Very belated redirection

I should have posted this two years ago, but better late than never… For anyone finding this blog, my blog is now Geeky Humanist over on the FreeThoughtBlogs blogging platform, where I blog about atheism, apologetics, and book reviews. And, if and when I have time, possibly even other stuff.

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Maccoby vs. Doherty; some thoughts on the mythicism theory

My last few posts have been laying some background for how I reached my current position on the origins of Christianity . What I want to do in this one is write about why I currently believe in a historical Jesus (that is, an actual real-life person who started the movement that became Christianity) rather than being a mythicist (a believer that Jesus’s story was entirely mythical from the start). The reason for this is that, as planned, I’m currently doing  Richard Carrier’s online course on the issue, which I want to blog about when and if I get the chance. If I start out with an explanation of why I hold the position I now hold, then that’ll give some background for my thoughts on the course, and it will be possible to see whether and why my position has changed by the end of the course.

I should say that, although the mythicist position certainly seems to raise a lot of good questions, it isn’t one that I’ve gone very far into; I’ve skimmed through parts of Earl Doherty’s wesbite and The Jesus Puzzle, his first book on the subject (now out of print and superseded by further books on the topic, so it seems a fair guess it doesn’t represent his most up-to-date views), but that’s all. So it is indeed quite possible that when I read more about it, I’ll end up changing positions on the matter. This is my view so far.

As I wrote in my last post, my main influence on the issue of how Christianity originally started was Hyam Maccoby. Maccoby’s theory, stripped down to the bare bones, is that Jesus was a would-be Jewish Messiah like several others of the time, and that, following his death, his followers continued his movement in the same vein under the belief that he was going to be miraculously resurrected to lead it again; however, the movement was then subverted by other influences in this heavily pagan society, and ended up as something much more akin to a pagan mystery religion (with a heavy dash of Gnosticism thrown in) but still retaining a strong residue of its original Judaism. Maccoby goes into much more detail about this, of course, but those are the essential points.

Doherty’s theory, on the other hand, is that things happened the other way round; that Christianity started as a pagan mystery religion with a mythical central character, and only later was the story of the supposedly real-life Jesus assembled around the myth. He backs this up with a lot of evidence that Paul, and others writing at the time, showed no real interest in Jesus’s life at all, seeing him, instead, exactly as any follower of any mystery religion in those days might have seen the god he worshipped; as a shadowy semi-divine figure whose importance lay not in his life or teachings but in a sacrifice that might have taken place in another realm; from this, he argues that that was what the religion was at the time, and the supposed story of Jesus’s human life on earth was invented later, partly from a collection of apocryphal sayings that was current at the time and that was attributed to the Jesus-figure when the gospel-writers felt the need to place the demigod’s story in the human realm.

As I recall, Doherty makes a very good case for the first part of this (the point that Paul sees Jesus as a mystery-religion demigod-type figure rather than as an actual human being). Of course, this is also explicable under Maccoby’s theory, according to which Paul (who of course never knew Jesus in life even if the stories about a historical Jesus are true) was subconsciously inspired to create a mystery religion based on the real character of a man who’d been crucified for claiming to be a Roman Messiah; this would also lead to Paul seeing Jesus in much that way, with little interest in his human life. But that’s a convoluted explanation, and, if that was the only part of the story to be accounted for, I’d prefer Docherty’s explanation on grounds of simplicity. The problem is, however, that it doesn’t really account for the other half of the equation; how the Jewish aspects got into that syncretism to the extent that they did.

In the Gospels, Jesus is presented as a Jew who claims the title of ‘Messiah’. And his followers are portrayed as understanding this in the typical way it was understood in Judaism; an earthly descendant of David’s line whose coming would herald the liberation of Israel from her enemies, and who would then rule Israel as a human king, like the King David from whom he would be descended. If a pagan religion were writing a real-life story for their legendary hero, why would they make him a figure from such a different culture, claiming a mission that was (at the time) understood in such a different sense?

All four Gospels agree that Jesus was crucified by the Romans for claiming to be King of the Jews. Yet, at the same time they’re clearly embarrassed by this point and go to considerable lengths to try to explain it away (portraying the Sanhedrin as a bloodthirsty lynch mob and Pilate as a mild-mannered, fair-minded man acting against his will in crucifying Jesus – both highly improbable on what we know from elsewhere). Of course, it’s easy enough to explain why the Gospels would want to downplay the point that the leader they’re talking about was a rebel Jew put to death by the Romans for what amounted to sedition – that wouldn’t have gone down very well at all in the time period when the Gospels were written – but, in that case, why put that awkward point in there in the first place?

Jesus is portrayed as having attitudes towards Sabbath healing that would have been entirely in line with Pharisaic thinking, which he argues using Pharisee-type expressions (see my previous post on Maccoby’s arguments). Yet he’s portrayed as having those arguments with the Pharisees, who are presented as opposing him on this matter. Again, it’s not hard to see why the Gospel-writers might have wanted to portray Jesus as being in opposition with the Pharisees rather than holding their views; but again, in that case, why put those details about Jesus into the story in the first place?

