We’re being lied to. Our entire species is being repeatedly tricked, constantly misled and most of us are falling for it. We’re tricked into superstition, supernaturalism, and mysticism and not just by scientific ignorance, adherence to tradition or testimony of authority figures (well meaning or otherwise). The fact is that our own makeup betrays us. Some of the very evolutionary adaptations which have allowed our species to survive and thrive also leave us open to drawing false premises, accepting deceiving conclusions and following the leads of others in order to be accepted socially.
Research into how the brain works and why it works the way that it does has led to several theories about how religious thinking came to develop in the human mind. The most widely accepted outlook is that religious attitudes are a by-product of existing cognitive developments which serve other purposes. The “By-product outlook” suggests that a great many of the adaptations which our species evolved in order to survive life on the Serengeti actually combine to make us susceptible to ritual, superstition, mysticism, in short… religion.
Decoupled Cognition is a perfect example of a useful adaptation on which the “mind virus” of religion has piggybacked. This is our ability to think of something that happened in the past, or that will happen in the future, all while paying close attention to what is happening around us. We are uniquely adapted to evaluate the thoughts and feelings of others who are not directly in front of us. Decoupled Cognition is the key to social interaction. Imagine if you had to have another person in front of you in order to conceive of what might be happening in their mind! Social interaction as we understand it would be impossible. We all rehearse conversations; imagine the likely responses and others and posit possible outcomes. Our ability to implement a complex interaction with an unseen second party inside our own minds and completely independent of our external reality is key to our social abilities, but it is also a prerequisite for religious thought. Without it the whole enterprise collapses from conception.
Another essential mental development for our survival is what psychologists call Hyperactive Agency Detection Device or HADD. This mental development once served to keep us on our toes, to keep us mindful of the possibility of predators and wary of danger. HADD is the mechanism responsible for human tendency to perceive agency or intelligent intent where there is none. It’s why we mistake shadows for burglars or wonder who slammed the door before we consider that it might have been the wind, and in our animal past it was surely a valuable survival mechanism. After all it’s far better to jump at shadows and flee from the wind than risk the pouncing predator.
HADD allows for and even favors the interference of unseen intelligent agents. In other words we’re hardwired to see design where none exists. If you presuppose an unseen agent where there is none is it that far a leap to the idea that that agent is all-powerful, or that it will grant you wishes if asked? When this trait is combined with the mechanisms which provide our sensitivity to the detection of human-like forms and faces we can begin to see human forms almost anywhere from ghosts and apparitions, to Jesus appearing in food products the world over, The Man in the Moon, or a smiley face in punctuation marks.
Perhaps the most obvious cognitive adaptation that results in religious belief is the human need for attachment. As a species we crave community, acceptance, and fellowship. Neuroscientists studying the brain’s workings today believe that whole networks of neurons in our brains are dedicated to our need for attachment. Helpless children instinctively seek out a caregiver to help ensure their survival and when they grow the need for attachment manifests as romantic love ensuring the passing of genes and the survival of the species. It also takes place in other adult relationships. Attachment is, in fact, the basis of community.
Just as the attachment centers of our brains urge us to seek relationships with corporeal life forms religious people are attached to their deities. The fact is we never lose our urge to seek a caregiver and religions offer us a caregiver who will provide for all of our needs, love us unconditionally and forgive us any transgression. Most religions are designed to appeal strongly to the most primal and frightened parts of our brains. They offer us a community of like-minded individuals, a sense of safety and security and an all-powerful caregiver figure who will keep the predators at bay. The driving need for attachment is what makes the concept of religion so appealing to begin and also what makes it so difficult to leave.
I’ve only touched on a few of the aspects of our minds which allow for religious and supernatural thinking. There are a great many more adaptations which contribute to the human proclivity toward religion. There are a number of excellent sources out there for more information. I recommend starting with Dr. J. Anderson Thomson’s “why we believe in god(s)” it is a concise and very approachable book on the subject and will serve as an excellent primer. Understanding how our minds work, and why we’re susceptible to the faulty logic, fuzzy reasoning and backward tribalism that results in supernaturalism, mysticism and religious thought is key to fighting it. We grow through exploration, both of the world around us and perhaps more importantly – the world inside us.
Rejoice benighted savages
Raise your voices loud in song.
We’ve come to tell you of our god
and how your lives are wrong.
Give thanks and pay us homage
Do us service ,raise us high
We are the voices of creation
Only we know what happens when you die.
You say you’ve got your own gods?
A history and tradition all your own?
You’ve been bewitched by demons!
And without us you’d never have known!
We’ll save your souls and make you right
If you’ll do exactly as we say
Dress and speak and act as we
And pray always as we pray.
Repent of your many blasphemies
Know your worth is less than none
Beg my god for mercy evermore
Or your torment is never done.
My god is a god of mercy
He’ll save you from your sinful mire
But if you do not submit to him
He will punish you with fire.
We will bring you peace and salvation
And the love of our living lord.
