Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for the ‘New Atheism’ Category

The God Who Wasn’t There

In Blogging the New Testament, New Atheism, Religion and Society on September 10, 2012 at 12:27 am

I’ve just spent the last hour watching the documentary, The God Who Wasn’t There. I had watched part of Loose Change on Netflix, and this was one of several films that appeared in my ‘recommended’ queue. (Loose Change, by the way, is very watchable, but you only have to do a brief ‘net search to see that much of it has been debunked. It’s somehow deliciously diabolical to think that 9/11 was all just a huge conspiracy, but the gross mismanagement of the our country during the Bush administration ought to be proof enough that the same team wouldn’t have been capable of such a devious plot). If you’re interested in watching it, you can check it out on Netflix or watch the YouTube version – not sure if it’s legally posted.

While the director and narrator, Brian Flemming raises a few interesting points, this is pretty much a rehash of ideas critical of Christianity that have been floating around for some time. Anyone who’s ever taken a comparative religion or literature class, or who has read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces will be familiar with many of his ideas. Flemming sometimes comes across exactly as his former school superintendent – who appears in the film – would like to portray him; as an adult who is still angry about wrongs committed against him as a kid. I’m pretty sure that Mr. Flemming is preaching to the atheist choir, as his message and methodology are unlikely to convince anyone who isn’t already on his side.

The first ten minutes or so of the film tells the story of Jesus, illustrating it with clips from old films. The intent of this seems to be to make the story appear as ridiculous as possible. However, he uses a pretty neat video trick to make an important point, one that I had never considered before – and I once thought myself a student of the New Testament. He places all the stories he’s just shown on a sort of grid, then crosses out all the ones that the Apostle Paul seems to have not known about – almost all of them.

Jesus died somewhere around 33 AD, and the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. Since the Gospel of Mark makes reference to its destruction, it must have been written after 70 AD, and since the other gospels appear have used Mark as a source document, that means that there are about 40 years of silence between Jesus’ death and the writings that describe his life – except, of course, for the writings of Paul.

But therein lies the problem – of the two dozen or so stories about Christ’s life that every modern Christian is familiar with, Paul seems to know about only two or three. In all of his writings, he never mentions the shepherds of Luke 2 who were the first to hear of Jesus’ birth, the three kings, the flight to Egypt, the twelve-year-old Christ in the temple – or most of the other events described in the gospels. In fact, according to Flemming, the only well-known events in Jesus’ life that Paul does refer to are his death, his resurrection, and apocalyptic events surrounding his return.

Flemming’s argument here is that Jesus was mythological, not historical. Paul’s writings are the oldest in the New Testament, pre-dating the gospels, and Paul doesn’t seem to know anything about the historical person who was his contemporary, not even by hearsay. My immediate response to this insight was to look at Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 2:2, “Neither did I judge myself as knowing anything among you, except Yeshua The Messiah, even him as he was crucified…” in an entirely new light.

The argument seems to go something like this: in the 1st century AD, there were many stories circulating that were similar to the Jesus story, and pretty much everyone knew they were just allegories or myths. Paul must have erroneously believed the Jesus stories were true, or else he used them to advance a set of doctrines to which he adhered, or he simply made up the whole idea himself. After Paul’s death, the writers of the gospels felt the need to fill in a ‘history’ for the person of Jesus, in order to advance their cause.

Cover of "The God Who Wasn't There"

The God Who Wasn’t There

This Christ Myth Theory, as it’s known, is interesting. I was already aware of the fact that many other religions and myths contemporary to Christ had made many of the same claims – the virgin birth and atoning death included. But I had never given much thought or research to the fact that Paul himself was ignorant of many of the facts of Jesus life. Even when I was a fundamentalist Christian, I had a real problem with the explanation that Satan had created other myths which replicated facts about Jesus in order to lead many astray – especially since some of the so-called Satanic versions pre-dated the real one by sometimes thousands of years. The idea gives way too much prescience to Satan. I still find it difficult, however, to discount the existence of a historical person named Jesus who preached for a few years in Galilee and Judea.

Of course, if you believe Mark’s reference to the temple’s destruction is a prophecy, you can date it immediately after Jesus’ death, and part of the problem goes away. This does not, however, explain why Paul makes so little mention of the events of Jesus’ life.

Another interesting idea is Flemming’s dismissal of moderate Christianity. He sees Holy Wars and the Inquisition as very much in line with the teachings of the Bible, not dangerous aberrations. If one’s immortal soul is in danger – what is there to be moderate about? Unfortunately, he may have a point – which means this blog would be an exercise in futility. A few snippets of an interview with Sam Harris really drives this point home.

A final argument he makes touches on the religious education of children. Religious schools indoctrinate children according to the wishes of their parents – but is this the right thing to do? Children have not yet been schooled in critical thought, and aren’t likely to say to themselves ‘hmm, well that’s one theory’ when presented a viewpoint from an authoritarian figure. And there’s the fear factor as well – question what your teacher is saying, and you might just end up in hell.

