Tag Archives: history

A Christian makes the case for separation of church and state

Members of a society’s dominant religion often think it perfectly natural that faith and politics should overlap. Here in America, for example, Christians whip themselves into a frenzy whenever the privileged status of their religion is taken down a notch, such as when the National Day of Prayer was recently ruled unconstitutional.  To the long-standing principle of “separation of church and state,” many of them they say pffft!  Removing God and His laws from the public sphere inevitably leads to rampant immorality and invites His wrath.  This is a Christian nation, by gum!

It’s unfortunate so many are ignorant of the rationale behind the Establishment Clause of our constitution.  Efforts to circumscribe or role back Christianity’s encroachment on the public sphere are instead interpreted as a commie-liberal-socialist-nazi-atheist-NWO plot to destroy it.

The site Religion Dispatches today runs the perfect rejoinder to these loons.  Not only does it compellingly make the case for separation of church and state, it does so by recalling just why the Founders regarded it as so critically important for the protection of believers themselves:

For the historically minded among us, the reasons for not bringing our spiritual authority into political campaigns are blood red. For nearly 2,000 years our faith fore-fathers were persecuted and oppressed, not always by the irreligious, but more often by competing tribes within Christianity. Clerics would jockey for favor in the kingdoms of men, then use any clout gained to suppress the views of their theological enemies.

Over and again we stamped out those who did not fit into our au courant idea of orthodoxy and we entrenched ourselves into division, using the steel of our ruler’s swords to proclaim our theological certainty. Christians have killed and tortured more of their own than any other group in history, and this was possible solely because of the unholy union of church and state. Pastors gave rulers their blessing, and rulers returned the favor by silencing the pastor’s critics, a fantastic deal for the pastor who courts the powers, but a dangerous and painful reality for those who do not.

Best of all, the article is not authored by one of the usual suspects but by a Christian believer and alumni of Liberty University (RD calls him a “conservative Christian,” a label I cannot confirm), which makes him a tad more difficult to dismiss.  My only quibble with the piece is that it could reinforce the point by citing examples of American intra-Christian killing, thus proving how readily “blood red” history can repeat itself even here.

It’s sad to think such an outstanding article from an unimpeachable source will likely have no impact on the views of the Christian theocrats, for in my experience they’ve largely immunized themselves against reason and sound argument.  I would not have them be reminded – the hard way – why they tread a dangerous path.

Communism’s Christian roots

I’ve lately been reading Robert Service’s excellent Comrades!: Communism – A World History, a book which aims to deliver a “general account of communism around the world.”  Like many works so grand in scope, Comrades starts at the beginning: the origins of communism.  Service does a superb job describing these origins, enumerating the many influences on the ideology throughout history.  Two facts stand out: 1) as a vision of the ideal society, types of communism existed long before Marx and Engels in the 19th century; 2) a significant number of those influences were Christian thinkers, taking from Christian doctrines.  This latter fact is something I wish to explore further here.

Before I get into that, it might be useful to define what we mean by “communism”.  Service correctly notes how stubbornly it has defied definition.  “One communist’s communism is another communist’s anti-communism,” he writes.  Still, there are at least two core elements virtually all communisms (with a small “c”) have built upon: 

  • Common, as opposed to private, ownership of property and the means of production
  • “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”

What those who identify themselves as communist or socialist have never agreed on is the means to achieve this vision.  Marx and Engels, members of a long line of communist theorists, by no means settled the debate, but they were the first to thoroughly elaborate an allegedly scientific analysis of why capitalism would inevitably collapse and lead ultimately to communism.  They drew inspiration from wide-ranging array of philosophers, economists, historians, and scientists, both classic and contemporary.   

While today’s Christians tirelessly strive to promote atheism as the genesis of communism, a claim I’ve refuted many times on this blog (see right sidebar), they’ve never explained why no atheist thinker mentions anything like it until the 19th century.  In contrast, communist principles are found at the very birth of Christianity:

All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. (Acts 2:44-45, NIV)

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.

Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet. (Acts 4:32-37, NIV).

 These passages excited the imaginations of later Christians, inspiring real and theoretical applications.  One of the most influential was Catholic Saint Thomas More’s Utopia.  Published in the early 16th century, it described a society free of private ownership and unemployment, where communal living is the norm, and worship of all forms is tolerated, except forms of non-worship like atheism. Other similar works by fellow Christian thinkers followed, including The City of the Sun and Description of the Republic of Christianopolis.  Christian sects such as the Anabaptists, the True Levellers, the Plymouth colonists, and the Mormons made attempts to put communist principles into practice.  They weren’t successful, to put it mildly.