We’re going to give you Jesus
Either with the book or with the sword!
There’s a term that myself and some others have recently begun using: “Fundamentalist Moderate” (or FunMod for short.) I mentioned them in my last article “Definition Swap” but I see so much of this kind of thinking that I feel they and their attitudes warrant a more thorough exploration. A FunMod can identify as either a theist or a non-theist but in practice they’re neither. Their concern is with a radicalized form of moderation that declares that all experience and truth are subjective. They believe that every viewpoint is valid, but more than that they assert that every viewpoint is equally as valid as every other.
Consider what that outlook really means, ask yourself this: are the hollow earth theory and the theory of gravity equally valid propositions? Should evolution and faith healing be given equal weight? Are crystal therapy and conventional medicine on the same level of veracity? A position based on evidence, logic, and probability is not the equal of one based solely on subjective wishes or fanciful interpretations of a handful of old books, or on anyone’s personal relationship with the universe. Truth is only true if you can verify it, if you can point to some objective reason why it’s true.
These people defend all religious belief and cultural attitudes as harmless, and declare that it is actions, not beliefs that should be condemned. As an example, they would say that the suicide bomber who detonates himself in the name of Allah is solely to blame for the destruction he causes, that he has perverted the spirit of the religion. Of course you would have to ignore the specific injunctions to do violence and the prescribed rewards for doing so in the religion’s text to take that position, but these Fundamentalist Moderates don’t seem to have any problem with that.
They’ve constructed an artificial boundary between belief and action as though our thoughts do not inform our behaviours. The fact of the matter is that what we think effects what we do. If you believed that your actions were justified, and even mandated by what you consider the ultimate authority what actions wouldn’t you take? Isn’t it clear that the belief, if it is genuine, must result in action, or at least (albeit often tacit) support of that action? How can anyone pretend that that isn’t a consideration?
The FunMods will chorus “Blame the person not the belief” but which person do you blame? Do you blame just the bomber, or the bomber and his imam? Do you blame the culture that produces them, or the religion that dictates the form of that culture? Would that suicide bomber have detonated himself if he hadn’t been indoctrinated for years with stories of paradise and sacrifice, of god and his demands for complete faith and global conquest? Maybe he would have. I don’t think so, but regardless we can agree on the fact that the largest group of suicide bombers are religious can’t we? Religion not only is the motivation it demands to be recognized as the motivation and purpose for everything. To pretend otherwise is to close your eyes to an unpleasant truth because you don’t like it.
To me this way of thinking is at least as dangerous as fundamentalist theism. Why dangerous you ask? The answer is: because superficially this kind of relativistic thinking sounds inclusive, high minded, and politically correct. It comes across as open-minded, peaceful, and it removes all need for conflict. In short it’s the kind of doctrine that people will be quick to adopt without thinking through all of its consequences. The simple fact is if you declare all truth subjective you remove any mechanism for debate or reform and destroy any incentive to study or learn. What’s more, you make study and learning all but impossible, just as you make all science, engineering and construction impossible. After all under this type of thinking who is to say that a foot is really twelve inches? Or that 2+2 isn’t 5?
The fact that these people don’t or won’t see the dangers inherent in religious thinking is a matter of serious concern in my opinion, yet it’s not the only one. Another concern is that thought processes matter. Why we think things is important, the “how”s of arriving at truth are important. If you can accept that every proposition is valid you lack the ability to make substantive judgements. If you can claim that evolution and creationism, for instance, are equally valid you lack the ability to reason logically. A growth in this kind of thinking bodes poorly for the future regardless of which myth system is dominant.
The fundamentalist theist declares that their faith is the one and only truth, that their holy doctrine are the blueprint for right living and that deviating from that truth is sin and blasphemy punishable in various ways. They declare that their truth is absolutely the only truth. In their own way the FunMod is worse, they declare that there IS no truth, that truth is illusion and only opinion has any meaning.
It is vital for people to recognize that there are objective truths and it can be dangerous to pretend there are not. Objective truths are the real, meaningful, satisfying truths which let us grow, invent and expand ourselves. They’re the truths that lead to knowledge, understanding, and true wisdom. That’s not to say that subjective truth doesn’t have its role to play. In fact, Subjective truth may be the seat of individuality and perhaps even creativity I suppose but Objective truth is the throne of reason, the domain of science, it safeguards us from baseless assertion and provides a touchstone which unites us all.
Be wary of any viewpoint that tries so hard to be inclusive that it includes even the most inane of concepts. Do not become so enamoured of tolerance that you tolerate willful blindness and purposeful obfuscation. Don’t pretend to believe that atrocity and hatred is just a misunderstood cultural expression or that it’s you who’s in the wrong when you judge it evil to oppress your own people because of their sex. Don’t pretend you don’t know there’s a truth just because some people are offended by it. Have the courage to recognize that your feelings don’t define existence, and humbly approach reality on its terms and you’ll begin to learn how and why things really work.
