The Birth of the Messiah Legend: A Post-Epiphany Reality Check

In Honour of America’s Annual Nativity Feeding Frenzy

(First published as First Century Pulp Fiction: CBS at the Manger
A review of the recent CBS 48 Hours special “Birth of Jesus”
)

Once again the American media and a few scholarly mercenaries have tried to focus attention on New Testament mythology as though startling historical facts are waiting to be discovered beneath the layers of legend.

It happens every year, at Christmas and Easter: new revelations, startling discoveries (often described as “archaeological” to give a scientific ring), the latest scholarly finds, expert opinion. Given the lineup on CBS’s recent 48 Hours special on the birth of Jesus—John Crossan, Elaine Pagels, Michael White, and Ben Witherington (appropriately the gamut from skeptical to credulous in their approaches)—the ready supply of expertise (read: informed opinion) is no more in doubt than a burned out bulb in a marquee display.

But the opinions are. Quote Witherington, for instance: “[Mary] was very young at the time of the annunciation, barely a teenager. We’re talking about a small town girl here.” But the basis for this is nowhere to be found in the gospels; it’s based on guesses about marriageable age in Jewish tradition, spliced together with a prophecy from Isaiah 7 about a “young woman bringing forth a child,” spliced further with an event which defies historical explanation: an “announcement” of a virgin birth by one of God’s favorite messengers.

As with so much network (and general) docu-drivel, the scholarly shovels are out digging holes in air as though solid ground were beneath them. Other Class One errors: Elaine Pagels playing the Gnostic card, saying that the Gospel of Philip questions the entire concept of the virginity of Mary. Actually, the GP says that Mary is the “virgin whom no power defiled” and denies the historical Jesus (including his physical birth) completely.

Relevance to this discussion: nil. Witherington on the slaughter of the children by Herod described in Matthew’s gospel “From what we can tell about the ruins of first century Bethlehem, a few hundred people lived there. I think we’re talking about six to ten children [slaughtered] max.”

Queried as to why the event isn’t recorded outside the gospel account Witherington says “it was a minor event” by the standards of the time. So minor, in fact, that no other gospel writer mentions it, and New Testament critics have known for ages that while Herod may have been a no-gooder, the “massacre of the innocents” is just another case of Matthew milking prophecy to exploit his notion that Jesus was the “true” king of the Jews, Herod an evil imposter.

Slaughter of the Innocents, Giotto

In another instance, CBS took its crew to Egypt (receipts, please: no poolside drinks) to ask the visually tantalizing question, “Did the holy family actually live there for a while?” Matthew says they did. He says so because he is “reenacting” the Exodus scenario and gives his hand away by linking the sojourn to Hosea 11.1. Great story. Terrible history.

The problem with all such television exercises is that most of what is claimed is simply not true, or new, or revolutionary. The vast majority of biblical scholars know this; shame on them. It is the seasonal game to boost ratings, with Jesus Christ Superstar heading the pack—this year in tandem with ABC’s provocative query, Where is Heaven, How do I get There? Since archaeology is especially useless in answering that question we can leave heaven to one side, or up there as the case may be, and focus on the Christmas story, rightly beloved by children because it was a children’s story from the beginning.

Here is what we really know:

1. The Nativity Story is late—very late: The original gospel was communicated orally, chiefly by illiterate peasants. It possessed no story of the birth of Jesus because no one was interested in that part of the story until later. Paul has never heard of Jesus “of Nazareth,” or Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, or kings from eastern provinces, or a distant guiding star, or a virgin named Mary. He knows a story about a semi-divine messianic “man from heaven” (Philippians 2.5-11) whom he names Jesus Christ, “born of a woman [unnamed, unhusbanded], under [Jewish] law” (Galatians 4.4).

2. The earliest gospel and its copies possessed no birth story: When the basics of the story of Jesus were written down, the earliest literature still contained no story of the birth of Jesus. The earliest and (we think) the latest gospels–Mark (ca. 70, at earliest) and John (ca. 95, at earliest)–also know nothing of the birth of Jesus. Well, that’s almost right: the Fourth Gospel, John, knows a story similar to the one Paul knows, fancified a bit using ideas borrowed from popular Stoic philosophy, so that the semi-divine man becomes the “divine Word” of God, “who became flesh.” But still, no manger, no virgin birth–a mother he addresses, in fact, as “Woman” (John 2.4) , no angels singing Gloria, and instead of Bethlehem, active embarrassment that he hails from Galilee (John 7.40-2).

To add to the confusion, Matthew knows nothing of Jesus being from Nazareth; the family resides in Bethlehem and end up in Nazareth because it’s part of an escape route (Matt. 2.23). Luke on the other hand has the family living in Nazareth and ending up in Bethlehem because of an otherwise unknown Roman tax census (Luke 2.4f.). There is no historical memory here, and not even the Nazareth tradition is secure since despite all the very energetic attempts to find references to it no such “village”—not even an outpost of Empire–existed in the first century. (Yes, I know the contravening evidence; it is not compelling).

Discussions of the inscription from Caesarea Maritima have not alleviated our ignorance of this location and thus discussions of the implications of its proximity to the Hellenistic mini-city of Sepphoris are completely conjectural. The solution espoused by some scholars, of making this man of mystery Jesus of Bethlehem from Nazareth near Sepphoris makes him less a mystery than a cipher.

In fact, the birth in Bethlehem is legendary and the “hometown” (or refuge) of Nazareth was, if anything, a large farm.

3. The Stories are legends based on other legends: The birth stories are pious tales appended to the gospel of Mark by later writers whom tradition names “Matthew” and “Luke,” – but probably not by the authors known by those names.

