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Friday, 25 December 2009

An Atheist Looks At Christmas

As an atheist, I am sometimes asked by Christians how I can celebrate and legitimately enjoy the Christmas holiday.

However, I think this challenge is be misconceived.

Christmas has little, if anything, to do with Christianity - even if Jesus was indeed Christ.

So familiar is the imagery of the holy birth in Bethlehem that it is astonishing to realise how unimportant it is both in the New Testament and to the early church.

There are two nativity stories for Jesus of Nazareth contained in the Gospels. One is in Luke, the other is in Matthew.

Neither Luke nor Matthew mention their nativity story again.

There is no nativity story at all in Mark, usually regarded as the earliest Gospel, nor in John, the most theologically-developed of the Gospels, always anxious to assert the divinity of Jesus.

There is no mention of or reference to the nativity stories anywhere else in the New Testament.

Paul and other letter writers, writing independently of and largely before the Gospel accounts, simply do not mention the virgin birth, the star, or the attendant angels.

If it were not for the nativity stories placed at the start of Luke and Matthew, it would appear that early Christians either were unaware of the divine birth of Jesus of Nazareth or did not think it of any importance.

It certainly did not matter to them when seeking to emphasise or persuade others of the divinity of Jesus: the baptism (which both Mark and John commence with) and the resurrection (central to Paul's teachings), as well as the recorded miracles, constituted sufficient evidence of the "Christ" status of Jesus.

Many biblical scholars explain the absence of any reference to the nativity stories in the New Testament (other than at the start of Luke and Matthew) by suggesting that both stories were later insertions.

The two stories sought to show, for doctrinal reasons, how someone from Nazareth was actually born (according to prophecy) in Bethlehem. Given the distance of Bethlehem from Nazareth, and that Jesus was widely known to have been a Nazarene, this would require quite an explanation.

And because the nativity stories were later insertions, they are easily caught out.

Luke's nativity story is especially open to attack, as it purports to rest its account on verifiable historical events and practices.


Fisking Luke

I will now "Fisk" the start of Luke's nativity story. So that I cannot be accused of favouring just one translation, I now set out the first five verses of the second chapter of Luke in three different translations, accompanied with my comments.

Verse One

KJV (1611)
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.

NIV (1973-1978)
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.

NRSV (1989)
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.

There is no historical basis whatsoever for this decree from Augustus.

Furthermore, as we have records from the Roman imperial state from the time, we would know of any decree had one been issued. It is thereby safe to say that this is an entirely false statement.

It may be that Luke mistook this decree for one of Quirinius dating from 6AD onwards. Even so, the mention of Augustus would be false and the birth of Jesus would be too late for the other Gospel narratives.

Of course, once this decree is removed from the story then the rest of Luke's account becomes meaningless.


Verse Two

KJV
(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

NIV
(This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)

NRSV
This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.

Quirinius was indeed Governor of Syria, from around 6AD. (This date coincidentally places him ten years after the death of Herod, who is of course rather important in Matthew’s nativity and infanticide story.)


Verse Three

KJV
And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

NIV
And everyone went to his own town to register.

NRSV
All went to their own towns to be registered.

Even if there were a tax decree, or a census, and even if Bethlehem had been subject to Roman imperial jurisdiction before 6AD, the Roman principles of taxation and census-taking would have meant that Joseph would be taxed on property he held, not on the basis of remote genealogy.

So, if Joseph held his property in Nazareth and none in Bethlehem, then he would not have needed to have travelled to anywhere else.


Verse Four

KJV
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)

NRSV
Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.

NIV
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.


Nazareth was an obscure village in Galilee. (It is not mentioned in the Old Testament.) Bethlehem is in the separate province of Judea. Significantly it did not even come under Quirinius’s jurisdiction (and thereby Roman imperial jurisdiction) until after around 6AD.

The prophecy being fulfilled is that in Micah 5:2:

But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting. (KJV)

In my view, Luke (Nazareth to Bethlehem, Census, Manger, Angels, Shepherds) and Matthew (Bethlehem to begin with, Star, Magi, Herod, Infanticide (also not historically evidenced, which it would have been), flight to Egypt, settling in Nazareth) are best regarded as two separate and distinct attempts to account for how Jesus was born in Bethlehem but brought up in Nazareth.


Verse Five

KJV
To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

NRSV
He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.

NIV
He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.


Even if there had been a decree, or any census or registration whatsoever, and Bethlehem had somehow been temporarily shifted into the Roman Empire for the holiday period, Joseph as householder would presumably have been competent and capable to have answered on behalf of his household. He could have gone down to Bethlehem by himself whilst Mary gave birth in Nazareth.

In other words, even if Luke was otherwise correct, there was no reason for a heavily pregnant Mary to travel on a donkey the long distance to Bethlehem for Jesus to be born there according to prophecy.


The Implications

The implications of the nativity stories being later insertions - narratives fabricated or developed to fullfil an ancient prophecy - are profound and, for an atheist, rather intriguing.

For example, the Virgin birth and the Marian cult more generally, both so central to the Catholic and other traditions, become null and void.

There is no reliable textual basis for either phenomenon, notwithstanding the centuries of teaching and dogmatic assertions.

And if this is the case, then many great works of art, however uplifting and inspiring - from the Renaissance Virigins and Child to Part I of Handel's Messiah - have no ultimate divine basis.

These works of art were just human creations all along.

And, for me, there is a similar implication for the modern celebration of Christmas.

The institution of Christmas is a human creation, pulling on many sources; it ultimately has as much to do with Christianity as Thursday has to do with Thor, or March to do with Mars. It just shares a (for some) hallowed name.

