Doubt

Few things demystify a faith or its sacred texts like learning about the haphazard historical processes by which traditions formed their beliefs, wrote their texts, and came to settle on them as authoritative. So many pieces of one's faith which the average parishioner takes as basic and unproblematic suddenly become problematized for the first time.

Worse yet, the more you see how your faith emerged out of a contingent historical process is the more that you can see the undeniably human fingerprints all over it. And these sorts of realizations start to undermine the sense of the perfect internal rationality of one's beliefs.

And when you are already dubious of absolute truth, the suspicion that your beliefs are not really absolutely true but a matter of the wrong presupposition, one you adopted more as an accident of where you were born or perhaps a profound experience you had, than because of any superior access to truth, the more you will begin to doubt.

Theodicy

If there is no personal all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing, invisible being, who is infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his attributes, then I can accept the chaos, pain, suffering and injustices I see without having to continually exonerate God for not being present and involved. If a personal God is taken out of the equation, I don't have to try to reconcile a loving, all powerful, all knowing, deity with the unbearable suffering I see in the world.

God

History of God

The conception of the universe that was widespread among ancient peoples was that the various natural forces were imbued with divine power, as in some sense divinities themselves. The earth was a divinity, the sky was a divinity, the water was a divinity, they had divine power. In other words, the gods were identical with or imminent in the forces of nature. There were many gods. No one single god was therefore all powerful. Prior to the first Millennium BCE, the ancient Israelites participated at the earliest stages in the wider religious culture of the Ancient Near East.

However, over the course of time, some ancient Israelites, not all at once and not unanimously, broke with this view and articulated a different view, that there was one divine power, one god. But much more important than number was the fact that this god was outside of and above nature. This god was not identified with nature. He transcended nature, and he wasn't known through natural phenomena, he was known through history, events and a particular relationship with humankind. And that idea, which seems simple at first and not so very revolutionary, was an idea that affected every aspect of Israelite culture, it was an idea that ensured the survival of the ancient Israelites as an ethnic religious entity.

Beginning perhaps as early as the eighth century and continuing for several centuries, literate and decidedly monotheistic circles within Israelite society put a monotheistic framework on the ancient stories and traditions of the nation. They molded them into a foundation myth that would shape Israelite and Jewish self-identity and understanding in a profound way.

What is of great significance though is not simply that they were retelling a story that clearly went around everywhere in ancient Mesopotamia; they were transforming the story so that it became a vehicle for the expression of their own values and their own views. They were drawing upon the culture and religious legacy of the Ancient Near East, its stories and imagery, even as they transformed it in order to conform to a new vision of a non-mythological god. In various complicated ways, the view of an utterly transcendent god with absolute control over history made it possible for some Israelites to interpret even the most tragic and catastrophic events in their history not as a defeat of Israel's god or even God's rejection of them, but as a necessary part of God's larger purpose or plan for Israel.

Israelite monotheism is represented in the Bible as beginning with Abraham. Historically speaking it most likely began much later, and probably as a minority movement that grew to prominence over centuries. But that later monotheism was then projected back over Israel's history by the final editors of the Jewish Bible. They projected their monotheism onto an earlier time, onto the nation's most ancient ancestors. What appears in the Bible as a battle between Israelites, pure Yahwists, and Canaanites, pure polytheists, is indeed better understood as a civil war between Yahweh-only Israelites, and Israelites who are participating in the cult of their ancestors, as the Yahweh-only party polemicizes against and seek to suppress certain undesirable elements of earlier Israelite-Judean religion from the First Millennium BCE.

The monotheistic God of the Jews was slow to emerge from the crowd of rival gods worshipped in the rest of the Ancient world. There was a period of convergence and blending of the Canaanite deities and some of their features into the figure of Yahweh. Eventually Israel came to reject its Canaanite roots, creating a separate identity. That Monotheism was then projected back over Israel's history by the final editors of the Jewish Bible. They projected their Monotheism onto the nation's most ancient ancestors.

Jesus

The odyssey of Jesus of Nazareth from crucified prophet to divine ruler of the cosmos is an extraordinary event in Western intellectual history and, given the current state of biblical scholarship, one of the best documented. The process consisted in a gradually increasing identification of Jesus himself with the kingdom of God that he had preached; and one of the major results of this process was a dramatic change in the sense of time and history that Jesus' proclamation had introduced into Judaism.

Within two decades of Jesus' death the Christian community had already elevated the prophet beyond his own understanding of his status and had endowed him with two titles, "Lord" and "Christ," neither of which he had dared to give to himself.

Once the "conception christology" of Matthew and Luke had raised the stakes over the "adoptionist christology" of Mark, momentum built up for an even higher wager: that Jesus' origins stretched back beyond his merely human beginnings, to divine preexistence in heaven.

The odyssey of christology continued to develop from the height it reached in Saint John's Gospel. Later generations of Christians would define the status of this God-man as the only-begotten Son of God. And after the "Spirit" of God had been fully hypostatized, he would be proclaimed as the Second Person of the divine Trinity.

Jesus' status had evolved from eschatological prophet to preexistent Son of God. Within a few short decades of his death, the man who had heralded the end of all religion had been transformed into the divine guarantor of the one, true, and universal religion.
The First Coming, Thomas Sheehan

Sojourners

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Evid3nc3

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John Shelby Spong

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Christine Hayes, Yale

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Bart Ehrman

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Christopher Hitchens

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Marcus Borg

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Brian McLaren

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A History of God

Documents

  • My Personal Theological Journey
    A long investigation into the foundations of Christianity, and indeed, of faith itself.

    William Cheriegate, 2013
  • Questioning Faith
    The solitary journey, a private unraveling on the inside taking place over a period of years.

    I’m not sure if you think this or not, but just in case you do, let’s set something straight: no one just wakes up one day and says, "Oh, by the way, I'm an atheist from now on." That never happens. Never.

    Now, it's true that some people are born that way because their family or their culture rears them in that mindset, but I'm referring to the person who spent years and years and years as a believer in God. This person doesn't just change his mind one day. It's a long, grueling process that starts from within rather than from without. What I mean by that is this: while there are vocal atheists speaking out about their conclusions, there really isn't any sort of atheist evangelism going on, by which I mean you're not normally accosted on street corners and in parking lots by atheists armed with pamphlets and preachy pushing. While it's true that atheists usually unite with other atheists once they've become one, their journey toward atheism is almost always a solitary one, a private unraveling on the inside---and it usually takes place over a period of years. And most of the time, no one in their life knows what's going on until the atheist comes forward and admits (usually with apprehension and fear of the fallout) that he or she is an atheist.

    Atheism is usually born out of a sequence of events, a domino effect of one step leading to another: 1) questioning one's faith; 2) disliking the answers; 3) seeking better answers; 4) adopting reason as the best methodology to seek those answers; 5) using that methodology to follow the evidence (or lack thereof), and 6) arriving at an atheist conclusion.

    Now, not everyone who does this ends up becoming an atheist; I'm only saying that this is usually how those who do become atheists arrive there. Also of note is this: when the seeking pilgrim begins moving through that aforementioned sequence of events, he most likely did not start out thinking or even expecting that atheism was going to be the final destination. He likely had honest questions, sincere misgivings about how A, B, or C just didn't line up with what he was taught to be true. It's usually because he believes so fervently in his religious creeds and doctrines that these various discrepancies bother him. Why do they bother him? Because he knows in his heart and in his mind that 2 plus 2 never equals 5, and all the faith in the world will never make this so (he can train himself to believe it on a certain level, because faith can be quite persuasive, but a part of him will always know that 2 plus 2 equals 4). And so, because there is a chasm between what he knows must be true and what he's taught is true, he cannot reconcile these in his heart and mind---and until he can, one way or another, he cannot go on doing what he's been doing because to do so would be insincere and the height of hypocrisy.

    So what is he to do? Well, he has a few choices. 1) he can pretend there is no problem (but as we've already observed, insincerity is anathema to him); 2) he can admit there is a problem but then shrug his shoulders and say, "God knows more than I do; therefore even God can make 2 plus 2 equal 5, because he's God, even the impossible is possible to him," and then get on with his faith, or 3) he can square with the problem and address it accordingly. Now, am I saying that anyone who addresses the problems and questions they have with their faith will end up becoming an atheist? No. I'm only saying that for those believers who did become atheists, this is how it starts.

    Question: do you think that those atheists who were once fervent believers had an easy time with the transition? Do you think it was a simple flick of a wand that turned them overnight into the exact opposite of what they were the day before? To think this is to grossly underestimate the power of faith. Faith is an extremely potent psychological element. Furthermore, faith itself comes with its own built-in protection clause: since the gods, or “God,” in this case, value only your faith (what you do, good or bad, doesn’t matter; it’s what you believe that counts), the believer therefore, whatever else he might do, cannot relinquish his faith. Why not? Think about it: if you can only please God by possessing faith, then possessing faith becomes the only factor that matters. Thus, that which is contrary to reason, however
    strong and convincing it might be, must bow down to your faith, otherwise you displease God. It’s an ongoing loop: Faith pleases God; I therefore must keep my faith, because faith pleases God, I want to please God, I must therefore keep...” In other words, to believe in God is to want to please him, and you please him by believing in him. Thus, faith has its own self-protection. You can only lose your faith by letting go of it, but you cannot let go of it, otherwise you’re in the hot seat.

    The atheist punched his way out of this loop. But that doesn’t mean it was easy. The beauty of the Faith- by-Fear system is that you constantly gain proponents but end up losing very few. Psychological fear is quite powerful, after all. But those few (didn’t Jesus once say something about a narrow road?) saw that it was the system itself that was the problem. It was the loop itself that created the discord that caused them to question everything in the first place. To punch through that system and break free, therefore, requires a tremendous amount of mental fortitude, a fierce desire for truth, a violent lust for life, and sheer guts.

    Having said all of this, let me say a few words to my Christian friends out there who may be reading this. Consider this: you may not respect the atheist for being what he is and for concluding what he concluded, but I hope you can at least respect that the road he had to walk to become what he is now was a long, arduous, painful, and lonely road. There are very few atheists out there that didn’t become atheist without having to fight unspeakable mental and emotional battles. Disrespect their lack of belief all you want, but for the love of the God you say you believe in, respect their journey. The odds are it was born out of a severe, sincere, obsessive need to know the truth.

    Michael VitoTosto
  • Growing into Unbelief
    As I continued to go to church I found that I simply believed less and less of the Christian tradition in anything like a literal sense.

    As I continued to go to church in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I found that I simply believed less and less of the Christian tradition in anything like a literal sense.

    Was God the creator? Well, maybe in some kind of ultimate sense, but not literally. The universe was billions of years old, it came into being at the Big Bang, it has been expanding ever since, and the reaches of space – with its unfathomable numbers of galaxies each with billions of stars –as surely not “created” by a being principally concerned with a form of life that happened to evolve on one small planet circling one relatively small star, one of many, many billions in one relatively small galaxy. The human- centeredness of the view of “creation” did not, at the end of the day, really make sense to me.

    And God himself? Did he exist? Yes, I thought he did. But I wasn’t sure we could possibly know much if anything about him. I assumed he was somehow in some sense connected with the world, but I wasn’t sure how. I assumed he wanted me to behave and live in certain ways. I assumed that the great moral values of human society – happiness, virtue, love of others, giving of oneself for the sake of others – all these things manifested God’s will in the world. But I also had come to think that whatever God was, he was far beyond what we with our limited intelligence could possibly conceptualize or understand.

    Was Jesus the son of God? Well, maybe in some sense: he showed us what “God” (the ultimate reality) was ultimately concerned about. Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching was valuable because it affirmed that there are forces in the world that have to be fought against, forces of evil that create poverty, hunger, oppression, injustice, war, birth defects, natural disasters, and so on. All of these problems are bigger than the humans that cause or experience them. Jesus had seen that better than anyone. And Jesus’ life was a model for others, a life of giving of himself for the sake of others.

    But the more I thought about that, I wondered if it was really true. In church I continued to take communion every Sunday, by explaining it to myself in a non-literal way. Jesus gave his life for others. By standing in the Christian tradition I was affirming that I believed we should give our lives for others. But really? First of all, did Jesus really give his life voluntarily? Wasn’t he, in fact, condemned to death for making some outrageous claims about himself, calling himself the Jewish “king” when everyone knew that the Romans were in charge of the Promised Land, and no Jewish king would be allowed? Wasn’t he executed summarily by the Romans for political reasons? Historically he didn’t think he was dying for the sins of the world. He was executed for claiming to be the future ruler of Israel – not a ruler thousands of years later, but in his own lifetime. And he was obviously wrong about that.

    Moreover, am I myself really willing to die for others? Maybe for my wife and children. But for anyone else? Really? Is that how I want to spend my life, looking for an opportunity to die for people I don’t even know? Is that the model for how I should live?

    Did I believe in a Holy Spirit? No, not really. I didn’t think the Spirit had inspired the Bible and certainly didn’t think he guided believers in how to think and live. Even now, today, I have people tell me all the time that I can’t interpret the Bible correctly because I’m not guided by the Spirit. The idea is that only those who are Spirit-led can understand the Spirit-inspired word of God. But is that true? If Spirit-filled interpreters are given the “right” understanding of the Bible, why is it that Spirit-filled interpreters all have *different* interpretations that are completely at odds with one another?

    I saw that already back when I was a fundamentalist. Just before I went off to study at Moody Bible Institute, I had joined a charismatic community that believed that the gifts of the Spirit were still available to believers today, that if you were “baptized in the Spirit” (after having been baptized in water) you would “receive the Spirit” and could manifest spiritual gifts. In particular, if you did that, you could speak in tongues, praying in foreign languages that you didn’t know (and usually that no one else knew either). And I did. I received the Spirit and I spoke in tongues. Did it regularly.

    Then I went to Moody, where the professors all believed, of course, in the Holy Spirit, but were also convinced, as non-charismatics, that the Spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues were no longer available and were now no longer necessary. They were designed to help the church in the interim period between Jesus’ death and the writing of the Bible, to provide authoritative revelations from God until his ultimate revelation had come to be produced. But now that we have the Bible, we no longer have or need the gifts of the Spirit. Many of my professors believed that the charismatic gifts were in fact deceits of the devil.

    So the Spirit-filled leaders of the charismatic community back home had one set of views, that they claimed were from God, based on their interpretation of the Bible, and my Spirit-filled professors at college had the opposite set of views, which they claimed were from God, based on their interpretation of the Bible. One claimed that a set of experiences and practices were from God; the other claimed that these same experiences and practices were from the Devil. What is the evidence to suggest that those filled with the Spirit are the ones who truly understand the Bible, that without the Spirit, no one can understand the Bible?