There is a large and multi-pronged effort out there to define certain words in such varied and nebulous terms as to rob them of any concrete meaning whatsoever. The word in particular I want to address is “God” but it is not alone, “Truth” is another excellent example of the sort of selective redefinition I’m talking about. Both of these words are used so often, and in so many differing, contradictory, and utterly subjective ways that one could be forgiven for thinking that they don’t actually have objective definitions at all.
I say one could be forgiven, but never excused; misinformation no matter how well meant or innocent of intention should never be excused, it must be unapologetically corrected. “God” with a capital “G” can safely be defined (at least by the dictionaries I checked) as “The one supreme being, creator and ruler of the universe.” The concept of “God” is a creation of the Old Testament, which is the defining and original source of the idea of monotheism. It is responsible for the very idea of a single all-knowing all-powerful deity. Before its advent the capitalized “God” did not exist. Before its spread the only concept of deity was that of “god” (note the lowercase) or rather of “gods”. These were lesser, limited creatures with finite abilities and knowledge. This word “god” is a word you don’t really see much in the world anymore, having been largely stamped out by the proponents of its capitalized cousin.
As I said in the opening the effort to change the definition of God is multi-pronged. Pantheists like to claim things like “God is the universe!” while moderate Christians or fundamentalist moderates like to say “God is love” or “God is the best parts of ourselves” and spiritualists and mysticists add to the clamour with “God is energy!” and “God is the laughter of little children” or whatever you like in substitution. They all have different definitions, or redefinitions, but their motivations for changing the definition are all basically the same.
I do not think that the perpetrators of this definition sleight of hand choose their words at random. I think that the words “God” and “Truth” were chosen for very specific reasons. The word “God” morphed from its true definition referring to the all-powerful monotheist god Yahweh to become the anthropomorphized spirit of every good thing once people began to recognize the unquestionable monstrousness of the original character. As we advanced as a species we learned more, we grew more moral and more sociable and unsurprisingly the personality of God laid out in the Old Testament lost its luster for some. Rather than move on from the mythology entirely however some simply kept the parts of god they liked, and discarded the rest. The evolution of the definition of God is exactly the same sort of selective interpretation that fundamentalist moderates use when deciding which parts of their various holy books to advocate and which to dismiss.
Now we come to the second word I mentioned, another victim of constant redefinition and rebranding, the word “Truth”. This word we hear all the time, and most of us would probably say we have a good idea of what it means. I think it’s fair to say that at its simplest and most direct truth means “that which is in accordance with reality or fact.” This definition of truth is the basis of all knowledge, scholarship, science, and critical inquiry. It’s what makes mathematics work, it’s what makes planes fly…and there are large groups of people in the world who want you to believe that it doesn’t exist. They’ll tell you the all truth is subjective. They’ll say that we each have our own truths and that they are all equally true and all equally valid. “It is overly simplistic,” they’ll chorus, “to assume that something is false just because there is contradictory evidence.” If there is no objective standard for truth, if everything is true then there is no basis for criticism and no mechanism for challenge or reform. This is exactly the type of atmosphere religion and theism in general require to not just survive but thrive.
So with “God” safely sanitized to fit their particular attitudes or proclivities and “Truth” relegated to the realm of opinion it becomes impossible say that ANY definition is incorrect because it is true to them. So the pantheist who declares that the universe is God is just as right as the fundamentalist moderate who says that god is love. It is faith without conviction, it is Old Testament fan fiction.
A lot of atheists will be quick to say “the bible isn’t evidence.” I do it myself all the time. Yet I will concede that the bible is better evidence than your unsubstantiated personal relationship with infinity. Subjective truths are very real and very valid, we all have them. A rational reasonable person learns to differentiate between the subjective truths of their individual reality and reach deeper to the fundamental real objective truths of reality.
A person walking along a beach stumbles upon a watch lying in the sand. Without even knowing what it is this person recognizes that this object is complex and has a purpose and so this person will determine that the watch didn’t spring up by itself it must have a creator. Similarly the universe (or life on this planet) is complex and demonstrates purpose so must have a designer.
That’s a variation of the Watchmaker Analogy, or the Watchmaker Fallacy depending on which side of the divide you’re on. In 1802 a Christian apologist named William Paley published a book called “Natural Theology” where he laid out his case for the existence of God as the only rational explanation for the existence of life on this planet. The Watchmaker Analogy is Paley’s most famous contribution to apologetics and has survived more than two hundred and ten years despite the fact that it is quite simply riddled with flaws and assumptions.
The idea that someone can determine whether something was designed by a designer simply by observing it is an outright assumption with no factual basis. In reality we recognize a watch as being designed because we are intimately familiar with watches. We know that they don’t occur naturally, we’re familiar with machinery and with the concept of metalwork. Also we know for certain that watchmakers exist. They are an actual verifiable group of people who can be definitively shown to produce watches. The same cannot be said of any universe creator.
