Monday, April 30, 2007

The Myth of "Atheist Fanaticism"

Christians often impute a fanatical belief in some doctrine -- evolution, the non-existence of God, and such -- to atheists. This strategy presents atheists as hypocritical for condemning religious fanaticism but are themselves guilty of the very fanaticism that they themselves condemn when atheists deny the existence of God, assert the truth and viability of evolution, and so on.



The phantasm of "atheist fanaticism" can be easily explained. Christians assert beliefs x,y, and z in a firm and unquestioning manner. Considered from the point of view of the Christian, if someone does not share in those beliefs, then that someone when he continues to not share in those belief so passionately held by the Christian, appears to be as fanatical of his or her beliefs as the Christian. In other words, the so-called "atheist fanaticism" is a self-misunderstanding on the part of Christians.



I'm sure there are unhappy misguided individuals out in the world, who have unplugged "the existence of God" from their beliefs and inserted "the non-existence of God" without any softening of a previously learned hard-edged fanaticism.



An inability to accept one's own failures generates the phantasm of "atheist fanaticism." Since it is impossible for a good Christian to admit that his reasons for belief are less than perfectly persuasive to other people, a lack of persuasion in his hearers can only be explained by a hardness of heart, and willful disbelief. The Christian explains his failure, in this case, to persuade his hearers to accept Jesus as their Lord & Savior, or in a Young Earth, or whatever, by blaming somebody else for his failures and unhappiness. That his foolish demeanor might explain his failure to persuade his hearers never could never occur to a Christian. Or to speak New Testament: The Christian himself is the millstone impeding belief.



For what it's worth, based on the above, that the proper response to charges of "atheist fanaticism" is something like this: "Black is black. White is white. And gobbledygook is still gobbledygook. That you don't make a very good case is hardly my fault."




Friday, April 27, 2007

Catholics, Catholicism, and Belief

I've never met a Catholic or heard tell of a Catholic that actually believed Official Catholic Doctrine. Too many Catholics identify themselves as Catholic but then explain that they don't accept this or that belief. During three years in Poland, I met Catholics who did not believe in God, but believed in the Virgin Mary. Or Catholics who would have no truck with the resurrection. And from what I've seen of American Catholics there is a love-hate relationship with the Catholic Church: they hate & disagree with various parts of Official Church Doctrine, but insist on sacraments, masses, etc.



My hunch is that the bottom-line in Roman Catholicism is the individual Catholics relationship to the Church: as long as tithes, baptisms, first communions, and all are faithfully carried out, and the proper respect shown to the Church and its institutions, a great deal of latitude will be granted. From what I understand, it is rather difficult to be excommunicated.



What this means is that Roman Catholics are much freer, at least in principle, with respect to belief. I think the ties to ancient paganism are easier to see in Roman Catholicism: as long as the proper rituals are observed and no deities are blasphemed, it is possible to remain a Roman Catholic. There isn't the same emphasis on uniformity of belief as in most protestant sects, especially in American Evangelical Christianity.




I know that it was the Roman Catholics who invented the Inquisition and have all sorts of wacky Doctrines. My big point is that it is possible to be a Roman Catholic in all good conscience and still hold to beliefs that have substantial differences from Standard Roman Catholic Teachings. This is because the point of emphasis in Roman Catholicism is the Roman Catholic Church, and not direct access to Truth of Doctrine as in Protestantism.




Thursday, April 26, 2007

Another forum post: when asked why I believed way back when...

It's always easier to judge in hindsight. I could give biographical, philosophical, social (my fellow believers), and emotional reasons for why I believed & for why I stopped believing. When I look back now, I find so many reasons when asked to discount faith that I now think that my lack of faith is overdetermined.



There are no "incorrect motives." Taken at face value that is a recipe for misery and neurotic repressive self-deception.



As far as "Christian motives" mostly I infer from the behavior of Christians. If someone acts fearful, uncertain of themselves, or seem to believe they are so awful and their God is so wonderful & great, then certain things can be inferred. Especially, when a Christian tries to discount any discussion of motives & mental health, by asserting however forcefully that the Truth of their Beliefs make discussion of mental health, motives, etc. moot.



