Entries from December 2008 ↓

News: Pew Report – I May Go To Heaven

A new Pew report of religious beliefs in the US again shows that many religious people believe eternal life is available to other faiths and even non-faiths. 56% of surveyed believed that people with no religious faith may still have eternal life after death and that even applies to atheists (42% – presumably kicking and screaming)  with white catholics giving atheists the most hope.

So how does one get eternal life? Again, according to the survey it’s by ‘Believing in Jesus’ just ahead of ‘Being a good person’. (full report from Pew Forum

Here’s one extract that’s interesting…

Mainline Protestants who attend religious services at least once a week are also somewhat more likely than their less-observant counterparts to describe theirs as the one, true faith, though large majorities of both groups say many religions can lead to eternal life (75% and 85%, respectively). The religious attendance gap is virtually nonexistent among white Catholics; more than eight-in-ten weekly churchgoers and less-observant Catholics alike say many religions can lead to eternal life (85% and 84%, respectively).

Alex McCullie

PS For the record unaffiliated seems to include atheists, agnostics and no particular religious beliefs

News: Shock – Celebs Make Ridiculous Unscientific Claims

Sense About Science website is promoting their Celebrities and Science Review 2008 listing ridiculous unscientific claims made by celebrities and politicians. The Independent newspaper highlights some amusing findings, such as:

Mr Obama and John McCain blundered into the MMR vaccine row during their presidential campaigns. “We’ve seen just a skyrocketing autism rate,” said President-elect Obama. “Some people are suspicious that it’s connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it,” he said.

His words were echoed by Mr McCain. “It’s indisputable that [autism] is on the rise among children, the question is what’s causing it,” he said. “There’s strong evidence that indicates it’s got to do with a preservative in the vaccines.”

Exhaustive research has failed to substantiate any link to vaccines or any preservatives. The rise in autism is thought to be due to an increased awareness of the condition.


Sarah Palin, Mr McCain’s running mate, waded into the mire with her dismissal of some government research projects. “Sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not,” Ms Palin said. But the geneticist Ellen Solomon takes Ms Palin to task for not understanding the importance of studies into fruit flies, which share roughly half their genes with humans. “They have been used for more than a century to understand how genes work, which has implications in, for example, understanding the ageing process,” she said.


Kate Moss, Oprah Winfrey and Demi Moore all espoused the idea that you can detoxify your body with either diet (scientifically unsupportable) or, in the case of Moore, products such as “highly trained medical leeches” which make you bleed. Scientists point out that diet alone cannot remove toxins and that blood itself is not a toxin, and even if it did contain toxins, removing a little bit of it is not going to help.

and finally…

But top prize went to the lifestyle guru Carole Caplin for denouncing a study showing that vitamin supplements offer little or no health benefits as “rubbish” – it is the third year on the run that she has been mentioned in the review. Science author and GP Ben Goldacre pointed out that the study Ms Caplin referred to was the most authoritative yet published. “Carole should understand that research can often produce results which challenge our preconceptions: that is why science is more interesting than just following your nose,” Dr Goldacre said. (full article from The Independent)

Alex McCullie

News: Pope – Homosexuality Threat to Humanity

Again the Pope has shown the “official” Roman Catholic church’s position on homosexuality – it’s a sin and poses similar risks to humankind as climate change. In an end-of-year address to Vatican officials, Pope Benedict XVI equated homosexuality and climate change. This is probably much to the concern of liberal-minded Catholic believers. There are many news reports on the original speech and responses by groups and individuals - some links below.

News articles about the Pope’s speech and responses
National Post
Christian Today
Conservative Anglican defends Pope
Guardian Online
Religious conservatives defend Popes attacks

Alex McCullie

News: The Myth of Mother Teresa

In Australian newspaper, Courier Mail , Colette Livermore talks about the nasty aspects of Mother Teresa’s mission in India. The public image is of self-sacrificing that brought comfort to thousands of India’s poorest sick. Colete Livermore describes the dark-side of religious faith – a faith that takes precedence over human welfare.

Livermore’s disaffection with Mother Teresa peaked when she clashed with her superiors over a decision not to treat sick children on a holy day.

“A ruling was made that on this recollection day, this day of prayer, children were not to be admitted to the Home for the Children.

“This really sick child came in with stick arms, breathing really fast and dehydrated and I was told he couldn’t stay. I had this internal conflict and eventually the child was admitted but only after I’d had a big fight.

“These sorts of things happened time and time again because there was this rigid obedience and timetable, so I wrote to Calcutta and said: ‘This can’t be right.‘ (full article 16 Dec 2008)

Also Christopher Hitchens published The Missionary Position in 1995 highlighting the appalling treatment decisions and dubious money transactions associated with the Teresa mission.

