Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Jerry Falwell is dead.

Fuck you, Falwell! Over the next couple of days, folks with be eulogizing this racist, sexist, classist evil fuckwit sonofabitch, but you're not gonna get that here. He's dead. Good! The earth is better off without him.

This rat bastard said that "pagans", abortionists, atheists, gays, feminists and "secularist" were the reason why 911 happened. He supported apartheid. He attacked Martin Luther King, Jr., and the concept of civil rights and to his dying breath supported segregation. There was never a war he disliked, nor a person of color he did like, he worked tirelessly to attack the rights of the poor and minorities. He scammed people who were poor and desperate for millions to spread hatred. His fat hands are red with innocent blood. He was a promoter of madness and hatred, and because of the material support he provided for warmongers and murderers, and to make no mention of his ideological support for even greater injustices and villainies, people have died.

So, fuck you, Falwell. Your death makes me wish there was the very Hell you believed in.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Rational Response Squad vs. Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron

I'll do my bit to spread around Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron's embarrassment. Here is the "debate" between the Rational Response Squad and Comfort/Cameron. It is occasionally painful to watch, hehe. Were I given to feeling bad for idiots who intentionally put themselves in harm's way, I'd feel sorry for them. But I don't. So, here's the video, at any rate:

And because, y'know, if you don't know who Ray Comfort is, you can look here - because we all know a banana is an atheist's worst nightmare!

Funny stuff! This guy, this Ray Comfort guy, with failed child actor Kirk Cameron, decided to offer to "prove" without reference to the Bible the scientific reality of god! Like I said, it was almost painful to watch, but was funny, instead.

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Religion! Consciously Pointless?

On his last day in Brazil, the Pope said that the Catholic Church would attract new members (a pipe dream, right there, buddy boy) because Catholicism is "[N]ot a political ideology, not a social movement, not an economic system."

On one hand, and some Christian types have said this before, why on earth would I complain that Catholicism is getting out of politics and economics? Well, it's true that I don't! I mean, not that I believe it that Catholicism isn't a political ideology -- they're excommunicating legislators that voted to make abortions legal in Mexico, for crying out loud! So, it's a lie. But more than just a lie, it seems to me that the idea that Catholicism isn't politics, or a social movement, or economics begs the question, then, "What good is it?"

One of the reasons I'm not religious is that it doesn't do anything useful. Nothing comes of religion, nothing in the here and now, that couldn't be done as well without religion.

It seems to me that the Pope is admitting this. He's saying that you can't judge Catholicism on the same grounds that we judge politics, social reform and economics -- on it's results. He seems, to my way of thinking, be saying that you can't judge Catholicism on the grounds that it does something better than another system.

The vexing part of this is the obviousness of the lie, too. It isn't that Catholicism doesn't engage in politics, economics or social movements -- it does so quite often. All the time you'll have the Pope giving a pronouncement about some political issue or the other, weighing in on war, or abortion, or what corporations should or should not do. And in Mexico, the Catholic Church is excommunicating politicians that aren't voting their way . . . and the Pope thinks that is all right. So, the Pope is lying.

Which makes a certain sort of sense. The Catholic Church wants to continue to interfere with politics and society, but it doesn't want to be judged for doing so. They don't want people to apply the same reasoning they apply to politics, economics and society to the Catholic Church -- to go up to it and say, "Hey, these things you are doing, can they be done better another way? That doesn't include a religious monarchy" - MONARCH!! - "that tries to terrify people into doing things through threats of excommunication from a non-existent god." They don't want that sort of reasoning applied to them.

But, to me, the most interesting part is the nigh public admission by the Pope that religion doesn't actually do any good. That it is not a political, social or economic system.

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Nietzsche and Slave Morality, Ressentiment and Christianity

I'm writing this in response to this post about morality. Nietzsche's name was mentioned thusly:

Nietzsche attacked the universal principles of Judeo-Christian morality. He said it could not not take into consideration the vast differences of individuality, & although it claims to encompass everyone, it is to the advantage of some & the disadvantage of others. I think some negative parts of Christian history illustrate this.

Nietzsche also suggests Christian morality is a "slave" morality, "vengeful, bitter & filled with self loathing."

That in it's self is a whole nother post because the idea is fascinating. But, here's a link on Ressentiment to get an idea.

I opined that Nietzsche was factually wrong and thus his premises untrue, and L>T disagreed. You can see it on the comments, if you care to look. I said that I could critique Nietzsche at great length and would if the world was given. It was given. So I opine. ;)

For what it is worth, for many years I considered Nietzsche to be my favorite philosopher and writer. I've read everything he's written, most things several times over, and a fair bit of scholarly critiques of his work. About a year ago, Nietzsche fell out of my favor while I reading Lyotard's The Post-Modern Condition. Some of the stuff that Nietzsche said is very interesting, and I consider him the father of deconstruction. He is certainly an absolutely brilliant writer. But he's also a racist, sexist and classist pig, whose work (I feel) supports a totally archaic and backwards ethic that praises brutal force and stupidity. While Nietzsche does not ignore the crimes of the aristocratic class, he does ignore the virtues of the lower class and invents calumnies to support the idea that the lower classes are vicious, cruel and filled with hatred. To the extent the argument works, it does so based on Nietzsche's tremendous wit - he is undoubtedly one of the finest writers in any language and in any period. Still, despite it all, he fell pretty hard from my graces.

In specific, one of the things he says about Christianity is that it is a Jewish religion, and Jews are a slave people, and their priestly society was poisonous to aristocracy, and thus to nobility, truth and beauty. This contains two statements that are ahistorical. The first is that the Jews were a "slave people" and the second is that priestly cultures are somehow uniquely Jewish.

OK, the slave people argument. The calumny that Jews were inherently a slave people is a medieval European invention - during which period the Jews were a fragmented people surrounded by enemies without a homeland. This was not the case during the development of Christianity. Indeed, before 135 CE, the Jews were fairly obviously quite a combative people - and even afterwards, really.

Jehovah, the Lord of Hosts, is a primitive Semitic war god, probably of Canaanite origin. This is plausibly supported by the Old Testament. No, excuse me, it is elaborately supported by the Old Testament.

First, because it needs to be dealt with, is the origin of the lie that the Jews were a "slave people" has a tiny bit of support in the OT. Specifically, the time they were in Egypt. They were slaves there. But, y'know, that's just a few brief chapters in Exodus. Once you're out of Exodus you're into the area of PURE JEWISH BLOODSHED.

Seriously, from Leviticus onwards, the Old Testament is filled with one of the most lurid records of absolute brutality ever written. Hardly a page goes by without the Jews fighting some horrible war, slaughtering some people or the other, or being slaughtered after a terrible battle.

The Hebrew Judges were chosen not for their wisdom, but their ability to kick ass. Some very shocking episodes of violence - heads getting nailed to the ground, for instance - can be found, here. And after the kingship is established, it's no better, a relentless record of civil and foreign wars and slaughters.

Even when the Hebrews were conquered by the Babylonians, it was only after an extremely brutal war. And during the Captivity, the Jews were not enslaved. At least some of them served in extremely high positions in the Babylonian court.

The Old Testament rounds itself out with the Maccabees overthrowing the Seleucid Persians and establishing an independent monarchy. That monarchy would, itself, be destroyed by the Roman Empire, at which point we're into history.

Even as members of the Roman Empire the Jews were extremely difficult to control. The history of the area is of a number of petty rebellions to Roman power and two major ones. The first, the Great Revolt, between 66 and 70 CE, took four years to bring to an end, and would have been even more bloody if not for the faction struggles inside of Jerusalem. The second, the Bar Kochba Revolt, from 132 to 135 CE, was worse because the Jews were much better organized. They managed to establish an independent kingdom for a couple of years, and resisted Roman arms so fiercely that the Romans had to engaged in a scorched earth policy to defeat them. Dio Cassius said that, ahem, 580,000 Jews were killed, 50 fortified towns were destroyed and 985 villages were burned to the ground. The Emperor Hadrian attempted to destroy Judaism entirely because of the frequency with which the Jews rebelled! The Temple was destroyed and replaced with a pagan temple, the walls of Jerusalem were torn down and Jews were forbidden from entering Jerusalem.

By 135 CE, Christianity was already distinct from Judaism. None of the persecutions of the Jews after the Bar Kochba Revolt was applied to Christianity. So, given that Christianity was already split off from Judaism by that time, where are these non-martial slave Jews? The Judaism of Jesus' day and the 1st century church was extremely violent, and they considered themselves a warrior people. The history of the Jews before 135 CE is one of almost constant warfare.

The idea that the Jews were not, themselves, a warrior people - with a strong reputation, really, for fighting - simply cannot be supported by history. Since it is not the case that Christianity learned slave habits from the Jews, a person has to question if they existed at all. Which will take me to my second point.

When a society does have a priestly class, it's almost always part of the upper class. Interestingly enough, the best example of this are the Aryans -- the very Aryans that Nietzsche calls the master race, yeah, those Aryans.

Most Aryan tribes were caste based and the priestly caste was not only high class, it was the highest caste. Examples of this are the Hindu brahmin class and the Median and Persian magi castes. The habit of putting priests in charge of society was, quite possibly, an Aryan development and the Jews learned it from the Aryans! When Cyrus the Great conquered the Babylonians and freed the Jews, they mimicked the Persians in many ways - including solidifying their hentotheism into monotheism following the model of Persian Zoroastrianism but also in the sense of elevating the priest to the highest of classes.

Nietzsche must have known the power of the priest caste in Aryan history - but he doesn't mention it in his own books, which is an extremely curious lacuna, shall we say. This is even true when he calls Zarathustra - another name for Zoroaster - the wisest of men. Zoroaster was a member of the priest caste and the inventor of monotheism! This also escapes mention in any of Nietzsche's writings.

Also, some of the earliest converts to Christianity were Germanic tribes. In 310 CE or so, Ulfilas was converted to Arian Christianity and he converted the Ostrogoths and Visigoths. Three years later, Constantine would issue the Edict of Milan.

Christianity would not stop the Romans and Germans from tearing themselves apart for the next couple of hundred years. When the Christian barbarians destroyed the Western Roman Empire, the scale of their slaughter was greater than anything they'd ever done as pagans. Then Europe settled into the Middle Ages, which was a thousand years of constant warfare - warfare so complete and total that the development of higher culture was stalled for literally centuries and many technologies were lost to Western Europe. This frenzied orgy of hyperviolence had two nightmarish climaxes. The first were the murderous rampages of the Crusades and the second was the nightmare of the Hundred Years' War.

Nietzsche says that the violence of the Christian aristocracy was a holdover from Hellenic martial virtues. But, like I've already said, the Jews were every bit as much a warrior people as can be imagined, with an elaborate history of intense violence. Who did those medieval knights engaged in their various orgies of slaughter really emulate? Greco-Roman virtues, pre-Revolt Jewish virtues, or barbaric German virtues? As far as I can tell, they were all the same.

Well, Nietzsche might have said, the ideology of Christianity was intrinsically pacifist and weak. L>T said that this was particular to Christianity. Well, that's not true. The idea that the ultimate ruling force of the universe is benevolent is common to most people, not just the Christians. There is nothing, after all, particularly original about any of the ideas inside of Christianity. It was common Greek belief that "God" was a completely benevolent being, as were the gods, and wickedness was a result of human moral degradation. This belief - Epicureans held it - was common in the Roman Empire as well. The promotion of humility as a virtue? All over the ancient world. The Stoics, also popular in the Roman Empire, taught it, for instance, and they weren't the only ones. Everything that Nietzsche and his followers suggest are unique to Judaism and Christianity are also present in Roman philosophy and religion!

Nietzsche might retort that it was the exclusivity of Christianity that enforced "slave virtues". Greeks and Romans might as easily, say, follow the example of Sparta rather than Dionysus. But the same was true of Christianity. Warrior saints and Jesus reified as the "Lion of Judah" appeared almost immediately in Christianity. St. George, for instance, was a soldier who endured torments that made Jesus' look pretty milquetoast in comparison. By the Middle Ages, St. George became a mythic dragonslayer. Christianity started to produce it's own monster slaying superheroes totally in the Hellenic mold immediately. And, just by inspection, it can't be said that Christianity actually stopped people from being violent. The fights between the Christian barbarians and the Christian Romans were not any less vicious because of Christianity - indeed, the violence was probably the greatest seen in Western Europe.

So, historically, the idea that the Jews were a "slave people" doesn't bear up when you study the history of the Jews as informs Christianity. It also neglects the fact that priestly cultures were not in any way uniquely Jewish, or associated with the lower classes in particular. Furthermore, the sustained violence of Christianity puts to a lie the idea that Christians were infected with a pacifist "slave morality" that undermined their martial aristocratic culture. Also, immediately after the death of St. Peter the Christian church came to be entirely dominated by the Greco-Roman upper class.

Okay, now on to ressentiment. Briefly, ressentiment is the idea that the underclass is filled with hatred towards their oppressors and engages in trickery and deceit to overcome their masters, poisoning their glorious aristocratic martial culture with the virtues of slaves - weakness and cowardice. This glorification of aristocracy and vilification of the workers is, again, simply untrue.

First and foremost, aristocrats are some of the most treacherous, back-stabbing bastards there are. Indeed, they're way more treacherous than the working classes. This goes straight back to those Greek epics that Nietzsche loved so much. How can you tell when Odysseus is lying? His mouth is open. Odysseus, one of the paragons of Hellenic aristocracy, was a low-down rotten bastard. He lied, cheated, stole. He possessed all the traits that Nietzsche attributes to the "slaves".

And the real articles weren't any better. For instance, one of the most common things to happen in the internecine warfare of the Greek city-states was for one leader to switch sides (sometimes in the middle of a war), go to Persia and ask for help to overthrow Greece and serve as a Persian vassal, all sorts of craziness.

Alcibiades will serve as an example. During the Peloponnesian War, he switched sides something like four times. He encouraged the Athenians to try to conquer Sicily but when it was obvious it was going badly, he fled to Sparta. In Sparta, he couldn't keep his hands off the Spartan king's wife and then went over to Persia and then he went back to Athens. This is aristocratic loyalty and honor? Not a string of deceptions, cowardice, venality and greed?

I could really go on about aristocrats and their ways for a long time. So, Julius Caesar was assassinated by the Roman Senate en masse because they knew that if they were all guilty of the crime, none of them would be punished. Foolish men. Because the Triumvirate that came into power after Caesar's death engaged in their own program of assassination to consolidate their gains. Again and again, you see aristocrats behaving in cowardly, manipulative, back-stabbing, venomous ways, you see them holding grudges for literally centuries in some cases, you see aristocrats doing all the things that Nietzsche attributes to the "slave morality" that supposedly Christianity brought to aristocracy in the West. And you see them doing these things again and again before Christianity existed!

