Thursday, January 3, 2008

Benjamin Franklin

It seems that Benjamin Franklin, one of the lauded fathers of our country, found early America a place where men who thought critically about religion, instead of accepting unquestioningly the kind of education a person gets at a madrassa, roamed freely.

In his autobiography, published in 1789, Franklin writes of himself and his day of setting out on his own as a young man: ". . . I was rather inclin[e]d to leave Boston when I reflected that I had already made myself a little obnoxious to the governing part . . . and farther, that my indiscreet [sic] disputations about religion began to make me pointed at with horrir by good people as an infidel or atheist."

In the same book, Franklin describes a good friend who was also a doctor: "He . . . was ingenious, but much of an unbeliever, and wickedly undertook, some years after, to travest[y] the Bible in doggerel verse, as Cotton had done Virgil. By this means he set many of the facts in a very ridiculous light, and might have hurt weak minds if his work had been published; but it never was." It's unclear from the context whether Franklin means the word "wicked" as a serious moral condemnation, or as a mere ironic or gently teasing acknowledgement that the book the doctor wrote would be considered naughty by some people.

He also describes a fellow printer: "At this time he did not profess any particular religion, but something of all on occasion."

That's three people during the founding of our country who think critically about religion, within a few pages of Ben Franklin's autobiography.

In light of this, it's simple to conclude that if Mike Huckabee doesn't become President, it's because Americans like freedom too much, and are too hesitant to take that kind of step towards being a Sharia-law-like autocracy.

Ken's Guide To The Bible: Misconceptions

Today's post is going to cover some points of Catholic or Christian tradition, the debunking of which doesn't necessarily undermine the purported validity of Christianity at all, but will shed light on some popular propaganda images that are used to enthrall us and keep us believing Christians.

* Carrying of the cross: In Christian prints or Christian movies, Jesus is often seen languidly carrying his cross on his shoulders, blood pouring out of his brow due to the crown of thorns. It's even become a figure of speech: to "carry a cross" evokes an image of a person suffering piously like Christ did on his way to his crucifixion, and once we hear the phrase uttered in a serious tone, we can hardly help but be persuaded by the speaker. And when we see the image of Christ carrying the cross, we feel sorry for the guy.

In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus doesn't carry the cross a step of the way. An innocent bystander names Simon gets pressed into it by the Romans. Matthew 27:32; Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26.

Unfortunately, this is one of the instances in Ken's Guide where he is showing off how great he is and trying to look persuasive, at the expense of being informative. After listing a bunch of "misconceptions" about the crucifixion, supporting them with verses from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he merely states ". . . John disagrees on nearly all of the above points." Well, if there is some Biblical support for a detail, it's hardly a misconception to portray it as having happened. Maybe the other Gospel writers neglected to include it. But that does not mean that every inconsistency has to be the result of an innocent omission just because you might prefer that the Gospel writers weren't making stuff up. My bet is that some of these disagreements are inconsistencies like the one I wrote about yesterday concerning Judas' death- inconsistencies that should trouble Christians who believe the Bible is the unwavering Word of God (and, my purpose in these posts is nothing more than to get Christians to question whether the Bible is wholesale valid, or whether outside thought can contribute to our conception of what's moral, and individual stuff in the Bible can be disregarded as bunk). But it would be more helpful to the reader if the author point-by-point listed how the Gospel of John differs, instead of letting us jump to the conclusion that, because he didn't find support for the well-known details and images in Matthew, Mark, or Luke, they are scandalous lies. I will check out the Gospel of John for this point, and then update this post later tonight with what I find.

One more thing I should insert in here. Smith takes on a lot of tradtitions in his Guide to the Bible. But he is just looking at the Bible. In my opinion, when you look at all the inconsistencies and questionable things Smith collects, they should reinforce each other in terms of the doubts they introduce in your mind about Christian dogma. However, I would certainly allow the possibility that something that isn't in the Bible but that is part of Christian tradition is 100% true, but just came into Christian tradition by word of mouth rather than through being recorded in the Bible. In my own opinion, though, stories about Biblical events that have come into the Christian or Catholic tradition without a written Biblical source are far more likely to be specious legends that were made up somewhere along the way during Christianity's 2,000 year long tenure, and the Bible itself is a source that should be looked at in its details with skepticism.

