Jesus, The New Testament and Bart D. Ehrman

I have now read five books by Bart D. Ehrman about Jesus and The New Testament.  This is rather strange considering I’m an atheist.  The books were

  • Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (2005)
  • Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them) (2009)
  • Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (2011)
  • Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (2012)
  • How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (2014)

The reason why I’m so fond of Ehrman’s books is he’s a historian writing about how Christianity came about and does not digress into theology.  I study the origins of Christianity in the same way my friend Mike studies ancient Greek literature and philosophy.  Ehrman works very hard to walk the razor’s edge seeking the academic truth of things, but in doing so, often offends the faithful. 

Most people in America who consider themselves Christians aren’t interested in the historical details of their faith—they believe because that is what they were taught growing up and never took the time to study The New Testament.  If they did, they’d find it to be a black hole of endless scholarship.   Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina and he says his classes are very popular with all kinds of people, and points out that his conclusions of historical scholarship are middle of the road, and most of what he teaches has been common knowledge for a long time in seminary schools.  Readers are often shocked by what they read in Ehrman’s books but that’s because the ideas are new to the readers, and not to historians of Biblical scholarship.

If what you know about Christianity and The New Testament is was what you learned in Sunday School you might find Ehrman’s books both fascinating and a challenge to your beliefs.  Ehrman started out as a Evangelical himself, but after years of Bible study has become an agnostic.  His books do not attack beliefs or believers.  Ehrman is the kind of truth seeker that learned the ancient languages of The Bible so he could do his own translating, and got a doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary.  Ehrman moved from believing in The Bible to becoming obsessed with how The New Testament came about.  He has written over twenty-five books on the subject, some for the general reader and others for academic scholars.

We know very little about the actual man Jesus, but through the detective work of textual analysis, anthropology and historical studies of the times in which Jesus lived, Ehrman pieces out one view of Jesus that he claims is a pretty common view among Bible historians.  This is best seen in Did Jesus Exist?  Then Ehrman explains how the followers of Jesus made him into the God we know today in the book How Jesus Became God.  Then his books Misquoting Jesus, Jesus, Interrupted and Forged explores how The New Testament and Christianity evolved in the first four hundred years after Jesus’ death.  If you read these five books you’ll have a pretty good overview of the current historical studies on Jesus and The New Testament.  Ehrman also has a number of entertaining courses at The Great Courses site.

I read these five books in the order they were written and published, but I’d recommend reading them in a different order if you are new to Ehrman.  They all cover the same big territory, but they each focus on threads of finer detail.

Did Jesus Exist?

I’d start with Did Jesus Exist? because Jesus is how everything got started in the first place.  Ehrman finds the most objection to his books by fundamentalists who believe in the literal truth of The Bible, and strangely for this book, by atheists and agnostics who wish to disprove the existence of Jesus.  There is a growing population of humanists who wish to turn Jesus into a myth, and Ehrman’s historical work undermines their beliefs too.   Basically, Ehrman walks a middle ground between the fervor of belief and disbelief.

Did Jesus Exist 

I wish the conclusion to this book was available online so I could link to it.  Ehrman explains how he attended a meeting of the American Humanists Association to receive their Religious Liberty Award and was surprised to find the non-believers spending so much time talking about religion.  He was also shocked that many of these scientific minded people have thoroughly embraced books by writers who claim Jesus is a myth.  It disturbs Ehrman because he knows the pseudo-scholarship approach to proving Jesus is a myth has as much academic validity as Creationism and Intelligent Design and these proclaimed embracers of science don’t seem to know that.

Ehrman in his book Did Jesus Exist? has to attack ideas many of his most popular fans cherish.  Ehrman’s books clearly disproves the fundamentalist view of the literal interpretation of The Bible, which agnostics and atheists love, but his scholarship also finds consistent evidence that a man named Jesus did exist.  So, in one book Ehrman undermines the faithful and the unbelievers.  Ehrman shows the same kind of airy philosophy that goes into convincing people that Jesus was a God is the very same kind of philosophical slight-of-hand that goes into making Jesus a myth.

Whether you’re a believer or disbeliever, don’t you want to know the truth?  I’m not saying the Ehrman  knows the absolute truth, but I am saying his middle of the road, conservative academic approach is more scientific and reliable than just taking other people’s word for things.  What we all need to do is learn to demand the evidence for anything claiming to be true.  And we need to learn the difference between bullshit evidence and research consensus evidence.

Ehrman embraces the study of history as if it was a science, demanding evidence.  The mythicists, as Ehrman calls the Jesus as myth people, promote their beliefs without real academic vigor.  Some only offer wild speculation, but others, some even with PhDs, do attempt to make their points with evidence, but Ehrman makes a good case their evidence is poor, and their logic weak.  It’s a fascinating book that sets the stage for his next book.

How Jesus Became God

Ehrman works to prove that Jesus did not see himself as God, or even divine, but that his followers after his death did deify him.  Ehrman carefully and academically explains the historical existence of Jesus and how Christians transformed a flesh and blood man into divine being to serve their purposes.  This is a great book for The New Testament Bible study because Ehrman spends most of his time exploring the writings of Paul, the four Gospels, Acts and other references in The New Testament to show how Jesus changed over time.  The textual analysis Ehrman makes should be obvious to anyone who just reads The Bible.  So, why haven’t most Christians noticed what Ehrman points out?

How Jesus Became God

Most people who read The Bible, read it in pieces, jumping around as it’s presented in a Sunday School lesson or sermon each Sunday.  Ehrman suggests reading it by comparing all the stories from different books about the same event.  This any reader can do.  What Ehrman brings to the table that most average Bible readers don’t have is the scholarship that explains when various parts of The Bible was written and by who.  When you plot what was said when, you’ll begin to notice that The New Testament is full of contradictions but they make sense if you look at them on a timeline.  It’s quite obvious that theology developed over time, and the theology was constantly changing.  Even within The New Testament its possible to see that Jesus went from a man to a God.  However, to fully understand this transformation requires further study of Christian theologians and their writing for the next three hundred years.  How Jesus went from human being to The Trinity took three hundred years to hammer out, and there were a lot of strange side trips along the way, especially by Christians now called heretics and Gnostics today.

How Jesus Became God sets things up nicely for the first Ehrman book I read.

Misquoting Jesus

Have you ever wondered how The New Testament was written, edited and published?  Especially since it was put together over a thousand years before the printing press.  Have you ever wondered who wrote The New Testament?  Many people think it’s the absolute word of God, as if God dictated The Bible to someone.  Have you never noticed that Bible stories have many different points of view, writing styles and often contradict each other?  Have you never wondered how something that was written almost two thousand years ago could be published consistently without errors and changes?  Have you ever tried to copy a passage in a book by handwriting?  How well did you do?

Misquoting_Jesus

Once you learn that who Jesus was is determined by who was writing about him, then it’s easy to understand how The New Testament was put together and why.  Actually, The New Testament is very poorly edited because its far from consistent.  It leaves in evidence of earlier thinking that was supplanted by later theology.  And it becomes all too obvious that your favorite Jesus quote depends on when that portion of The New Testament was written, and what his orthodox followers believed at that time.

And as manuscripts were passed around the Roman world, copied by scribes in different locals, with different beliefs, often they were altered to reflect a particular view of Jesus.  We don’t have the original drafts of The New Testament books, but we do have hundreds and hundreds of copies that showed up hundreds of years later.  We can trace changes that were made as they circulated from community to community.  And scholars have also detected forgeries.

Forged

Have you ever heard that some of the books in The New Testament were forgeries?  For example, for over a hundred years now, some scholars believe some of the books claimed to be written by Paul were obviously not.  How did they learn that?  Plagiarism and forgery did not exist like it does today, so Bart D. Ehrman has to explain how the various books were written and how their authorship got attributed.  Back in the early days of Christianity, in the first four hundred years after Jesus died, being a famous author was not like it is today.  If you wrote something you wanted people to believe, you often said it was written by someone else, someone people would believe.

forged

Using contextual study, and even computers to analyze style and content, it’s possible to determine if the same person wrote or did not write two different essays.  But even without the skills of a historian or a computer, it’s pretty easy to see that certain lessons from different books in The New Testament teach radically opposing ideas.  Reading Forged will show the common Bible study student how to read scripture far more closely.  This leads us to the last book I’m recommending to read.