In addition to ignoring the fact that aristocrats possessed - and have always possessed - the vices of Nietzsche's "slaves", you've also got to ignore the working classes, themselves. The very idea that a member of the working class, even a slave, spent most of their time plotting the downfall of their "masters" is absurd. It ignores the labor of their hands, their families, and their actual values - which tend to stress the importance of hard work, tending to one's family and things of that nature. The notion of the resentful slave plotting the overthrow of their aristocratic masters is a total caricature. It is quite literally the Nazi's image of the weaselly back-stabbing, squinty eyed Jew - a caricature taken straight from Nietzsche.

Lastly, it also sorta ignores that everything of lasting beauty in this world was created by the very working classes that Nietzsche hated so much. We'll say, nigh constantly, things like, "Lorenzo the Magnificent built this" or "the Emperor Trajan built that", but that's not true, is it? The warrior aristocrat class so beloved by Nietzsche didn't build anything. It was built by the workers, now wasn't it? When a person ignores that - as does Nietzsche, who never talks about work - is the only way to say with a straight face that the working classes are in some way opposed to beauty and culture. You have to ignore that they're the primary builders of beauty and culture, even when they're doing it at the orders of some murderous thug.

So, I think that this pretty much says everything I want to say about why I think that Nietzsche's master-slave morality is ahistorical bunk, and why I don't put any faith in the Nietzschian idea of ressentiment as a class construct.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Popery! Ratzy in Brazil

So, like, The Big Catholic Daddy was in Brazil. He was there to tell kids not to have sex, use condoms or get abortions, and there are lots of people out there that'll go on longer than I will about how depraved and fucked up that is.

What struck me, attenuated to classism as I am, is that the Pope also told people not to seek wealth and power. I came full stop.

See, here's the thing. The Pope is one of the most powerful and richest people in the world. He lives in one of the greatest palaces in the world. He has a set of solid gold coffee service made by Michelangelo. He leads a religion that has over one billion people. His entire career has been ambitious, constantly seeking more power, with incredible success.

And this person is telling people not to seek material wealth and power!

I mean, corporate, earth-destroying CEOs are more honest than this! If you listen to some CEO, he's gonna tell you to embrace the system and with hard work and sticking to it you'll be as rich as Croesus, too. Sure, it's mostly bullshit, but at least he's not out there saying that people shouldn't try to be where he is -- he's not ridiculing and attacking the very wealth and power he possesses.

But the Pope, one of the richest, most powerful people in the world, a man that lives literally like a king, heading a vast world spanning religion, is telling other people not to seek wealth and power! The hypocrisy of it stunned me.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Bible Fight and True Komix

As I have had a day sufficiently productive and busy to justify not spending a lot of time blogging, I will bring you humor, instead! We're all pro-humor, right? Right!

First I bring you Bible Fight! Ever wonder who would win if Mary threw down with Noah? Now you can find out! Play some of your favorite Bible characters including Marh, Noah, Eve, Moses and Satan! Will it be you who unlocks the hidden character?! Will you master the Immaculate Deception or Rosary Whip? Only way to find out!

Second, and at least equally funny, though without nearly so much intentionality, is True Komix. True Komix were published by The Family, which is a Christian sect that encourages, er, Flirty Fishing which is a form of religious prostitution. Apparently, The Family encouraged its women to use sex to gain converts! Alas, for those of you who might want to be "converted" by The Family, they discontinued Flirty Fishing in '87 because of the AIDS scare, apparently.

However, at the True Komix link, they have komix of that lay it all out about Flirty Fishing! Included, fully frontal nudity! Unsurprisingly, this outraged Christians of the period. Still, it's nice of someone to collect all the softcorn porn Christian komix together in one place so that future generations of Christians can learn about the wonders of Flirty Fishing in such a graphical manner!

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

King Herod the Great's Tomb

If you believe the BBC, someone is claiming to have found the tomb of Herod the Great. Herod the Great was a Roman client king who was unpopular with his Jewish subjects. He is called "the Great" because of the sheer number and scale of building projects that he started in Judea during his reign, including a massive rebuilding of the Temple.

And a note on his unpopularity. It was largely unjust. Herod was a monarch, certainly, and he had occasional fits of cruelty, but nothing to compare with the utter brutality of the Israelite Judges -- a self-appointed group of murderous enforcers. Indeed, during Herod's reign saw the end of banditry in Roman Palestine, making the country staff for things like the ministry of Jesus, but also trade and all that. The wealth of Palestine greatly increased during Herod's rule.

No, the center of the controversy was two-fold. First, Herod was pro-Roman. As a fact of politics at the time, any state in the area was going to be a client to either Rome or Persia, and Herod chose Rome. Still, this didn't sit well with the pro-Israel zealots who dreamt of their own kingdom. So, to some extent, that is certainly a legitimate beef. The second, and greater reason, is that Herod was only "half-Jewish". He was from Idumea, and despite his scrupulous observances of Jewish custom, tradition and law, the Jews never let Herod forget he was half-Idumean.

However, for me, the most interesting part of the article is this:

Herod was noted in the New Testament for his Massacre of the Innocents.

Told of Jesus' birth, Herod ordered all children under two in Bethlehem to be killed, the Gospel of Matthew said.

According to the New Testament, Jesus' father Joseph was warned of the threat in a dream and fled with his wife and child to Egypt.

Does this article remember the historical things that Herod did? The great works he built? His alliance with Rome? His successful campaign to end banditry in Palestine? His rebuilding of the Temple? Any of the historical things he did? No. They bring out the old fairy tale about his "Slaughter of the Innocents", recorded only in the Bible and ignored by secular historians. The evidence being, of course, that it didn't happen. The Romans were a harsh people, but under the reign of Augustus they were a very . . . legalistic people. Any client king who would massacre innocents would have been destroyed by the Empire -- and not only did this not happen, there is no record of it happening anywhere but in Matthew. It is fiction, but it is what the BBC chose to bring up about this utterly fascinating man.

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Monday, May 7, 2007

Justification by Faith Alone

If you want to read something funny, and I'm trying to keep a little bit of humor in my blog under the hypothesis that my readers like a good laugh now and then, then read this critique of a Jack Chick tract from Enter the Jabberwock. It's good stuff.

The satirical critique is about a fairly common interpretation of Matthew 7:22-23:

22: Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? 23: And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

The interpretation is that “good works” don't get a person into heaven, only justification by faith alone. That repentance and “accepting Jesus into your heart” are the only ways to get to heaven.

Enter the Jabberwock gives some of the fairly obvious conclusions to this – that it justifies immorality being at the top of the list. No, really, it scans. If you only need to do something nebulous like “accept Jesus into your heart” (or, more properly called, justification by faith alone) and actively repudiate good works as a means of attaining heaven, you're basically saying the only thing that counts is accepting Jesus. Nothing else you do in this world matters. Just that.

I think it is important to emphasize this selfishness is one of the key tenets of American Christianity and, I think, is probably the key reason why so many of the most utterly backwards organizations in America are so rabidly pro-war, anti-poverty and generally more evil than Satan himself. It's because they believe, truly believe, that all you need to do to get into Heaven (which is the reason why most Christians are Christian, of course – they've been told if they don't believe they'll burn in hellfire forever, which would be a compelling argument if it had even a whiff of truth about it) then there's no reason to do anything else. Faith, alone, justifies oneself. Actions, other than “acceptance” of Jesus – which as I've said elsewhere is little more than the glorification of one's interpretation of the Bible to the point of unimpeachable “fact” – simply do not count.

(Of course, the general Christian response to this, when pointed out, is a big “uh-uh”. But it never stands analysis, because they'll then go on to agree that it is faith in Jesus, alone, that gets people into Heaven, and rejection of Jesus, alone, that condemns them to hell. If you but “accept” Jesus into your heart, he forgives you of all your sins; if you do not accept Jesus, he does not forgive any of your sins, and since you're born in sin, you go to the burning place.)

Since, then, deeds do not count, and a Christian's actions are never seriously held against them, anything is permissible. Oh, they say that isn't the case, but it is – Jesus forgives all sins, and if you join their religion any sinner is welcomed to the company of saints.

Interestingly, of course, is this is what Christians frequently accuse atheists of believing. I think it's a classic case of projection. Atheists – a few of the more nihlistic aside – generally believe that we work with other people to create a generally acceptable code of conduct based on human reason and human needs. American Christians, with their widespread belief on justification by faith alone, accept nothing of the sort. The accept that there is simply one thing a person must do to be righteous, just one, and it comes from a selfish interpretation of an old book.

No wonder Christians have made a mess of morality! From the medieval purchase of indulgences to the more clever justification by faith alone, Christianity has constantly subverted any attempt at all to make a coherent morality. It isn't just that Christianity has struggled with morality, but that it has by and large renounced morality. It is with Christians that anything is indulged, anything possible, because their god will always forgive me, and ever judge them by any act, save a simple statement of faith.

So, remember that the next time a Christian accuses an atheist of immorality. Atheists struggle with the concept of what is really moral, while Christians can just ignore it with, really, the full support of their religion.

None of this is original, but you can't expect me to have an original thought every day, do you?

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Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Immaculate Conception

Immaculate Conception is a short story (of 4461 words) written in the style of my current novel project, Simon Peter. It is meant to be a teaser for the novel, itself, showing the take I'm using for telling the story of Jesus, St. Peter and the origins of Christianity as being started by the same sorts of people that start cults in modern history: a group of religious fanatics, madmen, charlatans surrounded by a storm of sexual depravity, physical and psychological abuse.

"Immaculate Conception" is a story about the conception and birth of Jesus. The story contains nothing mystical, but offers a purely physical story about how it could happen. I am not saying it did happen this way. The birth of Jesus, even from Biblical sources, is confused. In one place Jesus is born in a house attended by kings, in another place he is born in a stable and attended by shepherds. I'm not sure I believe in the physical reality of Jesus at all. But in "Immaculate Conception", as in Simon Peter, I want to open a discussion about the nature of messiahdom, itself, and dispel the idea that Jesus as a historical person needs to be taken seriously as a social reformer, or rebel against Roman conquest or Jewish corruption. Most messiahs are charlatans, insane, or both. Most people who claim supernatural powers, in my readings, have backgrounds of neglect and abuse. For this story, and Simon Peter, I posit that Jesus came from such a family, and in "Immaculate Conception" I have written about his family as being typical of messiahs, born in pain and horror, leading to charlatanry and madness.

Warning: This story does have sex and violence. If you're offended by sex and violence, I advise either not reading it, or get prepared to be offended.

I am also thinking about putting a commercial for "Immaculate Conception" on YouTube and GodTube. See what that nets me. ;)

Now with video!

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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Becomin' a Webcam Ho

So, since it's May Day, I'm not really doing any work. It appears I'm becoming something of a webcam ho, however, because I've been doing webcam stuff. I've made two videos today. Both of them are responses to other people's stuff. Heaven knows I love mouthing off. Perhaps after a few more of these I'll actually get good at it.

Here's the first:

This is a response to a Christian who asked questions about the falsifibility of natural selection and DNA as the criteria of life.

Here's the second:

It's a video response to a text comment to my video about if atheists hate god where he proposes stuff like if gay people are allowed to marry it infringes on his rights as a Christian. Which is a silly argument, but common, I find.

Tomorrow I'm going to actually post a short story written in the fashion of Simon Peter, called "Immaculate Conception". It deals with the, ahem, birth of Jesus Christ, told in the way I am telling the story of Simon Peter. Unlike the other things I've posted here, it actually is pretty short, being about 4200 words. And after that, I promise I'll have a few more days of text content.

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Monday, April 30, 2007

Confessions of an Atheist #1: Why Do Atheists Hate God?

More video blogging! I am apparently pushing through with my plot to talk about atheist issues on GodTube, who still appear to be my best customers. I feel a trifle bit like a whore. I am not saying anything I don't think is true, but I can feel myself pulling my punches.

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Contradiction, Science and the Completely Material Universe

This is mostly an add-on to previous post.

I was talking with a friend about the idea of pride in submission. She thought it was a goofy concept, and it is, but I pointed out that it's really common. How many Christians are proud of their “submission” to Jesus, for instance? I'd say most of them. At least, that's my experience.

Then I said, to paraphrase, that most ideas prior to the very modern world were so primitive that not a single one of them really explained human experience without obvious contradictions not only of each other, but of the observable world. Say, Christianity demands that people accept the miracles but very few Christians claim to see even one such miracle. At the same time, during the Middle Ages, they were taught that the poor were blessed, meekness was good, violence was bad, all that, but they were also part of feudal contracts that lionized aristocrats that murdered for profit. They could be both “good Christians” and “good aristocrats”, even tho' the first wholly contradicted the second.

So, people have had a lot of experience holding in their minds two or more ideas that simply did not make sense, not with each other, not with the world around them. People lived in a state of perpetual contradiction.

It has taken a very long time for any ideas at all to come into existence that do not require a person to flatly contradict themselves entirely. I think most people don't grasp how recently strong ideas to support a purely physical universe is. It wasn't until the 1960s that the Big Bang became publicly known (with the discovery of the cosmic background radiation, which basically killed the steady state model). If you were educated before the 60s, then, you were not taught that the universe could possibly have a purely material origin, because science, itself, hadn't developed the idea with sufficient proof to popularize it. So, it's only been around 42 years that there was enough scientific hypotheses to take us from the initial conditions of the material universe to the development of life on earth and our present civilization.

And we have thousands, tens of thousands, of years of cultural history, however, in holding multiple, contradictory thoughts in our head. It's gonna take a while to purge out all that crap, I figure – people are being told right now that contradictory ideas are better than a self-supporting group of theories that make sense in whole as well as their individual parts. These contradictory ideas are, furthermore, in many ways the very foundation of our culture, in their religious forms. So, to reject those cultural ideas is to reject, in some way, our very identities. I, myself, am not so enamored of my current identity to fear replacing it with a better one – but, clearly, many people are.

However, we're very close to having a system of knowledge – not just science, but also modern politics, epistemology and such – that is not contradictory, that a person can honestly support, and that epistemological system is of great power and utility, but for many people it will have to become their culture before they accept it, because of the damage done to the human psyche because our identity is based on these contradictory ideas that we've learned to live with.

Then my friend said, “It is good that our knowledge is catching up to our capacity for reason.” That's exactly it. That's exactly it.

Addendum to the Add-On

Yeah. Science. It works.

Here is a brief survey of science news from this weekend.

First, scientists are making concrete progress on reversing memory damage from diseases like Alzheimer's. Second, scientists have probably discovered the way to switch on the fat burning process of the human body. We are very closer to having a purely medical solution to the problem of weight in America. Third, a significant part of a mouse's brain has been computer modeled. We are very, very close, too, to unlocking so many mysteries of the brain with this sort of computer modeling – not just being able to do far more complex neurological research than ever before, but this also has significant importance for artificial intelligence.

So, uh, what's the religious news for this weekend? On the BBC RSS feed, the closest I found was a huge rally for secularism in Turkey. Religious fundies are on the verge of taking over Turkey, it appears. There is no other news that is strictly religious on the BBC right now (which, other than local news sources, is the only thing news I bother to read because . . . so much of it is so bad).

We, of course, see this sort of thing all the time. Hardly a day can go by without scientists making another advance in some field or another. Where is the religious equivalent to this? Where are the religious folks saying, “Today, our god healed some of the memory loss attributable to degenerative neurological diseases”? Or, “Today, our god decided that he'll stop people from getting fat because it's a health risk, and fat doesn't have so much a place in the modern world as it once did”?

