This is a repeat of an essay by Jillian Becker, first posted on April 29, 2011.
The rise of enthusiasm for Socialism in America, demonstrated by the great numbers of enthusiasts flocking to hear Bernie Sanders, the Democratic candidate for the presidency, preaching it, prompts us to post the essay again.
It is human nature to be selfish. If we weren’t selfish we wouldn’t survive. If we didn’t eat when we were hungry, warm ourselves when we were cold, seek cures for our illnesses, defend ourselves (and our children and our life-sustaining property), we’d die out pretty damn quick. Or rather, we would never have come into existence as a species at all.
We are most of us capable of sympathy with others, and we often willingly give away a thing we own to another person. Some are altruistic. A few will even give up their lives to save the lives of others. Nevertheless, we are all naturally and necessarily selfish.
Christianity and Communism require human nature to change. As it can’t, Christianity’s commandments to love our enemies and forgive those who do us harm turn many a person of good will and high aspiration into a hypocrite if not a corpse. Communist theorists have never settled the question of whether human nature must change so that the Revolution can take place, or whether the Revolution must take place in order for human nature to change. Of course it will never change, but there’s no stopping the collectivist dolts arguing about it.
Capitalism works well because it is in tune with our nature. Adam Smith called it “the natural order of liberty”. Everyone selfishly desires to provide for his needs. To pay for what he wants from others – services and goods – he has to provide something that others will pay him for. Millions do it, and the result is prosperity. Capitalism is an abstract machine most beautiful to behold in the wonder of its workings. When individuals have the incentive to achieve, acquire, and enjoy something for themselves, they’ll go to great lengths to afford it. They’ll compete with each other to provide what others want, toil to make it the better product, and set the price of it lower. The best is made available at the least cost. Everyone is both a taker and a giver, and everyone benefits. True, not everyone’s effort always succeeds, but nothing stops anyone from trying again.
Of course capitalism isn’t a remedy for every ill and discontent. But a capitalist society offers the best chance to an individual to make the best of his condition – being alive – which presents him with a tough challenge – to stay alive for a few score years, and make those years as good as his energy, cunning, and adaptability to conditions outside of his control (plus his statistically likely share of luck), can help them to be.
In a capitalist society no one has a fixed place, whether below, in the middle, or on top. A person can rise, sink, or stay. A truly capitalist society is necessarily a free society in which no one is prevented, by some ruler or ruling clique, from bettering his lot, striving, succeeding, or failing.
Capitalism is the enemy of that God of whom all the children in the British Empire used to sing at morning prayers in school assemblies before the Second World War:
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small;
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colors,
He made their tiny wings.
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them high and lowly,
He ordered their estate.
The children were being taught to be content with everything as it was, trusting that God the ruler up there, all wise, permanent and unchallengeable had ordained how everyone had his fixed place and should stay in it, and because He had ordained it, it must be perfect. The recognition that such a God was an indefensible authoritarian, a whim-driven cosmic dictator, an unjust and arrogant tyrant, came – perhaps unconsciously – to the choosers of Anglican hymns only after a few of the earth’s dictators had been trounced in a prolonged and terrible blood-letting.
But then Socialists took over from God. They decided what was best for humanity. They established the Welfare State. No rich men in castles, no poor men at gates. The State would provide every citizen with depressing accommodation, dull food, health care if he were judged worthy of being kept alive, indoctrination in schools. Though the Socialist State is a slave society, the citizens are not called slaves but Social Security Recipients, National Health Patients, Students, Workers. The belief of their rulers is that they’ll be content because the State provides them with “everything”; they’ll be grateful for the food however poor, the unit in the tower block however depressing, the bed in the hospital however filthy, the indoctrination however boring. The great thing about it, to the collectivist mind, is they won’t have to strive to keep alive. And no one will have cause to pity or envy anyone else, since no one will have less or worse, or more or better – except of course the rulers up there, all wise, permanent and unchallengeable who ordain that everyone else has his fixed place. They reserve plenty, choice, comfort, luxury, information, and power to themselves.
The recognition that such a State is counter to the human instinct for freedom – call it “selfishness “ if you will – should have come to every sane adult the world over when the Soviet Empire crashed. The idea of Socialism should have died then. But if it did, it was only for a short time. Like the Christian God, it rose again, and lives now in the White House, an administration indefensibly authoritarian, whim-driven, unjust, and arrogant.
Selfish human nature with its instinct for liberty, its impelling desire to possess what is good for it materially and mentally, is the force that can and must defeat it.
Today in our Pages section (see the top of our margin), we post a review by Jillian Becker of How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman.
Here is part of it.
Bart D. Ehrman’s book How Jesus Became God is a formidable challenge to Christian belief. It stands to his credit that he pursued his researches to the point where he changed from a believing Christian into an “agnostic”. (I put the word in quotation marks because I think the word as applied to religious belief is a cop-out, an intellectual bromide. If you do not believe there is a god, whether your unbelief is weak or strong, you are an atheist.)
An enormous amount of what he says fits with what is known and makes good sense. But in one vital area he goes wrong. He goes wrong because his perspective is Christian – even though he no longer thought of himself as a Christian when he came to write the book. He was not able to free himself sufficiently from the Christian viewpoint because he could not totally shrug off his Christian indoctrination.
Where is it that he goes wrong? ? He traces the vital beginning of the process of Jesus becoming God to the first, Jewish, followers of Jesus. That is the core of his thesis. And, interesting as his book is, generally well-researched as it is, it fails to make its case; because the author has not understood who the earliest followers of Jesus were and what they believed about him.
There is convincing evidence that the man whose Greek biographers called by the name Jesus (and we must call him that for want of knowing what his birth name was) did exist in the province of Judea between the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius, and that he was a rabbi with a burning (fanatical, even insanely fanatical) desire to bring about a new Kingdom of God, like the one he and his nation believed had been the free and glorious kingdom of David and Solomon. He prophesied that the “Son of Man” – or the Messiah, the Annointed One – would come and effect this wonder, and he even came to believe that he was that “Son of Man”, that Messiah, himself.
Now let’s look at more of the probable story from a non-Christian (and unbelieving) standpoint.
Jesus’s gesture of attacking some Roman soldiers, along with a couple of his followers armed with two swords – one of them used to slice off a Roman’s ear – did not bring the result he expected. He had convinced himself such a move on his part would be the signal to God to start the series of earth-transforming miracles that would destroy the Roman Empire and bring back the freedom and glory of the Jewish people. The Romans arrested him, brought him to a cursory trial, and condemned him to death by crucifixion – the punishment prescribed for insurrection by Roman law. The punishment was duly carried out. (As Ehrman says, the body was probably flung on the ground somewhere to be devoured by birds and worms and scavenging beasts.)
His little circle of close followers, shocked, terrified, and grieving, fled from Jerusalem to save their own lives, but returned after a while and were to be found among the numerous sects and factions of perfectly orthodox Jews who lived there and carried out their obligations under the law in and to the Temple. They could not bear to give up their idea that Jesus was the Messiah. And as he had not succeeded in doing what a Messiah had to do, they trusted that he would soon return and complete his task. They even sent out missionaries to preach to dispersed communities of Jews and their hangers-on of “God fearers” that Jesus was the risen Messiah and he would return in glory to save the Jewish nation.
Now we come to the tricky bit. Did they then believe that Jesus had come back to life after his execution? Yes. So to them he was still alive? Yes. Did they believe that he had suspired not just in spirit, but in his body? Seems very likely that they did. And this would not have been strange among the Jews of the time. Every sect and party, every faction and movement, religious and political, except one – the Sadducees, the party of the royal priests – believed in the bodily resurrection of the dead. The general resurrection (the dogma ran) would occur at the end of days. But Jesus’s resurrection, his disciples believed, would be sooner than that – very soon. And they might well have pictured him returning in clouds of glory, descending from the sky and instantly causing the political liberation and resultant spiritual renewal of Israel.
Did they then believe that he was, or became after his death, or perhaps had always been God, or a god, or “the [unique] Son of God” – no. If they had believed any of that they would no longer have been Jews. But doesn’t the idea of his return in clouds of glory and descending from the sky imply divinity? Yes. And Ehrman argues well that there was precedent in the Jewish religious annals for an orthodox belief that (a) there were beings other than God himself in the divine sphere who were thus themselves divine – angels, seraphim, cherubim; and (b) that men had been raised to the sphere of divinity and – it could be argued – shared in the aura of the divine. It is even true that the Hebrew word for God – Elohim – is a plural. And that Psalm 82 speaks of creatures on earth being “gods”. He cites the (apocryphal) books of Enoch and The Wisdom of Solomon for the strongest evidence to support his contention that, while Jehovah was believed by the Jews to be the chief God, there were many lesser gods in Jewish scriptures.