Jesus, Interrupted

Knowing what Jesus really said is very difficult.  Most religious people assume everything printed in red in The New Testament is something Jesus actual said.  Well, historians like Ehrman would beg to disagree.  What’s so fascinating about this book is Ehrman gets to write a bestselling book pointing out contradictions in The New Testament that any careful reader should have already noticed for themselves.  I have a feeling that most believers attending church were like me as a kid.  I listened to the preacher quote a passage of The Bible and then tie in some personal experiences from his own life or people in the church, and then turn scripture and contemporary life problems into a sermon.  As a kid I never read The Bible from start to finish.  If we did, we might remember while reading The Gospel of John things said that might contradiction what we head already read in The Gospel of Mark.  Most readers don’t cross-compare, but just work to decipher scriptures one line at a time.

jesus_interrupted

Ehrman teaches readers the trick of parallel reading.  Pick specific incidents in the life of Jesus, and then read about the same incident in different places throughout The New Testament.  It becomes all to obvious that the various writers had different stories to tell, and different theology to preach.  The contrast between the stories in Mark and John are startling.  Why haven’t the average Bible reader notice that?  I’m sure many have, but I think most haven’t.

If you go searching for reviews of these books at Google you can find lots of reviewers who attack what Ehrman has to say.  Now there are different kinds of attacks.  Sometimes, other scholars call Ehrman out on his scholarship.  It seems to me that in Ehrman’s newer books he spends far more writing time explaining how he made his conclusions in comparison to other scholars, in a preemptive attack on this kind of criticism.  This makes for good writing and better reading.  The other common kind of attack on Ehrman’s work is by Christian apologists who seek to defend their specific theological view.  The quality and validity of these kinds of criticism vary greatly.

Ehrman constantly reminds his reader that he is a historian and that metaphysics lies outside the scope of historical studies.  The trouble is the true believer, especially the fundamentalist, believe that their theology is the true view of history.  They assume the metaphysical is part of history.  This is what makes Ehrman’s books controversial with certain readers.

I am an atheist.  I don’t believe the metaphysical exists.  To me, Ehrman’s books are excellent explanations on how Christianity got started in a historical context.  His books also explain to me at least, when and how some Christians acquired their theological and metaphysical ideas.  True believers don’t seem to understand that all concepts, all memes, have a history.  Someone thought them up.  Where we differ is I see them as ideas and they see them as God’s word.

These five books by Bart D. Ehrman go a long way to explaining the history of certain ideas that are programmed deeply into Western culture.  No historian, philosopher or scientist will ever be able to prove or disprove the cherished metaphysical desires of believers.  However, most believers embrace their beliefs without much analysis.  Reading these five books could dissolve such beliefs because they raise logical questions that are corrosive to simple thinking.  However, there are many believers who develop very complex thought systems to maintain their beliefs.  These people will have to read Ehrman and come up with rationalizations that counter his assertions.

JWH – 7/21/14

How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman

There once was a guy named Jesus.  He sounded like a pretty cool guy if you believed some of the savings he was supposed to have said.  Then his followers made him into God, and people became more interested in what was said about him, rather than what he said.  That’s too bad.  Bart D. Ehrman, has written a book that explains how Jesus became God after he died, and then became God while he was alive, and then became God before he was born, and then became God before any of us were born.  Ehrman’s book could have also been called When Jesus Became God, and to a very minor degree, it could have been called Why Jesus Became God.

I would have entitled it, Too Bad Jesus Became God.

How Jesus Became God

How Jesus Became God is a history book.  It’s not about theology, but many readers will find it undermines their beliefs.  To be fair, Ehrman bends over backwards, constantly explaining how and why he’s writing history, wanting to avoiding any theological implications.  We’ll never know the theological truth in this life, but we can get ever closer to the historical truth.  By summarizing how the followers of Jesus changed their opinions about the man they worshipped in the decades and early centuries after his death, we don’t learn anything new about Jesus, but a whole lot about the history of Christianity.  Because Jesus left no primary sources about what he believed, we can never know anything about the man, all we can know is what other people thought about him long after he died.

I’m afraid when the faithful read this book they will bring their beliefs to the reading and that will distort what Ehrman has to say.  Ehrman  stands outside of Christian faith and ask the question:  How did Jesus become God?  He is a historian, so he makes no assumption whether Jesus is actually God or not, but analyzes what we know about early Christians to decide how they made Jesus into a God.  Ehrman uses textual analysis to date each idea about Jesus that emerged after his death, and to pick through the paltry facts like a CSI detective hoping to find additional clues.  Ehrman tries to answer two main questions.  First, did Jesus think of himself as God or divine?  Second, studying the writings of Paul, the four Gospels, and Acts, Ehrman asks, when did his believers think Jesus became God – at his resurrection, his Baptism, his conception, or from the beginning of all time?

Bart D. Ehrman introduces his book at Huffington Post.  It’s a good summary to read if you’re thinking about buying the book.  He opens with:

Jesus was a lower-class preacher from Galilee, who, in good apocalyptic fashion, proclaimed that the end of history as he knew it was going to come to a crashing end, within his own generation. God was soon to intervene in the course of worldly affairs to overthrow the forces of evil and set up a utopian kingdom on earth. And he would be the king.

It didn’t happen. Instead of being involved with the destruction of God’s enemies, Jesus was unceremoniously crushed by them: arrested, tried, humiliated, tortured, and publicly executed.  And yet, remarkably, soon afterwards his followers began to say that — despite all evidence to the contrary — Jesus really was the messiah sent from God. More than that, he was actually a divine being, not a mere human. And not just any divine being. He was the Creator of the universe. After long debates among themselves they decided that he was not secondary to the one God of Israel, the Lord God Almighty himself. On the contrary, he was fully equal with God; he had always existed for eternity with God; he was of the same essence as God; he was a member of the Trinity.

How did that happen? How did we get from a Jewish apocalyptic preacher — who ended up on the wrong side of the law and was crucified for his efforts — to the Creator of all things and All-powerful Lord? How did Jesus become God?

To Christians, Jesus is God, but to historians, Jesus is no different from any human in history.  Ehrman is studying the theologians and not the theology.  If you are willing to take How Jesus Became God as a purely history book it’s quite fascinating and illuminating about the early development of Western civilization.  If you are a believer, this book could be painful because it treats Christianity no different from pagan mythology that also existed in the first centuries of the common era.

I hope this won’t be insulting to Christians, but most of the ones I know aren’t very intellectual about their theology.  Most, just want to believe in God, an afterlife, heaven, and the promise they will meet their dead kin and friends again.  How that happens is inconsequential to them.  That’s why modern Christianity is based on faith and belief.  Reading How Jesus Became God will show there is a complex history of theology to how belief in believing evolved.  Ehrman makes an excellent case that while Jesus was alive, and even just after he died, Christians believed you had to do good deeds to get into heaven, and that Jesus did not think of himself as divine.  It took decades, centuries even, to evolve the theology that Jesus was Christ who existed since the beginning of time as God and believing in him will earn you eternal life in heaven.

This book is about how the followers of Jesus went from thinking of Jesus as a human being to thinking of him as the Trinity.  Ehrman documents this from what we know from history.  Unfortunately, most of what we know comes from The New Testament, Apocrypha writings, and Gnostic texts.  Ehrman’s history is really close textual readings because we have few outside sources about these events.  Christians might appreciate Ehrman’s careful delineations between the writings of Paul, the four Gospels, and Acts.  What it comes down to is Paul, and the writers of the four gospels had different ideas on when Jesus became God – resurrection, Baptism, conception or the beginning of time.  Then the early church fathers argued over these concepts for centuries.

That might seem like meaningless quibbling to most believers, but it does explain why the four Gospels differ.  The Gospel of Mark doesn’t include the story of the virgin birth, but that’s because it suggests that Jesus became divine at the resurrection.  The writers of Matthew and Luke seem to imply Jesus became divine at Baptism or conception.  To have Jesus become divine at conception you need the virgin birth tale.  The author of John recreates the ontology of Genesis to put Jesus as God back at the beginning of time.

Now I’m an atheist, but I find all of this fascinating.  And I might have a different take on Ehrman’s book, but since I’m not widely read in Christian history, I don’t know how common my questions are.  Jesus and his disciples were lower class folk, who were probably illiterate and spoke Aramaic and Hebrew.  The writers of the Gospels were educated, literate, and spoke and wrote Greek.  I’m wondering if they knew about Greek philosophy and if their theology is a mixture of Hebrew mythology, stories about Jesus, and Greek philosophy.  Is The New Testament a cold front of religion meeting the warm front of philosophy?