What does religion do?

For me, this is the absolute key difference between science and religion. When all those religious folks try to say that science “is just another religion” they seem to absolutely forget that even if science was “just another religion” it's like comparing the right way of doing something to the wrong way of doing it. If religion and science were both vehicles, religion would be the rusty junker in the yard and science would be the Wrightspeed X-1. One works, the other doesn't. It baffles me that difference doesn't seem to matter to religious people. Utterly baffles me.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Science: Still the New Kid on the Block, But Scrappy

I know it's easy for people to get really . . . freaked out about how religion still struggles against science, and the fairly obvious inequality of the struggle. Science is so right, after all, in just about any way a person puts it. Science is demonstrable, makes accurate predictions, can be replicated by anyone, can be falsified, etc., etc. Even if science was “another religion” (it isn't, but even if it was) it would be an altogether better religion – because putting your faith in science generally works. Like I've said before, let a Christian try to miracle their way to LA and I'll take a plane and we'll see who gets there first. When a person gets cancer, let one group try prayer and the other try modern oncology and see which group survives longer. Or, in other words, “Science. It works, bitches.” Which is something that religious folks just can't say about religion.

Given this truth, I know that lots of atheists and the saner theists out there get are confused when science and religion collide that religious folks keep fighting the losing fight. Even while, at the same time, trying to curry the legitimacy of science with stuff like creation science, intelligent design and arguments about “the appearance of design”. Even as religious people criticize science, they seek it's legitimacy, because the legitimacy of science far exceeds that of religion for most people (when you get shot, you call the ambulance and then pray). The fight, like I said, is one-sided and it's confusing to a lot of people why religious folks keep trying to fight it at all, rather than admit that religion is mystical (a field outside of science's purview) and have their cake and eat it, too.

I will now veer to talk about the Enlightenment. For a lot of people, the Enlightenment was a time when people used “reason” and it is seen as the pinnacle of human intellectual achievement. People were obsessed with reason. And a lot of our hassles come from this period, I think.

To me, the Enlightenment used reason much in the same way that Star Trek's Spock used logic – that what people in the Enlightenment meant by “reason” wasn't really that reasonable at all.

For instance, most of the Principia Mathematica, Isaac Newton's ground-breaking tome about physics and mathematics was mostly about astrology. Newton was seeking more accurate measurements of the planets and stars in order to make more accurate astrological charts. Not precisely the poster child of scientific reason. Indeed, it's rather like “flood geologists” using modern geology to try to justify the Biblical flood – any advance in geology they make must be separated from their non-scientific hypotheses before it can be useful (tho', to my knowledge, no flood geologist has advanced the field of geology – science is not what it was in Newton's day, which is sort of my point).

Likewise, it was the general consensus of Enlightenment scientists (who were all white upper-class Christian men, I should point out – though right now I don't intend to talk about the racism, classism and sexism of Enlightenment thinking) was that study of Nature – invariably spelled with a capital N – would lead to a scientific proof for god's existence. The whole enterprise of science was built on finding their god.

Unfortunately for them, the evidence actually took them in a wholly different direction. And it wasn't until the Romantic Era that scientists faced that. It isn't really the Enlightenment (also known as the “Era of Religious Wars”, which is often forgotten by cheerleaders of the Enlightenment that the worst Christian-on-Christian violence was during the Enlightenment – the Thirty Year's War destroyed Germany, for instance, which in terms of relative death made WWII look like a border skirmish; the horror rivaled the Black Death) that the scientific method was developed. It was during the foofy Romantic Era that scientists really broke away from religion. Those Enlightenment scientists looked for god. The Romantic scientists? Nope. They're the people who stopped looking for evidence of the divine because, after centuries of looking for such evidence, it became obvious that the conclusions pointed in the other direction.

So, for my own part, I actually see the creation scientists, intelligent designers and their ilk as being the heirs to the Enlightenment, still engaged in the fool's errand of trying to prove the existence of their god with “science”. Unsurprisingly, then, that these same people would gleefully plunge our world into a new Age of Religious Wars – armed with the material certainty that their god is the right one, it would follow with the mindless mechanical precision of Newtonian physics that they would use violence to spread their faith. Give me the Romantic view of science any day, which is sprawling and brawling, and, yes, passionate – but entirely material, without the faintest whiff of the divine, and thus absent of religious certainty and the raw material of genocidal religious conflicts.

And . . . to try to get to my point, modern science, as a Romantic invention, is about 200 years old. Christianity is 2000 years old. Science is a mere tenth the age of Christianity and every day, almost every hour, the strength of science grows. Science is a new growth compared to the mighty oak of Christianity (and other religions, but I tend to focus on Christianity because I'm American and Christianity is very relevant). It is largely cultural inertia that prevents religion from being discarded – for thousands of years, for a hundred generations, people have been told the religious lies. So, charting the progress of science vs. religion, the destruction of religion is nigh. The last thing we scientific materialists need to overcome is the Enlightenment baggage that Christians keep trying to project into religion – which is inevitable, because the evidence still points away from a higher power.

So, despair not.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Intelligent Design DEATHMATCH vs. Archeology

This is about four minutes of me talking about intelligent design and archeology, with some UFO stuff thrown in. Interestingly, I posted this both on YouTube and GodTube last night. On YouTube, four people have bothered to watch it. On GodTube, over 100 have watched it, already.

Oh, dear, the Christians like me. I suspect this is because the people on GodTube are more, ah, purpose oriented. And I have long said that Simon Peter is directed at a Christian audience.

I am reasonably pleased with this. In the future, I want to have a title sequence, and I need to plug my website, and I definitely need to talk a little slower, but all in all I'm pleased.

I suspect I'll be doing a vlog on issues that a Christian might be interested in hearing an atheist sound off on, like "do I hate God?" and my feelings on the basis of morality without religion. Something like "Confessions of an Atheist". I figure the GodTube crowd will eat it up. ;)

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

I Bring Division! Let's Talk Missionary Work

When I ranted about Westboro Baptist a few days back, some Christians came by to try to “show” me that they weren't like those psycho fundies down at Westboro. Which is fine and dandy, and I never said otherwise, but what I wanted was for someone to explain two things: How these Westboro nutjobs can call themselves Christians? and What are “real” Christians gonna materially do, or are doing, to really stop this insanity?

I thought they were both reasonable questions. In the responses, I got three Christian responses. For my blog, three newbie first-time posters is great! (I should probably work on some superior form of tagging, tho' I admit the technical details I find tedious and frustrating. I should still do it if I'm serious about wanting fundie Christian trolls cruising my blog. A friend of mine doesn't say that it'll particularly help because I'm too good at “winning” arguments, which drives away trolls. Still, I want trolls!)

The first, Kathi, said that confronting them is “what they want”. The second, Kevin, didn't even mention what to do about them except “expose their mess”. The third, Martin, said that the Westboro people sue other people, so didn't dare do anything, then claimed poverty (tho' he eventually did say that, perhaps, it was time to do something about people like that), and then said that money could be better spent feeding starving people, and he also used the “it's what they want” argument. All three of them used the “no true Scotsman” fallacy as a defense, claiming the guys at Westboro weren't “real Christians” (tho', again, to be fair, Martin seemed to realize that his aggressive behavior wasn't, really, too much different from the Westboro people – loving everyone does mean, after all, even loving horrible human beings).

All I could think, really, is “what a bunch of gutless fucking cowards” but then I started thinking it through, more. Christians can find the money to send missionaries all over the world, but can't find the cash to go down to Topeka, Kansas? They'll send missionaries into brutal, war-torn countries to confront dictators and warlords, but can't stand down from some guys in Kansas?! So, given that Christian churches routinely do dangerous missionary, and I gotta figure it takes a lot of nerve to do missionary work in some corners of the world, it really makes me wonder why the Westboro people are so off-limits? Clearly, Christian churches have the nerve to find missionaries to do work in very dangerous places, and they find the money to do it, too. I find it without real credit the idea that neither the resources nor the courage exist to fight the Westboro Baptist Church. I mean, it isn't like these people – Christians – have any problem at all converting people. If the folks down at Westboro aren't “Christian”, I can't see any reason at all why “real Christians” would hesitate from attempting to convert them and thus save their souls as well as blot out an ugly stain on American Christianity.

I think that this is important for talking about American Christianity and every time they throw up the “no real Scotsman” fallacy. These people, as a group, are missionaries. Jesus, himself, created what is known as the Great Commission, which was go to out and preach the word of Jesus to all the world. They've got the resources, infrastructure and personnel to provide missionaries to the most horrible spots all around the world – they'll fight to send missionaries to communist China and war, drought and famine ravaged African countries, and everything in between, but they will not engage in missionary work directed at fundamentalist Christian organizations here in America.

I would really like for some Christian to answer me that – I want to know why missionary work isn't directed towards people like the Westboro Baptist Church, which time and again I've been told “isn't really Christian”. Because, what I think, is that it is Christian, and that no moderate or liberal Christian in America really wants to do missionary work towards fundamentalist Christians because it would start a real lively discussion in America about the real nature of Christianity, what it really stands for, and why Christians speak and act as the do (with many of them being racist, classist, sexist war-mongers), and I don't think that any Christians in America want that. The fundies don't want it because right now they can get away with murder, and the moderate and liberal Christians don't want it because it'll create a big ruckus right next to them, it'll bring division and dissent into their own homes and communities, and they do not want that.

Yet, I can't help but think that Jesus said something about this:

Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. (Luke 12:49-53 KJV)

Again, spread the word. I'd really like to get a good answer as to why “real Christians” don't engage in missionary work to spread the “real” word of Jesus to fundamentalist churches in America.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Pseudepigraphy and Fraud

Pseudepigraphical is one of my all time favorite words, and because I continue to do research on the people and events surrounding Jesus for Simon Peter, I run into it all the time.

Pseudepigraphical is a very Christian word. What it means is “a work written by someone other than the work claims it was written by”. So, when discussing the Infancy Gospel of James, that is claimed to be written by James the Just, brother of Jesus . . . well, it isn't. It was written by someone else.

The reason why I love the word pseudepigraphical is because, outside of Christian writings, there'd be a different term for it – a fraud. When someone claims that something is written by one person, when in fact it is written by another, that's just fraud. And, yet, when discussing the fraudulent works for the Bible – and there are a lot of them, the odds are that most of the books of the Bible are pseudepigraphical – this fraudulence is hardly ever mentioned.

So, of the four Gospels, only one of them might actually be written by the person to whom authorship is attributed (that being Luke, who also seems to have written Acts, and is likely to have been the personal physician of Paul). The rest? Their attribution is legendary. But, if you ask most Christians, they will assert that Matthew, Mark and John wrote their respective Gospels, that the authorship of the various epistles is equally certain, when in fact none of this is the case. That they are all, ahem, pseudepigraphical – which is to say that their authorship is fraudulent.

This seems to be utterly significant to me in the context of Biblical scholarship – and, in some circles, it is. But most Christians don't admit to the fact that . . . no one knows who really wrote most of the Bible and that the names and such that are given to the various books of the Bible are completely legendary, even by the standards of Christianity. To me, the failure of Christians to address something even so basic as who wrote their holy texts in a clear and honest way demonstrates the intellectual dishonesty of Christianity.

Still, I love the word pseudepigraphical.

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Sodom and Gomorrah Humor

How fun can jokes about Sodom and Gomorrah be? Find out! Thanks to the Honest Doubter for this. Spread it around!

I promise I'll post something meaningful tomorrow.

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Fuck Westboro Baptist Church, and the Reasons I Don't Have Respect for Christians

The Westboro Baptist Church, you know, the "god hates fags" people, has a new music video:

So, people, spread the word: I want some Christian to explain this to me. I want some Christian to explain the hatred, racism, homophobia . . . fuck, I want someone to explain to me why these people are so anti-life. And I want someone to explain why there isn't a Christian picket line outside their so-called church, 24/7, of good-minded Christian folks who are appalled that these fucking nutjobs are calling themselves Christian, or Baptist -- why you're not deeply ashamed and appalled by what these people do. I need for someone to explain to me, if there's ever going to be any hope that I will stop holding Christians in contempt, how it comes to pass that Westboro Baptist Church continues to exist unmolested.

I mean, these people are political. The gloves are allowed to come off. They have repeatedly put themselves in the public eye. There's no legal, and certainly no moral, reason not to roundly, soundly and absolutely condemn them. And I don't mean here. I mean to their faces. I mean, at their churches.

Because when I googled "Westboro Baptist Church protests", what I got was largely shit about their protests at funerals (!!!) and the like. It wasn't until the fourth page that I found some Christians that actually criticized Westboro Baptist. But it was weak, wholly verbal protest - as opposed to the Westboro folks who really know how to get a protest goin'.

It just seems odd to me that these Westboro fuck-os can get the funds together to travel all over the country to terrorize the families of the recently deceased, but Christians can't be bothered to get the money and effort up to systematically protest this sick cult out of existence. So, someone, explain it to me.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Friday Writin' Update

The writing this week started well and ended with difficulty. Soon, I will probably be posting a short story written in the style I'm using for Simon Peter. Right now, it's called "Immaculate Conception" and it retells the story of Jesus' conception and birth. It probably won't be next week, but the week after that. But it is only 4200 words long, which means I did not spend all my week writing it (an average week for me is about 8000 words, in case you wanted to know).

I started part 3 of Simon Peter, which will cover the time period of Jesus' ministry. Part 2 was 51,000 words and I can't imagine part 3 being shorter because I have established a heavy presence of Peter's family and social dealings and I'll want to keep that, as well as work on all the things I want to say about the nature of apocalyptic messianic cults. I will need to do this within the rough narrative framework of Jesus' ministry.

Not that the Gospels provide a very good framework for that. Ignoring the variances between the Gospels to being with, the Gospels describe Jesus' ministry as little more than him going from miracle to miracle with a few parables thrown in, until the last week of his life where it does pick up a little bit, narratively speaking. Which is, I suspect, part of my trouble -- the Gospels, like most of the Bible, is simply very, very dull. The story drags in all ways. It has lifeless characters, pompous diction, dismal dialog and it is clear the author is trying to get across a "message" but lacks the narrative skill to do this with authority. But it is the task I have set out for myself, and I believe the task is worthwhile, so I'll stick to it.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Bible Interpretation Example: Luke 22:36 and the Ills of Interpretation

I'd written this about a week ago with a mind to post it eventually, when I didn't have anything else. After the murders at Virginia Tech, however, I'm posting it, now.

Luke 22:36 says, "Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one."

This is often interpreted as being a justification for broad-based self-defense. Almost always, this is in the context of using firearms.

This is an interesting case, however, of being able to test the literalness of the people who talk about the Bible. This is one of my favorite verses, because it is in most ways so totally out of line with everything else Jesus says in the Bible – the whole sell your cloak and buy a sword line is only in Luke, and it it used to justify self-defense and guns.

