Sunday, March 18, 2007

Language, Atheism and Christianity

When researching Simon Peter, I did reading about the three major groups of Jews at the time: the Pharisees, the Saducees and the Essenes. (Josephus mentions a fourth sect, the Zealots which get the most press, but he was writing decades after Jesus' death and it's historically ambiguous whether the Zealots had a real presence during the 20s and 30s – plus, the Zealots don't play a role in my book whatsoever.)

The Saducees were the aristocratic Jews, remnants of the Hasmonean priesthood, the Hasmoneans being the dynastic of the Maccabees after they threw out the Seleucid Persians. They taught a very stern and literal interpretation of the Torah.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, from which modern Rabbinical Judaism comes, were very interested in the Law. They were the guys who constructed the elaborate oral tradition – the Oral Torah – and had interpretations for everything. They were concerned with making sure that everyone followed the law in every way. (This was probably a result of the Hellenization of upper class Jews and an attempt to cling to specifically Jewish traditions to maintain the ethnic character of their people. It worked. Judaism still exists in the form largely set down by the Pharisees.)

The Essenes, on the other hand, were . . . well, right now, it's hard to say, precisely. The Nag Hammadi library, which contains a lot of Essene literature, shows them to be mystics without a unifying belief other than a general mysticism. Some scholars reject that the Nag Hammadi documents are Essene. Philo and Josephus talk about the Essenes as living in monasteries and practicing celibacy, tho' Josephus also mentions another “rank” of Essene that was allowed to get married. They owned property in common, it seems. Perhaps they were Jewish Pythagoreans. Perhaps they were the “legitimate” high priesthood rather than the Saducees. All these things were said about them. Who knows the truth? Not I.

It is possible that Jesus was either a Pharisee or an Essene. While the Pharisees do question Jesus about things, this was common amongst Pharisees – a lot of being a Pharisee was talking about the Torah, the prophets and related subjects. Perhaps the Pharisees questioning Jesus was an argument between different sects of Pharisees. Others have said he was an Essene because his teachings rejected the tightly argued qualities of Pharisaical doctrine and was more “spiritual”. What the truth is, I dunno. (For the purposes of Simon Peter, I take the point that Jesus of Nazareth was actually Jesus the Nazarene, which was one of the sects of the Essenes, and that this sect was one of the sects that nominally allowed marriage. This does not, however, reflect fact. There are no facts about which sect, if any, Jesus belonged to.)

One of the explicit reasons that Jesus does so well is because he rejects both the dry, very literal interpretation of Saducees as well as the niggling points of law demanded by the Pharisees, neither of which were terribly popular with the people at the time. The Saducees offered no hope of relief from their woes (and, indeed, were tight with the Romans and, as a group, quite Hellenized) and the Pharisees preferred strict adherence to points of law rather than ministering to the emotional needs of the people (or, at least, that's the idea – many modern Jews will reject such a characterization). When a person is wondering why Roman law was such a burden, the last thing people really wanted to hear it was because they hadn't kept their pots apart, that their god was a scribbling accountant who sent the plague of conquest because of trivial sins.

No, no. Jesus spoke the language of the common person. He hung out with fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, he dealt with Romans, slaves, the diseased. He had none of the literalism of the Saducees nor the legalistic worship of minutiae of the Pharisees. (Indeed, so stripped of specifically Jewish content was Jesus' message that he quickly gained a Hellenistic following – starting in the Gospels, themselves, with the Roman centurion who asks Jesus to cure his servant. The Book of Acts is primarily about the Hellenistic followers of Jesus against the Jewish followers of Jesus and the ascent of the Hellenist followers of Jesus.) It was accessible, indeed, designed, for the people.

In this post, in the comments, my friend Becky mentions how she likes my writing style because it is accessible. This is something I aim for in my writing, so it pleases me to hear this said. I have poor humor with people who use a Latin- or Greek-based word where a Saxon one will do the job, and do it better. I also, as a rule, dislike jargon.

