Entries Tagged 'CAE Course Material' ↓

Course: GOD IN TODAY’S SOCIETY CAE Melbourne from 7 Aug

I’m running a new course at Centre for Adult Education, CBD Melbourne 7 Aug to 4 Sep 2012:


We discuss different concepts of God from the interventionist, personal God to the good spirit to nature. Bookings are coming in fast, so check and book at the CAE site:


Alex McCullie

Comment: recommended readings on Morality






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: More Morality & Brain Links

Australian ABC Science reports that neuroscience continues to link brain function and human moral behaviour with God’s involvement becoming more and more a fantastic speculation. This time it is magnetic effects on moral choices from Massachusetts Institute of Technology research with similar results to loading the brain while making moral choices. Under load and magnetism, apparently, we turn to choices based on outcomes more than the perpetrator’s intentions. Again this seems choosing between the utilitarian and deontological ethical systems.

Alex McCullie

Comment: Science – the Future of the Hypothesis

Excellent joint article by a scientist and a philosopher on limitations of the hypothesis in the doing of science and some practical alternatives.


Alex McCullie

Comment: Doing science

Here is an interesting link on doing science – writing a hypothesis, designing a testing testing regime, and so on


Alex McCullie

Quote: Galileo

Nothing physical which sense-experience sets before our eyes, or which necessary demonstrations prove to us, ought to be called into question (much less condemned) upon the testimony of biblical passages.
Galileo Galilei 1564 – 1642

News: Daniel Dennett – 5 Non-believing Preachers

Five preachers, five non-believers, five fascinating stories of providing pastoral care while reconciling public faith with personal disbelief.

Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola just published a small study exploring how five stories of practising pastors dealing with personal and hidden disbeliefs in the Christian movements they are promoting. Financial and social dependences, family relationships, church loyalties, and fear of adverse public reactions keep them quiet and ultimately distressed with their circumstances.

The researchers discuss the philosophical and mental ploys used to reconcile their conflicts. Conflation of the concept of God with the actuality of God in discourse blurs the line between ’word use’ and ontological reality. The worshipper hears existence while the pastor means concept.

In (post) modern discourse, myths can be truthful without being factually true. So these pastors can talk about the (unsaid metaphorical) truth and meaning of Jesus’ resurrection with believers without acknowledging the event actually occurred. Again traditional believers continue to hear that the biblical event actually happened.

Ultimately the pastors feel they can make a difference, introduce more liberal thinking amongst parishioners. The pastors are unwilling to question the literal interpretations openly but hope to achieve this change through a sort of osmosis. The researchers are unsure how this could be achieved. Overall one can empathise with the humanity of their struggles and fears of rejection and hope they can find satisfactory resolutions.

Alex McCullie

Comment: Sam Harris rejects ‘atheism’, the word

Atheism, the word, is problematic for many atheists and so historical and colourful alternatives are proposed for fellow-travellers – brights, free-thinkers, non-believers, disbelievers, and the like. Harris in a 2007 address to an Atheist Alliance conference argued against all such words: the concept as a label is inherently flawed. See http://richarddawkins.net/articles/1702 for an on-line video and edited transcript.
Harris sees any non-belief label as hopefully anachronistic and unneeded as non-slavery or non-astrology are today. In Harris’ ideal future the religious would be the categorised ones with the normality of atheism making it “scarcely intelligible as a concept”.
Harris addresses more immediate problems with terms ‘atheism’ and ‘atheist’, the crass marginalisation of genuine criticisms of religious attitudes and the bluntness of simple rejection of all religions. Demands for evidence and reason to support religious claims are often sidelined by accusations of ‘militant atheism’ or ‘new atheism’. Also Harris advises that critics of religion to be more nuanced in their attitudes and attacks. They need to be aware of religious differences and the different threats they pose for a secular society. Harris sees extreme forms of Islam as being more dangerous (and popular) than their Christian equivalents.  He quotes a poll showing that 30% of British Muslims support death for apostasy, leaving the faith, and 68% support criminal prosecution for Islamic insults. Most problems with Christian fundamentalists are with child-abuse through narrow faith education. Again Harris returns to the need for critics to reject atheist labels and demand for evidence, reason and free thought to characterise our society.
Harris rightly comments that atheism is wrongly characterised as an alternative worldview to religion. That is simply not true. Atheism is a position on what exists (and not exists) in our reality - metaphysics in philosopher-speak. Atheism says nothing about origins of the universe, life, and human morality. It says nothing about moral or immoral behaviour. An atheist can live an upstanding life – many do – without any reference to his or her metaphysical position, or alternatively atheists like many Christians, Muslims, whites, blacks, Democrats, liberals, conversatives, and Jews may inflict considerable pain on others.
Finally Harris highlights the need for atheists (whomever they are) to recognise that people can have genuine contemplative experiences, ‘spiritual’ experiences in lieu of a better term. This does not mean accepting any notion of a soul but seeing spiritual, a horizontal version, coming from within us and our responses to the physical world – not mysterious but special.

Alex McCullie

Comment: What Is Religion?

For Australians like most in developed Western countries the traditional symbols come to mind: special places like churches; crucifixes, alters, and other special objects; groups praying and singing; biblical texts and hymn books; special rituals; and priests and ministers preaching. These represent the practices and beliefs we associate with religions or, at least, the ones we see or participate. On further reflection or after overseas travel we realise the narrowness of these conceptions. I am reminded on Mencken’s warning about seeking a simple answer to a complex issue as quoted on this page.

Theologians, sociologists, philosophers, anthropologists, biologists, and psychologists have studied religions to identify the illusive essence. Each have, not surprisingly, approached from the perspectives of their disciplines – the theological, social, philosophical, biological, and psychological. 

Here are a few definitions to broaden the thinking:

“Belief in spiritual beings” Edward Tylor, 1871
A propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which is believed to direct and control the course of Nature and of human life.” James Frazer of The Golden Bough fame late nineteenth century.

a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community, called a church, all those who adhere to them.” Émile Durkheim, 1912

religion is a system of beliefs and behaviours that formulates and answers questions that are important, recurrent, and must be answered.” Susan A. Johnston, The George Washington University, 2009, adapted from Arjun Appadurai. This definition appears in an recommended audio course on the anthropology of religion from the Modern Scholar series at http://audible.com.


 From the last definition a religion consists of beliefs and behaviours to varying degrees. We easily forget that Christianity is a very ‘bookish’ religion with an emphasis on correct belief, even from the early days of Christian history. Other religions often emphasise rituals ahead of doctrine. Religion is also a system embedded in culture often with a strong interdependence. For example Christian churches reflected and influenced their surrounding hierarchical political structures during development.
Religions not only answer the fundamental questions of life – our purpose, origin, and destination -, but also formulate the questions to be answered, a surprising, though not unreasonable, aspect of this definition.

Finally how does science compare with this definition of religion? Interesting!

Alex McCullie