But if you read it literally, what does it say? It says to buy a sword, if you've got the money for it, and if you don't, sell your cloak to buy a sword.

What it doesn't say, and is said nowhere in Luke, is that the sword should be used in self-defense. That's interpretation. So is the idea that this verse refers to firearms – it doesn't. Jesus doesn't say “guns” he says “sword”. To say that Jesus is referring to firearms is also interpretation.

What does Jesus want his disciples to do with their swords? He doesn't say. And he certainly doesn't refer to anything other than swords. Specifically, his belief about firearms is untested. The purpose of these swords is also left unclear.

Yet, most Christians in America interpret this line to justify broad-based self-defense with firearms. This is, I think, an unusually clear place where interpretation takes place. Christians, rather than saying that they should arm themselves with swords, infer that what Jesus meant is weapons, generically, and for the purpose of self-defense.

Of course, from the context, it is in fact reasonably clear that Jesus is telling his disciples to arm themselves for the purposes of self-defense. I do not dispute that this is a fairly obvious interpretation, but it nevertheless remains interpretation.

This sort of thing is true of almost all cases when someone quotes the Bible in support of something. The Bible almost never says what they say it says. It says something that could – to a greater or lesser extent – be interpreted as what they believe. It doesn't say it, it is merely interpreted as them saying it.

But why are they reinforcing their interpretation with sacred text? Why do they bother to justify the owning of firearms with Bible verse? The United States, in particular, already has a culture of gun ownership. Secular reasons to justify firearms ownership are culturally powerful – I'm sure a brief tour of the NRA publications section will give you more than enough to satisfy you. Hunting, Constitutional scholarship, tradition, self-defense – the US has numerous intelligible (not necessary right or true, but intelligible) secular reasons to justify gun ownership.

It seems to me, however, that for Christians an appeal to reason isn't enough, because secular arguments are, by their very nature, human arguments, and flawed, and can be discussed. When talking about the utility of guns for self-defense, people might bring up the disturbing fact that in a household with guns, it's 22 times as likely that the guns will be used to cause harm to the residents of the household than a criminal. In short, you can bring up facts that weaken a purely secular argument.

However, by appealing to Jesus Christ, argument can be stopped. It is not longer a matter of one side that believes in firearms ownership because they believe it discourages crime and another side that believes that the damage done to society outweighs the right to own guns. The issue is now sacred. The right to bear arms in self-defense is holy, because Jesus himself said so. Who can argue with that? The perfect being has said, in their minds, that Jesus approves of firearms for self-defense. The fact that their “proof” is literary interpretation is meaningless; by assertion, their political preference has been transformed into inerrant holy decree. It is beyond discussion.

What a perfect political convenience! By stamping the sign of the Bible on something, it puts it beyond reasoned discourse and into the realm of holy law! All, of course, without the slightest sign from Christians that what they're doing is interpretation – they'll repeat, time and again, that Jesus approves of self-defense, even though a literal reading of the relevant passages don't reveal that at all, but shows, instead, Jesus ordering a discrete group of people to buy swords for unspecified reasons. This is taken, then, to be the highest form of argument, so pure and strong that it simply cannot be argued.

What a fantastic trick!

But it increasingly seems to my mind that those of us in the atheist/humanist/non-theist camp need to start calling out this stark interpretation. We're letting Christians literally get away with murder because we lack the skills to call their selfish, dishonest interpretations of religious texts what they clearly are: an obvious and duplicitous justification to a specific political agenda. We should hammer home, again and again, when Christians are interpreting the Bible – but pointing out the obviously of their interpretation, and giving no relent until they are exposed as the frauds or fools they are.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Interview with me!

This is the first in a series of interviews that I'm making about the writing of Simon Peter. My interviewer is Tim "Santiago" Converse, who is a scholar and a friend that is helping me out with . . . well, a lot of things.

This is the introductory interview. We'll be doing more of them in the fullness of time, with the juicy, meaty questions like "why did you rape Jesus?" - but for now, we decided on a more measured and stately interview technique.

Anyway, I hope people enjoy it!

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Capitalism and Conversion

I was reading this BBC article about Pope Rat's Easter celebrations. It appears, if one can believe the BBC, that the Catholic Church wants to focus on Asia. Allow me to quote: “the Vatican regards Asia as its most promising area for future converts.”

Then it occurred to me that is very nearly the same language that capitalists refer to underdeveloped markets. Corporations regard Asia, too, as this vast market waiting to be exploited, either as consumers or for raw materials.

In many ways, fascism is the right-wing merger of state, business and religion. The truth of that rushed on me, all at once, even though in my mind I've known it for a while. In the West, the exploitation of the New World was a state, business and religious prospect all at once. The Conquistadors came with state authority to convert Indians as well as rob them of their resources. The American conquest of the West was done in roughly the same way – missions preceded colonists that preceded reservations and/or genocide. Missionary activity has gone hand-in-hand with industrial exploitation.

Asia, in all ways, has been a tougher nut to crack than Africa and the Americas. Asia has a number of native religions and philosophies that, really, put Christianity to shame. Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism – in intellectual terms, in completeness, in almost all ways – make Christianity look like a primitive, second-rate religion, not to mention that monotheism is already well served in Asia with Islam. Asia boasts ancient civilizations and a powerful culture. So Asia has not been Christianized nearly to the extent as the rest of the world, just as Western style capitalist exploitation didn't work out as well there as in other places. Sure, both India and China were colonized, but they retained their own independent character and have taken the reins of industry into their own hands – both countries are averaging around 10% growth a year, currently, and the success of Japan and South Korea are well known. Nowhere has Western style capitalism succeeded outside of functionally Western nations (and not even all of those) except in Asia. So, with business as much as religion, Asia has been a tough nut to crack.

Which puts my mind onto two thoughts. The first is . . . is Western religion getting into a trap by going into Asia? No one doubts that India and China are going to become economic and perhaps military superpowers in the next twenty years or so. Both countries have managed to maintain their cultural and political identity against Westernization while adapting the industrial system of the West to their own purposes. Is the Roman Catholic Church's interest in Asia pure arrogance? Why do they think that Asia won't merely adapt the techniques of Western religion that suit them and turn the tables on the West, as they are currently doing with business?

This segues into my second thought. China is already a fairly large cultural exporter, nowadays. India is developing into one (not only with cinema and letters, but, interestingly enough, comic books – several Indians have decided to try to export Indian comics into the West, probably attempting to recreate the success of Japanese manga in America). How much longer will it take to occur to them to start the sort of cultural exportation that the West has done for centuries? Before they start to organize Hindu or Buddhist missions to flood the West with their own religious culture?

Those cursed lucky Europeans might be able to resist, because it appears that most Europeans simply don't care much about religion – even those that still identify with their traditional religion. So, in France, if one believes Stew's translation of those French graphs, and I do, 59% of the French identify as Catholic, but over half of declared Catholics have only ever been to church for marriages, baptisms and funerals, and only 23% of declared Catholics bother to attend church for even the big ceremonies like Easter, Assumption and Christmas. And only 38% of the French believe in the Christian god – which means that something like 2/5ths of declared Catholics don't believe in God or are agnostic! So, I doubt that Hindu or Buddhist missionaries would be terribly successful in that sort of environment.

On the other hand, here in America, where we are pretty religious and belong to a very backwards, primitive religion, they might find really fertile ground. Think of it. Nothing in, say, Hinduism or Buddhism requires a person to deny evolution, or that the earth is billions of years old. Modern science fits a lot better with most Asian religions than it fits with Christianity, and they are capable of the same level of spiritual comfort and community.

So, really, I find myself asking, “Right now, are there folks in India and China saying that the United States and South America would be perfect places to gain new converts?” Because if my thesis is true and missionary work goes hand-in-hand with economic exploitation, the West will soon become a big target for cultural imperialism from Asia.

A third thought also occurs to me, that it required the missionary zeal of Christianity to develop capitalism. Christianity is all about exploitation, about converting people, and about controlling them (religions being top-down systems of authority that have strict codes of conduct and such, I don't think it can be reasonably said religions aren't primarily about control . . . at least, not without invoking a god in an apologia). Most other places, prior to the advent of Christianity, had reasonably tribal religions or attempted to identify their own gods with the gods of other places. One of the fairly unique things of primitive Christianity was its exclusivity (there is but ONE god, and it is OUR god) combined with its missionary zeal. It is unsurprising to me that a people so used to exploitation, so used to destroying other people's cultures, came up with the idea that, economically, they're also fair game. It isn't something, I think, that would occur to people, otherwise, used to seeing them either as outsiders to be avoided or believing, as most in the ancient world did, that everyone's gods were the same but simply called by different names and under different faces. That religious conversation that destroys a culture's religious uniqueness would naturally lead to exploiting their labor and resources.

Though I doubt that Pope Rat would agree with this. After all, he's jump right into the apologia of his premeditated cultural imperialism against Asia as justified because his god really exists.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Talking to Christians and Literary Analysis as the Foundation of Belief

In the discussion of this post by Beep! Beep! It's Me!, things are getting into the endurance flames part of the discussion with a couple of Christians who post there. Eventually, it seems to me, virtually all discussions with Christians of conscience about their co-religionists that are fundie nutjobs boil down to a variant of the No True Scotsman fallacy. In this context, it's an interminable discussion about what constitutes a “true Christian”. This then goes around and around and around, with the non-Christians saying that all Christians think they're the true Christians and using the No True Scotsman fallacy on all other Christians, and the Christians asserting that through some interpretation of the Bible that you can deduce a true from a non-true Christian, and then the non-Christians saying that's what all Christians say . . . so forth, and so on.

I'm not going to focus on the No True Scotsman fallacy, but how Christians use literary interpretation as their epistemological foundation. Because, to me, that seems the bigger issue.

So, when a person asserts something that a Christian (or other religious person, it's just that in America a body almost always has this discussion with Christians) objects to, the fundamental authority that must be appeals to is the Bible, or, more precisely, that Christian's interpretation of the Bible.

So what happens is every discussion about a matter of weight with a Christian is transformed into a discussion about the true meaning of the Bible. Discussing the age of the earth? Go to the Bible. Discussing politics? Go to the Bible. Discussing feminism? Go to the Bible.

This is a form of conversation stopper, then. When a Christian brings up a Bible, what they're saying is they're appealing to an unimpeachable authority. And what I think is important, here, is the authority isn't the Bible. The Bible is a vast, sprawling work that is complex, and often contradictory. The Bible says a lot of things in a lot of language, and is literal in places, metaphorical in others, with no clear distinction between the two. The authority is the person's interpretation of the Bible.

Most people, of course, have not comprehensively detailed their interpretation of the Bible. To do so looks to me like a very daunting task. Indeed, most Christians don't know the Bible well enough to speak passingly about it, much less comprehensively about it. But even if the Christian in question does have a comprehensive, internally consistent interpretation of the Bible, it's almost always largely hidden in the mind of the Christian.

But, that's not how Christians present the argument, by and large. In my experience, they don't go, “In my personal interpretation of the Bible, which is a vast and confusing book with many seeming contradictions, I feel Jesus clearly says that fags should be butchered.” They go, “The Bible SAYS that fags should be butchered” when, in truth, what the Bible says is difficult to parse even for a lifelong dedicated student of the Bible.

So, when discussing the Bible with virtually all Christians, you're actually discussing a very particular, and usually hidden, interpretation of the Bible that has been elevated to absolute, unimpeachable truth in the mind of the Christian. And, with almost every issue of importance, a Christian will use their divinely revealed interpretation as an unimpeachable authority.

Unsurprisingly, this is a conversation stopper. When that happens, when a Christian pulls out their (hidden, undiscussed interpretation) of the Bible as the last authority, the other person has to either agree or the discussion ends. It ends particularly hard for non-Christians – almost no Christian is going to admit that a non-Christian's interpretation of the Bible is valid. So even when a non-Christian confronts a Christian with Biblical material, it simply doesn't matter because non-Christian interpretations of the Bible are automatically meaningless in discussions of the Bible. Christians largely believe that non-Christians have no right to interpret the Bible.

(Which is not true in other forms of literary criticism, I should note. In literary criticism outside of religion, different styles of interpretation co-exist. So, when discussing, say, Freud, a Marxist critique of Freud is not automatically dismissed by a post-modernist; the post-modernist might disagree with the Marxist, but they don't reject the legitimacy of the Marxist's right to interpret. Indeed, in literary criticism, a person might accept both interpretations! And, always, they are aware that it is an interpretation made by a human for human purposes, without divine inspiration or guidance.)

Thus, it seems to me that most religion is an epistemological system based off of chance prejudices that are sanctified by appeal to sacred literature, and this appeal to sacred literature is, itself, merely a biased interpretation of the religion's works. It creates an internally isolated epistemological world based on holy feelings, and any deviation from that world is regarded not merely as error but sin. Unsurprisingly, this makes it pretty hard to talk to religious people.

Which, again, puts me off the very idea of religion, at least how most Christians and Muslims practice it, at any rate. Because, even if a Christian believes something that is true, the reason isn't that they've reasoned it out, but that they have decided their belief coincides with the Bible, and then they elevate their belief to the status of divine inspiration against which nothing at all is allowed to intrude. They are right not because they have used reason, but merely because they have decided, and appealed to an ultimate authority. Religion seems to have nothing good about it, really.

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Ha, I Say, HA!

Part two of Simon Peter is done. It was about 25% longer than I'd planned for it to be -- around 51,000 words -- but I feel good about it.

Part three will be, I expect at this point, to be the longest of part, because it will contain the bulk of Jesus' ministry as well as his death. I'm half thinking of rather than diving straight into part three that I'll write a short story in the style I've adopted for Simon Peter and post it here when I'm done with it -- probably a week or so from when I begin -- and I'm curious if y'all out there have any thoughts on the subject. I know that most of you are here because I cut up about religion, not necessarily because I'm writing a book on Biblical characters, but most of you also seem to be pretty hip into reading, which pleases me immensely.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt

Reading Anne Rice's Christ the Lord Out of Egypt proved, at a glance, that I must hate myself on some profound level. All through reading this book I would come across something particularly bad and ask Adrienne, “Why am I reading this?” She would say, “So you can make fun of it with a clean conscience.” She knows me well.

For some background, when I'm writing a long project like Simon Peter, I try not to clutter my brain with too much outside literature. I generally read a lot less, and it tends to be about whatever it is I'm writing, if only tangentially. This helps me stay focused on a big project. The last thing I want is to get a really great idea in the middle of writing something that distracts me from what I'm doing. So, right now, I tend to read a books about various 1st century CE subjects, especially if they're dealing with Judaism, Roman Palestine and, of course, Biblical figures. Rice's book is very much the sort of thing that I read.

I've also planned on reading it for a while. I am not an admirer of Rice's work, but she's important to Simon Peter. After learning that Anne Rice had written a novel about Jesus it really dawned on me anyone could do it – and I fancy myself a much better writer than Anne Rice. So I started looking into it and, behold, I'm doing it.

As you can probably guess, I think the book is bad. The rest of this post is about how bad, and the forms this badness takes, and it'll probably be pretty long. It's the worst book I've actually finished in a longish time.