The industrial revolution begun in the 18th century resulted in some severe side-effects, such as social dislocations and abysmal working conditions, which in turn provided fertile ground for the rapid growth of leveling ideologies like communism. Christians were among the vanguard in the “social justice” movements that emerged in the 19th century, both as leaders and ideologists.  A roundly influential tract was written by Joseph Proudhon titled What is Property? Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and Government, the famous conclusion of which was “property is theft.”  Proudhon cited the Bible as the primary influence on his beliefs.

Another popular figure in the early 19th century proto-communist movement was Wilhelm Weitling, who wrote Gospel of Poor Sinners, a book which traced communism back to early Christianity.  Weitling produced another work, Guarantees of Harmony and Freedom, which was praised my Marx. It was influential among the founders of the League of the Just, whose goal was “the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth, based on the ideals of love of one’s neighbour, equality and justice”.  The League of the Just would later become the Communist League.  Marx and Engels were members, and they were commissioned to draw up a manifesto for the organization.  They did just that, and so came into existence The Communist Manifesto.

Although Christians were prominent in founding and promoting communism, it would be a mistake to view communism as primarily a Christian ideology until Marxism.  Indeed, many Christians going back centuries defended private property, and they opposed communism in both word and deed (but sometimes not for the most noble of reasons…), particularly Marx’s religiously-unfriendly brand of communism.  Yet it would also be a mistake to deny communism’s indebtedness to Christian scriptures and thinkers, a rich legacy from which a sizable number Christians draw even up to the present time.  Liberation theology is the most notable species of Christian communism that remains alive and well, albeit in an evolved form.

Needless to say, most Christians have not taken it kindly when confronted with communism’s kinship to their religion.  They primarily object that the social order described in works like Acts was a voluntary arrangement, not one to be imposed by force as attempted by the Marxist-Leninist brand of communists, or that it was applicable only to that time period.  The objections are peculiar in that Christians have never denied themselves the right to be guided by scripture in questions about how the social order should be arranged; abortion and gay marriage being two notable, contemporary examples.  Moreover, if indeed it’s the case that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), then it would imply the Christian god has sanctioned the communist ethos described in Acts as his desired state for everyone, or at least for his followers.  Even if Christians blanche at imposing it on unwilling participants, either democratically or dictatorially, that doesn’t prevent them from imposing it on themselves.  That all Christian attempts at doing so have failed cannot indicate a problem in the principles themselves, since they were “God-breathed” and thus infallible.  Christians, why are you running from your communist heritage, rather than embracing it?

Oh, those glorious days of religion in the classroom

Many of today’s Christians lament how religion (by which they mean their religion) has been stripped from the public school curriculum.  They yearn for the days when the Bible was as much a part of learning as the three Rs.  But thanks to godless liberals, that’s no longer the case.  The results are as sad as they are predictable.  Just one example: biblically conservative teens are one of the most sexually promiscuous groups among their believing peers.  Who knew children of Christian evangelicals were so dependent on the public school teachers to imbue them with the proper morals?  But I digress…

We all know there were sound legal and constitutional arguments for keeping religion in the home and church. But that’s all foolishness to God, say militant Christians.  Yet, there were very practical reasons too, which unfortunately have been either overlooked or quietly swept under the rug.  One of them relates to a tragic and deadly incident in Pennsylvania some 160 years ago known as the “Philadelphia Bible Riots”. 

I’ll leave it to you to read the full story, but here are the essentials:  In the 1840s, Philadelphia public schools were dominated by Protestants.  Bible-reading, KJV-style, took place every morning.  This didn’t sit well, to say the least, with the growing number of Irish Catholic immigrants, who took theological direction from Rome and from a different bible.  Mix the traditional Christian brotherly love between the two sects, add a dash of demagoguery, bake in the fires of burning homes and buildings, and what do you get?  Ten persons dead, twenty wounded, and $5.8 million in property damage (in current dollars).

Rob Boston, author of the article linked above, arrives at some very important lessons from the riots.  Here are a couple:

[R]eligion is taken so seriously that when people believe that their religious rights are being violated, they are capable of responding in ways that shock.

Isn’t that the truth!  What is it about religion that sometimes relieves one of all civilized behavior?

[D]espite the claims that state-sponsored religion in public schools would be a unifying factor, history shows that it is a divisive one that quickly causes people to take sides.

One of the beneficial consequences of the separation of church and state in this country is inter- and intra-faith peaceful co-existence, which has traditionally been the exception rather than the rule throughout the world.  It’s ironic that some of those who most strongly advocate for a religious presence in the schools would probably now be arguing against it had the principle not been enforced.  Even more ironic is that it’s secularists who may actually be responsible for preserving the skins of Christians who so frequently revile them.