Fine. But now we come back to what the followers of Jesus believed. First of all, who were they? At one point Ehrman calls them “illiterate peasants”. Well there he is probably wrong. For one thing, Jewish boys (most if not absolutely all) were taught to read so that they could read aloud a portion of the law when they turned thirteen. Secondly, there is nothing to say that either Jesus or his followers were uneducated men or even poor men. (The Christian tradition that Jesus was a carpenter and the apparent son of a carpenter has no basis in any discoverable historical fact. The family could have been well-to-do. There were means to support him as a rabbi – a voluntary teacher of the law – in his last year or two.) The disciple Matthew (not to be confused with the name attached to one of the gospels) was certainly literate, being a tax collector.
If Ehrman is right that they were mostly illiterate peasants, then the chance that they would have known anything of the apocryphal books of Enoch are remote, and virtually nil that they could have known of The Wisdom of Solomon – written in Greek – or the works of their contemporary Philo of Alexandria in Egypt.
And even if they were literate, as they almost certainly were, they were not scholars or theologians. There is no way they would have been able to argue for the existence of lesser gods, even if they knew Psalm 82 off by heart. They would have been taught that “God is One” – the central tenet of Judaism. So Ehrman’s sophisticated arguments from esoteric and academic sources for the possibility that they could believe Jesus was or became a god, are inapplicable to them. …
Today we have posted under Pages (see the top of our margin), an Appendix to the series of essays by Jillian Becker, titled The Darkness of This World.
It is a short account of the ancient Greek cults of Dionysos and Orpheus.
It is provided in particular to explain why a contemporary “Action” artist of Austria, Hermann Nitsch – the subject of one of the essays – declared his rituals to be “Dionysian”. In general it amplifies the analogies drawn throughout the series between the rebellious pursuit of evil in post-Enlightenment European cultures and ancient Gnostic cults.
Dionysos and Orpheus
The worship of the Greek god Dionysos was a primitive mystery religion. He was the god of wine. He had many names, one of them Bacchus – the name the Romans used for him. Because the celebrants at Dionysian festivals performed passionate choral “dithyrambic” hymns out of which Greek drama developed, he became also the god of drama, music, and poetry.
“Dionysos” means twice born. In a Thracian and Theban myth, he is first born when Zeus begets him upon a mortal maiden named Semele. In a Cretan myth, Zeus, in the form of a snake, impregnates his own daughter Persephone – born to him by Demeter, the goddess of agriculture – and Persephone begets Dionysus-Zagreus, who has the horns of a bull. In both, he is abducted soon after his birth by the Titans, the sons of Earth. (In the Semele myth, they are prompted to do so by Hera, Zeus’s consort, the Queen of Heaven, because she is jealous of Semele.) They tear the babe limb from limb, and eat him. But the goddess Athene retrieves his heart in the nick of time and brings it to Zeus, who swallows it whole. Then Dionysos is born again from his father’s thigh. Zeus punished the Titans by burning them up in a flash of lightning. From their ashes, humankind arose.
In the rituals of the worship of Dionysos, bulls and goats were sacrificed, both beasts being held sacred to him. Celebrants became intensely inebriated and danced wildly to the loud music of pipes, drums and cymbals, until the “god entered into them”, a mystic condition for which the Greek word was Enthusiasm. With the god inside them, they were freed from all restrictions of law and reason and, transcending even the supposed limits set by nature, would tear an animal or human being apart with their bare hands and feast on the raw flesh. Bands of drunken men and woman (but in The Bacchae by Euripides, only bands of women called the Maenads), ran and danced, naked or partially clad in the skins of fawns, and smeared with the blood of the animal or human prey, night-long, in wild places, leaping over earth and grass and stone, and indulging every erotic desire.
The story clearly signals that the Dionysian Mysteries involved human sacrifice.
To be initiated into the Mysteries, a man would perform a “re-enactment” of the god’s birth, death and re-birth in order to “become one with the god”. The rite included a simulated Descent into the Underworld (the Katabasis) – the initiate probably going into deep dark caves – to seek the God; or perhaps to find Persephone who spent six months of the year down there; and symbolically bring him or her back up from Hades to the light. The initiate would then be let into the secret of the Liknon, or Arc – that it contained a goat’s penis, or (most likely when the ceremony was performed in temples rather than in the wild), a wooden phallus. He would then be invested with an oak or ash wand, the Thyrsus, and bear it in procession to a celebration with his fellow initiates, all of them communing with the god by imbibing lavish quantities of his good wine.
A woman too could be inducted into the religion. She would be called “an Ariadne”. Adorned as a bride of Dionysos, she would first undergo ceremonial flagellation, and be hanged on a tree, possibly to the point of near asphyxiation. She would then “descend into the Underworld to meet the god”, and on her return the Liknon would be opened, and she would publicly consummate her union with Dionysos by using the sacred phallus as his representative. She would then join the god’s love-fest with the drinking of wine.
The Dionysos cult was already somewhat tamed by the time – no one knows when, but certainly not later than the early 6th century BCE – when Orpheus came along and reformed it. He may have been a living man, a priest of Thrace (modern European Turkey), or a Cretan. But then again, he could be entirely mythical. Man or myth, legends surround his name. He was the musician who (Shakespeare wrote in Henry VIII) “with his lute made trees/ And the mountain tops that freeze/ Bow themselves when he did sing”; and who, by his musical charms, gained passage into the underworld of the dead to fetch back his wife, Eurydice – a mission which tragically failed when he looked back at her before they regained the land of the living.
Whether he was man or myth, to him is attributed a development that did happen – the transformation of the savage cult of Dionysos into a moral religion. (By no means the first – both Zoroastrianism and Judaism preceded it – but the first among the Greeks.)
The Orphics taught that human beings had a double nature, of earth and of heaven, mundane and divine, as did Dionysos, child of the King of Heaven and a mortal woman. Thus man was mortal, but had an immortal soul. He could liberate his soul from his base earthly nature through moral practices, so that when he died, it would rise to its real home in heaven where it would live eternally. A good soul would rise immediately upon the death of the body. A bad soul would be punished by being confined in another body, again and again until it learnt to be good.
For men and women to purify their souls (the Orphic religion held that women were equal to men in the eyes of the gods), they had first to be ritually cleansed in the blood of beasts. After that ceremony, he or she wore only white garments and abstained from drinking wine or eating meat, except as a sacrament. Many pleasures of the flesh were renounced. Right living was commanded, and the continual observance of the Orphic religious rules. The ideal way of everyday life for the Orphic was ascetic. Only by following this path would they find spiritual redemption, and their souls, rescued from all earthly strife and pain, be united eternally with the divine.
Did the Orphics perform the sacrament of Enthusiasm as the Dionysian celebrants had done? That is to say, did they gather in crowds for the drinking of wine, for blood-sacrifice, and the devouring of freshly killed raw meat; did they run naked through the countryside and dance wildly and have violent sexual intercourse? Were willing “victims” flagellated, and hung on a tree until they were near death, then “reborn” in imitation of the god? In a word, did the Orphics indulge in a Dionysian “orgion” – an orgy? The word was the name of this sacrament. But it has come to mean a wild party of many intoxicated people abandoning themselves promiscuously to the pleasures of the flesh.
Or was the Orphic orgion less savage than the older Dionysian rite? One might expect so, but we do not know. Legend has it that their ideal was, yes, to become enthused and steadily augment the divine element in them as the Dionysians had done, only not with wine, but by striving for a profound understanding of esoteric Orphic teaching – which could hardly have been done in the course of one wild night. They drank wine only as a sacrament (as later the Christians did in the ceremony of the Eucharist).
One might suppose that the Orphics, with their morality and respect for all life, would balk at the sacrifice of human beings. But it’s not known if they did. And the legend of Orpheus’s death suggests that human sacrifice retained a place in their mythology if not also in their rites. For in the story Orpheus himself, the good priest, the beautiful enchanting musician, was torn to pieces and devoured by orthodox worshipers of Dionysos.
His innovations, however, survived him. The Orphic bloodwashing ritual was carried over into the Roman cult of Mithras, the majority religion of the Roman army. The initiate would stand naked under a grid, upon which a bull was slain, so that its blood poured over him. More significantly, Orphism introduced the idea of an immortal soul into Greek religion and philosophy. For the Greeks, that idea had its beginnings in the Enthusiasm of the Dionysian Mysteries. (In the Hebrew scriptures, the belief that the individual soul rises to God after the body dies may be far older. In the book of Ecclesiastes, attributed to King Solomon who died in 931 BCE, “the Preacher” writes: “The earth shall return to the earth as it was, and the spirit unto God who gave it.” And even older, by perhaps as much as five centuries, are the Zoroastrian tales of the individual soul’s adventures immediately after escaping from its dead body.)
