When questioning the historical case for Jesus it’s clear that there is zero evidence that he existed, other than the claims early Christians made, which later Christians simply repeat, often thinking that the more people believe a lie the more truth it gives to the claim. Non-Christian scholars that investigate the Historicity of Jesus are relying on no additional evidence.
The stories in the gospels are all we have. Other so called independent claims about Jesus, such as those from Josephus, are no more than hearsay. Josephus merely states what he was told by Christians, or by others repeating what Christians told them. The stories about Jesus may be based on a singular real man, or the mix of a number of stories of one or more of the many prophets of the time, or they may be entirely fictional, or any combination. There is zero evidence of any asserted miracles: making a blind man see, turning water into wine, … the resurrection – all fiction, because there is never any evidence to support the supernatural claims for any religion. At best, we might act as if a mortal fake prophet existed, who might have been called Jesus, but even then it is probable that any factual truth was embelished; and the ‘miracles’ are pure fantasy.
The Christian response to this is often a complaint that this point of view is far too sceptical and biased, because we would not be as sceptical about the existance of Plato, for example, or any historical figure from the past for which there is no direct record.
What’s your take on Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Were they fictional too?
But it is not the case that philosophers don’t question the existence of anciant philosophers. We can be just as sceptical about the existence of Jesus and Plato. The crucial point is, what are the relative consequences of such scepticism, or specifically, what are the consequences of both Plato and Jesus not having actually existed?
Doubting The Existence of Plato
Taking Plato first, what would it mean had he not existed at all? Well, it would mean all the works attributed to him were not his, but were authored by one or more other people. Even if Plato was responsible for compiling the works attributed to him, perhaps he plagerised the work of others. So one way or another, Plato, as a living person, might have been a fiction or a fraud.
What would be the consequences of this being the case? Very little. Suppose evidence came to light, some unearthed documents, that made it highly likely he did not exist. Some historians might have to revise their texts in light of this evidence – not an uncommon occurrence in history. Nevertheless, to philosophers it wouldn’t mean much at all, because the body of work attributed to Plato stands alone, whoever the actual author or athors were. But this is nothing new. Philosophers already accept that there can be doubts about the real source of much ancient philosopy. Worse case is that the term ‘Plato’ is no more than a label for a body of work, the ‘Platonic’ work. The philosophy contained in that work is what is important.
Doubting the Existence of Jesus
Now, apply the same scepticism to Jesus. Suppose it came about that new evidence revealed the the religion built around a fictional Jesus was made up by some very mortal Jewish revolutionaries. What would be the consequences?
They would be catestrophic for Christianity. It would show clearly that it was a cult. No Jesus, no miracles … no Christian God! Every Pope, every bishop, priest, nun, monk, pastor for 2000 years would have been living a lie, no matter how much they believed it to be true. Every church and cathedral would be monuments to a man and a god that never existed. Every child indoctrinated into Christianity would have been raised on lies.
Even without such evidence it’s easy to see the consequences of an ever decreasing number of religious believers over generations. Church congregations dwindle, churches decline into a state of disrepair.
But try to imagine what would happen to the Vatican, today, if evidence emerged that completely repudiated the Christian story.
First there would be denial of the evidence. If they can cover up the abuse of children by priests, for the sake of the good name of the church, imagine how far they would go to bury this news.
And, believers need to believe. Islam claims Jesus was a prophet, not the son of God, not Christ. But even the Muslim religion would be damaged, since Islam relies on at least Jesus being a prophet. If the new evidence disprove Jesus existed, it would mean he was not a prophet of Islam, and so Islam would be damaged, because Mohammed could no longer be trusted. Nevertheless, some Christians might turn to Islam, ignoring this difficulty, or perhaps to Scientology, or Buddhism, Hinduism, who knows.
But I suspect many Christians would just ignore this revelation of the falsity of Christianity. The cost of giving up would be too much.
My mother, who was raised as a child to be a Catholic and converted to Protestantism when she married my father, had many conflicts with the two churches, and eventually gave up on organised religion. But she never gave up praying, to a God she could not be sure was what she had been taught. When I questioned her, should could not, would not, explain what she actually thought this God entity was. He amounted to no more than a sky fairy she thought was listening to her prayers. She wasn’t even sure she was a Christian in any meaningful sense – it became a label she used on official forms that asked for one’s religion.
So, if it could be shown Christianity is fake, academically it would destroy the religion’s credibility … if it’s possible to have any less cerdibility among atheists.
But Christianity as a religion would likely live on. Too many professions rely on it.
We have seen many ‘Christian’ scholars make hilarious claims about how the Jesus story need not be literally true while being true in some other mysterious sense all the same. Surely this is how the bishops at the First Council of Nicea fooled themselves while trying to figure out what the Trinity really meant.
Remember, in living memory, a failed science fiction writer stated he would start a religion, did so, … ridiculous I know, and still Scientology has believers. There are serious flat earthers. There are 9/11 truthers (“it was a false flag job, the towers were not brought down by planes but by explosives”, etc.) There are many crazy beliefs in the world. Christianity is merely the biggest. One has to be the biggest, and one day that may be Islam. But the argumentum ad populum fallacy is strong among the religious.