    By the time I was a liberal Christian in the late 80s and early 90s these debates about charismatic gifts were all very much in the past for me. I certainly didn’t believe in the spiritual gifts any more, and didn’t think that the devil inspired these gifts. Neither one. And I didn’t think that the Spirit guided the understanding of Scripture. For that you needed scholarship – or at least you needed to know someone who could tell you what experts had to say.

    In short, what did I believe, about God, about Christ, about the Spirit? What did I believe that any non- Christian couldn’t believe? Why, in effect, should I remain a Christian?

    Bart Ehrman
  • Leaving the Faith
    Decades of intensive study have lead me to conclude that the Bible shows every sign of having originated in the minds of errant mortals, not divine inspiration.

    By the early to mid-1990s I had come to think that whatever I had held dear and cherished on the basis of my belief in the Christian God, could still be held dear and cherished without that belief. Do I stand in awe before the unfathomable vastness and incredible majesty of the universe? Do I welcome and feel heartfelt gratitude for moments of grace? Do I value the love of family and the companionship of friends? Do I appreciate the many good things in life: My work? Travel? Good food and good drink? All the little things that make life enjoyable? Yes, but what does any of this necessarily have to do with God?

    As a Christian – from the time I was able to think, through my teenage and early-twenties fundamentalist period, up to my more mature adult liberal phase – I had believed in some form of the traditional, biblical God. This was a God who was not some kind of remote designer of the universe who had gotten the ball rolling and then stood aloof from everything he had created. This was a God who was active in the world. He loved people and was intent on showering his love on them. He helped them when they were in need. He answered their prayers. He intervened in this world when it was necessary and important to do so.

    But I had come very much to doubt that any such God existed. And it was the problem of suffering that had created these doubts and that eventually led me to doubt it so much that I simply no longer believed it. If God helps his people – why doesn’t he help his people? If he answers prayer, why doesn’t he answer prayer? If he intervenes, why doesn’t he intervene?

    It was innocent suffering that made me think there is no such God. People who are faithful to God, who devote their lives to him, who pray to him suffer no less than those who are indifferent to God or even scornful toward his existence. When a tsunami kills 300,000 people, the believers are included along with the unbelievers. No difference. When a child starves to death, as happens every seven seconds, her prayers are never answered. When a Holocaust kills many millions of people, the Chosen people are not exempt. Just the opposite.

    I came to think that it was very easy indeed for me as a middle class, white male, with a good career as a university professor, a loving wife and two terrific young kids, a house to live in and never any concerns about having enough to eat, plenty of money to buy cars and TVs and computers and ... and all that, it was very easy for me to be grateful to God and to think that he acted on my behalf to provide me with the good things in life. But what about those who are no better than me and who pray no less fervently than me who are watching their children die of dysentery, who are sold to be sex slaves, who see the drought and the famine come and know there’s not a solitary thing they can do to avoid starving to death along with everyone they know and love?

    It’s easy to believe that God intervenes for you when you live a basically happy and fulfilled life. And yes, I know the typical response: that faith in God is especially important for those who are in the midst of suffering, that it provides them hope, that without it they would simply despair. But the reality is that most of these people despair anyway. How can they not? They are suffering in extremis and are about to die in agony. Not much to be thankful for.
    And even if it’s true that faith might provide them with some solace, that doesn’t make their faith *true* or the God whom they hope will intervene on their behalf *real*. It is their faith and hope that provides solace, not the divine being who supposedly could help them if he wanted to. Those of us on the outside observing these deaths – millions and millions of deaths – need ourselves to ask whether there is any reason to think that there is a God who is active in this world.

    And I came to think that it was perverse of me to be thankful for all the good things I had – as if God had provided them to me – when I knew full well that millions of people were dying from diseases contracted from not having clean water to drink; and from malaria; and from the lack of just the most basic protections against weather; and from starvation; and from natural disasters; and and and. If God is the one to be thanked for my good life, who is to be thanked – or rather blamed – for their suffering? Do I really want to say that it is God who has blessed me? If so, has he decided to curse the others? Or am I simply favored because I’m such a nice guy?

    I got to a point where I just didn’t believe it any more. This wasn’t because I was a biblical scholar who knew that the Bible was deeply flawed as a very human book filled with contradictions, discrepancies, and mistakes. All that was irrelevant. It also wasn’t because I was a historian of early Christianity who realized that traditional Christian faith developed as the result of historical and cultural forces, not divine guidance, that there was a huge variety of conflicting Christian views in its early years, decades, and centuries, and that what we know of Christianity is more or less the result of historical accident. That too was irrelevant.

    What was relevant was the very heart of the Christian claim that God loves his people, answers their prayers, and intervenes when they are in need. I came to think there was no such God, and decided that I had no choice but to abandon my faith and leave the Christian tradition.

    Bart Ehrman
  • Theological Junk Drawers
    The mystery is no longer about reconciling our reality with our perception of deity, but simply resting in the knowledge that we are fallible and incapable of unlocking every mystery in the universe.

    From misfit items to full storage bins

    I have a junk drawer in the kitchen. This is the place where little things go that don’t have a real home, or when I’m too lazy to put them where they actually belong. They are the small pieces of life that don’t seem to fit anywhere. I have a few theological junk drawers as well. Everything that doesn’t fit neatly in my worldview gets tossed in one of the junk drawers.

    My entire life I’ve looked through only one lens - a Christian lens. I grew up going to church every Sunday. I went to Bible camp in the summer and youth group throughout my teen years. I even graduated from Bible College after high school. I’ve only listened to Christians explain how the world came into existence, why we have suffering, what happens to us when we die, what God is like, what man’s primary purpose is, how we got here and where we are going. Creation, Fall and Redemption was the template to explain the deepest questions and yearnings of the human soul. The story goes like this:
    God made the world perfect and everything he made was very good. Then man rebelled by disobeying God and the world was thrust into a state of wickedness, pain, suffering and disrepair. All humans were sentenced to Hell because not only did they all sin but their very nature was corrupt. Because our rebellion was against an infinite God, the punishment also needed to be infinite, hence, the sentence of eternal conscious torment. To remedy this, God sent his son to bear God’s wrath on our behalf and redeem all who put their trust in Jesus. Everyone who believes in Jesus is promised eternal life. Built conveniently into my theology is a flashing yellow caution light for any teaching, philosophy or ideas that would contradict the claims of Christianity. Agnostics and atheists are of the devil, proud, hard- hearted, unenlightened, deceived, unregenerate fools who are most certainly headed for eternal damnation.

    So why would I ever even consider listening to an unbeliever? They are the enemy of the faith. Besides being instructed to be very careful about whom I listen to and where I get my counsel, I was also reminded of what happens to everyone who doesn’t put their trust in Christ. Eternal conscious torment awaits anyone to leaves the faith, or never accepts it in the first place. If I only listen to Christians defend the faith and validate its claims, If I’m only told that Christianity is true and all other religions are false, and I never listen to an outsider offer another explanation. It’s no surprise that my only grid for explaining the deep mysteries of life is Christianity and the Bible.

    Most of the tough questions could be answered through this Creation/Fall/Redemption motif and I believed it. Every word of it. Why is there suffering? Because of the Fall. We brought it on ourselves. Why doesn’t God intervene? He does through redeeming all who trust in Jesus. In the afterlife everything will be made right.

    Occasionally, though, some plaguing questions would surface that couldn’t be explained away as convincingly as I would hope. They didn’t quite fit in my neat Christian belief box, so I had to toss them in my junk drawers. These drawers were the catch all of every misfit idea, question, inquiry or paradox. These drawers were labeled in such a way that I could store this info away and still keep my existing views intact. One drawer was my “Miracle” drawer. Every supernatural claim or event could be explained by God’s ability to override natural laws and perform miracles. So nothing is impossible with God. Claims made that couldn’t possibly happen from a naturalistic explanation could be thrown in the miracle drawer. Another drawer was my “Mystery” drawer. Whatever can’t be explained or justified from a human perspective is relegated to the mystery drawer. God’s ways are not our ways and so he can do whatever he pleases. It may look immoral to us, but we can’t judge God’s motives because he is different from us - a decent rationalization for the countless disturbing injustices recorded in scripture from genocide, rape, incest, deceit and murder by God’s “chosen” tribe.

    Through much reading and researching (and I mean much, much reading and researching), I’ve come to recognize this as cognitive dissonance - compartmentalizing my thinking in order to sustain my Christian view of the world.

    So what if we got "God" wrong in the first place.

    If there is no all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing, invisible being, who is infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his attributes, I can accept the chaos, pain, suffering and injustices I see without having to continually exonerate God for not being present and involved. I realized that my junk drawers were getting full; they were starting to spill out. I began to wonder if “mystery” and “miracles” were really the best destinations for my growing questions. A junk drawer shouldn’t be more full than, say the silverware drawer or the linen closet. Junk drawers are for small misfit items. They shouldn’t encompass an entire storage unit. Perhaps if I had a bigger theology box that could contain my accumulated junk, I could emptying out these drawers. What if I could find explanations that didn’t require magic or the mystery escape clause? It was time to dump everything out and see if they would fit within a different framework. So these last few years I’ve taken off my Christian glasses and have put on spectacles of a different prescription. Rather than trying to make the world, history, science, cosmology, and the universe fit within a Christian worldview, I’m throwing out the box and looking for better explanations.
    I’m realizing that our universe makes so much more sense from an evolutionary/ naturalistic vantage point. If God is taken out of the equation, I don’t have to try to reconcile a loving, all powerful, all knowing, deity with the unbearable suffering I see in the world. I don’t have to wonder why God will let my friend’s newborn die or why millions of children are starving. I don’t have to speculate why God allows tsunamis and other natural disasters to kill hundreds of thousands of men, women and children without warning. Without God, I can relegate stories of talking animals and supernatural events to fantasy and myth rather than try and explain why or how God could do such things. Without God, I can accept evolution and the real facts about the universe, rather than try to squeeze the ice age, dinosaurs, splitting of the continents, etc. into a 6,000-year young earth creation theory. I don’t have to wonder why Christians do bad things and atheists do good things. I don’t have to read a dozen commentaries to explain why Jesus didn’t come back within the lifetime of his followers as promised and why we should still trust him.

    I don’t have to try to reconcile the contradictions and errors in Scripture with the idea that the Bible is God-breathed and inerrant. I don’t have to speculate about what we will do forever in Heaven or try and understand how we won’t be able to sin there, and if that were true, why we didn’t just go to heaven in the first place. I don’t have to try to align the Genesis account of creation with scientific evidence or reconcile God’s love with the doctrine of eternal conscious torment. I don’t have to wonder how God could make belief the requirement of salvation without giving every single person (from every generation and geographic location, age, IQ, and culture) a chance to hear and respond. My junk drawers are filled with paradoxes. God is all-powerful but doesn’t intervene. He is all knowing and yet created Lucifer. God loves all but only chooses to save some. We have free will but God elects people for salvation. God is perfect but makes imperfect beings. The universe is so complex; it must have had an intelligent designer. Yet, the designer doesn’t have a designer.

    I think there will always be a “mystery” junk drawer, because there is so much we will never understand. But the mystery is no longer about reconciling our reality with our perception of deity, but simply resting in the knowledge that we are fallible and incapable of unlocking every mystery in the universe. Little by little, though, we will learn more and more, through scientific discoveries and hard empirical evidence, making our junk drawers increasingly manageable.
  • OT: Myths, Cultural Memories, Kernels of Historical Truths
    Most rabbis think Passover and other Old Testament stories are fiction. Biblical stories are a brilliant mix of myth, cultural memories and kernels of historical truth.

    How do Christians and Muslims harmonize their faiths in light of the awkward realization that their central figures of devotion, supposedly inspired sages, were unable to distinguish between historical fact and inventive fiction? “Would you willingly lie to your children?” asks Rabbi Adam Chalom, Ph.D. “Would you say this is what happened when you know this is not what happened? There’s an ethical question there.”

    Rabbi Chalom is referring to the popular belief that the Jewish foundation narrative detailed in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) chronicles actual historical events. In fact it’s been known among biblical archaeologists for nearly three generations that the Five Books of Moses (the Torah) and the Deuteronomistic History of the Nevi’im (including the books of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel) are no more a literal account of the early history of the Jewish people than J. R. R. Tolkien’s, The Lord of the Rings, is a literal account of World War 1.

    “The truth is out there,” continues Rabbi Chalom. “They’ll find this archaeological, evidence-based version of Jewish history... and then they’ll say, why did you lie to me?”


    Broad Consensus that Passover is Mythology

    Rabbi Chalom’s explicit dismissal of the veracity of the bible might seem an aberration to many not versed in biblical criticism, but he in fact represents the consensus position in all but orthodox movements of Judaism. Rabbis today concede (although rarely announce) that the Patriarchs tales are simple mythology, that the Israelites were never in Egypt, that Moses was a legendary motif not found in history, and that there was never an Exodus nor a triumphant military conquest of Canaan.

    This confession strikes to the heart of one of the most profoundly uncomfortable historical readjustments this century will likely witness. Redefining the early history of the Jewish people means, after all, also redefining the very foundation slab of two of the world’s most popular theological systems – Christianity and Islam – replacing words like “historical,” “genuine,” and “actual” with words such as “fiction,” “fable,” and “myth”.

    “The Pentateuch is the Jewish Mythology,” states Israeli Rabbi, Nardy Grün, one of over sixty rabbis from every movement in Judaism I reached out to for this article. “My duty as a Rabbi is to interpret the Bible and consider it as my Mythology,” Grün continues, “as the founding story of the people of Israel, of course not to take it literally... it is not a book of facts, but a myth.”

    An “extended metaphor” is how Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism described the view of the bible held by most rabbis today. “The Torah is not a book we turn to for historical accuracy,” noted Newsweek’s Most Influential Rabbi in America (2012), Conservative Rabbi, David Wolpe.

    “Most Reform rabbis and Jews agree that the biblical text is not to be taken literally or word-for-word,” confirmed Reform Rabbi Victor Appell. “The Pentateuch is filled with wonderful mythology of our beginnings,” attested Rabbi Robert Schreibman. “The Torah is a piece of human literature,” professed

    Humanistic Rabbi, Jeffrey Falick of The Birmingham Temple. “Its stories are fictional and that is how I teach them.”

    “Some people are surprised, even upset, by these views, yet they are not new,” wrote Rabbi Wolpe in a 2002 article, Did the Exodus Really Happen? “Not piety but timidity keeps many rabbis from expressing what they have long understood to be true.”

    Understanding something does not, however, necessarily translate to that same thing being enthusiastically embraced. Wolpe recounts a (nameless) Jewish scholar who while scolding him publically in print took him aside over a lunch one day and privately confessed: “Of course what you say is true, but we should not say it publically.”