Pythagoras (born 571 BCE) embraced Orphism, and his school of thought held that the individual soul, though it migrated from body to body, had knowledge of the god. Plato (5th into 4th century BCE) believed that the soul, or spirit, was immortal. Plotinus (204-270 CE), and his followers the Neoplatonists, believed that the soul was eternal and indestructible, not born with any particular person it may inhabit, and not ending with him either, only moving on forever into bodies new.
Christianity, which may have initially derived the idea of the individual soul or spirit either from Judaism or Orphic-influenced Greek philosophy (or possibly both), teaches several contradictory doctrines about the individual soul: that it bears the record of the person’s life, is responsible for what that person did, and will be judged by God according to its record; but also that regardless of what the soul made the body do in life, whatever good and whatever evil, it was predestined for heaven or hell before it was born in a body. And whether the saving or condemning to its eternal fate will occur immediately after the death of the body or at the end of time, when all souls will convene before the divine Judgement Seat, remains unsettled. Parts of Christian mysticism and some of its ritual could plausibly be traced to the Orphics (though for most of them other sources cannot be ruled out). Obvious examples are: the idea of the immortal soul; the infant god being the son of a divine father and a mortal woman; the infant god being hunted by men who would kill him; a dying and resurrecting god; the god’s descent into an underworld and his return from it; his performance of miracles (notably the turning of water into wine which was also told of Dionysos); the ideal of spiritual purity, to attain which morally clean living is commanded; the rite of baptism (though in water not blood); the sacrament of the Eucharist.
The religions most evidently descended from the Orphics were the Gnostic cults. Their theogonies and rituals – but not morality – were closely similar. All the Gnostic sects that arose and proliferated from the 1st to the 13th century CE, taught that the inner self, or soul, had what one might call “godness” – a spark from the true godhead. Those who were gifted with the gnosis – ie. with intuitive knowledge of the divine spark within and of the deity who bestowed it – would rise in the spirit to become one with that deity, who dwelt in the highest heaven, far above the Creator god who made this base world of filthy matter.
Although the Orphics did not regard this world as entirely evil, their idea that the soul should be purified so as to rise to the absolutely clean spiritual sphere could easily be understood to imply that this world is filthy and bad. And the Orphics taught that the earthly body is the tomb of the heavenly soul. This was also a Gnostic doctrine, almost certainly derived from the Orphic Mysteries.
But there was a difference between Orphic and Gnostic doctrines about the destiny of the soul. In Orphic doctrine, death does not often release a soul to start its ascension to heaven immediately, but more often traps it in body after body that lives and suffers and dies on this earth, unless and until its redemption is won (an idea probably drawn from far eastern religions, such as Buddhism). In most Gnostic teachings, those who know they have divinity within them, rise in the divine spirit from the dead base filthy body immediately after death, and soar upward to the highest height. They know the passwords to speak to the powers and principalities that guard the way to the godhead, so they might be allowed to proceed on their upward way, until they reach the Pleroma, there to dwell eternally with the mystic godhead, the source of all existence.
Finally – and most infamously in the judgment of the Catholic Church Fathers – the Gnostics kept the Orphic sacrament, the orgion. They kept it in the Dionysian tradition: drugged, drunk, naked and lewd. But not as a summoning of the God to enter their bodies, take over their will, and force them to indulge their appetites and lusts. The Gnostic orgy was a rite of deliberate sinning. Because they believed that this world was entirely bad, anything that was done in opposition to it was good. Because Christian and Jewish morality forbade adulterous sex, homosexuality, sodomy, pederasty and bestiality, those were the very acts that it was incumbent on the Gnostics to perform – for what they held to be the immeasurably Higher Good.
Is there a war on Christianity?
In Islamic countries, in Arab countries in particular, there is. In the Islamic State it is a war of annihilation. And the Christian Powers do nothing to save the victims. There does not even seem to be any emotion about it among Christians in Europe or America.
Is there a war on Christianity in America itself? Some say there is, and a lot of emotion has been aroused over it.
Jay Michaelson writes at the Daily Beast:
Why try to understand complicated things like demographics for the decline of your faith when you can blame gays and liberals for waging a “war on religion”?
Among the Christian Right, and most Republican presidential candidates, it’s now an article of faith that the United States is persecuting Christians and Christian-owned businesses —that religion itself is under attack.
Religion has been under attack for a very long time. But are Christians under serious threat? Now? In the United States?
“We have seen a war on faith,” Ted Cruz has said to pick one example. “His policies and this administration’s animosity to religious liberty and, in fact, antagonism to Christians, has been one of the most troubling aspects of the Obama administration,” he said.
Well it is true that the Obama administration does not seem to like Christians. It is reluctant to admit Christian refugees from the wars in the Middle East, while it insists on bringing in tens of thousands of Muslims. But is it against religious liberty?
The writer thinks the very idea that Christianity is under assault is a “bizarre myth”. But he also thinks it is true “in a way”:
Why has this bizarre myth that Christianity is under assault in the most religious developed country on Earth been so successful? Because, in a way, it’s true. American Christianity is in decline — not because of a “war on faith” but because of a host of demographic and social trends. The gays and liberals are just scapegoats.
The idea that Christians are being persecuted resonates with millennia-old self-conceptions of Christian martyrdom. Even when the church controlled half the wealth in Europe, it styled itself as the flock of the poor and the marginalized. Whether true or not as a matter of fact, it is absolutely true as a matter of myth. Christ himself was persecuted and even crucified, after all. So it’s natural that Christianity losing ground in America would be seen by many Christians as the result of persecution.
According to a Pew Research Report released earlier this year, the percentage of the US population that identifies as Christian has dropped from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent in 2014. Evangelical, Catholic, and mainline Protestant affiliations have all declined.
Meanwhile, 30 percent of Americans ages 18-29 list “none” as their religious affiliation (the figure for all ages is about 23 percent). Nearly 40 percent of Americans who have married since 2010 report that they are in “religiously mixed” marriages, which means that many individuals who profess Christianity are in families where not everyone does.
These changes are taking place for a constellation of reasons: greater secular education (college degrees), multiculturalism, shifting social mores, the secular space of consumer capitalism and celebrity culture, the sexual revolution (including feminism and LGBT equality), legal and constitutional changes (like the banning of prayer in public school, and the finding of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage), the breakdown of the nuclear family, the decline of certain forms of family and group identification, and the association of religion in general with nonsensical and outdated dogmas. The Pew report noted Americans are also changing religions more than in the past, and when they do so, they are more likely to move away from Christianity than toward it.
While we like to hear talk of “nonsensical and outdated dogmas”, the rest of that paragraph needs critical examination. Quite a few of the impersonal causes listed are in fact the result of liberal policies: multiculturalism, the legal and constitutional changes, the breakdown of the nuclear family. Feminism is a leftist cause. And the Left has promoted “LGBT equality” for political rather than moral reasons.
So while changes in public morals regarding women and LGBT people (and how the law treats them) are part of the overall shift, they are only one part of an immensely complicated set of factors — and I’m quite sure I’ve left out some of the most important ones. Probably the never-ending stream of sex scandals, from the Catholic clergy to the Duggar mess, haven’t helped either.
But no one likes a “constellation of reasons” to explain why the world they grew up in, and the values they cherish, seem to be slipping away. Enter the scapegoat: the war on religion, and the persecution of Christianity.
It’s much easier to explain changes by referring to a single, malevolent cause than by having to understand a dozen complex demographic trends. Plus, if Christianity is declining because it’s being attacked, then that decline could be reversed if the attack were successfully repelled. Unlike what is actually happening — a slow, seemingly irrevocable decline in American Christianity — the right’s argument that “religious liberty” is under assault mixes truth and fantasy to provide a simpler, and more palatable, explanation for believers.
We think he is right that there’s a “constellation of reasons” for the decline of religion. While we think a decline in religion is highly desirable, we cannot help but notice that Leftist intolerance is among the reasons for it.
Take, as an example, Christmas. The weird idea that there is a “War on Christmas” orchestrated by liberal elites — Starbucks cups in hand — is, on its face, ridiculous, even if it is widely held on the right. Shop clerks saying “Happy Holidays” aren’t causing the de-Christianization of Christmas — they’re effects of it. Roughly half of Americans celebrate Christmas as a cultural, not a religious, holiday: Santa Claus and Christmas trees, not baby Jesus in a manger. So that’s what businesses celebrate. It’s capitalism, not conspiracy.
And long may it flourish!
Unfortunately, even if the war on religion is fictive, the “defense” against it is very real and very harmful. This year alone, 17 states introduced legislation to protect “religious freedom” by exempting not just churches and religious organizations (including bogus ones set up to evade the law) from civil rights laws, domestic violence laws, even the Hippocratic Oath, but also private individuals and for-profit businesses. Already, we’ve seen pediatricians turn children away because their parents are gay, and wife-abusers argue that it’s their religious duty to beat their spouses, and most notoriously that multimillion-dollar corporations like Hobby Lobby can have religious beliefs that permit them to refuse to provide health insurance to their employees on that basis.