Plato v Jesus?
If Plato did not exist, then no big deal, no consequences of any consequence at all. Just a shrug of the shoulders of philosophers, and some book editing by historians.
If Jesus did not exist, it would mean the total collapse of any Christian claims about Jesus.
But in reality, many if not most Christians would keep on following the lie, the fantasy; and children would continue to be indoctrinated.
The many failed ‘End of the World’ prophecies didn’t make the next prophet pause to think it through.
Perhaps the realisation of that last point will make some Christians pause and think about how gullible they are being. Christians KNOW how gullible are Muslims, Hindus and other believers of other fake religions.
What does it take to make YOU wonder how gullible you are?
There are serious challenges to the Christian claims about what happened to a man they call Jesus, the one they think is Christ, son of God. The same sorts of challenges can be made about Mohammed, and many other religious prophets and deities, particularly if they happened in the distant past, where there are few if any contemporary documents or artefacts.
The claims tend to fall into two categories: the historicity of the person (Jesus, Mohammed); and the supernatural claims made about them (miracles performed, revelations revealed). I’ll refer to then as the Natural claims and the Supernatural claims.
For Jesus, we find now that we have a religion built around him: Christianity. The main sources of information come from the Bible’s Gospels, with all other sources being references to Jesus and Christianity made by non-Christians and Christians some time after the time for which the claims are made (his birth, life, death, resurrection). These claims are a mix of both Natural and Supernatural.
I am an atheist and I see no evidence to support any of the Supernatural claims about Jesus – his own claim to be the son of God, his reported miracles, and his resurrection.
Those theists that do think there is evidence of these are really saying some version of the following: “We have Natural historic evidence of Jesus, and of the Natural events that happened in his life, and we have witnesses to all that, AND to the miracles, the Supernatural events.”
This must be essentially what they are claiming, because they clearly have no direct evidence of miracles actually happening. For example, take the healing of the blind man’s sight. How do we know that happened? Is there some test we could do now, to say, “Look, there’s the evidence of that miracle!”
Well, there were no videos then, so we can’t look at those. And, of course, even if there were it could be that the blind man was faking blindness, in league with Jesus and his crew. “Ah, but other people knew he’d genuinely been blind.” Really? Which people? The people that the narrator of the story told us about? Where did that narrator get the story? Was he there? If he was, was he in league with the fraud? If he wasn’t there himself, the narrator has no evidence that any of it happened, let alone who was there to testify that it was genuine. In other words, the parable of the blind man is at best hearsay, about a story, that has no more evidence for its truth than any other myth.
And so it is will all claims about the Supernatural … AND the Natural claims about Jesus. And behind these objections to the stories about Jesus we have the obvious suspicion that those that started the religious movement early on were either inventing it completely, or elaborating on stories about one of the many ‘prophets’ that wandered the world making claims about their access to various gods. It wasn’t a new pastime even then. Do you believe all of them? If you think some were false prophets, then why not yours?
A common follow up claim made by Christians is that some other party reported on these events, someone that wasn’t committed to promoting Christianity, someone that even disapproved of Christianity, someone with no skin in the game, so they must be credible, right? For example, Tacitus and Josephus.
Tacitus and Josephus
Tacitus was a Roman historian. He referred to Christ and Christianity in his final book, Annals, written in AD 116. This is long after the death of Jesus, so clearly nothing in his account amounts to his memory of events in Palestine. He wasn’t there.
And yet, we hear that scholars consider it to be an “authentic, and of historical value as an independent Roman source.” What does that mean? Does it mean it’s an authentic record of what happened to Jesus? No it does not. It means merely that the scholars think there really was a guy called Tacitus, and that he really did report the story in his book. What it does not say is where he got the story from.
If you read the words of Tacitus it amounts to nothing more than the following: “Nero persecuted the Christians. The Christians took their name from the guy know as Christ. And, here’s what Christians say happened to Christ at the hands of his executioners.”
Tacitus is obviously no more than a report of what Christians believed. Tacitus does not, for example, refer to some other Roman document signed by Pilate, or one signed by the Captain of the guard that saw Jesus die.
So, no wonder it is similar to what was written in the Gospels, because both the Gospel authors and Tacitus got the information from what Christians claimed to be the case. This is no more than reporting hearsay.
If you claim you have half a dozen sources, and all those sources trace back to one source, then you have one source, not six. We don’t know where the current sources got their sources from. It’s a dead end. And as such amounts to a myth.
Josephus is no better. He was a Jewish historian. His references were written around 93–94 AD, 60 years after the supposed death of Jesus, so clearly he too was writing about what others were telling him. While some scholars think the texts have been changed, they think the core is ‘authentic’. Again, the authenticity in question is about whether Josephus wrote them, and that what he wrote is largely what he was told. Who told him? Christians, or someone else reporting on what Christians claimed.