Dr. David Aikman defends his views, and my reply

It seems I have a knack for provoking a response from major Christian apologists who’ve promulgated the idea that atheism and the atrocities committed by the 20th centuries’ totalitarian regimes are indelibly linked.  Dinesh D’Souza has previously responded, though in a perfunctory and inadequate manner, and now Dr. David Aikman does too, but not much better.  In his email to me, which can be read in full as the first reply to this post, Dr. Aikman claims he doesn’t have time to craft a full rebuttal to my comments right now, though that doesn’t stop him from searching my blog (I had included a link to the blog version in my email to him) to try to find out who I am, chide me for some comments I made about myself, bizarrely imply that I’m a sexual predator, and cry foul over the tone of my missive.

A couple words on that last charge, which is the only one worth dignifying with an answer.  This blog has several regular Christian readers, at least one of whom has commented on its relatively acrid-free atmosphere.  Nonetheless, there are times when I take a more belittling approach, as I did with Dr. Aikman.  The reason for it in his case is that I feel he is being purposely deceitful, at least in the work of his I read, which I strongly object to and believe is unprofessional.  It is one thing to have a difference of opinion on matters, but quite another to deliberately skew, make materially false claims, and ignore evidence in order to make one’s case.  I cannot be polite to individuals who do this. 

With that said, here are my comments on the substantive points he raises in reply.

Aikman: I can only say that if you hadn’t heard of any reputable scholar supporting the notion that Communist tyranny was directly related to atheist thought, you certainly didn’t spend much time in the library or worse, your professors were uniformly unwilling to reveal that quite a lot of scholars — yes, including Jesuits — have made the connection.  Ever read any Dostoyevsky, Robert?… I don’t know what your definition of “objective” is in your phrase “objective scholars,” but if you looked up my Ph.D. dissertation you’d find quite a lot of objective scholars who have connected the threads between atheist thought and terror.  Ever heard of Nechayev?  Or don’t they like to mention him in your version of Russian history 101?

Despite all these scholars Aikman claims supports him, he gives only one name: Dostoevsky – a 19th century novelist and Russian Orthodox sectarian, who was not just anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic, holding a special hatred of Jesuits in particular, but a radical slavophile. Does Aikman endorse these views too?  Dostoevsky was assuredly a brilliant writer, but when he claims without intentional hyperbole that “The demons are ideas,” (that came to Russian from the West), “that legion of isms: idealism, rationalism, empiricism, materialism, utilitarianism, positivism, socialism, anarchism, nihilism, and, underlying them all, atheism”, one can safely doubt his objectivity.  Though Dostoevsky is clearly one of Aikman’s key intellectual influences, cannot he reach outside the echo chamber of militant theists to support his views?  (Nechayev, one of many of the 19th century’s radical communist revolutionaries, was a sort of proto-Stalin, i.e., an individual who believed that the ends justified the means when birthing the new communist existence).

When I say objective scholars, I mean those individuals who have no horse in the race, whose professional careers depend on their ability and renown to make the most sense out of history in the most non-prejudicial manner as possible.  Scholars like Hannah Arendt, Richard Pipes, Moshe Lewin, Stephen Cohen, Robert Conquest — historians who’ve examined the evidence with a bird’s eye view and come to different conclusions than his.  In a sentiment echoed by atheist Sam Harris, Conquest writes in his classic Harvest of Sorrow (pg. 6-7):

For the events we recount here were the result not simply of an urge to power, an insistence on suppressing all autonomous forces in the country, but also of a set of doctrines about the social and economic results achievable by terror and falsehood…it is at least clear that, at more than one level, the sort of rationality sometimes allowed even by critics opposed to the programme was not really much in evidence, or only at a shallow level inappropriate to the complexities of reality.

When I scoff at the Christian apologists’ attempts to lay communist and Nazi atrocity at atheism’s door, I’m merely echoing the implied or stated views of these historians and experts.  One such expert, Dr. Rudolph Rummel, who has extensively examined the sources of mass political murder, which he calls “democide,” has specifically repudiated the link:

Q: Is atheism the principal factor in democide, such as that committed by the “Big Three,” Stalin, Mao, and Hitler?

A: No. I find that religion or its lack – atheism – have hardly anything to do in general with wide-scale democide. The most important factor is totalitarian power. Whether a church, atheists, or agnostics have that power is incidental – it is having the power that is a condition of democide. Incidentally, some ideologies, such as communism, function psychologically and sociologically as though a religion. The only distinction is whether the subject is a god or a man, such as Marx, Lenin, Hirohito, Hitler, Mohammed, Kim Ill sung, Mao, etc.

Not only must Dr. Aikman explain the absence of support among his contemporaries for his claims, he must rebut their own arguments.  An authentic scholarly treatment of a question typically does this, but his failure to reflects the fact that he’s writing propaganda for the Christian masses, where objectivity and a balanced consideration of the evidence are studiously avoided.

Aikman: It is absurd to complain that I don’t go into the private property issue. If I’d been writing a comprehensive account of Communist tyranny, I would obviously have discussed it. I wasn’t; I was dealing with the dangerous consequences of the coerced suppression of religion.