Scholars know that the original gospel of Luke did not have its familiar nativity story because our earliest version of it, used by the famous second century heretic, Marcion, did not have it.

And as Marcion was writing and quoting away from his version of “Luke” in 120 AD or so in complete ignorance of the tale (just like Paul), we can assume that the nativity story came later. It arose at around the same time many other legendary accounts of the birth and infancy of Jesus were being written: The Pre-Gospel of James, for example, or the (in)famous Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which are full of entertaining stories about the birth of Jesus. In Infancy Thomas Jesus makes sparrows out of clay, then brings them to life, and smites his playmates—dead—for being rude to him. In some of the apocryphal tales he performs cures in the manger as a newborn. The tendency in the early church was to make Jesus “miraculous” from the get-go. The sources of these stories are tales told about emperors like Alexander the Great (whose mother was thought to be a virgin), Augustus (emperor, allegedly, when Jesus was born), Vespasian, heroes such as Herakles/Hercules (another virgin birth), Apollonius of Tyana, and Jewish folktales, like those associated with Chanina ben Dosa.

The story of the star is taken from Virgil’s praise-hymn (Eclogue IV) in honor of the “Peace” of Augustus. Nothing in the story is original, but its popularity was ensured by having its roots in a hundred other famous myths and legends. The point was to show Jesus the equal of the cultural heroes of the time.

4. What about the Genealogies? Another reason for knowing that the nativity tales are legendary is that, like all legends, they are uneven, flamboyant (even by the standards of miracle tales, which were the favorite form of first century pulp fiction) and contradictory. The two tales, Matthew’s and Luke’s, were not written very far apart in terms of chronology–perhaps Matthew’s coming first. But they were written to satisfy different audiences, different tastes, and for different religious reasons.

There are too many of these discrepancies to list here but there’s no need to dig very deep: Both Matthew and Luke provide “genealogies” of Jesus designed to defend their saviour from the Jewish calumny that he had been the illegitimate child of a Roman soldier (another proof of the lateness of the tales). But the genealogies themselves are out of synch: Among many discrepancies, Matthew (1.16) knows Jesus’ grandfather as Jacob, Luke (3.23) as Heli, and neither writer seems aware that the whole genealogy is negated by the doctrine of the virgin birth, which makes Joseph’s paternity irrelevant in any case. This shows to biblical critics that the genealogies originally served a different purpose from the virgin birth story—the first to prove the Jewish/Davidic pedigree of Jesus, the second to prove his divinity, mainly to gentile converts. Even the earliest Jewish Christians, the Ebionites, rejected the genealogies as forgeries, and the gospels of Mark and John know nothing about them.

5. Virgin Birth, Manger, and the Rest of It: As Christianity forged ahead, the church became less interested in the Davidic/Jewish pedigree of Jesus than in arguing his divine status–as son of God (filius dei, the designation used by Roman emperors from the time of Augustus, and conditioned by their belief that Jesus was their true lord and king). The miraculous birth was the culmination of this belief, the stage at which the virginity of Mary is introduced into the picture (Matthew 1.13-25 and Luke 1.5-8).

Matthew tells a Jewish story, more or less, and links the birth to prophecy by misusing, or misunderstanding, a verse from Isaiah (7:14, which in Hebrew simply reads, “A young woman [not a virgin] shall conceive and bear a child.”) Luke tells a Greek story, with awe-struck shepherds and harp-playing angels singing in the provincial skies. The Christians who adhered to the earliest tradition long enough to be regarded as heretics in the second century, the Ebionites, regarded the virgin birth story as heresy.

The earliest Christians seem to have followed Mark’s opinion that Jesus was promoted by God to lieutenant godship at the moment of his baptism (Mk 1.11), but the idea of a divine child sent by God for the salvation of his people was a part of the mythological picture of the late first and second century, Christianity’s formative decades. It was too tempting to leave aside: Wondrous manifestations of light, cave-births, hidden divinity made manifest to trembling onlookers. They were all part of the story of the birth of the gods and heroes before Christianity came onto the scene to share them.

Virgin birth of the Buddha

In Buddhist tradition, at Gautama’s birth, in equivalently odd circumstances, a great light shines over the world. Persians marked the birth of the Sun, symbol of the god, in the cave of Mithras at the winter solstice, and the Roman co-option of the cult of the sun god, Helios (combined with Mithras in the pre-Christian pantheon) made the solstice the date the birth of Jesus, “the light of the world.” In Greek tradition, Zeus as the Sun divinely illuminates the birth chamber of Herakles in the stable of Angras. And the poet Ovid presents Hercules as the child Horus, who shares a midwinter birthday with Zeus, Apollo, and other calendar gods. The Greek god Hermes was born in a cave in swaddling clothes. The story of the annunciation in Luke 1.30-33 is itself a borrowing of the Egyptian idea that impregnation can be effected through a ray of light falling from heaven, or a word (logos) spoken in the ear, a legend associated with the birth of Apis. The list goes on.

In summary: The stories of the birth of Jesus are late, legendary, and totally without historical merit. They are the additions of devotional writers who are at cross-purposes over whether to understand Jesus in messianic or heroic context and end up doing both. The failure to iron out contradictions is not their problem, because they were doubtless unaware that such contradictions existed. That the contradictions do exist, however, gives us important insight into the mythological foundations of the nativity tale.

Real scholars need to pay closer attention to the origins of religious myth and story and in communicating their opinions to have fuller regard for their role as reporters of reasoned conclusions. Looking for the manger, like looking for Noah’s ark, will probably continue to transfix believers once a year, but historians and biblical scholars should have no part in that quest.