Seldom do Christians realize that arguments for conversion based on Hell, God's Omnipotence, and the like, have a disturbing analogy: Following Hitler so as not to go to Auschwitz.



How can any Christian be certain that they love God for His beauty, His Goodness, etc. and not because of fear of damnation? My own suspicion is that God's power makes love impossible. And don't give me any nonsense about the Cross. Jesus is still 1/3 God. He still has 1/3 of omnipotence. And if Judgment Day is to be taken seriously, how can anyone love their judge? Inequality of power precludes love. Love is between equals.



Where there is inequality power then one should talk of pity.



The motivations of Christians, until shown otherwise are fear, self-disgust, and anger. That most Christians experience their motivations as "love" is at best evidence of the uncanny power of self-deception and wishful thinking. But that's what happens when Christ-talk is translated into everyday language.



Oh, last bit of ramble. It was George Orwell who gave me to understand that language can either reveal or it can conceal. When it conceals, it is a tool of tyranny, repression, and oppression. Language used primarily to hide truth diminishes human beings. There is an omnipresent fear of saying the secrets everybody knows, but nobody will say.





Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Something I posted on Julia Sweeney's Forum

If a Christian thinks long and hard, and has a modicum of honesty, eventually a point is reached at which there are religious words and feelings and there is everyday life. Religious words and feelings belong in the sphere of religion and relative normalcy everywhere else. As long as the religious sphere is felt to be real but separate, there is no confusion between this world and the world to come.



Modern Christians, Evangelicals in particular, expect the religious sphere to influence, guide, and manifest itself in the everyday world. The justification for belief in another world is to be found in this one. Hence Creationism, miracles, The Rapture, The Second Coming, Evangelicals for Israel, and all sorts of tomfoolery.



Traditionally, the world to come was felt to be more real, more important, it was there that all the injustices of this world would be reckoned and judged, rewarded and paid for if need be.



Sometime in the 19th Century or maybe Early 20th Century, large numbers of people began to question the reality of this other world. Some not so clever folks realized that they could make believe that if they didn't doubt the reality of the world to come, then they could go on like they and their ancestors had before.



But it wasn't so easy. Doubt remained. Unacknowledged doubt wants assurances, signs, and miracles. However much these New Christians protested to the contrary, the locus and center of reality had shifted from the other world to this world. Consequently, if their Faith really was true, then there would be unmistakable correspondences, incontrovertible evidence, and signs enough for the blind in this world.

Unfortunately for the New Christians, their thread in the Minotaur's labyrinth that is this world had broken. There was no way back. And no way forward. Their eyes are closed. These New Christians flail about blindly, bumping into walls, each other, and other people in the labyrinth. And since they were taught from before birth to associate truth with comfort, and error with discomfort, pain, suffering, and doubt, the New Christians demand respect for their principled cowardice. Courage with open eyes being the one thing of which they deem themselves incapable. But the New Christians do share with their ancestors the courage of a sacrificial animal: the feelings of helplessness, the resignation to inevitability, and an unwillingness to be anything else but a lamb led to slaughter.




Thursday, April 19, 2007

Addendum

Checks and Balances assumes a difference of opinion and of social concerns. Christianity with its Revealed Truth assumes that it is the diversity of opinion and of social concerns which humankind exhibits is illusory. Once The Truth is known and respected, then, and only then, can differences of opinion and of social concerns can be resolved once and for all.

Given Christianity's bloody history in dealing with heretics and sectional strife, "Truth" would appear to be more a political prize and symbol devoid of content. It is not whether one has the The Truth or whether one has access to Truth, it is whether one feels oneself sufficiently convinced that one has The Truth. And, most importantly of all, whether others are sufficiently convinced that you or your faction has The Truth that matters more than one's own opinion. The feeling that one is right or in a special relationship to the hereafter or to God's Plan for Humanity is not a criterion of anything, let alone truth or Truth.



Incidentally, any attempt to defend Christianity as a revealed religion runs afoul of an unpleasant authoritarianism. Revelation must be kept clean from contamination and as close to its original form and content as possible. This means that part of any revelation is the requirement of keepers for that revelation. An offense against the keepers is an offense against the Most Holy Source of All True Revelation, i.e., God for Christians. This is one thing that the Roman Catholics got right: an offense against the Church is a sin and an offense against Christ. The Church is, after all, The Bride of Christ.