The Jewish scriptures suggested that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and Matthew and Luke go to some lengths to explain to us that, yes, he was born in Bethlehem. The problem is, both of them also say that he grew up in Nazareth. And their explanations for why he was born in one place and grew up in another are individually improbable and collectively completely contradictory. There is no serious doubt that the Nativity stories are invented to make the story of Jesus’s life harmonise with the Mican prophecy. But why would Matthew and Luke both independently invent the detail that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, when they are both going to such lengths to explain this away?

Why does the issue of observance to Jewish law come up repeatedly as an issue (Acts 10, Acts 15, Acts 21:20 – 26, Galatians 1 – 3)? Even if some Jews were following this pagan religion, surely that in itself would be such a major act of apostasy that they would also have abandoned such precepts of their law as circumcision and dietary law? How many Torah-observant Jews were likely to be found in this sort of pagan religion?


Now, of course, all of these anomalies are very easily explicable under the historical Jesus theory; stories about Jesus’s actual life and deeds would have continued to circulate along with the increasing number of myths, and couldn’t quite be suppressed or ignored completely. If it was common knowledge that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, claimed to be the Messiah, argued a particular view of Sabbath-keeping, and was crucified by the Romans, then the gospel writers would have been stuck with those stories. And, since the movement would have started out among observant Jews, discussions and differences of opinion on the subject of keeping Torah law would certainly have come up once it spread to Gentiles as well.

Under a mythicist theory, however, these points are harder to explain. It’s completely possible that they can be explained, but ‘The Jesus Puzzle’, at least, doesn’t seem to do so. Admittedly my reading of it wasn’t that close or detailed, so, if I’ve missed something, my apologies to Doherty; but I couldn’t find any explanation of these points within it, and Doherty seemed very vague in discussing just why Mark would frame Jesus’s story in the way he did.

So, that is my issue with the mythicist theory. I have no doubt at all that a pagan religion could have gone on to develop stories in which its mythical founder was described as a historical person (this is, in fact, known to have happened with other mystery religions). I just have doubt that this religion could have developed this particular description of a historical person.

But, of course, there may be good explanations for those anomalies that I just haven’t thought of. So, I’m looking forward to learning more on this course and seeing whether there are any answers to those questions; and I shall update my views and this blog accordingly.

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A whistle-stop tour through Hyam Maccoby’s theories

There’s a fair bit more I could write, and hopefully some day will write, about my experiences of looking into Christian theology and its flaws (some time I’ll have to write about the experience of reading the Prophets), but what I’m working towards at the moment is an explanation of why, although I now believe that much of the story of Christianity is mythical, I do nevertheless believe that there was a real-life historical Jesus-figure, not a mythical Jesus, at the start of it all. So for now I’m going to skip some bits of my experience that were relevant to my decision that the teachings of Christian apologetics are incorrect, but aren’t relevant to this particular issue.

In all the reading I’ve done about Christian apologetics and the debunking thereof, there have been two authors I’ve found particularly influential and helpful. The second of those was Richard Carrier, the person running the current course about the historicity of Jesus. The first was an author named Hyam Maccoby, and the first book of his I found was The Mythmaker.

I was in medical school at the time, which would put this in my early 20s, and I’d continued to spend a lot of my spare time checking out the religion sections in the local libraries. I was, by the way, getting to do this in a setting so awesome I’m going to go off on a completely irrelevant tangent for a few minutes to describe it; the Liverpool Picton Library, part of the Central Library, repository of their religion and psychology section. A huge circular room, ringed with three stories of bookshelves, with wrought-iron spiral staircases leading up to balconies running the circumference of the room. And, over it all, a giant arched dome of a ceiling that echoed every quiet sound back and forth, so when you closed a book or put it down too loudly you’d hear the sound repeating three more times. Those soft quadruple thuds punctuate my memories of reading there.

So, not to be too overdramatic, but it was a good setting for discovering a life-changing author; and, browsing the balcony shelves, I discovered Hyam Maccoby.

Maccoby was a Jewish Talmudic scholar who brought that background and expertise to his analysis of the New Testament, and thus provided some surprising insights and interpretations. I hope to write a lot more about his views, because they deserve more detailed analysis, but for now here’s the Cliff Notes version for the main points.