While the claims by scholars to the authenticity of Tacitus and Josephus are about whether Tacitus and Josephus wrote what is in their purported works, the authenticity is NOT about the truth of what they wrote about Jesus.
An Accidental Religion
How do religions arise? One way is accidentally.
Imagine we had a world wide apocalypse, another pandemic that wiped out all but a few human groups dotted around the world. In one group, in Europe, for each Christmas after that event, parents would tell the tales of Santa Claus to their children. One Christmas, a visitor from another colony is passing through and hears the stories of Santa Claus, how he used to visit each Christmas. The stranger mistakenly takes the stories seriously, and repeats them elsewhere on his travels. Further more, he finds that the more he repeats them, the more people want to know about Santa, so he elaborates, invents miracles and all sorts of new events, the healing of blind men, for example. And some of those that heard these elaborated stories go on to expand on them themselves. All of a sudden you have a religion out of nothing more than a children’s Christmas fantasy.
Of course the stories now circulating will differ with different elaborations. They will be inconsistent. Eventually, a new emperor of Europe calls all the bishops of Santa Claus religion together.
Does that make those people appear too stupid? You think that couldn’t happen? If you think this is far fetched compared to evidence to support Christianity, think about the following.
Creating a Religion
So another way of creating a religion is with the intention of fooling people. Perhaps Joseph Smith, the man of Golden Tablets. Smith published the Book of Mormon. “By the time of his death, 14 years later, he had attracted tens of thousands of followers and founded a religion that continues to the present with millions of global adherents.”
Wow! That was in the 1800s, the time of developing ‘Enlightenment’.
But that was nothing.
In the 1950s, a time of radio and television, a second rate science fiction author decided he would create a religion. Obviously, nobody would be dumb enough to pay attention, right? Wrong. Scientology.
The 21st Century celebrities that follow Scientology can look online and read all about this bogus origin, and yet they still believe it. So what makes you think that it would be so difficult to start a religion back in the time purported to be around the life of Jesus? If these Christians are reporting to Tacitus on what they think happened to Jesus, who is Tacitus to say, “Sorry, never happened.” Why would he? He’s only reporting on what they themselves claim.
Of course we don’t even know that Tacitus got the report from Christians directly. It could have been his mate down the brothel, “Hey, Tacitus, that book you’re writing, Have you heard the one about a guy in Palestine seventy years ago?”
This is how poor the information is that’s presented as evidence for Jesus. Even if we have a piece of what Tacitus himself wrote, it says nothing about the truth or falsity of what he wrote about, other than to say that, “Some Christians believed blah, blah, blah.”
If a religion like Scientology can be created in the mid 20th Century, why not one in the time of Pilate in Palestine?
My Alternative Gospel
Imagine, if you will, this scenario (not one I’m claiming happened, but not out of the question).
A man Jesus started making false claims about his access to God’s thoughts. Perhaps he’s a bright fellow, but a little mad. Most people make fun of him. But a few gullible people actually believe what he’s saying.
A couple of other smart guys currently out of work, let’s call then Eric and Ernie, tag along, and while they don’t entirely disbelieve Jesus, they certainly take advantage of him, hype him up, and start to tell others all about him. Maybe slip in the odd story about the occasional ‘miracle’.
Eventually they have raised a bit of a crowed and started to become a real nuisance. The priests want to get rid of Jesus, so make up even more stories about his blasphemous claims, “He actually thinks he’s the son of God!” They succeed and bump him off with the help of one of Pilate’s men, and a little bribe to smooth things over. Jesus is indeed crucified, and dies.
What happens to his followers? This is a bit inconvenient. They were going around with Jesus, being housed and fed wherever they went.
Eric, “I know, let’s tell people he’s coming back in a few days! That will sustain the religion. AND, even better, what if he vanishes … to heaven … by rising up. We can continue telling stories abut him and he’s not here to dispute them. Do you think the other followers will buy it?“
Ernie, “Well they’ve been easily fooled so far. Nobody has to actually witness this resurrection. We only have to SAY that someone witnessed it, us. And, we have to go an steal the body, of course. AND, the more fake witnesses we can add, besides ourselves, the better. AND, with Jesus now resurrected out of the way, in body and ‘spirit’, there’s no way that anyone can disprove any of this junk. AND, we get to live off the tale for the rest of our lives!“
And so, the resurrection story emerges.
Eric, “What if if some of the other followers go back and start asking questions. Everyone will deny witnessing the resurrection. We’ll be caught out.“
Ernie, “No problem. We’ll say it’s a cover-up instigated by the priests that have warned witnesses that they’ll go the same way as Jesus if they say anything.“
Eric, “Brilliant! The greater the conspiracy against OUR conspiracy, the less people will notice ours.“
Welcome to Christianity – my version – which is just as well evidenced as any other … that is, there is no evidence for any of it.
“Whoa, there! It’s not as simple as that. What about the Virgin Birth?”
Didn’t happen. Eric and Ernie made up that story too, to add a bit more mystique to the religion. Mary was actually fooling around with Joseph’s mate. Stoning adulterers was common back then, so what would people rather believe about ‘Christ’? The truth or another myth? Which myth, mine or the Christian myth?