Further, the Keepers Of The Revelation can brook no second-guessing, no difference of opinion. Any threat to their monopoly on What The Revelation Means cannot be tolerated. The logic of revelation and revealed truth, if carried to conclusion, requires a return to ignorance, fear, disease, and a hatred of anything new.



The logic of faith in revelation is grounded in the belief that no matter how bad life might be here and now, life would be so much worse without the Tribal God to protect and bless the tribe.




Some Politics, Pt. II

Hatred of anyone who would disagree is a common feature of the Abrahamic religions. Believers protest that they themselves are blameless in this matter. It is God, their God, who consigns infidels, blasphemers, and heretics to eternal damnation. This would be analogous to a low-level Nazi functionary protesting that it was Hitler and his closest advisors that decided who would go to Auschwitz and Birkenau, while our low-level Nazi merely followed Hitler. In proclaiming their submission and self-abasement before their God, believers also declare their whole-hearted approval of their God. The Abrahamic god is infinite, all-knowing, infinitely compassionate, omnipotent, and possesses a whole host of other divine attributes. What do all the traditional attributes of God mean? Only that God is always in the right, and human beings are always in the wrong.



A further consideration. To the extent that the Abrahamic religions love and value truth, they must also hate and despise error. The more important truth is, (and what could be more important than avoiding eternal torment?) the more dangerous error and heterodoxy become. It is not difficult to imagine believers caught up in a vicious cycle of exalting the beauties and glories of truth while simultaneously punishing without mercy or reserve every deviation from their most glorious and beautiful truth.



Consequently, Christianity in particular is marked by a hatred of dissent and a reluctance to allow serious discussion on any issue of fundamental importance. It is this lust for uniformity which places Christianity in contradiction to the American Constitution as it was conceived and explained in the Federalist Papers.




Some Politics, Pt. I

I hadn't intended to write about politics in this blog. Not because it doesn't interest me, but I thought I would share my thoughts on religion. However, writing and thinking about religion has resulted in my backing into politics. Incidentally, my Masters Degree is a dual concentration in Political Theory and American Government.



Conservative Christianity in the United States seek to assert ownership of our Founding Fathers. It is hardly surprising that documents from the late colonial, revolutionary, and early republican periods are treated the same way as the Old Testament is treated in proving that the crucifixion was foretold in every mention of a twig and piece of wood. If the Founding Fathers are largely silent on religion, and on Christianity in particular, this only proves that Christianity was assumed and taken for granted. Remarks that are hostile to religion, and to Christianity in particular, then those remarks must have been directed against the excesses of certain denominations. And of Mr. Jefferson, the less said the better.



The problem with the political thought of the Founding Fathers is that it is so rarely taken seriously. The fact that the Framers of the Constitution succeeded is a testament to their practicality, and not to their theoretical and philosophical abilities. The Federalist Papers are read in historical context. That means that they are interpreted as a product of their time, which means in turn that a continuity with European political thought is unquestioningly assumed.



In On Revolution Hannah Arendt sensed that something was amiss with the standard readings. In comparison to European thought, Americans are peculiarly inept and ashamed of their own products. If the Framers had known what they were doing, they would very likely been horrified: at the heart of the Constitution of 1789 is conflict and ambition. The life blood of the Constitution is not peace, is not static harmony, and most assuredly is not any of the Christian virtues of hope, charity, or faith.



A careful (or even a not so careful reading) of the Federalist Papers should lead to the conclusion that the properly American feeling for power is that unlimited and unchecked power is inherently illegitimate. Further, as the twin to this insight: only power holds power in check. Only power can bring an illicit exercise of power to account. Power checks power, not good intentions, not promises of just this one time.



Consequently, when a political leader, in particular the president, claims that his office is special and exempt from traditional limitations, he is making a play at becoming a tyrant. It is irrelevant to tyranny whether his intentions are pure, whether he has only national security in mind, or some other noble patriotic piety that resonates the heart strings of his listeners. His intent is not a political fact. His desire for power and the power that he possesses, those are political facts.