    What this nameless scholar was admitting to be true, but which he bemoaned being spoken aloud, was truly nothing more than what the world’s leading biblical archaeologists had been saying for decades. As written by famed Israeli archaeologist, Professor Ze’ev Herzog of Tel Aviv University in the foreword to his 1999 essay, Deconstructing the Walls of Jericho: “The patriarchs’ acts are legendary stories, we did not sojourn in Egypt or make an exodus, we did not conquer the land ... Those who take an interest have known these facts for years”.

    Reviewing Herzog’s paper, Professor Magen Broshi, chief archaeologist at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, stated, “There is no serious scholar in Israel or in the world who does not accept this position. Herzog represents a large group of Israeli scholars, and he stands squarely within the consensus. Twenty years ago even I wrote of the same matters and I was not an innovator. Archaeologists simply do not take the trouble of bringing their discoveries to public attention.”


    How Hebrew Scholars Determined the Story is Mythos

    Archaeology is a difficult science to be so confident about, and the unusual solidness of the consensus here reflects a century of exhaustive archaeological work conducted across Israel and its environs, including the Sinai and Jordanian hills into which archaeologists poured after the 1967 Six Day War. Albeit unexpectedly, it was work that dismantled the general thesis that existed in the early 20th Century which assumed a core historical validity to the biblical narratives concerning the early history of the Jews.

    “Slowly, cracks began to appear in the picture,” explained Herzog in his essay: “Paradoxically, a situation was created in which the glut of findings began to undermine the historical credibility of the biblical descriptions instead of reinforcing them. A crisis stage was reached when the theories within the framework of the general thesis were unable to solve an increasingly large number of anomalies. The explanations became ponderous and inelegant, and the pieces did not fit together smoothly.”

    As more information was unearthed, the collapse of the thesis became relatively simple to explain: the greater part of the Masoretic Text was a work of geopolitical fiction conceived of and promoted to service 7th and 6th Century BCE territorial and theological ambitions. The aim of the authors was not to document actual historical events, but rather invent them in a legendary time so as to fit the aspirations of Judah and its Yahwehist priests after the sacking of Mamlekhet Yisra’el (Kingdom of Israel) by the Assyrians in 722 BCE.

    “There is no archaeological evidence for any of it,” declared renowned Israeli archaeologist and professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, Israel Finkelstein. “This is something unexampled in history. They [Judah] wanted to seize control of the territories of the kingdom of Israel and annex them, because, they said, `These territories are actually ours and if you have a minute, we’ll tell you how that’s so.’”

    The true story of the early Jews, the story revealed through detailed population maps, settlement patterns, archaeological digs, and comparisons of biblical and Egyptian texts, was not one of a once enslaved people returning to Canaan, rather a people who never left; hill-people, 11th Century BCE refugees from Canaanite coastal states who created a culture and economy that would ultimately be unified as the nation of Israel.

    “Scholars have known these things for a long time, but we’ve broken the news very gently,” explained one of America’s leading archaeologists, Professor William Dever.

    “No archaeological evidence of a massive migration of Jews from Egypt across the Sinai Peninsula to Israel has been found and the biblical account of Jewish origins is, at best, historical fiction: sometimes plausible, but generally imagined,” states historian and biblical archaeologist, Professor Carol Meyers of Duke University. It is a concession mirrored in the second edition Encyclopaedia Judaica which concludes that the entire Exodus narrative was “dramatically woven out of various strands of tradition... he [Moses] wasn’t a historical character.”

    “We looked for evidence for the Exodus in the Sinai Desert and found there was nothing in the Sinai Desert,” explains Rabbi Chalom. “We looked at the Patriarch stories and the times in which they supposedly lived, and it didn’t seem to match. Then we looked at the stories of the Patriarchs in the time they were apparently written, historically, and that matched much better.”

    “Biblical tales are not so much descriptions of real events as they are propaganda for political and religious arguments which took place many centuries after the presumed events took place,” wrote Rabbi Wine in his posthumously published book, A Provocative People. “The story of Abraham has less to do with 1800 BCE, when Abraham presumably lived, than with 700 BCE when his story was created.”


    Shockwaves as Believers Adjust to the Change

    The strength of this new understanding is so overwhelming that the word “myth” has now even breached the rigid walls of Orthodox Judaism. In early 2012 Orthodox Rabbi Norman Solomon published, Torah from Heaven: The Reconstruction of Faith, in which he presented the case that the concept of Torah Mi Sinai (the claim that the Five Books of Moses were dictated by the god Yahweh to Moses on Sinai) was not rooted in reality but was rather a “foundation myth;” an origin dream, not a descriptive historical fact.

    The admission sent shockwaves through the Orthodox world not felt since the one-time candidate for Chief Rabbi of Britain, Rabi Louis Jacobs, delicately suggested that Torah Mi Sinai was a “complex idea with textual, historical, and philosophical problems that needed to be addressed.” Fifty years later, Solomon’s conclusions have drawn analogous and strikingly harsh criticism from influential Orthodox groups including the Vaad Harabonim, a cluster of Canada’s most prominent Orthodox rabbis, who publically denounced the British rabbi and accused him of ‘kefiroh baTorah’ [heresy].

    Such severe criticism is however thoroughly contrasted by Conservative Rabbi Steven Leder who said in 2001, “Defending a rabbi in the 21st century for saying the Exodus story isn’t factual is like defending him for saying the Earth isn’t flat. It’s neither new nor shocking to most of us that the Earth is round or that the Torah isn’t a history book dictated to Moses by God on Mount Sinai.”

    Literal interpretation of the Bible is what Rabbi Karen Levy describes as being “radically un-self-aware,” yet for many Orthodox rabbis the inexplicable contradictions have meant a choice between participating in the evidence-based world or that of the poetic, unsubstantiated narrative.

    Willful ignorance is an unsustainable and ultimately unacceptable response. “The truth is out there” attests Rabbi Chalom, and this truth binds both the Christian and Islamic faiths; religions whose foundations are rooted to the history of the Jewish people. How does an Abrahamic theology reconcile itself with the news that there was no Abraham, no Moses, no Exodus, and no Conquest? How does one re-categorize a revealed religion when there evidently was no revelation? How do Christians and Muslims harmonize their faiths in light of the tremendously awkward realization that their central figures of devotion, supposedly inspired sages, were unable to distinguish between historical fact and inventive fiction?*

    It is a far-reaching, deeply penetrating catechism that will weigh heavily on 21st century Western (and Middle Eastern) religious practice and, ultimately, redefine its validity and reception in our societies. And with that we return to the question posed at the beginning. As popular culture catches up to the educated, evidence-based position of Jewish rabbis who concede that Abrahamic faiths are built on myth: Would you willingly lie to your children? Would you say this is what happened when you know this is not what happened?


    John Zande is the author of The Owner of all Infernal Names: an Introductory Treatise on the Existence, Nature, and Government of our Omnimalevolent Creator, a parody of 19th Century natural theology works. He blogs at The Superstitious Naked Ape.
  • Mormonism: A Racket becomes a Religion
    Christopher Hitchens’ simple and beautifully written exposé of the revealed religion.

    In March 1826 a court in Bainbridge, New York, convicted a twenty-one-year-old man of being "a disorderly person and an impostor." That ought to have been all we ever heard of Joseph Smith, who at trial admitted to defrauding citizens by organizing mad gold-digging expeditions and also to claiming to possess dark or "necromantic" powers. However, within four years he was back in the local newspapers (all of which one may still read) as the discoverer of the "Book of Mormon." He had two huge local advantages which most mountebanks and charlatans do not possess. First, he was operating in the same hectically pious district that gave us the Shakers and several other self-proclaimed American prophets. So notorious did this local tendency become that the region became known as the "Burned-Over District," in honor of the way in which it had surrendered to one religious craze after another. Second, he was operating in an area which, unlike large tracts of the newly opening North America, did possess the signs of an ancient history.

    A vanished and vanquished Indian civilization had bequeathed a considerable number of burial mounds, which when randomly and amateurishly desecrated were found to contain not merely bones but also quite advanced artifacts of stone, copper, and beaten silver. There were eight of these sites within twelve miles of the underperforming farm which the Smith family called home. There were two equally stupid schools or factions who took a fascinated interest in such matters: the first were the gold-diggers and treasure-diviners who brought their magic sticks and crystals and stuffed toads to bear in the search for lucre, and the second those who hoped to find the resting place of a lost tribe of Israel. Smith's cleverness was to be a member of both groups, and to unite cupidity with half-baked anthropology.

    The actual story of the imposture is almost embarrassing to read, and almost embarrassingly easy to uncover. (It has been best told by Dr. Fawn Brodie, whose 1945 book No Man Knows My History was a good-faith attempt by a professional historian to put the kindest possible interpretation on the relevant "events.") In brief, Joseph Smith announced that he had been visited (three times, as is customary) by an angel named Moroni. The said angel informed him of a book, "written upon gold plates," which explained the origins of those living on the North American continent as well as the truths of the gospel. There were, further, two magic stones, set in the twin breastplates Urim and Thummim of the Old Testament, that would enable Smith himself to translate the aforesaid book. After many wrestlings, he brought this buried apparatus home with him on September 21, 1827, about eighteen months after his conviction for fraud. He then set about producing a translation.

    The resulting "books" turned out to be a record set down by ancient prophets, beginning with Nephi, son of Lephi, who had fled Jerusalem in approximately 600 BC and come to America. Many battles, curses, and afflictions accompanied their subsequent wanderings and those of their numerous progeny. How did the books turn out to be this way? Smith refused to show the golden plates to anybody, claiming that for other eyes to view them would mean death. But he encountered a problem that will be familiar to students of Islam. He was extremely glib and fluent as a debater and story-weaver, as many accounts attest. But he was illiterate, at least in the sense that while he could read a little, he could not write. A scribe was therefore necessary to take his inspired dictation. This scribe was at first his wife Emma and then, when more hands were necessary, a luckless neighbor named Martin Harris. Hearing Smith cite the words of Isaiah 29, verses 11–12, concerning the repeated injunction to "Read," Harris mortgaged his farm to help in the task and moved in with the Smiths. He sat on one side of a blanket hung across the kitchen, and Smith sat on the other with his translation stones, intoning through the blanket. As if to make this an even happier scene, Harris was warned that if he tried to glimpse the plates, or look at the prophet, he would be struck dead.

    Mrs. Harris was having none of this, and was already furious with the fecklessness of her husband. She stole the first hundred and sixteen pages and challenged Smith to reproduce them, as presumably—given his power of revelation—he could. (Determined women like this appear far too seldom in the history of religion.) After a very bad few weeks, the ingenious Smith countered with another revelation. He could not replicate the original, which might be in the devil's hands by now and open to a "satanic verses" interpretation. But the all-foreseeing Lord had meanwhile furnished some smaller plates, indeed the very plates of Nephi, which told a fairly similar tale. With infinite labor, the translation was resumed, with new scriveners behind the blanket as occasion demanded, and when it was completed all the original golden plates were transported to heaven, where apparently they remain to this day.

    Mormon partisans sometimes say, as do Muslims, that this cannot have been fraudulent because the work of deception would have been too much for one poor and illiterate man. They have on their side two useful points: if Muhammad was ever convicted in public of fraud and attempted necromancy we have no record of the fact, and Arabic is a language that is somewhat opaque even to the fairly fluent outsider. However, we know the Koran to be made up in part of earlier books and stories, and in the case of Smith it is likewise a simple if tedious task to discover that twenty-five thousand words of the Book of Mormon are taken directly from the Old Testament. These words can mainly be found in the chapters of Isaiah available in Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews: The Ten Tribes of Israel in America. This then popular work by a pious loony, claiming that the American Indians originated in the Middle East, seems to have started the other Smith on his gold-digging in the first place. A further two thousand words of the Book of Mormon are taken from the New Testament. Of the three hundred and fifty "names" in the book, more than one hundred come straight from the Bible and a hundred more are as near stolen as makes no difference. (The great Mark Twain famously referred to it as "chloroform in print," but I accuse him of hitting too soft a target, since the book does actually contain "The Book of Ether.") The words "and it came to pass" can be found at least two thousand times, which does admittedly have a soporific effect. Quite recent scholarship has exposed every single other Mormon "document" as at best a scrawny compromise and at worst a pitiful fake, as Dr. Brodie was obliged to notice when she reissued and updated her remarkable book in 1973.

    Like Muhammad, Smith could produce divine revelations at short notice and often simply to suit himself (especially, and like Muhammad, when he wanted a new girl and wished to take her as another wife). As a result, he overreached himself and came to a violent end, having meanwhile excommunicated almost all the poor men who had been his first disciples and who had been browbeaten into taking his dictation. Still, this story raises some very absorbing questions, concerning what happens when a plain racket turns into a serious religion before our eyes.

    It must be said for the "Latter-day Saints" (these conceited words were added to Smith's original "Church of Jesus Christ" in 1833) that they have squarely faced one of the great difficulties of revealed religion. This is the problem of what to do about those who were born before the exclusive "revelation," or who died without ever having the opportunity to share in its wonders. Christians used to resolve this problem by saying that Jesus descended into hell after his crucifixion, where it is thought that he saved or converted the dead. There is indeed a fine passage in Dante's Inferno where he comes to rescue the spirits of great men like Aristotle, who had presumably been boiling away for centuries until he got around to them. (In another less ecumenical scene from the same book, the Prophet Muhammad is found being disemboweled in revolting detail.) The Mormons have improved on this rather backdated solution with something very literal-minded. They have assembled a gigantic genealogical database at a huge repository in Utah, and are busy filling it with the names of all people whose births, marriages, and deaths have been tabulated since records began. This is very useful if you want to look up your own family tree, and as long as you do not object to having your ancestors becoming Mormons. Every week, at special ceremonies in Mormon temples, the congregations meet and are given a certain quota of names of the departed to "pray in" to their church. This retrospective baptism of the dead seems harmless enough to me, but the American Jewish Committee became incensed when it was discovered that the Mormons had acquired the records of the Nazi "final solution," and were industriously baptizing what for once could truly be called a "lost tribe": the murdered Jews of Europe. For all its touching inefficacy, this exercise seemed in poor taste. I sympathize with the American Jewish Committee, but I nonetheless think that the followers of Mr. Smith should be congratulated for hitting upon even the most simpleminded technological solution to a problem that has defied solution ever since man first invented religion.
  • Heaven watches this with complete indifference
    “Let's say that the consensus is that our species, being the higher primates, Homo Sapiens, has been on the planet for at least 100,000 years, maybe more. Francis Collins says maybe 100,000. Richard Dawkins thinks maybe a quarter-of-a-million. I'll take 100,000.

    In order to be a Christian, you have to believe that for 98,000 years, our species suffered and died, most of its children dying in childbirth, most other people having a life expectancy of about 25 years, dying of their teeth. Famine, struggle, bitterness, war, suffering, misery, all of that for 98,000 years.