But if Jesus is who he says, that changes everything! Jesus said, “I am the way, the TRUTH & the life…” The number of Old Testament prophecies fulfilled in Jesus’ life including things he had no control over (eg: place of birth & specific details regarding his death). That would be mind blowing!”
No, Jesus did not say “I am the way…” Eric and Ernie made that up to. And what if he HAD said it? It was false, because he was just some ordinary mad man.
But you can’t do that! You can’t mess around with history that way. What if we did that to Churchill, or any other historical figure? Many historical stories have very little evidence.”
Why not? How do YOU know YOUR myth is true, and not mine, or some other perfectly simple explanation as to why the religion arose out of a lie?
I didn’t meet Winston Churchill but I have no doubt he wrote his, ‘Fight them on the Beaches’ speech! There are many eyewitness accounts of the life, death & resurrection of Jesus. The apostles were willing to die for the Gospel. I don’t think they would have died for a lie.
Well, if you’re a Christian, I assume you disbelieve in the Islamic faith. Yet, many Muslims have martyred themselves for what they believe in.
If you die for a lie, but you don’t think it’s a lie, you don’t know you’re dying for a lie, but it’s still a lie.
What About Churchill?
Let’s take seriously the possibility that Churchill’s “Fight them on the beaches” speech didn’t happen. Let’s suppose the recordings we hear today were fake, created after the war to make Churchill seem even more of a hero. What about all those people still alive today that heard the speech on the radio? Let’s pretend they have false memories, instilled in them be playing the later recordings.
I know, I’m stretching your credulity here, imagining such a famous speech was faked, that false memories implanted, that old news papers reporting it were fake too, … including the treasured notebooks, the government materials … all fake, all a WWII conspiracy.
Nevertheless, let’s suppose that somehow it was actually fake. What would that matter now? Sure, some historians would want to re-write some text books, and we would probably get a few more History Channel documentaries out of it. But what would it really change to our lives now? Would it make you give up on your studies, or convince you to quit work, to go an live in France? Would it change the Brexit deal? Would it stop the COVID pandemic?
I doubt very much would happen at all.
And the same goes for most historic events. Historians and archaeologists are learning more about he past all the time, and when something new crops up, a new piece of evidence that changes a story, what happens? Outside academia, the world carries on.
But, as our Christian friend asked, what if the story of Jesus is true, and could seriously shown to be true? Even if it was only the Natural history of Jesus that was proved to be true, that would be amazing. What if the Supernatural claims could be proved to be true? As our friend said, “That would be mind blowing!“
Yes, but what if it isn’t true?
Unlike the histories of Churchill or any other historic figure, if some evidence was found that Jesus did not exist, some evidence, a scroll or two, that showed that the story of Jesus was totally made up in 30 AD, what would THAT mean for Christians, for the Roman Catholic Church, for every Evangelical preacher getting rich off the proceeds of his church? Well, that would indeed be mind blowingly interesting. Christianity would be destroyed! Wouldn’t it?
We have to be honest with ourselves. To most Christians it wouldn’t make a jot of difference. They don’t believe based on reason and evidence. When they claim to provide evidence, such as Tacitus and Josephus, that’s not for their benefit. That’s for our benefit, to shut us up. NOTHING will stop a true believer believing, no matter how great the fantasy the religion is built on. How do we know this? Because of the number of totally incompatible religions that exist.
Nobody that values reason above faith could possibly believe that their religion is the one true religion while all the others were false, given the lack of evidence for all of them. But if you hold faith above reason, you can be convinced to believe any one rubbish.
All you Christians know this, when you look at Muslims. All you Muslims know this when you look at Christians. You just can’t look at yourselves in the same light.
Faith to Faithless
Now and again, the reality of how ridiculous the stories of Jesus and Mohammed hit home. That can be quite a shock.
If it happens to you, you might find yourself in conflict with family and friends. You might be bullied into returning to the religion. You might be ostracised once they realise you are really leaving. In some cases there might be the threat of death.
If you need help, contact Faith to Faithless, and find a group of people with similar experiences that will help you deal with this dramatic change in your life, which I hope will be a good one.
So, an atheist kills a bunch of religious people, and the religious can now cite an example that shows that their religion isn’t that bad after all.
Not so fast.
Atheism vs Theism
Both Atheism and Theism are simply opposing philosophical positions. Any other system’s metaphysical philosophy is ‘atheistic’ if it rejects theism.
A particular theism might be vary vague – “I believe there is one, and possibly more gods, but I don’t know whether any of the religions are true …”.
Or it might be specific yet still ‘other worldly’ – “I believe that there must have been a creator god, but I have no idea what he intends for us, and I offer no moral guidance based on my belief that there is a god.”
Or it might be committed to the variable claims about the god or gods of a particular religion, which may have many sects.