Meanwhile, the “war on religion” narrative appears to be gaining ground.
According to data from the Public Religion Research Institute, 61 percent of white evangelicals believe that religious liberty is being threatened today. (Only 37 percent of non-white Christians believe this, suggesting that what’s really happening is an erosion of white Christian hegemony; the “browning of America” goes hand in hand with the de-Christianizing of America.) They believe they have lost the culture war, and even that LGBT people should now pity them.
In other words, “religious liberty” is not merely a tactic: it is a sincerely held belief among the religious right, which, not coincidentally, feeds into the belief that we are living in the End Times — something an astonishing 77 percent of American evangelicals believe.
We shouldn’t think of Kim Davis and her ilk as motivated by hate. Actually, they are motivated by fear, which is based in reality but expressed in fantasy. Christianity is, in a sense, losing the war — but the fighters on the other side aren’t gay activists or ACLU liberals but faceless social forces of secularization, urbanization, and diversification.
There’s not really a villain pulling the strings of social change, but like the God concept itself, mythic thinking creates a personification of evil who is fighting the war on religious liberty, the war on Christmas, the war on Christianity. These malevolent evildoers are like a contemporary Satan: a fictive embodiment of all of the chaotic, complex forces that threaten the stability of religious order.
Leftists really do have “a sincerely held belief” that they are on “the right side of history” – as Obama likes to say he is. History itself, according to Marxist dogma, is a force moving inexorably towards global collectivism. Leftism is itself a religion. (See our much read essay Communism is Secular Christianity, January 14, 2015, listed under Pages in our margin.) How many adherents does it have world-wide? For all we know, they outnumber the 1.6 billion Muslims, and the 2.2 billion Christians.
Jay Michaelson believes that inexorable forces determine the direction of human affairs; that human agency has little or nothing to do with it.
He “mixes truth and fantasy”. Christianity may well be a declining religion. We hope it is. It did much harm in its time, and we cannot see that its fading away is a regrettable loss to humankind. And the fading away of Islam would be an enormous boon. An abandonment of old religious beliefs generally would remove a major cause of conflict. But other than Islam, they no longer pose a serious threat.
The serious threat comes from the Left. The Left is in power in most of the institutions of the West, most notably and dangerously in the media, the academy, and above all the executive branch of government of the United States. The Left, in the person of journalists and educators teach and preach statism and collectivism, and the Obama administration forces its will on the nation by executive order.
They are “pulling the strings of social change”. Many of them may believe – just as Christians and Muslims do – that what they are doing is to achieve good ends. They may not all be malevolent in intention. But they are doing much harm nonetheless, by making war on personal liberty.
Judith Bergman’s article at Gatestone stresses the weakness of Christian leadership when Christians are being massacred. And for us, incidentally, it also vividly illustrates what’s wrong with Christian morality. It is sentimental. Sentimentality and cruelty are the two sides of the same coin.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was interviewed recently about the Paris attacks and asked about his reaction. “Like everyone else – first shock and horror and then a profound sadness …” he replied. “Saturday morning, I was out and as I was walking I was praying and saying: ‘God, why – why is this happening?'”
He does not say what answer he received.
Welby is the principal head of the Anglican Church and the symbolic head of the Anglican Communion, which stands at around 85 million members worldwide and is the third largest communion in the world – after the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. This is a man with an extremely high public profile, and millions of Christians looking to him for spiritual guidance.
But why is a man who is the symbolic head of 85 million Christians worldwide expressing shock at yet another terrorist attack perpetrated by the Islamic State? Had the Archbishop of Canterbury paid more than just fleeting attention to his fellow Christians in Iraq and Syria, he would know that the Islamic State has been slaughtering Christians in the Middle East since 2006. Between 2004 and 2006, before the Islamic State evolved out of Al Qaeda in Iraq, it hardly showed less zeal to root out Christianity even then.
The Archbishop had eleven years to get used to the idea of people being made homeless, exiled, tortured, raped, enslaved, beheaded and murdered for not being Muslims. How much more time did he need?
The Archbishop of Canterbury had more wisdom to offer in the interview. “The perversion of faith is one of the most desperate aspects of our world today,” he said, explaining that Islamic State terrorists have distorted their faith to the extent that they believe they are glorifying their God. But it is unclear how he is as qualified an expert in Islam as Islamic State “Caliph ” Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who possesses a PhD in Islamic Studies from the University of Baghdad. Christians, Yazidis and persecuted Muslims in the Middle East can probably point to aspects of the world more desperate than “the perversion of faith,” but then again, the Archbishop does not seem too preoccupied with the situation on the ground.
Fortunately, others are. In a piece for The Atlantic, “What ISIS Really Wants,” Graeme Wood spent time researching the Islamic State and its ideology in depth. He spoke to members of the Islamic State and Islamic State recruiters; his conclusions were the following:
The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam. Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology”, which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State … But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.
The West nevertheless continues to pretend that the Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam, and the Archbishop of Canterbury is apparently no different. It is noteworthy, however, that the Archbishop has no misgivings when it comes to Christians. “I cannot say that Christians who resort to violence are not Christians.,” he said to the Muslim Council of Wales two months ago. “At Srebrenica the perpetrators claimed Christian faith. I cannot deny their purported Christianity, but must acknowledge that event as yet another in the long history of Christian violence, and I must repudiate that what they did was in any way following the life and teaching of Jesus.”
During a debate in the House of Lords earlier this year, he also had no qualms in stating that “the church’s sporadic record of compelling obedience to its teachings through violence and coercion is a cause for humility and shame”.
If the Archbishop of Canterbury cannot deny the Christianity of Christian perpetrators who claim the Christian faith, how can he – not a Muslim scholar – deny the Islamic nature of Muslim perpetrators who claim the Muslim faith?
Just as mind-boggling is the refusal of Pope Francis I to speak the name of the perpetrators. In August 2014, when the Islamic State conquered the northern Iraqi city of Sinjar and began brutally to round up and murder Yazidis, and up to 100,000 Christians fled for their lives, Pope Francis could not make himself utter the name of the Islamic State. In his traditional Sunday blessing, he said the news from Iraq had left him “in dismay and disbelief’. As if every atrocity had happened for the first time! Christian Iraqis had at that point been persecuted by Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State for a full decade.Without referring by name to the Islamic State, and speaking as if some invisible force of nature were at play, the pope deplored “thousands of people, including many Christians, driven from their homes in a brutal manner; children dying of thirst and hunger in their flight; women kidnapped; people massacred; violence of every kind”.
A year later, in July 2015, he called the onslaught on Christians in the Middle East “a form of genocide”, but still without mentioning who exactly was committing it.
It is tragic that the Church has done so little to help its flock in the Middle East. Where, during the past decade, have the Archbishop of Canterbury and his colleagues from the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church been? Where now is their vocal and public outrage at the near extinction of this ancient Christian culture? Where are their forceful appeals to political leaders and military decision-makers to intervene on behalf of their suffering brethren?
The Pope, however, did find time last May to write a 180-page encyclical about climate change, and he has spoken passionately about the bizarre concept of the “rights of the environment”. In front of the UN and a joint session of the U.S. Congress, he again spoke of the persecution of Christians, as if it were a metaphysical event: “He expressed deep concern for the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, where they and other religious groups, have been ‘forced to witness the destruction of their places of worship, their cultural and religious heritage’ and been forced to flee or face death or enslavement.”
Christians in the Middle East are suffering and dying, and the world hardly pays attention.
The post-Christian West evidently has no moment of charity for the plight of people with whom it might feel at least a slight solidarity.
But in 2016, Europe will be receiving another three million migrants, according to the European Union. So far, most of those who have arrived are Muslims, and there is little reason to expect that those who will arrive next year will be persecuted Christians. Most of the refugees come from refugee camps near Syria; Christians stay away from the refugee camps because they experience persecution in them too. It is no different with the Syrian refugees coming to the US.
The Christians in the Middle East are thus still left fending for themselves.
Atheists of the Left – “Humanists” some call themselves – often reveal with unconscious irony how close Leftism is to Christianity: the same moral myopia, hubris, and sentimentality.
In order to enjoy the cheap emotional satisfaction of feeling they are “good people”, they go in for this sort of thing.
We quote from the Friendly Atheist at Patheos:
After the Daily Caller News Foundation posted a map of supposed “radical mosques” in the U.S., it wasn’t long before threats were made against them.
But in a wonderful gesture on Monday, the Humanists of the Palouse reached out to the Muslims, sending them a letter of concern and offering whatever help they could:
To our Muslim friends in the Moscow/Pullman area,
Recently, we have been made aware of threats to our community, centered on the Pullman Islamic Center and it and many other Mosques being mis-reported as “radical”. In today’s climate, these threats should not be taken lightly, and we certainly do not. We fully support your right to practice religion free from harm and harassment.