We recognize design by its superficial complexity. By that I mean the obvious “unnatural” order that stamps our creations. For instance when you compare an office building to a mountain the artifice, the engineering, in short the design of the building is immediately apparent. This brings up another flaw of Paley’s argument. We recognize design by comparing it to naturally occurring phenomena. According to Paley’s own argument the very complexity of the watch points to its having been designed but one has to ask: complexity when compared to what? The rocks? The trees? The sky? The watchmaker analogy is attempting to show that all things are designed by comparing the apparent complexity of human creation to the apparent simplicity of natural phenomena. It undercuts its own central thesis.
The Watchmaker Analogy states that complexity requires design and by expansion it declares the obvious truth that design requires a designer. Yet it ignores the simple fact that any designer with the power and ability to design all life on earth (let alone the entire cosmos) must be a being of surpassing complexity in and of itself. By the logic of the analogy the creator itself would require a creator of its own, as would that creator and so on infinitely.
The analogy is often used to attempt to hold up a specific theology (Christianity, Islam, etc) yet it doesn’t actually make any attempt to define who or what the designer may be. Even if you accept the Watchmaker in its entirety it doesn’t get you any closer to proving any particular theology. It can, at best, get you to deism. On it’s own Paley’s analogy is insufficient to draw any conclusions whatsoever about the designer. Within the bounds of the analogy there is actually no reason to assume it’s a single designer rather than a series of cooperating entities (for example). The Watchmaker supports equally the idea that reality was formed by an army of magical pixies as it does the idea of any all-powerful monotheistic god.
This analogy has survived as long as it has because it is a clear and concise phrasing of what seems, on its face, like a reasonable supposition. It survived unmolested for almost sixty years until it was completely destroyed by, ironically, a student of Paley’s works named Charles Darwin. Darwin’s evolution by natural selection showed us (well most of us) that complexity does not in fact require design. It showed us that complexity can and in fact does result from gradual adaptation and mutation over long periods of time. It demonstrated that deity is not necessary and provided an actual answer without the endless regression that the god hypothesis always results in. Despite the efforts of generations of apologists, theists and religious “scientists” natural selection remains the best answer we have ever developed for the “how” of existence while The Watchmaker analogy has become a sound bite for those too invested in their preconceptions to take an honest look at the realities around them
“Why not believe in god? If you’re wrong and he’s real you go to hell whereas if you believe and he’s not you lose nothing.” Does this sound familiar? How about “I’d rather believe and go to heaven then chance eternity in hell.”? Ever heard that one before? I bet you have. These are modern variations on a principal of theological philosophy called “Pascal’s Wager” and variations on the wager have been kicking around since Blaise Pascal’s “Pensées” was published in 1669.
The wager as written by Pascal is a little over five hundred words so I won’t share the whole thing but at it’s core Pascal’s principal is this: God is unknowable, reason can tell us nothing of the existence of god and so one is forced to make a wager, a coin flip one way or another. If you pick belief and you’re right you get the ultimate reward: Heaven. If you pick belief and you’re wrong you lose nothing. Conversely if you choose disbelief and you’re right nothing happens but if you’re wrong you get eternal damnation and torment. So according to Pascal’s treatment the best thing to do is to choose to believe. (Or even to feign belief in order to prevent the possibility of eternal damnation, but I’ll come back to that.)
There are a great many flaws with the position of Mr. Pascal and his latter-day adherents. I would like to hope that is obvious from the outset, yet I know for some that is not at all the case. I will attempt to lay out some of the more glaring problems with the kind of thinking advocated by Monsieur Pascal here in the hopes of clarifying the issues. The first problem I see, by no means the most glaring problem, just the first that occurs to me, is that this kind of thinking seems to imply that we are free to choose what we believe and don’t.
Our belief is not entirely subject to our will. Belief is “Something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction.” You do not choose what to believe, what you believe is a combination of your mental capabilities, education, social environment and psychological needs. Either a given precept is plausible to you or it’s not. If this were not the case you wouldn’t hear “de-conversion” stories where the subject says they were no longer capable of believing despite their wish that that was not the case. Nor would you hear testimony from Atheists and Agnostics who say they wish they could believe but just cannot.
Mr. Pascal’s advice to these people is, in effect, “fake it til you make it”. That one should feign belief in order to avoid hell:
“You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it…. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.” Pensées Section III note 233, Translation by W. F. Trotter
Here it would seem that Pascal is either a) trying to dupe his own All-powerful all knowing deity or b) simply trying to devise a way of making the disbeliever quiet and docile. Regardless of which option you choose this line of thought is inherently dishonest. It also completely dismisses the idea of a creator who rewards intellectual integrity and honesty. I think this demonstrates the character (or lack thereof) of Pascal’s god. That such an entity would prefer feigned devotion to honest doubt is very telling about this supposed entity.