Some of the most uplifting elements of this modern celebration - like A Christmas Carol and A Fairytale of New York - have no expressly Christian content. And this is also true of almost all the usual paraphernalia, from Christmas decorations to turkey dinners.

My suggestion is that by celebrating Christmas one is really celebrating what humans are capable of creating for themselves.

And so I sometimes ask Christians that given the (literally) incredible and (for the New Testament and early church) irrelevant nature of the nativity stories, how can they also celebrate and legitimately enjoy the Christmas holiday?

Not that I mind, of course: after all it is the season of goodwill to all men and women, including Christians.

Happy Christmas!

53 comments:

crnt said...

A well thought-out post with an uplifting message. From one atheist to another: Merry Christmas!

Steve Rolles said...

Bible is nonsense shock!

John Collins said...

Seeing as this is the birthday of Isaac Newton on 25th Dec 1642 and the modern world owes so much to him, who virtually got the whole science of Physics underway singlehanded, can I suggest we celebrate this instead?

Happy Newtonmas folks!

Crispian Jago said...

As a fellow atheist I too am often challenged by Christian's with the very same question. This post gives a far better explanation than I could, so in future, I shall refer them to this post.

Thanks

Geek Goddess said...

Excellent. Thank you, and Happy Christmas.

Karen said...

I'm with you 100% on this. But I'm left wondering what sort of textual evidence could exist about a woman's virginity?

Steve said...

Matthew dates the Nativity to the time of Herod the Great (died 4BC) and Luke to the Census of Quirinius (6AD).
Clear contradiction, not quite what you'd expect from an omnipotent beings book

James said...

Merry Christmas, Jack! Or should I say "Happy Saturnalia"? Then again, the early Britons, of course, celebrated the winter solstace with decorated trees and mistletoe - quite unlike our modern.. er.. anyway: Merry Christmas!

James said...

Herod The Great was of course succeeded by his son (also called Herod). Apologists will point this out. But only Herod The Great is ever referred to simply as "Herod".

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

The Nativity story is not the only part of Jesus's supposed biography that is highly suspect. Nazareth hadn't existed for centuries and had only just been resettled around the time the gospels were written. The authors were clearly not familiar with Gallilee or the period in question nor it appears had they access to anyone who did.

It is all much more consistent with the 'Christ' of Paul being an entirely literary or supernatural character and the 'Jesus' of the gospels being a classic example of a founder myth.

The mid-winter solstice festival in Europe long predates this strange Middle-Eastern Zombie worship cult and I am sure that our ancient native Holly, Ivy, Mistletoe, Trees, Fire etc etc symbols will still be going strong long after it has faded into the same obscurity as Mithraism.

Ed P said...

Surely it was all copied (badly) from the Roman's Mithras myths.
Just imagine writing up the Boer war now, with only word of mouth/family memories as the source of information. That's how most of the new Testament was cobbled together, much later than its setting. But why not leave it alone - it's not as if Christians are dangerous like those Islamists, is it?

Janet said...

and of course the Greek word used for Mary, παρθένος (parthenos), does not actually mean a physical virgin, but a young unmarried but sexually-mature woman.

Bill Hilton said...

Oh, atheists - how I envy your faith.

Jack, I fear you fisk in vain. Your argument fails to take into account your post-Enlightenment worldview, which is very different from that of the Evangelists and their original readers.

Empirical truth was irrelevant to them. They were conscious of it, but consciously not dealing in it. The Evangelists were not writing history in the sense that their probable contemporaries Tacitus and Josephus were. Moreover, they lived in a world that had a more complex view of truth than ours does. Karen Armstrong's explanation is characteristically clear:

Most cultures believed that there were two recognized ways of arriving at truth. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were essential and neither was superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary, each with its own sphere of competence. Logos ("reason") was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled us to function effectively in the world and had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality. But it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life's struggle...

(Source: online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203440104574405030643556324.html)

Finding "ultimate meaning in life's struggle" was the job of mythos. To us, "myth" is a synonym for "not true", but within the Hellenistic culture that the Evangelists were writing it was the legitimate narrative method for exploring big questions. In that world, different narratives grown from the same grain of story would not be seen as "conflicting". Rather, each would represent a slightly different approach to the big-T Truth that was being pursued.

In the West the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment have tilted the cultural scales away from mythos and towards logos. We struggle to deal with mythological truth and often attempt to interpret it in strictly rational terms. We either find ourselves tilted towards disbelief and ridicule, or (in the analysis of Armstrong and others - see her The Battle for God) towards equally erroneous literalist fundamentalism.

The mythos/logos duality is not controversial among academics, and it surprises me that so many educated liberal sceptics apparently haven’t come across it in their reading.

Jack, your analysis is civilised and thoughtful despite what I believe to be its basic flaws. I'm not an adherent of any religion, nor a believer in a supernatural God, but I find many atheists arrogant. It angers me when they sneeringly deride the Bible and other religious texts as self-evidently ridiculous, oblivious to their own ignorance and the paradigm error they are making.

Obiter J said...

Quote - "And so I sometimes ask Christians that given the (literally) incredible and (for the New Testament and early church) irrelevant nature of the nativity stories, how can they also celebrate and legitimately enjoy the Christmas holiday?" Because they believe in something bigger than mankind whatever it is. You may not consider their views to be logical but mankind is not always logical either.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Christianity was the first and by far the most successful "New Age" religion. Its a crazy nonsensical jumble, the ancient Roman writers were more scathing about it than we are about modern cults like Scientology or Moonies. Its ability to adapt and evolve to suit its host societies has been its greatest strength, Christians are quite shameless in believing radically different things at the same time and over time.