When your need is to establish that the Marxist-Leninist program consisted primarily of the forced eradication of religion, of course it’s “absurd” to go into the issue of private property.  But what those of us without theological blinders know abundantly well, the religious question was but a sideshow to this program.  As Lenin wrote in Socialism and Religion,

It would be bourgeois narrow-mindedness to forget that the yoke of religion that weighs upon mankind is merely a product and reflection of the economic yoke within society. No number of pamphlets and no amount of preaching can enlighten the proletariat, if it is not enlightened by its own struggle against the dark forces of capitalism.

Daniel Peris explains why religion wasn’t really a huge concern until late in the game:

Revolutionaries inspired by Marxism were not supposed to have to contend with religion after a proletarian revolution. Bolshevik policy makers were operating within an ideological framework theorized for an industrialized nation with an already secularized working class.  The Revolution, however, took place in the still largely rural, agrarian, and Holy Russia.  While political aspects of Marxism had been modified (if not fully reversed) by Lenin to justify a takeover in Russia, the revisionary process had not extended to cultural transformation, and certainly not to the dissemination of atheism.  Direct antireligious propaganda, however framed, amounted to ideological voluntarism, and Bolshevik leaders repeatedly stated that the ultimate “liquidation of religion” would require the completed construction of socialism (Storming the Heavens: The Soviet League of the Militant Godless, pg. 24).

So Dr. Aikman is simply being disingenuous.  He’s alleged in his work that the basis of 20th century tyranny is atheism.  But as I pointed out to him, the disregard for private property as a key basis for tyranny is a notion that’s been recognized for centuries, even by his fellow Christians.  In other words, there’s long existed a rival hypothesis to his, which he simply ignores in order to bolster his own.  I suggest there’s another reason for this: communist antipathy toward private property has a direct lineage to the Bible.  For Dr. Aikman to acknowledge this would open up a Pandora’s Box of difficult questions that would fatally undermine his claims.

Aikman: If you knew anything about Lenin’s furious tirades against Bolsheviks who were interested in religious ideas, you’d have known that his antipathy for both Christian belief and the Orthodox Church far predated the Russian civil war.  You seem to think that Lenin smacked the back of his wrist on his forehead and said, “Gosh, those Orthodox priests, that’s why they’re so horrible.  They’re supporting the Whites!”  Oh, and speaking of canards, it’s quite silly to say that Lenin was an atheist because Orthodox priests were so corrupt and — as you do rightly say — had supported the worst of tsarist autocracy.  People can make quite a variety of different choices when they encounter corrupt priests.  They can become Protestants, for example.  Luther did.

 “Furious tirades” like this one?

Religion must be declared a private affair. In these words socialists usually express their attitude towards religion. But the meaning of these words should be accurately defined to prevent any misunderstanding. We demand that religion be held a private affair so far as the state is concerned. But by no means can we consider religion a private affair so far as our Party is concerned. Religion must be of no concern to the state, and religious societies must have no connection with governmental authority. Everyone must be absolutely free to profess any religion he pleases, or no religion whatever, i.e., to be an atheist, which every socialist is, as a rule. Discrimination among citizens on account of their religious convictions is wholly intolerable. Even the bare mention of a citizen’s religion in official documents should unquestionably be eliminated. No subsidies should be granted to the established church nor state allowances made to ecclesiastical and religious societies. These should become absolutely free associations of like-minded citizens, associations independent of the state. Only the complete fulfillment of these demands can put an end to the shameful and accursed past when the church lived in feudal dependence on the state, and Russian citizens lived in feudal dependence on the established church, when medieval, inquisitorial laws (to this day remaining in our criminal codes and on our statute-books) were in existence and were applied, persecuting men for their belief or disbelief, violating men’s consciences, and linking cozy government (Socialism and Religion, 1905)

I never claimed that Lenin was an atheist because of corrupt Orthodox priests.  Rather, I objected strongly to Dr. Aikman’s failure to note the Russian Orthodox Church’s corrupting influence and reactionary role in Russian history, instead giving the impression it was some innocent persecuted bystander.  Lenin’s attitude toward religion and Christianity was informed not just by Marx, and not just by Orthodoxy, but also by the mundane observation they were destructive for much of their existence.  But as we know, Lenin, like many communists, believed religion would ultimately fade away on its own accord, so he could afford to be ambivalent, as the above quote demonstrates.  When it proved far more reactionary, dangerous, and persistent than his ideology allowed, Lenin turned antagonistic (for a time).  It’s simply false that “religious opposition in no way posed any kind of threat to [Lenin’s] regime,” and Aikman knows it.

It’s curious that Aikman cites Luther as an example of an alternative path that could be followed.  Is he suggesting that it’s appropriate to become a raving anti-Semite as well?