By the way, we’re leaving Ehrman and moving into my own ideas.  I’m into science, but science wasn’t invented yet.  At the time of evolution of The New Testament people had very few tools to understand reality.  The first, and oldest tool is religion.  Religion basically says “God did it” to any question about the mystery of reality.  Why is there thunder?  It’s a god.  How did the universe start?  God created it.  In terms of understanding the truth, religion offers no validity or real answers.  It’s all speculation and wild ideas.

Then came philosophy.  Philosophy assumes humans can figure out how things work.  Philosophy starts observing reality for clues, but all too often it comes up with bizarre theories for answers, and eventually these are contrived into elaborate beliefs.  Because philosophy uses logic and rhetoric, it gives the impression that it’s intellectually superior to religion, even though most of its answers about reality are hardly better than religion.  However, logic is sexy, so believers prefer philosophical answers over the dictates of religion, which is basically, “God did it.”  Paul is the Plato of Christianity, and Jesus is his Socrates.  And the guy who wrote The Gospel of John is out there, way out there, both mystical and philosophical, like one of the Pythagoreans.

From my perspective, Paul is the real creator of Christianity, but he lost control of his religion to the later writers of The New Testament.  What Ehrman’s book does is try to chronicle how these later writers change the scope of Christian theology.  Even more fascinating is the Gnostic gospels, which appear to try to take Christianity in even stranger directions.  What became Orthodox Christianity in the first four centuries of the common era is what worked best at selling a belief that took hold of the Western world for the next sixteen centuries.

Modern day believers of Christianity believe because they hear a few ideas in childhood that are so powerful it overwhelms all their thinking.  What Ehrman’s book attempts to do is explain how these memes got created.  Many other writers of Christian history attempt to do this too, but Ehrman seems to be particularly good at it, with clear writing, sensible logic and a humble attitude.  Ehrman has written a series of books that reflect a lifetime of careful research that explain how and why The New Testament was written.  He’s very knowledgeable about The Old Testament, but The New Testament is his specialty, his life’s work.

Most Christians aren’t interested in an intellectual history of their faith.  Their religion gives them a wonderful sense of community, beliefs that comfort them in life, and faith that assures them they won’t die, so they know they will meet their departed loved ones in the next life.  However, there are Christians, especially evangelicals and fundamentalists who are profoundly interested in the intellectually validity of their beliefs and will go to extremes to validate their faith.  Ehrman’s book will cause these people problems.  This gets back to my point about philosophy.  Philosophy appears to reveal the truth, but it doesn’t.  Science is the only system we’ve invented yet that reveals consistencies in reality that we can accept as being true.  What we’re experiencing now is the cold front of philosophy banging into the warm front of science.

What Ehrman brings to the table is history, a discipline that is far more consistent than philosophy, but still not science.  The fundamental faithful are strong adherents of philosophy, which includes rhetoric and logic.  They are confident these tools reveal the truth of reality.  But science is showing them that their philosophy is a very poor tool for understanding the truth of this reality.

What Ehrman has accidently taught me is fundamentalists love philosophy because The New Testament is a product of philosophy, and not religion.  The Old Testament was pure religion.  The New Testament is a hybrid of religion and philosophy, with the later writers of The New Testament being the most philosophical.

And it’s not that philosophy can’t be a useful tool, but it’s only useful if it incorporates the rigors of science.  Science depends on logic, and to a degree rhetoric, but is actually about consistency of observations.   Science, for the most part, can’t be used to verify theology, because most theology involves the metaphysical, which can’t be observed, tested, and is not falsifiable.

Christianity met up with Greek philosophy again when it kicked the Muslims out of Spain.  But that’s not part of Ehrman’s book.  I’ve always thought that was Christianity’s first encounter with Greek philosophy, but now I’m thinking different.  The New Testament writers were the first influence of Greek philosophers on Christianity, they just didn’t mention their educational background.

It would be fantastic to have a time machine and track down the real Jesus and give him a copy of The New Testament and How Jesus Became God.  I get the feeling he’d probably read them and say, “Hey, these stories are about a guy with my name,” and never notice they were about him.

I’m am reminded of stuff I’ve read by Karen Armstrong and Robert Wright, especially in A History of God and The Evolution of God.  The God of The Bible has gone though quite a lot of changes himself.  He’s a combination of several gods that slowly evolved over a very long period of time.  Each time one people would conquer another people, their gods would merge, or one would supplant the other.  To me, Jesus became God because Christianity supplanted older religions and had to incorporate or bury older deities, creeds, traditions, etc.  Jesus essentially becomes the new God that usurps the Jewish God of The Old Testament, in the same way Yahweh supplanted earlier gods like El, Asherah and Baal.

The early Christians had to do this to succeed and thrive, and boy did they thrive.  But it sure is sad that they lost Jesus along the way.  It would be interesting to compare the revisionists techniques in the Quran and The Book of Mormon to see how they try to supplant Christian theology.

I wish Jesus had written down his ideas like Plato.  To me, humans are interesting, gods are not.

JWH – 7/8/14

Why We Can’t Know Jesus

It’s almost a certainty that anything you think you know about Jesus is wrong because what you know has gone through two thousand years of constant reinterpretation with additional imagined added facts through suppositions and speculation.  And if by chance you held just one right fact, it would be impossible to know which one it was because there are almost an infinity of possible imagined facts about Jesus to confuse you.

I’ve read a lot of books about Jesus over the years, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s impossible for us to know the truth about what Jesus was like.  Absolutely impossible.  Every book I’ve read gave the author’s imagined interpretation of what Jesus was like based on all the books they had read, each of which was also an interpretation.  Since Jesus left no writings on his own, and all the gospels were written long after the fact, by people who got their information from hand-me-down sources, we have no foundation of verifiable knowledge to work with.  In fact, each of the four gospels are different, written at different times, with new interpretations and added material.

All this is obvious, and I should have concluded it decades ago, but the nature of Bible study makes it fun to try to figure out the truth.  Everyone wants to solve the puzzle and is only too eager to add their interpretation with new speculated possibilities.  Just look at how many early Christian sects there were, and how much the Catholic Church has changed over time, and how many differ protestant denominations there are, with their own splinter groups.  Every church has a different view of Jesus, and so does every human being.  There are billions of different  Jesuses – will the real one please stand up.  It reminds me of that old short story by Arthur C. Clarke, “The Nine Billion Names of God.”

rabbi-jesus

All this became more obvious to me when I was reading Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography by Bruce Chilton.  Now, I’m an atheist, so you might be wondering why I’m reading a book about Jesus.  The origins of Christianity is a minor interest of mine, as a study of history, like how some people study classical Greece for a hobby.  I was intrigued by Rabbi Jesus because the book claimed to have a deep understanding of Judaism of the times, and to use current anthropological knowledge about the time period Jesus lived, to create a biography that jived with the Gospels.  Here’s a quote from Craig L. Blomberg in his review of the book:

There are strengths to Chilton’s work to be sure. Prompted by his editors he has eschewed formal, detailed footnoting for brief references to key literature for each chapter and has written in highly readable, even gripping prose. His descriptions of the customs and geography of Israel bring the stories of Jesus alive as few other writers have done. His portrayal of the probable thoughts, motives and behavior of such characters as Caiaphas and Pilate is more vivid and compelling than any I have read. Over and over again, one senses that one is seeing the Jewish milieu of Jesus more clearly and accurately than in countless other “lives” that have been produced over the centuries. But when one asks what Chilton actually claims Jesus to have said and done, in what sequence, for what reasons and by what power, most of the answers are at best speculative, without the kind of defense and documentation to make one convinced of them. At worst, they simply seem baseless. In a classic understatement, Chilton recognizes in his foreword that he “will doubtless make both Jews and Christians apprehensive” with his portrait of Christ (p. xxi).