    Heaven watches this with complete indifference. And then 2000 years ago, thinks 'That's enough of that. It's time to intervene,' and the best way to do this would be by condemning someone to a human sacrifice somewhere in the less literate parts of the Middle East. Don't lets appeal to the Chinese, for example, where people can read and study evidence and have a civilization. Let's go to the desert and have another revelation there. This is nonsense. It can't be believed by a thinking person.

    Why am I glad this is the case? To get to the point of the wrongness of Christianity, because I think the teachings of Christianity are immoral. The central one is the most immoral of all, and that is the one of vicarious redemption. You can throw your sins onto somebody else, vulgarly known as scapegoating. In fact, originating as scapegoating in the same area, the same desert. I can pay your debt if I love you. I can serve your term in prison if I love you very much. I can volunteer to do that. I can't take your sins away, because I can't abolish your responsibility, and I shouldn't offer to do so. Your responsibility has to stay with you. There's no vicarious redemption. There very probably, in fact, is no redemption at all. It's just a part of wish-thinking, and I don't think wish-thinking is good for people either.

    It even manages to pollute the central question, the word I just employed, the most important word of all: the word love, by making love compulsory, by saying you MUST love. You must love your neighbour as yourself, something you can't actually do. You'll always fall short, so you can always be found guilty. By saying you must love someone who you also must fear. That's to say a supreme being, an eternal father, someone of whom you must be afraid, but you must love him, too. If you fail in this duty, you're again a wretched sinner. This is not mentally or morally or intellectually healthy.

    And that brings me to the final objection - I'll condense it, Dr. Orlafsky - which is, this is a totalitarian system. If there was a God who could do these things and demand these things of us, and he was eternal and unchanging, we'd be living under a dictatorship from which there is no appeal, and one that can never change and one that knows our thoughts and can convict us of thought crime, and condemn us to eternal punishment for actions that we are condemned in advance to be taking. All this in the round, and I could say more, it's an excellent thing that we have absolutely no reason to believe any of it to be true.”
  • Christian Zionism
    Christian Zionism offers an uncritical endorsement of the Israeli political right and at the same time shows an inexcusable lack of compassion for the Palestinian tragedy. In doing so it has legitimized their oppression in the name of the Gospel.

    Christian Zionism offers an uncritical endorsement of the Israeli political right and at the same time shows an inexcusable lack of compassion for the Palestinian tragedy. In doing so it has legitimized their oppression in the name of the Gospel.

    At its simplest, Christian Zionism has been defined as 'Christian support for Zionism.' Central to Christian Zionism is the belief in the abiding relevance of the promise God made to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, 'I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.'

    Christian Zionists tend to see themselves as defenders of, and apologists for, the Jewish people, and in particular, the State of Israel. This support involves opposing those deemed to be critical of, or hostile toward Israel. It is rare therefore to find Christian Zionists who feel a similar solidarity with the Palestinians.

    The most well known and influential British Christian Zionist organisations include the Church's Ministry Among Jewish People, also known as The Israel Trust of the Anglican Church (CMJ or ITAC); Christian Friends of Israel (CFI); Intercessors For Britain (IFB); Prayer Friends of Israel (PFI) and the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ). These are all part of an international coalition of Christian Zionist organisations which includes Bridges for Peace (BFP); The American Messianic Fellowship (AMF); The Messianic Jewish Alliance America (MJAA); Jews for Jesus (JFJ); and of course, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ); These organisations are part of a broad coalition, which is shaping the content of the Christian Zionist agenda today.

    Contemporary British Christian leaders such as Derek Prince, David Pawson, Lance Lambert, Walter Riggans, along with Americans like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Hal Lindsey, Mike Evans, Charles Dyer and John Walvoord. These writers have a considerable influence in popularising an apocalyptic premillennial eschatology and Zionist vision on the British Evangelical scene in particular.

    That their teachings warrant the description "Armageddon theology" is evident from the provocative titles of some of their publications. In offering a definition, Louis Hamada traces what he sees as the correlation between Jewish and Christian Zionism.

    The term Zionism refers to a political Jewish movement for the establishment of a national homeland in Palestine for the Jews that have been dispersed. On the other hand, a Christian Zionist is a person who is more interested in helping God fulfil His prophetic plan through the physical and political Israel, rather than helping Him fulfil His evangelistic plan through the Body of Christ.

    CMJ was the first Christian Zionist organisation in Britain, founded in 1809 under the name 'The London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews'. The less accurate description of 'London Jews' Society' (LJS) eventually proved more popular. At its inception LJS had a fourfold mission agenda.
    1) declaring the Messiahship of Jesus to the Jew first and also to the non-Jew; 2) endeavouring to teach the Church its Jewish roots; 3) encouraging the physical restoration of the Jewish people to Eretz Israel - the Land of Israel; 4) encouraging the Hebrew Christian/Messianic Jewish movement.
    During the last Century, in response to changing attitudes toward the Jews, LJS modified its name several times, first to 'Church Missions to Jews', to 'The Church's Mission to the Jews', then, 'The Church's Ministry Among the Jews', and finally in 1995 to 'The Church's Ministry Among Jewish People.' Their promotional literature now indicates a more subtle and less explicit three-fold strategy,

    The aims of CMJ are:
    Evangelism: To be workers with God in his continuing purpose for the Jewish people, both in Israel and world-wide, especially in seeking to lead them to faith in Jesus the Messiah as their only Saviour. Encouragement: Supporting Jewish believers in Jesus in all possible ways.
    Education: To help Christians to appreciate the biblical, Jewish roots of the Christian faith.

    This third aspect of their ministry was further modified in 1995 to emphasise not merely the Jewish roots of the Christian faith, but its living abiding relevance now, together with their concern, like the Council for Christians and Jews (CCJ), to confront anti-Semitism. The third 'aim' therefore now reads, To help Christians to appreciate the biblical, Jewish roots of the Christian faith and life. The concern to combat anti-Semitism.

    Whether this justifies defending the State of Israel from criticism for its continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is a controversial and sensitive point within CMJ. Material obtained in 1990 from Emmanuel House in Jaffa indicates that the commitment of some members of CMJ leadership to 'restorationism', that is, the active encouraging of Jewish people to move to Eretz Israel, including the Occupied Territories, appears to remain an important, if not explicit or well publicised aspect of their ministry. Their leaflet explaining the ministry of Emmanuel House states, ITAC, as the London Jews Society is known today, has always believed, proclaimed and worked towards the return of the Jewish people to Zion. This policy is rooted in a firm belief in the message of biblical prophecy which has accurately foretold these things.

    In the 1996 Annual Report of CMJ, their General Director explicitly and unequivocally identifies CMJ with restorationism and with the State of Israel.
    Not to be out done by Christian Zionist organisations preoccupied with the fulfilment of biblical prophecy in Israel during what are regarded as the 'End Times', under the section of the Report, outlining 'CMJ Issues', and in the context of the primary tasks of evangelism and encouragement, Walter Riggans writes,

    Within this focus we need to be aware that God's concern is with the Jewish people the world over. In our day there seems to be in some Christian circles a restriction of interest to the State of Israel and to the significance of various events for the unfolding of Biblical prophecies relating to the end times. CMJ has always been at the forefront of teaching about God's restoration of the Jewish people to and in Israel, and we are continually excited by, and watchful of all that is happening. We are humbled by what the Lord is doing among Israeli believers. In other words, our prayerful interest in the State of Israel is as constant and committed as ever.

    Perhaps this is why Walter Riggans defines the term 'Christian Zionist' in an overtly political sense as '...any Christians who support the Zionist aim of the sovereign State of Israel, its army, government, education etc.; but it can describe a Christian who claims to support the State of Israel for any reason.'
    In a 'Resource Pack' produced in 1996 for group study as well as to answer objections to the work of CMJ, material is included under the bold heading, 'The State of Israel: Why should we support it?'

    Christian Friends of Israel (CFI) likewise insists on the unconditional necessity of 'Standing with Israel' and bringing blessing to her as a nation, though in their case, primarily through prayer and humanitarian projects rather than by evangelism.

    We believe the Lord Jesus is both Messiah of Israel and Saviour of the world; however, our stand alongside Israel is not conditional upon her acceptance of our belief. The Bible teaches that Israel (people, land, nation) has a Divinely ordained and glorious future, and that God has neither rejected nor replaced His Jewish people.

    The Council of Christians (CCJ) may also be regarded as a Zionist organisation. While prohibiting proselytism of Jews by Christians associated with CCJ, they nevertheless have shown more concern to defend the actions of the Israeli Government than with the claims of Christ. For example, when the book The Forgotten Faithful by Said Aburish was published in 1993, Beryl Norman wrote a fierce rebuttal in the Church Times, criticising him for being,
    '...part of a major campaign now being waged to win over Christians in the West to the Palestinian cause, and ensure that Israel loses Western Christian support.'

    When invited to elaborate in correspondance, she did not substantiate these claims, but made further allegations. In response to a request for evidence she claimed that,'Militant Palestinian groups - PLO, Hamas - are using the churches. It is very easy to identify this - same vocabulary, same phrases, same stories. Our friends in Israel see this at first hand.'

    Of all the Christian Zionist organisations, the International Christian Embassy (ICEJ) is probably the most influential and controversial, having many supporters in the UK. It is significant that many of the staff working for the International Christian Embassy apparently worship at the Anglican, Christ Church, near the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem, coincidentally the headquarters of the Church's Ministry Among Jewish People (CMJ) in Israel. Ray Lockhart, the vicar of Christ Church, when invited to comment on the work of ICEJ, refused to express any criticism of them.

    In what is a useful summary, Walter Riggans, General Director of CMJ, claims Christian Zionists generally agree on three cardinal beliefs, allowing for a wide diversity of views as to their theological significance eschatologically, as well as their implications for Christian practice.

    The return of Jews to the land in the last 100 years and the establishment of the State of Israel should be (or can be) interpreted as a fulfilment of Old Testament promises and prophecies concerning the land, or at the very least as signs of God's continuing mercy and faithfulness to the Jewish people. For many Christians today the greatest visible sign of God's faithfulness is the survival of the Jewish people. God has preserved them, cared for them, directed them, against all the odds. And so, in a sense, the greatest sign of all is the State of Israel, and Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Israel; such is a classic Christian Zionist position...

    The establishment of the State of Israel has special theological significance because of what it means for the Jews, or because of what it means in the sequence of events leading up to the turning of the Jewish people to their Messiah and the second coming of Christ.

    Christians should not only support the idea of a Jewish state, but (at least in general terms) support its policies...in the most modest of ways I would suggest that Christians as Christians must give support in principle to the State of Israel as a sign of God's mercy and faithfulness, and as a biblical mark that God is very much at work in the world...

    Karen Armstrong is not alone in tracing in Christian Zionism evidence of the legacy of the Crusades. Fundamentalists have, she claims, 'returned to a classical and extreme religious crusading.' Ruether also sees the danger of this kind of Christian Zionism in its, 'dualistic, Manichaean view of global politics. America and Israel together against an evil world.' Bishop Kenneth Cragg writes,

    It is so; God chose the Jews; the land is theirs by divine gift. These dicta cannot be questioned or resisted. They are final. Such verdicts come infallibly from Christian biblicists for whom Israel can do no wrong- thus fortified. But can such positivism, this unquestioning finality, be compatible with the integrity of the Prophets themselves? It certainly cannot square with the open people hood under God which is the crux of New Testament faith. Nor can it well be reconciled with the ethical demands central to law and election alike.

    Christian Zionists have aggressively imposed an aberrant expression of the Christian faith and an erroneous interpretation of the Bible which is subservient to the political agenda of the modern State of Israel.

    The Christian Zionist programme, with its elevation of modern political Zionism, provides the Christian with a world view where the gospel is identified with the ideology of success and militarism. It places its emphasis on events leading up to the end of history rather than living Christ's love and justice today.

    Christian Zionism had no place in the Middle East and should be repudiated by the universal Church. It is 'a dangerous distortion' and significant shift away from orthodox Christocentric expressions of the Christian faith.

    (This is) ...a fundamental disservice also to Jews who may be inspired to liberate themselves from discriminatory attitudes and thereby rediscover equality with the Palestinians with whom they are expected to live God's justice and peace in the Holy Land.

    Christian Zionism is a devious heresy and an unwelcome and alien intrusion into this culture, advocating an ethnocentric and nationalist political agenda running counter to the work of reconciliation, and patient witness among both Jews and Moslems.

    As one leading Anglican cleric described it, 'Making God into a real estate agent is heart breaking...they are not preaching Jesus any more.'
    They are, in the words of another Palestinian clergyman, 'instruments of destruction' Another senior churchman was equally forthright,
    Their presence here is quite offensive....projecting themselves as really the Christians of the land... with total disregard for the indigenous Christian community.

    Similarly outspoken criticisms of the Israel Trust of the Anglican Church (ITAC) have been made by Palestinian Anglican clergy. CMJ are propagating Zionism rather than Christianity. It is working against the interests of the Anglican Church in Israel.

    Essentially, Christian Zionism fails to recognise the deep seated problems that exist between Palestinians and Israelis; it distorts the Bible and marginalises the universal imperative of the Christian gospel; it has grave political ramifications and ultimately ignores the sentiments of the overwhelming majority of indigenous Christians. It is a situation that many believe Israel exploits to her advantage, cynically welcoming Christian Zionists as long as they remain docile and compliant with Israeli government policy.

    Consequently, local Christians are caught in a degree of museumization. They are aware of tourists who come in great volume from the West to savour holy places but who are, for the most part, blithely disinterested in the people who indwell them. The pain of the indifference is not eased insofar as the same tourism is subtly manipulated to make the case for the entire legitimacy of the statehood that regulates it.
    Cragg offers this astute critique of Christian Zionism.

    The overriding criteria of Christian perception have to be those of equal grace and common justice. From these there can be no proper exemption, however alleged or presumed. Chosenness cannot properly be either an ethnic exclusivism or a political facility.
    Christian Zionism offers an uncritical endorsement of the Israeli political right and at the same time shows an inexcusable lack of compassion for the Palestinian tragedy. In doing so it has legitimized their oppression in the name of the Gospel.

    Stephen Sizer

  • Evolution of Moral Codes
    Having demonstrated their value in reducing suffering and/or in maintaining social stability, they were then elevated to special status, not unlike the process that results in the formulation and promulgation of successful science models, theories, rules and laws.

    When religion has committed itself to a particular science model, it has often been left behind as the public embraced a new model. That's the position in which the Catholic Church found itself in defending Ptolemy's geocentric model of the solar system against the simpler heliocentric model of Copernicus. It's the situation in which supporters of "creationism" -- and its offspring, "intelligent design" -- find themselves today.

    Many contemporary religious leaders do not make this mistake, although those who do get a disproportionate amount of attention. Religious leaders who cheerfully cede the business of modeling nature to science are no longer rare. Neither they nor the scientists who study these matters, many of whom are themselves people of faith, see any contradiction between the perennial wisdom embodied in the world's religions and, say, Darwin's theory of evolution, the geological theory of plate tectonics or the Big Bang theory of the cosmos.