Words based on classical languages and jargon are usually used for nothing less than classism. The use of pretentious language serves the immediate purpose of making a lot of discussions inaccessible to people without advanced educations. You can't talk about something if you don't understand the other person's words, after all. So if a person uses a word with a lot of subtle nuances, it becomes trivially easy for them to say that an less educated person lacks the depth of knowledge to participate in the conversation - simply because they don't speak with the same formalities as the educated person.

This has riddled the liberal arts since, well, probably forever. But it's trivially easy to find discussions where an educated person will try to dismiss an apparently less educated person by talking about details of words. This happened to me, recently, in the comments to this post where the relative value of Buddhism to the world became about the subtle meanings of the Sanskrit word dukkha, which is generally translated “suffering” into English.

So, in first century Judea and Galilee, most of the Jewish talk was very scholarly (as most Jewish discourse is, today) - either the learned discourse of the Saducees or the learned discourse of the Pharisees (the Essenes, living in monasteries, didn't interact much with the common folk). Jesus, on the other hand, spoke common language to common people. The Gospels are riddled with homey allegories about farming and fishing. Primitive church converts were, overwhelmingly, from the lower classes, too. For the first two hundred years of Christian existence, it was considered a “slave religion”.

(Christians, themselves, will fall back on the tactic of demanding an elaborate education in order to discuss Christianity, interestingly enough. When talking to prospective converts they'll use the sort of language that Jesus used – simple and clear. When talking to detractors, they get post-modern to the point of nihilism and basically assert if you can't give three quotations to support a given point then you're clearly an idiot who doesn't understand Christianity and, thus, are dismissable. For what it's worth, the way to counter this is to talk about the non-religious history surrounding Christianity – bring up Mithras, bring up Magna Mater, bring up Cyrus the Great, they don't know anything about the cultural influences that informed early Christianity. You don't even have to know much about it, yourself! Let their confusion do your job for you. So, “Oh, that's nothing that Magna Mater didn't preach centuries before Jesus. Jesus is just the Jewish Attis.” Freaking out ensues.)

So, when Becky said in her comments to me that Christianity does well, even today, because it speaks the language of the common person, I think it's fair to look at that. Christianity's early successes were because of the connection between Christians and the common folks, starting with Jesus himself, but obviously continuing with Peter and Paul and all the evangelists. (It took Romans to make Christianity palatable to the upper classes, such as Augustine of Hippo.) Christianity's continuing successes are also due to that. Christians speak very common language.

(F'rex, George Bush! Gore, Nader, Kerry, they're all way too smart for people to trust them. Which doesn't mean that they're particularly intelligent – well, Nader's very bright, and Gore is fairly sharp, but Kerry is a profoundly mediocre intelligence – but they speak in a way alien to many Americans. Bush, tho' an idiot, is an idiot who connects with people on the level of language. He talks like regular people. Clinton, too, who is a brilliant speaker. He can speak intellectually when the situation needs it, but his lasting appeal is that he can speak in a very regular way and do so confidently and easily.)

Atheists? Not so much with the simple communication. Take probably the leading spokesperson for atheism, right now, Sam Harris. In an article in the LA Times he talks about Rep. Pete Stark coming out as a non-theist going to a Unitarian church. Excepts follow:

Of course, one can imagine that Cicero’s handlers in the 1st century BC lost some sleep when he likened the traditional accounts of the Greco-Roman gods to the “dreams of madmen” and to the “insane mythology of Egypt.”

That's in the second paragraph and he's already talking about dead Romans.

The truth is, there is not a person on Earth who has a good reason to believe that Jesus rose from the dead or that Muhammad spoke to the angel Gabriel in a cave. And yet billions of people claim to be certain about such things. As a result, Iron Age ideas about everything high and low — sex, cosmology, gender equality, immortal souls, the end of the world, the validity of prophecy, etc. — continue to divide our world and subvert our national discourse. Many of these ideas, by their very nature, hobble science, inflame human conflict and squander scarce resources.

Subvert, inflame, cosmology . . . cosmology? I mean, there's a lot of diction that's pompous, here, but . . . cosmology? Who the fuck knows what that is, really? Not precisely the language to connect with most people. (Okay, I know what cosmology is - and I know that different people study it in different ways. Theologians study cosmology as much as astrophysicists. It is a diverse and divisive field.)