  • Maccoby believed the Pharisees have been unfairly maligned. He pointed to a quote of Josephus, who referred to them as ‘beloved of all the people’, and argued, with many examples, that their detailed analysis and interpretations of the Jewish Law, far from being unnecessary legalism, were aimed at making the law more humane and less oppressive. As an example of which…
  • Maccoby believed that Jesus himself – portrayed throughout the Gospels and the centuries as ferociously anti-Pharisee – was, in reality, a Pharisee. Maccoby’s smoking gun here is Jesus’s expressed position on Sabbath healing. This aligns perfectly with that given in the Oral Law (since preserved in writing as the Talmud) even to the extent of using similar expressions to state his views; Mark 2:27 and John 7:23 both echo expressions found in the Talmud, the latter in particular coming from a known logical technique used frequently by the Pharisees to formulate some of their legal interpretations. On top of that, Maccoby argued that Jesus’s other views were in no way in conflict with Pharisee principles; that teaching in parables was known to be a typical Pharisaic teaching style; and that the description of Jesus as a passionate debater of legal points with the Pharisees is exactly what we would expect of the Pharisees, whose very raison d’etre was to be in constant debate over the different points of the law with the aim of reaching a workable and evolving consensus.
  • ….which, of course, raises the question of why the Gospels show Jesus as constantly in conflict with the Pharisees. The answer, Maccoby believes, is the political background at the time the Gospels were actually written, in the aftermath of the Jewish-Roman War. The pro-Jewish Pharisees were persona non grata at the time; the pro-Roman Sadducee party were at least somewhat more in favour. So, if Jesus’s arguments about Sabbath law had in fact been with the Sadducees (plausible, as the Sadducees are known to have taken a harder line on the keeping of the Sabbath, although we no longer know details), then here the Gospel writers would have been, faced with stories about their hero apparently arguing against the pro-Roman party in a time when it was politically unwise to be anti-Roman. It would have been simple and obvious to alter the story by a crucial detail (when telling it to a largely Gentile audience who might well not have known better) and substitute ‘Pharisees’ for ‘Sadducees’.
  • To round off the irony, Maccoby also believed that Paul – the supposed super-duper-uber-Pharisee prior to his conversion – was actually a failure at Pharisee training and had to drop out without making it beyond the basics. More on that when I get a chance to blog about it, which will not be for some time.
  • Maccoby believed that Jesus’s original followers were exactly what other Messianic groups were – a group who believed their leader to be the king of David’s line promised by Jewish prophecy, whose arrival signaled the prophesied and long-awaited time in which Israel’s oppressors would be overthrown and a wonderful time of peace and plenty would come about. Nothing about dying for our sins, or being God, or being the only way evil doomed humanity could find salvation; all those ideas, according to Maccoby, would have been entirely foreign to the original disciples and to the Jewish religion of which they always counted themselves a part. They did, of course, have one interesting difference from other Messianic groups; following their leader’s ignominious death at the hands of the oppressors, they came to believe that he had been miraculously raised from the dead by God and was coming back – at some unspecified but imminent time in the future – to lead them to the longed-for victory over the Romans. Thanks to this belief, they were able to persist as a Messianic group after the death of their leader, unlike most other such groups who fell apart, hopes dashed, after their particular would-be Messiah died. But they remained faithful to Judaism at all times, with no intention of starting a new religion.
  • And then (Maccoby tells us) along came Paul. Who, labouring under some profound problems of his own (partly the aforealleged failure to make it as a Pharisee; partly a fascination with the pagan religions that were forbidden to him as a practicing Jew) but aided by a brilliantly creative mind, experienced a sudden (literally) dazzling flash of inspiration in which his troubled mind fused different influential schools of thought within his society into a syncretic whole. From pagan religions, the idea of a god who died and rose again to benefit his followers; from Gnosticism, the idea of an external saviour sent from above in order to rescue humans from the condition of otherwise irredeemable sinfulness and hopelessness in which they existed; and from Judaism, a powerful sense of destiny, with a single all-powerful Deity prophesying wonders for His chosen people. On some subconscious level, on his fateful journey to Damascus, Paul fused these elements together and the religion we now know as Christianity was born.

Now, if you’ve read that far, I can imagine you may well be doing a certain amount of head-shaking and eye-rolling at that amount of speculation. And, if so, you’d be at least partly right. While Maccoby provided far more in the way of detailed and cogent arguments for the above points than I can do justice to in one blog post, his main weakness was always his blurring of the line between fact and his opinion. He did an intriguing and thought-provoking job of identifying anomalies in the NT writings and coming up with plausible explanations – but, over and over, his books fail to distinguish between ‘This is a feasible explanation for such-and-such’ and ‘This is the way things happened.’ I’ve tried to keep this in mind while reading his work; to remember that just because I can’t obviously spot any errors in his work doesn’t mean he couldn’t be wrong. (In fact, I decided early on that it would be wise to assume that he is wrong about at least some of it – even if I don’t know which parts – simply because it seemed too improbable that one person could have come up with all the answers as to how things really happened two thousand years ago.)

Despite this flaw, however, Maccoby remains one of my all-time favourite writers on the topic of religion and Christian origins. Initially, what he gave me was a possible – and plausible – explanation for how Christianity became the success it did – an explanation, that is, that did not involve believing that Christianity is actually true and hence that the universe is run by a monster. Which was, of course, a great relief. Over the years, I’ve learned a great deal from his books and found them fascinating reads. His theories have been the single biggest influence on my understanding of the NT and of Christianity. And, although I do now question some details of them, overall they have so far stood the test of time for me.

But… how do they compare to the theory that Jesus never actually existed?

To be continued…

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The Messiah: What Jews Believe

(This is a follow-on from the previous post.)