I’m intrigued by the assertion that Paul may have been completely unfamiliar with the events of Jesus’ life, and I intend to scour his writings to see if I come to the same conclusion. I don’t think anyone who believes in Jesus will stop doing so due to this film, nor do I think non-Christians will learn much that they didn’t already know. And the final scene of the film is simply juvenile. But, The God Who Wasn’t There is an interesting way to spend an hour.

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Good Reasons for “Believing” in God

In New Atheism on May 22, 2012 at 11:15 pm

Do you believe in God? Why or why not?

I’ve always imagined that this would be the kind of essay question you’d receive from St. Peter when you arrived at the pearly gates. He’d give you one of those little blue essay booklets from your college days, a couple of No. 2 pencils, give you about an hour to write a thousand words – and all of eternity would depend upon your answer.

Like most people, you may think there are really only two ways to answer this question; either ‘yes’ and support your beliefs with information from the Bible, church history, and the like (much easier to do if you were actually sitting at those gates), or ‘no’ and appeal to science, philosophy, empirical evidence, etc.

Dan Dennett has discovered yet a third way to answer – belief in belief. In a lecture given at an Atheist Alliance International conference, Dennett discusses some of the reasons why some may continue to attend church and worship God, even though they may not believe that God exists, or disagree that he exists in such a way as the church believes and teaches.

He begins by saying that there are, of course, many good people in the US and around the world today who believe what the priests and preachers tell them. Their religion and worldview fit together rather nicely, their world seems to be working out fine just the way it is, and there’s little reason to go upsetting apple carts. These are the people who have bumper stickers on their car that proclaim, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” They are too busy with the everyday affairs of their lives to question the system of beliefs that has held sway in the West for the last couple of centuries.

However, he thinks that there are many people sitting in the pews on Sunday who can’t really be described this way. They are what he calls ‘reflective’ Christians, meaning that they do take the time to think about the claims that the priests and preachers make. These folks often find that they have a problem – but they probably don’t confess as much to their religious brethren.  Reflective Christians realize that the Bible seems to have some errors and inconsistencies.  They may doubt that the words attributed to Jesus were actually said by him. They may have problems believing that miracles every occurred. Some may have decided that the virgin birth, the resurrection, and other events critical to Christian dogma simply never happened.

Yet these Christians still go to church every Sunday, still actively participate in church, still ‘believe’.  Why? Dennett examines several possible reasons – reasons to believe in God, even if you’re not 100 percent sure.

First of all, of course, is fear. Most Christians can tell you that fear is the beginning of wisdom. It doesn’t matter how convincing Richard Dawkins might be, you’d better continue worshiping God – just in case. If God is really as vengeful as he’s described in the Old Testament, you’d be a fool not to hedge your bets.

This line of reasoning was popularized by Blaise Pascal, and is often called Pascal’s Wager. It’s only a good wager, by the way, if the God of the next life is indeed our Judeo-Christian one; if he’s Muslim or one of any of the hundreds of others cultures around the world have believed in, then too bad – so sad. People who worship God for this reason aren’t actually making one single bet; they are actually doubling down on that gambit a number of times – wagering that God exists, that this God is the one our particular culture believes in, that the Bible is indeed the blueprint for how to worship him, and finally, that he’d not be angry with people who were fearful bet-hedgers, not true believers.

Others aren’t worried about facing a vengeful God so much as they fear what Dennett calls a ‘catastrophic collapse of consensus.’ This is perhaps part of what’s driving religious interference in politics. People who fear this may have a nostalgia for what they remember as a simpler time, when it seemed being American meant the same thing to everyone, that it included being Christian, middle class, trusting of government, etc. There is a some validity to this fear. We can see a number of failed states in the world today – Afghanistan, Somalia, and others – and part of what contributed to the un-winding of these states, as it were, was a sharp division in religious belief. People who think this way may not even want to discuss religious issues with non-believers, as that in itself undermines consensus. I don’t agree with the proposed remedy – that we need to get God back in the schools and in the halls of government, but I do see the driving force behind the fear.

Love is another reason to continue believing, even when you have serious doubts. Who wants to hurt their parents, friends and family by admitting that they no longer – or never did – believe? Some have suggested that Charles Darwin postponed the publication of his Origin of Species for many years, so that he would not aggrieve his wife. We might follow our hearts to places our heads advise us against. While I personally could never serve God out of fear of punishment alone, I see love as a valid reason, on several levels. I continued going to church services long after I got anything out of them at all because I didn’t want to hurt my friends and family. And while I think that we as Americans need to build a consensus that isn’t a Christian consensus, I too am terrified of some of the trends I see in this country.

I haven’t mentioned all of the reasons Dennett talks about – including the Concorde Fallacy; I have to leave you some reason to click on the video below and watch for yourself!

What do you think of Dennett’s ideas? And, going back to our original question, do you believe? Or do you believe in belief? I’d love to read your comments.