Outside this sphere of maniacs, one finds millions more who share their views but lack their zeal. Beyond them, one encounters pious multitudes who respect the beliefs of their more deranged brethren but who disagree with them on small points of doctrine — of course the world is going to end in glory and Jesus will appear in the sky like a superhero, but we can’t be sure it will happen in our lifetime.

Pious multitudes?!

Everything that Harris writes is like this. It doesn't bother me most of the time, because despite not liking pompous language, I know a lot of big words and, really, after reading Marx and Hegel everything else is cake. But to a lot of people, their eyes will start to glaze over the minute they hit Cicero. They will get the classist clues that This is Not For Them. That to engage in this discussion, you've got to know classical politicians well enough to catch obscure references to them.

A lot of atheist talk is this way. A lot of atheists are educated people, as virtually every atheist will say, and brag about. There is a strong correlation between atheism and education.

However, we do miss a lot of people with our learned discourse. There are a lot of less educated people who have things to say – important things to say, and the ability to say them with greater poetry than Sam Harris, or myself. But they're all locked out of the discussion because talking like Sam Harris is almost de rigeur to be taken seriously by atheists – unless you wear your intellectual credentials on your sleeve, you're likely to be ignored.

I think this is a pretty big problem and I call on all atheists to speak clearly. Very little of what atheists need to talk about, about atheism, can't be said in simple language. For the purposes of spreading atheism to those most at risk for the Christian (and other popular religions) meme requires us to learn plain talking, because they're already experts at it and have been for thousands of years. Speaking plainly will drain the religious swamp.

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Santiago said...

This post has been removed by the author.

March 19, 2007 10:48 AM  
Santiago said...

I agree that there is a significant problem when it comes to speaking in an educated manner to "the masses." Atheism would benefit from a greater use of "plain" language.

But I think more to the point, is that it isn't just the language, it's the delivery. Even very complex language can be delievered in a fashion that brings less educated people along for the ride. I run into this with reasonable frequency when I perform some of my shows. I have found that the easiest way to accomplish this is to speak metaphorically or allegorically.

Tell them a story that illustrates the points and they'll almost always follow along. Interestingly enough, one of the most prominent Christian writers, C.S. Lewis, did precisely that. His arguements for belief are all written allegorically and as such appeal on a much more simplistic level.

Of course, when examined logically they fall apart at the seams, but they do still show the effectiveness of the story telling tool, which is really all that the Bible is; a storytelling tool.

March 19, 2007 10:50 AM  
divabeq said...

I totally agree with Santiago, and have also had experience with allegorical speaking to illustrate points.

I mean, last night, I was explaining a fairly difficult (in the sense of it being strongly against everything the society we live in tells them about the subject) philosophical point concerning money and how economics has been used to enforce classism. And then, later, possible solutions to this problem and why heirarchal authority couldn't be used to solve the problems related to this (blah blah blah)

My point is, I was explaining this stuff to an 8 year old, and I put it in terms of stories about workers and businesses and things like that and he really got it. And I'm betting he'll *remember* it, furthermore.

Allegory is a very useful tool.

March 19, 2007 11:58 AM  
Chris Bradley said...

Yeah, speaking allegorically is definitely a regular person speaking technique that is strongly disliked by intellectuals. They call it anecdotes or, particularly the pseudo-intellectuals, say it's a "straw man".

I get into this all the time, actually. I like allegories and examples but, time and again, in (pseudo-)intellectual discussions I'll be accused of making a "straw man" or whatever, rather than what I say being taken as an illustration. (Because talking about the straw man avoids having to discuss the point, I feel. You can attack the structure of the argument rather than the meaning of the argument - which is one of the techniques of dismissing "less educated" people I was talking about, hehe.)

Educated discussion is very formalized, very . . . well, boring.

Regular folks don't have a lot of patience with that sort of discussion. They, on the other hand, like examples and allegories, even if they might be "straw men" or "anecdotal" and most are, themselves, aware that an example isn't proof but a way of making a point.

March 19, 2007 1:29 PM  
Mojoey said...

Welcome to the Atheist Blogroll

March 19, 2007 7:18 PM  

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