You can discern all sorts of inspirations in early Christian writings most of them Greek since the area had long been part of the Greek Empire and had only just become part of the Roman Empire. Much of the philosophy looks Stoic or Cynic in origin, there was a culture of wandering philosophers in the Greek Empire who would have brought these ideas with them.

The most significant parts of the NT are the earliest, the genuine letters of Paul as opposed to the fake ones. Paul has almost no discernable interest whatsoever in an earthly Christ and its as if he had never heard of one.

The key part of the Gospels is the section known as the 'Passion' which make much more sense when analysed as being a mash-up of Jewish scriptures to form a story. Soldiers gamble at the foot of the cross for example because of the Psalm.

Even in these highly literate days with abundant written evidence and sources that can be checked myths abound. William Tell is still mistaken for a real person, many people seem to think there really was a Sherlock Holmes.

The interesting question is not whether Jesus is historical, its as plain as the nose on your face that he is not. The interesting question is why so many people insist that the Emperor is wearing such fine clothes. If it weren't for a large, vociferous and persistent religious following there is no chance he'd be labelled as historical.

Anonymous said...

Wow, your grasp of Scripture would make a Jesuit jealous. What I don't get is, why are atheists so interested in religion? Even their label has the word for god in it: being defined by a lack of god, they can't get away from god. And lawyerly argument is a long-honoured part of Judaism. Well I hope you had a good one, after all that hard work.

Bill Hilton said...

@Woolly

The interesting question is not whether Jesus is historical, its as plain as the nose on your face that he is not.

I love a good sweeping statement.

Although it has been a point of debate, the consensus among scholars is that Jesus of Nazareth did have historical existence, though the reality of his life and actions was probably rather different from the Evangelists' accounts (see my post above).

Of contemporary writers on Jesus, Pliny is generally discounted, Tacitus trusted. Josephus seems to suffer from some later interpolations, but nevertheless mentions J at several points.

Moreover, there's quite a bit of material about Jesus' family. Robert Eisenman's James the Brother of Jesus covers the basics, and although Eisenman's conclusions are not generally accepted, he covers all the sources in a detailed, readable way.

Demetrius said...

If you are not careful you will be on the wrong end of a super injunction from The Holy Ghost.

John Collins said...

If you are not careful you will be on the wrong end of a super injunction from The Holy Ghost.

Would that be a bad thing? After all it would finally show that The Holy Ghost existed, a thing which he/she/it is a bit shy about proving most of the time despite the draconian penalties for not believing it despite the total lack of evidence.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

and although Eisenman's conclusions are not generally accepted

Now there is an understatement! Being one of the perpetrators of "The Holy Blood & The Holy Grail" is not encouraging.

He is on better ground with James, a genuine historical figure unlike 'Jesus'. Sadly James did not leave us his thoughts on Jesus, there is no way to know but I suspect that if asked he'd have said "Who?".


Of contemporary writers on Jesus, Pliny is generally discounted, Tacitus trusted. Josephus seems to suffer from some later interpolations, but nevertheless mentions J at several points.

None of these are contemporary. And all they do is repeat hearsay they have picked up from Christians who had no way of knowing. A rumour repeated by an authoritative source is still a rumour, or at least it is for most areas of history.

This just further illustrates why I say that if it weren't for the religion no scholars would label 'Jesus' as an historical figure because there simply is no primary historical evidence.

Until fairly recently I, like you, assumed that there "must be something" and that there actually was some evidence Jesus had ever existed. It was only when I took up the challenge of looking for such evidence that I realised there was none.

Interestingly scholars in the Communist USSR where is was socially acceptable to say that Jesus might not have really existed had a consensus that he was not historical.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Denying the Holy Ghost is, according to the Bible, the one unforgivable sin. Not even God himself can forgive you for that apparently, so he's not so omnipotent after all it seems.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Bill Hilton said...
Oh, atheists - how I envy your faith.

It all depends what you mean by 'faith'. We Atheists like to think that we have reasonable confidence based on good evidence along with sound logic. This is the good side of faith; Rational Faith.

The dark side of faith is religious faith which is just a superstitious belief in the teeth of evidence and logic.

So of course you envy us our good, useful and life enhancing rational faith! But the happy news is that its just what most people do most of the time in their daily lives. The only different between an Atheist and a Faith-Head is that we believe in one less imaginary Sky Pixie than they do and we don't leave our brains on the church steps every Sunday.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Mark 3

28 Verily I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme:
29 but he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation:


And that is in the words of the allegedly historical Jesus himself who really ought to know if anybody does.

Some rationalist clubs have little ceremonies for members to formally blaspheme against the Holy Spirit as a sort of initiation ceremony. I don't see the point myself but it is of course simply a bit of harmless fun.

Bill Hilton said...

@Woolly

"Contemporary" in the sense that they are contemporary with most scholars' estimation of when the Evangelists were writing - apologies, should have been clearer.

Agreed, Eisenman is on the edge of respectability, but he is at least a paid-up academic, and his James is one of the most widely-available popular summaries of the sources.

Equally, I'm not sure that your Soviet scholars can be entirely trusted, given that they were working under an avowedly anti-Christian regime.

Until fairly recently I, like you, assumed that there "must be something"

I'm "assuming", am I? Well, pardon me for my academic slackness! Getting back on the thread topic, would you care to engage with the substance of my first post rather the jokey first line? Because it seems to me that you, like Jack, fall rather nastily into the perspectivism trap.

Bill Hilton said...