We recognize your members as valued residents of the Palouse. The Humanists of the Palouse want you to know that we will always defend religious freedom and cultural diversity, and threats against these are threats against our very way of life. We stand with you, and offer our support.
If you feel threatened, please do not hesitate to contact us. We would be happy to accompany anyone who feels that their safety is at risk (e.g. grocery shopping, on a walk around town, or just for someone to talk to). If we can advocate for you in any way, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us, and know that you have friends and allies amongst The Humanists of the Palouse.
The Center’s Board of Trustees soon issued this heartfelt response:
The entire Board of Trustees of the Pullman Islamic Association joins me in thanking you and the Humanists of the Palouse generally for this powerful statement affirming civil rights in this country. We are especially moved that a humanist group so completely supports the local Muslim group, since Islam is the most disrespected group in this country. We have noticed that the correct way to define and appreciate humanist groups in general and yours in particular is as lovers and defenders of civil rights, individual and group democratic dignities and freedom of thought, not as haters of religion. Your group’s neighborly defense of freedom of religion in the Palouse demonstrates your focus on freedom and social justice. We are impressed by and thankful for your firm support and offer of assistance and solidarity.
One of our Board of Trustees members is meeting with an FBI agent today, which demonstrates that the federal police are taking this threat seriously. Given this sobering reality of threatened arson and violence your support will always be appreciated by the leaders and membership of the Pullman Islamic Association. We hope we will not need to ask for your offered assistance, but if we do need or want such support, we will indeed reach out to Humanists of the Palouse.
That’s how you do it, friends.
You can disagree on theological issues, but I’d hope local atheist groups around the country would be willing to reach out to Muslims who are actually being persecuted by overzealous conservatives eager to shut them down.
If they lose their religious freedoms, we all do.
Can they possibly not know that sharia law – inseparable from the ideology of Islam – condemns apostasy, which is what atheism is deemed to be? And prescribes death as the punishment for atheists? (Atheist men; women not always.) In some Islamic lands they are imprisoned rather than executed. But all risk their lives, and such freedom as anyone has in a Muslim majority country.
These are reports of atheists, apostates, free thinkers who have been sentenced to prison, and/or flogging, and/or death in Islamic countries recently – the crime of atheism often being euphemized into something else in court. And some who have been killed by their Muslim compatriots.
1. From the Economist, on Alexander Aan in Indonesia:
A MOB attacked Alexander Aan even before an Indonesian court in June jailed him for two and a half years for “inciting religious hatred”.
His crime was to write “God does not exist” on a Facebook group he had founded for atheists in Minang, a province of the world’s most populous Muslim nation. Like most non-believers in Islamic regions, he was brought up as a Muslim. And like many who profess godlessness openly, he has been punished. …
Sharia law, which covers only Muslims unless incorporated into national law, assumes people are born into their parents’ religion. Thus ex-Muslim atheists are guilty of apostasy—a hudud crime against God, like adultery and drinking alcohol. Potential sanctions can be severe: eight states, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania and Sudan have the death penalty on their statute books for such offences. …
Most atheists are prosecuted for blasphemy or for inciting hatred. (Atheists born to non-Muslim families are not considered apostates, but they can still be prosecuted for other crimes against religion.) Even in places where laws are lenient, religious authorities and social attitudes can be harsh, with vigilantes inflicting beatings or beheadings.
Many, like Kacem el-Ghazzali, a Moroccan, reckon the only solution is to escape abroad. The 23-year-old was granted asylum in Switzerland after people found out he was the author of an anonymous blog, Atheistica.com. …
Nahla Mahmoud, a 25-year-old Sudanese atheist … fled to Britain in 2010. …
Ibn Warraq, the pseudonymous Indian-born author of “Leaving Islam”, a collection of essays by ex-believers, … lives in exile and has received death threats for campaigning on the behalf of apostates. … Arguments for the death penalty [he says] are usually based on a Hadith, one of the sayings which, along with the Koran, form the basis of Islamic law: “The Prophet said: whoever discards his religion, kill him.” …
Ibn Warraq says that the nub of the problem is that sharia makes atheism the number one sin, ahead of murder. …
2. From the Guardian, on Ashraf Fayadh in Saudi Arabia:
A Palestinian poet and leading member of Saudi Arabia’s nascent contemporary art scene has been sentenced to death for renouncing Islam.
A Saudi court on Tuesday ordered the execution of Ashraf Fayadh, who has curated art shows in Jeddah and at the Venice Biennale. The poet, who said he did not have legal representation, was given 30 days to appeal against the ruling.
Fayadh, 35, a key member of the British-Saudi art organisation Edge of Arabia, was originally sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes by the general court in Abha, a city in the south-west of the ultraconservative kingdom, in May 2014. But after his appeal was dismissed he was retried earlier this month and a new panel of judges ruled that his repentance did not prevent his execution.
3. From Patheos, the Friendly Atheist itself, on Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia:
December 26, 2013 by Paul Fidalgo [who is admirably scathing in his disgust – ed).
Saudi blogger and religious dissident Raif Badawi has been cruelly punished and toyed with by the Saudi legal system for about a year now, and things have taken a darker turn. According to Badawi’s wife, now living in Lebanon, the high court will try Badawi on the charge of apostasy. If convicted, Badawi could be executed.
This comes after a court opted not to charge him with apostasy in January, but did put him up on charges of “insulting Islam and showing disobedience”. How did they come to this decision? Badawi is the co-founder of a website called the Liberal Saudi Network, which is bad enough, but imagine the horror that washed over Saudi society with this kind of action:
The evidence against him included the fact that he pressed the “Like” button on a Facebook page for Arab Christians.
As a result of this heinous behavior, in July, Badawi was sentenced to 600 lashes and seven years in prison.
Which was horrifying enough. But now it looks like Badawi is being brought up on apostasy charges in earnest. Badawi’s case is one of many being watched by the Office of Public Policy at the Center for Inquiry, where I work, and our Campaign for Free Expression. Browse the cases we have listed there, and you’ll see that, sadly, Badawi’s case is hardly unique.
Cases like this need more international attention, and those who position themselves as “allies” of Saudi Arabia, such as the United States, need to discover their consciences. How can the civilized world refer to itself as such when an ally practices such barbarism, it looks the other way?
The judge in Badawi’s subsequent appeal stiffened the original 2013 sentence – seven years in prison and 600 lashes – to 1000 lashes, ten years in prison and a fine of $266,000. See our post, The punishment of reason, January 12, 2015, where there is an eyewitness description of the first of the series of lashings Badawi is being subjected to.
Badawi had written, “My commitment is… to reject any repression in the name of religion… a goal that we will reach in a peaceful, law-abiding way.”
This was interpreted by the judge as “insulting Islam”.
Badawi’s health is now frail. He is unlikely to survive the lashings.
4. From Poetry Foundation, on Hashem Shaabani in Iran:
We were saddened and horrified today to learn of the death of Hashem Shaabani, who was executed on January 27th by the order of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
From Radio Free Europe:
An Islamic Revolutionary Tribunal reportedly had sentenced the poet to death, along with 14 others, last July on charges that included “waging war on God”.
Press reports said Shaabani was hanged after his sentence was approved by President Hassan Rohani.
In a statement on February 5, Freedom House said Shaabani was subjected to severe torture and interrogation during his three years in prison.
Human Rights Voices also reports on the execution, writing:
To those who knew him, was a man of peace and understanding struggling to extend spaces of individual freedom within the despotic Khomeinist system … In one of his letters from prison, made available to use through his family, Shaabani says … “I have tried to defend the legitimate right that every people in this world should have which is the right to live freely with full civil rights. With all these miseries and tragedies, I have never used a weapon to fight these atrocious crimes except the pen.”
5. From the Guardian on Avijit Roy and Rafida Bonya Ahmed in Pakistan:
No one could have predicted that the Bangladeshi writer Rafida Bonya Ahmed would make it to London last week. … In February, Islamist fanatics hacked her husband, Avijit Roy, to death with meat cleavers as the couple left a book fair in Dhaka. They nearly killed Ahmed too: slicing off her thumb and covering her body with wounds. …
Together, Ahmed and Roy ran a secular blog that promoted the writings of young liberal Bangladeshis They wrote on evolution and humanism; they condemned extremism fearlessly, as the title of Roy’s 2014 book The Virus of Faith makes clear. Seeing and fearing a courageous opponent, the enemies of free thought killed him for his ideas. …
6. From a Reuters report on Ananta Bijoy Das and others in Bangladesh:
Third Atheist blogger killed in Bangladesh.
A blogger was hacked to death by machete-wielding attackers in Bangladesh on Tuesday (May 12), the third killing of a critic of religious extremism in the Muslim-majority nation in less than three months.