Alex McCullie

PS. Of course ‘faith before humanity’ belief has an ignominious tradition of violence even as recently as the so-called ’9/11′ attacks on New York.  Perhaps Jesus of Nazareth, the Christian messiah, expressed this belief well with:

And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. (Mat 19:29 ESV)

News: Billy Connolly: Church Brainwashes People

I find it [the Catholic Church] primitive and frightening. I find the whole child molestation on an international scale a disgrace that should be a United Nations cause. So I have deep distrust and dislike of the Catholic Church and any other organisation that brainwashes people.”
(Comedian Billy Connolly on More4 programme Shrink Rap)

Quoted on the National Secular Society website UK

Alex McCullie

News: Religious Make-up of US Congress

According to the latest Pew report the largest religious groups in the US are represented in roughly the same proportions in the US Congress. There is one exception – Unaffiliated – non-religious, agnostic, atheist.

16.1% of the Unaffiliated US population is represented by 0% of US Congress.

Alex McCullie

News: Homosexuality is Wrong : Christian Blog

Here’s a link to a Christian blog that represents a commonly held view amongst evangelists that homosexuality is inherently evil. This article uses Christian bible quotations to refute an earlier Newsweek article that says Christians can rightfully believe that it’s okay to be gay. Well perhaps it’s not!

I think some religious people need to deal with their own sexual hangups rather than demonising others.

Alex McCullie

News: Nigeria, Religion and Politics = Trouble

BBC News reports that hundreds of Muslims and Christians have been killed during clashes over local elections in Nigeria.

Hundreds of people are reported to have been killed in central Nigeria after Christians and Muslims clashed over the result of a local election.
A Muslim charity in the town of Jos says it collected more than 300 bodies, and fatalities are also expected among Christians.
There is no official confirmation yet, and figures are notoriously unreliable in Nigeria, says the BBC’s Alex Last.
Police have imposed a 24-hour curfew and the army is patrolling the streets.
They have been given orders to shoot on sight in an effort to quell hostilities that mark the worst clashes in the restive West African nation since 2004.
For the second straight day on Saturday, angry mobs went through the town burning homes, churches and mosques.
The Nigerian Red Cross says at least 10,000 people have fled their homes.
(full report 29 Nov 2008)

Alex McCullie

News: Sing for Jesus (Not)

Here’s your chance to put those non-believer singing voices to a very good cause – atheism. Q Transmissions, a weekly skeptical call-in talk show in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, is conducting a singing contest – the best singing voice for a new atheist anthem. Submit via YouTube, Blackberry or laptop. Raise up your voices and sing for… (Check the contest here.)

Alex McCullie

Article: Seeking Mark’s Jesus

Who was Jesus according to Mark?

The New Testament gospels are our only real source of information about the activities and sayings of Jesus and each gospel presents a different persona, especially between the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and that of John. And when you include the non-canonical gospels like the Gospel of Thomas, you are presented with many different and often irreconcilable versions of Jesus.

I decided to look at Mark’s gospel. Beware I’m an ordinary reader and not a theologian nor a New Testament scholar. Historians mostly agree that Mark’s gospel is the earliest canonical gospel and both Matthew and Luke use it for their writings. Mark’s gospel was written around 70CE, some 40 years after Jesus’ death, and it draws from stories told within Christian communities. As an aside, most scholars agree that the New Testament books were written in Greek and the Old Testament books were written in Hebrew. Jesus and disciples probably spoke Aramaic, a Semitic language similar to Hebrew.

We know little of Jesus from non-Christian sources. Jesus was born in Judea or Galilee around in 4 BCE and was executed by the Romans between 29 and 32CE for insurrection. He founded a small Jewish religious sect that continued after his death and expanded to become the official religion of the Roman empire under Constantine. Our knowledge of Jesus’ activities and teachings come from the canonical and non-canonical gospels but cannot be verified by external sources. Even though you’d think that their efficacy should be treated as religious faith alone, scholars are able to apply secular techniques to establish likelihoods of their accuracy. As one example, the Jesus Seminar, a group of liberal New Testament scholars, attempts to identify the actual sayings of Jesus. The Seminar estimates that 20% or less of Jesus’ sayings can be actually attributed to him. Other examples of fine secular research are the extensive and impressive writings of Professor Bart Ehrman.

Let’s be clear about the purpose of a gospel. It was not a biography in any modern sense but proclamations about the ‘good news’ of Jesus for Christian communities and potential converts. Some took a predominately narrative form like Mark and others were simply sayings like Thomas. So the intended readers or listeners were Christian and already believed in Jesus as the son of God. Mark sprinkled his gospel with explicit references to Jesus’ divine nature for the faithful. I’ll simply look at how Jesus was presented to his contemporaries and perhaps understand his mission.

Firstly here’s some background about Mark and his gospel.

Traditionally Mark’s gospel has been attributed to John Mark, a companion and personal secretary to Peter. This attribution made 60 years after writing is probably more about credibility within early Christian communities than any real historical accuracy. All we can guess is that the author was a well-educated Greek-speaking Christian: very few people in the first century could read or write let alone write a full book. It is also worth noting at this point that Jesus and his disciples came from the lowest parts of Jewish society and therefore were most probably uneducated and illiterate. For simplicity, though, I’ll refer to Mark as the author of this gospel.