@Woolly (again - apologies JOK)

The only different between an Atheist and a Faith-Head is that we believe in one less imaginary Sky Pixie than they do and we don't leave our brains on the church steps every Sunday

This is exactly what I mean by the arrogance of atheism. Which God is this "imaginary Sky Pixie"? That of Plato? Of Augustine? Of Aquinas? Of Luther? Or of Hegel? Because all those "Gods" are very different from one another - and yet, apparently ignorant of them, you presume to combine them under a single dismissive heading.

The matter of the gospels, the historicity of Jesus and the evolving nature of Christian faith are tied up in two millennia of cultural change. "Faith heads" whose positions range from militant Bibical literalism to liberal adherence to Process and Liberation Theologies have argued and agonised over them for centuries. I'm not a Christian, but when I think and argue about Christianity I do so in the awareness that it is a faith to which better minds than mine have subscribed.

Yet you, Woolly - and I'm taking you as representative of a type, so don't imagine this is personal - unilaterally declare that you are right and they are all wrong. You ignore the subtleties of your opponents' ideas and beliefs and their differing conceptions of God. You judge the writers of the first century CE as if they were correspondents for Channel 4 News.

On second thoughts, perhaps I don't envy your faith - fundamentalism has never appealed to me.

Steve said...

Whats your beliefs Bill? Pandeism ?


There simply is no evidence that there is any supernatural element to this Universe. The Universe would appear to work quite well without the Supernatural, so what need for it my Occamly friend?

As for ultimate meaning for lifes struggle. There is none other than what you as a person decide. Rejoice in the freedom and enjoy your life.

The Bible is a book written by man, oft for a political purpose. It is full of contradictions right from the start. That is self evident. What becomes ridiculous is apologists attempts' to account for all the inconsistencies rather than admit them. Quite possibly they (the inconsistencies) are there in part due to Bills point about the works not being meant to be taken as the literal truth. That in itself spawns a whole avalanche of further issues as to what actually happened and what is figurative.

When was Jesus born Bill?

Steve said...

The one less god comment is directed as adherents of a particular faith who believe in their god (eg Yahweh), but are athiestic to all other gods (Theres thousands of the buggers).

As for athiest requiring faith, do you believe in Cthulhu Bill, or do you take it by faith that he is not real?

Bill Hilton said...

Good points, Steve.

But not all believers are atheistic towards other Gods. A liberal Catholic would see a Muslim - or even a Hindu - as taking a different approach to a universal divinity that was identical to his own. A Sufi Muslim might see the Catholic the same way.

Do I believe in Cthulhu? As it happens, I do. I don't believe he/it has ever had literal, physical existence. But I believe Lovecraft uses him/it as (among other things) an effective symbol of human alienation.

To put it another way: I don't believe there is literal truth (logos) in the figure of Cthulhu, but I believe there is universal truth (mythos) in Lovecraft's stories.

Steve said...

I'm also curious as to how you can appear to say that the nativity was not meant to be taken literally, but the historicity of Christ is. What criteria do you use to make this decision? Becuase if it is just what you personally consider acceptable all you have is a self confirming belief.

Bill Hilton said...

@Steve

It's not a question of making a decision, because I'm viewing the two matters in separate categories - one historical, the other mythical.

Historical

There is a certain amount of evidence outside the work of the Evangelists that the Jesus of the Gospels is based on a real figure. Although the matter is open to debate, scholars generally accept such a figure existed. The historicity of Jesus isn't my area of academic specialism, so I'm content to accept the consensus among those for whom it is, all the while bearing in mind that it isn't settled and they - and therefore I - might be wrong.

Ergo, I believe it is likely, but not certain, that this Jesus had real existence as a (non-supernatural) man.


Mythical

I likewise believe that this Jesus - whether he really existed or not - is the basis of a myth from which we may be able to extract some universal truth about the nature of our existence or our relationship to a putative God.

That myth was written down by individuals who were consciously operating outside the parameters of objective history, and who did not expect their readers to interpret their texts as wholly true in the literal sense: they were employing a mythical narrative method that we have lost sight of, because our mode of thought is habituated to the post-Enlightenment view of a text as either factual or fictional.

Steve said...

Thiests are athiestic towards many gods.Indeed the 10 commandments (for Christians) would seem to rule out having any other gods, the whole monotheistic approach is rather important. I doubt many Muslims feel kinship with the Aztec gods.

What criteria do you use to rule out a literal existence for Cthulhu? A literary existence for Cthulhu is trivially true and what universal truths you feel you can draw from the stories depend on the skill of the writer and your empathy with the stories.

Unfortunatley there is no evidence for the actual existence of Jesus outside of the Gospels (which are obviously biased!, and written after the supposed death of Jesus). The Testimonium Flavum is the only possible support for his historical existence and that is widely thought an interpoloation, an assessment i agree with (its worth reading it, looks pretty blatant to me). I am not a biblical scholar :)

I would however tend to agree that Jesus was probably a historical person, but the evidence is far from conclusive.

I think you are right also that we tend to intepret the bible say, through our modern lens, but then its not athiests who claim the Bible is the word of Yahweh and literally true. Going back to the Nativity, the vast majoritory of Christians view it as a literal truth, and is for them that the fisking is for (in my opinion of course).

ivan said...

Dec 25 as Christmas has no attestation in scripture, and appears to have no tradition in the earliest church. Around AD200, Clement of Alexandria wrote of some Christians celebrating the Nativity in May.

So probably what you are celebrating is the traditional midwinter feast, which the Christians have failed to dislodge despite putting Christmas on top of it. In some languages, Christmas is still called Yule, the name of the pagan feast.