Aikman: Yes, Robespierre was a deist, but he hated Christianity and the Terror was a continuation of the de-Christianization period of the French Revolution.  Hitler wasn’t an atheist, but he hated Christianity was well.  Jefferson liked to call himself a Christian, though he clearly wasn’t a believer and he despised every Christian he knew except John Adams.

I’m heartened to see that Dr. Aikman is not completely blind to the patently obvious.  Despite his chapter header, “The Problem of Wicked Atheists: Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot,” he now acknowledges that “Hitler wasn’t an atheist.”  He also acknowledges the primary role deists played in the Reign of Terror.  The hole in his argument should thus be blazingly obvious.  If atheism is not a necessary component of totalitarian terror in general or of religious persecution in particular, then, logically, it’s quite possibly not a component at all.  Is the real problem “de-Christianization,” as he seems to suggest?  If so, then the hole in his argument is now large enough to fly a 747 through, because it’s a policy that even his fellow theists have pursued.  The truth of the matter is that anyone can be irreligious, or simply anti-Christian, for reasons wholly unrelated to atheism.  Since that is so, his argument collapses.  The problem is not atheism, but of state-directed illiberalism and the centralization of power.  I invite Dr. Aikman to read the works of Lord Acton, whose observations, while meant for a different set of tyrannical dictators (namely, the Popes in Rome), remain relevant.

I found it odd that Aikman spared not a single comment or a defense of his claim that, “The Soviet experience thoroughly demonstrates that if God is eliminated from public life, a much worse deity inevitably is erected in his [sic] place”, since it’s so central to his case.  And yet, how could he? When sociologists have found that such irreligious societies as Sweden and Denmark to be “moral, stable, humane, and deeply good,” it is simply an untenable position.

Aikman: You seem to have a profound rage against Christianity  Are you recovering from unpleasant childhood experiences of religion?  It always amazes me that secular humanists, who claim either that there is no god or that it doesn’t really matter whether there is one or not, get so angry when people suggest — terribile dictu — that God might exist and might have something to say about our world.

Goodness, not this canard again.  I suspect Christians love to believe it because it helps relieve the massive cognitive dissonance they must deal with on a daily basis.  Fortunately, I’ve already addressed it.

The incoherency of the anti-atheists

I have a good time debating theists on the subject of communism, the Soviet Union, and atheism.  As regular visitors know, it’s a subject I have a formal background in, and have written about on this blog.  Anti-atheists try to pin the atrocities committed by communist regimes on atheism, but I’ve demonstrated why that view is not in evidence, and they search in vain for an expert to support it.  Their argument deflated, these anti-atheists try to resuscitate it with more bad argument and wholly ignorant and risible assertions.  Case in point: Michael Eden of the “Start Thinking Right” blog.

Michael’s outlook is garden-variety fundamentalist Christian. With a background in divinity and philosophical theology, he’s better educated than the average Christian, but he exhibits the same immunity from evidence and reasoned thinking all too many of his fellow theists share.  His hostility toward evolutionary theory exemplifies this tendency. 

In a recent discussion on communism and atheism, Michael repeated the same canards we’ve come to expect from his type.  When challenged to provide to cite scholars who support his view, Michael noted some Soviet dissidents like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a Romanian evangelical Christian, and Rudolph Rummel.  I was particularly grateful for the latter reference, with whom I’m already acquainted.  Rummel is an actual scholar of totalitarianism, with a Ph.D. in Political Science (Northwestern University, 1963), and who writes on the deadly nexus of government and excessive power.  Michael, who erroneously conflates communism with atheism, is unfortunately not as familiar with Rummel as I, for here is what he had to say specifically on the subject on atheism’s role in the last century’s murderous regimes:

Q: Is atheism the principal factor in democide, such as that committed by the “Big Three,” Stalin, Mao, and Hitler?

A: No. I find that religion or its lack – atheism – have hardly anything to do in general with wide-scale democide. The most important factor is totalitarian power. Whether a church, atheists, or agnostics have that power is incidental – it is having the power that is a condition of democide. Incidentally, some ideologies, such as communism, function psychologically and sociologically as though a religion. The only distinction is whether the subject is a god or a man, such as Marx, Lenin, Hirohito, Hitler, Mohammed, Kim Ill sung, Mao, etc.

For further reinforcement, I pointed out that Hannah Arendt, one of the most widely recognized experts on totalitarianism, mentions not a word about atheism in her seminole work, The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Decisively refuted in this way, reasonable individuals usually react by modifying their views, or at least become a tad skeptical.  But most theists, in my experience, are not reasonable individuals.  Michael’s response to the scholarly citations is instructive of their mindset.  He wrote,

The fact that someone like Robert is able to find atheists and communists (or post-Marxist, or whatever these fools are calling themselves these days) – whether “scholars” or not – to say that atheism and communism are actually good things not responsible for anything awful really amounts to a gigantic mountain of crap.