    It may surprise some that the father of modern cosmology, George Lemaitre, was a priest. When asked how he reconciled his faith and his science, he wrote:
    The writers of the Bible were ... as wise or as ignorant as their generation. Hence it is utterly unimportant that errors of historic or scientific fact should be found in the Bible...

    Father Lemaitre showed that Einstein's general relativity predicted an expanding universe. Einstein, convinced that the universe was static, modified his theory to avoid this implication. Later, when the universe was found to be expanding as Lemaitre had predicted, Einstein withdrew the modification, declaring it the biggest blunder of his life.

    Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, put it unequivocally in an op-ed in The New York Times: "If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change."

    That any of the currently accepted scientific theories could, in principle, be incorrect or incomplete is taken for granted by the scientific world. To insist, for example, that the theory of evolution is "just a theory" is only to state what every scientist knows and accepts. Of course, it's a theory. What else could it be? But it's an extremely well-tested theory and it makes sense to use it unless and until we have something manifestly superior. A society that rejects the theory of natural selection, Newton's laws or the standard model of elementary particle physics because they make no claim to being absolute truths, shoots itself in the foot.

    Just as religion finds itself challenging contemporary science when it identifies with discarded nature models, so it must expect to compete for hearts and minds with evolving social and political models when it clings to antiquated moral codes. Here the case is not as clear-cut as with most nature models because it is typically much harder to demonstrate the superiority of a new social, political or moral model than it is of a new nature model. The evidence is often ambiguous, even contradictory, partly because shifting personal preferences play a much larger, often hidden, role. As everyone who has argued politics is aware, the "facts" cited by partisans in support of their policy choices are often as debatable as the policies themselves.

    Like nature models, political, social and moral models originate in human experience, and, as experience accumulates, they evolve. Typically, the models we've inherited from the past were formulated over centuries, if not millennia. One reason that religious models generally lag behind the emerging social consensus is that the morals espoused by religion have usually proven useful over long periods of time and have become deeply entrenched. Hence, the first impulse is a conservative one, and often takes the form of shaming or coercing non-conformists into toeing the line.

    The predilections of rebellious youth notwithstanding, tradition is not always wrong. What are now seen as traditional values earned their stripes in competition with alternative precepts that lost out. But, in basing morality on scripture, instead of evidence, people of faith belie a lack of faith in the findings of their own sages and prophets. Instead, why not see these prophets as futurists and judge their prophecies against the evidence? The question then becomes: Are their predictions confirmed or contradicted by experience? The answer may not be immediately apparent, but looking for an answer in a context that respects evidence is a lot more productive than invoking ambiguous scripture on one side or the other.

    In this view, the term "moral" does not gain its legitimacy by virtue of its status as "received wisdom," engraved in holy writ. Rather, the body of moral law is a prescriptive model of morality based on close observation, intuition, and extrapolation. Prophets like Moses, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Mo Tzu, Jesus, Mohammed, Sankara and others are seen as perceptive moral philosophers with an uncanny knack for the long view.

    As in science, virtually simultaneous, independent discovery of the same moral truths is not uncommon. Then and now, moral precepts can be understood as intuitive extrapolations based on empirical observations of cause and effect.

    Take, for example, the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." It's not hard to imagine that witnesses to tit- for-tat cycles of revenge killings concluded that "not killing" was the way to avoid deadly multi- generational feuds, and that someone -- tradition credits Moses -- packaged this discovery (along with other similar moral precepts) for his contemporaries and, unwittingly, for posterity.

    From a modeling perspective, it's plausible that all of the Ten Commandments were assembled from the combined wisdom of people who, drawing on the oral and written history of past and current generations, and bearing close witness to their own psychological and emotional dynamics, realized that certain individual behaviors ran counter to personal stability and undermined group solidarity, thereby making the community vulnerable to exploitation and domination by more cohesive groups. They labeled these practices "immoral," anticipating that over time economic, psychological, social and political forces would bring about either the elimination or relative decline of groups that countenanced them.

    The Ten Commandments and other moral precepts are recorded in the world's holy books. Distilled and refined through the ages, they constitute the moral foundation of human societies. If somehow they were to disappear from consciousness and we had to start over (think of William Golding's novel "Lord of the Flies"), we would, by trial and error and with much bloodshed, gradually rediscover some of them from scratch and discard those that, in the meantime, circumstances had rendered obsolete.

    Although some attribute moral principles to divine revelation, that's just one explanation and it's unverifiable. We may instead think of them as having been discovered in the same way that we discover everything else -- through careful observation and verification. Having demonstrated their value in reducing suffering and/or in maintaining social stability, they were then elevated to special status, not unlike the process that results in the formulation and promulgation of successful science models, theories, rules and laws.

    A given rule of thumb can stand as shorthand for the whole body of observations and reasoning that undergirds it, in the same way that Newton's laws encapsulate classical dynamics. The moral principles of religion represent an accumulation of proverbial injunctions that function as reminders and ethical guides.

    As with all models, so with models of morality: close follow-up scrutiny may bring exceptions to light. Exceptions have long been sanctioned to the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" -- to wit, capital punishment and warfare. But Moses may yet have the last word. As we move into the 21st century, the global trend to abolish capital punishment is unmistakable. Likewise, the inefficacy of war as an instrument of foreign policy is becoming clearer, and, as it does, the frequency of wars is diminishing (as documented by Steven Pinker in "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”).
  • Losing Christ, Finding Jesus
    Today I can confidently say that two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity has made me a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I ever was of Jesus Christ.

    When I was 15 years old, I found Jesus.

    I spent the summer of my sophomore year at an evangelical youth camp in Northern California, a place of timbered fields and boundless blue skies, where, given enough time and stillness and soft-spoken encouragement, one could not help but hear the voice of God.

    Amid the man-made lakes and majestic pines my friends and I sang songs, played games and swapped secrets, rollicking in our freedom from the pressures of home and school. In the evenings, we gathered in a fire-lit assembly hall at the center of the camp. It was there that I heard a remarkable story that would change my life forever.

    Two thousand years ago, I was told, in an ancient land called Galilee, the God of heaven and Earth was born in the form of a helpless child. The child grew into a blameless man. The man became the Christ, the savior of humanity.

    Through his words and miraculous deeds, he challenged the Jews who thought they were the chosen of God, and in return he was nailed to a cross. Though Jesus could have saved himself from that gruesome death, he freely chose to die.

    Indeed, his death was the point of it all, for his sacrifice freed us all from the burden of our sins.

    But the story did not end there, because three days later, he rose again, exalted and divine, so that now, all who believe in him and accept him into their hearts will also never die, but have eternal life.

    For a kid raised in a motley family of lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists, this was truly the greatest story ever told. Never before had I felt so intimately the pull of God.

    In Iran, the place of my birth, I was Muslim in much the way I was Persian. My religion and my ethnicity were mutual and linked. Like most people born into a religious tradition, my faith was as familiar to me as my skin, and just as disregardable.

    After the Iranian revolution forced my family to flee our home, religion in general, and Islam in particular, became taboo in our household. Islam was shorthand for everything we had lost to the mullahs who now ruled Iran. My mother still prayed when no one was looking, and you could still find a stray Quran or two hidden in a closet or a drawer somewhere. But, for the most part, our lives were scrubbed of all trace of God.

    That was just fine with me. After all, in the America of the 1980s, being Muslim was like being from Mars. My faith was a bruise, the most obvious symbol of my otherness; it needed to be concealed.

    Jesus, on the other hand, was America. He was the central figure in America’s national drama. Accepting him into my heart was as close as I could get to feeling truly American. I do not mean to say that mine was a conversion of convenience. On the contrary, I burned with absolute devotion to my newfound faith.

    I was presented with a Jesus who was less “Lord and Savior” than he was a best friend, someone with whom I could have a deep and personal relationship. As a teenager trying to make sense of an indeterminate world I had only just become aware of, this was an invitation I could not refuse.
    The moment I returned home from camp, I began eagerly to share the good news of Jesus Christ with my friends and family, my neighbors and classmates, with people I’d just met and with strangers on the street: those who heard it gladly, and those who threw it back in my face.
    Yet something unexpected happened in my quest to save the souls of the world.

    The more I probed the Bible to arm myself against the doubts of unbelievers, the more distance I discovered between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus of history – between Jesus the Christ and Jesus of Nazareth. In college, where I began my formal study of the history of religions, that initial discomfort soon ballooned into full-blown doubts.

    The bedrock of evangelical Christianity, at least as it was taught to me, is the unconditional belief that every word of the Bible is God-breathed and true, literal and inerrant.

    The sudden realization that this belief is patently and irrefutably false, that the Bible is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions — just as one would expect from a document written by hundreds of different hands across thousands of years — left me confused and spiritually unmoored.

    And so, like many people in my situation, I angrily discarded my faith as if it were a costly forgery I had been duped into buying.

    I began to rethink the faith and culture of my forefathers, finding in them a deeper, more intimate familiarity than I ever had as a child, the kind that comes from reconnecting with an old friend after many years apart.

    Meanwhile, I continued my academic work in religious studies, delving back into the Bible not as an unquestioning believer but as an inquisitive scholar.

    No longer chained to the assumption that the stories I read were literally true, I became aware of a more meaningful truth in the text.
    Ironically, the more I learned about the life of the historical Jesus, the turbulent world in which he lived, and the brutality of the Roman occupation that he defied, the more I was drawn to him.

    The Jewish peasant and revolutionary who challenged the rule of the most powerful empire the world had ever known became so much more real to me than the detached, unearthly being I had been introduced to in church.

    Today, I can confidently say that two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity has made me a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I ever was of Jesus Christ.

    I have modeled my life not after the celestial spirit whom many Christians believe sacrificed himself for our sins, but rather after the illiterate, marginal Jew who gave his life fighting an un-winnable battle against the religious and political powers of his day on behalf of the poor and the dispossessed – those his society deemed unworthy of saving.

    I wrote my newest book, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" in order to spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that I once applied to spreading the story of the Christ.

    Because I am convinced that one can be a devoted follower of Jesus without being a Christian, just as I know that one can be a Christian without being a follower of Jesus.

    Reza Aslan
  • Ancient Israelite and Judean Religion
    As early as the 10th century BCE, Israelite and Judean religion began to emerge within the broader West Semitic culture, otherwise known as Canaanite culture.

    … https://www.ancient.eu/article/1097/ancient-israelite--judean-religion/

  • The Dark Side of Buddhism
    We can’t let the darkness of Buddhist practice go by unremarked just because it works more subtly and its victims suffer more quietly.

    Buddhism is often seen as the acceptable face of religion, lacking a celestial dictator and full of Eastern wisdom. But Dale DeBakcsy, who worked for nine years in a Buddhist school, says it’s time to think again.

    On paper, Buddhism looks pretty good. It has a philosophical subtlety married to a stated devotion to tolerance that makes it stand out amongst the world religions as uniquely not awful. Even Friedrich Nietzsche, not known for pulling punches when it came to religious analysis, only said of Buddhism that it was “nihilistic”, but still “a hundred times more realistic than Christianity.” And we in the 21st century have largely followed his lead in sensing something a bit depressing about Buddhism, but nothing more sinister than that. But if we start looking a bit closer, at the ramifications of Buddhist belief in practice, there is a lurking darkness there, quietly stated and eloquently crafted, but every bit as profound as the Hellfires of Christianity or the rhetoric of jihad.

    For nine years, I worked as a science and maths teacher at a small private Buddhist school in the United States. And it was a wonderful job working with largely wonderful people. The administration, monks, and students knew that I was an atheist and had absolutely no problem with it as long as I didn’t actively proselytise (try and find a Catholic school that would hire a moderate agnostic, let alone a fully out-of- the-closet atheist). Our students were incredibly sensitive and community-conscious individuals, and are my dear friends to this day.

    However. I have no doubt that Buddhist religious belief, as it was practised at the school, did a great deal of harm. Nowhere was this more in evidence than in the ramifications of the belief in karma. At first glance, karma is a lovely idea which encourages people to be good even when nobody is watching for the sake of happiness in a future life. It’s a bit carrot-and-stickish, but so are a lot of the ways in which we get people to not routinely beat us up and take our stuff. Where it gets insidious is in the pall that it casts over our failures in this life. I remember one student who was having problems memorising material for tests. Distraught, she went to the monks who explained to her that she was having such trouble now because, in a past life, she was a murderous dictator who burned books, and so now, in this life, she is doomed to forever be learning challenged. Not, “Oh, let’s look at changing your study habits”, but rather, “Oh, well, that’s because you have the soul of a book-burning murderer.”

    To our ears, this sounds so over the top that it is almost amusing, but to a kid who earnestly believes that these monks have hidden knowledge of the karmic cycle, it is devastating. She was convinced that her soul was polluted and irretrievably flawed, and that nothing she could do would allow her to ever learn like the people around her. And this is the dark side of karma – instead of misfortunes in life being bad things that happen to you, they are manifestations of a deep and fundamental wrongness within you. Children have a hard enough time keeping up their self-esteem as it is without every botched homework being a sign of lurking inner evil.

    As crippling as the weight of one’s past lives can be, however, it is nothing compared to the horrors of the here and now. Buddhism’s inheritance from Hinduism is the notion of existence as a painful continuous failure to negate itself. The wheel of reincarnation rumbles ruthlessly over us all, forcing us to live again and again in this horrid world until we get it right and learn to not exist. I remember one of the higher monks at the school giving a speech in which she described coming back from a near-death experience as comparable to having to “return to a sewer where you do nothing but subsist on human excrement.” Life is suffering. It is something to be Finally Escaped.

    Now, there are legitimate philosophical reasons for holding to this view. Viewed from a certain perspective, the destruction of everything you’ve ever cared about is inevitable, and when it’s being experienced, the pain of loss does not seem recompensed by the joy of attachment that preceded it. And that yawning stretch of impermanence outside, so the argument goes, is mirrored by the fundamental non-existence of the self inside. Meditation, properly done, allows you to strip away, one by one, all of your merely personal traits and achieve insight into the basic nothingness, the attributeless primal nature, of your existence. Those are all interesting philosophical and psychological insights, and good can come of them. Being hyper-sensitive to suffering and injustice is a good gateway to being helpful to your fellow man and in general making the world a better place.

    However. There is something dreadfully tragic about believing yourself to have somehow failed your calling whenever joy manages to creep into your life. It is in our biology, in the fabric of us, to connect to other human beings, and anything which tries to insert shame and doubt into that instinct is bound to always twist us every so slightly. If the thought, “I am happy right now”, can never occur without an accompanying, “And I am just delaying my ultimate fulfillment in being so”, then what, essentially, has life become? I’ve seen it in action – people reaching out for connection, and then pulling back reflexively, forever caught in a life of half-gestures that can’t ever quite settle down to pure contemplation or gain a moment of genuine absolute enjoyment.