* Immaculate conception: A well-known concept in Catholicism is the Immaculate Conception. Catholic Doctrine holds that all humans, innocent though they may seem to our reason, are actually born with the sin of Eve from the garden (disobeying God's command to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge) and this is called "original sin." Original sin, in Catholic tradition, is removed by baptism into the Catholic church. However, Mary the mother of Jesus was never baptised, and since she is such a hero in the Catholic view (Protestants, more conservative in almost all things, are a little more misogynistic, and don't so easily stomach the idea of revering a woman), the view of her bearing original sin or dying with original sin is unpalatable. So, a 12th-century European thought up the idea that Mary, through divine intervention, had skipped out on being marked with original sin when she was conceived (the word "immaculate," by the way, means clean). To be totally clear, the immaculate conception refers to Mary's conception, not Jesus' (although I'm sure Catholic priests would probably also say that Jesus was not born with original sin). There is no support in the Bible for Mary being born without original sin.

* Shroud of Turin: Another popular image in Catholicism that we were all told about when we were little kids and seemed a real spooky bit of proof that God was real is the Shroud of Turin. This was either a burial shroud that was used on Christ's body or a cloth used to clean him after her died by a woman named Veronica. Supposedly Christ's image miraculously stayed on the cloth. It was called the Shroud of Turin because, for a long time, it was kept in Turino, Italy.

There is no record in the Bible of any woman named Veronica, or of the incident that supposedly created the Shroud.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Ken's Guide To The Bible: Judas Iscariot

Everyone is familiar with the version of Judas' fate, found in Matthew 27:3-5, in which he hangs himself. But, another book of the Bible totally contradicts that. In Acts 1:18, Judas lives long enough to buy a field with his 30 pieces of silver, but God apparently explodes Judas in the middle of the field.

So which is it? Why wouldn't the Apostles know what Judas' fate was? Certainly, there can be an innocent explanation for there being two inconsistent accounts of his death in the Bible (but, even if there is an innocent explanation, remember-- at least one account still has to be wrong). However, it at least tends to make it less likely that Judas' died either by suicide or by God's revenge if these are two clearly inconsistent accounts of his death in the Bible. That is, it makes it more likely that the story of Judas suffering an "unhappy fate" is something just made up by the Apostles.

One thing I should not neglect to mention is that the Gospels were written down many years after Christ's death, and while two were written by two of his apostles, the other two were not. Why were they written? Perhaps the writers found that writing down the story was a good way to make money or to promote their nascent churches and themselves. The epistles- such as Acts- were written closer, chronologically, to Jesus' death, so they may be more accurate for that reason. Matthew, unlike Acts, is one of the Gospels and was written much later after Jesus' death.


In my last post about child-killing in the Bible, I wrote that all the instances of child-killing were in the Old Testament. This is wrong. According to Matthew 2:16 (a Gospel of the New Testament) Herod sought to kill the newborn Messiah, but when Jesus' family gave him the slip, many other innocent children were killed as a result (in a scene reminiscent of God's killing all the first-born Egyptian males in Exodus, just to make sure he killed the Pharaoh's heir).

One other thing I'd like to mention is my thoughts about the following: many Christianity-promoters (especially pro-lifers) or Judaism-promoters may argue that we shouldn't take too much from the fact that there is so much child-killing in the Bible. For one thing, just because God sees fit to kill children in particular instances does not mean that it is not wrong for us to abort children on our own volition. But I think this is failing to give the child-killing references all the weight they deserve. Sure, in a rhetorical "vacuum," where we are only dealing with the text of the Bible, and no argument has been made about it, we really can't say that the Bible says that generically, child-killing is permissible or is holy, simply based on the few instances recorded in the Bible. But I still think it takes away from the weight of the claims about the wrongness of abortion, or the sanctity of human lives or children's lives, when we are not arguing over the text of the Bible only, but are also dealing with the pro-lifers making those kinds of claims (which they state or let-be-assumed are amply backed up in the Bible).

Especially in light of all the Biblical instances of child-killing, if there is a God who really thought abortion was wrong, I think He would make it really clear in the Old Testament that it is taboo, and the writers would give us a hint of it nearby to some of the references to child-killing. Another thing is Matthews's Gospel verse I described in my first paragraph of this post- what, God and Matthew don't think it's wrong at all that all those innocent kids had to die? God couldn't protect them? If their lives are so inviolable and precious, it seems their "murders" despoil the entry of Christ into our world as a human. On the contrary, there is not even an explanation in the Bible of why their deaths were necessary.