I see.  When those you cite are shown to disagree with you, suddenly they become “fools” and “atheists/communists” themselves (Arendt was a secular Jew and Michael continues to cite Rummel later!).  Laughable!  And notice the strawman thrown in for good measure.  The opportunity to demonstrate the mental quackery of theists like Michael makes my time well spent.

Michael is reduced to extensively citing Solzhenitsyn, who – surprise! – was another anti-atheist Christian.  Solzhenitsyn was also anti-west, anti-freedom, anti-democracy, and anti-semitic.  He opposed letting non-Orthodox Christians like Michael into Russia.  Nonetheless, Michael believes, “Solzhenitsyn is [sic] a greater scholar than you and all the moral idiots you cite as ‘experts’ times 1000.” (emphasis in the original)

Solzhenitsyn’s thesis, with which Michael wholeheartedly agrees, is

God is the only legitimate source of our human rights and freedoms, and the removal of God will ultimately remove the rights and freedoms, resulting in the Gulags.

Funny.  Countries like Japan, whose population currently consists of just 1% of Christians, appears to lack any gulags, last I checked.  Michael says that’s because our superior Judeo-Christian values were imposed on Japan after WWII.  Constitutional democracy is a Judeo-Christian value now?  Is sliced bread too?

The fact of the matter is, history simply doesn’t bear Solzhenitsyn out.  Europe’s ever increasing political and social secularization has not resulted in a repeat of the communist experience, while its deeply Christian past resulted in the very tragedies a belief in God is supposed to make impossible.  Michael further writes,

 Atheism has a 100% track record. In every single society in which a government was officially atheist – EVERY SINGLE ONE – unimaginable atrocity, totalitarian nightmare, and the crushing of human dignity followed.

Governments can believe in God or not?  Nonsense.  Perhaps Michael refers instead to governments that proclaim the promotion of atheism as a state policy.  What he neglects to mention is that these governments proclaim other policies as well.  Policies like…nationalization, class warfare, suppression of “enemies of the state,” forced collectivization.  Could they, possibly, have anything to do with social violence and atrocity?  It’s doubtful Michael is even aware of such things. The historical myopia of the anti-atheists is breathtaking to behold at times. 

What the anti-atheists fail to show is how atheism is the intellectual and philosophical seed of the ideologies and policies that end in atrocity.  In contrast, I have shown how the Bible was a direct influence on the criticism of private property that formed the basis of most forms of communism, Marx’s and Engels’ included.  It is thus little surprise that the earliest communists were religious believers.  The famous Communist League, for example, was initially the League of the Just, a Christian communist organization.  The anti-atheist’s argument rests purely on the debunked notion that without a belief in God (by which they mean their god), moral depravity is the inevitable result.  What’s more, the argument isn’t even Biblical, since the Apostle Paul claims the moral law is written on every man’s heart (Romans 2:14-15), regardless of belief.

Michael thinks he’s got the killer argument when he writes,

And I note for at least the 3rd time that you STILL haven’t told me why Joseph Stalin – murderer of so many millions of people – was a ‘bad atheist’ for his acts.

Simple, Michael.  When you can tell me why you’re a bad (or good) a-unicornist, I’ll tell you why Stalin was a bad (or good) atheist.

Fascinating new research on Jesus studies

Well, besides this 🙂

Anyone interested in the latest scholarly research on Jesus should run – don’t walk! – over to Richard Carrier’s blog and read his take on the recently concluded Amherst conference which the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER) conducted in order to evaluate the evidence for a historical Jesus.  Scholars are making some extremely interesting advances which may upend traditional theories that have dominated the field of Jesus studies up to now.  Like the Jesus Project before it, what the attendees had to say will not sit will with Christians, but even more so.  For example, Gerd Lüdemann, professor of New Testament Studies at Georg-August-University, Göttingen, concludes that Paul’s epistles evince no knowledge of a historical Jesus – a conclusion that to him was unexpected.

Of main interest I think to professional and lay students of religion is the fading of the Q hypothesis.  If you recall, the hypothesis has been popular in explaining the Synoptic Problem, positing the existence of a lost and unknown source document which the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke used in conjuction with the Gospel of Mark to write their works.  Instead, another document, the Dominical Logia, may have been the source of all three gospels.  Such is the view of Dennis McDonald, professor at Claremont School of Theology and author of The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark.

Carrier relates the observation that the more scholars study Jesus, the less certainty there is surrounding him.  Both historicists and mythicists will find this discomforting, but it should sit well with those who take an agnostic view on the question of a historical Jesus.  Christianity, again, is a major loser here, for controversy over the words and deeds of its founder can only split the faith further, as well as undermine its claim as the true religion of a creator-deity.  Expect attacks on the work of the CSER from the usual conservative Christian suspects, but liberal Christians will find their faith just a bit more untenable.

