Religion and I (Continued Again)

Did a powerful being create the universe? If so, does that being know absolutely everything about its creation? And could that being change the way its creation works with no difficulty at all? Damned if I know.

Of course, many of us claim to know. I never have. When I was little, I was impressed by the miracle stories. Later on, I learned that stories about miracles are much more common than miracles themselves. 

Eventually, I concluded that I was an agnostic. It seemed like the only reasonable position to hold. Take the proposition that God exists. The possible responses are: 

  1. I know that God exists;
  2. I don’t know if God exist;
  3. I know that God doesn’t exist.

Choosing (2) means you’re an agnostic. (You could also say (4) “I don’t know what ‘God exists’ means”, but let’s put that aside as overly argumentative.)

But consider a proposition like “The Easter Bunny exists”. If we replace “God” with “the Easter Bunny” in those three sentences, it feels easier to choose (3): “I know that the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist”. Why? Well, because I know there’s no Easter Bunny.

Seriously, only little children believe in the Easter Bunny; there is no worldwide religion devoted to believing in the Easter Bunny; no philosophers or theologians have argued for the existence of the Easter Bunny (well, some have in a way, but not many). Under pressure, I might agree that it’s not completely impossible that the Easter Bunny exists, but I’m much closer to believing (3) “it doesn’t” than (2) “I don’t know”.

As I was thinking about writing these posts, I came across something called the Dawkins Scale. It’s from a book by the biologist Richard Dawkins. It’s also known as the Spectrum of Theistic Probability. In theory, each of us belongs somewhere on this scale:


Although I usually think of myself as an agnostic, Dawkins would say I’m an atheist, i.e. (6) “De-Facto Atheist: I cannot know for certain, but I think God is very improbable”. Not everyone agrees with the way Dawkins defines the word “atheist”; some of his critics think that to be an atheist, you have to be completely sure that God doesn’t exist.

I’d forgotten, however, that ten years ago, when I stood in front of the congregation at the Unitarian Church, reading my “theology” or “credo”, this is what I said:

This leaves me as either an atheist or an agnostic, depending on how those words are defined. Using language from the biologist Richard Dawkins, my position is that I cannot know for certain, but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that God is not there.

Hence, ten years later, still number 6 on the Dawkins Scale.

Even so, I recently began watching a Public Broadcasting program called “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians”. Most of the program was familiar from books I read years ago, and it was a little annoying how often they stopped the narrative for ethereal singing and beautiful video of the sun and clouds. But listening to how the New Testament was written and cobbled together decades after Jesus lived, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to read the “books” of the New Testament in chronological order.

I don’t mean “chronological” in the sense of “as the events supposedly occurred or will occur”. That would mean starting with the birth of Jesus and continuing on to the Apocalypse. I mean reading the parts of the New Testament in the order in which they were written. (There is at least one version of the New Testament, called Evolution of the Word, arranged that way. The book’s description says it “reveals how spiritually and politically radical the early Jesus movement began and how it slowly became domesticated”.)  

Scholars believe the first book of the New Testament was written by Paul the Apostle roughly 20 years after Jesus died. That’s 1 Thessalonians, written around the year 50. That was followed by six or seven other letters written by Paul. The first gospel, Mark, wasn’t written until the year 70 or so. The first gospel that appears in the New Testament, Matthew, was written around 20 years after that (60 years after Jesus died).

Maybe reading the New Testament in the order it was written will show something important about how Christianity began. So far, I’ve read three of Paul’s letters. He comes across as a true proselytizer, someone saying whatever he can to turn his audience into followers of Jesus. I’m not sure I’d have trusted him, since he seems like such a self-promoter, although it would have been a relief to hear him say it wasn’t necessary to follow the Jewish dietary laws or be circumcised in order to become a Christian.

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul blames his fellow Jews for killing Jesus. I assumed that was an accusation from later times created in order to foster anti-Semitism. In Galatians, he calls the world “evil”. Paul emphasizes that faith in Jesus is the one true path to salvation. When Jesus returns, the faithful will be lifted up into the clouds, after which they’ll live with the Lord forever.  

