The Myth of Persecution

Myth of PersecutionI just finished reading The Myth of Persecution by theology professor Candida Moss (Harper One, New York, 2013). I picked it up because of my general interest in theology, but also my more specific interest in early church history. I didn’t realize when I started to read it that this book was at the centre of a huge kerfuffle in the Christian community over its message and its accuracy.

In short, Ms. Moss argues that while the early Christians in the first four centuries were often the victims of violence, and even some persecution, they were not the targets of systematic persecution by the Romans for the duration. In fact, the periods of legislated persecution were short and intermittent. She tries to distinguish between persecution and prosecution, and identifies situations where Christians were among the groups, but not singled out, targeted for oppression by various Roman emperors and their edicts.

Further, she argues that the majority of stories of martyrs from this time are fictional, not historic records, created to serve a political or social purpose. She deconstructs some of them, looking at historical records, literary records and internal logic.

And, she concludes, the modern cult of persecution – such as the faux ‘War on Christianity’ promoted by several right wing commentators recently – is based on both a flawed view of history and a dangerous perspective on world events that prevents dialogue and compromise between people. That perspective, Moss writes, is based on the defensive and dangerous notion of persecution and martyrdom. In a film review posted on The Daily Beast, Moss called modern Christian belief in its own persecution a “paranoid fantasy.”

With which I pretty much agree. While not by any means a scholar, what I have read over the years about the creation of the early church, the battles between sects and cults to frame orthodoxy, the arbitrary way the canon was cobbled together, the exclusion of the Gnostics, and the whole business of pseudepigrapha and fake documents supports her contention that the early stories of martyrs were part of this process.

Continue reading “The Myth of Persecution”

The Rational Gods of Iceland

CreationismWhile 61% of Icelanders say they believe in God, according to a recent poll, absolutely none  under the age of 25 believe that their personal hairy thunderer created the world:

Less than half of Icelanders claim they are religious and more than 40% of young Icelanders identify as atheist. Remarkably the poll failed to find young Icelanders who accept the creation story of the Bible. 93.9% of Icelanders younger than 25 believed the world was created in the big bang, 6.1% either had no opinion or thought it had come into existence through some other means and 0.0% believed it had been created by God.

None. Zero. That’s pretty astounding and progressive, especially when you compare it to the USA, where 42% of Americans still have superstitious, medieval creationist beliefs, according to a mid-2014 Gallup poll:

More than four in 10 Americans continue to believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago, a view that has changed little over the past three decades. Half of Americans believe humans evolved, with the majority of these saying God guided the evolutionary process. However, the percentage who say God was not involved is rising.

Well, a lot of Americans also believe in Donald Trump, so one can’t really be surprised at their lack of acuity, scientific education and common sense. There is some faint hope for a growth in secular (critical) thought, though, as Gallup notes:

There is little indication of a sustained downward trend in the proportion of the U.S. population who hold a creationist view of human origins. At the same time, the percentage of Americans who adhere to a strict secularist viewpoint — that humans evolved over time, with God having no part in this process — has doubled since 1999.

I’m not holding my breath for any sudden dawning of mass rationalism in the USA. Not while Trump, Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter get any media attention. It’s the home of the truther, open-carry, anti-vaccination, climate-change-denial, Tea Party and the TVangelist movements, after all. The vast majority of wingnut, conspiracy and pseudoscience sites I have seen are American made, too (local blogs notwithstanding).
Continue reading “The Rational Gods of Iceland”

What Would $101 Million Buy?

Ark under constructionThe answer to that question could be very long. I’ll bet among all the things you thought of buying with that much, you weren’t even once thinking it could buy a 510-foot replica of the mythological Noah’s ark.

But that’s what it is buying the folks who run the Ark Encounter theme park in Williamstown, Kentucky. You can see video “encounters” of it being built. Sort of (they wouldn’t work for me, but I’m an evolutionist, so their god probably stopped me from seeing them…)

The park will open in July and, its creators promise, it will attract 1.4 million people annually. That seems a bit of a long shot, don’t you think? Are there that many people who would pay to see something made up, based on an allegory? But that will attract 16,000 guests a day, says Ken Ham.