So, there I was, a Gentile teenager in pre-Internet days, trying to find out what Jews believed about the Messiah. It wasn’t all that easy, but I was persistent, and I did have the benefit of living in a London suburb, which meant that there were several libraries within easy travelling distance. After a lot of checking out of the religion section in every library I could get to, I found what I was looking for.

I don’t actually remember, at this stage, which book first gave me the information I needed about Jewish Messianic beliefs, or what I found out on the subject from that book and what details I gleaned since then from other sources; I know that I did read about the subject in several different places over the next several years, and have done so since then. So here, for anyone who doesn’t already know it, is what I found out over time about the Messiah and what the idea means in Jewish thought.

‘Messiah’ (or, more accurately, ‘Maschiach’ – ‘Messiah’ is an anglicised version of the Hebrew word) literally means ‘anointed’ or ‘anointed one’. More generally, it was used as a general term for Jewish kings and priests, referring to the fact that they had to be anointed as part of their intiation. (This, it’s worth noting, has caused longstanding confusion over Daniel 9, which twice refers to a Messiah and thus has been understandably interpreted as referring to the Messiah by Christians who don’t realise that the term can actually be used in a much more general sense than that.)

However, of course, the Messiah refers in Jewish thought to someone much more specific; a particular king, of David’s line, prophecied in the Jewish scriptures as ruling over Israel in a miraculous future time when all Israel’s enemies have been defeated and the Jewish people can live in peace and plenty.

Practicing Jews differ on the details of what they believe about the Messiah and about how this age is to come about; for example, over the centuries some have believed that the Messiah will lead the people of Israel into battle in order to defeat enemies, while others have believed that God will defeat all Israel’s enemies by a miracle. However, the one unalterable basic criterion for the position is that you do have to end up ruling over Israel in this miraculous age of peace and plenty, because that’s what the prophecies describe.

By extension, therefore, this wonderful time actually does have to come about. If it doesn’t come about (or if it does and you don’t end up ruling Israel during it; of course, so far the rather obvious absence of such a time coming about has meant that this is a moot point), then, whatever other great things you may or may not have done, you’re not the Messiah. QED.

There have, in fact, been many times throughout history when the Jewish people or a subgroup thereof have pinned their hopes on a particular charismatic or holy figure being the Messiah; and, of course, every time the prophesied wonderland has failed to come about and the followers have been disappointed. Jesus’s time spawned several such, a couple of whom are mentioned by Gamaliel in Acts 5. And Jesus, of course, failed this test like all the rest; he died without the promised land coming to be. Therefore, whatever else Jesus might have been, one thing he was indubitably not was the promised Jewish Messiah.

Which meant the Christians were wrong about that rather fundamental fact; and, by implication, that they might be wrong about other fundamentals of their beliefs as well. Which came as a great relief to me.

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Encountering apologetics

I’ve mentioned before that I spent a large portion of my younger years reading about religion and theism, trying to find answers for myself. One particular part of this that I want to write about is all the time I spent looking into claims about Christianity in particular, and the things I found out. While it would take too long to go into all of this search, parts of it are relevant to the issue of why I currently believe that Jesus probably existed, and thus it would be good to write about those before I start the upcoming course on the subject.

The reason Christianity was a particular issue in my search for the truth was, of course, because I lived in a nominally Christian country. This meant that, when I browsed the religious section of the library shelves, I came across a lot of books telling me all the reasons why Christianity was obviously true. (The apostles wouldn’t have died for a lie! Jesus obviously wasn’t crazy or lying, so the only other option is that he really was the Messiah! The Jewish authorities would have just showed everyone Jesus’s body if he really was still in the tomb, so the fact that they didn’t do that proves he really had risen from the grave! Etc. You probably know the kind of thing.) I was young, and inexperienced in the ways of analysing arguments, and had no idea how to start coming up with answers to these. They sounded scarily convincing.

I say ‘scarily’ because I found (and find) the basic Christian theology horrifying. According to what Christianity taught (although the kinds of books I came across in the public library did gloss over this somewhat), everyone who wasn’t a Christian was going to end up burning in hell forever, just for not being the right religion. And this was how God saw fit to organise things. Because, again according to Christianity, God saw all of us as hopeless sinners no matter how many good things we’d done, fit only to burn in hell unless we escaped this by having the good luck to be the right religion. And people claimed that this setup was a sign of how forgiving God was, and that our response should be to love and worship him. However was I supposed to make any sense out of that?

To see the fallacy of those arguments, I didn’t need to look any further than my own father. Since he was a non-Christian, if what Christians believed was right then he was one of the people destined for an eternity in Hell. Now, I might not be sure of anything else related to religion or God’s existence, but I certainly was sure that this sweet, gentle, wise, witty, lovely man did not belong in any sort of a hell, much less an eternal one. So, when Christianity tried to tell me that God had arranged the universe in such a way that that was where my father was destined to end up, I knew that either our universe was in the charge of a seriously psychopathic and horrifying God, or else Christianity was wrong.