Dec 25 was officially designated Christmas in AD 350 by Pope Julius I, though it had come of have a tradition of being celebrated then probably from the early 3rd century. The earliest mention we have of Jesus' birth being reckoned to be about that time of year is from a book published AD 221 by Sextus Julius Africanus.

Bill Hilton said...

@Steve:

What criteria do you use to rule out a literal existence for Cthulhu? A literary existence for Cthulhu is trivially true and what universal truths you feel you can draw from the stories depend on the skill of the writer and your empathy with the stories.

I cannot rule out Cthulhu's literal existence altogether: it just seems to me very, very unlikely that he exists. Likewise, I cannot absolutely rule out the literal existence of a bearded, paternal, gay-bashing, beetle-designing Yahweh, but it's fair to say I'll be very surprised if I find myself standing before him after my death.

I don't see why the mythological truth of Cthulhu has to be trivial. It might be trivial to you, but I might see great profundity in it. I think mythological (or, to put it in post-Enlightenment terms, "story") truth can sometimes be more powerful than literal truth. I'd probably gain greater insight into the human condition by spending three hours reading King Lear than three hours sitting in the bar of my local Wetherspoons, watching real people.

Unfortunatley there is no evidence for the actual existence of Jesus outside of the Gospels

I suppose it depends what your standard of evidence is. For example, Tacitus appears to mention Jesus, albeit obliquely. I gather that Gnostic and Patristic texts exist, written slightly later than or at the same time as the Gospels, which appear to use sources other than the Gospels. I'm not an expert, but I'm happy to go with the drift of expert opinion until such time as they revise it.

I don't feel qualified to comment on the alleged interpolation in Josephus, because most of the objections are based on close, expert reading of the text. I do have some Greek, but nowhere near enough to really get to grips with the arguments. I accept, however, that the consensus is against its authenticity.

the vast majoritory of Christians view it as a literal truth, and is for them that the fisking is for (in my opinion of course).

I'm sure there are millions of not-very-well educated Christians who do believe the story of the Nativity, and the Bible in general, to be the literal truth. There is also a significant number of self-deluding evangelicals - often very highly educated - who claim that they do, too.

I would strongly agree with you that a fisking attack on that latter group is legitimate, albeit unlikely to change their minds.

That said, I would say there are plenty of Christians who don't view the accounts in the New Testament as literal truth. I would suggest that to some degree or other, a large percentage, and perhaps a majority, of practising Christians in this country fall into that category. I'd even stick my neck out and say it's the category where you'll find the majority of clergy of the major denominations.

Running with Christianity as the example, my point about the arrogance of atheism is that atheists artificially strengthen their arguments via the reductive, disingenous assumption that all Christians fall into the stupid/self-deluding/literalist categories. They refuse to address 2000 years of philosophical analysis of the concept of God, because it's easier to characterise him as a Sky Pixie.

A fisking of the Gospels, therefore, might confound and annoy some ill-informed Christians (which would be a good thing), but it does not shake the very foundations of two millennia of Christian theology.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Running with Christianity as the example, my point about the arrogance of atheism is that atheists artificially strengthen their arguments via the reductive, disingenous assumption that all Christians fall into the stupid/self-deluding/literalist categories. They refuse to address 2000 years of philosophical analysis of the concept of God, because it's easier to characterise him as a Sky Pixie.

Two thousand, or two hundred thousand, years of sitting in your armchair inventing notions about things is worth less than 1 minutes worth of work gathering evidence.

Its not 'easier' to categorise non-existent creatures of fantasy as a 'Sky Pixie' or a 'Sea Pixie' or a 'River Pixie' or a 'Tree Pixie' it is the most efficient, simple, reasonable, precise and probably correct categorisation. It takes a lot of hard work and careful thinking to come up with apparently 'easy' arrangements like the Periodic Table for example.

It was a great insight of learning that carbon atoms are exactly the same whether they are diamond, graphite or part of molecules in wood, alcohol, CO2 and so forth. The same insight that all imaginary non-existent supernatural entities share the same key characteristics is not obvious and did not arise overnight but only over millennia through thinkers building upon the work of other thinkers. It is a great breakthrough and a key discovery in the cannon of learning to rank alongside the concept of the 'atom'.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

I suppose it depends what your standard of evidence is. For example, Tacitus appears to mention Jesus, albeit obliquely.

Such third (at best) hand hearsay long, long after the supposed event would certainly, and quite rightly, not be accepted as evidence for any non-religious figure.

Why should 'Jesus' be treated differently? Or for that matter 'Mohammed' or 'Moses'?

To my mind the same standards should be applied in all cases regardless of their social significance.

If this is not the case then 'Sherlock Holmes' must now be elevated to the ranks of 'Historical Personage' because millions believe in him and would be upset if confronted by scepticism.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Steve said...
Thiests are athiestic towards many gods.Indeed the 10 commandments (for Christians) would seem to rule out having any other gods, the whole monotheistic approach is rather important. I doubt many Muslims feel kinship with the Aztec gods.

There are three different versions of the Commandments in the Old Testament but they all agree that at the top of the list comes not worshipping other gods.

You can argue whether or not this is an explicit or a tacit acknowledgement that other gods are just as real as Yahweh. But in addition to YHWH there is a pantheon of deities, minor gods and demi-gods that Christians believe in; Jesus, Mary, Holy Ghost and Satan are the major figures but there are various ranks of Cherubim and Seraphim not to mention Demon Spirits to accommodate.

Christianity is not now, nor has it ever been, really a monotheism at all. At least not from the perspective of a neutral observer. I know its adherents claim that it is but the facts are clearly otherwise. The supporters of Exeter City FC chant that theirs is "The finest football club the world has ever seen" but I venture to suggest that the hard fact and figures indicate otherwise. If I can doubt the self-assessments of the worthies of Exeter then I can also reasonably doubt the self-assessments of Christians I think.