Also this presents an oversimplified version of the choice in question. It pretends that the choices are limited to belief or disbelief, as if there is only a single conception of “god”. There have been thousands of religions and tens of thousands of gods. A great many of them are jealous and demanding gods who require complete and exactly proper shows of devotion and who punish failure with grisly (and often eternal) punishments. How is one to choose which god, goddess etc to worship? The simple truth of the matter is that if the god hypothesis is true there is still not enough reliable information out there to make your “coin flip” a sure thing. As Homer Simpson famously put it:
“What if we picked the wrong religion? Every week we’re just making God madder and madder.”
Taken into account these simple facts make it no safer to be a professed believer in ANY one faith than to be a disbeliever in all of them. Yes you may believe in Yahweh with all your heart but what if Olympus is watching? You’re already signed over your afterlife to eternity in Tartarus. Also when you note that even Jesus himself did not preach of an eternally torturing hell, only a permanent death for the unrighteous, and that the idea of an eternal “Hell” is a later addition to one specific mythology, the whole absurdity of Pascal’s Wager truly reveals itself.
Perhaps the largest problem with this “wager” and its modern offshoots is the idea that belief is free, a zero cost proposition; this is quite simply not true. We have only one life that we can be certain of, spending any of its finite amount of time in contemplation or discussion of this being is a cost, giving of your money to this being’s organizations is a cost. Most importantly though the disagreements between the various sects of believers and between believers and disbelievers, the conflicts, struggles wars, and social problems these disagreements lead to are most assuredly a cost. Belief costs lives; it costs quality of life, freedom and unity. The price of belief is the suspension of self determination, the abdication of personal responsibility, and the subornation of intellect. The cost put simply is that we must prostrate ourselves before an entity that there is no reason to believe exists in order to stave off a punishment there is no good reason to expect.
Pascal’s Wager is a not so cleverly veiled threat. It demands belief (or at least conformity and the miming of belief) in order to stave off eternal torment. It is an effort to silence dissenting opinions, theological bullying. More than that it is a blatant oversimplification of a much more complex issue, propaganda for a being that Pascal himself admits is unknowable, before going on to say quite certainly who and how that being is.
We’ve all heard variations on “No TRUE Christian judges or condemns others.” Or “No TRUE Muslim supports violence.” It’s one of those arguments one hears from both the secularized moderate believers who pick and choose what to believe, and the hard line fundamentalists who take their holy text literally. These two groups use the argument very differently ( and often against each other) yet they DO share a point of similarity.
Both groups make absolute claims about the nature of their faith and those who share it then when they’re shown evidence that demonstrates that those claims are false they respond with “well then they’re not true Christians!” ( or Muslims, or Hindus etc) This argument has a name; it’s called the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. It is, at it’s simplest, a rescue of a false generalization by re-characterizing the generalization. Basically the person making the statement simply redefines the term in question to make their argument unassailable.
The “No True Scotsman” fallacy was advanced by the British philosopher Anthony Flew. His example went as follows:
Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again”. Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing”. The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Heraldagain; and, this time, finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing”
Obviously this fallacy is not limited to just religious people. It does, however, crop up regularly and predictably in religion. It demonstrates perfectly, I think, not just the irrationality of their thinking but the desperation with which they cling to these ideas even in the face of evidence to the contrary. For example: when confronted with the violence and atrocity fostered and promoted by the Catholic Church throughout it’s history they’ll say “well that’s not true Christianity” all the while glossing over the fact that their beliefs are the result of a text designed by that church and spread through the very means they deplore.
The NTS fallacy provides an ever present “get out of jail free card” to the moderate theist who is confronted with the violence and intolerance of their religion. They’ll tell you that suicide bombers aren’t TRUE Muslims, and anti-abortion terrorists aren’t TRUE Christians; they’re just violent people who misuse their faith to sate their violent impulses. Of course in order to make this line of thinking work you have to gloss over the specific injunctions to violence and intolerance at the core of most religious faiths, but the moderate theist or “open-minded” apologist is generally expert at such intellectual acrobatics.
On the other side of the coin the fundamentalist can use the NTS fallacy to justify spreading their hatred and even violence against not just disbelievers, practitioners of other faiths, and people with “objectionable” lifestyles, but against followers of their own faith as well. If the moderate Muslim or secularized Christian isn’t a true Christian then any protection offered by the faith can be safely withdrawn or overlooked.
The danger of this kind of thinking is that the definition of “true” in the NTS fallacy is dependant upon the person making the statement. A “true Scotsman” is a Scotsman like me. A True Christian is a Christian who interprets Christianity like I do. This kind of thinking further insolates the believer from evidence of reality and the actual impact of religious belief. It creates even more division and elitism in a system already rife with both.
The kind of thinking demonstrated by the NTS fallacy is just plain dishonesty, an unwillingness to accept an obvious truth. In Flew’s example the truth is that Scotsmen are obviously as capable of sex crime as Brits. When it comes to religion the truth is that an objective look at its doctrine will show you that religion often demands intolerance, hatred, ignorance and division. To come to any other conclusion you have to cherry pick or use false reason like that in Flew’s fallacy.