It was the former of those two possibilities that had me worried.

However, I did have one ray of hope in all this, and that was that Judaism believed Christianity to be wrong. Jews had rejected Jesus as the Messiah. While this fact seemed to get dismissed by Christians as being just a sign of how sinful, or stubborn, or set in their ways, or whatever, the Jews were, it seemed to me that it shouldn’t be brushed aside that easily.

After all, the Jews were surely the experts on the matter; they were the ones who came up with (or were given, depending on how you looked at it) the Biblical prophecies and the concept of a Messiah in the first place. What was more, everything I read on the subject said that the Jews desperately wanted the Messiah to arrive. They hoped for him. They prayed for him. They would, from all I could find out, be overjoyed to have him show up – which meant, by implication, that they would have been overjoyed if Jesus really had been the Messiah. So, when they decided that he wasn’t… surely they must have had a good reason for doing so?

I decided I had to find out what was required, according to Judaism, to qualify as the Messiah. Otherwise, how could I possibly judge whether Jesus really was?

To be continued…

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I don’t know whether anyone apart from my mother has been reading this, but anyone who has may reasonably be wondering what happened to my promised review of Mere Christianity. The answer is partly that time was an issue (my appraisal was unexpectedly brought forward a month, meaning I had something of a mad scrabble to get all the required work done in time), but mainly that I realised that I was potentially about to fall foul of copyright laws.

The format I hope to use for the review, having seen several other books reviewed in the same way, is to work through each chapter quoting short segments to illustrate each point of Lewis’s to which I planned to reply; which will, of course, mean quoting quite a lot of the book before I’m done. I looked it up and, yes, that could legally be a problem unless I get permission first. So, I e-mailed the Lewis Foundation for permission, and I’m still waiting to hear back from them. If I don’t get permission to quote I’ll still go ahead with the review, which would mean describing Lewis’s point in each case without directly quoting; but that wouldn’t be as good a way of doing it, so I’d still like to get permission to quote if possible and thus I’m waiting to hear one way or the other before starting on the review. No matter. There are plenty of other things to write about meanwhile.

One such thing is an online course this December, run by professional historian and atheist Richard Carrier, on the intriguing question of whether Jesus actually ever existed or whether even that much is a myth. I’ve dithered somewhat about whether to sign up for this, but it is something I really want to do and so I’ve decided to go ahead and splash out and treat myself.

This sounds as though it could be really interesting. I first came across Dr Carrier’s writings at the site many years ago, and I’m a major longstanding fan of his anti-apologetics stuff. On this point, however, I actually disagree with him; while both Carrier and I agree that the sheer paucity of the evidence means there’s a huge and currently irresolvable question mark over this one, at the end of the day he comes down on the side of believing that Jesus was probably entirely mythical, whereas I believe that, under the layers of myth that have grown up around the whole thing since then, there probably was an actual real-life Jewish wannabe messianic Yeshua who (quite inadvertently) started the whole faith going.

So, I’m looking forward to seeing how the discussion goes. It is quite possible that, once I’ve gone into the mythical-Jesus position in more depth (I’ve pretty much skimmed it so far, looking for the key points), I’ll change my mind on this one. Then again, who knows – it is not impossible that Dr Carrier will be impressed enough by my arguments to end up coming down in favour of a historical Jesus after all. Most likely we’ll just have some good discussion about it to our mutual enjoyment (actually, most likely is that I won’t be able to find enough time for it, but whatever). Tune in for the next thrilling instalment, etc.

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Why I won’t be giving to ‘Operation Christmas Child’ this year

A few weeks ago, my daughter came home from school waving a letter informing me that the school is ‘proud to be supporting the Operation Christmas Child project this year’. (The letter also says that they ‘have enjoyed huge success with OCC in the past, and were the school with the highest number of contributions in [our town] for several years!’ which I have to say puzzled me a little – my children have been there for the previous two Christmases and the school wasn’t doing Operation Christmas Child for either of those, so there’s obviously been a break in that support for some reason. Oh, well, that’s by-the-by.)

Operation Christmas Child, for anyone who hasn’t come across it, is a charity organisation that sends shoeboxes full of Christmas presents to impoverished children. Schools and other organisations get involved in collecting the presents (hence the letters the school sent home, inviting donations) and assembling them into boxes to send on to the organisation. The school my children previously attended also took part in this, and I happily bought small toys each year to donate, and felt passingly guilty about not having the time/organisational abilities/inclination to go to the lengths of making up an entire shoebox to pass on – it seemed like such a lovely cause.

What I didn’t realise, at the time, was that Samaritan’s Purse – the organisation running OCC – is an evangelical Christian programme that uses the present donations as opportunities to give out proselytising literature to children.

