Entries from April 2010 ↓

Comment: 58% daily prayer – US Pew Forum

US continues to confound Western outsiders – Australians, Kiwis, Brits, and Europeans. In response to a recent Federal Court ruling of  National Day of Prayer as unconstitutional the Pew Forum quoted a 2007/2008 religious survey, showing that 58% of the US over 18 population pray on a daily basis. Equally interesting is the spread across different faiths and denominations with the lowest faith being Jewish at 26%. The ‘unaffiliated’ are still 22%. I suppose the question for that group is ‘what is meant by the activity of prayer?’ and implicitly to whom or what. Alex McCullie Pew Forum

Comment: Atheism and Losing God

At the conclusion of my atheism course I was challenged by one attendee to respond to the loss of the fundamentals of religious faith, those common aspirations that sit beneath all rituals and texts of religions. He and others saw comfort and hope being fundamental to religious offerings.
Our everyday experience can be frightening with its apparent pointlessness – contingent nature of our existence, daily routine work, familial deaths, regular disappointments, and relationship heartaches. Even Plato, some 2,500 years ago and prior to Christianity, sought to imagine something eternal and perfect, separate from the transitory existence of our world and our lives. He saw extant physical things as imperfect and transitory copies of eternal templates or forms: all trees are imperfect copies of the ideal perfect tree. Augustine of Hippo, many years later, christianised this thinking with us as imperfect and fallen copies of God. Most atheists would see these as implausible ploys for offering certainty in an uncertain, transient world; we call them religions. So, what are the common ‘losses’ for atheists?


Hope for a future ‘beyond’

Let’s start with the big one. The mundane and short nature of our lives, some eighty years if lucky, seems a cruel trick of nature to play on self-aware beings. And worse, we soon realise that once dead we shall fade into the forgotten mists of time, lucky to be remembered one generation later. Believing in a caring, eternal god with an after-life offer some comfort;  ’see you again in another life’ at a funeral epitomises this hope.

Atheists who reject an afterlife, and some don’t, see the life ‘here and now’ being the main game in town: building families, cultivating friendships, pursuing meaningful activities, engaging in personal reflections, and seeking general well-being of others to name a few concerns. Seeing this life as a mere staging post for some sort of imaginary future eternal existence – constant blissful or torturous – seems an abdication of life. Life is winning the most improbable lottery of all and one to be seen as offering promise and hope; that’s an atheist response to our existential absurdity, not religious delusion.


Assigned purpose in life
‘Make your own purpose’ is a common response from an atheist. The idea that a God has ordained a purpose for individuals and for humans in general – a linear (or Eastern cyclical) pathway to enlightenment or salvation – seems contrary of all our experiences, as atheists see no necessary or automatic progression to an ‘ideal’. Our lives are bound up with family and friends, as we have evolved as strongly social creatures, seeking the company of others. These interactions provide genuine meaning and purpose, not ancient scriptural interpretations of a Christian god or an Islamic god or a Jewish god or tribal gods.


Given moral compass
Without gods and religions we would not know good from bad; we could do bad things unknowingly; and without god’s carrot and stick we would want to do bad things. The faithful need religion to be good, to do the ‘right’ thing. Atheists must rely on their own moral sense without god’s help; they see moral sensibilities coming from some combination of biological evolution shaped by culture. And, guess what, religious faith makes little difference for doing good and bad things. Other factors seem far more important.
We evolved the biological structures to co-exist and cultures shaped the behaviours. Sharing, fairness, others reactions, and tit-for-tat all seem wired in as common denominators throughout all people. Cultures – different social groupings – then produce a bewildering array of acceptable and unacceptable moral behaviours, varying across cultures and over time. Today’s immoral racism replaces yesterday’s moral and often religiously-justified racism. Was that a change of God’s mind or better communication from God some 1500 to 2500 years after Jewish, Christian, and Islamic sacred texts were written? Atheists look to secular principles like ‘minimising harm’ when deciding moral disputes and, in reality, so would most religious people in a Western country like Australia. In practice even many religious people give lip-service to religious authorities when deciding most moral issues. Thank god!


Final Comments
Atheists argue that we should be mature enough to stand upright in our world without a prop from a god belief (or delusion). Engaging with life,  family, and friends gives genuine fulfillment “here and now” with a sense of continuity. Guilt-provoking though comforting religions are too high a price for most atheists to pay. Religious hope equates to a lotto-style dream with a high price tag. It’s a poor substitute for the reality of living.

Alex McCullie

Video: Hidden Story of Jesus

Channel 4 documentary 2007 – challenging traditional conceptions of Jesus

Comment: History and the Christian Resurrection

Easter weekend featured a plethora of Jesus and Bible documentaries on cable and free-to-air television: I watched Decoding the Past: the Resurrection on the History Channel. The documentary, colourfully illustrated as History docos tend to be, presented Christian Theology interleaved with limited doses of historical skepticism. It featured two of the most prominent Christian apologists – Lee Strobel and William Lane Craig. In general historians have problems accepting miracle claims and typically exclude them from historical analyses much to the chagrin of Christian scholars. So, why should historians exclude miracle claims like Jesus’ post-death appearances?