Atheism is pretty much opposition to these sorts of theism, usually on the grounds that there is no evidence or reason to believe specific claims, or support the level of hopefulness that the ‘spiritual’ seem to be clinging onto. In this respect Atheism is a negative position: it simply rejects the claim that there are gods.
Note that Atheism does not assert that there are definitely no gods.
Some atheists might assert that there are absolutely no gods, but that isn’t much better than asserting absolutely that there are gods. You might call such an atheism a ‘faith’ based atheism. But if you take the trouble to pin atheists down they generally agree that they do not hold such a strong opinion, but merely act as if they do because that’s often easier to express.
But this acting as if there are no gods is a fair position to take. Christians act as if there are no Norse gods. They act as if there are no fairies or Santa. (Note that playing along with such fantasies for the fun they provide for children isn’t acting with true belief.)
Religions are a subset of Theism …
[Agnostics may not deny the existence of god, but they don’t positively assert there are gods either.]
Religions take the basic philosophical position of theism, thinking there are some teleological entities that created our universe, and add many more specific claims:
Our god is the only god.
Our god cares about us.
Our god dictates our moral codes.
Our god wants us to punish people that don’t follow his codes.
Our god wants us to punish people that don’t believe in him.
Our god doesn’t want us to eat pig meat and thinks it a moral obligation that we don’t.
Our god wants us to punish people that have sex outside the specific type of union sanctioned by our god (monogamy for Christians, up to four wives, but one husband for Muslims)
Our god will not remarry divorcees – old school Catholic; god changes his mind sometimes; he’s fickle; or humans decide he changed his mind.
Most religious people are born into, indoctrinated into, their religion. And the religion may provide many social benefits if it’s a large religious community.
But there can also be great costs for those that simply cannot continue to believe. In some more fundamentalist communities, ex-believers can be ostracised, might suffer social and economic hardship if rejected by the community, and might even risk death. If the religion prescribes death for apostates, as is the case for Islam, then even if the religion isn’t the state authority, believers are easily persuaded to take it upon themselves.
The list of additional beliefs on top of basic theism, including the many moral prescriptions and proscriptions, is long. It depends on the religion, the sect within the religion, and the personal willingness of individuals to follow the rules of the religion.
This becomes a little tricky for the religious that try to divert criticism away from their religion, when opinions differ so widely within:
God changes his mind often, it seems, judging by how religious opinions change.
Individuals make up their own minds what they take from their religion … you’d think the religious would therefore appreciate how atheists make up their own minds about morality.
The greatest opponents to a particular religious believer’s views are … other religious people. Islamic terrorism? Many victims are other Muslims, for being the wrong type of Muslim.
The variety of religious belief is often greater than the difference between Atheism and a particular Religion. Modern Anglicans that accept secular liberal democracy, have no problem with homosexuality, even in the church, are for full gender equality, and gender identity. They have much more in common with the social and political leanings of many atheists, than with even their fundamentalist Christian brethren, let alone than with people of other faiths.
And yet, the religious stick together. It only takes the whiff of an atheist with a strong opinion for the ‘interfaith’ community to band together in offended outrage. And let anyone speak out about the Islam of the Islamic extremists and even moderate Muslims will come to Islam’s defence as much as agree with an atheist that there might be a problem with the religion.
[Update 5/12/2017] There was greater outrage that Trump retweeted a lead figure one of Britain First’s outspoken anti-Islam activists than at the content of the videos the activist posted. One was ‘fake news’, but the other two were of Muslims persecuting others. Despite the acts of the Muslims, this was actually seen as anti-Muslim bigotry. Take a moment. Here’s the upshot: every tweet condemning German neo-Nazis is anti-German bigotry; every tweet showing and condemning videos of Britain First are anti-British bigotry, and by extension, anti-Muslim bigotry, since, as is belaboured painfully, British Muslims are British. This is the state of play in 2017, where any criticism of Islam is interpreted as ‘Islamophobia’, ‘anti-Muslim bigotry’ … and yes, ‘racism’.
Political Ideologies of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, …
Whenever an atheist argues with Christians or Muslims, it’s not long before we get the Hitler, Stalin, Fascism, Nazism, Communism line thrown at us. And no matter how often it’s pointed out that this isn’t a valid argument, it still keeps on coming up. Often from the same people that have had this pointed out before.
Political ideologies can of course cross boundaries of Atheism-Theism. Christians can be socialists. In the 70s it was quite common for Islamists to lean towards socialism … maybe they hadn’t realised how far right Islam really is … or maybe they had.
And, Hitler was not an atheist. He might not have favoured the established churches that opposed his thugs, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t religious. Many Nazi ideas were based on the old Teutonic ideals of religiously motivated knights.
Communism? Don’t think that political ideology stops you believing in a personal god … it just becomes less convenient and maybe a little dangerous to admit to one, but Communism does not preclude theism.
These political ideologies tell us little about the wide variety of atheists. The Atheism that some political ideologies might embrace informs the ideology with nothing other than the fact that there is no evidence for any god.
Religious Political Ideologies
Some political ideologies are religious ones.