Also, for the record, I hold no particular hostility towards religious fiction. I am, after all, doing it, myself. I like a fair number of Jesus-fic novels such as Barabbas by Par Lagerkvist and Lamb: the Gospel According to Biff by Christopher Moore. Others, such as The Last Temptation of Christ I might not have liked, but I can see the craft and art that went into writing them. To me, a well written book about Biblical characters is akin to interesting fantasy, and I hold neither the books nor the writers in any sort of contempt. I say this because I didn't go into this hating it. While I'm not a fan of Rice's works, I did enjoy Interview with the Vampire, so I further know she's capable of writing things I like.

But Out of Egypt is just a bad book. It's so bad I am struggling with where to begin. So, after Carroll, I shall being at the beginning.

The book takes place when Jesus is seven or eight years of age. It takes place in the first person, as if Jesus is narrating things as an adult. The plot revolves around Jesus learning he is the son of Jehovah, immediately after the death of Herod the Great and the riots surrounding Herod's death.

The first problem is the narration, itself. Jesus is narrating the book as if he was an adult looking back, but the book totally lacks mature insights into the youthful Jesus' problems, personality or social interactions. Particularly lacking is mature insight into Jesus' social interactions, which I very much would have liked to see. But the narration, despite technically being recorded by an adult Jesus, comes off as being narrated by the child Jesus.

The book begins with Jesus striking another child dead while he lives in Alexandria. It was inspired by a scene out of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. (Out of Egypt also mentions Jesus turning clay pigeons into real birds, also from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.) The inclusion of the striking dead scene is problematic and, I suspect, the reason it never even got seriously considered for Biblical canon. After all, murder is a sin, and Jesus is said to have lived a sinless life. Though, in Out of Egypt and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, Jesus undoes these acts, having done them, he had sinned. Just because you give back the money you've stolen doesn't mean you're not a thief – you're just a penitent thief, right? The first thing that Rice has Jesus do is sin.

Now, if it had been a book written in that fashion, I probably would have been pleased. A Jesus that went around withering people and striking them blind – based on various legendary sources – would have been a hoot. Heck, if I wasn't deep into Simon Peter I might have done it that way, myself. However, Rice intends to confirm the divinity of Jesus – which is not well served by having Jesus kill someone, even if he does repent of it. God is above that sort of thing, right? At least, that's the standard Christian doctrine – that Jesus is perfect. So the book starts out with a serious misstep.

The book has a lot of missteps. It's like Rice doesn't know what she's doing from one chapter to the next. So, in one chapter, Joseph tells Jesus not to do violence. He is clear. Joseph says, “Never lift your hand to defend yourself or to strike.” Then, a chapter later, Joseph and his relatives kill a man who is attempting to rape a woman. Which is it, Joe? Never lift your hand, or is it okay to kill in self-defense of third parties?

Another misstep is the . . . well, the Jewishness of Jesus is a complex subject in the book. Clearly, if Jesus lived at all he was Jewish. We don't know what kind of Jew – we know very little about him, as a person, and it is often contradictory or outright silly – but certainly a Jew. Christianity largely de-emphasizes Jesus' Jewishness. Some of it is outright racism on the part of Christians, certainly, but there is a larger point to it – Jesus is not a Jewish messiah but a universal messiah. By emphasizing Jesus' Jewishness, it weakens Jesus' universal appeal, which clashes uncomfortably with the rest of the tone of the book where it is emphasized that he's a universal messiah.

Those are the three major missteps I can think of, right now. Now I'll start to address the further horrors of the book.

Keeping on with the Jewish character of Jesus, the book dwells on things in a truly comical way. The characters mock Egyptian Jews who study the Jewish Bible in Greek, unlike Jesus and his family who do it in Hebrew. Which struck me as reasonably cruel, to mock someone's ignorance. It further struck me as comical – Jesus and his family of super-Jews. (Not to mention that it isn't like most Christians learn Greek and Hebrew to study the Bible. Rice, herself, had to do her Bible study in English. It seems a bizarre standard of mockery, given the lack of importance American Christians give to learning the languages the Bible was written in.)

The Jews, in general, are treated in a cartoonish way. So, in Sepphoris, Jesus notes the absence of prostitutes for the Roman soldiers to fuck, vis-a-vis Alexandria. As if Jewish women didn't know how to prostitute themselves? The Bible is very explicit on the extent of prostitution amongst Jews. Apparently, it was nigh ubiquitous. At several places in the Old Testament – such as Ezekiel 16:15 . . . oh, to at least verse 38 – the author shows a pretty profound knowledge of the ways of prostitutes. And, of course, famously, Jesus hung out with prostitutes. But in Out of Egypt, it's like the Jews are too moral to engage in prostitution, which is laughable.

(Interestingly, the book seems to praise Jewish women for wearing the veil, which protects them from the Roman soldiers. I don't think that Rice was praising the veil as effective against sexual assault – when a person gets it into their head to rape someone, a piece of cloth is unlikely to stop them – but trying to suggest that Jesus would have been for the veil because it's modest. Still, there is also enough in the Gospels to suggest that Jesus wouldn't have cared about veils or the conservative social modesty of the Jews. He broke a lot of Jewish social rules, such as traveling with women (Mary Salome, Mary and Martha, Mary Magdalene – by the social rules of the time, they should have been escorted by a male relative) and associating publicly with prostitutes. But she chose to have Jesus praise the veil, which isn't necessary given the further life of Jesus nor particularly sensitive to modern issues.)

And the Pharisees are SUCH GOOD PEOPLE. They're so learned and holy and . . . ugh, it's childish. They're not just good people, as humans can be, but they're these smiling, sinless people who never lose their temper, who never get developed beyond their smiling, one-dimensional caricatures. And there's the wise old woman who is so old and wise! And the crotchety uncle with sage advice! None of the cast (who aren't walk-in characters, generic threats) had, it appears, a single bad impulse in them – even when they do something that is bad (such as Jesus striking someone dead) it's never because they possess a sinful thought; Jesus acted impulsively, without thought, Joseph and his cousins acted to save someone else. Humans without some measure of bad in them, of course, are caricatures. They aren't believable. Thus, none of the characters in Out of Egypt are the least bit believable.

Going hand in hand with the cartoonish, one-dimensional nature of the characters is the awful writing. There are some examples that will help illustrate this. Be warned. It is bad.

Elizabeth lowered her voice and spoke on.

“We have brethren with them, grandsons of Mattathias and Naomi, who went out long ago to the desert to live with them, and I've spoken with them, and they will take him, even now. It's their way to take children and bring them up strictly, abiding by their rules of purity and fasting, and strict community, and all these are natural things to my son. And he will study with them. He will learn the prophets. He will learn the word of the Lord. The desert is where he wants to be, and when I'm gathered to my ancestors there he will go until such time as he is a man and decides for himself what he will do. I have already provided for John with the Essenes and they wait only for my word, or for him to come to those that live on the other side of the Jordan and they will take him far out away from here to where he's to be brought up removed from the affairs of men.”

Who speaks like that? C'mon. It's a parody of the sonorousness of the King James Bible. This passage isn't a particularly bad one, either. It's all like this. Very portentous, very pretentious. In other passages, I swear I can also hear the nasal New Yawk twang, too. How can a person take this seriously?

Another bit that I found amusing:

”Oh, yes,” said a woman who saw me look at them. Her eyes were red, and her clothes covered with ashes and dust. “And days ago they massacred us, I tell you, and sold off anyone in sight to the filthy slave merchants who descended on us to put our loved ones in chains. They took my son, my only son, he's gone! And what had he done, but gone out to try to find his sister, and she took for what? She was trying to go from my house to the house of her mother-in-law?”

Rice, especially with female characters, has them say things like “I tell you” and repeat themselves – the slavers sold off anyone in sight and put their loved ones in chains – in a way that makes me wonder if this was proofread at all, by anyone! And sometimes, again largely with female characters, I swear I can hear a New Yawk twang with all the “I tell yous”.

Rice also does that annoying thing where when she wants to emphasize something, she puts a particular sentence as a sole paragraph. This is also pretty juvenile, I feel, and vaguely insulting to the intelligence of the reader. Like we're not clever enough to figure out what's important.

Over and above this, however, the book's biggest problem is it is painfully dull. It took a bit, but since I was stuck on the road a lot over the vacation, and there's only so many cacti a person can look at before they all blend into a Platonic form of cacti, I figured it out. Jesus and most of the main characters of the story are, well, canonical figures. Because nothing is really known about Jesus' childhood – a few spurious infancy gospels aside – and because Rice doesn't want to do anything to blatantly contradict the Bible (tho' she fails in this in a couple of places, as said above), the characters must be static. They can't do anything really noteworthy, else she would have to explain why this wasn't included in the Bible, itself.

Particularly static is Jesus. Because she is, in large, trying to write him as the perfect child, and because Joseph and Mary are protective parents, this means he obeys his parents. And when you're seven years old, well, you're not allowed to do very much. A fair bit of the book is Jesus asking to do something interesting, being told that, no, he's not allowed to do that, and then him obeying. After all, he must! He must honor his mother and father, right?

And because the extended family of Jesus included in the novel are equally holy, they are equally dull. For a moment, there is a brief bit of tension because Jesus' brother James (the Just, eventually, who is patriarch of the Jerusalem church and a martyr in the fullness of time) resents Jesus because James knows that Jesus is the messiah, but what could have been actual tension is resolved instantly, so it means little. And the rest of Jesus' family, who know he's the son of Jehovah, also have no problem with it – they accept it wholly and without any problem at all. Again and again, there are places for actual conflict, but Rice never really capitalizes on this. I suspect she does this because, well, the messiah can't have a fucked up family full of people who doubt Jesus is the messiah, right? Even though there is Biblical evidence that his family didn't accept his mission!

Even when Rice suggests that the larger Nazareth community doesn't believe the stories about Mary and the virgin birth, but it's kept very distant. Mary is never confronted, and neither is Jesus. The tension is hinted at, but nothing is ever done with it.

Satan also makes an appearance in one of Jesus' dreams (though uncredited, it's obvious who it is). Now, Satan is one of my favorite literary characters because it's so easy and fun to deconstruct Satan. Other writers have really had fun with Satan, from Milton to Kazantzakis. He's a fun guy! Rice's take on the big S seems designed to be as bland as possible. The child Jesus easily beats off whatever temptation that Satan might have been trying to do – compare with the Satan out of The Last Temptation of Christ, where Jesus on the cross came very close to succumbing. Satan, the greatest villain of Christianity, is treated as though he was a punk ass bitch. Again, when given the chance to really create some tension, for something interesting to happen, Rice flubs it. One could even say that, as a child, Jesus would be vulnerable to Satan's charms. Apparently not. Yawn.

So, all the action of the book takes place from a very limited perspective. Of a young child that has no real verve, an obedient child, a completely dull child. The other characters are equally dull, because they have to be worthy to be the family of the Christian messiah. Even the passage through the riots following Herod the Great's death are without impact – they are never really threatened. The book is very explicit about this, that Joseph wouldn't have been ordered to return to Galilee if the way hadn't been made straight. So, no real threat! They are protected by GOD HIMSELF.

All of this combines, of course. It isn't just that the characters are one-dimensional parodies, and it isn't just that the writing is bad, and it isn't just that nothing really happens. All of these things are happening at the same time.

The book is dull and silly, it says nothing original in poor language. It isn't even bad in an interesting way – it plods along, boring and pretentious, not even letting the audience thrill in how truly awful it is. It's bad in a pedestrian way. I recommend giving it a miss.

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Saturday, April 7, 2007

Freestylin' Against Theocracy!

This is me freestyln' about theocracy. This is me just ramblin' on a bit.

One of the key things to bear in mind is that when those fundie Christians and their ilk talk about how the Christian god has always been part of American government, they've got a point. Sure, a number of the Founding Fathers were deists and reasonably suspicious of religion. A number of them were heavily religious, too. And at the writing of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, all states in the Union would only let white, Christian landowning men vote.

But, more than that, I think it's fair to remember, vital to remember, that the whole enterprise of government originated with religion. It is hard to find a people, anywhere, in the pre-modern world (and many in the modern world) that don't equate their rules were divine or sacred people. I'm not just talking the god-kings of ancient Egypt, or divine right of European kings, or the Chinese mandate of heaven, or the Turkish Emperor being the Shadow of God, or Roman Emperors being pontifex maximus -- well, maybe I will mention them. It is virtually ubiquitous to have governmental and sacredotal authority vested in the same person, or the office of ruler having a sacred quality.

I say this because I think most people fail to recognize how very new the idea of a truly secular government is. Even our Founding Fathers weren't aiming for a really secular government. If they had, they would have addressed the fact every state required a person to be a Christian to vote, but they didn't. Religious freedom was meant to avoid the Christian leaders of America from tearing it up; but it was never in doubt in their minds that Christianity was the religion of America. All states had laws to insure that was the case, and would continue to be the case.

I think that people, in failing to recognize the newness of secular government, also fail to understand how deeply religion is entwined even in technically secular governments. Such as here in America how the number of atheists in Congress that have ever been open about their lack of faith is . . . one. Out of thousands of congresspeople and senators. And no Presidents, no governors, no Supreme Court justices, only a few other officials. The entire elected apparatus of American society is firmly religious and overwhelmingly Christian.

I am not going to say that the US has a theocracy. But we're not far from it, either, y'know, because all but one congressperson, all senators, the President, virtually all judges, all governors, all but a tiny handful of state senators, county commissioners, mayors, etc., they're all religious and overwhelmingly Christian. The US has not, traditionally, needed an overt theocracy in order to advance religious points of view. So, during the fifties, advanced by our secular government, school prayer was enforced in schools, and "under god" was put in the Pledge of Allegiance. No, not quite a theocracy, but simply because a theocracy was unnecessary.

This is, fortunately, changing, but even as it changes I think we need to note that in almost all governments in the world, the origin of state power is indistinguishable from religious power, and in America we've very close to a theocracy in practice if not in overt structure.

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Friday, April 6, 2007

Fundies on the Attack! Alliance Defense Fund Whackiness!

Naomi over at God is for Suckers posted this about about this blog post from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

The upshot is there's this organization of fundie Christians, the Alliance Defense Fund.

Here's a lesson in newspeak. AUSCS calls the ADF:

Founded by TV preachers and other extreme right-wingers to push the Religious Right’s agenda in the courts, the ADF was spawned by James Dobson, D. James Kennedy and Donald Wildmon, among others.

Originally, the group was conceived as a funding pool. The ADF would collect money and dole it out to Religious Right litigators like Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice.

The ADF calls itself:

The Alliance Defense Fund is a legal alliance defending the right to hear and speak the Truth through strategy, training, funding, and litigation.

ADF was founded for a unique purpose: to aggressively defend religious liberty by empowering our allies, recognizing that together, we can accomplish far more than we can alone.

We work tirelessly to assist them in their efforts through strategy, training, funding, and, where necessary, direct litigation through our own ADF legal team.