Chilton is able to paint a very vivid picture of Jesus with lots of links to related established knowledge, yet in the end it’s all speculation even though the book is very convincing.  If you haven’t read very widely with similar books, this book would be very persuasive in making you think you knew Jesus better.

zealot

Another recent controversial biography is Zealot:  The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan.  Aslan is a scholar who takes another approach to finding the truth about Jesus.  That’s the game here.  Use all the available knowledge you can to paint a supposedly accurate portrait of Jesus.  But just read what Wikipedia said about the book:

Dale Martin writes in The New York Times that although Aslan is not a scholar of ancient Christianity and does not present “innovative or original scholarship”, the book is entertaining and “a serious presentation of one plausible portrait of the life of Jesus of Nazareth”. He faults Aslan for presenting early Christianity as being simply divided into a Hellenistic, Pauline form on the one hand, and a Jewish, Jamesian form on the other. Martin says that this repeats 19th-century German scholarship which now is mostly rejected. He also says that recent scholarship has dismissed Aslan’s view that it would be implausible that any man like Jesus in his time and place would be unmarried, or could be presented as a “divine messiah”. Despite these faults, Martin praises Zealot for maintaining good pacing, simple explanations for complicated issues, and notes for checking sources.[6]

Elizabeth Castelli, writing in The Nation, finds that Aslan largely ignores the findings in textual studies of the New Testament, and relies too heavily on a selection of texts, like Josephus, taking them more or less at face value (which no scholar of the period would do). Near her dismissive conclusion, she writes: “Zealot is a cultural production of its particular historical moment—a remix of existing scholarship, sampled and reframed to make a culturally relevant intervention in the early twenty-first-century world where religion, violence and politics overlap in complex ways. In this sense, the book is simply one more example in a long line of efforts by theologians, historians and other interested cultural workers.”[7]

The summary of these two reviewers shows that speculation about Jesus is a kind of academic game to scholars, but to religious people, knowing who Jesus was is very serious.  These two books give us two different Jesuses.  Both are from scholars claiming to work with the latest knowledge about the past.  Both books seem to present reasonable results.  If you read a hundred scholarly books about Jesus and they all invent a different Jesus, who is right?  Do you just average the 100 and assume Jesus was something like all of them?  Or assume he was like none of them?  If it was possible to extrapolate what Jesus was like from current knowledge don’t you think most of those 100 books would produce a standard Jesus?

Most of the faithful ignore modern books and just study The New Testament.  But if you study New Testament scholars like Bart D. Ehrman and his latest books you’ll only feel doubtful about what is actually supposed to be the word of God.

How Jesus Became God

I’m quite a fan of Ehrman having read Jesus, Interrupted, Misquoting Jesus, and Forged, and was about to buy and read How Jesus Became God, when I stopped to think about what I’m writing here in this essay.  Why read another book about Jesus?  Well, this one promises to be a history of the history of Jesus, so it’s not quite the same, but I’m now asking myself should I give up even studying the history of this whole era.  To me studying the early centuries of Christianity is like studying how half the world went insane believing a massive fantasy about a guy they can’t even know, but think they know through the lies they believe are the truth.  It’s like driving past the largest car wreck ever and trying not to look.

One reason I keep reading books about Bible history is I’m trying to completely exorcise Christianity from my brain.  Forced early exposure to Christianity caused mind-washing at the lowest levels of my brain and I’m trying to deprogram myself.  Every time I read another Ehrman book I delete a few more lines of old code running in my head.

I keep wondering when is humanity going to be free of the evils of religious fantasies?  Then I hear about the Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq and realize probably never.  Many atheists hope by studying religion they can explain it’s illogical nature to its believers.  But would any amount of facts convert Iraqis away from their war?  Would any number of lectures convert evangelicals to science?

I’m starting to feel that completely ignoring religion is my best course.  I’ve sufficiently deprogrammed myself that I’m now free of such thinking.  And I don’t feel obligated to deprogram others—I think that’s something you must do for yourself.  Wouldn’t I be better off mentally, and more productive if I studied other areas of history?  I think society has a sense of guilt about knowing all history, or a sense of obligation.  But how much history do we really need?  Wouldn’t I be better off studying the history of science and mathematics?

I think I’m over trying to figure out who Jesus was for whatever reason.  It’s all speculation.  Jesus is impossible to know.  If only they could invent a time machine to go back and filmed his life, then we’d have the answer, but that ain’t going to happen.

JWH – 6/25/14

The Science of Faith

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I am writing this in response to attacks on the TV show Cosmos by religious believers.  Cosmos represents a litmus test about the public’s understanding of science.  The series represents an overview of what science has learned in the last four hundred years.  Despite all the efforts of modern secular education, I think many of the ideas presented in Cosmos are new to a majority of the public.  Science and technology succeed in our society without the majority of the population even understanding it.

Cosmos represents a good consensus of what science knows about reality, and yet it is often in conflict with many people’s personal beliefs about how reality works because of their religious education.  Whether they accept it or not, science is in direct conflict with religion.

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Religion is wildly popular  because people want to believe.  People want to believe because of psychological needs.  Religion is 100% hope for certain fantasies to be true.  Believers validate their beliefs by getting other people to share their hopes.  But, what if the faithful applied the rigor of philosophy and the discipline of science to their religion?  Truth about reality is revealed not through our personal desires, but through what works for all people.

Why are there so many different religions, sects, creeds, beliefs if they are true?  They can’t all be true.  Why is there little consensus among believers, and much contention and hatred?  Religious wars are infamous for their cruelty.  Now the faithful feel under siege by science.  And some even invent pseudo-sciences to defend their beliefs.  If their beliefs were an actual feature of reality wouldn’t they be universal and testable?

Instead of attacking science, or making up fake science, the faithful should apply science to their beliefs.  First, they should find the core beliefs they all share and develop a consensus as to what is true about God or gods.  Anything your religion believes that all the other religions don’t, should be immediately crossed off the list of things that are probably true.  If something is universally true, it should be universally believed by all people.  False beliefs can be infinite because we can imagine anything, but universal truths should be finite because reality only works one way.  What are the universal truths in religious beliefs?  If a religious concept doesn’t apply to all humans on Earth, or even all aliens on every planet in the multiverse, then it should be doubted.

Science works by seeking such universal truths, and this is why the faithful feel under attack.  Not only does science work in a consistent manner, with a fantastic track record, but it’s truth works the same for Americans and Chinese, for Russians and Iranians.  Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus can barely agree on anything amongst themselves, much less with other religions.  If the religious really want to prove themselves, they need to band together and make one religion.  The obvious reason why religion is false is because there are too many of them.

If you are a firm believer in any metaphysical concept, you have to consider it a desire on your part unless you can find consensus with others.  That’s why religious people are so big on converting new recruits.  Getting someone else to believe like you do, validates your own fantasies.  If you really want to believe in something that’s true outside of your head, you need to be more scientific.  Any belief you hold that isn’t shared by a majority of the other seven billion people on this planet should be considered suspect.  Science succeeds because it’s under constant suspect.  Ideas have to taking a beating and keep on ticking – by everyone.

Even if six billion believers get together and form an absolute consensus on Laws of Religious Concepts, it won’t necessarily mean these beliefs are true without additional proof.  If the consensus is there is one God and that God listens to everyone’s prayers, then you need to test this hypothesis.  Let’s say every day six billion people all pray for the same unique thing each day.  If the prayers are answered repeatedly over years, then you can assume your theory is correct.  If it is not, you will have to alter your theory to there is a God but he doesn’t listen to people.  You will need to find a way to test this hypothesis.

However, even without scientific proof, the beliefs of the faithful can never be considered real unless they find more consensus.  Religious minded people would help their cause if they sought agreement rather than constantly splintering into smaller groups.  You can’t beat science by altering the rules of science.  You can’t beat science by lying about it.  You can’t beat science by putting your head into the sand.

I can think of two beliefs that a majority of religious believers might embrace.  One, there is a creator.  Two, the Golden Rule.  And those two might still cause a lot of arguments.  But beyond that, there is little agreement among the faithful.  Which to me, means there’s little reason to believe them.

Instead of attacking science, the religious should embrace each other.  You can’t elevate religion by undermining science.  Religions have always succeeded by war – by killing the unbelievers.  If you want to prove your religion is true, prove what you believe, not what everyone else believes is false.  Science succeeds because it proves what’s true, what works.

My challenge to the faithful, start proving your beliefs work universally.  I’ll consider the first step towards that proof when all religions become one.

JWH – 4/7/14

Who Is Watching Us If There Is No God?

One of the prime appeals of religion is a father figure who watches over everyone and everything.  I’m a lifelong atheist, so I don’t think about a personal God who listens and watches over me.  Yet, I know that the faithful need a higher power they feel is watching over them.  That desire to be noticed is very important to most people.  People cling to the concept of God for just a few reasons despite all the endless varieties of religions and their verbose theologies.  They don’t want to die, they want to be protected, they want someone to always care about them, and they want divine justice.

Last night I watched TB Silent Killer on the PBS documentary series Frontline.  This incredibly intense show on drug resistant tuberculosis in Africa was very hard to see, but I think very important not to miss.  Follow the link to watch the show.  It answers my question:  Who is watching us if there is no God?  We have to watch each other, either personally, or by films like this, or on the news, or by any other form of journalism, and even by the Internet and smartphones.  People have always wanted a God to watch over us, but as we evolve and learn about the scientific nature of reality, it’s obvious there is no father figure watching us 24×7.