Messiah, the word means “anointed” and the title declares the promised deliverer of the Jewish nation prophesied in the Hebrew Bible. It’s a word we hear often associated with Christianity and the character of Jesus of Nazareth, but is it deserved? The New Testament is full of assertions that Jesus fulfilled many prophecies from the Old Testament and therefore was the promised Messiah, but a great many of those prophecies seem to be misinterpretations, corruptions, or not actually prophecies at all. (http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jim_lippard/fabulous-prophecies.html)
Aside from whether or not Jesus merited the title is the fact that he wasn’t even close to the only one to claim it. There where at least seven possible claimants to the title between the years of 4bc and 36 CE, Jesus of Nazareth being only one.(http://www.livius.org/men-mh/messiah/messianic_claimants00.html)
Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian most responsible for giving us a non-biblical source of information in this region at this time, records several other leaders of groups who likely saw them as the Messiah. These men led groups similar to, and in some cases larger than, the character of Jesus of Nazareth and in many cases they demonstrated actions and personalities more in keeping with the tradition of David (king, military leader etc)
One of these was Simon of Peraea. (Sources: Flavius Josephus, Jewish War 2.57-59 and Jewish Antiquities17.273-277; Tacitus, Histories, 5.9.) Simon was a slave to Herod the Great who named himself king after Herod’s death and led several thousand revolutionaries who attacked and burned the King’s palace at Jericho and several other royal holdings in the area. The account tells us that Simon was seen immediately as a threat and the Romans quickly mobilized to destroy him. Simon was beheaded in 4bc and every one of his followers was crucified. It should be pointed out that Josephus gives more words to the tale of Simon than he does to the story of Jesus. Does this mean he gave it more importance? Maybe not, but it does demonstrate that he didn’t give any SPECIAL importance to Jesus’ claim.
Athronges ( Sources: Flavius Josephus, Jewish War 2.60-65 and Jewish Antiquities17.278-284.) was a shepherd who declared himself king and messiah and along with his brothers and their followers led a rebellion against Rome and their puppet king Herod Archelaus, son of Herod the Great. According to Josephus their rebellion killed a great many of both the Romans and the king’s forces. Athronges’s rebellion might have gone on for as long as two years, using raiding tactics against Roman supply trains and other targets before it was finally whittled away by the legions. Josephus’ account does not tell us what became of Athronges himself but it does say that two of his brothers were killed in various battles, one was captured and one surrendered when it became clear the cause was lost.
While both of these figures and the character of Jesus of Nazareth may have claimed or been claimed to be the messiah by others none of them actually meets the requirements laid out by the prophets of the Old Testament. The text lays out very specific requirements and ways by which the Jews will know the Messiah:
1) He must be Jewish. (Deuteronomy 17:15, Numbers 24:17)
2) He must be a member of the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10) and a direct male descendent of both King David (I Chronicles 17:11, Psalm 89:29-38, Jeremiah 33:17, II Samuel 7:12-16) and King Solomon. (I Chronicles 22:10, II Chronicles 7:18)
3) He must gather the Jewish people from exile and return them to Israel. (Isaiah 27:12-13, Isaiah 11:12)
4) He must rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. (Micah 4:1)
5) He must bring world peace. (Isaiah 2:4, Isaiah 11:6, Micah 4:3)
6) He must influence the entire world to acknowledge and serve one G-d. (Isaiah 11:9, Isaiah 40:5, Zephaniah 3:9)
All of these criteria for the Messiah are best stated in the book of Ezekiel chapter 37:24-28:
“And My servant David will be a king over them, and they will all have one shepherd, and they will walk in My ordinances, and keep My statutes, and observe them, and they shall live on the land that I gave to Jacob My servant…and I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant and I will set my sanctuary in their midst forever and My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their G-d and they will be My people. And the nations will know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when My sanctuary is in their midst forever.”
If an individual fails to fulfill even one of these conditions, he cannot be the Messiah.”
A later figure than any of the three already mentioned comes much closer to meeting the requirements laid out above than the Nazarene, Simon, or Athronges. His name was Simon ben Kosiba and he was active against the Romans in Jerusalem a full century after the supposed time of the death of Jesus. Ben Kosiba appears in several Jewish sources as well as early Christian and Roman sources. In 132 ce he led a successful rebellion against the Romans routing the Tenth Legion and retaking Jerusalem. He reintroduced sacrifices at the place where the temple had once stood and was declared the Messiah by Rabbi Aqiba the official religious leader of the Jews in this age, though of course there were those who disputed it.
Simon ben Kosiba waged one of the most costly and successful campaigns that the Romans faced in Judea. So successful that the Emperor Hadrian was forced to bring in three legions and several auxiliary units of reinforcements as well as one of his best generals from Britain to meet the challenge.
Even with all of this manpower however the fighting was brutal and in the end the Romans were forced to wage a slow and ugly war of attrition using terror and atrocity to dishearten the Jewish rebels. Cassius Dio the Greek historian put the number of Jewish dead at 580, 000 and said that fifty of their most important outposts and 985 well known villages were destroyed. (Cassius Dio, Roman history 69.13.2-3) For three years however there was an independent Jewish state where there had only been a Roman client kingdom for centuries before. ben Kosiba’s revolt came closest of any messianic claimant in antiquity to meeting the old testament requirements.