    The usual response that I’ve gotten to these concerns is, “You’re sacrificing truth and wisdom for the sake of feeling good. That’s just what you criticise Christianity for, isn’t it?” This would be a pretty damn good argument if I were convinced that the conclusions of Buddhist belief were as ironclad as their usually serene-unto-finality presentation makes them seem. There are two central claims here: that our own fundamental essence is non-existence, and that the nature of the outer world is impermanence.

    The idea of the void-essence of self is one arrived at through meditation, through exercises in reflection dictated by centuries of tradition. That’s enough to give us pause right there – it’s not really a process of self-discovery if you’re told the method, the steps, and the only acceptable conclusion before you’ve even begun. Here’s the fourteenth (and current) Dalai Lama on how to start a meditation:

    “First, look to your posture: arrange the legs in the most comfortable position; set the backbone as straight as an arrow. Place your hands in the position of meditative equipoise, four finger widths below the navel, with the left hand on the bottom, right hand on top, and your thumbs touching to form a triangle. This placement of the hands has connection with the place inside the body where inner heat is generated.”

    This is already an unpromising start – if you aren’t even allowed variation in the number of sub-navel finger widths for hand placement, how can we hope to be allowed to even slightly differ on the supposed object of inner contemplation? And the text bears this out. When speaking of meditating on the mind, the Dalai Lama maneuvers his audience into a position where his conclusion seems inevitable:

    “Try to leave your mind vividly in a natural state... Where does it seem that your consciousness is? Is it with the eyes or where is it? Most likely you have a sense that it is associated with the eyes since we derive most of our awareness of the world through vision.... However, the existence of a separate mental consciousness can be ascertained; for example, when attention is diverted by sound, that which appears to the eye consciousness is not noticed... with persistent practice, consciousness may eventually be perceived or felt as an entity of mere luminosity or knowing, to which anything is capable of appearing... as long as the mind does not encounter the external circumstances of conceptuality, it will abide empty without anything appearing in it.”

    If this reminds you more than a little of Meno, where Socrates leads a slave boy into “rediscovering” the truths of geometry through a combination of leading questions and implied conclusions, you’re not alone. Notice the artful vagueness of the phrase “may eventually be perceived or felt as an entity of mere luminosity” - the subtle pressure that, if you don’t perceive consciousness that way at first, you must keep trying until something in you falls into line and you end up with the “right” answer to meditative practice. Or take into consideration the construction of the questions - how the second question immediately shuts down any actual consideration of the first, and how the answer to that second question leads to a single special case open to multiple interpretations which are again immediately declared to be explicable by only one single answer. As it turns out, you have as much freedom of inquiry as you had freedom in hand placement. In a curious twist unique to Buddhism, rigidity of method has infected the structure of belief, ossifying potential explanations of existence into dogmatic assertions mechanically arrived at.

    The impermanence of the outer world seems more solidly founded. Five billion years hence, I’m pretty sure that this novelty shot glass next to me is not going to exist in any sort of recognisable novelty shot glass form. Nothing in this room will functionally persist as long as you only admit my Use Perspective as the only relevant lens of observation. The matter and energy will both still exist, but they won’t exist in the configuration which I am accustomed to. And that, apparently, is supposed to fill me with a sense of existential dread. But it doesn’t - at all - and this is the weakness of the conclusions that Buddhism draws from an impermanence theory of the external world. It supposes that I cannot hold in my mind at the same time both an appreciation and attachment to an object or a person as they stand in front of me right now AND a recognition that my use of a particular configuration of matter and energy at the moment doesn’t determine how it will exist for all time.

    Buddhism’s approach to use-based impermanence attempts to force us into a false binarism where we must either be the slaves of attachment or the cold observers of transience, and that only one of these offers us a way out of suffering. Compelled by the forced logic of its myopic perspective on self-analysis that we saw above, it opts for the latter, and presents that choice as an inevitable philosophical conclusion.

    So, it’s not really a choice between Feeling Good and Truth. It’s a choice between being able to unambiguously enjoy companionship and a system of thought which uses an ossified methodology bordering on catechism to support a falsely binary approach to our relations with the outside world.
    At the end of the day, it’s still true that, in many respects, Buddhism maintains its moral edge over Christianity or Islam handily. That instinct for proselytising unto war which has made both of these religions such distinctly harmful forces in the story of mankind is nowhere present. But, the drive to infect individuals with an inability to appreciate life except through a filter of regret and shame is perhaps even more dangerous in Buddhism for being so very much more subtle.

    Squeezed between the implications of inherited evil instincts and a monolithic conception of what counts as a right answer to the question of one’s own personal existence, a young person entering a Buddhist community today is every bit as much under the theological gun as a student at a Catholic school, but because society has such a cheery picture of Buddhist practice, she has far fewer resources for resistance than her Catholic counterpart. And that allows sad things to happen. I would urge, then, that as fulfilling as it is to point out and work to correct the gross excesses of Christianity (and, let’s face it, fun too), we can’t let the darkness of Buddhist practice go by unremarked just because it works more subtly and its victims suffer more quietly.
  • Spiritism
    “The law of the Old Testament was personified in Moses: that of the New Testament in Christ. Spiritism is then the third revelation of God's Law.”

    Christ came to show the pathway to this Kingdom, how lo be reconciled with God and to present these facts as part of things to come which would enable mankind to fulfill its destiny. However, He did not explain everything, but limited Himself to offering only the initial part of the truth on many subjects, saying that Man as yet could not understand the whole truth. But He talked about all things in implied terms. In order for people to be able to understand the hidden meaning of His words it was necessary for new ideas and knowledge to mature, so bringing the indispensable key, as these things could not appear before the human Spirit had achieved a certain degree of maturity. Science still had to play an important part in the emergence and development of these ideas; therefore it was necessary to give time for science to progress.

    Spiritism is the new science which has come to reveal to mankind, by means of irrefutable proofs, the existence and nature of the spiritual world and its relationship with the physical world. It appears not as something supernatural, but on the contrary, as one of the living and active forces of Nature, source of an immense number of phenomena which still today are not fully understood, and because of this they are relegated to the world of fantasy and miracles. Christ alluded to this situation on several occasions and it is the reason why much of what He said remained unintelligible or has been wrongly interpreted. Spiritism offers the key by which all can easily be explained.

    The law of the Old Testament was personified in Moses: that of the New Testament in Christ. Spiritism is then the third revelation of God's Law. But it is personified by no one because it represents leaching given, not by Man but by the Spirits who are the voices of Heaven, to all parts of the world through the co-operation of innumerable intermediaries. In a manner of speaking, it is the collective work formed by all the Spirits who bring enlightenment to all mankind by offering the means of understanding their world and the destiny that awaits each individual on their return to the spiritual world.

    Just as Christ said: 'I am not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it,' so Spiritism says: We have not come to destroy the Christian Law but to carry it out. It leaches nothing contrary to what was taught by Christ. Rather it develops it, explains it in a manner that can be understood by all and completes that which had previously been known only in its allegoric form. Spiritism has come at the predicted time to fulfill what Christ announced and to prepare for the achievement of future things.

    It will transform the whole Earth, the planet will become the home of far superior Spirits than inhabit it till now. This is the law of progress which will be accomplished and to which nature is submitted. Spiritism is the lever which God is using to enable humanity to advance.
  • Between 50,000 and 100,000 Years Ago
    The ancient human anxiety met by the development of the theistic understanding of God is still today operative in most of the traditional forms of Christianity.

    Between fifty thousand and one hundred thousand years ago, a mere nanosecond on the clock of the earth’s existence, three things entered life that announced the arrival of human beings, as we now define them. The first was that consciousness grew into self-consciousness and awareness into self-awareness. The second was that the medium of time was expanded so that these human creatures could, in a conscious way, remember the past and recall it, and anticipate the future and plan for it. The third was that these creatures began to identify human sounds with both objects and actions, and in this way language, which is the essence of abstract thinking, came into being. At some specific moment, perhaps not at the same time, or in the same place, and certainly not in one solitary individual who might be called the mythological Adam/Eve, the first of the species that we identify as Homo sapiens came into being. This planet earth now possessed an inhabitant who was self-conscious, was time-aware and had the ability to communicate with words. Something new and wondrous had emerged out of the evolutionary soup—something that was destined to transform natural history into human history.

    I try to imagine that mythical moment in which consciousness became self-consciousness and awareness became self-awareness. What was it like in the creatures in whom this new reality was dawning over whatever number of years it took to become the norm? All we know is that these human creatures evolved to the place where they saw themselves not as part of nature, but as separate from nature, even as standing over against the natural world. These human creatures had evolved to the place where they could look out on the world from a new center as separate, self-aware and self-conscious beings. It was probably both a startling wonder and a traumatic moment of fear and enormous anxiety. What does it mean to see yourself suddenly as one who is alone, fragile, self-consciously living in fear in the midst of powerful natural forces that you can identify, but over which you have no control? I suspect these first of our human ancestors shook in their skins at the new vision of what life had become and all that it now entailed. While they could experience these powerful changes, they could not possibly understand them except in the most primitive of ways.

    Accompanying this self-awareness was the sense that their lives were lived inside an ever-flowing dimension called time. These human creatures recognized that there was a time before they existed as conscious creatures and there would be a time after that conscious existence ended. That is, they came to see themselves as bounded on each end by a sense of being transitory. Embracing their own finiteness, they began the inevitable contemplation of their own mortality. Finally these creatures developed the ability to articulate in symbolic sounds their fears and at the same time to embrace their limitations, their powerlessness and their sense of meaninglessness with the power of words.

    Look at what this meant. It is one thing to die; life in many forms does that in vast numbers daily. It is quite another to know that you are going to die, to plan for it and to accept its inevitability. That was the human situation. It is one thing to be unaware that your existence has no meaning, as is the case for the billions of insects that are devoured each day as food for other living things; it is quite another to deal with that reality consciously and to battle against it. It is one thing to be part of the routines of life and death in the world of nature; it is quite another to be aware and self-conscious of the fact that you are a link in the food chain.

    Human beings, as the centers of consciousness, now know that they will die and are aware that they will disappear. This is the knowledge that raised (and still raises) the questions of meaning and meaninglessness in them. Because that knowledge is now inherent, every human being is forced to inquire as to whether or not humanity’s self-conscious life has any ultimate significance. To be human is, therefore, to endure the trauma of self-consciousness. It is to be aware of the existential shock of the threat of nonbeing. No other living thing before us has ever been required to embrace this level of anxiety. Part of what it means to be human is to know ourselves to be chronically anxious creatures. It means seeing ourselves as those who must embrace our own mortality. It means that if life has no ultimate meaning, we alone of all other creatures embrace the threat of meaninglessness. In response to that threat, human life is driven to create meaning. It was and is the human experience to tremble before these realizations. It is, however, also the acknowledged human destiny not to win the struggle for meaning, for survival or for life. The fate of all living creatures is to lose, but only the human life knows this self-consciously. It is thus not easy to be human. We will be felled, destroyed and eaten by natural enemies—that is what germs and viruses are, after all—and our flesh and bones will in our turn feed other forms of life.

    If the anxiety initially arising out of this knowledge had not been banked by our ancient forebears, I don’t think that self-consciousness could have survived. It would have been a step in the evolutionary process that could not be sustained, because what was required to sustain it was more than our human coping mechanisms could manage. That is the moment in which I believe this emerging human being asked the question for which the concept of God, understood theistically, was the answer. Theism is, I believe, a direct result of the trauma of self-consciousness. Theism is not God; it is rather a human coping mechanism.

    Human beings began to ask questions like these: Is there someone or some presence in the universe like me, self-conscious and aware, but possessing more power than I possess, and able thereby to cope with the anxieties of existence that I now face? Where does this presence abide? Will this being or this presence be my ally or my enemy in the struggle to survive? Will this being or this presence use the power I imagine it must have to come to my aid? How can I win the favor of this being? How can I accommodate this “other’s” presence? How can I secure the blessing of this power?

    At first this thinking process took a very basic form. The lonely self-conscious human beings observed that there were living things, plants and animals, that existed quite independently of human life and so our ancient ancestors wondered where these living things came from, just as they wondered about their own origin. They observed vital natural forces in the world, like the flowing of a river, the tides of the ocean, the power of the wind, the warmth of the sun and the light of the moon. Some power must animate these things and make them able to do the things they do, they reasoned. Could that power protect and defend them also? To these things human beings began to assign a force that they called spirit. Spirit was unseen, mysterious, yet its power could be readily observed. Could they relate to this world of spirit, win its favor and enjoy its protection? the human creatures wondered. Out of the sky, they observed, came thunder, lightning, wind, rain, warmth, cold. Was there a spirit beyond the sky who controlled these forces? Was that spirit benevolent or malevolent? Could they do anything to make that spirit more friendly? What was it that might please the source of these apparently living things?

    In time these individual spirits, thought to inhabit both creatures and vital forces in the natural world, provided the content for human beings’ earliest religion, called animism—that is, the belief that something called spirit animated all that lived. The religious task was not to anger these spirits, but to please them so that they would serve our needs. God as something external to our life, supernatural in power, was born. Theism had appeared.

    As life evolved and changed, so did theism, but it never transcended its original definition. When the human shift from hunters and gatherers toward more settled agricultural activities occurred, theism took on the form of the earth mother who brought life out of her womb to sustain the human struggle for survival. In that transition, theism began to display feminine characteristics. Later these supernatural spirits came to be thought of as something like a family of gods or spirits living in a polytheistic universe. Still later these divine powers, sometimes called gods, seemed to organize according to earthly standards of tribal life, with varieties of powers and functions, but with a supreme deity ruling over lesser spirits. This was when the human imagination conceived of a heavenly court under the leadership of a Jupiter and Juno or a Zeus and Hera. Still later, patriarchy drove the feminine out and theism moved from the world of many spirits to the form of one solitary deity who, like a tribal chief, ran the world as a kind of expanded tribal god who watched over and protected only the tribe that served this particular deity as its chosen people, and later who, as the universal God, ruled over all of life as a kind of king of the universe.

    Yet in each of these images the theistic definition of God remained steadfast, ever saluted, and always intact. God was, as I see that definition emerging, “a being, supernatural in power, dwelling outside this world and able to invade the world in miraculous ways to bless, to punish, to accomplish the divine will, to answer prayers and to come to the aid of frail, powerless human beings.” As soon as this theistic idea of a deity was established, anxiety lessened, since anxiety was the primary reason for the human creation of this theistic deity in the first place. Now, these human beings reasoned, there is a being beyond us, more powerful than we and capable of defending and protecting us, the self-conscious ones. All that was needed to turn this theistic coping device into a religious system was to discern what it was that pleased this deity. What would it take to gain divine favor or to avoid divine wrath in order to enlist the help of this supernatural being in the struggle to survive? The moment that question was asked, religious systems, all of which are consciously devised to accomplish exactly those goals, came into being. Human life was now generically defined as “religious human life.”