Yes, that Ken Ham: the vocal young-earth creationist, president of the fringe group, Answers in Genesis (AiG). The guy behind the wacky creationist theme park. So now you understand. Yes, they’re at it again.

Stop laughing. Creationism isn’t just a flighty wingnut conspiracy theory: it’s a serious challenge to our educational system. Well, by “our” I really mean the Americans because Canadians don’t allow that sort of claptrap in public schools. We just look on in wonder at the stupidity. And a bit of horror. But I digress.

Ham and his wingnut friends have raised a lot of money to make a tourist attraction instead of doing something Christian with it. Feeding or housing the poor. Medical care for the homeless. You know, something unselfish and caring for the greater good.

$101 million is really a LOT of money (jumping up from $50 million in 2012 then to $73M million in 2014 and still climbing). It could do an enormous amount of good in the world.

Apparently Ham isn’t that kind of Christian. He’s the theme park fun-ride, promote your own agenda kinda Christian. But take heart: they’re making a “Ten Plagues” ride in the new park so you can have fun while not thinking about the real good $101 million could do in the world. Or about how you’re making Ham and his friends rich.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this wacky entertainment site is that apparently American taxpayers are going to shoulder a lot of its cost. As Newsweek also told us:

The money used to build Ark Encounter came from donations of almost $30 million, plus $62 million in high-risk, unrated municipal bonds backed by the project’s future revenues. If Ark Encounter never makes significant profits (and bond documents warn that it may not), neither the city nor AiG is on the hook for the bond money.

Continue reading “What Would $101 Million Buy?”

One Small Step, One Long Whine

What's next?The Supreme Court of the United States made a landmark decision last week that states cannot constitutionally (i.e. legally) ban same-sex marriage. The bottom line: under the Constitution, every citizen is entitled to the same rights and freedoms regardless of sexual orientation. Most of the world celebrated with the USA over this decision (the US thus became the 21st nation to legalize same-sex marriage).

Homophobia – which like racism, intolerance and Islamophobia, are all cornerstones of the uber-right platforms – is not legal. Equality is. And that’s what the decision was all about.

While the majority of states had already legalized same-sex marriage, 13 of the “fly-over” states still behaved in a medieval way by banning it. Now they can’t because it violates that most precious document of American governance, the Constitution. And to oppose the Constitution is nothing less than treason.

One would hope that in a civilized world, after all the arguments, the legal challenges and the debates, once the matter was settled, that everyone would simply accept the decision like mature adults, pull up their ‘big-boy’ pants and move on. And most have.

Everyone, that is, except for the Tea Party Republicans and their bigoted, homophobic followers. Instead they have whined and moaned like drama queens ever since the court’s decision was made public.

The Republican Party’s presidential candidates uniformly condemned a Supreme Court’s ruling that enshrined same-sex marriage as a nationwide reality on Friday.
Some struck a more alarmist tone than others.

Continue reading “One Small Step, One Long Whine”

How Many Virtues?

cardinal virtuesThe Greeks had but four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and courage (or fortitude). To this, many centuries later, the Catholic church (notably Aquinas) added three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity (or love). These are the seven basic virtues of Western culture. But they’re not the only ones.

In 410 CE, Aurelius Clemens Prudentius listed seven ‘heavenly’ virtues in his religious poem, Psychomachia: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.

Writing in the New York Times recently, David Brooks said.

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

Brooks adds: “Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.”

In that sense we have two ‘resume’ virtue lists: the one we present to others, make an ostensible show of and tell people these are the virtues we pursue, even when we do not – and hope these become our eulogy list. And we have a private list of virtues we know we actually believe in, we actually practice in daily life.

But what are those virtues? Are they the four, the seven, or are there more?