Why did so many men in such a relatively short time seek, or have given to them, the title of Messiah? The answer, put simply is hope, anger, frustration, oppression, and desperation. The Jewish people were an oppressed people in their own land, ruled by a line of gentile kings supported by a foreign army. They were heavily taxed, their traditions, and indeed their very way of life was, it must have seemed to them, polluted every day by these alien invaders. Is it so surprising that rebels should arise, or that they should use the religious zeal of their fellow Jews to recruit followers and strengthen resolve?
Like so many other examples older traditions stolen, mutated and adapted into Christianity the use of the title of Messiah was no more than a way to make it easier to fold Jewish adherents into the flock, to incite existing passions and make assimilation easier. The fathers of Christianity used the apparent messianic nature of the character Jesus to justify the stature they gave him, but it wasn’t a unique title, and it wasn’t a title that he had any right to. The man Jesus no more met the requirements of being the Jewish Messiah than any other claimant in history thus far; and in fact that he didn’t even do as well as some others. As with every other claim made about the character Jesus when the evidence is looked at dispassionately we get, to paraphrase Shakespeare “A tale full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”
Is faith a virtue? Is it a thing of real calculable value, something to be aspired to? Is it an irrational vice, a crutch useful only to justify beliefs and actions not supported by evidence or based in reason? If you don’t believe faith to be a virtue; why? Is it the thing itself which is inherently flawed or is it simply the things we choose to apply faith to that need to be altered?
A couple of things have to be noted first off before we can proceed. The first is that I myself have never had any use for or liking of the term (or the practice of) faith. I personally find the idea of believing something not only without evidence, but in spite of evidence, at best quaint and at worst a dangerous and limiting form of intellectual complacency. The second is that I’m not talking about trust or confidence. I’m not interested in usages of “faith “ which are based on previous experience, a reasonable expectation of success, or some other appreciable and understandable criterion. Faith as I mean it here is a belief not predicated upon or requiring evidence to sustain it, indeed a belief sustained in spite of evidence. In short I’m talking about religious or “spiritual” faith.
The simple truth is that most of the people on the planet profess one type of faith or another. These people often get great comfort and support from their various faiths, and said faiths can often lead them to great humanitarian actions and outlooks. These are a lot of the arguments you’ll hear in favour of faith. Does any of that make faith a rational, reasonable outlook on reality? Is it hubris to assert that we, a small minority of the population, know better than the billions of believers around the globe? I don’t think so at all. The sheer amount of people who believe a thing is not a measure of it’s validity, and it is certainly not a measure of it’s rationality.
There is absolutely no rational logical reason to suppose that any person ever walked, unassisted, across a body of water. Nor is there any solid rational foundation for believing that Muhammad broke the moon to frighten his enemies. ( and this leaves aside the argument that even if there was a good solid reason to believe that, for instance, Jesus existed and actually walked across water, that wouldn’t be a good reason to believe there is actually a supernatural force governing existence.) To believe that these things actually occurred is as patently irrational as believing, in this day and age, that Zeus and his court are actually sitting in state atop a mountain in central Greece, or that the world truly does rest on the back of a giant turtle. ( A belief shared by several different cultures throughout history, just to further my point about numbers not equalling truth.)
So what? Even as I write this I hear someone ask “Who cares if it’s irrational? You know, empirical studies show people who have faith are on average happier than people with none.” Why, theoretical heckler in my head, you’re absolutely right! Those studies do exist, but is individual happiness the only benchmark we should be shooting for when we’re choosing how and why we believe things? There are, I am sure, lots of ecstatic suicide bomber candidates out there, who wake up with a smile and a bounce in their step. I’m also quite certain that the people of the Westboro Baptist Church aren’t bent over with self loathing and regret as they paint their colourful and hateful picket signs and set off to desecrate some poor innocent’s funeral rites.
The answer to “who cares if it’s irrational?” is that irrational beliefs lead to irrational actions, or at the least they open a person up to manipulation, how can they not? If your view of reality isn’t grounded in what’s observable, what’s testable and verifiable you’re asking to be deluded and controlled. What you think affects how you think, it colours your attitudes toward other people, toward societal progress, even toward things such as medical intervention, life saving procedures, and the ethics of certain incredibly promising research areas.
It is not only what we choose to have faith in that’s is the problem. It is the idea of faith itself. The idea of accepting any proposition without due evidence, and consideration is, in my opinion, folly. Critical thinking is the key to understanding, to appreciation of reality, indeed it is the key to true wisdom and it can not be achieved without inquiry, study, and a solid basis of objective fact. Faith, no matter what the faith, removes the value from inquiry and evidence and places it on wish-thinking. It is dangerous and foolhardy nonsense.