The ADF makes it sound like they'd defend radical Muslims or Buddhist monks or something, without giving any specifics about who funded it or the real work that they do. Oh, sure, later on they spill the bag -- but if you're a casual visitor to their website you might actually come away with the idea that they're protecting religious freedom in a global sense, not their own narrow view of it.

Still, that's not what I'm here to say. It just leapt up at me and I had to say it.

And I encourage everyone to read the GifS and AUSCS posts. They really say most of this better than I'd have the patience to do. The upshot is that the fundie religious right has this huge court machine trying to exact it's religious beliefs through the courts, as American law.

I don't normally write about politics, so why this? Because I think that most Americans have scant idea how organized, and the fashion of organization, the fundie Christian right is using to manipulate the government. That Americans need to see this sort of thing, to have it right out there in the open, to understand how the government is being fundamentally manipulated at the highest levels of power by fundamentalist Christians. (Compare, f'rex, the openness with which the ACLU pursues its cases. Everyone knows who the ACLU is, but virtually no one knows who the ADF are or what they're doing.) So, some of this is just spreading the word.

The rest of it is just me having contempt for the "nice Christian" defense. Time and again, I am confronted with Christians who try to say, "Well, I'm nice, and the Christians I know are nice, so you've got it wrong about Christians." Bullshit. Where is the "moderate" or "liberal" Christian response to this sort of thing? At best, they don't know, which is sort of like living in Stalin's Russia and not being aware of the gulags, if you ask me. They're not really hiding it, and someone is giving the ADF over twenty million a year to pursue cases, and train judges and the like. But they never seem to go after their these fundie Christians. They do spend a lot of time giving apologia for their religion, rather than doing the hard work of getting these people out of their religion! Of destroying the mechanisms of their manipulation! Day after day, year after year, they sit in congregations with rightist fundamentalists and do nothing but then have the arrogance to criticize atheist and humanist critiques of their religion, while offering endless (generally ridiculous) apologia for their faith.

Maybe Beep! Beep! It's Me! knows the opposite of the tu quoquo fallacy. Where, instead of justifying one's own horrible system by pointing out the sins of the opposition, the person justifies continued participation in their horrible system because not everyone in it is "that bad". Y'know. Like the rank-and-file members of the KKK, or whatever, saying the KKK isn't bad because they've got some real nice people in there.

And you can be damn sure that no Christian will be picking this up on their blog. I'd be fascinated if someone could find even one where this was brought up, even one.

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Bible Highlights

On Dwindling in Disbelief, the blog of the author of The Skeptic's Annotated Bible, has posted about the "best" books in the Bible from an atheist point of view.

My favorite bit, by far, however, is that:

Only 35 books are listed. The other 31 have nothing that I can call good.

The list of "bad" books of the Bible - meaning those void of any worthwhile moral content - are:

1. Genesis
2. Numbers
3. Joshua
4. Judges
5. Ruth
6. 1 Samuel
7. 2 Samuel
8. 1 Kings
9. 2 Kings
10. 1 Chronicles
11. 2 Chronicles
12. Ezra
13. Nehemiah
14. Esther
15. Song of Solomon
16. Lamentations
17. Ezekiel
18. Daniel
19. Joel
20. Amos
21. Obadiah
22. Jonah
23. Nahum
24. Habakkuk
25. Zephaniah
26. Haggai
27. 2 Corinthians
28. 2 Thessalonians
29. Philemon
30. Jude
31. Revelation


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Friday, March 23, 2007

Friday update!

Jon Stewart makes me laugh.

That said, I'm almost done with part 2 of Simon Peter. As opposed to part 1, which dealt with material that was, largely, non-Biblical, part 2 deals heavily with Jesus' involvement with John the Baptist, which receives some actual play time in the Bible. Simon Peter is only very loosely adapted from the Bible, but there are plenty of events that happen that people will be familiar with. It also deals with historical figures that have an existence outside the Bible, such as Herod Antipas, so I was able to draw on additional sources other than the Bible about these colorful people that populated Judea and Galilee at the time, as well as some medieval myths. As such, at times, it is a very exciting part to write. I plan on getting done with it today, but we'll see how that goes. I could be a thousand words from the end, I could be five thousand words from the end.

Also, over the next week or so I'll be slow to post and perhaps absent at posting altogether. Adrienne and I are going on a vacation to visit some friends in Arizona, and this involves trips to some various parks and camping. There will be pictures when I get back, almost certainly including some that I can turn into various icons for this blog. All the cool kids have pictures, after all, right? I've brought in a ringer or two for that time, but my posting will be periodic, at best.

In the works is an video interview I'm going to make with a a friend, Santiago. The subject matter will be, at least initially, Simon Peter and the reason why I made various decisions that I made. We're seriously thinking of posting it on GodTube because, well, it is relevant to Christianity and part of the work has always been to express myself to Christians as much as atheists, to open a dialog. We'll see! But that's also in the works.

Lastly, Santiago and I are also working on a secret publishing project. It's very hush-hush but we figure it'll make us some money and increase our exposure in a very constructive, productive way - it has nothing to do with our militant atheism or politics - and while I'm not sure the time is right to give details it is very exciting as well. There will be updates.

That's it for right now!

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Separate and Unequal – A Christian Odyssey Into Nothingness

This post was going to go unsent for a couple of days, but in a number of blogs (such as this Friendly Atheist post and this PZ Myer's post) they've been pointing out the MySpace clone, HisHolySpace.com. Everything after this paragraph was written before I found out about HisHolySpace.com but I think everyone will agree that it applies and supports my argument.

It wasn't until the Left Behind series had been going for many years that I ever heard of it. I read science-fiction and fantasy and I hadn't heard of it, because for a fairly long time the only place that sold the Left Behind books were Christian bookstores. It didn't stop them from doing very, very well.

Recently, Christians have opened the doors for Conservapedia. A Wikipedia-esque site for conservatives! Also recently coming online has been GodTube, a Christian alternative to YouTube. Also, the homeschooling movement, which is being primarily driven by fundamentalist Christians who don't want their kids to be exposed to sex education and science.

It is looking to me like Christians are starting to . . . opt out. During the 60s, hippies had a saying, “Tune in, turn on, drop out.” Well, it's looking a lot like 21st century Christians have discovered this. There seems to be some attempt to withdraw from society – to create a second . . . world. A world where a Christian can do everything that they do without having to contact anyone that ruffles their beliefs at all. They can go to Christian book and movie stores, go to Christian schools, have a Christian Internet. They can create a Christian bubble around themselves, completely ignorant of society at large! And, unlike those hippies, there are two hundred million of them in America.

There are two points, though, I want to make.

The first is even as they try to withdraw from society, they are nevertheless mimicking the very things that they despise. GodTube and Conservapedia are not innovations – but copies. Even now, they are dependent on the outside world to pull away from it. They hope by mimicking something they can exceed it? Rather than demonstrate what a pitiful copy it is? Well, good luck with that.

The second point is that it displays how frightened Christians are of the world. They're terrified of us, so much so that they're retreated into an increasingly closed society. I can't think of any humanist or atheist comparison. Oh, sure, we have our own organizations and all, but we're not trying to create a separate world for ourselves. We understand, generally, that we have to get by in this world and we engage in this world.

I suspect this will create a strange loop. The more they retreat the more, well, other people will step up. Not just atheists, either, but all the fringe groups, gays, feminists, Muslims, Wiccans, New Agers, you name it. And the more they/we step up, the more the conservative Christians will retreat.

Then, like a black hole eaten of it's own mass, they'll disappear.

At least, I hope.

There is precedent for this. The pagan religions that Christianity replaced, some of them were well over 2000 years old. Christians like to think that something that has existed for so long must continue to do so indefinitely (or, at least, to the end of the world – which they're still waiting for, after 2000 years), but there's no reason to assume that, none at all.

So, I say, let them retreat into their shells!

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An American Solution to the Problems of Religion: Unitarians?

I was talking about Pete Stark – the East Bay congresscritter who recently had the guts to admit that, no, he doesn't believe in the Sky Fairy – with my wife, and it was mentioned that he was a Unitarian.

Opines I, “If all religions were like the Unitarians, I probably wouldn't have a problem with religion.”

Then it struck me: is this the American solution to the problem of religion? The problem, to me, isn't really that someone believes in a loosely defined god. The problem is that they do so at the expense of reason, experience and even their own senses - and that belief almost always says they must foist their faith off on others. And, in doing so, they become bigots and worshipers of authority. I think that is, in rough, the basis of my problems with religion.

Unitarians don't do that. They explore religious subjects, including various gods, but in a very humanistic way. They are so open that they do accept atheists, without condemnation.

The United States is it's own place. Part of me really would just prefer chucking out the idea of religion as important – as they're doing in a lot of Europe, so my European friends tell me – but some of that is the anger towards religion that many atheists in America get. However, the US has certain cultural institutions and churches are one of them.

Even beyond the whole god thing, there's a lot of reasons people go to church. I, myself, am of the opinion that one of the reasons religion has made such a resurgence in my lifetime is the destruction of normal social patterns. Adults in America, nowadays, on average, do three long distant moves in their lifetime. Each time they do a long distance move – or, to a lesser extent, even a short distance one – they tear up all connections with their community, they uproot their children, put aside friendships, etc., etc. Moving is a fairly traumatic event. And when you get where you're going, where do you go to make friends? A place that isn't a meat market, that's safe for your children, where you don't have to feel competitive or defensive – that's church! You can move wherever you want, but within a short distance of your new home there's going to be a friendly church with wholesome activities for your family, a good place to meet friends, etc. And to join this happy group of wholesome people, all you've gotta do is profess to “accept Jesus”.

Even if my hypothesis isn't true, it's obvious that churches in America provide a lot of support for the communities they're part of. They're a place to meet people, to socialize, to do good works with more immediacy than supporting government reforms. They're a good place to bring one's children without fear that they'll pick up bad habits (except, of course, the religious bigotry and arrogance I was talking about earlier). Churches are a place of support and love. America's got nothing else like them.

The Unitarians, then, might have hit on something important for the United States. The problem with religion is that religions teach intolerance and deference to authority, and they teach that a book is more important than reason, experience and the evidence of your own senses. Even the “moderate” and “liberal” versions of a given religion teach this. The Unitarians, however, do not.

If the Unitarians became the model for American churches, they would provide all the social infrastructure without any of the real downsides that most religions have (mindless adherence to mythical authority, that smug belief that they're better because they're saved or whatever, not to mention the fundamentalist aspects of a given religion).

To me, this isn't quite as good as rejecting religion altogether. But, ultimately, since I don't believe in re-education camps I'm going to have to accept in a free society that a certain percentage of the people are going to want to believe in things I find absurd (say, UFO or conspiracy cranks) and give them a space to do so without really hurting anyone. Unitarian churches could provide that – a place for people to be non-offensively religious. I think of it as harm reduction.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007


I should be writing Simon Peter, and I was about to close down the browser and turn off my wireless to get to that when I saw a post over at The Stranger's Blog by Dan Savage that referenced WFMU's blog that, in it's turn, talked about GodTube. Which is a Christian version of YouTube.

Some samples. "Baby's Got Big Bible". Yes, that's a parody of what you think it is:

Apparently, an atheist's worst nightmare is . . . a banana. Who knew?

And then boggle to . . . I kid you not, Christian Clown Training:

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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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American religions "education" revealed!

From Hell's Handmaiden I followed a link going to to this Wonkette article about LA Times article. So works the blogosphere. Someone needs to link me, next, and thus continue the cycle of life.

Anyway, it's about how even religious Americans know next to nothing about the Bible, even tho' many of us feel that it is the inerrant word of the Fairy in the Sky.

Some quotations! We love cherry-picked quotations, right? Right!

U.S. citizens know almost nothing about the Bible. Although most regard it as the word of God, few read it anymore. Even evangelicals from the Bible Belt seem more focused on loving Jesus than on learning what he had to say.

In the course of talking to people about writing Simon Peter, I have to say that this is largely the case, yeah. Even people who claim to be Christians know, at best, a few stock phrases out of the Bible, generally meant to "prove" a very specific point. My favorite being that the Bible isn't really anti-gay. I never get tired of hearing how the Bible isn't anti-gay, really. Let's ignore the part about murdering them.

Surveys that are more scientific have found that only one out of three U.S. citizens is able to name the four Gospels, and one out of 10 think that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. No wonder pollster George Gallup has concluded that the United States is "a nation of biblical illiterates."

The depths of ignorance astonish me. Most Christians can't name the Gospels (accepting that around 70% of the populaton is nominally Christian). The irony here is that many atheists are pretty well versed in the Bible. Go figure.

Then, of course, they swoop in for the kill. The Bible should be taught -- in a secular fashion -- in schools, and specifically the Bible.

Some have argued against Bible courses in public schools on the theory that they would unconstitutionally "establish" Judeo-Christianity. For Scripture courses to be lawful, this argument goes, teachers must give equal time to all the world's scriptures, treating the Bible as one scripture among many. But the Bible is of sufficient importance in Western civilization to merit its own course. Treating it no differently from, say, the Zend-Avesta of the Zoroastrians or Scientology's Dianetics makes no educational sense.

Which, if I had any confidence that such a course would factually be taught with the Bible as literature I'd be all about it. Indeed, I'm also thinking that it would be better to teach the Bible as sacred writ -- it's so bad, boring, nonsensical and altogether banal that it would drive people away from Christianity in droves. However, since it is Georgia that is pioneering a program to teach the Bible as literature as an elective . . . well, I think that we all know what's really gonna go on in those classrooms. It is a (transparent) attempt to establish religion which is still illegal.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Why Do I Hate Christians?

Is that title risible enough? I hope so. Anyway, the origin of this post was that after posting the stuff about, er, y'know, raping Jesus and attacking the idea of liberal Christians several people told me they were uncomfortable with how I thought about Christians.

I don't hate Christians, though many might think I do, even after I explain why my problems are far more with Christianity. However, I understand and accept that when a person attacks a religion they are attacking one of the absolutely core beliefs of a large group of people. You can't attack Christianity (or any living religion) without attacking a lot of people. Still, to me the distinction is important: I don't hate Christians, my problem is with Christianity in general and those specific individuals that do a lot of horrible things in the name of Christianity. That said, I don't think that the damage done by attacking Christianity (in the sense that Christians will be hurt) is sufficient to deter me from doing it. I feel that Christianity needs to be attacked.

And by attacked, I don't mean that Christians should be attacked physically or even verbally for being Christian. I think that the ideas that support and buttress Christianity need to be attacked, such as the idea that Jesus was the “Son of God” or rose from the dead, or that Christianity provides a solid ground for a moral code.

(I also think that the separation of church and state we have in the US doesn't go nearly far enough. I think it is time to move beyond the establishment of one religion over another being forbidden to the idea that, truly, no religions at all should be established. And by this I mean removing the special rights that religions – all religions – possess. I do not think that religious people should have rights to confidentiality for their parishioners. I don't think that churches should be tax exempt. I think that these sorts of laws establish not a specific religion but religion, generally, by making it easier for religions to exist.)

Still, is Christianity so bad that it needs to be attacked? My answer is, “Yes.”