Buddhists have two, intertwined lists of virtues. The first is the eightfold path:

  • Right view
  • Right intention
  • Right speech
  • Right action
  • Right livelihood
  • Right effort
  • Right mindfulness
  • Right concentration

The second list of ten virtues comes from the Natha Sutta:

  1. Sila: good conduct; keeping moral habits;
  2. Bahusutta: great learning;
  3. Kalyana mitta: good company; association with good people;
  4. Sovacassata: amenability to correction; meekness; easy admonishability;
  5. Kingkaraniyesu Dakkhata; willingness to give a helping hand; diligence and skill in managing all the affairs of one’s fellows in the community;
  6. Dhammakamata; love of truth;
  7. Viriyarambha; energy; effort; energetic exertion; making effort; being industrious in avoiding  and abandoning evil actions, and cultivating the good;
  8. Santutthi; contentment;
  9. Sati; mindfulness; the ability to remember what one has done and spoken;
  10. Panna; wisdom; insight.

There are other sutras that list Buddhist virtues (also called perfections, or paramitas) like the Ten Perfections of the Buddhavamsa and the Six Perfections  of the Lotus Sutra, but they are essentially the same list as above.

On the virtuescience page, 119 virtues are listed, including wonder, thrift, thankfulness, respect, responsibility, sobriety, loyalty, honesty, generosity and discretion.  A similar, list can be found on virtuesforlife and similar sites (such as the wikiversity site). In the one-upmanship often found online, there are even longer lists (up to around 160) with terms like prayerfulness, resilience, health, beauty and assertiveness.

Are all of these really virtues? Or merely attributes or qualities: behavioral traits? That depends on how you define virtue.

Loyalty, for example, is relative: like beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder. Loyalty is only a virtue in someone else if they are on the same side or in the same party as you are. It’s a vice in others of different political, religious or cultural beliefs. History is replete with cases of blind loyalty where it was a character flaw, not a virtue. Think of the SS or the Soviet commissars in WWII, the Red Guard in Mao’s Cultural Revolution. None of the victims would consider their loyalty a virtue. Loyalty to a small cause can equally be disloyalty to the greater good.

Continue reading “How Many Virtues?”

Conrad Black: Wrong on Religion, Again

QuoteAtheists renounce and abstain from religions; they don’t reform them. So said Conrad Black in a recent National Post column. Black seems to be increasingly theological in his writing; perhaps he has had some sort of epiphany in prison. If so, it seems to be pushing him towards a Pauline-style intolerance and exclusivity, religiously speaking. That attitude is not conducive to dialogue, but it certainly suits the writer.

And, as he has been in the past, he is wrong about both religion and atheism. He speaks from the position of the True Believer for whom no other perspective, let alone dissent, is tolerable. Black, a convert to Catholicism, wrote contemptuously of other religions in 2009:

… Anglicans, moreover, have never really decided whether they are Protestant or Catholic, only that they “don’t Pope,” though even that wavers from time to time. Luther, though formidable and righteous, was less appealing to me than both the worldly Romans, tinged with rascality though they were, and the leading papist zealots of the Counter-Reformation.
The serious followers of Calvin, Dr Knox and Wesley were, to me, too puritanical, but also too barricaded into ethnic and cultural fastnesses, too much the antithesis of universalism…
Islam was out of the question; too anti-western, too identified with the 13th-century decline and contemporary belligerency of the Arabs; and the Koran is alarmingly violent, even compared to the Old Testament. Judaism, though close theologically, is more tribal and philosophical than spiritual. … the 80% of the early Jews who became Christians, starting with Christ, had correctly identified the Messiah than that the proverbially “stiff-necked” rump of continuing Jewry are right still, ostensibly, to be waiting for Him.
It need hardly be said that the Jews are the chosen people of the Old Testament, that they have made a huge contribution to civilization, and that they have been horribly persecuted. But being Jewish today, apart from the orthodox, is more of an exclusive society, and a tradition of oppression and survival, than an accessible faith.*

Let’s start with a simple clarification: everyone is an atheist in that there are many gods a lot of people don’t believe in. I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts Conrad doesn’t believe in Moloch, Zeus, Baal, Ahura Mazda, Krishna, Hera,  Shiva,, Ganesh or Odin. That makes him and everyone else who doesn’t believe in them an atheist to those who do. Those whom many people normally label as atheist merely believe in one less deity than those who claim to be believers. Atheism is thus relative.

Continue reading “Conrad Black: Wrong on Religion, Again”