What people want is to be saved from death and suffering.  The people in TB Silent Killer suffered greatly for months and years, and often died.  They felt no one was watching, that no one cared, and most importantly, no one would rescue them from their fates.  And they hated the unfairness that they were sick when others were not.  It wasn’t a just reality to them.  Watch this film to see how deeply you care, and contemplate possible answers.

As a self-aware species, and as we become enlightened and realize there is no magic in the sky, we have to learn how to create substitutes for all those hopes we put into God.  We really do want a superior being that cares for every sparrow that falls from a tree.  I can understand that desire.  I believe the human race has to become its own father figure.  We have to care for everyone else on Earth, and for all the animals too.  We have to learn to answer each other’s prayers.

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At end end of the show they asked each person what hope they had.  Most of the people were waiting for death, for after years of suffering, their hope of being rescued was long gone.  But the little girl they featured, Nokubheka, said she wanted people to invent safe pills that would cure TB.  She had been taking highly toxic medicines for months.  And she was right.  The way to answer her prayer is for science to find a cure for TB.  That should be something everyone wants because TB is airborne and it’s fast becoming drug resistant.  The show teaches about MDR TB (multi-drug-resistant TB) and XDR TB (extensively drug-resistant TB).  Remember how AIDS began in Africa, well it was a hard to spread retrovirus.  TB is very easy to spread, and it’s airborne.  You don’t have to have sex with the infected to catch it, just stand near them.  Yes, you should watch this show.  You should care.

While watching the show I also wondered how else we could help these people, or anyone that suffers a horrible disease like them.  All the victims in this documentary talked about being lonely, afraid, isolated, and bored.  Because of their contagion, they have to be isolated, but I wondered if they would have been happier if they had the Internet or smartphones.  Maybe a charity could be created that provides a social network for the sick and dying – one that would create a sense of being watched and cared for.  Call it The Sparrow.  It might even be a substitute for the desire to have a caring father figure watch over them.

When it comes down to it, we can plead for magic from an invisible being, or we can answer our own prayers with our own real abilities.

JWH – 3/26/14

The Theological Implications of the Multiverse

Because of recent research in gravity waves and inflation, the theory of the multiverse moves further toward reality.  While creationists are still fighting for equal time to oppose the 1859 theory of evolution, science has gone on to discover endless other aspects of reality that counter the Biblical view.  I don’t know why creationists focus so exclusively on evolution when millions of other scientific discoveries are also thorns in their theological sides.

When humanity thought the Earth was the center of everything, contained within the celestial spheres, it was possible to imagine our reality being constructed by a super being, especially if you believed the whole thing was only 6,000 years old.  Even then it was an extremely far out idea to buy.  After the sun was moved to the center of the universe, and Earth was just the third planet, it became a lot harder to imagine a God that could create the solar system with some kind of magic spell.  For a long while after that, we assumed all of reality was the Milky Way galaxy.

As reality got bigger, it got harder to imagine a single being creating it.  But still, reality was manageable with just a billion stars.  Then Edwin Hubble came along and showed us reality is composed of billions of galaxies.  How can any theology handle a reality that big?

If we live in a multiverse, it might not be billions of universes, but an infinity of them.  Or there might be another layer, so there are billions of multiverses in a megaverse.  It seems science can’t find any end to large or small, nor a beginning of time.  This has got to wipe out all ancient theological theories.  It’s time to start over.  Reality is too big for any kind of God, and we’re too small for any kind of special consideration.

Humanity needs to start over and throw out all theology and come up with a new working hypothesis about our place in reality.  Instead of thinking of ourselves as the crown of creation, we need see ourselves closer to an intelligent virus that accidently came about through random evolution with no  higher being watching.  Seen from orbiting telescopes, humans are little smudges that have infected this planet.  We’re quite deadly, killing off most of the other life forms on Earth.

We have a decision to make.  Shall we take responsibility for our actions?  There is no God judging us.  We only judge ourselves.  And it might not even be possible for our species to become fully conscious of its actions and act.  We might breed ourselves out of existence.  It should be pretty obvious to all by now that no God will intercede.  We will not be punished if we don’t act, nor will we be rewarded if we do.  We merely can choose to act.  We can preserve ourselves, other species, and the planet Earth – for a while. 

Nothing last forever in the multiverse.

Please read.

JWH – 3/24/14

A Choice of Two Creation Stories: Cosmos v. The Book of Genesis

Although the new documentary series Cosmos is a science show, it can also be seen as a creation myth.  It tells how the universe was created and how people came about.  This puts it in direct competition with all other creation myths, such as The Book of GenesisCosmos represents the creation myth of 2014.  Trying to find a date for when the Book of Genesis was written is very hard.  We don’t know when or who wrote it, but there is great speculation, both by scholars and the faithful.  Unfortunately the faithful have come up with endless theories to when The Book of Genesis was written and by who.  Some of them are very creative, but they are all self-serving, in that they are meant to validate a particular view of religion.  Let’s just say The Book of Genesis was orally created thousands of years ago, before written language, before history, before science, before philosophy, before most every kind of systematic form of learning that we know today.

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My point here, is we’re constantly creating stories to explain reality and our origins.  Three thousand years from now, the science of Cosmos will seem quaint – maybe as quaint as The Book of Genesis seems to most educated people today.  And maybe there will be a small segment of the population that clings to the ideas of Cosmos 2014 because it rationalizes some idea we treasure now but is rejected in the future.

Young Earth Creationism is the idea that reality has only existed for about 6,000 years and any suggestion that anything is older is a challenge to their theory.  Basically, these believers do everything possible to rationalize that The Book of Genesis is literally true, even though its full of internal inconsistencies.  They believe Moses wrote the first five books of The Bible around 1445 BC, even though Moses is a character that comes generations later.  They’ve even come up with an idea of how Moses could have done this, The Tablet Theory.

Cosmos is based on science, and science claims to be based on directly studying reality.  Because science is logical to most people, people with opposing creation myths like the young Earth creationists, now attempted to be scientific.  Sadly, their pseudo science is pathetic.  Both sides will reject the myth label, and insist their story is the actual explanation of how reality works.  That puts them into direct competition for the hearts and minds of citizens of the Earth.

Trying to understand how many Americans believe young Earth creationism is hard, but here is one study, “How many Americans actually believe the earth is only 6,000 years old?”  Tony Ortega estimates this is around 31 million.

The new Cosmos will be seen in 170 countries in 45 languages, but how many people will accept it as the best possible current creation story is hard to calculate.   Neil deGrasse Tyson is the new Moses of science, and he claims the universe is 13.8 billion years old, and instead of structuring his story around 6 days, uses an analogy of the 365 day calendar to picture how 13.8 billion years would unfold.  The image is our modern world since the Renaissance would fit into the very last second of that imaginary year is just bind blowing!  One year has  31,536,000 seconds, so this creation myth is quite complex. 

The Book of Genesis, a single chapter in one book, and is merely a few thousand words.  To understand those 13.8 billion years Cosmos covers you’ll need to read hundreds of books just to get the basic ideas how how things works, and thousands of books to get a fairly accurate picture.  I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t at least one scholarly book for each of those 31,536,000 representational seconds.  Maybe the faithful prefer The Bible for their explanation of reality because it’s requires reading only one book.

For most people, watching the whole series of Cosmos will only be educational in the vaguest sense.  Fundamentally, it will just be another creation story to accept or reject unless they study more science books to dig into the details.  I’ve often wondered just how many science books an average person had to read before they could claim they have a decent sense of scientific understanding.  To get some idea of the variety of science books available, read Gary’s Book Reviews at Audible.com.

Fans of the new Cosmos after finishing the series could read ten of the best popular science books on cosmology and still not understand much.  It’s a shame that K-12 schooling isn’t structured so children end up recreating the classic experiments of science.  Educating a scientific mind might be beyond reading books – it might require a series of AH HAH! moments of doing actual experiments.

Cosmos is a magnificent television show, but it’s only a beginning.  I’m sure the producers only expect it to inspire rather than teach.  It is Glenda telling Dorothy that the Yellow Brick Road exists, and viewers need to follow it to discover the real meaning of science.