Killing Audrey

Audrey must die.

My post on the self-confident SSS (Students for a Secular Season: fictional, I think) representative accosting a little black girl as she tried to drop some change in a Salvation Army kettle was a nuclear disaster.

A few ardent unbelievers have come to regard her as a folk hero and asked for her contact information.

A larger number of critics thought I had lost my natural theological sponginess and had taken secularism over the line into churlishness. (I am not Mark Twain so I will not follow with “and have joined the Salvation Army.”)

A few others thought it was “obvious satire,” but disagreed with its inobvious point–that atheists need to be more Christian in their giving habits. Note to some of my readers: This is called Irony.

I know that religion can get ugly. Not as ugly as politics, its natural twin for the better part of human history, but pretty awful. No one needs to remind me that the church has ignorantly done its bit to exacerbate poverty and disease, so forgive me if I remind you that the church did not create poverty and disease. It is darkly ironic (that word again) in a world where the state professes to care about people that the promoters of religious violence in Pakistan and Lebanon, the Taliban and Hezbollah, also run the most efficient social relief operations in those countries and do so because they believe their religion commends it. Now if they could just sign on to the Peace on Earth, Goodwill towards Men appendix.

But just as a pedantic point, Christianity has a long and fairly impressive record of cor ad cor loquitur–heart speaking to heart. The early Christians remembered Jesus having said radical things about giving: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. (Luke 12.33). True, he had a long prophetic tradition to draw on–for example, Isaiah 58: 6,7-10: “I have chosen…to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke… To share food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter. When you see the naked, clothe him, and do not turn away from your own flesh and blood …And if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”

The early church turned these traditions into what even Roman emperors like Julian (the last “pagan” ruler of a socially unglued empire) recognized as the distinguishing, if cloying, characteristic of the Christian faith: its conscience. “The religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1.27); or “If anyone has possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3.17-18). Saints ranging from Francis of Assisi to Martin of Porres and Vincent de Paul to Mother Cabrini, Elizabeth Seton and Louise de Marillac deserve, in their contexts, to be viewed as social justice activists, and many cared just as deeply about education as a way of climbing out of the conditions that made poverty and ignorance flourish. True, their church bureaucracy was not always so concerned and while they rang bells–the ancient symbol of being outcast and downtrodden or diseased–bishops prospered. But for many people until the rise of the secular state, charity did not begin at home because there was none: it began at the rectory door. Education, such as it was, at the parish school long before the state thought about getting into the game.

Elizabeth Ann Seton

Even critics of the early Christians found their charity remarkable, if also cloying. The second century writer Lucian tells the story of a particularly dodgy philosopher named Peregrinus who apparently decided that becoming a Christian teacher would be the quickest route to advancement among the yokel adherents of the new religion. He quickly “masters their books and writes a few of his own.” Peregrinus has no real interest in the doctrine of Christianity, but he does know that once you’re in, you’re in and that even the poorest converts will spend what little they have to help a teacher in distress. When Peregrinius finds himself on the wrong side of the law and is imprisoned for professing his faith openly, if insincerely, Lucian takes the occasion to tell us the following, half of it ridicule, half informative:

The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. Well, the end of it was that Proteus [Peregrinus] was arrested and thrown into prison. This was the very thing to lend an air to his favorite arts of clap-trap and wonder-working; he was now a made man. The Christians took it all very seriously: he was no sooner in prison, than they began trying every means to get him out again,—but without success. Everything else that could be done for him they most devoutly did. They thought of nothing else. Orphans and ancient widows might be seen hanging about the prison from break of day. Their officials bribed the jailers to let them sleep inside with him. Elegant dinners were conveyed in; their sacred writings were read; and our old friend Peregrinus (as he was still called in those days) became for them ‘the modern Socrates.’ In some of the Asiatic cities, too, the Christian communities put themselves to the expense of sending deputations, with offers of sympathy, assistance, and legal advice. The activity of these people, in dealing with any matter that affects their community, is something extraordinary; they spare no trouble, no expense. Peregrinus, all this time, was making quite an income on the strength of his bondage; money came pouring in. You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on trust, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property. Now an adroit, unscrupulous fellow, who has seen the world, has only to get among these simple souls, and his fortune is pretty soon made; he plays with them.”

Finally rejected even by the Christians, Peregrinus becomes a cynic (i.e., wandering) philosopher and ends his days around 165CE by igniting himself atop a funeral pyre in full public view. Had he stuck with the Church, he would have had the distinction of being the first Christmas light display.

It’s plain from Lucian’s story that shyster evangelists have always been the other side of the Christian mission; but that notwithstanding, so has this strange habit of actually caring about other people. Organized caring, mercy, and compassion have never (alas!) been much prized among the non-believing intelligentsia, and perhaps that is why they are in such short supply among atheists.

Bright doesn’t do compassion well. Think of Audrey. Now we’re getting somewhere.

At the risk of being outrageous, I think I know why people like me are so stingey. It’s because our concern for the downtrodden isn’t actually mandated by anything we believe about ourselves. In fact, thinking of ourselves as an intellectual minority is only possible because, truth to tell, smart, rich, good-looking, healthy and successful is the finite set we’d prefer to dim, poor, sick and useless. There is nothing in our life-stance textbook that explains for us why we should care about the second set, and the cleverer and more self-reliant and progressive we are, the more tempting it is to become slightly (how shall I say) Darwinian or at least Marie Stopes-ish about this. Let’s not mention Margaret Sanger; she did so much good in other ways.