Historical research and analysis are all about the probability of past events combined with interpretation. People should ban questions like “what really happened?”. Expressions like “best evidence suggests…” and “little support for…” are more realistic characterisations. Not surprisingly well-qualified historians, using exactly the same sources, can quite commonly draw different though equally well-argued conclusions. This can be very frustrating for outsiders seeking definite answers.

Historical research, like that of the sciences, is essentially a secular activity, independent of any religious faiths. Historians assume that the world and its people behaved in the past as it does today. So claims from the past of people flying unaided would be seen as highly improbable, if not impossible, as that cannot be done today. We have no reason to accept “supernatural” occurrences of the past that we would not accept today. Historical research assumes a predictable, natural world and miracles are rejected as making historical probabilities to historical impossibilities. Historians have little choice to do this as they are trying to make sense of considerable uncertainties without the acceptance of (highly improbable or impossible) miracles.

So what interests historians with claims of Jesus’ post-death appearances? It is the followers who make the claims. Scholars will so attempt to understand the nature and likelihood of his execution within the Jewish social context of early first century. The voracity of the claims themselves are not part of the historical analysis.

Historians work with physical evidence, written documents and artifacts – tax records, commercial documents, household items, artworks, and so on. The primary written sources for Jesus’ execution are the Christian texts – canonical and apocryphal. Here are the earliest:

Letters of Paul, dated around 50CE, were occasional letters written to early Christian communities as instructions and advice. Surprisingly, Paul mentioned nothing of the historical Jesus, only concentrating of the risen Christ, the one of later Christian faith. Even when discussing a moral point with one of his communities Paul argued without referring to a pertinent Jesus saying (later quoted in a gospel). Some scholars see that omission as evidence against the existence of the historical Jesus. Either if not the case Paul provides no useful evidence for Jesus, the man.

The “Q” document, hypothetically constructed by scholars from the common text of Matthew and Luke that is not in Mark. “Q” contains sayings of Jesus only without any narratives about his life; his execution is unmentioned. “Q” is dated around 50CE or earlier.

The gospel of Mark, dated around 70CE, is considered to be the first New Testament gospel and the basis for Jesus ministry of Matthew and Luke. Like the other gospels the authorship is unknown. Mark makes no mention of Jesus’ life prior to his baptism by John and he ends the gospel with an empty tomb after his execution. Post-death appearances of Jesus are unmentioned. As an aside we need to remember that the gospels are Christian propaganda, documents of faith, that give a narrative structure to the Jesus stories and sayings circulating amongst the Christian communities. They were written by urbanised, Greek-educated Jews some 40 to 70 years after the death of Jesus. By contrast most scholars characterise Jesus as an Aramaic-speaking, itinerant Jew, preaching in rural Galilee.

The gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John dated between 80-100CE and again are of unknown authorship, offer vastly differing accounts of Jesus after his death. Their stories are difficult to reconcile. Similarly their infancy stories differ markedly.

The gospel of Thomas, a non-canonical or apocryphal gospel, is like “Q”, a collection of sayings though overlaid with Gnostic traditions. Variously dated before and after 100CE, Thomas makes no mention of Jesus’ death or any post-death appearances.

Given their theological intent, separation in time from the events portrayed, and inconsistent coverage of Jesus’s death, these early texts seem problematic as the basis for historical research. The precise nature of his execution and subsequent events appear more an area for religious faith than independent historical research.

Alex McCullie

News: Ban the Burka – So Says Belgium

Metro news site reports that Belgium is closer to banning the public wearing of the burka and other face coverage, typically worn by some Islamic women. A final vote will be taken on 22 April though all government parties support the proposed bill.

‘We cannot allow someone to claim the right to look at others without being seen,’ said Daniel Bacquelaine, who proposed the bill.

Many people are ambivalent about the full-coverage religious clothing. It seems symbolic of systematic oppression of one group within religious communities by the dominant group. To our simplistic view Islamic women are required to hide publicly their bodies so that Islamic men can control their sexual and aggressive urges. On the other hand we live in a tolerant society that encourages personal expression and the women concerned claim ‘freedom of choice’, a problematic concept within any close-knit societies or groups. The Belgium proponents bypass this concern and argue against the secrecy of hiding one’s face while in public similar to shops banning the wearing of motorcycle helmets.

Thinking about these issues becomes more complicated when religious defenders raise the banning of displaying or wearing crucifixes, kippahs, turbans, rotary club badges, and so on. Where do we stop?

Alex McCullie