The Great Books of Science

Encyclopedia Britannica has Great Books of the Western World – 60 volumes of the most influential writing in history.  This set was inspired by the 1909 idea of Harvard University and their Harvard Classics.  Which is also imagined in Harold Bloom’s Western Canon.  What we need now is The Great Books of Science series.  It doesn’t have to be an actual publication, but a constantly updated list of the best 100 books to read to understand science.  Science books get dated quickly, so the list needs to be constantly monitored and revised.  The editorial board needs to be scientists, or at least popular science writers of great experience.  Here are some attempts of coming up with such a list of science books.

As you can see, I didn’t find that many lists, so it’s a great project waiting to happen.  There’s many more lists of great science fiction books than science books, which is sad.  I love science fiction, but shouldn’t real science be more popular?

JWH – 3/13/14

Faith and The Sparrow

I watched the new HBO documentary Questioning Darwin twice yesterday.  This film precisely defines the conflict between the people who believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible and their objection to Darwin and evolution.  Even though I’m an atheist I’ve always believed that fundamentalists had a better intuitive understanding of evolution than the average church goer.  They know evolution is an alternative explanation for reality that absolutely contradicts their faith.  Most modern people are wishy-washy in their religious and scientific beliefs and try to hold both at the same time, believing they can keep God and embrace modern knowledge.  However, if you really understand evolution or you really understand faith in God, you know the two cannot coexist.  That’s what this documentary is about.

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People who understand science will see this documentary and wonder why the faithful cling so passionately to their ancient beliefs.  But the faithful who see this film will wonder at how the disciples of Darwin can’t see the obviousness of God.  The wishy-washy middle will wonder why we can’t have both.  It doesn’t work that way.  Often my friends ask me why I can’t just be an agnostic – why be an extremist. 

At one point in Questioning Darwin a preacher states it takes just as much faith to believe in science.  And he is right.  Both evolution and theology are systems to explain reality.  Backers of evolution firmly believe evolution is true.  Science is a process that evaluates evidences and selects the best explanations that describe the various workings of reality.  The science minded feel the evidence is overwhelming in support of evolution.  The fundamentalists insist God create reality and us.  The wishy-washy will say God created science and evolution.  But that’s a cop out.  Atheists and fundamentalists know there are two opposing explanations and you have to pick one. 

To the scientific minded, who dislike the word faith, I think they don’t understand the term as used by the faithful.  They think it means wish fulfillment.  They think when a religious person says they have faith in God they are saying they are choosing to “believe” God exists.  To the faithful, faith means they “know” God exists.  They have completely accepted God as the answer to explaining all the questions of reality.  By that definition of faith, atheists who back science have faith in science, and they “know” evolution is the explanation of how life arose on Earth.  But we’ll leave the word faith to the religious, and keep the word scientific for the science minded.

Folks in the middle will explain we can’t know anything for certain.  That’s true.  We can’t.  However, fundamentalists and atheists know there are currently only two choices, two theories, on the table, and they are exact opposites, and we feel it’s important to man up and pick one.  That’s what this documentary shows – the two conflicting options.

Even Darwin clung to God.  And many educated religious leaders want to understand and incorporate scientific knowledge into their metaphysical philosophy.  The vast majority of Christians are in the middle.  They aren’t Biblicists.  The Bible Christians, with their creationism and  Creation Museum insist the world is only six thousand years old, and use pseudo-sciences like intelligent design to attack real science to validate their beliefs.  It’s hard to say how many Americans believe this – one Gallop poll said 46% of Americans, but that’s probably not true.  The Raw Story analyzed that poll and concluded maybe 31 million Americans, or one tenth of the country.

Also, the numbers for people supporting evolution varies too, with atheists being the strongest at 87%, Buddhists (81%), Hindu (80%) and so on down to evangelical protestants at 23%, Mormons (22%) and Jehovah’s Witnesses at 8%.  Wikipedia using Pew Forum claims 48% of the U.S. population supports evolution.  Between the 46% Gallop figure and the 48% Pew figure, we can see how the country is polarized, and this topic matters.

The two choices are this.  The first theory is a supreme being is the starting point of everything, one of perfect knowledge, power and order, and reality descends from his being.  From perfect order towards chaos.  The second theory believes reality emerges out of nothingness, with no knowledge, no order, and no power, and is evolving toward something, becoming ever more complex and orderly.  From chaos to order.

Polarized Politics

One significant aspect of Questioning Darwin is to explain our polarize society.  If religious beliefs were merely personal it wouldn’t matter if some people believed in God and others in science, but the faithful want to change society so it follows their beliefs, and science automatically changes society through technological spinoffs.  I believe the rigidity of Republican party comes from the rigidity that believing in The Bible is the absolute word of God.  I also believe that anti-science philosophy is reflected in conservatives getting involved in the politics of education.  I used to believe that the small government movement merely reflected cheapness for not paying taxes, but more and more it appears to be because fundamentalist citizens hate spending their money on liberal ideas.

The documentary didn’t go into politics, but all the evidence was there to read.  Bible based believers want to redesign society so it matches their philosophy.  They feel both persecuted and empowered.  The documentary said that Bible based Christianity was the fastest growing religion in the world.  I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is, then expect an ever growing conflict between science and faith.

Accepting Science

My heart goes out to the faithful, to those people who embrace God.  When I watch this documentary I see all the reasons why they prefer God over science.  And I’m sure when they see this documentary their hearts will go out to all the non-believers.  But here’s the thing, the faithful believe us atheists live without many comforts they think they get from God, and I don’t think that’s true.  They cannot comprehend how we can live without God, and fear us.  They believe we embrace chaos.  We don’t.  We seek all the things belief in God gives the faithful.   We just find meaning and comfort by other paths.

We have a different approach to dealing with every sparrow that falls from a tree.  We can’t replace God and religion exactly, but we have many analogs.

Father Figure

One thing that comes through strongly in Questioning Darwin is the strong desire of religious people for a father figure.  People want a strong protector that is just and wise.  One that will always listen and always help, and most importantly, always care.  In Darwin’s reality, we all have to become our own father figures.  We want to grow up and leave home and stand on our own.  The faithful love the quote, “there are no atheists in foxholes.”  They believe when times are tough everyone will beg for God’s help.  That isn’t true.  True atheists understand and accept the randomness of the universe.  If there’s a shell with our name on it, then our time is up.  It’s not personal.  We don’t want to die, but death comes to us all, and usually it’s an apparently random fate.  Science and knowledge gives us understanding to how things happens.  It’s not completely random.  Sometimes its from the will or fault of another person, and we do find that evil and unjust.  We don’t expect a father figure to rescue us, and especially not one that will avenge us.

Darwin explains how we got here, but he said nothing about what it means to be a self-aware being finding itself in an unconscious reality.  Humans with scientific knowledge will be able to conquer the random chaotic indifferent universe.  There is no God that senses every sparrow that falls from a tree, but humans are now aware of sparrows and maybe it’s our responsibility to take care of all of them.

Order and Morality

Related to the father figure wish, is the desire for justice.  The faithful hate the idea that the universe is random and capricious.  The faithful want God to be the arbiter of right and wrong, and the punisher of evil doers.  The want the universe to have a referee who knows the rules that everyone must follow.  The faithful hate not having clear rules to live by.

The scientific have laws and ethics.  We do not believe the universe has morality built into it, but we do believe that intelligent beings can create their own morality.  We call that ethics.  We also believe that intelligent beings can invent their own rules to live by.  We can them laws.

We have also created the idea of human rights, and more recently, animal rights.  Even though we are Godless, we embrace ethics and morality completely.  Right and wrong is just as important to our philosophy as it is to literal Bible believers.

Yes, the universe is chaotic, seemingly ruled by random events, we see the emergence of order in everything.  If someone dies horribly from cancer we don’t see it as punishment.  We don’t blame God, or wonder if the person deserved to die a miserable death.  We study the environmental and genetic causes of cancer to understand how it happened.  Even though randomness is a major factor in everything that happens, we still find cause and effect.  It’s not a meaningless universe to us.  If a sparrow falls from a tree, we study why.

Immortality

Believers in God have one overwhelming wish they expect God to grant – everlasting life.  Science accepts death comes to us all but we work to extend life as much as possible.  Personally, living forever scares me.  It sounds like a cruel torture.  But us unbelievers do want a longer life, and we expect science to study reality and discover how to make people live longer.

Not only do we want longer lives, we want to make sure our species does not become extinct, and we want to protect all other species.

Heaven

As a nonbeliever who occasionally studies The Bible. it seems to me that two most important books are the first, Genesis, and the last, Revelation.  To believers, the first explains how we got here and the last explains where we’re going.  The Book of Revelation has the most extensive description of heaven in all of The Bible.  And if it’s the literal truth, I don’t think I want to go to heaven, especially not for all of eternity.

