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.

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Going Clear Reviewed

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Going ClearI found it difficult to read Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright (Random House, 2013): it gave me a sense of unease, forcing a frequent over-the-shoulder glance to see if someone was following me just because I was reading it. But nonetheless, it proved compelling – so much so that I dropped all other books and read it cover to cover, uninterrupted earlier this summer.

It is by far the most complete, detailled expose of the church I’ve read  to date, and it made me wonder, why hasn’t all of this come to light before? Or did it and I just missed it?

It’s definitely not a flattering look at the church and if you know nothing about Scientology, it’s a real eye-opener. A scary one, at that.

This is also the title of a 2013 book and a subsequent documentary by Alex Gibney, based on the book. In a review of the movie in The Guardian, it noted:

Gibney’s film convincingly argues that their methods and practices are exploitative, abusive and dysfunctional on a massive scale.

And the review in The Independent concluded:

Gibney is too subtle and diligent a film-maker to indulge in a one-sided hatchet-job. The tone of Going Clear is inquisitive, not sensationalist. The documentary is painstakingly researched. If its accusations are “entirely false” (as the Church claims), it is surprising that quite so many former members continue to make them.

(The documentary isn’t on HBO Canada, by the way, but is on HBO USA – one of the reasons I don’t have cable any more: too much of this exclusive, anti-Canadian nonsense.)

Even if you look for it on YouTube, it’s not there (only the trailer is). You will, however, find several pro-Scientology rebuttals, some of them very acerbic and confrontational. Which is to be expected, if Wright’s claims in the book about the church’s paranoid and aggressive responses to any criticism are true. That also jives with the BBC reports I’ve linked to YouTube videos here.

And in my experience, I have reason to believe at least some of the claims for aggressive defence are true.

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The Continued Rise of Anti-Intellectualism

I dream of a world where the truth is what shapes people’s politics, rather than politics shaping what people think is true. Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter*

BizarroAnti-intellectualism Is Killing America, says the headline in this recent Psychology Today story. The subtitle reads: Social dysfunction can be traced to the abandonment of reason.

I wrote about anti-intellectualism as the new elitism back in late 2013. Since then, it seem the trend has not only increased dramatically, but the backlash against it has grown. However, the opposition trying to restore reason is neither organized nor has the same sort of shiny baubles to attract adherents the anti-intellectual side has. Cold reason cannot compete for attention against the Kardashian derriere or UFOs on Ceres.

The article’s author, David Niose, wrote:

America is killing itself through its embrace and exaltation of ignorance…

I read that the same hour I read a press release that starts, “James Van Praagh Opens His New School of Mystical Arts.” It opens:

Talking to Heaven has just been brought closer to home. After thirty-five years of talking to the dead on television, radio, and through live demonstrations, New York Times bestselling author, psychic medium and spiritual teacher James Van Praagh is making dreams come true for his students and fans. In May of 2015, Van Praagh launched The James Van Praagh School of Mystical Arts, an online academy where students can tap into their psychic, intuitive, healing and mediumistic abilities, and be personally guided and mentored by the popular medium.

Clearly when this sort of egregious claptrap garners any uncritical attention, the anti-intellectual side is winning. And if anyone is daft enough to shell out $1,600 USD for an eight-week course on fairy dust, they have already lost their ability to think critically and clearly. Or perhaps they never had it – the skills of logic and reason are, apparently not taught in public school.

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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.

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Atheist Spirituality?

Penguin PublishersAndre Comte-Sponville’s elegantly-written book, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, has occupied much of my thoughts and reading time these past few weeks as I try to grapple with his message. I find I need to re-read sections of it, perhaps more than once, to digest and weigh all of the ideas presented.

I’m more accustomed to the polarizing polemics of Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins, and their militant atheism; French philosopher Comte-Sponville’s reasoned and gentle approach quite threw me off guard. Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins may be right (and righteous) in their arguments, but they can be caustic and grating. Comte-Sponville – who also calls himself an atheist – is more conciliatory and willing to concede points to religion that the others are not, particularly in the areas of heritage and culture.

And in death, where Comte-Sponville says religion holds the better hand in dealing with mortality, offering “not only the possibility of consolation, but also a sorely-needed ritual…” that helps us humanize and even civilize death. “The power of religion at such times,” he writes, “is neither more nor less our own powerlessness in the face of the void.”

In the wake of the death of my own mother, mortality has been on my mind somewhat more than usual. Which is one reason, I suppose, I am turning to philosophy with greater frequency to try and make sense of the world.

Calling oneself an atheist has long been a form of rebellion: to challenge three millennia of society, to storm the ramparts of conformity. But only in the last century has that declaration been made without punishment or at least ostracism. No it’s almost chic to do so, like wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.

Each generation has to find its own centre anew, and each older generation has to agonize over that choice. But what happens when the rebels become the establishment, when the challenge becomes the new conformity? Do we repeat the cycle again from the other side?

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