    Analyze any religious system and you will discover that it contains two specific divisions: The first is: What is the proper way to worship so that God’s favor will be gained? The second is: What is the proper way to behave or to live in order to gain God’s approval? Later, in more formal religious settings, this would be called our duty toward God and our duty toward our neighbor and would be enshrined in the Hebrew tradition on two tablets of stone as the Ten Commandments.

    Security, however, is not finally achieved until the religious system successfully claims to possess ultimate truth by some form of divine revelation. This claim of authority normally comes in one of two forms. Either this truth has been revealed to some human entity who stands near to God—a high priest, for example—or the absolute will of God has been spelled out in some inspired writing which God’s representative alone can interpret properly. It is this claim to possess absolute truth that keeps anxiety in check. Relativity in religious claims must be repressed, because it always allows our original debilitating anxiety to return. Under this system the idea that we have genuine security requires that we do not doubt the meaning of our own created security system.

    So the idea of God as the Almighty One, who watches over us and protects us, came into being. We win this God’s favor with proper divine worship. We please this God with lives marked by proper behavior. When in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness or any other adversity, we pray to this God for intervening help and we expect answers. When tragedies strike, we wonder what we have done to incur the divine wrath.

    This is the meaning and the legacy of theism and it became the dominant content of all religion that is theistic in its self-understanding. What we need to embrace from this insight is that human religious systems have never been primarily a search for truth; they have always been first and foremost a search for security. Because theism was the primary way human beings conceptualized God, it was inevitable that when a group of first-century people believed that they had encountered God in the story of Jesus, they saw theism as the content of Jesus. The Jesus story was thus turned into an account of a theistic God coming to our rescue, invading the human world from above. Theism was the fully operative definition of the God we claimed we had met in Jesus. A literalized concept of incarnation was and is the theological language used to convey this idea. The doctrine of the trinity, which purports to define the reality of God, brings Jesus and the theistic concept of God into oneness.

    The invading God from above needed a way to get into the human arena to engage the human situation, so a landing field was created capable of receiving the deity. Christians identified that landing field as the virgin birth. Through this miracle the theistic God put on human flesh and came among us. While he was on this earth, this Jesus (as he was described) could do all the things that people assumed God could do, for he was God in human form. So stories were told in which Jesus stilled the storm, walked on water, expanded the food supply, healed the sick and even raised the dead. If people pleased the God that they claimed to have met in Jesus, this God, still theistic in nature, would bless them by answering their prayers, intervening in their history and finally by accepting them into eternal life at the moment of their death, overcoming once and for all the human anxiety about our finitude.

    The ancient human anxiety met by the development of the theistic understanding of God is still today operative in most of the traditional forms of Christianity. Religious systems are very slow to change. Theism still seeks to give meaning to life, to answer our questions about our self-conscious existence with authority and to calm our anxiety about mortality with promises of eternal life.

    The fires of anxiety, born in self-consciousness, are thus banked by religion and we are content, if not grateful, to live inside the theistic definition of God that we created. Theism, therefore, is not who God is. Theism is a human definition of who God is. There is a vast difference.
  • Chronological Order of New Testament Writings
  • The Evolutionary Tree of Religion
  • Robert Ingersoll
    • The Gods (1872)
      An honest God is the Noblest Work of Man.

      Each nation has created a god, and the god has always resembled his creators. He hated and loved what they hated and loved, and he was invariably found on the side of those in power. Each god was intensely patriotic, and detested all nations but his own. All these gods demanded praise, flattery, and worship. Most of them were pleased with sacrifice, and the smell of innocent blood has ever been considered a divine perfume. All these gods have insisted upon having a vast number of priests, and the priests have always insisted upon being supported by the people, and the principal business of these priests has been to boast about their god, and to insist that he could easily vanquish all the other gods put together.

      Continue …
    • Why I Am an Agnostic
      For the most part we inherit our opinions. We are the heirs of habits and mental customs. Our beliefs, like the fashion of our garments, depend on where we were born. We are molded and fashioned by our surroundings. Environment is a sculptor — a painter. If we had been born in Constantinople, the most of us would have said: “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet.” If our parents had lived on the banks of the Ganges, we would have been worshipers of Siva, longing for the heaven of Nirvana.

      Continue …
    • 61 Reasons for Doubting the Inspiration of the Bible
      First. The Old Testament must have been written nearly two thousand years before the invention of Printing. There were but few copies, and these were in the keeping of those whose interest might have prompted interpolations, and whose ignorance might have led to mistakes. Second. The written Hebrew was composed entirely of consonants, without any points or marks standing for vowels, so that anything like accuracy was impossible, Anyone can test this for himself by writing an English sentence, leaving out the vowels. It will take far more inspiration to read than to write a book with consonants alone.

      Continue …
  • The New Commandments
    The Ten Commandments were set in stone, but it may be time for a re-chisel. With all due humility, the author takes on the job, pruning the ethically dubious, challenging the impossible, and rectifying some serious omissions.

    What do we say when we want to revisit a long-standing policy or scheme that no longer seems to be serving us or has ceased to produce useful results? We begin by saying tentatively, “Well, it’s not exactly written in stone.” (Sometimes this comes out as “not set in stone.”)

    By that, people mean that it’s not one of the immutable Tablets of the Law. Thus, more recent fetishes such as the gold standard, or the supposedly holy laws of the free market, can be discarded as not being incised on granite or marble. But what if it is the original stone version that badly needs a re-write? Who will take up the revisionist chisel?

    There is in fact a good biblical precedent for doing just that, since the giving of the divine Law by Moses appears in three or four wildly different scriptural versions. (When you hear people demanding that the Ten Commandments be displayed in courtrooms and schoolrooms, always be sure to ask which set. It works every time.) The first and most famous set comes in Exodus 20 but ends with Moses himself smashing the supposedly most sacred artifacts ever known to man: the original, God-dictated panels of Holy Writ. The second edition occurs in Exodus 34, where new but completely different tablets are presented after some heavenly re-write session and are for the first time called “the ten commandments.” In the fifth chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses once more calls his audience together and recites the original Sinai speech with one highly significant alteration (the Sabbath commandment’s justifications in each differ greatly). But plainly discontented with the effect of this, he musters the flock again 22 chapters further on, as the river Jordan is coming into view, and gives an additional set of orders—chiefly terse curses—which are also to be inscribed in stone. As with the gold plates on which Joseph Smith found the Book of Mormon in upstate New York, no trace of any of these original yet conflicting tablets survives.

    Thus we are fully entitled to consider them as a work in progress. May there not be some old commandments that could be retired, as well as some new ones that might be adopted? Taking the most celebrated Top 10 in order, we find (I am using the King James, or “Authorized,” version of the text):

    I. and II.

    These commandments are in fact a mixture of related injunctions. I am the lord thy God.… Thou shalt have no other gods before me. This use of capitalization and upper- and lowercase carries the intriguing implication that there perhaps are some other gods but not equally deserving of respect or awe. (Scholars differ about the epoch during which the Jewish people decided on monotheism.) Then comes the prohibition of “graven images” or indeed “any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” This appears to forbid representational art, just as some Muslims interpret the Koran to forbid the depiction of any human form, let alone any sacred one. (It certainly seems to discourage Christian iconography, with its crucifixes, and statues of virgins and saints.) But the ban is obviously intended as a very emphatic one, since it comes with a reminder that I the lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation. The collective punishment of future children, for the sin of lèse-majesté, may not strike everyone as an especially moral promise.

    III.

    Thou shalt not take the name of the lord thy God in vain, for the lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. A slightly querulous and repetitive note is struck here, as if of injured vanity. Nobody knows how to obey this commandment, or how to avoid blasphemy or profanity. For example, I say “God alone knows” when I sincerely intend to say “Nobody knows.” Is this ontologically dangerous? Ought not unalterable laws to be plain and unambiguous?

    IV.

    Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. This ostensibly brief commandment goes on for a long time—for four verses in fact—and stresses the importance of a day dedicated to the lord, during which neither one’s children nor one’s servants or animals should be allowed to perform any tasks. (Query: Why is it specifically addressed to people who are assumed to have staff?)

    Nobody is opposed to a day of rest. The international Communist movement got its start by proclaiming a strike for an eight-hour day on May 1, 1886, against Christian employers who used child labor seven days a week. But in Exodus 20:8–11, the reason given for the day off is that “in six days the lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day.” Yet in Deuteronomy 5:15 a different reason for the Sabbath observance is offered: “Remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the lord thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the lord thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day.” Preferable though this may be, with its reminder of previous servitude, we again find mixed signals here. Why can’t rest be recommended for its own sake? Also, why can’t the infallible and omniscient and omnipotent one make up his mind what the real reason is?

    V.

    Honor thy father and thy mother. Innocuous as this may seem, it is the only commandment that comes with an inducement instead of an implied threat. Both the Exodus and Deuteronomy versions urge it for the same reason: “that thy days may be long upon the land which the lord thy God giveth thee.” This perhaps has the slight suggestion of being respectful to Father and Mother in order to come into an inheritance—the Israelites have already been promised the Canaanite territory that is currently occupied by other people, so the prospective legacy pickings are rather rich. Again, why not propose filial piety as a nice thing in itself?

    VI.

    Thou shalt not kill. This very celebrated commandment quite obviously cannot mean what it seems to say in English translation. In the original Hebrew it comes across as something more equivalent to “Thou shalt do no murder.” We can be fairly sure that the “original intent” is not in any way pacifistic, because immediately after he breaks the original tablets in a fit of rage, Moses summons his Levite faction and says (Exodus 32:27–28):

    Thus saith the lord God of Israel, put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor. And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.

    With its seven-word preface, that order, too, obviously constituted a “commandment” of some sort. The whole book of Exodus is a commandment-rich environment, littered with other fierce orders to slay people for numberless minor offenses (including violations of the Sabbath) and also includes the sinister, ominous verse “Thou shalt not suffer [permit] a witch to live,” which was taken as a divine instruction by Christians until relatively recently in human history. Some work is obviously needed here: what is first-degree or third-degree killing and what isn’t? Distinguishing killing from murder is not a job easily left to mortals: what are we to do if God himself can’t tell the difference?

    VII.

    Thou shalt not commit adultery. For some reason, “the seventh” is the only one of the commandments that is still widely known by its actual number. Extramarital carnal knowledge was probably more of a threat to society when families and tribes were closer-knit, and more bound by stern codes of honor. Having provided the raw material for most of the plays and novels ever published in non–Middle Eastern languages, adultery continues to be a great source of misery and joy and fascination. Most criminal codes have long given up the attempt to make it a punishable offense in law: its rewards and punishments are carefully administered by its practitioners and victims. It perhaps does not deserve to be classed with murder or theft or perjury, which brings us to:

    VIII.

    Thou shalt not steal. Not much to query here. Those who have worked hard to acquire a bit of property are entitled to resent those who would rather steal than work, and when society evolves to the point where there is wealth that belongs to nobody—public or social property—those who plunder it for private gain are rightly regarded with hatred and contempt. Admittedly, the prosperity of some families and some states is also founded on original theft, but in that case the same principle of disapproval can apply.

    IX.

    Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. This is possibly the most sophisticated ruling in the whole Decalogue. Human society is inconceivable unless words are to some extent bonds, and in legal disputes we righteously demand the swearing of oaths that entail severe penalties for perjury. Until recently, much testimony before Congress was taken without witnesses being “sworn”: this allowed a great deal of official lying. Nothing focuses the attention more than a reminder that one is speaking on oath. The word “witness” expresses one of our noblest concepts. “Bearing witness” is a high moral responsibility.

    Note, also, how relatively flexible this commandment is. Its fulcrum is the word “against.” If you are quite sure of somebody’s innocence and you shade the truth a little in the witness-box, you are no doubt technically guilty of perjury and may be privately troubled. But if you consciously lie in order to indict someone who is not guilty, you have done something irretrievably foul.

    X.

    Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s. There are several details that make this perhaps the most questionable of the commandments. Leaving aside the many jokes about whether or not it’s O.K. or kosher to covet thy neighbor’s wife’s ass, you are bound to notice once again that, like the Sabbath order, it’s addressed to the servant-owning and property-owning class. Moreover, it lumps the wife in with the rest of the chattel (and in that epoch could have been rendered as “thy neighbor’s wives,” to boot).

    Notice also that no specific act is being pronounced as either compulsory (the Sabbath) or forbidden (perjury). Instead, this is the first but not the last introduction in the Bible of the totalitarian concept of “thought crime.” You are being told, in effect, not even to think about it. (Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament takes this a step further, announcing that those with lust in their heart have already committed the sin of adultery. In that case, you might as well be hung—or stoned—for a sheep as for a lamb, or for an ox or an ass if it cometh to that.) Wise lawmakers know that it is a mistake to promulgate legislation that is impossible to obey.

    There are further objections to be made. From the “left” point of view, how is it moral to prohibit people from regarding the gains of the rich as ill-gotten, or from demanding a fairer distribution of wealth? From the “right” point of view, why is it wicked to be ambitious and acquisitive? And is not envy a great spur to emulation and competition? I once had a debate on these points with Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of that consoling text When Bad Things Happen to Good People, and he told me that there is a scholarly Talmudic argument, or midrash, maintaining that “neighbor” in this context really does mean immediate next-door neighbor. For that matter, there is persuasive textual argument that “neighbor” in much of the Bible means only “fellow Jew.” But it seems rather a waste of a commandment to confine it to either the Joneses or the Semites.

    What emerges from the first review is this: the Ten Commandments were derived from situational ethics. They show every symptom of having been man-made and improvised under pressure. They are addressed to a nomadic tribe whose main economy is primitive agriculture and whose wealth is sometimes counted in people as well as animals. They are also addressed to a group that has been promised the land and flocks of other people: the Amalekites and Midianites and others whom God orders them to kill, rape, enslave, or exterminate. And this, too, is important because at every step of their arduous journey the Israelites are reminded to keep to the laws, not because they are right but just because they will lead them to become conquerors (of, as it happens, almost the only part of the Middle East that has no oil).

    So, then: how to prune and how to amend? Numbers One through Three can simply go, since they have nothing to do with morality and are no more than a long, rasping throat clearing by an admittedly touchy dictator. Mere fear of unseen authority is not a sound basis for ethics. The associated ban on sculpture and pictorial art should also be lifted. Number Four can possibly stay, though rest periods are not exactly an ethical imperative and are mandated by practicality as much as by heaven. At least, if shorn of its first and third and fourth redundant verses (none of which can possibly apply to non-Jews), Number Four does imply that there are rights as well as duties. For millions of people for thousands of years, the Sabbath was made a dreary burden of obligation and strict observance instead of a day of leisure or recreation. It also led to absurd hypocrisies that seem to treat God as a fool: He won’t notice if we make the elevators stop on every floor so that no pious Jew needs to press a button. This is unwholesome and over-strenuous.