Belief in a God who cares about you no matter how craggy your skin, crappy your life or your credit score is both the bane and benefit of religion when it comes to “philanthropy”–literally, love of human-kind. What your faith insists on is a human family where imperfection and disadvantages can be accepted within a context where human perfection, religiously speaking, isn’t possible. I know: it isn’t fair, and for an atheist totally irrational. But as a prod to loving your fellow human creatures great and small, irrespective of their girth and goodness, there is nothing quite like God to get you moving. If he can do it–and think of how rich he must be, and how much smarter!–then who am I to resist putting a few pennies in the old man’s hat at Christmas? It seems to me that you can reject this logic entirely and still enter into the spirit of the season without compromising your secularity.

But don’t take my word for it. My secret love, the Naked Theologian (a discreet UUA minister herself) recently commented that the whole “Good without God” campaign was based on the false notion that liberals and seculars were just as inclined to charitable giving as religious folk.

“Several studies have shown that American liberals—namely, those most likely to have little or no God, are least likely to give to charity. Hurts, doesn’t it? Where’s the proof, you say? Robert Brooks, who recently wrote a book, Who Really Cares, about charitable donors discovered the following (as reported by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof): ‘When I started doing research on charity,’ Mr. Brooks wrote, ‘I expected to find that political liberals — who, I believed, genuinely cared more about others than conservatives did — would turn out to be the most privately charitable people. So when my early findings led me to the opposite conclusion, I assumed I had made some sort of technical error. I re-ran analyses. I got new data. Nothing worked. In the end, I had no option but to change my views.’

Although liberals advocate on behalf of those who are hungry and homeless, Brooks’s data shows that conservative households give 30% more to charity. A Google poll puts these numbers even higher—at nearly 50% more. Conservatives even beat out liberals when it comes to nonfinancial contributions. People in the conservative states in the center of the country are more likely to volunteer and to give blood. But what about the relationship between having a God and being generous? Based on a Google poll (again, as reported by columnist Kristof), religion is the essential reason conservatives give more. And although secular liberals tend to keep their wallets closed, it turns out that religious liberals are as generous as religious conservatives.

Reading this made me re-think Audrey. If I had finished her story, rather than send her into her back yard where she fell down a well and drowned, it would have gone like this:

Audrey joined her SSS colleagues at Target. It was December 16th, and the group had a thousand bumper stickers to distribute to shoppers. Each one had a picture of a quarter, with the motto slightly altered to read, “In Good we trust.”

An old woman adjusted her shopping bags, took one graciously, inspected it, then handed it back to Audrey saying, “I think there’s a misspelling here.”

Audrey said, “That’s no misspelling. We don’t believe in God. We believe in good, get it?”

“Oh yes dear,” the old woman said unfluttered, “So do I. But that’s not what our money says, is it?”

Audrey turned around in exasperation. She was surprised to see the little girl and her auntie–the ones she had encountered at Walmart–standing at the card table, which had been draped with a banner that read “No God, No Problem: Just be Good for Goodness’ Sake.”

“I like these,” the Auntie said to Audrey, as though their previous interchange had never happened.

“They’re free,” Audrey said flatly. “But you’re welcome to make a donation to the SSS to help our efforts.”

The Auntie’s face took on an expression of concern. “Now do those efforts go to supply kitchens and shelters or buy medicine for sick folks?”

“No,” Audrey said, turning a suppressed sigh into a yawn. “We need fuel for the van.” “Uh-huh.” Auntie said looking first at the little girl, then back to Audrey as though they were the same age. “And where’s the good in that?”

Atheist Nation Celebrates the Holidays

The Intellectual Highground

Nothing puts atheists in a worse mood than the holiday season. All these dimly-lit people and brightly-lit window displays, making merry over things that never happened, spreading lies, propagating falsehood, singing their rancid carols, and worst of all teaching impressionable, if rather preposterous, children to believe in intellectual crap when they could be playing Megaman 11 or Worms Reloaded–which they got last Christmas. How obscene, how humiliating: Behold, little Buddy praying by his bedside for Megaman, versions, 12-16 (“conveniently boxed as one item” from Amazon.com) to a non-existent deity, having just lodged the same request with the sex-offender in the Santa suit at the mall. No wonder America is going to the red dogs and blue dogs. “Isn’t anybody listening to the Voice of Reason?”

God to a six-year old

Help is on the way.

To combat the forces of Darkness and Superstition, the American Humanist Association and some allies have launched a new ad campaign to put the Grinch back into Christmas. An article by Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times charts the new ecumenical spirit of the quest, spearheaded by the same blithe folk who brought us the “Good without God” bus-o-rama and the “Just be Good for Goodness Sake” billboard extravaganza. The campaigns are financed by “a few rich atheists” with money to throw to the wind, and buoyed by research being done by the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life (Trinity College), headed by the eminently reasonable Mark Silk and based on Barry Kosmin’s American Religious Identification Survey, showing that as many as 15% of Americans are “Nones,” i.e., have no religious identification or association.

It is pretty obvious and at the same time hopelessly obscure how Nones relate to atheism (atheists hope they do: this is largely, sad to say, a recruitment push for membership and dues), but as Goodstein points out in her article, the combined membership of the sponsoring organizations numbers only in the thousands. The best course might be to see whether Nones can be divided into groups: Certainly Nones, Possibly Nones, and None Just Now, Thanks–but I mix my politics and religion, which is never a good thing.

Possibly None

I will be blunt: This whole business is idiotic. It is hard to imagine that people like Todd Stiefel, one of those well-endowed atheists with cash to burn, are really on a rampage because of passages like the one he cites from the Bible:

“The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open.” (from Hosea 13:16, New International Version).