Ananta Bijoy Das, a blogger who advocated secularism, was attacked by four masked assailants in the northeastern district of Sylhet on Tuesday morning, senior police official Mohammad Rahamatullah told Reuters.
Rahamatullah said Das was a 33-year-old banker.
He was also editor of science magazine “Jukti,” which means “logic,” and on the advisory board of “Mukto Mona” (Free Mind), a website propagating rationalism and opposing fundamentalism …
According to the monitoring service SITE Intelligence Group, Islamist militant group Ansar al-Islam Bangladesh said al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) had claimed responsibility for the attack. …
Imran Sarker, the head of a network of activists and bloggers in Bangladesh, said Das was “a progressive free thinker and a good human being”. …
Militants have targeted secularist writers in Bangladesh in recent years …
On March 30, Washiqur Rahman, another secular blogger who aired his outrage over [Avijit] Roy’s death on social media, was killed in similar fashion on a busy street in the capital, Dhaka.
Their deaths followed the killing in 2013 of Ahmed Rajib Haider, who backed calls to impose the death penalty on Islamist leaders accused of atrocities in Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence.
Why do our fellow atheists – of the leftist “Humanist” persuasion – not burn with anger against the ideology that persecutes atheism, secularism, rationalism, and shun the company of its devotees?
If they think they are earning the goodwill and tolerance of the Muslims towards whom they’re making this gesture, they’re pathetically deluded. Their nice little letter is not going to change sharia law, or the minds of those who want to impose it on us all.
They seem simply not to believe that the Muslims they contacted might be members of “radicalizing” mosques – which is to say, mosques with imams who urge them to support terrorist groups or join ISIS. There’s no hint that they explored the possibility. In their minds, the accusation must be wholly unjustified.
And one more thing. When those poor persecuted Muslims “in the Moscow/Pullman area” whimpered that “Islam is the most disrespected group in this country”, they are lying. The president of the United States is the son of a Muslim and an Islam lover who has brought Muslim Brotherhood advisers into his administration – and has clearly formed policies on their advice..
At the time of this writing there have been 27,322 deadly attacks carried out by Muslims since 9/11. (See the tally in our margin, taken from The Religion of Peace.) Muslim terrorists do all they can to terrify non-Muslims, and then cynically accuse them of an irrational fear of Islam, calling it “Islamophobia”.
Muslims are the target of few “hate crimes” in the US. But they perpetrate more than any others do.
We quote from an article by David J. Rusin at Islamist Watch. His staistics come from a December 2014 report of 2013 figures. (We await the 2014 report this coming December):
New FBI Hate Crime Stats: Another Blow to Islamist Fictions
There were 1,031 incidents inspired by religion last year, 625 (60.6 percent) of which were anti-Jewish. Anti-Islamic ones constituted just 13.1 percent.
On April 15, 2013, Muslim terrorists murdered three and injured hundreds at the Boston Marathon, prompting familiar warnings about an imminent anti-Muslim backlash. The FBI’s findings are proof that such collective punishment did not materialize — as it almost never does.
How have Islamist groups greeted the FBI data? With silence. It is the sound of disappointment on the part of radicals who need Muslim victims, preferably real ones, to serve as human shields for the Islamist agenda. Bad news for Islamists is once again good news for the rest of us.
This is an interesting take on the advice “Jesus Christ” is reputed to have given in “the sermon on the mount”.
Matt Dillahunty is the (atheist) speaker. He posted this video on October 31, 2015.
(Note: the technical quality of the video is not good.)
For some fun on a Friday and Saturday, here’s a borrowing from a website dedicated to debunking all the legends of “Jesus Christ”. It is written by Kenneth Humphreys, and is a site well worth visiting.
He quotes a story told by the Jewish philosopher and theologian, Philo of Alexandria, and suggests that one of the stories of the martyrdom of Jesus derives from it.
Philo was a contemporary of the alleged “Jesus Christ”. He was a prolific writer, closely connected with the powers in Jerusalem, and fully aware of current events in Judea. Yet he never mentions Jesus of Nazareth.
Philo says not a word about Jesus, Christianity nor any of the events described in the New Testament. In all this work, Philo makes not a single reference to his alleged contemporary “Jesus Christ”, the godman who supposedly was perambulating up and down the Levant, exorcising demons, raising the dead and causing earthquake and darkness at his death.
With Philo’s close connection to the house of Herod, one might reasonably expect that the miraculous escape from a royal prison of a gang of apostles (Acts 5.18,40), or the second, angel-assisted, flight of Peter, even though chained between soldiers and guarded by four squads of troops (Acts 12.2,7) might have occasioned the odd footnote. But not a murmur. Nothing of Agrippa “vexing certain of the church” or killing “James brother of John” with the sword (Acts 12.1,2).
Actually, these events were alleged – by St. Paul and his friend Luke – to have happened at times that came after the death of Philo in 50 C.E. But the general point holds: that nothing Jesus or his followers did was of sufficient importance or interest to attract the attention of Philo or any other writer or leader at the time.
Strange, but only if we believe Jesus and his merry men existed and that they established the church. If we recognize that the Christian fable was still at an early stage of development when Philo was pondering the relationship of god and man, there is nothing strange here at all.
Here’s the story:
|The Works of Philo Judaeus – Flaccus, VI.(36) There was a certain madman named Carabbas … this man spent all this days and nights naked in the roads, minding neither cold nor heat, the sport of idle children and wanton youths;(37) and they, driving the poor wretch as far as the public gymnasium, and setting him up there on high that he might be seen by everybody, flattened out a leaf of papyrus and put it on his head instead of a diadem, and clothed the rest of his body with a common door mat instead of a cloak and instead of a sceptre they put in his hand a small stick of the native papyrus which they found lying by the way side and gave to him;(38) and when, like actors in theatrical spectacles, he had received all the insignia of royal authority, and had been dressed and adorned like a king, the young men bearing sticks on their shoulders stood on each side of him instead of spear-bearers, in imitation of the bodyguards of the king, and then others came up, some as if to salute him, and others making as though they wished to plead their causes before him, and others pretending to wish to consult with him about the affairs of the state.(39) Then from the multitude of those who were standing around there arose a wonderful shout of men calling out Maris!; and this is the name by which it is said that they call the kings among the Syrians; for they knew that Agrippa was by birth a Syrian, and also that he was possessed of a great district of Syria of which he was the sovereign;||Matthew27:26 Then released he Barabbas unto them: and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.27:27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the common hall, and gathered unto him the whole band of soldiers.
27:28 And they stripped him, and put on him a scarlet robe.
27:29 And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews!
Donald Trump repeated several times, a few days ago, that he was Presbyterian. His tone suggested he was proud of it. “That’s down the middle of the road,” he said.
The Presbyterian church is Calvinist.
When Jehan Calvin was dictator of Geneva, Calvinism was at least as fanatically and cruelly enforced as any religion has ever been.
Today, October 27, is the 462nd anniversary of the day on which Calvin had Miguel Servetus burned slowly to death chained to a stake, for disagreeing with him on a point of Christian doctrine.
We very much doubt that Trump knows anything about it. But he ought to.
Here’s the story as Jillian Becker has told it before on this website, quoting the famous book by Stefan Zweig, The Right to Heresy:
Beyond a certain point it is hardly possible to discern degrees of evil or degrees of cruelty. And yet I think it may be said of Jehan Calvin, dictator of Geneva in the sixteenth century, that he was more appallingly cruel and more intensely, intrinsically, through-and-through evil than other great persecutors, dictators and mass murderers of history. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Torquemada are the very names of evil, so what was it about Calvin that can distinguish him as specially terrible in his own nature than even any of these?
He oppressed the subjects of his dictatorship unremittingly and mercilessly; but so, you say, did the others. Not content with killing his enemies, he prescribed extreme tortures for them while they survived to suffer them; and yes, so did the others. But – and here we come to the nub of the case – Calvin was different in that he (often, if not always) personally specified the torments for the particular victim. He gave thought to the minutiae of their sufferings. All the others, even Catholic Inquisitors like Torquemada, issued general orders for terrorizing, torturing, killing. Calvin gave a personal service, tailoring his cruelty to his individual prey.
And that’s not all that distinguishes him among human monsters. Consider this: he was squeamish. He could not stand the sight of blood. He was afraid of pain. He felt horror at the thought of physical suffering – so he made thinking about it into a spiritual exercise, to strengthen by self-inflicted agony, as a monk does with a hairshirt, his resolve to do what was hardest for him in the service of his God. He ordered the infliction of agony, then meditated on the process, imagining it as fully as he could. He nourished his spirit on visions of torture.
This he did in private. The spiritual discipline he forced himself to undergo did not impel him to the prison and the public square to witness the torments and killings that he prescribed. He never attended a racking, a flogging, a breaking on the wheel, a burning to death. That far in the service of his God he would not push himself.