But please do let me know if I am wrong. Perhaps Exeter City are "The Finest Football Team the world has ever seen" and there is a consistent explanation as to why they don't win the Premiership or the Champions League every year. I am open-minded after all.

Steve said...

I cannot rule out Cthulhu's literal existence altogether: it just seems to me very, very unlikely that he exists. Likewise, I cannot absolutely rule out the literal existence of a bearded, paternal, gay-bashing, beetle-designing Yahweh, but it's fair to say I'll be very surprised if I find myself standing before him after my death.

Then you are an athiest as far as these gods!

Running with Christianity as the example, my point about the arrogance of atheism is that atheists artificially strengthen their arguments via the reductive, disingenous assumption that all Christians fall into the stupid/self-deluding/literalist categories. They refuse to address 2000 years of philosophical analysis of the concept of God, because it's easier to characterise him as a Sky Pixie.

I understand what you are saying but it is usually reactive to the most common type of Christian who argues their corner on the internet. Also more philosophical aruments are harder to address on the internet, especially in the scrum that usually develops around any discussion.
I personally have an Occams Razor approach, the Universe works fine without Supernatural so why explain it with added Supernatural.

Bill Hilton said...

@Woolly

The same insight that all imaginary non-existent supernatural entities share the same key characteristics is not obvious and did not arise overnight but only over millennia through thinkers building upon the work of other thinkers.

It would seem that you are - either wilfully or otherwise - ignoring all but one of the many conceptions of divinity. In fact, you're doing exactly what I complain of in other atheists: taking one view of God that is easy to demolish, and assuming that every religious individual's God shares its characteristics.

What do you say to a pantheist, for whom God and the Universe are exactly the same thing? Or a Platonist, whose God is pure abstraction? Or a Quaker, whose God is the still small voice - the spirit within?

Bill Hilton said...

@Steve

Then you are an athiest as far as these gods!

Ohhhh no I'm not!

I cannot conclusively say whether the paternal sky-god, or Cthulhu, exist - I find it overwhelmingly unlikely, but I can't be sure. You might more accurately say that I'm an agnostic as far as they are concerned.

Bear in mind I'm not using the word "agnostic" in its woolly modern sense ("can't make my mind up") but in the literal sense that T.H. Huxley intended when he coined it from the Greek. Instead of being "without-god" I am "without-knowledge" (gnosis).

I understand what you are saying but it is usually reactive to the most common type of Christian who argues their corner on the internet.

And in situations like that, I would absolutely support the position that you, Jack and Woolly take. Christians who believe the literal truth of the Bible, and/or in a magical sky-god, can be addressed very effectively with this sort of approach and usually deserve everything they get.

Perhaps the problem is that atheists tend to use "God" as a shorthand for a supernatural God, when - as I've said in my response to Woolly above - many believers (perhaps more than atheists imagine) and nearly all academic theologians have a transcendent God who is tied up with the nature of thought, or the nature of nature, or with both, rather than one that has existence as "an entity" and spends his time designing beetles and giving orders to Tony Blair.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

I like to quote Hitchens's Law : 'That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.'

But here is a question for the religious apologists. Are there any other walks of life in which evidence is held to be irrelevant and ignoring the evidence is regarded as praiseworthy?

I am not a lawyer but could you imagine a trial that opened with the prosecution outlining the 2000 year history of English law, extolling its complexity and subtlety instead of producing evidence of guilt?

No, of course not. Its an obviously ridiculous notion and would I imagine never be allowed to go to court. The same applies to each and every claim about the supernatural that ever has been made, ever will be made or ever could be made : no evidence. There is nothing to discuss, the Emperor is quite simply naked no matter how long you spend telling me about his non-existent clothes.

The alternative would be to reject thousands of years of scholarship, philosophy and painstakingly acquired reason.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Your definition of a 'transcendent God' is a non-existent and purely imaginary 'God' exactly as I have defined all the supernatural gods. This is not an improvement. As the late great Linda Smith said "If God wanted me to believe in him then he'd exist".

And where is the evidence for this 'transcendent God' then? Just try to imagine the court case with the prosecution announcing that they had a 'transcendent case' to present, not one that had an existence as such or would involve fingerprints and witnesses!

Bill Hilton said...

@Woolly

(Written in haste on the way out to Tesco, so apologies for windyness and any typos).

Though I admire your dedication to your cause, you are guilty of a category error. Your example - the court case - lies in a completely different category of events (the everyday) than the searching after timeless meaning in existence that typifies many people's religions.

If my God is an idea, all that I need to prove is that the idea exists, by expressing it. I daresay you wouldn't argue with the fact that, in a flat plane, the squares of the opposite and adjacent angles of a right-angled triangle add up to the square of the hypotenuse. That idea doesn't exist "somewhere"; in fact, in the sense of everyday existence, Pythagoras' Theorem is "purely imaginary" (your words) - it has no physical existence. I could never prove that it is locked up in a box behind a sofa somewhere. That doesn't prevent it being "true".

I can even give my idea(l) God physical existence. If I have a bowl of petunias and call it my God (a non-creating, non-interventionist god), then, providing I show it to you and let you examine it, you cannot deny my God exists.

The physical existence of my bowl of petunias is, in fact, irrelevant. I could assign the label "God" to the Platonic archetype of bowls of petunias. I recognise the ideal, and see all individual bowls of petunias in the world as an expression of the divine as a result of participating in that ideal.

Of course, you may not recognise petunias as God: that's fine, because an individual who maintains belief in a transcendent God might reasonably say that what he perceives as "God", others do not.