Reassuringly if a little obtusely Stiefel says that “It [our democracy] has not been based on [verses like these] and should never be. Our founding fathers created a secular democracy….We must denounce politicians that contend U.S. law should be based on the Bible and the Ten Commandments.” I agree. Anyone who wants Hosea 13 added to our Bill of Rights should be tied to a chair, gagged, blindfolded, and made to listen to Diane Rehm read slowly through the whole Book of Leviticus. Presumably (or is it implicitly?) he is willing to throw serous money at billboards so that America does not become a country that kills babies. He will find many friends among Catholics and Evangelicals on that score.

Diane Rehm

If you think ripping open pregnant women is bad, read the story of the wandering Levite in the Book of Judges (ch. 19) where a consummately self-absorbed kidnapper–a Hebrew–offers his concubine to some Village- of- the- Damned- crazed youth who want to have sex with him, gang rape her, leaving her for dead–whereupon the Levite butchers her semi-conscious person into twelve pieces and forwards a limb to each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Please: Don’t quote Hosea to me when there are passages that would make Tarantino wince.

The Levite's Discovery

But to be serious: Do the sponsoring organizations (which include besides AHA the American Atheists and the Freedom from Religion Foundation) think that these stories are read to Christian (or Jewish) children at bedtime? Is it bloody likely that a craven priest in Spokane is going to substitute the Legend of the Lethiferous Levite for St Luke’s Nativity story on Christmas Eve? I know that atheists feel they know a great deal about the mindset of the religious principles they reject, but one has to wonder why this isn’t reflected in their anti-Christian strategies?

Or are the campaigns only a reflection of the sponsors’ shocking ignorance of ancient myth and legend, whereof the Bible is a treasure hoard. I get the sense that the sponsors need to begin with the Brothers Grimm and then read backward in literary time to get a sense of how the grotesque has been used in history for both entertainment and moral instruction. Most “reasonable” people who are slightly sophisticated about the contours of culture know this. Many very nice religious people know this. They know that scaring people to death has been used by religion and nasty aunties for a long time to get people to change their wicked ways, clean up their act, and lead a better life. The question is, why don’t atheists know it? The shock of discovery seems entirely their own; it will not surprise the educated or awaken the irreligious passions of a Certainly None.

We don’t do that any more–scare people to death to make them good. Even very religious people don’t do that any more. The last really good sermon on hell was preached in 1917 by the torture-obsessed priest in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist. And I can’t name the last time I heard a robust sermon on Hosea 13.16. Given that real life lascivious priests are frightening enough, it seems unnecessary to reach back to the first millennium BCE for material.

Hell as you like it...

The intellectual isolation of the atheist from wider cultural movements and shifts in perception is one of the great stories of our time. Almost no one is covering it. If the question they are asking about religion is, Don’t these damned believers know what’s in the Bible, the answer is somewhere in the range between probably not to possibly so; but even if they do, they probably know that the Bible is not recommending carving up your girlfriend. And probably can guess that when you find blood and gore of this magnitude the story is about something else. Phrases and words like “symbolism,” “surface meaning,” “allegory,” “folk legend” and “myth” come to mind. Put it under the heading “Things Atheists Missed in College,” along with a good course in comparative religion, ancient history, mythology, and anthropology. It’s only people who have never studied myth who can write in such a yawningly banal way about religion being one.

I find myself constantly challenged on panels with atheists to lecture them on their understanding of words like “superstition,” the “supernatural” and above all “myth.” They in turn find me niggling and pedantic. But really, does the average atheist, village or city style, assume that the toxic texts of scripture are “in” the Bible for moral edification or because they reflect a time and culture different from lunchtime in Chicago?

Richard Dawkins lectures me, London 2007

Which brings us to the question, Who are these ads for? We’re told that a key reason for the aggressively confident style of the campaign (not to mention the unusual spirit of ecumenism that currently reigns in the atheist camp), is owing to their determination to get their “market share [of the Nones].” Leaving the most grievous puns aside, they are also inspired by the need to resist the Myth of the Not Lying Down Dead Horse, that America is a Christian Nation. And as we all know, there is nothing like a Billboard over the Lincoln Tunnel that announces, “You know it’s a Myth. Believe in Reason.” to get uncommitted people thinking and committed people scrambling for the nearest AHA meeting. Add a Hosanna to that and you’ve got something. (Tip for vandals: Spray paint “I’m Lucifer, and I approve this message” on the sign.)

In a particularly poignant way, weary commuters will also be treated to the cheery salvo of The United Community of Reason (not to be confused with Christians United to Oppose Rationality), a group in Washington. Their idea of decorating for the holidays includes spreading the good news of Reason on billboards and ads on bus shelters in about 15 cities: “Don’t Believe In God? Join the Club.” Fortunately, number-wise, the club can actually meet in the bus shelter. Add a few Nones and they can meet at a subway stop, except in cities where there are subway stops no one gives a rat’s whisker about organized atheism.

Far be it from me to lecture atheists. But please accept, along with an eggnog salute, the following advice. Grow up. Learn a little about what Being Clever means. I know we live in a world defined by short attention spans, coffee mugs, T-shirts and bumper stickers. But it’s completely unclear to me whether your ad campaigns will change a single mind, or even whose single mind your campaign is designed to change.

This is not a “struggle.” The upward march of unbelief is not the forces of liberation against the sources of slavery and oppression. I’m afraid religion beat you to that metaphor. It’s called Exodus. No one is paying attention because no one except your club members actually cares about the private conclusions of people who want to turn being disagreeable into a civil rights event.