Those of us believe in science want to build paradise on Earth.  We want to conquer disease, live a long time, create a humane and just world, with lots of creative activities to pursue.  We want to live long enough, and then die peacefully.  We accept death, but don’t embrace it.  Not only do we want to create heaven on Earth for humans, but we want to recreate Eden for the animals.

Prayer

From watching the documentary I got the feeling that prayer was among the most cherish aspects of religion.  That being able to talk to God is the number one need.  I think we all feel lonely in this old reality.  When I saw the scenes of the happy people at the mega-church I envied them their community togetherness.  Praying together is a way of sharing hopes and fighting fears.

We unbelievers have a substitute for prayer.  Instead of asking God to change reality for us, we believe we should change reality ourselves.  We don’t plead to God to heal the sick, but spend money on medical research.  We vote for Obamacare.  We don’t pray to God to stop evil wrong doers, we pay for police and the judicial systems.  We don’t pray for world peace but build armies.  We don’t pray for rain, but build irrigation systems.  We don’t beg God to send us a husband or wife, but join Match.com.  We don’t ask for riches, but go to college or invent Candy Crush.

Also, I am constantly thankful.  I am grateful for being alive, for having a lucky life, for family and friends.  I spend a lot of time studying nature and science to appreciate the wonders of reality.  I constantly think good thoughts about other people, animals and all life on Earth, and even out into the universe.  That kind of positive thinking is our prayers.

Sin

Religious people are frightened and horrified by all the evil things that happen on Earth.  We nonbelievers are just as scared and repulsed by those events too.  In the documentary it shows a wing at the Creation Museum that depicts these horrors.  Many of the pastors and their followers interviewed talked about sin, and the origin of sin.  All pointed to the fall from grace in the Garden of Eden.  Some of the people interviewed even believed that dinosaurs existed in the Garden of Eden and that Adam and Eve and all the animals were vegetarians before sin came to us.  Believing there was no violence or suffering before sin.

The scientific minded don’t like violence either.  I’m a vegetarian.  I don’t want animals or people to suffer.  I’m a liberal and want the government to help needy people so they won’t suffer.  I give money to causes to end suffering.

Science, law, technology and ethics are all efforts to create order, to end suffering and to create justice.  We want to educate people so they won’t do evil.  So they won’t hurt other people, or protect the weak.

In a way I agree with the fundamentalists, and believe that it is humans that brought sin into this world.  I actually think the metaphor for the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is a beautiful concept.  I think the writers of The Book of Genesis knew there was a time when we were like animals, and were innocent of good and bad, and that language and understanding let us know the difference between what should be and shouldn’t.  Those writers wished we still lived in the Garden of Eden, innocent and without sin.  Boy, they would have loved Jean-Jacques Rousseau.   Us disciples of Darwin see it differently.  Yes, there is sin in the world, but through knowledge we’ll learn to live ethical and good lives.  Violence is the rule of reality from The Big Bang to The Enlightenment.  It’s only been in the last few centuries have we learned that violence is wrong, and that human rights and animals rights is the way to end it.  We don’t believe Eden existed – yet.

Humans are an emergent phenomenon, sort of like the singularity we imagine for intelligent machines.  Humans woke up and saw reality and have been trying to figure it out ever since.  We reached a critical mass of brain cells that allowed us to be self-aware – aware of who we are and the reality we lived in.  We didn’t fall from grace, but emerged from the chaos of nature.  We became a new type of entity in reality – one that recognized it’s place in reality.  Reality is pretty scary.  Our job isn’t to die and go to heaven, but to conquer reality.

We left Eden not because we were exiled, but because we could no longer be unaware animals.  We wear clothes not because of shame, but because we don’t want to be animals.  We left Eden because we wanted freedom to become everything we can imagine.  Sure, we’ve fucked up the planet, but we’re still evolving.  Hopefully, we can make things right and get our shit together before we destroy everything.

Nature is not sinful, it’s just red tooth and claw.  Only humans can be sinful and evil.  We do that when we act like animals and destroy rather than create.  We achieve grace and transcend nature when we live up to our full potential and become good by our own definition of goodness.  The ten commandments were not from God, but our own creation to bring goodness into the world.

Sin defined by God is servitude and slavery.  Sin defined by humanity is escaping from nature.

The desire to return to Garden of Eden innocence is the desire to go back to sleep, to become unconscious to the nature of reality.

To the faithful, sin is not obeying God, but to the scientific, sin is not living up to our knowledge.

The evil of the red tooth and claw of nature is the hatred of chaos.  Science seeks to understand reality so that we might bring order to chaos.  Most of the evils of mankind are from when we act like animals, which reflects the programming of nature.  Currently the Earth suffers because humanity collectively acts like a cancerous growth on the planet, killing endless species and destroying the ecosystem.  It comes from being unconscious to the knowledge science has shown us.  The most evil of sin is being aware and doing evil.

Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

The most disturbing of all the points they illustrate in the documentary is when they show a young girl in the hospital paralyzed from the neck down because she was in a car accident.  Her cousin said his wife prayed and prayed but wondered why it didn’t help.  The cousin wondered why an all powerful and all knowing God could let this happen.  They speculated that God had a purpose and claimed they had faith in whatever that purpose might be.

Here’s where I find atheism far more comforting than religion.  We can all be victims of random evil.  Sometimes it’s nobody’s fault, nor did we do anything to deserve punishment.  And when someone is at fault, it’s explainable, like a drunk driver, or mad gunman.   Isn’t it better to have something bad happen to you and not think God has it in for you?  Especially if you love God so much?

Being Saved

Towards the end of the documentary they interview at ex-prostitute crack user and a former heroin addict who both claim God saved them.  Religion has saved a lot of people.  Religion can bring order and stability to people.  But millions of nonbelievers have saved themselves too.  As an atheist when I meet people like these two saved people I don’t want to argue with them, or try to take away their faith.  They were lost and now they are found.  I can accept that.  But God isn’t my explanation for why they are better.

Both of these people were addicted to drugs.  Now they are addicted to a belief in God.  They switched from a negative addiction to a positive addiction.  They found a community of people to belong, and they’ve turned their life around.

Personally, I think they got a virus that changed them.  Memes are viruses of the mind.  God and religion are powerful generators of memes.  Memes replicate and spread like mental viruses.  They are like DNA in that they replicate.  Religious memes are very successful because they make people feel good.  Really good.  As good as crack or heroin.

My parents were alcoholics.  My father died of drinking when I was 18.  My mother eventually gave it up.  She was religious, but I think she gave up drinking and smoking from her own willpower.  I did a lot of drugs when I was young, but I gave them up.  I saved myself.  But I think some people need other people to save themselves.  They think it’s God, but it’s really a community of caring people.

Churches

If they had churches for atheists I think we’d have a lot more atheists.  I think a lot of people believe in God because they like going to church and being part of a community.  I’m pretty sure millions of people profess the doctrine of their church because that’s what they are told, and it’s easy to accept rather than study science books.  But what they really want is friends and community.  That professing belief in Jesus is just learning the secret password to join the club.

True believers of Darwin have their club houses too, they are called universities and research institutes.  But the average citizen who backs science usually don’t have scientific clubs to join.  Amateur astronomy is big on clubs, but we usually don’t see hangouts for physic and chemistry fans.  Birders and some other naturalists do have a lot of amateur associations.

I wonder if there would be more professed atheists in America if we had churches devoted to believers in science.  Imagine going to service on Sunday to hear lectures on cosmology and mathematics, mixed with singing and study groups for evolution and quantum mechanics.  With Sunday night dinners and Wednesday night social gatherings with kid’s activities, such as robot building contests.

Charles Darwin and Evolution

The thing believers hated most about Darwin and evolution is takes away the concept that humans are special, that we are special in God’s eyes.  Many of the preachers talked about humans being created in the image of God, and that we weren’t animals, as if being an animal was undignified, or lowly.  I thought it was strange that they’d prefer to be a servant of God to being the top dog of the animal world.  I find a kind of affinity with the line from Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.”

Until we meet an intelligent alien from the stars, we are the kings of the universe.  We are now responsible for what happens on this world.  We can choose to be great, or act like animals.  We can create our own immortality, our own paradise, or own morality, our own health and happiness.  We are the father and mother to what will be.  This might be hubris, but only if imaginary gods are real, and there’s never been a shred of evidence to believe they are, only wishes.