You've ignored pantheists, too: if I say that the universe is coequal with God (i.e., is God) and individuals like you and I - both part of the universe, not separate from it - represent fragments of the consciousness of the universe/God, you have a trickier time with your disproof. We all exist.

So, as I said, category error: you're trying to apply empirical standards of proof (which have primacy in the physical world) to the world of the intellect.

In short, I recognise (and largely agree) with your arguments when it comes to a supernatural conception of God. My point is that not everyone's idea of God is supernatural.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

So, as I said, category error: you're trying to apply empirical standards of proof (which have primacy in the physical world) to the world of the intellect.

Happily it is clear that not many would agree with you that it is a category error - this is why we live in an age of technological miracles and medical marvels.

Your bowl of petunias is just a bowl of petunias no matter what you call it unless you can produce some evidence that it is more than it seems. I'm surprised you don't realise this.

I have not ignored Pantheists at all, they are fully included in the requirement to produce some evidence for their claims without which they may be dismissed summarily. I don't really care what you or they say, I care what you can provide evidence for. This is how we live our daily lives in all their aspects, there is no good reason that I have seen to make a special exemption for religion.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Mathematics is, as every schoolboy knows, is a set of deductions subject to formal proof based upon underlying axioms. Already it is infinitely more interesting and useful than all the definitions of 'God' that have ever, or will ever, be invented. And that is just as an intellectual exercise done.

More importantly, for non-mathematicians at least, Mathematics is incredibly useful tool for Accountancy and Science; two of the key concepts that make the world go around. Mathematics allows us to build models of the real world that produce predictions that are reliably accurate. We put it to the test every day and it always comes up trumps.

So no special exemptions need to be made for mathematics. It does not exist solely in fiction like the Wizard of Oz or Unicorns for example.

Does it matter whether some improbable imaginary thing is thought to be 'natural' or 'supernatural' when there is no evidence it actually exists? No, not really. Many people's conception of the "Loch Ness Monster", the "Abominal Snowman" and the Unicorn is of something that is not supernatural. Their failure to exist is the most important factor and the reason for not taking such fanciful notions seriously.

In the same way all claims and concepts about anything, whether allegedly 'natural' or 'supernatural' can be dismissed immediately as they are made without proof. There is no reason to exempt religious beliefs from the same tests we apply to everything else in life.

The intellect exists in the physical world and is known to be an artifact of the physical brain. There is no Cartesian Dualism, no watcher in the brain, no chemical or physical difference between animate and inanimate. We don't need to give intellectual activities a note from Mum excusing them from being true or testable or letting them off applying in the real world.

Bill Hilton said...

More importantly, for non-mathematicians at least, Mathematics is incredibly useful tool for Accountancy and Science; two of the key concepts that make the world go around.

I shall look on accountants with a new respect.

I have not ignored Pantheists at all, they are fully included in the requirement to produce some evidence for their claims without which they may be dismissed summarily.

Then let me put my pantheist hat on and offer you some evidence. The universe displays at least three godlike characteristics:

1. It is (apparently) infinite.

2. It has consciousness, albeit in a distributed form: you and I are both examples of it.

3. It is in some sense creative, in that it contains within it the necessary materials and physical laws to embody complex structures, living and otherwise. The creativity is not apparently tied to the consciousness, but then there is no apparent reason why it should be.

Before we get into a lengthy debate about the ins-and-outs of pantheism, I think it's worth noting that we're unlikely to reach general agreement about the possible natures of the universe and God. I think your purely mechanistic and empirical view is respectable and defensible, but it necessitates you going out on a limb from the mainstream of Western thought.

If you don't recognise extra-mathematical speculation on the intellectual plane (or, indeed, the existence of an 'intellectual plane' in and of itself), you must write off not only religion, but 2500 years of metaphysics. That's large amounts of the work of Plato, Aristotle, Des Cartes, Kant, Schopenhauer and Hegel - minds that, I would suggest, cannot be lightly written off, not least because their thinking lies at the heart of the Western way of viewing the world.

Additionally, I think most metaphysicians - and very many theologians - would see their respective systems and faiths not as 'the truth' in absolute terms, but rather as tools (perhaps even "incredibly useful" ones, approaching the level of accountancy) for contemplating our situation as individual minds within a universe. That comes back to my two conceptions of 'truth', first introduced about 8000 words ago and a mile upthread.

One of my Christmas presents was Diarmuid MacCulloch's History of Christianity, which, on the basis of what I've read of it so far, I strongly recommend. He writes in his introduction:

I make no pronouncement as to whether Christianity, or indeed any religious belief, is 'true'... Is Shakespeare's Hamlet 'true'? It never happened, but it seems to me to be much more 'true', full of meaning and significance for human beings, than the reality of the breakfast I ate this morning, which was certainly 'true' in a banal sense.

Although I recognise the necessary and absolute hegemony of empirical truth in science, and in your hypothetical court case, I share Prof. MacCulloch's dual-category view of truth and continue to disagree with your purely empirical, single category, view.

Despite that - and despite your distressing lack of faith in the divine nature of petunias (repent ye, before it is too late) - I should say that arguing with you is challenging, thought-provoking and enjoyable.

SVETLANA PERTSOVICH said...

Have all spoken out? ;)
And now I shall say.