Launch of Consider Atheism Campaign: Attended by Several

The slogans are insipid and can only have been vetted by very small committees of Like-minded People–and that’s a real problem, The modern atheist seems to get off on being distaff, minority, contrary, and ornery–the legate of a long free-thought heritage. Would your heart beat faster if you could persuade society that overturning a Salvation Army worker’s collection pot is an act of charity–extra points for snatching the bell? Would you praise a convert who defaced a nativity scene at Christmas, or saved a turkey’s life at Thanksgiving. Don’t be ridiculous, you say: that’s not what this is about. Don’t be ridiculous, I say: this is what you have made it.

Two last things in this little lecture:

Give up using the name humanism. You’re ruining it for people like me who don’t mean by it what you want it to mean. Equating atheism with humanism is a cheap trick, a cop behind the billboard (maybe one of yours?) kind of trick. Be proud of being an atheist. I know I’m not. You are not the American Humanist Association. You are full- frontally and outwardly the American Atheist Association.

And stop this ridiculous invocation of secular saints from Socrates to Einstein. Virtually none of the people you pray to became famous for being atheists and you know it. Not even Darwin. Certainly not Socrates. And Einstein: who knows?

“Yes, you can call it that,” Einstein replied calmly. “Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in fact, religious.” (Quoted by Isaacson in Einstein, 2007)

1933, on a deserted beach in Santa Barbara, California

But the point is, you cannot claim the intellectual upper hand in arguing against “God and religion” and then resort to the authority-argument to win your case. Even if you were joined by all the Nones in America, yours is a lonely lot. Especially at Christmas. Accept it. Live with it. And take down those absurd posters.

How Christianity is the Perfect Religion

Love Incarnate?

I confess to having a seasonal defective disorder about this—Christmas I mean.

I am frankly tired of news about religious extremists plotting world takeover from septic tunnels, watching deals between “good” Taliban and “pro-western” Pakistanis brokered and shredded within months by toothy politicians, depressed from smiling over my gin when MSNBC reports that a pilotless drone (no, a different entity from the United States Senate) has killed a “top level Al-Qaida leader.” (No, not bin Laden. Certainly not—but someone who knows someone who met him once. Maybe at a barber shop.)

Bored enough even to yawn at the last report of a horrific car, market, bus, mosque or school bombing somewhere in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan. Weary to the point of dizziness at the latest decisions to send in another doomed-from-the get-so cadre of troops to “finish what we started” [sic] in Afghanistan. Innocence betrayed by the allure of travel to distant lands?

At a lower level of cynicism, I am lulled to despair with the conflict over whether Jews in Santa Cruz should or should not have a right to display a fifteen foot high menorah in the “downtown area.” It’s a cluster of candles for God’s sake, but more to the point: don’t you have a back yard?

I am sick of the Vatican being forced into the position, yet again, of apologizing for randy priests and abusive, sexually repressed nuns who couldn’t keep their paws off innocent children in their care. It is disgusting. It is so disgusting that we need to consider seriously if any other social community, unprotected by the fiction that religion operates for the good, is even capable of doing the things that religion does—and does by pointing to a Higher Authority whose function it is (apparently) either to forgive it or condemn it but does nothing to prevent it by putting its holy temple in moral order.

Magdalene Asylum

The commonplace concept of God in all three religions is so miserably and wretchedly puerile that it sends me searching for my dog-eared copy of The Future of an Illusion on an annual basis. May the Kingdom come (and go) soon.

So I ask myself, what went wrong, or what’s gone missing? All of these religions had mystery once upon a time. And without overstating the terrors that take shape when religion is taken literally rather than mystically religion unclothed is a dangerous thing. The poet Matthew Arnold warned a century and a half ago of the danger of taking myths, mixing briskly with the hazards of unformed religious passion and ignorance of literature, and turning them into dogma. For Arnold, the great devil of nineteenth century religion in the English tradition was making postulates out of poems.

Arnold

Who could have foretold that the literalism and plain-talk we expect in twenty-first century discourse would constrain religion to take its own propositions seriously, and worse, act to defend them in absurd and violent ways. But that, I submit is what has happened.

Maimonides. Avicenna. Meister Eckhart. Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī Rumi, and more to date (d. 1937) Muhammad Iqbal and Thomas Merton, alas, are not the future of religion.

I have always found it odd in one sense that many of the great philosophical mystics were also great intellectuals, especially it seems logicians and mathematicians. Origen and Ibn Rushd, in their respective pockets, saw theology closely aligned to true wisdom, in that higher sense the neo-Platonists were so fond of talking (and talking) about.

So let me talk about it.

I have said a sufficient number of times (so that anything beyond this time will be mere repetition) that the “cure” for all the bad religion we see around us is not “good” religion or the “right sort of” religion or (above all) declamations that what we’re witnessing “isn’t really religion” but some sort of satanic parody of religion. All such talk is an invitation for conflict under the banner of dialogue.

Religion is not purified by scraping away the mould to see if any edible bread is left. A cure—and yes, that is the word I want–depends on seeing the violence inherent in religious literalism and heeding the call to myth, mystery, and poetry.

When it comes to religion, words speak louder than actions. All forms of biblical and Quranic literalism are invitations to moral terror not because the precept you happen to be reading at the moment is “wrong” but because the one you read next might violate both conscience and commonsense. Violent because you cannot know what verses stir the mind and heart of your friendly local mullah, priest or rabbi. Picking and choosing what the experts believe the laity need to hear–the way most preachers have practiced their faith in public over the millennia–may be a tribute to the power of discernment, but it teaches the congregation—the occasional Catholic, the wavering Muslim—some very bad habits.