It’s not an accident that I didn’t realise it; despite this evangelism being central to OCC’s mission, the leaflets of theirs that were given out at the previous school didn’t mention it at all. This caginess, apparently, has been typical of OCC’s work. On that point, at least, they do appear to have improved somewhat; the leaflet the school sent home contains the following section on the inner page:

Operation Christmas Child is the world’s largest children’s Christmas project. Our mission is to demonstrate God’s love in a tangible way to needy children around the world, and together with the local church worldwide, to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. Where appropriate, with each shoebox our church partners may offer a booklet of Bible stories. With the consent of their parent or guardian, they may also invite children receiving shoeboxes to attend The Greatest Journey discipleship course, where they will learn about Jesus and how to share their faith with others.

While this is at least something, it’s still rather downplaying what it is they do; as you can see from the above links, those ‘booklets of Bible stories’ are in fact full-on evangelism. The design of the leaflet also means that that section isn’t all that obvious; it’s on a green background,  meaning the black type doesn’t stand out all that much. Below it, the information that people reading the leaflet are actually going to be looking for – the suggestions for what to donate – are written as widely-spaced bullet points on a white background, making them stand out much more. Whether this is deliberate I don’t know, but the overall effect is that a busy parent skimming quickly through the leaflet looking for the instructions on what to do is very likely to miss the already-understated section on this group’s evangelical activities.

I’m uneasy at the fact that the school arranged this donation drive without explaining the group’s underlying religious mission; it does make me very suspicious that Samaritan’s Purse omitted that bit of explanation from their discussion with the school, and have made a supposedly multi-faith school into an unwitting vehicle for a very narrow religious message with which many of the parents will not agree. I debated over whether or not to let the school know what this group is about; the problem, of course, is that it’s hard to object to a charity that gives presents to deprived children without looking like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Eventually, rather inevitably, the combination of procrastination and other claims on my time made the decision for me and the appeal is now over for this year. But I do think I’ll drop them a line, giving them a heads-up as to what this group is all about just so that, if they decide to support it in subsequent years, they at least know what they’re supporting.

Meanwhile, I didn’t provide any donations. While I don’t want to be the killjoy who objects to brightening the Christmas of a child in need, I also don’t really want my money used to present a viewpoint with which I so vehemently disagree. There are plenty of good causes out there that don’t come with the evangelical strings attached.

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Mere Christianity – Introduction/Preface

One interesting thing I’ve seen several atheist bloggers do is to review a book they disagree with by posting reviews of a chapter or section at a time (typically on a weekly basis), pointing out the flaws. For example, Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism is currently working through the enlighteningly appalling Anonymous Tip by Michael Farris; Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism wrote a superbly informative debunking of Lee Strobel’s The Case For A Creator a couple of years back, and is now entertaining us all with the many and varied flaws of Ayn Rand’s infamous Atlas Shrugged.

[Side note: All those links come from the Patheos website. I adore the site, but feel obliged to pass on the PSA that Firefox does not seem to share this adoration; the site regularly locks up my browser when I try to use it. Or crashes when I try to load it on my mobile phone. The problem seems to be with the number of plug-ins on the site, and there are techie ways round that that I must get round to looking up and trying at some point; for the moment, just wanted to warn any readers here to be a bit cautious about opening those links in Firefox, especially if you’re like me and open multiple links at the same time. I’m currently trying out Internet Explorer to see if it handles things any better.]

Anyway, to get back to the main point, these book reviews look like great fun to me and I decided to have a go at this for myself.

As you may well have deduced from the post title, I’ve picked C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity to review. I chose this largely for the practical reason that I actually own a copy, which I picked up second-hand somewhere or other years ago, but it seems like a good one; it’s a very well-known and influential book, and the few chapters I have read of it in the past were beautifully written and argued. I’ve always felt I should go back and read the rest but never got round to doing so, so this will be something of a voyage of discovery for me as well.

Some background here for anyone not familiar with the book: It consists of a series of radio talks Lewis gave on Christianity in the early 1940s, some ten years or so after his own conversion to Christianity. These were then published shortly afterwards as three separate books, which I believe represent three separate series; following that, of course, the three were published as a single volume, slightly revised by Lewis in places where he felt a point needed further clarification.

The book starts out with a preface, which I’ll review briefly here for completeness. Beyond that, I’ll aim to post chapter reviews when I can (bloggers who do this typically seem to aim for one day every week when they post their latest chapter review, but my life simply isn’t that organised; I’ll post as and  when I can, and intersperse reviews with posts on other subjects).

Lewis explains the origin of the book as I’ve done above, and adds the following points:

  • He has deliberately avoided getting into discussions of points of doctrine. In many cases he himself doesn’t feel qualified to answer these, and in all cases he feels these sorts of debates are counter-productive in that they drive would-be converts away from Christianity. He therefore aims only to present the case for Christianity in general, the ‘mere Christianity’ of the title, rather than for any particular doctrine. (He himself was a fairly middle-of-the-road Church-of-Englander.) He feels that, once a person has been called to Christianity, it is up to that person to choose for himself (Lewis predated unisex pronouns) the denomination he feels to be right, a process he compares to being in the hall of a house and choosing which of many rooms to go into; he counsels kindness and prayer for those in other ‘rooms’ of the ‘house’.
  • He has also avoided discussing moral issues that he himself does not have to struggle with, as he feels it inappropriate to do so; for example, he does not feel it his business as a single man to pronounce upon the morality of birth control. (Oh, Lewis, would that you were alive today to lend your steadying common sense to the debate.)
  • He objects to the use of the word ‘Christian’ as a general synonym for any good or decent person regardless of their religious beliefs; this, he says, renders the word effectively useless.