Apart from the obvious application to tyranny and overweening ambition, the recognition that power checks power presupposes diversity of opinion, of interests, and of belief. Further, the division of the federal government into three co-equal branches created interests and sources of power that are rooted in the offices and powers of each branch. Senators and Representatives find the justification for the powers of Congress in the capacity given by the Constitution not only as representatives of The People, but in powers specifically created to regulate and limit the other branches. Just as the President finds that part of what the President is and does is defined in terms of Congress and the Judiciary, so it is with the Judicial Branch.



This vision of plurality, competition, and ambition is profoundly anti-Christian.





Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Miscellaneous

Just so my half dozen readers know...



I am enrolled in a doctoral program and it is the end of the semester for me. That means I have 2 25-page papers to write by the end of the month. I'll not tell untruths like I've been diligently at work making steady progress towards their completion.



For my blog, this means that I may not be writing as much as I would like, but there is something that I call "responsible procrastination." Responsible procrastination is doing something that is academically responsible, just not immediately so. For instance, one of my seminar papers is a literature review of Organizational Pathology. Writing about God, religion, Christian follies, and the like will not directly help with the writing of the paper. It will, however, keep me writing.



On a slightly more personal note. There is a slim, but not insignificant chance that I may be able to teach political science as an adjunct to undergraduates at my university. There is a slimmer chance, that I might be teaching "Nietzsche and Political Theory" in the Spring 2008 semester to upper level undergraduates. A lot of the philosophical doodling over the last few days that would have otherwise gone into this blog has gone into figuring out a syllabus.



If the Nietzsche course were to work out, it would be like having a heartfelt dream come true that I didn't even know I had.

Nietzsche had a decisive influence on me and on the course of my life. When I was a bible-thumper, I was enrolled in a small private liberal arts college. My declared major was religion with the aim of becoming a minister. In the semester immediately preceding my academic dismissal I took "19th Century Philosophy." We read some Hegel, Marx, John Stuart Mill, Nietzsche & Kierkegaard. Given that I was suffering through a painful and profound religious crisis, it is hardly surprising that I found Nietzsche and Kierkegaard to be the most interesting of the lot.



I was suspicious of Kierkegaard's Christianity and I didn't trust his leap of faith. Kierkegaard still leaves suspicious that there is something that he is avoiding, some painful memory or thought that he would like to leave untouched and ignored. In other words, he was too Christian for me.



Nietzsche, on the other hand, was different. When I first started reading him, I didn't understand much. But, I loved what I read. I was happy when I understood the occasional sentence. Eventually, I got the hang of reading him.



Most of that was after the academic dismissal, and I didn't want go back home, so I stayed, hung around the college. I spent the semester after the dismissal working part-time and living in a friend's basement for free. And in my free time I mostly read. I read Nietzsche and I read the other writers that he wrote about.



Someone who gives up Christianity via Nietzsche has a different kind of atheism than someone who becomes an unbeliever via rational argumentation. The latter holds it against Christianity that it is absurd, illogical, self-contradictory, and so on. Becoming an unbeliever through Nietzsche, one does not so much reject Christianity as one follows its moral teaching through to their logical conclusion. In teaching confession and honesty before God, eventually a point is reached where one becomes too honest to be a Christian. Further, in one's commitment to seeking out the truth, one learns to give up the comforts that accompany belief because those comforts are an impediment to understanding. And a point is even reached where truth is done away with in order to make room for knowledge.






Thursday, April 5, 2007

Question from a Reader about "Honest Christians"

A reader, "me," [an unfortunate username] on one of Julia Sweeney's Forums with the title "Atheist view of why Christians believe?" asked a question there about one of my blog entries. Me would have posted the question here but then a computer lockup stopped that from happening.



Here's what "me" posted:




Thanks for the blogspot reference. I checked it out and read some of what you had to say. Pretty interesting. Some things I didn't understand though. I didn't really understand this one completely: "Honest Christians are in principle possible, but are short-lived creatures. When the moment of truth and crisis of faith comes, another cannot say. Before that moment comes, before the realization comes that faith is questionable, it is possible to speak of authentic faith, but an authentic believer cannot know that his faith in God is "authentic." Once he does, the sincerity of his faith disappears in a puff of questions and uncertainties."



[unrelated material deleted] So, in that light - could you explain more about what the quote above means - especially the part about how an authentic believer cannot know that his faith in God is "authentic"?