It can lead to a constricting of moral vision, the abuse of little children, butchering or disfiguring wives and daughters, the killing of the tribe of Abraham by the children of Abraham. Words do this because they have the power to be misunderstood. And because taken as a bundle, the texts of the sacred traditions are a muddle of contradictory and sometimes terrifying ideas that commend everything from peace on earth to extermination of the unbeliever in their several parts.

It is the kind of tangle that attracts knot-tiers and exploiters and anyone who needs the money of the poor to be rich. Most of the methods developed to study and examine the narratives of the world’s religions “scientifically” in the last two centuries have helped to provide contexts for texts, have shone light on the community within which texts developed—ranging from Syria to Medina—reminding us above all that the ancient words are no different in provenance than modern words: that is, they are human words and need human interpretation. The words are not above us, they should not be considered immune from our assessment and judgment. Any doctrine of inspiration that teaches otherwise is potentially if not actually malignant and insidious.

I could quote Rumi, or Ibn Rushd, or a poem by Alama Iqbal to make my point. They were all great hearts and deeply committed to their vision of religious truth. Taken in another direction, they might have been vicious—because mysticism has often led to esotericism and fanaticism. (Religious language is funny that way.) Origen and Peter Abelard lost their testicles and hundreds of Anabaptists in Munster in 1535 their lives not because they lacked imagination but because they had special visions of how to take the kingdom by storm.

So let me take refuge instead in the myth we find embedded in the story Christians like to read at this time of year.

The Christian myth is that love was born into the world in human form, divine nonetheless and (as the story winds on, without prejudice to the order of composition of the gospel elements) capable of suffering, and destined (as in the ascension myth in Luke) to regain his heavenly estate. True love, recall, does not undergo change, does not “alter when it alteration finds.”

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.
(Christina Rossetti, 1885)

People who hate the gory images of crucifixion and the metaphysically blinding element of the resurrection narrative, tend to like Christmas anyway. They like it even though they may very well reject every other part of the Jesus tradition. What they like “about” it may not be Christian at all, and may well be more ancient than the ancient ideas that quietly undergird Luke’s and Matthew’s poetic fables.

Socrates it’s easy to forget, was no fan of “poetical myths” “Those which Hesiod and Homer tell us and the other poets, for they composed false fables to mankind and told them [Republic, 377d]. These are “not to be mentioned in our city” [Republic, 378b]. It is easy to forget this because Plato himself was unable to exile Homer completely from his city. What he worries about is the propensity of “myth” (poetical or philosophical) for misunderstanding and the natural tendency among the uneducated, the young and the intellectually dull for getting the myths wrong—missing the point.

Fragment, The Republic

In the Ion [533c], Socrates explains that some people are closer to wisdom and interpretation than others. Call it knowledge—as later Platonists and their sympathizers did. There is a power, Socrates teaches, which descends from the gods to certain men and to others who, like Ion, use the works of the inspired. “It is, he says, like a series of iron rings the first of which is attached to a magnet so that the power of the magnet passes on to all in the series.” Think God, think angel choirs, think wise men, think shepherds. “Those beautiful poems are not human, nor the compositions of men; but divine, and the work of the gods: and that poets are only the interpreters of the gods, inspired and possessed, each of them by a peculiar deity who corresponds to the nature of the poet.” But it stops with the interpreters, the users. The force is not with everyone.

Christianizing Plato is a perilous business, but it did not stop the church fathers and later writers from trying and getting it poetically wrong in their determination to be theologically right. The life of Jesus for many of the interpreters was simply an allegory of divine love, the way in which love (truth) became incarnate. The way love “came down”—in the beginning, for John, “at Christmas” for Rossetti. Certain writers saw this, to be fair, more philosophically than others. The Gnostics did not need a manger or a virgin mother. The most arrogant of the mystics sided with the ancients in thinking that this love was simply a gift of inspiration given to men of learning and ability. Love, philia, is the general term that Plato uses when he wants to convey attraction. It is usually a one way street: the image of iron rings and magnets drawing the things of this world to the things of an unseen realm by a mysterious power that is divine—god-originated..

Perilous though it is, I think that Christianity was unique in democratizing love and in making love available to even the lowliest, the most ignorant, the slaves and sinners. Even the pagan haters of Christianity hated it most for its non-exclusivity, its lack of a membership code. Plato would have hated it, too, and would have insisted that, had there been any, Christians should be barred from his city. Later philosophical Platonism had next to no social dimension. Christianity did.

Christian mythology took the principle of attraction and the connection between God, conceived as love, and forgiveness, considered intrinsic to goodness, and extended it to a human race that had lost its compass and its ladder. Everyone could be perfect because everyone could be attracted.

Do I believe this is literally the state of humanity? Do I think that we should tell our children these things irrespective of SAT scores? Do I agree with Plato that amateurs need not apply and that the secrets of the myths should be “locked in concealment”—the path taken by most of the Platonically-based mysteries and even for a while among certain Christian groups.

What I believe is, there are no mysteries in mangers.

What I Think I Am

I am a humanist. I do not believe in an afterlife but (to quote Woody), “Just in case, I’m bringing a change of underwear.”

Woody

I don’t deny or affirm the existence of God, any god. There have been so many, and all of them had their vague charms and serious hang-ups, ranging from the violent to the sexually perverse. Who could know which to worship? No one. That’s why we usually end up with the god our grandfathers worshiped.

Yahweh on wheels (coin)

Whether there is a God or not is simply of no consequence to me, and if the truth be told, can anyone in raw honesty claim that the God they pray to for answers, solutions, reversal of fortune, pie-in-the-sky or redress of grievances ever–ever answers their calls. Of course not. I can still see the pious face of a too-close relative asking me, as my mother lay dying in a hospital ICU, whether I believed God answered prayer. “It depends,” I said. “What are we praying for?”