    As for Number Five, by all means respect for the elders, but why is there nothing to forbid child abuse? (Insolence on the part of children is punishable by death, according to Leviticus 20:9, only a few verses before the stipulation of the death penalty for male homosexuals.) A cruel or rude child is a ghastly thing, but a cruel or brutal parent can do infinitely more harm. Yet even in a long and exhaustive list of prohibitions, parental sadism or neglect is never once condemned. Memo to Sinai: rectify this omission.

    Number Six: Note that mere human systems have done better subsequently in distinguishing different moral scales of homicide. Memo to Sinai: Are you morally absolute or aren’t you? If so, what about the poor massacred Midianites?

    Number Seven: Fair enough if you must, but is polygamy adultery? Also, could not permanent monogamy have been made slightly more consonant with human nature? Why create people with lust in their hearts? Then again, what about rape? It seems to be very strongly recommended, along with genocide, slavery, and infanticide, in Numbers 31:1–18, and surely constitutes a rather extreme version of sex outside marriage.

    Numbers Eight and Nine: Admirable. Also brief and to the point, with one rather useful nuance in the keyword “against.”

    Number Ten: Does wrong to women by making them property and also necessitates continual celestial wiretapping of private thoughts. Sinister and despotic in that it cannot be obeyed and thus makes sinners even of quite thoughtful people.

    I am trying my best not to view things through a smug later prism. Only the Almighty can scan matters sub specie aeternitatis: from the viewpoint of eternity. One must also avoid cultural and historical relativism: there’s no point in retroactively ordering the Children of Israel to develop a germ theory of disease (so as to avoid mistaking plagues for divine punishments) or to understand astronomy (so as not to make foolish predictions and boasts based on the planets and stars). Still, if we think of the evils that afflict humanity today and that are man-made and not inflicted by nature, we would be morally numb if we did not feel strongly about genocide, slavery, rape, child abuse, sexual repression, white-collar crime, the wanton destruction of the natural world, and people who yak on cell phones in restaurants. (Also, people who commit simultaneous suicide and murder while screaming “God is great”: is that taking the Lord’s name in vain or is it not?)

    It’s difficult to take oneself with sufficient seriousness to begin any sentence with the words “Thou shalt not.” But who cannot summon the confidence to say: Do not condemn people on the basis of their ethnicity or color. Do not ever use people as private property. Despise those who use violence or the threat of it in sexual relations. Hide your face and weep if you dare to harm a child. Do not condemn people for their inborn nature—why would God create so many homosexuals only in order to torture and destroy them? Be aware that you too are an animal and dependent on the web of nature, and think and act accordingly. Do not imagine that you can escape judgment if you rob people with a false prospectus rather than with a knife. Turn off that fucking cell phone—you have no idea how unimportant your call is to us. Denounce all jihadists and crusaders for what they are: psychopathic criminals with ugly delusions. Be willing to renounce any god or any religion if any holy commandments should contradict any of the above. In short: Do not swallow your moral code in tablet form.

    Christopher Hitchens
  • Page Two
    • Muggeridge and Buckley
      "Now why did this longing for faith assail me? Insofar as I can point to anything, it is to do with this profession which both you and I followed of observing what's going on in the world and attempting to report and comment thereon, because that particular occupation gives one a very heightened sense of the sheer fantasy of human affairs--the sheer fantasy of power and of the structures that men construct out of power--and therefore gives one an intense, overwhelming longing to be in contact with reality. And so you look for reality, and you try this and try that, and ultimately you arrive at the conclusion--great oversimplification--that reality is a mystery. The heart of reality is a mystery." Buckley: "Even if that were so, why should that mystery lead you to Christian belief?" Muggeridge: "Because it leads you to God."
    • How comforting to know
      “ How comforting to know that one’s life and fortune, tossed about by unknown causes, can be controlled by dialogue with an invisible power that possesses familiar sentiments and intelligence. “
    • Letters to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris
      “ The Golden Rule really is a wonderful moral precept. But numerous teachers offered the same instruction centuries before Jesus (Zoroaster, Buddha, Confucius, Epictetus…), and countless scriptures discuss the importance of self-transcending love more articulately than the Bible does, while being unblemished by the obscene celebrations of violence that we find throughout the Old and New Testaments. If you think that Christianity is the most direct and undefiled expression of love and compassion the world has ever seen, you do not know much about the world’s other religions. ”

      “ It is time we recognized the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of the saved. It is time we acknowledged how disgraceful it is for the survivors of a catastrophe to believe themselves spared by a loving God, while this same God drowned infants in their cribs. Once you stop swaddling the reality of the world’s suffering in religious fantasies, you will feel in your bones just how precious life is—and, indeed, how unfortunate it is that millions of human beings suffer the most harrowing abridgements of their happiness for no good reason at all. ”

      “ There is, in fact, no worldview more reprehensible in its arrogance than that of a religious believer: the creator of the universe takes an interest in me, approves of me, loves me, and will reward me after death; my current beliefs, drawn from scripture, will remain the best statement of the truth until the end of the world; everyone who disagrees with me will spend eternity in hell…. An average Christian, in an average church, listening to an average Sunday sermon has achieved a level of arrogance simply unimaginable in scientific discourse—and there have been some extraordinarily arrogant scientists. “
    • No Religion exists in a vacuum
      No religion existis in a vacuum. On the contrary, every faith is rooted in the soil in which it is planted. It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their Scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultura, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives.
    • Founding Fathers
      Although orthodox Christians participated at every stage of the new republic, Deism influenced a majority of the Founders. The movement opposed barriers to moral improvement and to social justice. It stood for rational inquiry, for skepticism about dogma and mystery, and for religious toleration. Many of its adherents advocated universal education, freedom of the press, and separation of church and state. If the nation owes much to the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is also indebted to Deism, a movement of reason and equality that influenced the Founding Fathers to embrace liberal political ideals remarkable for their time.

      It’s easy to cherry-pick the Founding Fathers’ quotes to prove that they were either orthodox Christians or they were secular, They were neither. Their religious views were complex and fascinating and they don’t lend themselves to being pigeonholed or used in the modern culture wars. When you do that, you distort reality.
    • Jesus as an ink blot
      As I’ve gotten older, I think of Jesus more and more as an ink blot - an ambiguous shape onto which people project their own fears and desires. We all hope our deepest values and acts of service are aligned with something greater, and a Jesus who shared those values is a powerful, enduring symbol that our lives have meaning.

      My friend understands the Jesus she seeks to be a matter of hope, not history. The power of her Jesus comes not from whatever tentative facts scholars can glimpse in the fog of history, but from yearnings of the human spirit that are as relevant today as they were in the Ancient Near East. Perhaps humanity’s centuries of desperately seeking Jesus are best thought of as a quest to find and define ourselves. Perhaps that is enough.

      Valerie Tarico
    • The 5 stages of deconstruction
      If you don’t know about the Kübler-Ross model of the stages of death and dying and grief, you should. I have it very helpful for all kinds of things. Including the deconstruction of faith and beliefs. Here’s my own personal interpretation as they apply to my deconstruction:

      Denial: We are certain that the answer we have believed must work. Doubt may have entered in, but we’re going to hold on faithfully to our beliefs. They’ve worked all these years and proven themselves true. Why fail us now?

      Anger: It dawns on us that, indeed, we have doubt, and that the answer we’ve faithfully believed for so long no longer suffices. We are angry at God, Satan, our spouses, our selves, life, etc. We are very frustrated that confusion has moved in.

      Bargaining: Realizing that the answer we’ve held to has failed, we go for a second opinion, or a third… desperately looking for an answer that makes sense. We run around compromising and making deals with other ideas in an effort to stay alive spiritually.

      Depression: We sadly realize that there is no clear answer forthcoming. What we are losing isn’t being replaced by anything satisfactory. The temptation is to give up. This is a very dark and deeply confusing time. It feels like spiritual death.

      Acceptance: We finally understand that there is no answer and we can live in the depth of the mystery. An indescribable peace comes over our minds that radiates throughout our whole being. Finally our souls are at rest.

      This may not be your story. But maybe it is. And remember: we may not progress neatly and linearly through these stages. We may cycle around them and jump from one to another or live in two at the same time. We are very complex and unique people. My journey is mine and yours is yours.
    • Einstein and Judaism
      Decidedly Jewish, and exiled and defamed and persecuted as a consequence, he preserved what he could of ethical Judaism and rejected the barbaric mythology of the Pentateuch.
    • Spong and the gulf
      “Human beings all live with an experience of separation, aloneness and alienation born, I believe, in the trauma of self-consciousness. It is manifested as the anxiety of meaninglessness that accompanies the external human drive to discover and appropriate ultimate meaning for human life in its transitory existence. It feeds our sense of guilt and fear. It constitutes a major piece of what it means to be fully human. No one escapes this reality, and every religious system has some way of addressing it.”
    • Exposing the claims of the Gospel
      If we expose the claims of the gospels to the heat of historical analysis, we can purge the scriptures of their literary and theological flourishes and forge a far more accurate picture of the Jesus of history.

      Indeed, if we commit to placing Jesus firmly within the social, religious, and political context of the era in which he lived - an era marked by the slow burn of a revolt against Rome that would forever transform the faith and practice of Judaism - then, in some ways, his biography writes itself.

      The Jesus that is uncovered in the process may not be the Jesus we expect; he certainly will not be the Jesus that most modern Christians would recognize. But in the end, he is the only Jesus that we can access by historical means.

      Everything else is a matter of faith.
    • The soft bonds of love
      The soft bonds of love are indifferent to life and death. They hold through time so that yesterday’s love is part of today’s and the confidence in tomorrow’s love is also part of today’s. And when one dies, the memory lives in the other, and is warm and breathing. And when both die, that somewhere it remains, indestructible and eternal, enriching all of the universe by the mere fact that once it exited.
    • Suppose we change our God definition
      Suppose we change our God definition, suppose we take God out of the sky and strip God of the supernatural power, which we have created and placed upon this divine being. And suppose we begin to think of God as the presence at the very heart of life.

      If God is the source of life, as I believe God is, then God is present in all living things; in you, and me, in all created order. And if God is the source of life, then the only way you worship God is by living, giving life away, sharing it fully.

      If God is the source of love, which I believe God is, then the only way you can worship God is by loving, not by being right, but by loving, by loving wastefully. Let the water of God fill every crack in every creature, to abundance, never wondering if the cracks deserve this love.

      If God is the Ground of All Being, as I believe God is, then the only way you and I can worship is by having the courage to be all that we can be, in the infinite variety of our humanity. Everyone has something to offer in our own way, nobody else can offer what you have to offer. And the only way you can worship God is by daring to be all that you can be, never being bound by fears of yesterday.

      You are part of the God-infused humanity through whom the Source of Life, the Source of Love, and the Ground of Being lives.

      John Shelby Spong
    • Attributing our own human feelings and experiences to Yahweh
      “When they attributed their own human feelings and experiences to Yahweh, the prophets were in an important sense creating a god in their own image. Isaiah, a member of the royal family, had seen Yahweh as a king. Amos had ascribed his own empathy with the suffering poor to Yahweh; Hosea saw Yahweh as a jilted husband, who still continued to feel a yearning tenderness for his wife. All religion must begin with some anthropomorphism.”
    • No credible external Deity
      There is no creditable external deity existing today on whose perceived will, spelled out in an ancient text, we can base our ethical decision making. No heavenly parent figure sets down and enforces the rules by which life is governed. No divine and eternal law has ever been written, either in the sky or on tablets of stone. The God who once was perceived as undergirding these primitive assumptions has been taken from us and destroyed by both the march of time and the explosion of knowledge.
    • Transcendental Temptation
      The quest for transcendence expresses a passionate desire within the human heart for immortality and permanence. This impulse is so strong that it has inspired the great religions and supernatural movements of the past and the present and caused otherwise sensible men and women to follow them and to repeat them constantly as articles of faith.

      The religious systems that human cultures have built are the creative products of an idealized imagination in which human beings have poured forth their dreams and tears. It is the fulfillment of our unattainable hopes and desires that transcendental systems of beliefs prey upon.

      The great religious traditions are fictionalized monuments to individuals and events of the past that have been so transformed that they may have lost all resemblance to what actually occurred.
    • The universal belief in the existence of the soul
      Beyond the myths and rituals, the temples and cathedrals, the dos and don’ts that have, for millennia, separated humanity into different and often competing camps of belief, religion is little more than a “language” made up of symbols and metaphors that allows believers to communicate, to one another and to themselves, the ineffable experience of faith.

      The universal belief in the existence of the soul led to the concept of an active, engaged, divine presence that underlies all of creation, that divine presence was gradually personalized, given names and backstories, endowed with human traits and emotions, and cast into a thousand different forms, each with its own personality and purpose, after many years and with great difficulty, those forms gave way to the single divine personality we know today as God.

      God: A Human History
      Reza Aslan
    • The birth of Judaism as we know it
      The Babylonian Exile forced the Israelites to reexamine their sacred history and reinterpret their religious ideology. The resulting cognitive dissonance required a dramatic, until now unworkable religious framework to make sense of the experience.

      This is the birth of Judaism as we know it, not in the covenant with Abraham, nor in the Exodus from Egypt, but in the smoldering ashes of a razed Temple and the refusal of a defeated people to accept the possibility of a defeated god.

      After the Exile there around a newly found vision of One God.

      God: A Human History
      Reza Aslan

      …….

      The documentary hypothesis (DH) is one of three models used to explain the origins and composition of the first five books of the Bible, called collectively the Torah or Pentateuch. The other two theories are the supplementary hypothesis and the fragmentary hypothesis.

      All three agree that the Torah is not a unified work from a single author (traditionally Moses) but is made up of sources combined over many centuries by many hands. They differ on the nature of these sources and how they were combined.

      Documentary hypothesis believes there were four sources, each originally a separate and independent book (a "document"), joined together at various points in time by a series of editors ("redactors").

      Fragmentary hypotheses see the Torah as a collection of small fragments.

      Supplementary hypotheses as a single core document supplemented by fragments taken from many sources.

      Link.


      MYTH
      Ancient people did not so much align their beliefs around myths as they pledged their allegiance to an identity created by them.

However

Jews, Christians, Muslims, Mormons, and others each have their own scholars who have tackled great questions and confidently reached conflicting answers. Most will believe deeply in their faith despite its challenges to rationality.

I see people living a faithful life while relying on doctrines that seem wildly flawed. What matters most for them isn’t theology but the quality of life it has created. The most important question is not whether their stories are actually true, but that they are true to their stories.