Right now, in the United States, it is clear that fundamentalist Christianity is the most politically powerful form of Christianity. That would be bad enough in any country. But the damage that fundamentalism can do is magnified by the power of the United States. The US is the “sole remaining superpower”. The authority the US wields, globally, is immense. Fundamentalist Christians can, and certainly do, manipulate the power of the US to enact a global agenda that suits their ends.

For instance, virtually every country in the world believes that the US should stop supporting Israel's conquest of Gaza and the West Bank. One of the key components of continued support of the policy of supporting Israel with three billion dollars of military assistance every year is fundamentalist Christians. They see the existence of Israel as one of the necessary preconditions of their eschatology – meaning that the Second Coming and the end of the world can't happen unless the Jews possess Israel, which is traditionally seen as incorporating Gaza and the West Bank. To at least some extent, US foreign policy is being shaped by the beliefs of fundamentalist Christians and effecting millions of people in Palestine.

Likewise, it is now forbidden for the US to give aid to organizations that provide abortions. While liberal forces in the US are unlikely to allow abortion to be criminalized at home, they aren't willing to fight hard enough to prevent foreign aid being so restricted. Again, international policy is being set to fit fundamentalist priorities.

The forces of fundamentalism in the United States have, through their insinuation into American government, a truly global reach.

Additionally, I don't see or feel, really, Christian attempts to stop fundamentalism from being the dominate political force in America. I can go to the NY Times best-seller lists and find five books, right now, that are attacks on various sorts of religious fundamentalism written by atheists. I can find no attacks on Christian religious fundamentalism written by Christians on that same list. It is trivially easy to find fundamentalist attacks on just about anything done by liberals, leftists or atheists – including attempts to end abortion choices, stop the teaching of evolution in schools, all manner of warmongering, homophobia, sexism, racism, classism by conservative forces. You just have to turn on Fox News or the Christian Broadcasting Channel. Where is the liberal Christian response to this? Scant to the point of being invisible.

Christian religions in other countries also don't seem to be doing very much to stop American fundamentalism. This strikes me as huge cop out. I understand that most religions are pretty local – that truly international denominations are pretty rare. On what grounds would, say, the Danish Lutheran Church condemn the Southern Baptist Convention? I would say “morality”. But, like with liberal Christians in American, if they are challenging US fundamentalists they aren't making a very big noise about it. (This is ironic to me because Christians have little problem telling liberal and moderate Muslims in Western nations that they are morally obligated to control Islam's fundamentalist sects in Middle Eastern countries.)

So, what does a person do? They see a problem – Christian fundamentalism – and they see that Christians aren't doing anything about it. They believe that something, in fact, does need to be done about it. What do they do?

Different people, of course, would do different things. The thing I'm doing, of course, is writing a book about Jesus, Simon Peter and the formation of Christianity and writing on my blog about it. I'm also fixing to try to get speaking gigs on the subject.

Still, this isn't driven by a hatred of Christians, but a deep distrust of Christianity – and the fundamentalists that are trying to wreck the world and the moderates and liberals who aren't doing jack shit about it.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Messiah on Messiah Combat!

Most Christians are totally ignorant that the 1st century CE was an era of tremendous messiah activity beyond Jesus. (Indeed, generally, the lack of cultural knowledge that most Christians have about that time period that wasn't directly tied to the Gospels I've found consistently shocking. I've met a dozen Christians who know everything about the events in the Bible, but can't hold a conversation about Tiberius, the Emperor at the time of Jesus' death. And, like Mel Gibson, most Christians think that Romans in the area spoke Latin . . . even tho' in the Book of Acts the Gentile party is referred to as the Greeks and the New Testament being an almost entirely Greek document originally.) Jesus had serious competitors in a variety of ways and the Christian victory was sure from assured.

The first place we can see the struggle between messiahs is the struggle between Jesus and John the Baptist. Most Christians accept without thinking about it that John the Baptist was, consciously, waiting for a messiah and that messiah happened to be Jesus, but there was an obvious struggle between early Christians and followers of John the Baptist.

You can see some of this in the Bible, itself. In Matthew 9:14 the disciples of John the Baptist criticize Jesus' disciples for their lax fasting habits. (Jesus answers them that his disciples might as well enjoy the good times while Jesus is still alive, likening himself to a bridegroom, because soon he'll be gone and misery will await them.) In Matthew 11:2-3, a couple of John's disciples question whether Jesus is the Messiah. (Jesus sends them away with no answer, but orders them to go tell John the Baptist of his works and deeds.) (I will also presume that anyone who reads this can find Bible quotations without me linking them. A trifle lazy, perhaps, but I don't use the Internet for my Bible and I don't have links for all this stuff laying around.)

By the time Luke was written – some twenty or more years after Matthew and Mark – there is even more signs of struggle. A fair bit of Luke is designed to demonstrate that John the Baptist is clearly Jesus' inferior, and that John the Baptist recognized it. So, in the Gospel of Luke, there is an extremely self-serving account of John the Baptist's birth where Luke time and against makes it clear that John the Baptist is the inferior of Jesus and knew it. Luke chapter 1 is just full of Elizabeth and Mary going on about how how Mary's child is so much greater than Elizabeth's, specifically the Magnificat and Ave Maria. Otherwise, Luke follows Matthew in the disciples of John the Baptist questioning of Jesus.

By the time that the Gospel of John was written, the overt struggle between Christians and the followers of John the Baptist had largely come to an end. John the Evangelist was very confident in the Baptist's inferiority. In John 1:20, the Baptist clearly says he's not “the Christ”. In John 1:21-23 he says he's not even a prophet, really, but just “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” to “make straight the way of the Lord.” And in John 1:32, the Baptist sees the Holy Spirit descending into Jesus and in John 1:34, the Baptist said, “And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.” Nevertheless, later on the questioning of Jesus that occurs in Matthew and Luke resurfaces in John, too.

Still, this is all pretty veiled. Most Christians don't even realize there's an ancient religion that continues to exist to this very day where John the Baptist is considered the Messiah and Jesus a traitor to John – the Mandeans. These are a non-Jewish, non-Muslim, non-Christian group of people who acknowledge Adam, Noah and John the Baptist as prophets but not Abraham, Moses, Jesus or Mohammad. They also seem to have been influenced by Chaldean and Babylonian religions, as well as Zoroastrianism. I am not claiming expertise. Indeed, it is hard for anyone to claim expertise because the Mandeans have as one of their religious creeds near absolute secrecy.

Unlike Baha'i (who also refer John the Baptist), the Mandeans are an ancient religion. Because of their intense secrecy, small numbers and the vicious persecution that has occasionally befallen them, there is no clear connection between Mandeans and the disciples of John the Baptist who questioned Jesus. It does, however, demonstrate that religions that followed John the Baptist existed in antiquity and that John the Baptist was, and is, the messiah in some people's eyes. This lends considerable credence, I think, to the notion that the treatment of John the Baptist in the Bible is due to the competition between the followers of the Baptist and the followers of Jesus.

However, by the time of the Gospels of Luke and John, Christianity had grown considerably towards Rome and amongst the Gentiles. If we take the Mandeans as evidence of the direction that the followers of John the Baptist went, they went into Persia – which could explain the high-handed way Luke and John treat the Baptist. Christians and primitive Mandeans didn't intersect very much, with Christians spreading to the West towards Rome and the Mandeans going east into Persia. However, it is indisputable that people in antiquity took John the Baptist very seriously as a messiah.

This is bolstered by Josephus in The Antiquities of the Jews where in Book 18, chapter 5, Josephus talks about John the Baptist as a good Jew and a holy man but does not refer to Jesus at all in connection with John the Baptist. So, by the 70s CE, when Josephus wrote The Antiquities, John the Baptist wasn't linked to Christianity much less as an inferior to Jesus.

While, in the end, the cult of Jesus would clearly grow far beyond the cult of John, for a while it was clearly touch and go. But there was a bigger Messiah that Jesus had to face. Growing into the Roman Empire it became inevitable that Christianity would have to deal with, in some fashion, Rome's most powerful religions: Mithraism and Magna Mater.

Mithraism, like all mystery cults, is a hard nut to crack because secrecy was part and parcel of the religion. However, it was very popular amongst the Roman army and was the official cult of several of the Legions. It . . . had certain issues that limited it's popularity, such as being open only to men and having a complex and uncomfortable initiatory rite. As a soldier's religion, it worked because soldiers have all that macho bravado going for them, but amongst the general population the rites were fairly extreme. The cult of Magna Mater, on the other hand, or the worship of the Great Mother, was nigh universal. In the ancient world, over time, the mother goddesses tended to get rolled up into a single character – the Magna Mater – with similar rites from modern Afghanistan to Portugal. Between Mithraism and Magna Mater, virtually every Roman shared in some of their rites.

The struggle against these religions is subsumed under the Christian struggle against “paganism” and even Christians acknowledge that it was a bitter struggle. What they don't seem to grasp is that virtually all the great holy days of the Christian calendar, such as Christmas and Easter, come from either Mithraism or the Magna Mater cult. Indeed, things like the resurrection can easily be traced back to myths about Attis, Osiris, Dionysus and Tammuz, all of whom informed both the rites of Mithraism and Magna Mater and would go on to influence Christianity through those religions.

Christianity overcame this obstacle through a multi-faceted strategy and some luck. If Christianity had stayed a Jewish religion, I suspect it would have died out. But by conversions of Romans, Christianity both spread through the Empire as well as started to adopt more and more characteristics of the big Roman religions at the time which helped to distinguish it from Judiasm. This was particularly assisted by the various destructions of the Jews at Roman hands, both in 70 CE and again in 135 CE. After the second rebellion lead by Simon bar Kochba, there wasn't many Jews left in Judea or Galilee as the Romans destroyed over 900 Jewish towns and villages, destroyed Jerusalem itself and forbid Jews to enter the city after replacing the Jewish Temple with one to Jupiter. The diaspora of the Jews was complete – there was no “home” to return to for 1800 years. This allowed the Gentile sect of Christians to gain total dominance over the religion, with a decidedly Roman character. So, Roman festivals and holidays were brought wholesale into Christianity, making it easier for Romans to convert to Christianity – it was like Mithraism or Magna Mater without a lot of the attending hassles of belonging to those religions.

The second big break came when Constantine I opted for Christianity to receive special Imperial sanction in the Edict of Milan. Effectively, Christianity had become the state cult of the Empire. This allowed Christians to spread without fear of retaliation through the Empire, often engaging in massacres and land theft to bolster their own religion. Most people believe that Constantine, himself, wasn't particularly a Christian and used Christianity to unify the Empire under a single religion for political reasons. I accept this as true. He is a Christian saint in virtually all Christian religions that allow that sort of thing, however.

However, the expansion of Christianity wasn't certain, and Christianity had a lot to overcome towards becoming the world's largest religion.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Where Do Gods Come From, Again?

In 1898, in Kenya, two lions killed around 140 people. The Tsavo brothers managed to do this in 1898 in a camp with a dozen people with guns capable of dropping a rhino. The Champawat tiger killed over four hundred people before being shot in 1907.

Could you imagine what it would be like living near something like the Tsavo brothers or the Champawat tiger not in the 19th or 20th century, but, say, the Late Stone Age? These cunning animals killed around six hundred people between them.

Could you imagine what would happen if a lion was terrorizing your community and one man went out and killed it? What would you do?

Well, you'd probably name him Hercules and deify him.

Likewise, a lot of early religions have the gods battling fierce animals. So you have Gilgamesh taking the bull by the horns and killing it. This is mimicked by Mithras defeat of Taurus the Cosmic Bull. Ragnarok is an orgy of wolf on god violence – and, overwhelmingly, the wolves win. Skoll eats the sun, Hati will eat the moon, Fenrir will eat Odin, Garm will kill and be killed by Tyr.

As an urban youth, I was actually slightly confused about the stories of the Nemean Lion and the Cosmic Bull. I thought to myself, “They're just animals.” I think this is commonplace. We have forgotten the power of animals, because for tens of thousands of years in our pre-history, humans waged a terrible struggle against these animals whose conclusion was not obvious to the humans at the time. We can't even imagine what it must be like to try to fight a bull, wolf, tiger, bear or lion with an underpowered bow and spear with a chip of stone for a tip – especially if that animal had already killed someone. Or, perhaps, literally dozens or even hundreds of people. How does a person face it? I suspect, usually they don't survive and either the man-eater destroys the community, moves on or dies of something else. Even a bull, which wouldn't be given to killing humans, could do terrible damage to a fragile neolithic community, quite capable of destroying houses and barns back when they were made of fragile mud and wattle, shattering the jars where grain was stored and generally creating an awesome fuss.

Now, two points. The first is that such an animal could easily be considered divine, either sent by the gods as an affliction or actually being the physical presence of a god. It would be considered unstoppable. Thus all the animal motif gods and goddesses in that old time religion. Before humans had technologically developed enough to protect themselves from animal attacks, there would be pretty good reason to at least consider the possibility that animals – especially large, dangerous ones – were divine. (And, if they were man-eaters, that they were akin to demon gods, thus the Norse obsession with god killing wolves or monstrous Nemean lions and their kin.)

The second point is that if someone did manage to kill one of these monsters they would take on special significance. If a man-eating lion is considered divine, certainly the person who fought and killed such a beast must, therefore, be divine – a god or sent by the gods. Hell, even today if someone killed a man-eating lion not with a gun, not even with a spear, but a club we'd be intensely impressed.

Usually, when people talk about the formation of religion they attribute it to crude attempts to understand the world around them. Arthur Schopenhauer pointed out (in On the Freedom of the Will and perhaps other places) that the difference between your body and all other matter in the universe is that your body is matter that obeys your will directly. So, in primitive times, the hypothesis goes, people attributed all motion to some will – the wind blows not because of differences of heat and pressure in the atmosphere over large areas but because a spirit (a word whose etymology, in nearly all languages, comes from “breath”) wills it to occur. The sun rises and sets not because the earth is rotating on it's axis in revolution around a star, but because a divine force carries it across the sky. The earth moves not because of tectonic activity, but because a divine force causes the ground to shake.

I suspect there is some truth to this. But in most religions before there is a sky god or an earth god there are beast gods. Thus, the neolithic gods such as Coyote or Raven. Or even the bestial Pan and Zeus' numerous transformations into animals (usually to rape some poor woman) and his frequent identification as a bull. Before most people started developing human-shaped gods we developed ones based on animals.

Mostly it has to do with technological development. In neolithic and moreso in paleolithic times, animals could seem to have it pretty good. Not just the big, dangerous ones, either. But while humans are freezing at wintertimes, man animals simply grow a new coat of heavy fur to survive the winter. Animals were, generally, faster and seemed stronger than humans, and rather than having to depend on crude tools they were naturally equipped with claws, teeth, horns – not to mention, sometimes, wings. Very primitive technology didn't seem nearly as good as the things animals were born having.

Also, before the invention of animal husbandry, how did anyone know how clever animals were or weren't? Was the howling of wolves singing in a tongue no person understood? The grunts and snorts of a bull a language unknown to humans? After all, animals seemed to have complex social rituals as well as knowledge of events humans didn't seem to have – such as running ahead of a fire before humans could smell, hear or see it. Without the knowledge of animal husbandry, before humans had prolonged contact with any animals, how could we judge their intelligence at all?