From the perspective of an atheist, by the way, I’d like to add another reason to that last point; namely, that using ‘Christian’ as a compliment for any nice person is the equivalent of “Why, Miss Smith, your mind is so good it’s practically masculine.” I strive to be a good person, but I’m not a Christian; I’m not even a theist. This makes no difference to my efforts to be a good person. To describe me as ‘Christian’ when what is actually meant is ‘good person’ would both negate something important about me and imply that non-Christians are somehow expected to be not-good people, which is downright offensive, however sweetly packaged as an apparent compliment.

Other than that, I have nothing to say about the preface except that, like the other parts of his work I have so far read, it is beautifully written and a joy to read. (I can’t resist quoting one particular gem: ‘Now this objection is in one sense very right, very charitable, very spiritual, very sensitive. It has every available quality except that of being useful.’) I look forward to reading further; it’s going to be almost a shame to disagree with him. (Almost.)

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Answers to Matt Slick’s ‘Questions for Atheists’ – Part 3

This is the third part of my responses to Matt Slick’s Questions for Atheists list from the CARM website. Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.

22. Do you believe there is such a thing as evil? If so, what is it?

I believe that extreme badness exists in the world. I don’t believe in an external source of evil (i.e. a ‘devil tempts us’ type of philosophy).

23. If you believe that the God of the Old Testament is morally bad, by what standard do you judge that He is bad?

It’s a long time since I actually read the OT in detail, but, as best as I can remember, I didn’t at the time judge God to be bad. Jealous to a petty degree, yes. Worryingly homophobic, yes. Holding some very concerning ideas about women and sexual consent, yes. But, you know, not really bad at heart or anything.

(With hindsight, I have the feeling that I may have been rather too ready to overlook some very egregious behaviour, including the odd hideous massacre along the way. What can I say? I was naive, not very good at being skeptical, and somewhat primed by society to believe that God was supremely wonderful and so if God said it it must be Right.)

The God of the New Testament, on the other hand – that was a God who truly horrified me. Bad stuff on earth I could go a fair way to gloss over, but a God who would choose to condemn humans to an eternity of torture, purely for believing in the wrong religion, was a God that even my naive childhood/teen/twentysomething self couldn’t come to terms with.

In anticipation of your follow-up question: I judge that God to be bad by the same standard I’d judge anyone else to be bad. Namely, the standard that says that torturing people for eternity is wrong. (As, for that matter, are homophobia, jealousy, rape laws based on the principle that the only important issue in rape is the prospect of a husband or future husband being bothered about trespass within the vagina that’s supposed to be his sole property, and the ordering of massacres.)

24. What would it take for you to believe in God?

25. What would constitute sufficient evidence for God’s existence?

26. Must this evidence be rationally based, archaeological, testable in a lab, etc., or what?

(Again, I’ve grouped these three together as they seemed to be effectively three parts of the same question.)

What it would take is implied in this post; I would need the same sort of level of evidence that exists for the people and things that I experience each day. I don’t need laboratory or archaeological evidence for the coffee table next to me or my husband and children or Matt Slick; I have the evidence of my senses. If God communicated with us in some way that we could unequivocally, objectively sense in the same way as we see or hear or touch the things in the world around us (1), and that everyone else experienced similarly (2), then I wouldn’t have a problem in believing (3).

(1) Which wouldn’t have to be via our existing senses, necessarily; no reason why we couldn’t have another sense or senses solely for the purpose of experiencing God. But it would have to be something that carried that same quality of transmitting external data, data that feels qualitatively, noticeably different from the inner workings of our minds.

(2) ‘Almost everyone else’ would still be good enough. After all, in the world currently there are people who have problems with their existing senses and can’t see or hear properly, or people who, for various reasons, hallucinate things that aren’t there but seem real to them; and these blips in the universality of sensory experiences don’t interfere in practice with our ability to discern that the people and things we encounter actually exist.

(3) Well, I wouldn’t have had a problem in believing if things had been that way from the start. I think that if a god suddenly started doing this now, it would be natural to wonder why on earth he or she hadn’t been doing this throughout the history of humanity and to want some answers, and I for one would wonder whether these communications might in fact be due to something like aliens trying to influence the human race (which may of course simply mean I’ve spent too much time watching Doctor Who) and would still be skeptical for a while before believing. Still, if a being started communicating with us in this sort of universal unequivocal way and consistently continued doing so over time, I’d find that to be sufficient evidence.

27. Do you think that a society that is run by Christians or atheists would be safer? Why?

I don’t think it would be very safe to base the choosing of our leaders on their personal beliefs about religion, regardless of what those beliefs might be.

