will be enough, because with faith anything goes.’[39]
Canto: Oh, so the god did it then? I wonder if she struggled. We could have him up for rape.
Jacinta: Don't distract me. We now come to the funniest part, because Williams then cockily proclaims that 'unfortunately for Grayling, this sweeping generalization is demonstrably false.' He claims this because he knows of a Christian philosopher who has argued that there's evidence to support the truth of the virgin birth. Unfortunately for Williams, those arguments are rare and usually vapid, and don't at all undermine the general claim that most Christians, when pushed, will fall back on faith on this issue.
Canto: Yes, it seems Williams is mucking up the distinction between a generalization and a universal truth. Grayling is clearly not saying that it's universally true that Christians appeal to faith on the virgin birth, but that they generally do.Williams's finding of someone who has tried to argue about the evidence doesn't negate the generalization.
Jacinta: Yes, and Christians would do better to stick to faith than to try to reason their way out of this one, if Keith Ward is anyone to go by. He's the Christian philosopher in question, and here's his best argument:
 ‘The strongest argument for the veracity of these accounts is that it is very hard to see why they should have been invented, when they would have been so shocking to Jewish ears… there are two independent sources of the virgin birth stories; and that increases the probability that they were founded on historical recollections.’[40]
 Canto: Wow, that's really convincing. I mean we are talking about a supernatural entity impregnating a woman, right? Two sources - what does that mean, two eyewitnesses to the fuckery? I'll bet not. And most Jews would be shocked by the idea, so it's unlikely it was made up. Fuck, surely he's joking. Or, yeah, maybe he's one of those delightful freethinkers Gray gets excited about.

Friday, December 11, 2009

God's name

Jacinta: Well it's a theological problem in that none of this has any grounding at all - it's a discussion about the non-existent clothes of the emperor. In order for theological argument to get started it seems that certain assumptions have to be made, for example that it's at least possible that the cosmos has a supernatural origin or that there possibly exists something other than natural, observable, measurable, phenomena. If you see no reason to accept such assumptions then theological speculation will forever be a closed book to you..
Canto: Yes this is the very heart of the matter. If you simply accept this world with all its complex phenomena you stand accused as lacking 'spirituality' or imagination whereas if you accept some kind of noumenal 'other' world which is by its nature non-observable, non-measurable, non-definable, then you allow anything in. Far more than the Judeo-Christian creator-god, which is just one of an infinity of conceptions.
Jacinta: And even 'he' can be conceived in an infinity of ways There are just no empirical guidelines, no boundaries. But let's get back to the essay we're critiquing. If we keep going along in this way, disputing it point by point, we could easily finish with something of book length. We'll have to pick and choose a bit more.
Canto: Okay, let's be choosy. First, when Williams claims, as he does often enough, that belief in God is reasonable, he's referring to a particular god, the god called God, and he's taking advantage of the generic element in the particular name.
Jacinta: Yeah that's right, the Judeo-Christian god should be called Fred, to show that if belief in Fred is reasonable, then why not belief in Thor or Ganesh or Astarte? Surely belief in any of them is just as reasonable. And if not, it needs to be shown why not.
Canto: Yes, again it's the problem that if you rule in the reasonableness of that god's existence, in any or all of its interpretations, then you'd surely be ruling in any supernatural being's existence. For how do you assess the reasonableness of one god's existence rather than another's?
Jacinta: Yes, as we've said before, calling your god God is an ingenious piece of semantic legerdemain which niftily disguises the fact that this god is just one among many, most of them extinct, having passed away with the civilizations and cultures that gave rise to them. Expose the semantic legerdemain, and Judeo-Christians are compelled to explain why the creator of the universe decided to make himself known to homo sapiens only a few thousand years ago in such and such a place, in such and such a manner. Yet many Christian theologians don't see this transformation of a local god into a BOO as a problem, let alone considering the problem of the plethora of other gods and other supernatural entities.
Canto: Yes, they overlay their anthropocentrism - naturally, we're the 'special creations' of the deity - with ethnocentrism - naturally, our god, having conquered the world [as we see it], is the only real god.
Jacinta: The only god deserving of the name.

Work being critiqued: 'Contra Grayling' by Peter S Williams

Reminder: BOO = Benevolent Omnipotent One..

Monday, December 7, 2009

definitions and the value of theology

Canto: So, Williams rejects Grayling's definition of religion simply because lots of people would disagree with it, because everybody has her own concept of it, and it's notoriously difficult to define. Williams doesn't attempt to define it himself. And yet, though he can't or won't define religion, he has no hesitation in saying this:
With Keith Ward, I think it clear that: ‘religion does some harm and some good, but most people, faced with the evidence, will probably agree that it does a great deal more good than harm, and that we would be much worse off as a species without any religion'.
Unfortunately, without a clear or even a vague definition of religion to go on, nobody can assess the truth or falsity of this claim. It is, quite simply, meaningless.
Jacinta: Good point, Canto, and what's to stop a person defining religion as 'that which makes me do good things and think good thoughts'? If only philosophizing were always this easy. So now let me go on with Williams's attempt to undermine this claim by Grayling:
‘Apologists for faith are an evasive community, who seek to avoid or deflect criticism by slipping behind the abstractions of higher theology, a mist-shrouded domain of long words, superfine distinctions and vague subtleties, in some of which God is nothing… and does not even exist… But religion is not theology; it is the practice and outlook of ordinary people into most of whom supernaturalistic beliefs and superstitions were inculcated as children when they could not assess the value of what they were being sold as a world view; and it is the falsity of this, and its consequences for a suffering world, that critics attack.’[9]
Williams's first objection is that theology, as a specialist field, naturally uses specialist language and engages in necessary subtleties, and he quotes some abstruse terminology that Grayling himself has engaged in to prove his point. He objects, of course, to the inference that theologians are intellectually irresponsible, which he considers 'a hasty generalization at best and a straw man at worst', and grumbles that Grayling provides no evidence for this suggestion of intellectual irresponsibility.
Canto: An absurd objection, in my view. Grayling doesn't provide evidence for this logic-chopping and evasive abstraction because he assumes this theological habit to be self-evident. He assumes everyone will recognize what he's talking about.And I certainly do. I mean, does William seriously imagine for even a split-second that it would be difficult to find such evidence? Read Augustine of Hippo on the existence of the soul, read Anselm of Canterbury on the so-called ontological argument, read the interpretations of Moslem theologians in Karen Armstrong's History of God, just to name a few examples familiar to me, but really you'll find a superabundance of this sort of thing in just about any work of theology, to such an extant that theology and evasiveness might be considered synonyms.
Jacinta: Yet theologians might be quite sincere in their ink-wasting labours to square the circle, to turn faith into reason. Their evasiveness might be a genuine search, their distinctions without differences may make all the difference in the world to their subjective sense.
Canto: Yes, this is a problem. But is it a theological one?

Text being criticized: 'Contra Grayling', by Peter S Williams