For me though the most important argument is this: faith divides, it fosters elitism and exclusivism. It throws up false barriers and distinctions between people and fosters antagonisms that have no objective meaning or value. We are all made of the same stuff, yet the various faiths would have us believe that some of us are somehow more (or less) than our fellows. That some are more (or less) loved by some eternal judge. How can this lead to anything but disaster? Faith is a barrier to understanding between peoples, it’s a stumbling block to true unity and a blind fold which obscures the truth which is that we’re all basically the same, that all we have is each other, and that the old adage is true, a house divided cannot stand.
Atheism is impolite. We’ve all heard some variation on this idea whether it’s “Atheists are rude” or “Atheists are overly aggressive.” Or “Atheists have something to prove.” Most often you’ll get this from theists who are threatened by the conversation or from some non-theists; those who have no particular faith but disapprove of discussion and debate on the subject. What I find most difficult and frustrating about this position is that it’s not actually wrong. That they aren’t wrong isn’t especially frustrating, the frustrating part is that it’s only so because the religious have somehow managed to change the rules of discourse. They’ve managed construct a social bulwark around their beliefs that is entirely unique and completely unavailable to beliefs or assertions made in any other category of human experience. It has actually become impossible to challenge the beliefs of the religious within the bounds of civil discussion.
First things first, a slight correction is necessary in order to proceed. When I say Atheism is impolite I should be more specific, Atheist activism is impolite. It is not inherently impolite to be an atheist, the problem only arises when one chooses to speak about the subject, or dares to question anyone else’s beliefs. There are a great many atheists out there who would be regarded as perfect pillars of good behaviour. They don’t question anyone’s beliefs, don’t challenge irrational statements, or demands for special treatment, and will in fact castigate those of their fellows who are too “militant” about their lack of belief.
I say that the theists and “polite” non-theists aren’t wrong because it actually is impossible to politely point out to someone that their core beliefs are false. You cannot, within the bounds of good manners, tell someone that they have devoted their lives to a sham. No matter how soft your language, or how gentle your manner it is impossible to broach the subject without being rude. This is because it has somehow become the height of high-mindedness to assert that “people should be able to believe whatever they choose.” But should they? Really consider that.
Should people honestly be able to believe whatever they want to believe simply because they want to? What if I want to believe 2+2=5 for instance? Should I be free to assert this as truth? In spite of the mountainous pile of evidence to the contrary should I be free to teach it to my children? What if I can convince others that 2+2=5? Should we then be free to demand that “fiveism” receive equal teaching time in math class? Does basic mathematics then become a matter of opinion, and does my right to hold this nonsensical opinion trump your right not to have to put up with said nonsense?
In every other area of human endeavor you have to have reasons to think the things you do. Your beliefs have to be grounded in some kind of verifiable demonstrable truth. If an engineer decided to forgo measuring and instead provided his builders with figures that came to him in a dream the project they were building would fail and the engineer would be censured. If a history student declared that he felt deep inside himself that Napoleon was in fact an Asian woman rather than a French Caucasian man he would be told quite plainly that regardless of his feelings the evidence did not support such an insane claim. We spend a great deal of time teaching our children to defend their opinions with evidence. Any statement that begins with “I think” is often met with the response “Why?”
How many of us heard as children or have said to our own children “‘because’ is not an answer”? Yet it seems that it is a perfectly acceptable answer when discussing theology. “How can you possibly believe in spite of piles of evidence that the earth is only six thousand years old?” is met with “Because.” “How do you know that this book you esteem so highly has divine origins?” “Because.” And yet asking the obvious next question “Because WHY?” is the height of impropriety. “How dare you challenge my right to believe that the universe was created just for me and those like me!” the theists shriek. “Why do you have to be so unpleasantly forceful?” the politically correct hand-wringers whine. Why? Because theism claims answers they don’t and can’t have. They claim privileges and exemptions from rationality that no area of human interest should have, and they claim that reason and rationality is somehow inferior to blind belief or “faith”.
It is that last point that makes Atheist activism so necessary, regardless of how impolite it may be. More of us need to put aside the politically correct idea of respecting someone else’s opinion and question the value and virtue of “faith”. More of us should be asking loudly why it is better to believe in spite of evidence. Why is it better to ignore or bury evidence in favor of tradition? Why isn’t it ok to question this one particular area of human experience or to measure it against the rest of reality as we understand it when it is not only ok but absolutely essential that we do so in all other areas?
Don’t be afraid to be thought rude or impolite. Question, challenge, and seek. That is the most important freedom you have. It may be rude to challenge someone’s most personal beliefs but that’s only because we, the secular minority in society have allowed our opponent to weight the dice in their own favor. As Sam Harris says:“When considering the truth of a proposition, one is either engaged in an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments, or one isn’t Religion is one area of our lives where people imagine that some other standard of intellectual integrity applies.”
I contend that there is no “other standard” there is what is demonstrably true, what is verifiably untrue and that which we do not know. Nothing else, and no area of our experience should ever be beyond discussion.