This grooming of his soul by inflicting suffering on others, did not replace general orders of oppression. He gave those too. He instituted a totalitarian reign of terror. He was as convinced a collectivist as Hitler, Stalin, Mao and the rest. He would allow “no liberty, no freedom of the will, for [a] man could only misuse such privileges. … [He, Calvin] must frighten him … until he unresistingly accepts his position in the pious and obedient herd, until he has merged in that herd all that is individual within him, so that the individual, the extraordinary, vanishes without leaving a trace.”
So wrote Stefan Zweig in his devastating dissection of Calvin and Calvinism, The Right to Heresy. He goes on:
“To achieve this draconian suppression of personality, to achieve this vandal expropriation of the individual in favour of the community, Calvin had a method all his own, the famous Church ‘discipline’. A harsher curb upon human impulses and desires has hardly been devised by and imposed upon man down to our own days [pre-Second World War]. From the first hour of his dictatorship, this brilliant organizer herded his flock … within a barbed-wire entanglement of … prohibitions, the so-called ‘Ordinances’; simultaneously creating a special department to supervise the working of terrorist morality … called the Consistory [which was] expressly instructed to keep watch upon the private life of every one in Geneva. … Private life could hardly be said to exist any longer … From moment to moment, by day and by night, there might come a knocking at the entry, and a number of ‘spiritual police’ announce a ‘visitation’ without the citizen concerned being able to offer resistance. Once a month, rich and poor, the powerful and the weak, had to submit to the questioning of these professional ‘police des moeurs’. “
The moral police poked into every corner, examined every part of every house, and even the bodies of those who lived in it. Their clothes and shoes, the hair on their heads, was inspected. Clothes must be dark and plain; hair must not be artificially curled.
“From the bedroom they passed on to the kitchen table, to ascertain whether the prescribed diet was not being exceeded by a soup or a course of meat, or whether sweets and jams were hidden away somewhere.”
They pried into bookshelves – only books approved by the Consistory were permitted.
“The servants were asked about the behaviour of their masters, and the children were cross-questioned as to the doings of their parents.”
Visitors to the city had their baggage examined. Every letter, in and out, was opened. Citizens could not write letters to anyone outside the city, and any Genevan permitted to travel abroad was watched in foreign lands by Calvin’s spies.
Spying became universal. Almost everyone, in fear of being thought heretical in the least degree, and to prove himself clean and upright, spied on everyone else.
“Whenever a State inaugurates a reign of terror, the poisonous plant of voluntary denunciation flourishes like a loathsome weed … otherwise decent folk are driven by fear to play the part of informer. … After some years, the Consistory was able to abolish official supervision, since all the citizens had become voluntary controllers.”
As far as he could, Calvin put an end to pleasure. Music – except for what Calvin deemed to be sacred – was forbidden. So was dancing, skating and sport. Theaters and all other public amusements including popular festivals, were prohibited. Wheeled carriages were not allowed. People had to walk to wherever they needed to go. Guests at family celebrations, even weddings and baptisms, were limited in number to twenty. (The names parents could give their children had to be from an approved list.) The red wine of the district could be drunk in small quantities, but no other alcohol. Innkeepers were not allowed to serve their guests until they had seen them saying their prayers, and had to spy on them throughout their stay and report on them to the authorities.
Punishments included imprisonment in irons, hanging, decapitation, burning to death.
“Everything was forbidden which might have relieved the grey monotony of existence; and forbidden, of course, was any trace of mental freedom in the matter of the printed or spoken word.”
“The first thought,” Stefan Zweig declares, “of any one of dictatorial temperament, is to suppress or gag opinions different from his own.”
One man who dared to argue with Calvin was a Spaniard named Miguel Servetus. A child of the Reformation, he innocently thought he could express his own boldly Protestant opinions. He thought Calvin was the very man to hear him expound his personal interpretations of Holy Writ. He could not have been more mistaken. For having the effrontery to send them to him, Calvin had the man thrown into prison. “For weeks … he was kept like a condemned murderer in a cold and damp cell, with irons on his hands and feet. His clothes hung in rags upon his freezing body; he was not provided with a change of linen. The most primitive demands of hygiene were disregarded. No one might tender him the slightest assistance.”
Finally, for daring to disagree with Calvin, Servetus was condemned to death by the dictator’s order. The death Calvin chose for him was “roasting with a slow fire”.
‘The prisoner was brought out of prison in his befouled rags. … His beard tangled, his visage dirty and wasted, his chains rattling, he tottered as he walked. … In front of the steps of the Town Hall, the officers of the law … thrust him to his knees. The doomed man’s teeth chattered with cold … In his extremity, he crawled on his knees nearer to the municipal authorities assembled on the steps, and implored that by their grace he might be decapitated before he was burned, ‘lest the agony should drive me to repudiate the convictions of a lifetime’. This boon was denied him. Relentlessly, ‘the procession moved on towards the place of execution. … The wood was piled round the stake to which the clanking chains had been nailed. The executioner bound the victim’s hands. … The chains attached to the stake were wound four or five times around it and around the poor wretch’s wasted body. Between this and the chains, the executioner’s assistants then inserted the book and the manuscript which Servetus had sent to Calvin under seal to ask Calvin’s fraternal opinion upon it. Finally, in scorn, there was pressed upon the martyr’s brow a crown of leaves impregnated with sulphur. … The executioner kindled the faggots and the murder began.
“When the flames rose around him, Servetus uttered so dreadful a cry that many of the onlookers turned their eyes away from the pitiful sight. Soon the smoke interposed a veil in front of the writhing body, but the yells of agony grew louder and louder, until at length came an imploring scream: ‘Jesus, Son of the everlasting God, have pity on me!’”
Needless to say, neither Jesus nor an everlasting God did anything to relieve the roasting man.
‘The struggle with death lasted half an hour. Then the flames abated, the smoke dispersed, and attached to the blackened stake there remained, above the glowing embers, a black, sickening, charred mass, a loathsome jelly, which had lost human semblance. …
“But where was Calvin in this fearful hour? … He was in his study, windows closed. … He who had really willed and commanded this ‘pious murder’, kept discreetly aloof. Next Sunday, however, clad in his black cassock, he entered the pulpit to boast of the deed before a silent congregation, declaring it to have been a great deed and a just one, although he had not dared to watch the pitiful spectacle.”
To this day, Jehan Calvin is regarded as a great Christian whose teaching continues to shape the lives of millions of citizens in the Western world through the Presbyterian and various “Reformed” churches. People are no longer burnt to death for disagreeing with the master. But dictatorship, in the name of similarly dogmatic collectivist faiths, is not absent from the modern world, not even from America now, in 2010. A much vaster community has fallen under an organizer of dictatorial temperament. His consistory has made it plain that they wish to control what you eat, how you live in your homes, and what you say. Children are being urged to impress the leader’s messages on their parents. The names of those who disagree with him are blackened, and the silencing of broadcast dissent is openly advocated.
What should be done about it? There are conservative voices maintaining that the way to resist incipient totalitarianism is to “return to Christian values”.
Our hope is that this reminder of how Christian values affected life in the past may serve not only as a cautionary tale against collectivism and dictatorship, but also as a rebuttal of the idea that Christianity can be a counterforce against them.
Any idea that needs a law to protect it from criticism is ipso facto a bad idea.
That is our own maxim. We repeat it often. It cannot be repeated often enough.
There used to be laws, in Western secular states, protecting religious ideas; usually the ideas of a particular religion favored by the state. The crime was called “blasphemy”.
Such a crime, carrying severe punishment, including the death sentence, still exists in Islamic countries.
And the crime still exists in Communist countries. As Communists do not acknowledge their ideology to be a religion, they do not call it blasphemy. It is called an offense against the state, or “dissidence”. It was often treated as a mental illness in the Soviet Union. It was also often punished by execution, not only in Russia but wherever the iron fist of the Soviet regime was the law.
In America the First Amendment to the Constituion, as everybody knows, enshrined freedom of belief and freedom of speech. Yet there lingers in the mores of the American people, generation after generation, the notion that religious beliefs should not be publicly criticized. Such criticism is felt to be a discourtesy at best, and at worst an actual defiance of the First Amendment itself!
Even some scientists respect this social taboo.
We quote a good article on the subject from the New Yorker, by Lawrence M. Krauss:
As a physicist, I do a lot of writing and public speaking about the remarkable nature of our cosmos, primarily because I think science is a key part of our cultural heritage and needs to be shared more broadly. Sometimes, I refer to the fact that religion and science are often in conflict; from time to time, I ridicule religious dogma. When I do, I sometimes get accused in public of being a “militant atheist”. Even a surprising number of my colleagues politely ask if it wouldn’t be better to avoid alienating religious people. Shouldn’t we respect religious sensibilities, masking potential conflicts and building common ground with religious groups so as to create a better, more equitable world?