The reliability of the New Testament – a response

Amidst my surfing of Christian blogs, I came upon one that asked, “How can a rational person trust the New Testament?”  Ever the contrarian, I responded that one cannot rationally trust the New Testament (NT), and offered a few reasons why, among them:

1.) The original manuscripts do not exist;
2.) There are well-documented instances of textual corruption (errors, additions, deletions, etc.);
3.) Some of Paul’s epistles are verified forgeries;
4.) To trust the NT requires trusting the Old Testament, which makes it far more problematic given the state of modern scientific knowledge.

I also noted that these were but a “tip of the iceberg” in terms of questioning NT reliability.

Milestoneworship (I don’t have the name of the actual author) responded graciously to my post, thanked me for the questions, and promised a rebuttal, which was recently posted.  In the spirit of dialogue and debate, below I offer my response.  None of this will be new to students of the Bible, but hopefully the small crowd of onlookers who happen upon it will advance their understanding in some beneficial way.

From his response, it is clear that Milestoneworship has a more nuanced appreciation of history and NT difficulties than the average lay Christian, many of whom would respond with the typical apologetic fare of “fulfilled prophecy” or “the Bible is an accurate historical record.” I note, however, that he has not disputed any of the four points above; therefore, I presume he grants them.

To begin, Milestoneworship slightly misrepresents my position, which, to be fair, had not been wholly spelled out.  He writes,

However, Robert’s “all or nothing” tone in his claim reflects a lack of understanding of the scholarship concerning ancient historical documents.  It seems that Robert is suggesting that just because there are elements of controversy within the accounts of events in the New Testament, the New Testament as a whole is invalidated.

Well, not quite.  To an inerrantist, invalidating part of the NT would invalidate all of it, but I never assumed Milestoneworship held such a belief, so that was never my position.  On the contrary, my actual position is that the NT’s problems, from a historical point of view, are far more fundamental than a few “elements of controversy.”  I’ll demonstrate what I mean by examining a few of Milestoneworship’s NT claims.  To start with, consider this:

Yet, when we approach the accounts given in the New Testament, we have at least five seperate accounts of the basic events of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection (the four Gospels and the Pauline account in I Corinthians).

Milestoneworship has chosen his words carefully.  Technically, what he says is true, but the impression I’m sure he wishes to convey differs from the facts in several important respects.  Yes, the gospels are indeed separate (I’ll deal with the Corinthians creed in a bit), but are they independent, and more importantly, do they recount truthful history? On both counts, the question can only be no.  Surely, Milestoneworship is aware of the synoptic problem, which concerns the obvious literary overlap between Mark, Matthew, and Luke.  The problem is such that, in the words of Christian NT scholar Dr. Daniel B. Wallace, “It is quite impossible to hold that the three synoptic gospels were completely independent from each other.”  In other words, the authors copied material.  What did they copy from?  Many scholars believe from Mark, along with another document no longer in existence.  Matthew and Luke come later, contradict each other in some ways, and contain information not originally included in Mark, such as the birth narratives and the resurrection appearances (our earliest copies of Mark end at 16:8).  John, which comes later still, parallels only 8% of the synoptics, contradicts them in several important respects, and was rejected as heretical by many early Christians.

So what we see with the gospels is progressive literary embellishment, a sure sign that we are not reading so much as history but legend.  This becomes even more obvious when we read the earliest Christian writings, Paul’s epistles.

The striking thing about these epistles is how little data they contain of Jesus’s life.  From them alone, one would never know that Jesus was born a virgin, performed miracles, raised the dead, was crucified at Calvary, and subsequently buried in a tomb.  Paul never quotes any of Jesus’s sayings, never places him in any historical settings, sources his knowledge to God or the scriptures, and answers questions which Jesus had (supposedly) already settled.  What possessed to Paul to claim that the Romans never punish the righteous, but only the wicked?  I Corinthians 15:3-8, to which Milestoneworship presumably refers, is but a creed with only minimal reflection in the gospels, and the gospels in it.  In sum, Paul’s epistles are theological statements, only affirming what Christians believed, and raise serious doubts about the historicity of the NT gospels.

If the gospels are largely ahistorical, as I maintain, it would explain another anomaly for Christianity: their utter lack of attestation in the contemporary historical record.  Jesus’s miraculous deeds are well-known to us now, but they were apparently so unremarkable then that no one took written note of them.  And what of the events surrounding his death, such as the resurrection of all those dead saints who walked around Jerusalem and “appeared unto many” (Matthew 27:52-53)?  An every-day occurrence, it seems.  Some apologists have suggested that no historian of that era would scarcely be concerned about another itinerant rabbi in a backwater of the Roman empire, but in fact there were such historians.  Chief among them, Philo of Alexandria.  Philo was a Jewish philosopher and historian living in the early first century Middle East (25 BCE – 47 CE) whose theology would be familiar to any Christian.  For example,

And even if there be not as yet any one who is worthy to be called a son of God, nevertheless let him labour earnestly to be adorned according to his first-born word, the eldest of his angels, as the great archangel of many names; for he is called, the authority, and the name of God, and the Word, and man according to God’s image, and he who sees Israel.