If I absolutely had to choose I’d say atheists, as they’re less likely to base general bans on personal beliefs. (Not saying this couldn’t happen, just that it’s a lot less likely with people not driven by a belief system telling them that the Divine Being In Charge Of The Universe requires society to be run a particular way.) But I’d much rather have a society in which the personal beliefs of the people in charge are irrelevant and what matters is how well the person is actually doing at running things.

28. Do you believe in free will? (free will being the ability to make choices without coersion [sic]).


29. If you believe in free will, do you see any problem with defending the idea that the physical brain, which is limited and subject to the neuro-chemical laws of the brain, can still produce free will choices?

No, and this objection always puzzles me – this idea that the fact that your choices come from a brain with particular abilities and limitations is somehow an infringement on free will. Surely, for free will to mean anything, there has to be a self, a ‘me’, that makes the choices? Whether you continue that self to consist of a complex web of interconnected neurones or a God-given soul, surely it has to consist of something that differentiates the free-will choices of that individual self from the free-will choices of any other individual self? Otherwise, surely you don’t have an individual making meaningful choices, but more of a random number generator?

30. If you affirm evolution and that the universe will continue to expand forever, then do you think it is probable that given enough time, brains would evolve to the point of exceeding mere physical limitations and become free of the physical and temporal, and thereby become “deity” and not be restricted by space and time? If not, why not?

I think it’s unlikely. Firstly, I don’t even know if teleportation/time travel (which seems to be what Slick is talking about here) are even theoretically possible. Secondly, even if these abilities are theoretically possible, then there’s the question of how they could develop via evolution. For that to happen, there would have to be intermediate stages of development of those abilities that provided some sort of survival or reproductive advantage, and it’s hard to see how that would be the case. However, it certainly can’t be ruled out.

31. If you answered the previous question in the affirmative, then aren’t you saying that it is probable that some sort of God exists?

I didn’t, so this is a N/A. But this also makes me think I misunderstood the last one; this sounds as though Slick was actually talking not about teleportation/time travel, but about minds becoming free of the confines of the physical brain altogether; which strikes me as even less likely to happen.

I’m curious, though, as to why Slick would find it important if we did believe this? After all, even if human beings did develop these god-like attributes, while that would mean they could be described as gods in some sense they certainly wouldn’t be the God that Slick believes in, so I’m not sure how this is relevant to anything he’s arguing.


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More on Sabrina Hout

This will hopefully be the last of what seems to have turned into a three-part response to Dr Peter Saunders’ post Three new worrying conscience cases – Christians must be prepared to pay the price for obeying God in the face of legal threats. Saunders gave examples of situations that he believed to be worrying infringements on the religious freedom of others, of which the two that I’m discussing – Sabrina Hout and Kim Davis – both involved officials with religious opposition to gay marriage. In my first reply, I objected to the idea that religious freedom could allow discrimination against others, and in my second reply I discussed Davis’s case further. This post, therefore, is to discuss a few details of Hout’s case.

Sabrina Hout’s case is rather a bizarre one. Although Saunders claimed, in his post, that she has been sent to court for ‘refusing’ to perform a same-sex marriage, this is not strictly speaking true. What actually happened was that she let the couple think that their marriage had gone ahead legally despite not properly performing it.

According to what I’ve been able to find, Hout (fraudulently) signed the register to say that the marriage had taken place, and then slipped out of the room and let one of the other officials carry out the ceremony despite the fact that he was not legally authorised to do so and this would mean that the marriage was not legal. (I have no idea why the official in question didn’t immediately point this out; it seems an important point, but isn’t answered in the articles I’ve been able to find on this case, which hasn’t been nearly as notorious as the Kim Davis case.)

This doesn’t seem to have been a calculated attempt to be obstructive – more of a panicked ‘I can’t decide how to deal with this difficult issue! Maybe if I just wave my hands around and ignore it really hard it’ll all magically disappear!’ reaction – but it’s hard to tell. Whatever the reason, the result was that the couple in question went away believing they were married when in fact they weren’t.

Luckily this was picked up a few weeks later, meaning that, although they had to face the painful discovery that their joyful day of sharing their lifelong commitment with their friends and family had in fact been a sham, at least they didn’t face the kinds of legal and financial problems that could potentially have ensued if they’d gone on incorrectly thinking they were married and making plans on that basis. However, they were understandably very unhappy with the situation, and this is why they are suing Hout. That’s not some kind of unfair infringement on Hout’s freedom of conscience, as Saunders would apparently have us believe; it’s what typically happens when you defraud people.

Now, this sort of behaviour (this was fraud, for goodness’ sake) is so difficult to justify even if starting from the premise of ‘Gay marriage is wrong because Bible!’ that I’m wondering just how it ended up in Saunders’ blog post in the first place. Even if he believes that officials should be allowed to discriminate refuse to perform marriages they don’t approve of, I doubt he actually wants to argue that they should be allowed to trick people like this. So what exactly happened? Was Saunders so convinced that anyone acting for religious motives must be in the right that he didn’t bother reading the basic details of the case? Or what?

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