Our first gods were animals, in short, because they could kick our asses. Faster, stronger, able to survive without needing fire, or spears – independent and free – animals were often thought of humans to be superior to humans. I think it was only with the advent of animal husbandry and metallurgy – themselves acts attributed to divine skill – was it that humans started looking for humanocentric and then abstract gods. It took a while for us to be filled with enough pride in our own skill to believe human-like gods worth worshiping and even a little while longer to imagine transcendent gods. But in the beginning, humans worshiped animals because, well, they deserved it. They appeared divine.

Epilogue: I am also thinking that the very notion of placating gods (and the elaborate rituals around that) might have come from the animal worship phase of human pre-history. While it is patently absurd to placate the sun, it is possible to placate a dangerous animal. So, leaving a single goat tied to an altar so the wolves eat that, get their fill and then ignore the rest of your herd in the barn – well, that could happen. That could work. Then, when more human-like and then transcendent gods started replacing animal gods, the sacrifices were transferred over to the new gods even though placation is impossible (thus also the tendency, over time, for sacrifices to be useful to priests and not gods – sacrificing a goat makes sense if you're trying to give a wolf a full belly to save the rest of your stock, but there's only so many goats that a priest could possibly use so, y'know, why not give money instead).

Epilogue 2: The main reason I wrote this is because on a couple of different blogs have spread the sentiments of the post under this link relating Christianity to solar cults around. I am generally of the opinion that solar worship is a very civilized thing and while I think that Christianity does have a lot in common with solar cults (notably, Mithraism from which Christianity stole so much, from virgin births to last suppers to birthdays, tho' I also think that Christianity has been stripped of almost all it's solar content), I don't think that the origins of religion have much to do with the weather which wasn't nearly as important during the pre-civilized periods of human history during which religion developed.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

My first troll!

On my post about liberal Christians I got an anonymous response that compared me to Bush and was so offended about Simon Peter that he wished me financial ruin! (I'm sure he was wishing ill on me in a most Jesus-like way.)

Yay! Troll!

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Why I Wrote Simon Peter

This is a rough draft of an essay that might end up as a epilogue to Simon Peter explaining a bit why I'd choose to write the book as I have. Y'know. Deeply blasphemous.

Why I'm Writing Simon Peter

Does the world need a book where Jesus is viciously raped, the our erstwhile hero is a violent, sexist, racist multiple murderer? Why would anyone feel the urge to devote the huge time and energy it takes to write a novel into writing this novel?

The book is directed, generally, at two groups of people. The first group is Christians and, more generally, anyone who is religious. I think everyone gets that. The second group of people I'm addressing is more subtle. It's atheists.

It is obvious I'm attacking Christians. There is a purpose to the attack, however. What I am trying to emphasize in Simon Peter is that to call oneself a Messiah really puts a person out there on a limb in the sanity department. Christians, of course, believe that Jesus was the Son of God and, therefore, things that would be crazy out of another person are perfectly sane coming from Jesus – because he's the Son of God. But what if he wasn't? Sure, Christians aren't supposed to think that way. There are hints of it in the Gospels, themselves, such as Jesus' doubts in Gethsemane and his cry on the cross that God had forsaken him – brief glimpses which suggest that maybe Jesus was a mortal man and in his last hours he doubted his divinity and, as he came to die, believed himself to be forsaken entirely.

So I ran with that. I said to myself that let us assume that Jesus is akin to other self-proclaimed messiahs. In addition to studying material about the Bible, I also studied self-proclaimed messiahs – L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, David Koresh and Jim Jones. I overwhelmingly preferred messiahs who existed entirely in history and those who lived fairly recently. In other contexts I've done study of Mohammad and Simon bar Kokhba, but with pre-modern messianic figures the texts are both sketchy and highly colored. The newer the research, the more likely the researchers were to try to learn about family details and be able to write about them in an open and honest fashion.

What I found was that, even in the case of Hubbard, money and power don't seem to be the real motivations. The messiah might get rich but that's almost secondary to what they actually seek. What they seek are followers, people who listen to them, who believe them and who love them.

Insofar as I can tell – and it is hard to learn even with these figures in many cases – they share certain childhood traits. All or almost all of them were abused as children or suffered difficult childhoods. At least two of them I mentioned (Jim Jones and David Koresh) were known to be sexually abused. All of them would later display behavior that I believe suggests deep childhood trauma concerning sex.

Indeed, more than any one thing, sex unites this group. All of them used their position to get sex. Hubbard not only used his position to seduce the wives of his followers, he eventually created a staff of preteen girls who would sleep with him (without sex, we are told) in order to replenish his energies. Smith and Young used their position to accumulate many wives, sometimes resorting to harsh means to separate a desired woman from another man (such as forcing the a couple to divorce or break off engagements). David Koresh eventually demanded that married couples don't have sex with each other, but that Koresh would have unlimited access to sex all the Branch Davidians. Jim Jones also used his position to coerce sex from his followers and used some of them as prostitutes to seduce government officials in Guyana. Each and every one of them had sexual habits that radically deviated from the norm that they used their religion to justify.

All of them also engaged in a variety of self-destructive behavior. Smith and Young routinely flouted the authority of the US government and several times brought the wrath of the state down on their church, almost destroying it repeatedly. Jim Jones eventually lead his church into mass suicide and murder. David Koresh provoked the federal government into actions that lead to the destruction of his church and followers, as well. Hubbard was also expert at provoking governments and fled several countries and was chased out of several ports of call. Here is where Jesus fits the pattern more clearly. (It is easy to see Jesus as being kin to these other messiahs, because the Bible talks about Jesus' provocation of the authorities that leads to his destruction. It's one of the main themes of the Gospels.)

But very few novels or stories explore the idea that Jesus was a figure not too different than David Koresh or L. Ron Hubbard. They are either written with Jesus either divine or divinely inspired, or they are written with Jesus being a social revolutionary. To me, the first is impossible because I don't believe in any god at all and the second isn't well supported by the Gospels. Jesus doesn't do anything revolutionary except claim to be a messiah. In our day and age, someone who claims messiahdom is regarded as a liar, mad or both. Reading about messiahs I came to the conclusion that a historical Jesus either did not claim to be a messiah or he did and was a liar, mad or both. In terms of making the story more interesting, it is easy to see why I chose to make Jesus a madman and charlatan.

Then, making him a madman and charlatan, like so-called messiahs seem to be, when constructing Jesus' life I was guided by the messiahs I'd read about. Therefore, he had to have a difficult childhood full of abuse and neglect to justify his later grandiose delusions. He had to enact his childhood trauma in the present with bizarre sexual activity and self-destructive behavior. The character, ultimately, wrote himself and I just had to fit him into the narrative structure of the Gospels (which which I obviously took considerably liberty).

Even if Jesus was as mentally ill, a liar and self-destructive, he would be completely whitewashed by his followers. Of course, as failed messiahs neither Koresh nor Jones have many (if any) followers left to whitewash their names; thus the unusually good quality of information about them. However, Smith, Young and Hubbard all have official biographies that are promoted by their religions, and these official records read radically different than biographies written by people outside their faith. The only records we really have about Jesus that claim to be first-hand accounts are the Gospels, and they're so biased and it is so common for religions to whitewash their leaders that it is impossible to know the truth of any historical Jesus. It'd be like trusting Scientology to give an unbiased record of L. Ron Hubbard's life. I think that my version of events is far closer to the truth than the Gospels – even if you took the miracles and resurrection out of the Gospels, I suspect my story is closer to the truth.

My wild hope with the Christian audience is that they will start to view Jesus as a person, not as this idealized superbeing. I know that's fairly daft of me. Writing a book that has Jesus as a mad charlatan and Peter as a murderer isn't designed to win many Christians over. I can live with that, particularly because there is a second group to whom this is addressed: atheists.

In my experience, most atheists treat the figure of Jesus with fairly elaborate praise. Take Friedrich Nietzsche. Yeah. That Nietzsche. In The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche glorifies Jesus as being this joyous person who fully lived his life and gloriously accepted his death. It goes on for eight pages – this despite Nietzsche's legendary hatred of all things Christian. Except, apparently, Jesus.

That sort of behavior is commonplace. When humanists and atheists write or speak publicly about Jesus, it's always with intense deference to Jesus as a person. So, while a given atheist might condemn Christianity they almost never seriously attack Jesus. Mostly, in my experience, they frame Jesus as this valid social revolutionary trying to transform society, struggling valiantly against the corrupt Jewish collaborators that ran Jerusalem and/or the Roman Empire.

This seriously undermines the atheist stance against Christians, particularly to outsiders of both atheism and Christianity. The Christians say, “Love Jesus! Join us!” And the atheists too often say, “Religion sucks! But, y'know, that Jesus guy is okay.”

Except that we don't know he was okay. At best, he's repeating things said better by other people, such as Hillel the Elder, and cribbing notes from Hellenic mystery cults and Mithraism. So, then, why do we go to Jesus as this important source of ideas that he didn't come up with? Especially in light of the behavior of real people who declare themselves to be messiahs? As I said, the odds are my depiction of Jesus is more accurate than religious accounts. It is also probably more accurate than secular accounts which always have Jesus being this intellectual revolutionary, a serious man about serious business, who was merely speaking in the language of his time. But there is no reason at all to think that way. If a person reads the Bible to find the “historical Jesus” what one comes up with is a simple preacher with an uncontroversial message and delusions of grandeur. But rather than taking the historical Jesus on those grounds, Jesus has become a vessel into which many, many atheists have continued to pour their hopes and dreams into even though they have rejected Christianity.

I think this needs to stop. We're atheists, fer crying out loud! At the best we should be saying that Jesus was a uncontroversial preacher with a god complex. More generally, I think we should say that Jesus was probably of a piece with other self-proclaimed messiahs. That he was as nutty as Joe Smith or Jim Jones. And in any event atheists should stop treating the person of Jesus like he is someone we're obligated to respect. We're not! He's not worthy of our respect, in any case.

By writing about Jesus as I have, I hope to undermine the respect that atheists have for Jesus, and allow atheists to re-examine how they feel about Jesus and why we far too often accord him elaborate respect.

I, of course, think that this reasoning can also be applied to any self-proclaimed messiahs of any religion. Rather than trying to think about them “seriously” as serious people struggling against oppression or whatever, try thinking of them as self-proclaimed messiahs are: very strange, abusive and usually terribly abused people who are constructing elaborate, self-serving fantasies to address the trauma of their lives even as they spread that trauma to their followers. I want to spread the knowledge that insanity and charlatanry is the normal method for all so-called messiahs and, thus, I hope, help stop people from regarding them as holy or even serious. As a group, they're damaged goods, playing out their madness on emotionally vulnerable people – and this is true even of the successful ones.

There are other reasons why I am writing this as I am. Certainly part of it is I like books with sex, violence and intrigue in them. I'm a sucker for the sort of drama that making Jesus a psychologically damaged false messiah and Peter a violent thug create. I am also experimenting, to a lesser extent but with fullness of what I am doing, with trying to write a book that has characters who are sexists and racist but that is not, in itself, a sexist and racist book by presenting the sexism and racism as absurd and ugly – though I am unsure that I don't step, occasionally, into glorification of the things I despise I still feel compelled to try. Some of this is, undeniably, a catharsis. I have complex feelings about religion and it occupies a complex place in my life, as it does for many atheists who were raised religious. While I've worked out my own personal feelings towards religion, the multi-faceted way that religion is important to our society presents an atheist with a constant supply of social and political challenges that must also be addressed. Lastly, I write anything I write because I love the art and craft of it.

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Friday, March 9, 2007

“Liberal Christians”

Over at No God Blog, I was briefly confused for being a liberal Christian. It was very brief.

I don't think a liberal Christians exist. Maybe before MLK took a bullet they existed, but since then it seems they have gone extinct – if they ever were at all. Today, liberal Christians must be lumped in with what, during the Cold War, were referred to as “fellow travelers” - but in league with the forces of fundamentalism. Sure, they might not be fundamentalist conservative Christians but they are part of the soil out of which fundamentalism grows.

This might be too harsh, but I don't think so. Fairly often in discussion, a Christian will go, effectively, “Not all of us are that way. A lot of Christians are good people of conscience who deplore fundamentalists at least as much as you do.” But it makes me wonder, then, why there isn't more of a visible sign of struggle in American Christianity? I'm sure that fundamentalists and liberal Christians will point to things such as the struggles that are convulsing a small number of churches for letting gays in or being authority figures. And, to them, I'm sure that those struggles seem quite epic. From the outside? It doesn't look so good.

From the outside, what I see, and what other non-Christians see, is a whole lot of fundamentalism. We see so much fundamentalism – only fundies seem to make the news and fundamentalism's influence on the schools and politics, how fundamentalists are courted by businesses and leaders, how fundamentalists are fighting back against secularism and liberalism. We don't see liberal Christians standing up against the fundamentalists. Which isn't to say that people who are liberal Christians don't stand up to fundamentalists, but they almost always do so from a secular position – as humanists, or Democrats, or whatever. Except in a very small number of cases (such homosexuality), liberal Christians fail to address the theological grounds that fundamentalists use to attack everything from evolution to the invasion of Iraq. At least, this doesn't happen publicly.

What does happen publicly is fundamentalists attack human rights, science, propose bloody wars, are sexists and racists. They do this loudly, and without shame.

The denunciations of fundamentalist Christians by liberal Christians are all mincing affairs. There are no nationally televised liberal Christian preachers going on about inclusion – but there are a dozen fundie conservative ones! They have their own network.

I don't know why this actually is. My experience is that liberal Christians are, well, to be honest, less committed to their religion than fundamentalists. They don't let it consume their life. They leave room to be things other than a Christian. Which might be healthy for them, excepting its consequences – that they are railroaded by their fundamentalist co-religionists and have totally lost control of Christianity.

Whenever a liberal Christian tries to defend Christians with the “we're not all that way” argument, I ask them, “Then why are you talking to me? Why aren't you saying this in church, to the press, to everyone who can hear you? Why aren't you trying to reform your religion? And if you are, why are you failing?” I have yet to receive a satisfactory answer as to why they'll often express tremendous anger and work hard to sway atheists but won't fight their co-religionists. (The usual answer I get is, “My church isn't that way.” In the Internet age it's easy to check that. In every case I can think of, they lie and their church is very much “that way”.)

I have a simple term for this: cowardice. Rather than face their neighbors with a fight that needs to get fought for the metaphorical soul of Christianity, they find it easier to brace atheists, or just to shut up and . . . what? Hope the fundies go away? That some metaphorical pendulum swing? I don't know. It just strikes me as entirely fucking gutless for liberal Christians, who claim to be the majority of Christians, sit down and take the shit that their fundie siblings in religion are forcing down on them. And the rest of the world.

So I say, liberal Christians are either extinct or nearly so, replaced by cowardly Christians. I guess they don't want to be the next Martin Luther King, Jr.

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