I don’t know if I’ll keep reading, or if I’ll share what I read. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that I won’t be moving higher or lower on the Dawkins Scale.   

How Religious Persecution Was Justified by the Church

Continuing on through J. B. Schneewind’s The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy, I came to the section on the 17th-century philosopher Pierre Bayle. He was a Huguenot (a French Protestant) who lived the last 25 years of his life in Holland as a refugee from religious persecution.

One of Bayle’s books, published in 1686, was written in response to a single passage in the Bible: A Philosophical Commentary on These Words of the Gospel, Luke 14.23, ‘Compel Them to Come In, That My House May Be Full’. Here’s how Bayle explains his decision to write it:

French Gentleman … having fled for Refuge into England … told me, as we often discoursed on the Subject, That among all the Cavils with which the Missionaries [monks, priests, etc.] had pestered him, none appeared to him more senseless, and yet at the same time more thorny and perplexing, than that drawn from these words of Jesus Christ, “Compel them to come in”, in favor of Persecution, or, as they termed it, the charitable and salutary Violence exercised on Heretics, to recover them from the Error of their Ways. He let me know how passionately he desired to see this Chimera of Persecutors confounded: And fancying he observed in me not only an extreme Aversion to persecuting Methods, but something too of a Vein for entering into the true Reasons of things; he was pleased to say, he looked on me as a proper Person for such an Undertaking, and urged that, succeeding in it as he expected, I should do great Service to the Cause of Truth, and indeed to the whole World. 

Luke 14:23 was interpreted by the authorities (most famously, by St. Augustine) as one of the strongest (and possibly the strongest) biblical justification for religious persecution. It’s part of the Parable of the Great Banquet or Great Supper:

Then [Jesus] said unto him:

A certain man made a great supper, and bade many:
And sent his servant at supper time to say to them that were bidden, Come; for all things are now ready. And they all … began to make excuses.
The first said unto him, I have bought a piece of ground, and I must needs go and see it: I pray thee have me excused.
And another said, I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to prove them: I pray thee have me excused.
And another said, I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.
So that servant came, and showed his lord these things. Then the master of the house being angry said to his servant, Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind.
And the servant said … it is done as thou hast commanded, and yet there is room.
And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.

For I [Jesus] say unto you, that none of those men which were bidden shall taste of my supper.
And there went great multitudes with him: and he turned, and said unto them,
If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

Being forced to toe the religious line, by whatever means possible, was supposed to be for a sinner’s own good, but a story about “a certain man” who makes his invited guests show up for a banquet, without any mention of violence, is an amazingly weak justification for imprisoning, torturing or executing anybody. 

Bayle responds from an ethical point of view. He argues that “persecution cannot bring about the sort of inner religious devotion that would alone be pleasing to God”: 

He announces … that his mode of interpreting the [Biblical] text is entirely new. Leaving textual criticism, philology, history and mysteries entirely aside, he bases his reading on just one principle: “any literal interpretation which carries an obligation to commit iniquity is false” [281-282]

Since religious persecution was “iniquitous, unjust and destructive of any moral order in society”, Bayle concluded that Luke 14:23 couldn’t possibly justify such behavior. The Catholic officials who were persecuting the Huguenots must have misinterpreted the Bible.

I don’t know if Bayle ever responded to another passage that was used to justify religious persecution. That’s Leviticus 24:16:

And he that blasphemeth the Name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the Congregation shall certainly stone him: As well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the Name of the Lord, shall be put to death.

It’s not a parable and doesn’t seem to demand much in the way of interpretation, except for what it means to “blaspheme” or what constitutes a “congregation”. In cases like that, maybe Bayle would have responded this way: the religious authorities should have assumed God was talking to someone else, namely, the ancient Israelites.

That’s a point Spinoza made in his Theological-Political Treatise, first made public in 1677: 

But with regard to the ceremonial observances which were ordained in the Old Testament for the Hebrews only, … it is evident that they formed no part of the Divine law, and had nothing to do with blessedness and virtue, but had reference only to the election of the Hebrews, that is, … to their temporal bodily happiness and the tranquility of their kingdom, and that therefore they were only valid while that kingdom lasted. 