Any attempts to celebrate xmas characterize your atheists as at least people with poor imagination (more straightly - fools). And any endeavours to justify such behaviour - as rather dishonest chaps.
And what? Isn't New Year a holiday, eh? In any case New Year needs no justifications and tricky sophistry!
And if New Year is not sufficient for you, invent some new holiday! Are you not capable? So I speak - "poor imagination"!... :P

Happy up-coming NEW YEAR! ;)

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Any attempts to celebrate xmas characterize your atheists as at least people with poor imagination (more straightly - fools). And any endeavours to justify such behaviour - as rather dishonest chaps.

I've been celebrating Xmas all my life and am very well practised at it, I don't merely 'attempt to celebrate Xmas' I always succeed in celebrating it.

You may be surprised to learn that atheists love their children too, they play games of imagination, some of them can act, many read fiction or watch it with great enjoyment others even write it. Atheists accept Christmas for what it is so I think that make us the honest ones.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Then let me put my pantheist hat on and offer you some evidence. The universe displays at least three godlike characteristics:

1. It is (apparently) infinite.

2. It has consciousness, albeit in a distributed form: you and I are both examples of it.

3. It is in some sense creative, in that it contains within it the necessary materials and physical laws to embody complex structures, living and otherwise. The creativity is not apparently tied to the consciousness, but then there is no apparent reason why it should be.


1. The Universe appears to be under 100 billion light years in diameter which is very large but a finite size and about 14 billion years which is very old but still a finite age.

2. The Universe as a whole shows no signs of consciousness. If I go for a swim then the sea does not become conscious just because I am swimming in it.

3. A pot of paint is not creative even though it has the potential to become a painting. It is the artist that is creative not the paint.


you must write off not only religion, but 2500 years of metaphysics. That's large amounts of the work of Plato, Aristotle, Des Cartes, Kant, Schopenhauer and Hegel

Some of their thinking turned out to be right and some of it to be wrong. I'm happy to keep the good bits and lose the bad : Cartesian Dualism is nonsense but Cartesian coordinates are very useful. There isn't much doubt that the Empiricists have been vindicated by their offspring the Scientific Method. They can fly to the moon or around the solar system at will while the Rationalists still sit in their armchairs.

Kant, once he had read Hume and realised where he had been going wrong, was of course quite correct that we need both reason and evidence.

Theologians cannot be stopped from claiming that they do something useful or enlightening but there is no evidence to support their claims and mockery is the only reasonable response. As Richard Dawkins points out it is not really a subject at all, what could it possibly mean for a theologian to be wrong? Theology is nothing more than inventing rules to a game of makebelieve : a bit like Dungeons & Dragons but without the rigour and statistics.

Wittgenstein and the other Logical Positivists killed off Metaphysics early last century. Whether it has been around for 2 minutes or 2 billion years it is still nonsense, there are good reasons why the "Appeal to Antiquity" is categorised as a fallacy.

Bill Hilton said...

3. A pot of paint is not creative even though it has the potential to become a painting. It is the artist that is creative not the paint.

But isn't the artist - and, by extension, his creativity - also part of the universe?

Theologians cannot be stopped from claiming that they do something useful or enlightening but there is no evidence to support their claims and mockery is the only reasonable response. As Richard Dawkins points out it is not really a subject at all, what could it possibly mean for a theologian to be wrong? Theology is nothing more than inventing rules to a game of makebelieve : a bit like Dungeons & Dragons but without the rigour and statistics.

So what of the case of Hamlet, to return to MacCulloch's example? As the play is demonstrably not historically true - and all its "evidence" is internal, self-referential and non-objective - does it contain no truth? Is mockery the only reasonable response?

Jack of Kent said...

Thank you for all your comments. I was away over the holiday and so was only to follow the debate via Blackberry and not really able to post comments.

Bill - I am afraid I do not recognise my position from your characterisation of it, and so am not in a good or credible position to defend the views you attack. Sorry.

Woolly - I am generally in agreement with your approach.

I prefer not to get engaged in comments exchanges on my own blogposts, and so I have now blogged on my views on one of the issues raised here: http://jackofkent.blogspot.com/2010/01/is-chrisitanity-mild-form-of-atheism.html

Bill Hilton said...

Bill - I am afraid I do not recognise my position from your characterisation of it, and so am not in a good or credible position to defend the views you attack. Sorry.

In essence, my contention was thus: to attack the evangelists on the basis of their "facts" is to miss the point, because they were not writing in consciously factual mode; they were consciously mythologising. Apologies if that wasn't sufficiently clear.

Anyway, we've moved on to petunias and Hamlet now. Thanks for providing the forum for such an interesting argument, and Happy New Year :)

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

But isn't the artist - and, by extension, his creativity - also part of the universe?

Saying that part of the Universe is part of the Universe is a bit of a tautology. If the artist goes for a swim he becomes part of the sea. But that doesn't make the sea conscious or creative, still just mostly water in the same way that the Universe is mostly vacuum.

So what of the case of Hamlet, to return to MacCulloch's example? As the play is demonstrably not historically true - and all its "evidence" is internal, self-referential and non-objective - does it contain no truth? Is mockery the only reasonable response?

Hamlet is a work of fiction that entertains us by exploring interesting themes. It is engaging and valuable as art at its best can be, but no matter how good the story the characters are not real. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not really dead.

Bill Hilton said...

Woolly, forgive me if I feel you've evaded my points.

Saying that part of the Universe is part of the Universe is a bit of a tautology.

Nope, it's a truism. And the artist is part of the universe in a way he is not part of the sea. He is a collection of atoms; a part of the universe (where "universe" is defined as "the complete set of atoms") that has achieved consciousness and creativity.

As for Hamlet, I know it's not real, and I know that R and G not only are not really dead, but were never really alive. What I'm asking you is whether you would deny that the play contains "truth" - i.e., ideas that representations that tell us something about the way the world works and what it's like to be human.