About Jesus, nary a word can be found among Philo’s more than fifty works.

So, if the NT gospels aren’t historical, from whence the stories about Jesus?  As NT scholar Robert M. Price has shown, mostly from the Old Testament.  Through extapolating and re-interpreting scripture, the gospel authors weaved their Jesus narratives.  As Price describes, “Today’s Christian reader learns what Jesus did by reading the gospels; his ancient counterpart learned what Jesus did by reading Joshua and 1 Kings.”  This explain such gospel oddities as Matthew’s Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the backs of two donkeys, from Zechariah 9:9, while Luke and John have him riding on one.

Milestoneworship continues his case for NT reliability with the following:

However, with such a variety of accounts, and the close dating of these accounts to the occurence of the events recorded, historians have virtually agreed on three factual events that the Gospels record:  1)the discovery of an empty tomb three days after Jesus’ crucifixion, 2)the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and 3)the disciples belief in the resurrection.  I argue that the best explanation of these events is the miraculous resurrection of Jesus.

I consider this to be a moving of the goalposts, so to speak.  The question before us concerns the overall reliability of the NT, not a specific claim made within it.  But since support of the latter can assist in making the case for the former, I’ll nonetheless address it.

Milestoneworship’s argument is one popularized by Christian apologist William Lane Craig.  The facts presented here may indeed be agreed upon by historians, but that doesn’t necessitate the conclusion that God miraculously raised Jesus from the dead.  This is a theological statement, not a historical one, as NT scholar and historian Bart Ehrman pointed out to Craig in a formal debate on the topic.  And as Richard Carrier has shown, it is far, far likelier that Jesus survived, to give but one possible outcome (theft and misplacement are a couple others).

The above response is but a partial case against the reliability of the NT.  Much more could be said about the anonymity of the gospels, their possible authorship well into the second century, formation and disputes over the NT canon, parallels to previous religions and deities, the tremendous amount of early Christian apocrypha which testifies to a wide diversity of belief, and so on.  It is a fascinating subject, but one that is extremely historically clouded, as well.  To be sure, Christian apologists have their responses to each of these objections, and more, just every other faith does with respect to its traditions and holy texts.  But when neutrally evaluated, the reliability of the NT cannot be established by any rational standard.

Was atheism the cause of 20th century atrocities?

A printer-friendly PDF version of this document is available here.

Introduction

It is a frequent rejoinder and polemic hurled about by religious apologists.  Yes, certain murderous excesses like crusades, inquisitions, and witch hunts may have been committed by the religious, but they pale in comparison to those done in the cause of atheism.  Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot-strident atheists all whose famines, wars, genocides, and purges created magnitudes more dead.  Consider, for example, these words from militant Christian cheerleader, Dinesh D’Souza:

These figures are tragic, and of course population levels were much lower at the time. But even so, they are minuscule compared with the death tolls produced by the atheist despotisms of the 20th century. In the name of creating their version of a religion-free utopia, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong produced the kind of mass slaughter that no Inquisitor could possibly match. Collectively these atheist tyrants murdered more than 100 million people.

Continue reading Was atheism the cause of 20th century atrocities?

Palin needs a course in American history

The website Fundies Say the Darndest Things! (linked to the left) is a treasure trove of absolute batshit crazy statements from the religious faithful.  While being stupendously funny, they’re also a mite sobering when you realize that they’re made in full seriousness.

While perusing through this month’s entries, I read the following gem:

11. Are you offended by the phrase “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance? Why or why not?

Sarah Palin: Not on your life. If it was good enough for the founding fathers, its good enough for me and I’ll fight in defense of our Pledge of Allegiance.

Sarah Palin, in case you’ve been buried in a cave for the past week, is John McCain’s recent choice for running mate, and potential Vice President (not to mention President…).  The “oopsie!” is of course not the obvious grammar mistakes, but the fact that the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance was not added until 1954.  And it was not written by the Founding Fathers, but by a Christian socialist minister in 1892.  Curiously, the source page for the above quote was deleted, but nothing ever truly disappears off the internet.  A simple search of the page on Google retrieved it from cache.

Frankly, it doesn’t much surprise me that the evangelical Christan Palin holds this mistaken view of American history.  Ask any such Christian, and they’ll offer up a wholly revisionist history of the country’s founding, claiming, among other things, that it was established as a Christian nation (it wasn’t) and that the Ten Commandments inspired American law (sorry, no good there, either).

Palin holds a worldview that doesn’t seem all that dissimilar from the current president’s.  Is that a good thing?  I guess it depends on your view of how the past 8 years have gone.