When others are speaking, it’s presumptuous to assume that you’re part of the conversation! A generalization like “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God” may apply to all rich men (and even rich women), but when God said unto Moses: “Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and Israel”, it doesn’t seem he was talking to the rest of us. Assuming that you’re going to give any credence at all to the words attributed to God or Jesus in the Bible, why further assume that when God commanded Moses or when Jesus said “compel them to come in”, they were giving instructions to you?

Here’s a bit more about Pierre Bayle (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy):

His life was devoted entirely to scholarship, and his erudition was second to none in his, or perhaps any, period. Although much of what he wrote was embedded in technical religious issues, for a century he was one of the most widely read philosophers. In particular, his Dictionnaire historique et critique was the single most popular work of the eighteenth century. The content of this huge and strange, yet fascinating work is difficult to describe: history, literary criticism, theology, obscenity, in addition to philosophical treatments of toleration, the problem of evil, epistemological questions, and much more… Said Voltaire: “the greatest master of the art of reasoning that ever wrote, Bayle, great and wise, all systems overthrows.”

And the Lion Shall Lie Down With the Lamb

Even in this universe, it was probably going to happen sooner or later: our first cat video here at WOCS. My shaky justification is that it’s interesting from a scientific perspective (compare Konrad Lorenz famously showing young geese imprinting on the first moving stimulus they observed, for example, Lorenz’s boots or a toy train). 

Plus, it’s a nice way to spend five and a half minutes:

Historical and literary note: Isaiah 11:6-7 doesn’t actually refer to the lion lying down with the lamb (or the cat lying down with the ducklings):

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling [young animal fattened for slaughter] together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

And while we’re quoting scripture, let’s not forget Ezekiel 16:49:

Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom; she and her daughters had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. 

Got that, Congressman Ryan?

The Bogus IRS Scandal, with Biblical Commentary

The new director of the IRS has issued a report and provided documentation showing that the IRS targeted a number of groups for special attention based on their names. Among them were groups whose names included the words “Occupy”, “Progressive” and “Israel”, not just “Tea Party” or “Patriots”, as previously reported.

Some right-wingers, who love seeing themselves as victims, claim that this is the biggest political scandal since Watergate. Where do these people come from?

For relevant political commentary:

“I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1:14, New Revised Standard Version)


“I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” (King James Bible)

You said it, brother! the_only_group_inappropriately_targeted_ap/

Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation by Elaine Pagels

Revelations isn’t really a book about the Book of Revelation. Professor Pagels devotes her first chapter to that spooky entry in the New Testament, but then veers off into discussions of the history of the early church. Nevertheless, she argues that the Book of Revelation was written around 90 C.E. by an itinerant preacher known as John of Patmos (not, as some believe, John the Apostle). 

John of Patmos was a Jew who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. According to Professor Pagels, he wrote the book as a piece of anti-Roman propaganda, in response to the fact that Rome had colonized Judea and destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. The Romans are the villains in the Book of Revelation. The number 666 is probably a numerological translation of the full Latin name of the emperor Nero.

The author of the Book of Revelation borrowed from earlier prophesies in making up his particular story of the Beast, Armageddon, etc., for example, the prophesies of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel. And there were many other writings that claimed to be divine revelations. Most of these differed from the Book of Revelation — they were usually concerned with how to be saved, not with the end of the world. 

Unlike its competitors, the Book of Revelation became an official part of the Bible when the New Testament was codified in 325 C.E. It appears to have been included for political reasons. It was useful to the men who were organizing the Catholic Church to have a story that could be used against their political enemies, i.e. the Christians that church leaders like Irenaeus and Athanasius considered to be heretics. The early leaders of the church were a quarrelsome, unprincipled bunch who did whatever was necessary to suppress opposing views.

This is a depressing book. Generations of innocent people have been scared and even scarred by a horror story that purports to describe a coming apocalypse, albeit one with a happy ending for a few true believers (us, not them). To borrow from Nietzsche: “What cruel and insatiable vanity must have flared in the soul of the man who thought this up”. (8/24/12)