JWH – 2/12/14

How To Become an Atheist?

Many of my atheist friends like to argue with religious people.  I don’t.  As long as people don’t try to make their religious beliefs into laws, and turn this country into a theocracy, I don’t care what they believe.  However, I find it very intriguing how some atheists believe they can enlighten the faithful with science, as if new and better explanations of reality will supplant myth driven memes.  I’m not sure it works that way.  Think of a meme as virus of thoughts and knowledge.  Concepts – memes – have a powerful life of their own.  They infect our brains in ways beyond logical understanding.

horse-1520

My theory is you have to go further into religion to find your way out.  Religious beliefs are deep-seated memes acquired in our formative years.  These memes are ancient and deeply routed in our culture.  It requires some serious soul searching to deprogram oneself.  I suppose some people might argue with an atheist or read Richard Dawkins and abruptly change their mind, but I’m not sure it’s a significant number.  Personally, I think most people are indifferent or only mildly accepting of religious beliefs.  They aren’t philosophical, and life after death isn’t that important to them one way or another.  It’s the true believer we’re really talking about. But true believers are hard wired to accept what they are taught as a child and won’t give up their ingrained beliefs easily.  Religion promises two things that science can’t, purpose and immortality.  True believers would rather have a purpose driven life with the promise of heaven, than the truth and death.

Converting true believers to evidence based thinking is probably a near impossible task.  I’m not actually interested in working at it, but as a philosophical problem of how to reprogram the mind, it’s a fascinating puzzle.  My hypothesis for my atheist friends is to suggest a different approach.  Instead of teaching science, teach religion.  Here’s what I would suggest that might work better.  Advise your God obsessed friends to:

Read the Bible

As a teen one of the most powerful deprogramming tools I discovered for myself was reading The Bible.  Start at the beginning and read it like a book.  Later in life I started listening to audiobook editions, and they are very powerful tools for revealing the book’s secrets.  The Bible is a very weird book.  It’s obvious written by many people, and for many reasons.  While reading it, constantly ask:  Who wrote this part?  Who did they write it for?  Why?  What did they hope to achieve?  Don’t just whiz past all the words and stories.  Think about their purpose.  Remember they were written 2,000-3,000 years ago, and they were first told as oral stories, not written, to people who were not literate, who had no concept of science, philosophy, history, medicine, mathematics, etc.  The Old Testament is fascinating because it’s obviously more of a book about social management than a textbook for spiritual education.  It’s about a history of people becoming a nation, about rulers inspiring a sense of history and social cohesion, and a means to justify the ownership of a piece of land.

The New Testament is totally different.  It’s a history of how Christianity started, but told from side of the winners.  Christianity had a myriad of forms in the first century.  Just reading The New Testament without historical supplements, it’s easy to spot that Paul is imposing his will on how people will conceive of Christianity.  Through his attacks on other proto-Christians we see there was many differences of opinions.

Study the Bible as History

Start with studying how The Bible has been translated into English many times over the last four hundred years.  That’s very fascinating.  Then study different approaches to modern translations – literal versus lyrical approaches.  Bart Ehrman was a fundamentalist believer until he went to divinity school to study The Bible in its original languages.  Ehrman is not an atheist, but his scholarly studies of how The Bible was put together has changed his beliefs.  I highly recommend reading his books.  Ehrman is also a specialists on early Christian sects and the battle for orthodoxy.  Be sure and study Gnosticism.  Elaine Pagels is a good writer for this.

Study the Gospels in a horizontal fashion.  They often retell stories about the same events but with different facts.  Learn how to put the various stories in chronological order to see when various belief memes arose.  Many cherished Christian beliefs were added long after Jesus died, and deal with concepts he never spoke about.  Read The Five Gospels created at The Jesus Seminar.

There are literally millions of books on religion, try to find the ones that use a scholarly historical approach, rather than speculation and interpretation books.

After studying The Bible itself, start studying history and anthropology of Biblical times.  Learn to overlay stories in The Bible with real history.  Study the cultures that existed concurrent to Israel and see how they saw events The Bible.

Study Other Religions

Going ecumenical is a great way to undermine your own parochial beliefs.  Start attending a variety of Christian churches and compare their specific doctrines.  Attend and study Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim religious services and holy books.  Start reading about everyone’s saviors and saints.  Study the origins of religions before monotheism.  Gods and religions existed for thousands and thousands of years before anything in The Bible was even thought about.   Karen Armstrong is a writer I like that explores the origins of religion.  Study Joseph Campbell, for myths and mythology.  I learned Buddhism from Alan Watts and Hinduism from Ram Dass, but I’m sure there are more comprehensive scholars have emerged since way back then.

Conclusion

I’m not sure how much is involved with getting people to change their minds about cherish beliefs and desires.  I’m a lifelong science fiction fan, who believes in many science fiction memes that I acquired early in childhood and have clung to my entire life.  Science undermines my beliefs too, and I hate to give them up.

However, it’s my theory that more knowledge about our cherished beliefs will change them faster than learning about other ways of thinking, or just being told they are wrong.  Over the decades I’ve actually studied faster-than-light travel, robotics, interplanetary travel, interstellar travel, colonizing the Moon and Mars, and many other science fictional memes, and it has been learning the limits of these concepts that has changed my mind.  Sure, it meant learning more science, but it took time for me to live with my cherished beliefs to understand how they wouldn’t work.

JWH – 1/22/14

A Nonbeliever in Church

The only time I go to church anymore is for weddings and funerals.  Sadly, I had to attend a funeral today, and sat through a Catholic mass.  The church was beautiful, and very restful to sit in.  I liked the music, especially the pipe organ, and a song they sang that sounded like “Danny Boy.”  But being an atheist, it was very uncomfortable to listen to the words they preached.

The priest gave a loving sermon, except that the message sounded crazy to me.  The resurrection and  everlasting life was mentioned over and over again, almost hammered into the audience, until I felt that Christianity is a cult based on the fear of death.  I can understanding people fearing oblivion, I can understand people wanting to see their loved ones again, I just can’t believe in an afterlife.

death_of_a_cyborg

[Source Shorra]

Atheism has taught me to accept death, and the fact that my life on Earth is finite.  I find it very scary that everyone around me believes they won’t die and will leave Earth for someplace else when their natural body ceases to function.  Now I don’t want to argue with these people.  I’m not sure I want to take away this deep rooted fantasy, but it depresses me that so many people choose to reject this Earthly reality.

Christianity preaches two main tenets:  Jesus will forgive you of your sins and give you everlasting life.  That’s quite a sales pitch.  Quite a promise.  Atheism is just the opposite.  Atheism says you must own up to your sins and you will die.  No wonder it’s not a popular philosophy.

I’m not trying to sell atheism, you must find your way into disbelieving on your own.  But I will answer some questions that my faithful friends always ask me.

First, I don’t believe atheism leads to immorality.  To live without religion requires embracing ethics.  I believe all people commit unethical acts – sins if you will.  I don’t think our sins should be forgiven.  I think we should all work to overcome our sins in this lifetime, to become ethical.  That we must learn to be better people through education and understanding, through scientific knowledge.

Second, this life is all we get.  If something bad happens to us, its not due to powerful supernatural beings, either God or Satan.  Bad things happen to good people because of accident, or the acts of bad people.  This reality is full of random events beyond our control.  It’s nobody’s fault, except for when people hurt each other.  If you are killed by a drunk driver it’s not an act of God, but of a drunk driver.  If you are killed by a crazy person going on a shooting spree, it’s because of a crazy person and not Satan.  It is our responsibility to create a world where there are no drunk drivers or crazy people with guns.  Most of what happens to us in life is beyond our control.  Badness which we can control but don’t, is sin.  Swearing allegiance to a supernatural being is no free get-out-of-jail card.

Global warming is an example.  It’s a tremendous sin.  We need to own up to it.  We need absolve this sin through our own good actions.  It’s a debt humanity has incurred.  It’s a debt we all should pay.  Saying you believe in Jesus to get everlasting life is wrong on two accounts.  First, it’s skipping town to avoid your debt.  Second, it’s delusional.

While sitting through the funeral service today I tried to imagine what an atheist funeral would be like.  We would grieve for the departed, but we wouldn’t pretend their existence continued.  We’d celebrate their life, and promise never to forget them, but I think we’d all sit quietly toting up their sins and judge our passed kin or friend on whether or not they forgave themselves.

But the best thing we could do is accept people for who they were.  To me, the sin of religion is it whitewashes reality.

JWH – 10/25/13

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