I found myself thinking about those questions this week as I followed the story of Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who directly disobeyed a federal judge’s order to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, and, as a result, was jailed for contempt of court. Davis’s supporters, including the Kentucky senator and Presidential candidate Rand Paul, are protesting what they believe to be an affront to her religious freedom. It is “absurd to put someone in jail for exercising their religious liberties”, Paul said, on CNN.
The Kim Davis story raises a basic question: To what extent should we allow people to break the law if their religious views are in conflict with it? It’s possible to take that question to an extreme that even Senator Paul might find absurd: imagine, for example, a jihadist whose interpretation of the Koran suggested that he should be allowed to behead infidels and apostates. Should he be allowed to break the law? Or — to consider a less extreme case — imagine an Islamic-fundamentalist county clerk who would not let unmarried men and women enter the courthouse together, or grant marriage licenses to unveiled women. For Rand Paul, what separates these cases from Kim Davis’s? The biggest difference, I suspect, is that Senator Paul agrees with Kim Davis’s religious views but disagrees with those of the hypothetical Islamic fundamentalist.
The problem, obviously, is that what is sacred to one person can be meaningless (or repugnant) to another. That’s one of the reasons why a modern secular society generally legislates against actions, not ideas. No idea or belief should be illegal; conversely, no idea should be so sacred that it legally justifies actions that would otherwise be illegal. Davis is free to believe whatever she wants, just as the jihadist is free to believe whatever he wants; in both cases, the law constrains not what they believe but what they do.
In recent years, this territory has grown murkier. Under the banner of religious freedom, individuals, states, and even — in the case of Hobby Lobby — corporations have been arguing that they should be exempt from the law on religious grounds. (The laws from which they wish to claim exemption do not focus on religion; instead, they have to do with social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage.) The government has a compelling interest in insuring that all citizens are treated equally. But “religious freedom” advocates argue that religious ideals should be elevated above all others as a rationale for action. In a secular society, this is inappropriate.
The Kim Davis controversy exists because, as a culture, we have elevated respect for religious sensibilities to an inappropriate level that makes society less free, not more. Religious liberty should mean that no set of religious ideals are treated differently from other ideals. Laws should not be enacted whose sole purpose is to denigrate them, but, by the same token, the law shouldn’t elevate them, either.
In science, of course, the very word “sacred” is profane. No ideas, religious or otherwise, get a free pass. The notion that some idea or concept is beyond question or attack is anathema to the entire scientific undertaking. This commitment to open questioning is deeply tied to the fact that science is an atheistic enterprise. “My practice as a scientist is atheistic,” the biologist J.B.S. Haldane wrote, in 1934. “That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career.” It’s ironic, really, that so many people are fixated on the relationship between science and religion: basically, there isn’t one. In my more than thirty years as a practicing physicist, I have never heard the word “God” mentioned in a scientific meeting. Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of nature—just as it’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not citizens are obligated to follow the law.
Because science holds that no idea is sacred, it’s inevitable that it draws people away from religion. The more we learn about the workings of the universe, the more purposeless it seems. Scientists have an obligation not to lie about the natural world. Even so, to avoid offense, they sometimes misleadingly imply that today’s discoveries exist in easy harmony with preëxisting religious doctrines, or remain silent rather than pointing out contradictions between science and religious doctrine. It’s a strange inconsistency, since scientists often happily disagree with other kinds of beliefs. Astronomers have no problem ridiculing the claims of astrologists, even though a significant fraction of the public believes these claims. Doctors have no problem condemning the actions of anti-vaccine activists who endanger children. And yet, for reasons of decorum, many scientists worry that ridiculing certain religious claims alienates the public from science. When they do so, they are being condescending at best and hypocritical at worst.
Ultimately, when we hesitate to openly question beliefs because we don’t want to risk offense, questioning itself becomes taboo. It is here that the imperative for scientists to speak out seems to me to be most urgent. As a result of speaking out on issues of science and religion, I have heard from many young people about the shame and ostracism they experience after merely questioning their family’s faith. Sometimes, they find themselves denied rights and privileges because their actions confront the faith of others. Scientists need to be prepared to demonstrate by example that questioning perceived truth, especially “sacred truth”, is an essential part of living in a free country.
I see a direct link, in short, between the ethics that guide science and those that guide civic life. Cosmology, my specialty, may appear to be far removed from Kim Davis’s refusal to grant marriage licenses to gay couples, but in fact the same values apply in both realms. Whenever scientific claims are presented as unquestionable, they undermine science. Similarly, when religious actions or claims about sanctity can be made with impunity in our society, we undermine the very basis of modern secular democracy. We owe it to ourselves and to our children not to give a free pass to governments — totalitarian, theocratic, or democratic — that endorse, encourage, enforce, or otherwise legitimize the suppression of open questioning in order to protect ideas that are considered “sacred”. Five hundred years of science have liberated humanity from the shackles of enforced ignorance. We should celebrate this openly and enthusiastically, regardless of whom it may offend.
If that is what causes someone to be called a militant atheist, then no scientist should be ashamed of the label.
We have said it is a good article. And what we have quoted, we heartily agree with.
But we left out one paragraph (where the dots are).
Here it is:
This reticence can have significant consequences. Consider the example of Planned Parenthood. Lawmakers are calling for a government shutdown unless federal funds for Planned Parenthood are stripped from spending bills for the fiscal year starting October 1st. Why? Because Planned Parenthood provides fetal tissue samples from abortions to scientific researchers hoping to cure diseases, from Alzheimer’s to cancer. (Storing and safeguarding that tissue requires resources, and Planned Parenthood charges researchers for the costs.) It’s clear that many of the people protesting Planned Parenthood are opposed to abortion on religious grounds and are, to varying degrees, anti-science. Should this cause scientists to clam up at the risk of further offending or alienating them? Or should we speak out loudly to point out that, independent of one’s beliefs about what is sacred, this tissue would otherwise be thrown away, even though it could help improve and save lives?
Either the author did not watch the videos that recorded Planned Parnethood personnel talking about their trade in the body parts of aborted fetuses, or he did not hear, or chose to forget, some statements they made. The videos make it perfecty clear that the organization was not just selling the parts in order to cover costs, but carryng on the trade for profit.
Now we have nothing against trade for profit. On the contrary, we think the making of profit is the morally best and most socially useful reason for selling anything and providing any service.
But it happens that the selling of the body parts of aborted fetuses for profit is against the law. So exactly the same objection that Lawrence Krauss makes to Kim Davis’s action – that she broke the law – applies to Planned Parenthood’s action.
What seems to cloud his judgment in the case of Planned Parenthood – if he did watch the videos and take in what was said – is the fact that the body parts went to scientists for the great cause (and we do think it is a great cause) of scientific research.
But however good the cause that the illegal trade was serving, it was still illegal.
In fact, what emerges from those videos is criminal action more morally outrageous than just selling the parts of aborted fetuses. (Note, please, that we are calling them fetuses, not “babies”, in order not to use controversial language.) It is revealed, in an interview with an employee of a firm that bought the body parts, that Planned Parenthood was urging pregnant women to have an abortion – even when they were uncertain that they wanted one, and even in one case when the woman was inclined NOT to have one – so that Planned Parenthood could sell the fetus’s body parts and so make a profit.
That is iniquity.
Now scientists like Lawrence Krauss might argue persuasively that there should not be a law forbidding the selling of fetuses, whole or in parts, for profit. Just as Kim Davis might argue that there should not be a law that compels her to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. But there are such laws. And if it is wrong for Kim Davis to break the law on the grounds that it does a disservice to her idea of a higher good, so it is wrong for Planned Parenthood to break the law even if by doing so it is serving the genuinely higher good of science.
We have said that Lawrence Krauss’s judgment may be clouded by his belief in the supreme goodness of scientific research. We will not go so far as to say that he holds that end to be “sacred”, because we agree with him that the word has no place in the vocabulary of atheism. So we toss the accusation aside.
It could be said that our moral judgment of Planned Parenthood – accurate though our allegation is that the organization broke the law – may be clouded by our extreme distaste for their abortion services. (Note that we call them “services”, firmly resisting the temptation to call them “abuses”.) It is true that we have an arguably irrational prejudice in favor of human life. We very much dislike abortion – while acknowledging that there are reasonable grounds for it in certain cases, and on no account arguing for it to be made wholly illegal. But obviously our objection to it is not on religious grounds. We do not believe that it frustrates “God’s purposes”. We are against it because we are against the deliberate destruction of human life – unless the human in question has forfeited his or her life by taking someone else’s.
Those who are for abortion on demand accuse those of us who are against it of being inconsistent when we call ourselves “pro-life”, because many of us are for the death penalty. By the same token, we can accuse them of inconsistency when they are for the destruction of life in the womb, but against putting convicted murderers to death. We are for saving the innocent and punishing the guilty, while they are for destroying the innocent and saving the guilty.
(Hat-tip for the article to our reader, Stephen)