Mark’s gospel is a rapid-fire narrative covering the last year of Jesus’ life – (1) Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist; (2) his gathering of disciples; (3) listing miracles he performed and parables he delivered; (4)disagreements with local religious leaders; (5) entry into Jerusalem and rampaging of the Temple; (6) the last supper at the Passover and his arrest; (7) his trial and execution; and (8) the empty tomb after execution. Curiously there is no mention of Jesus’ virgin birth. This does not seem to be oversight as his family later saw Jesus as mad (3:21). It’s hard to explain that if his mother already knew of Jesus’ divine nature at birth. Another amazing omission is his appearance to disciples after resurrection, which is arguably the core part of the Christian faith. Most historians agree that the reappearance stories in Mark (16:9-20) were added by later copyists and editors of the gospel. Finally, after my first reading I couldn’t help wonder what was Jesus doing for his previous 29 years prior to this final year of ministry. Again the gospel is not a biography and so this history wasn’t theologically important to Mark. Again, it’s important to remember that a gospel is primarily a theological document more than a historical one.

Now let’s look at Mark’s Jesus. He was an itinerant rural Jewish healer who preached an apocalyptic message of the imminent overthrow of Caesar’s rule by that of God. A future “son of man” would replace Roman world of power, privilege and corruption with a loving kingdom of God. Jesus expected this to happen within the lifetimes of his disciples (9:1). He taught this message to his closest disciples as secret knowledge but ultimately the knowledge that would lead to his execution for sedition. Is this the true secret that Judas Iscariot betrayed to the authorities as suggested by some historians? Throughout most of the gospel, Jesus’ preachings were neither truly understood by his closest followers nor accepted by most Jews including family and friends and local religious leaders. Jesus’ demand for secrecy on one hand and his preaching in confusing parables exasperated the situation. Ironically he would then express frustration and disappointment with his disciples for their lack of understanding.

Despite some local crowds in rural areas Jesus went relatively unnoticed by Jewish authorities until he entered Jerusalem during the Passover festival – a politically very difficult time for the Roman occupiers. The Passover symbolised a previous time when the Jews were freed from foreign oppressors. His predictions of ending the Roman rule and co-operative Jewish elite with his disturbances at the Temple inexorably lead to his arrest by the local Jewish leaders and his subsequent execution by the Roman authorities. This was a typical way of handling a perceived public threat.

As a messiah Jesus appeared vastly different to most Jewish expectations. Jesus fell short of their King David-like hero who would rid the Jews of the Roman oppressors by military force. And, frankly, he doesn’t fit the modern day hero concept either. Only years of Christian teaching encourage us to define a saviour or messiah as one who suffers and not one who is strong and powerful enough to oust oppressors. We are unable to see this dissonance.

Even after Jesus’ death, Christians worked hard to avoid the linking of his death with the Old Testament curse of the hanging man (Deuteronomy 21:20-23). Ultimately I couldn’t decide how Jesus saw himself. Was he the “son of man” and heralding the kingdom of God or was he awaiting the “son of man”? And did he see himself as the unique son of God? Many historians do believe that Jesus believed he was or would be “king of Jews” even though that expression wasn’t later used by Christians.

Overall Mark makes the “suffering and misunderstood messiah” the major motif of the gospel. I felt that Jesus’ position is largely self-imposed. However it is easy to relate to Jesus. He appears more human than divine by displaying many of our qualities and weaknesses – compassion to help the inflicted; acceptance of the shunned; annoyance and anger with confused supporters and enemies; fears of his pending death; and finally doubts with God at Jesus’ death with his famous cry: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34 from Old Testament Psalm 22:1)

A famous turning point in the gospel when Jesus had to prompt their understanding:

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” (Mark 8:29) – at last thought Jesus.

Even then they didn’t understand the purpose of Jesus’ intended suicide to save humanity. At times the gospel is like a comedy sketch where the audience knows the purpose of the protagonist but the stupid characters do not. We feel like shouting out. I guess that makes for good story-telling and was part of the Mark’s motivational techniques for the faithful.

Finally here are some observations.

Mark seems preoccupied with human weakness, suffering, ignorance and fickleness. He shows this through the very human Jesus, the afflicted, the disciples, local religious leaders and even Jesus’ own family and friends. Humanity, without Christ and forgiveness, is full of anger, fear, distrust, stupidity and fickleness. Only at the end of the gospel does Mark offer hope through the “rising” of Jesus as announced by the unknown young man in the empty tomb (16:6).

I find Mark’s Jesus a very confusing character. His healings and teachings seem erratic as he and his disciples wander rural Galilee almost deliberately avoiding the cities and crowds. Despite separate instruction his disciples were for the most part unable to understand Jesus. Family, friend and former acquaintances rejected his teachings. Even Jesus doubted his own mission. Today we would see him as well-meaning and very disturbed person who needs help not punishment. Perhaps that is Jesus’ legacy to humanity – prefer to help and support others in distress and not to punish them.

Alex McCullie