And most religious ideologies are political – they are inherently so because they dictate the behaviours of people, and that’s a very political thing to do. And they usually have a lot to say on social issues … not all good. Homophobia, sex outside marriage, modesty, … religions can be obsessed with sex, particularly with regard to women, and if feminism isn’t a political matter I’m not sure what is.
It is possible to believe in a religion and treat it as an entirely personal belief system that determines how you live your own life, without you making any claims about what it implies for anyone else.
But this is rare. Most religions, and especially religious organisations, are very keen on telling: religious believers how they should act; non-believers that they are anything from misguided to evil; the religious what they should do to the non-believers: killing apostates, bombing abortion clinics, punishing people for blasphemy (the modern version is imprisoning people for ‘hate speech’).
Christianity, as supposedly expressed by Jesus, is a “render unto Caesar” kind of religion – a reasonable basis of separation of church and state. However, the Catholic church in Rome put a swift stop to that. Christianity, especially through many bishops and popes, made state business very much church business. The US continues this tradition by distorting the intentions of the founding fathers and making it the godly nation the founding fathers tried to avoid – they’d seen enough of that in Europe.
Islam is very specifically, inherently, by design, a political ideology. Only Muslims can hold certain offices of state. Muslims and non-Muslims are taxed differently.
Many Muslims will try to pull a fast one by telling you that Islam insists that Muslims follow the laws of the the land in which they find themselves … where Muslims are a minority that does not hold power. But Islam also requires Muslims to spread Islam … which means it would eventually become a majority. This is why many opponents of Islam also oppose too much immigration from Muslim countries.
Of course many Muslims don’t want a dominant Islam any more than non-Muslims do. Many escape the domination of Islam of their homelands, and are quite happy to live in secular democracies where they can practice their religion in peace.
But then we also see a lot of duplicitous language from supposedly ‘moderate’ Muslims that think homosexuality should be illegal, and make excuses for their more extreme brothers and sisters (“Nothing to do with Islam”).
In Europe the atheists and secularists have been opposing the power of the church for centuries, letting the humanistic principles take precedence. There’s still plenty of religious protectionism that goes on – a refusal to give up the reigns of power, as diminished as they are. Why the heck do Bishops get seats in the UK House of Lords – and why is there even such an unelected house still?
But I’ve seen and heard much more of the stranglehold religion has in some parts of the US, where the mark of a good plumber is whether he’s a good Christian or not. “In God We Trust” – indeed they do.
So, religions are political, and as such are as fair game for criticism and ridicule as any non-religious political ideology.
And being offended when religions are criticised is just one more political tool the religious try to pull. It may be a genuine feeling, and so they try to give it moral weight. Hence, critics of Islam are labelled haters of Muslims.
But, realising that atheists tend not to be impressed by the special pleading for the religion, that atheists aren’t taken in by the piety, the hurt feelings, what are the religious to do? Compare their religion to atheism? They can’t. They are not comparable.
So, religious friends, you can’t really compare Atheism with your religion.
You can compare Atheism with Theism, if you’re talking only about the philosophy, reason, evidence, to support either case.
But you can’t compare Atheism as such with Christianity or Islam. Yes, I know that atheists argue against Christianity and Islam, but they do so on two quite separate grounds:
1 – A disagreement with the underlying theistic claims of your religion. If your religion relies on a claim that there is one or more gods, and there isn’t, then 2 is irrelevant. But, we humour you anyway and so …
2 – A disagreement with the moral assertions that you think your imaginary god has prescribed. It’s not like we disagree with all your moral positions, we just hold those we agree on for different reasons, for which we don’t need an imaginary god. But those Humanist atheists also find many of the moral guides of religion to be immoral, barbaric at times, and remnants of ancient codes of conduct prescribed at the time of the religion’s inception.
The thing is, Atheism prescribes no moral position whatsoever. It really is merely the rejection of your unsubstantiated claims about your god.
And this, of course, leads to another failure to understand atheism: “Atheists have no morals. They are nihilists.” Not so.
We have morals. We just don’t think some imaginary friend dictates them; and we very specifically reject many of the immoral codes that gods supposedly do dictate.
But you’re nearly right. it’s not our atheism that determines our morals, it’s something else.
Many atheists find other reasons for their morality – many simply acknowledging that harming others isn’t nice. People and animals don’t like to suffer harm, so we prefer to minimise that. It seems a very simple idea, but it’s amazing how far you can go with just that basic starting point. And it also avoids the need to punish people for daft reasons – such as for having sex outside marriage, for not being heterosexual, for drinking, for working on the Sabbath.
[In the UK the Shops Bill 1986 was defeated; the Sunday Trading Act 1994 eventually introduced limited Sunday trading … so strong was Christianity’s hold over British life. Now we’re finding we have to start again, with Islam.]
Many atheists want to live by their own moral ideals, and many collect these ideas about living a moral life into a set of codes. It’s not that these codes are necessary, but they are helpful in declaring some minimal set of behaviours we agree to abide by.