So: while I think it's right that the instances of child-killing don't necessarily mean that abortion is permissible from a Christian or Judaic point of view, or that child-killing is not a particularly heinous form of murder, (1) I think the opposite can't be said to be necessarily true either, based on the Bible, (2) more clear condemnations of child-killing and abortion are an outstanding omission in the Bible in light of the pro-lifers' claims, and (3) it makes sense to show these Bible references to the pro-lifers and say, "Account for this."

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Ken's Guide To The Bible: Slavery And Judeo-Christian Sources For Violent Religious War

As I alluded to in this earlier post, the ancient Israelites certainly participated in a lot of bloodshed and massacre (according to the Bible). Representative of this, I posted this quote from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah: "A curse on him who is lax in doing the Lord's work! A curse on him who keeps his sword from bloodshed!" -Jeremiah 48:10. So if you want a precedent for the Muslims- and no one else- being ultra-religious barbarians, the Bible isn't it. I'm not trying to make anybody feel bad about their Jewish or Christian heritage/history by pointing out all of this crazy or silly stuff in the Bible, by the way. I think that when you look to the Bible as a source of the history of your people to be proud of, you just have to be discriminating to sort out the wheat from the chaff. And if you think being aggressive in warfare is praiseworthy or that it's quaint or something like that when ancient barbarians are doing it, I'm not criticizing that point of view. But I would like to make people aware that a lot of the war and the violence found in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, fits in the "wouldn't be considered acceptable among non-barbarians in modern times" category, or would fit right in among the Al Qaeda set if it was encouraged or practiced today.

Similarly, according to Ken's Guide To The Bible, Jesus never condemned the institution of slavery- at least not that the Bible recorded. And, Paul and Peter encouraged slaves to be obedient to their masters. Ephesians 6:5-7; I Peter 2:18. It seems like if Jesus and the Apostles were really concerned with human's well-being, they would have thought to condemn the institution of slavery- it's enough to make one wonder whether Jesus condemned slavery during his life at all, or if his Apostles neglected to mention it in their writings, so as not to offend potential (slave holding) converts. Surely, Jesus doesn't have to condemn every kind of evil people commit in order to "not be for it," but it's still an outstanding omission, especially in light of his apostles' acceptance of slavery.

As I mentioned in my first post on Ken's Guide To The Bible, Christianity did (at least over time) establish a new norm of humanitarianism and respect for human dignity in the Western world. Christianity and arguments based on Christianity had a hell of a lot to do with mustering and solidifying opposition to slavery in the Western world, prior tp slavery's eventual legal abolition. A great example of this (maybe the earliest example) is St. Patrick's influence on the Irish. The pagan Irish practiced white slavery, similar to how Native Americans or aboriginal Africans kept enemies captured in war as slaves. Mostly, the Irish were taking other Irish people as slaves. They also captured foreigners, but it's unlikely the pagan Irish ever owned any African slaves, unless they captured them in attacks on Roman colonies in Britain. Contemporaneous with his conversion of the Irish to Christianity, the Irish abandoned slavery (Indeed, although Irish Americans have come to have, among some, a little reputation as racists in America, before the Irish came to America in large numbers and were indoctrinated into the American culture of African slavery and racism, the Irish in Ireland were organizing opposition to American slavery!! A source for this is the book How The Irish Became White, a history of discrimination against Irish people.). It's a little-known fact that St. Patrick was actually not ethnically Irish, but was a prisoner the Irish captured in a raid on a Roman colony when Patrick was a little boy. But Patrick eventually escaped, became a priest, and then returned to Ireland in an amazing act of courage to convert his former captors. Patrick has been revered in Ireland for ages, and I think the Irish opposition to slavery, and the protests against Bush when he visited Ireland, are better representatives of the Irish national character than Irish slaveholding and racism in America. I digressed to mention all this to give credit where credit is due to Christian efforts against slavery, but, though those efforts might be considered the logical outgrowth of Jesus' humanitarian teachings, there is nothing recorded of Jesus or his Apostles' words that is against slavery.

One more similar fact: the phrase "God is love" doesn't appear in the Bible until very near the end of the Old Testament (I John 4:8). This is in an epistle (letters from an apostle to his gentile followers included as chapters of the New Testament are commonly called "epistles"- which is just an antiquated word for a letter) written by the apostle John- as far as is recorded, Jesus never said "God is love"!!

Consider this your dose of how Christianity and Judaism are not that different from so-called "Islamo-fascism."