As it was meant in context, in "authentic faith" the object and concern is not with "faith" per se, but with God, Jesus, Truth, etc. in what the believer has his faith. Once faith itself, however, becomes an object of reflection and concern, questions and doubts can and do arise. "Faith" sooner or late becomes an object of empirical investigation, and that never ends well for faith.





Sunday, April 1, 2007

Did Jesus Exist?

I've been working my way through Did Jesus Exist?. The link takes you to what is a book. The author, Earl Doherty, presents a sustained argument that Jesus never existed. There is no evidence even that some individual, however, misunderstood stands behind the stories and myths of Christianity. Jesus is pure myth.



I don't have the background either in ancient languages, hellenic and roman history, or even in neo-Platonist philosophy, nor do I have any interest in acquiring the requisite knowledge to properly evaluate Doherty's arguments and the evidence he adduces in support of those arguments.



Even though my knowledge of antiquity is lacking, I can judge his mode of presentation. Doherty realizes that he has a hard sell to make and that most readers will not be welcoming of what he has to say. His presentation is calm, rational, and erudite. When he is unsure of how to interpret a text he says so. He understands in his bones that historians do not offer certainties, but shades and degrees of uncertainty. Did Jesus Exist? is not the Da Vinci Code: there are no convoluted explanations or appeals to conspiracies. He presents his evidence and arguments, then leaves his readers judge for themselves.



I won't go into detail in discussing his arguments. Any suitably inclined reader can follow the link given above and make up his own mind. Not being well-versed in these matters, I wouldn't do justice to his presentation, anyway.



To my mind Doherty's most persuasive argument is what is called the "argument from silence." The New Testament always struck me as divided into roughly two parts: the historical/narrative parts of the Gospels plus Acts and an ahistorical part of the Epistles plus Revelations. For all of Paul's whining and complaining about other preachers/teachers, he never once unambiguously broaches the subject of Jesus as historical figure.



What is interesting in Doherty's interpretation of the Pauline Epistles is that Paul comes off as a Judaic Platonist: his Christ dies and is resurrected on a spiritual plane of existence -- I like to call it "myth space." The difference between Paul's Christ and say the Egyptian myths of Horus, according to Doherty, is the specifics of the respective myths. Accordingly, Paul does not assert that his Christ was crucified, buried, and resurrected in Palestine. Apparently what was controversial in Paul is the mode of death, i.e., crucifixion.



Further, the silence on the historical Jesus is not confined to the New Testament Epistles but extends into the 2nd Century. The view of Christianity that emerges in Doherty's essay is a plethora of cults strongly influenced by Platonism and Judaism. Over time these cults coalesce into something that is recognizable more or less as what we know today as Christianity.



I had never considered the possibility of a purely mythic Jesus. This possibility slightly unnerves me. It's not that I'm attached to the idea of a historical Jesus, but that I find myself thinking about how unrooted time and history are. Our timekeeping practices are completely arbitrary. I find myself thinking about the madman's speech in Nietzsche's The Gay Science:



.... What did we do when we unchained this earth from the sun? Away from all suns? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? .... (Section 125)



Incidentally, this is where Nietzsche first mentions the death of God. What is perhaps more disturbing to me, former Evangelical Christian, is the death of Jesus. Nietzsche for all of his passionate denunciations of Christendom, accepted until the end a historical Jesus.



But all melodrama aside, is it really all that hard to believe that Christians invented Jesus? I'm sure it was done with the best of intentions. It seems to be a defining mark of a "real" Christian to sloppily misunderstand his predecessors and his opponents. Is it really surprising? Christians seem do it all the time now. Look up David Paszkiewicz. Or the case in Pennsylvania about teaching Intelligent Design in high school. In the latter, the judge voices his strong suspicions that members of the school board lied about their beliefs in order to get a resolution to teach ID passed. have a Bible class in a high school? I wish we could trust the Evangelicals to keep their word. But I digress. Or we can consider the meaning of the word "monkish" in textual scholarship.



Believers have never been known for their attention to empirical reality or for their courage in following an investigation wherever it might lead. So, yeah, when you consider how fast and loose Christians play with the truth, it hardly seems surprising that Jesus of Nazareth was accidentally invented.




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