And one example of such a guide is the Humanist Manifesto. Take a look at it. You’ll find no diktats about women being lesser than men, or how to deal with the evil of homosexuality, or what the best way is to kill apostates. Humanists don’t have to look for ‘nuance’ and ‘scholarship’ to explain away inconvenient passages ‘revealed’ through some desert warlord or hippy.
So, if you want to carry out any comparisons I’d suggest you try these:
– Atheism vs Theism
– Humansim vs Christianity, Islam, …
You might find that many atheists tell you they don’t belong to any Humanist organisation, because they would rather not belong to any group that sets their ethical standards for them, as they can figure it out for themselves. They have a point. We are free to decide our own moral codes, and put them to the test in our societies.
My personal subscription to Humanism is one of convenience, and support for many of the programs of Humanists UK (formerly British Humanist Association).
Other atheists might join other groups of common interest, such as the many secular and skeptical societies around the world. Ex-Muslims have a shared experience that brings them together in various groups – often with the added benefit of providing a safe community to those ex-Muslims that are still at risk from their families.
Let that sink in, and imagine a child of Humanists being ostracised, forced into marriage, threatened with death, killed. I don’t know of any such incident. Has one ever made the news?
The next time you’re arguing with atheists on Twitter, they are unlikely to be Nazis. So when you pull the “What about Hitler, Stalin ..” it’s a Straw Man. If you want to argue for your religion, why don’t you try coming up with good reasons for it, not excusing the bad stuff by dragging in some irrelevant comparison.
And for pities sake, give up on trying to defend the indefensible. Your religious texts are full of ancient stuff that really doesn’t stand up to our moral standards today. Some religious passages are outright contraventions of the human rights that most people would want to sign up to. Stop defending that crap with ‘nuance’ and ‘scholarship’ – it makes you look like damned fools that are fooling no one but themselves.
And that atheist killer you want to call a terrorist because you’re sick of hearing about Islamic terrorists? Could be they are genuinely crazy, or have some motive other than their hate for religion.
And even if they carried out the heinous act because they hate religion and religious believers, there’s no Atheist Bible, and nothing in the Humanist Manifesto to suggest they should … unlike your religious books. Not even The God Delusion, Letter to a Christian Nation, or any of the New Atheist books.
If some killers that are atheists really are killing for atheism, there’s nothing in atheism, or Humanism, that can be removed that would stop them. There are no doctrines we can reject. There’s no “Believers are children of Satan” sermons going on. Pointing out the problems with religion doesn’t automatically create Atheist Killers. Sadly it does all too often create killers of atheists.
But, hey, if someone has a terrorist agenda, against believers, for atheism, then pretty much all humanist atheists will oppose them. I’ll happily denounce any such terrorists. But I won’t be able to point to any atheist texts that has incited them. I can only point to Humanist texts that are very short and very explicit in their opposition to doing harm. There is no Humanist Prophet whose example I should follow that includes his beheading of enemies.
The Humanist Manifesto is so clear in rejecting doing harm to others there’s no way you can mistakenly or otherwise derive some crazy idea that it’s a good idea to kill believers.
This cannot be said of the books of Christianity and Islam. Alongside all the lovely stuff is some seriously dark and immoral doctrine.
Look, if you want to call some atheist killer an atheist terrorist, knock yourself out. Any disagreement from atheists will be on a technicality, not for some fear of having to explain away our inconvenient texts. Let me help you out with A Guide To Terrorists For Idiots.
What is it with Christians and the gospels? Don’t they get that they are fiction wrapped around a myth? One argument often used to support the case for the gospels being a representation of historically truthful events is their claimed consistency. How could these independent writers all tell what is basically the same story? It must be based on truth, right? Well, no.
I visited the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art yesterday, on Broadway, New York. That is, Suite 401, 549 Broadway, a nondescript entrance between two stores (as opposed to the more glamorous ‘appearing on Broadway’). This isn’t a big show; and to call it a museum is stretching it a bit. Still, comic life is an exaggeration of real life – as are the Christian gospels.
I found that one of the notes accompanying some of the Batman strips struck a chord with me, and prompted me to make this comparison. It’s a presentation of Batman in a way I’m familiar with hearing from Christians, regarding the Christian gospels. I thought it worth quoting here. When you read it, try replacing references to Batman with Jesus, and the various Batman artists with the Christian gospel authors.
Batman is the most protean of the great comic book characters: From Bob Kane’s original cartoon icon, to Dick Sprang’s broad-chested guardian of Gotham, comfortable as parade marshal; from Neal Adams’ cloaked figure in the shadows of the night, to Frank Miller’s aged and cranky crusader; each talented artist has brought a very personal vision to this hero.
And the impossible thing, they all feel right … definitive … even with all their inherent contradictions. Unlike lesser legends, which need to follow model sheets from generation to generation, Batman gives his chroniclers the power to transcend them, and in so many cases, do the most important work of their careers. No other hero would give us the ability to simultaneously showcase so many of the legendary talents of the comics field; and no other would be the character to greater acclaim than any other.