I am an Unbeliever, of sorts. Joylessly so. I have no axe to swing at the necks of believers. I dislike the word “agnostic.” It sounds as precious in tone and as pretentious as the era when it was coined. It sounds as though we wait patiently for some impossible verdict to emerge from the skies confirming our hunch that we were right to disbelieve all along, Descartes and Pascal be fucked. But it’s not really about evidence, is it? It’s about hunches.

I am not an atheist. But it is a noble thing to be, done for the right reasons.

There are plenty of good reasons to be an atheist–most of them originating in our human disappointment that the world is not better than it is, and that, for there to be a God, he needs to be better than he seems. Or, at least less adept at hiding his perfection.

But you see the problem with that. Goodness and imperfection are terms we provide for a world we can see and a God we don’t. Taken as it is, the world is the world. Taken as he may be, God can be anything at all. I’m not surprised by the fact, human and resourceful as we are, that religion has stepped in as our primitive instrument, in all its imaginative and creative power, to fill in the vast blank canvas that gives us the nature (and picture) of God.

But let’s be clear that God and religion are two different things, and that atheists err when they say “Religion gave us God.” What religion gave us is an implausible image of God taken from a naive and indefensible view of nature. I find my atheist friends, even the “famous” ones, making this categorical error all the time.

There are also some very silly reasons to be an atheist. The silliest is the belief that the world wasn’t made by God because God doesn’t exist and that people who think this are stupid and ignorant of science. There are so many fallacies packed into that premise that it’s a bit hard to know where to begin picking. But perhaps this analogy will help: This clock wasn’t made by Mr Jones because I made Mr Jones up in my head. It was actually made by a clockmaker whose name is lost in the rubbish of history, so if you continue to think Mr Jones made it just because I said so, you’re ignorant.

No, that is not a broadside in favor of intelligent design (though I happen to think the atheist approach to the question is often tremulously visceral); it’s a statement about how we form premises. The existence of a created order–a universe–will ultimately and always come down to a choice between the infinity of chance and the economy of causation, but in any event, my causation is not muscled and bearded and biblical. That much we can know

I am a realist. I believe (with a fair number of thinkers, ancient and modern) that human nature is fundamentally about intelligence and that the world (by which I really mean human civilization) would be much further on if we stopped abusing it. I regret to say, religion has not been the best use of our intelligence, and it has proven remarkably puissant in retarding it. Science is always to be preferred, except in its applied, for-profit form (as in weapons research) because it expands our vision and understanding of the world while religion beckons us, however poetically, to a constricted view of cosmic and human origins.

Who will save us?

To be a realist makes me something of a pessimist (a term going out of fashion) not because I don’t believe in the capacity of human nature to become what it seems designed to be, but because–realistically–we have become as flabby in our thinking as we have become corpulent of mortal coil. Being a realist means we can’t do or know everything–with a tip of the hat to my scientifically progressive friends whose promethean visions I find engendered with a kind of cultic spirituality that makes me squirm. Science after all, like religion, was created by us. One of our tasks is to learn and teach its secrets and take it away from the priestly caste it has created.

When I hear the chorus of scientific naturalists moaning that hoi polloi are dim, that the secret to intellectual salvation comes through a door locked by secrecy and formulas the laity are unable to cipher, I’m always reminded of the ancient hierophants who guarded their own secrets closely and made sure they were passed down only through a priestly elite. And even though I know–theoretically–that science does not encourage secrecy in that sense and is–theoretically–democratic in its outreach, in practice it has been very bad in wholly communicating and exegeting its mysteries beyond the gates of MIT and Caltech. In other words, is it only religion we must blame for the scientific illiteracy of the masses?

But in the end, I am a humanist. Humanism incorporates the rest of it, the unbelieving, the realistic, the pessimistically hopeful. It also includes the aesthetic, and this can be something of a dilemma at this time of year–which, by the way, I am happy to call Christmas and not “the Holiday season” or “Winterfest” or “Solstice.” Winter is not to be feted but avoided. Saturnalia (the Roman Solstice holiday celebrated on December 17th) was just like its replacement, Christmas, a religious holiday in honor of the birth of a god, though a lot more fun.

And I have a weak spot. I love religious music, especially at this time of year. Bach and Handel spun the most amazing cantatas and oratorios out of the Christian myth. They are irreplaceably wonderful. Beyond that, the sheer melodic simplicity of “Silent Night” (perhaps the best song ever written) and the shivering loneliness of “In the Bleak Midwinter” stir the poet in any human soul. “Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.” Think of that the next time you’re shoveling out.

I don’t believe that Jesus, if there was one, was born in a manger, but I think the idea of pure, naked, vulnerable–even unwelcome–humanity as expressed in religious nativity art and poetry is humbling and moving. And I think the end of the same story, as an allegory of our humanity, naked and vulnerable at the end, is not a contradiction of dignity but an acknowledgment of mortality.

It is something we will all have to do eventually–face our end, I mean. For the humanist that confrontation underscores our belief that a human life is what we’ve got to work with. That we do not seek our rewards, satisfactions or compensation in some unplotted and mythical kingdom.

It is an intelligent, humanistically compelling thing (as philosophers used to remind us), to see the art of dying as the other side of the art of living well. Humanists need constantly to remind themselves that non-belief is not the same as living well or facing death courageously. I think, personally, that mangers and crosses are as relevant to my humanity as the visions of Apollo and the pleasures of Dionysus. Use the myths wisely, but use the myths.