Walk along MoCCA’a walls, and stroll the streets of Gotham in daylight and darkness, enjoying the protection of the Caped Crusader and the Dark Knight … the one and only Batman.
– Paul Levitz is a comic book fan (The Comic Reader), writer (Legion of Super-Heroes), editor (Batman), Executive President & Publisher (DC Comics, 2002-2010), and historian (75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Myth Making)
Of course there have been other contributors to the Batman story; but then there are other Christian gospels too.
Many ‘sophisticated’ and ‘liberal’ theologians like to emphasise the ‘story’ of Jesus, as an allegory, a story that represents life to them, but not necessarily literal. That is until you witness them talk among themselves, or to more literal believers, when it’s pretty damned hard to interpret their stories as anything but literal. The blurring of the line between fact and fiction seems to be a convenience that allows them to switch modes, being sophisticated in the company of rational atheists, and yet literal to literalist believers.
The evolution of the Batman myth, as represented by the various artists that have imposed their belief in Batman on the story, echoes that of Jesus as presented in the gospels. There’s no more reason to suppose there’s any more truth in the gospels than there is in the Batman stories. The Batman stories have varied over time, but maintain a consistency; but that doesn’t make them any more true.
Okay, I’ll allow some particular truths to the Christian gospels: they may contain mentions of real place names, and real people. Gotham City isn’t real, after all. But let’s not pretend that having a story contain real locations means it’s not fiction. While in NYC I also saw Mission Impossible, with real locations.
The charge that atheists suffer from Aspect Blindness regarding religion can be just as easily, if not more so, directed at the religious.
I think part the absolute commitment to the religious view is part of one’s personal makeup, but put more generally it is a consequence of certain personalities.
I have had experience of religion. I was raised a Christian, I had doubts in my teens but wasn’t fully aware of the strength of the atheistic alternative (I was agnostic), and eventually came to realise the flaws in the religious view. But, I’ve been around enough religious people to recognise several types. Some are religious by default, as JustBrowsing describes. Some really are strong unquestioning believers that simply reject any alternative, with some element of fear, either of the spiritual consequences, or simply of the unknown. Many are what I’d class as ‘troubled’, in that they desperately want to find something spiritual as a source of comfort and guidance because they have some sort of difficulty with the basic physical world and what they see as all its nastiness – such as crime and ‘evil’, or natural disasters, things that from my point of view I can classify simply and naturalistically as “some people aren’t nice to each other” and “shit happens”. I’m not troubled by the world and its problems and the fact that I can’t fix them all. I’m not saying I’m heartless or fearless – I feel deeply disturbed to witness human and animal suffering, and I’d be as scared as the next person if I were mugged; but I can put these things into context so that I’m not fretting every minute of the day. I don’t become depressed with the state of the world or my personal life. I do have a driving need to learn new stuff, but I’m not disturbed by the lack of answers.
In some cases the religious view is one of ‘blind faith’, the outright unquestioned denial of the possibility of an atheistic view. But in many case I’d describe faith more as ‘tunnel vision’ or ‘aspect blindness’, rather than simply ‘blind’, as a consequence of personality, where critical reasoning is accepted and used, but sufficiently distorted and abused to affirm the religious view.
Maybe I have personality issues that drive me towards a critical questioning and a general scepticism that results in my atheism, and maybe it’s difficult for me recognise it in myself. I’m open to analysis, by professionals or amateurs.
It might be said that I’m this way because I haven’t had a religious experience, and that if I had I’d know. I can’t refute this categorically, but by the same token how am I supposed to know? And how would anyone else know what I have and haven’t experienced? Maybe I have similar ‘spiritual’ experiences, but just as people have different thresholds of pain I have a low threshold of the ‘spiritual’ experience. Maybe that’s all it boils down to, different strengths of ‘zap’ in the brain, and that the brains of those that perceive a stronger ‘zap’ interpret it all anthropomorphically as some superior presence. How would you tell the difference between that and a real religious God invoked revalatory event?
Read Possum’s Essay for the first time today. Very inspiring, and a fine example. Weren’t those Baptists weird though – so many un-Christan Christians around.
On the same blog, a later post got me thinking about crushes. I’m 54 and remember a crush from when I was 5-6 very vividly, except for the girl’s face – I remember the place, the occasion, even her dress. I don’t think of it often, but, as with many deep rooted feelings it is a clear memory – though perhaps it’s the feeling that’s the lasting memory and not the girl herself.
I can only imagine that religious types have similar deeply embedded feelings for Christ, or whoever, created by all the positive hype and threats of damnation that some churches instill in kids; and that that makes it so difficult to give up the faith and the ‘love’, against all reason. Especially if it’s re-enforced every Sunday. I was Church of England, so it wasn’t too strong an indoctrination, but I had a Catholic female cousin of a similar age to me and I remember when we were about 12 she used to admonish me for my evolving doubt and wonder how a couldn’t ‘love’ Christ.
I swear she had a crush on Christ.
Update: Prof Robert Bartlett’s BBC series, Inside the Medieval Mind, Episode 2, Sex, covers the infatuation of the brides of Christ.