Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Religious Deaths in Norway




By William P. Lazarus

Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian who gunned down and bombed 68 men, women and children in two attacks July 22, turns out to have hated Muslims. 

According to published reports, Breivik had a “compulsive interest in websites that see the modern world in terms of a ‘clash of civilizations,’ where Christian values are supposedly under siege in the face of an Islamic onslaught.  The blogs and websites Breivik enthused about were pro-American and pro-Israel, extremely hostile to Islam and despairing that the European political elite would ever see the error of its liberal multicultural outlook.”

That prompted such an articulate and invariably accurate spokesmen for the extreme right wing of reason, Bill O’Reilly, to attack the media for insisting Breivik was Christian.  He called that idea "impossible. No one believing in Jesus commits mass murder.  The man might have called himself a Christian on the net, but he is certainly not of that faith...we can find no evidence, none, that this killer practiced Christianity in any way."  He added, “The left wants you to believe that fundamentalists Christians are a threat just like crazy jihadists are."

Of course, the fact that Breivik identified himself as Christian did not concern O’Reilly.  By the way, Norwegian police also called their suspect Christian, and anyone who has glanced at Bleivik’s 1,500-page manifesto can read he believes in Christianity "as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform," which "makes [me] Christian."

I can certainly understand O’Reilly’s logic, such as it is.  After all, Christians emulating Jesus, the supposed man of peace, shouldn’t kill anyone.  Right?  Maybe not in the last 15 minutes, but history tells another story. 

In the early Middle Ages, for example, lords of the Christian realm loved to go on annual, ritualistic massacre of non-Christians in Eastern Europe.  It was just a jolly chance for military training and preparation for bigger assaults.

Starting around 1095, Christian Crusaders, urged on both by popes and saints, swarmed down to Outremer -- their name for what is now Israel – to fight with Saracens – their name for Muslims.  The Crusades last almost 200 years and were invariably initiated with the slaughter of Jews in Europe and occasionally Eastern Orthodox Christians who got in the way en route to the Promised Land. 

Meanwhile, back in Europe, Catholics were massacring what they described as heretical sects, such as the Cathars.  Those awful people believed in a simply life of prayer, fasting work and nonviolence.  How terrible can anyone be? 

The Spanish took their religious ideas to the West and even used germ warfare to kill and enslave conquered people in Central and South America, all in the name of religion.

The Inquisition started in France, but became infamous for its splendid work in Spain to allow true believers to separate personas no grata from their assets.  The auto de fe, the ritualistic mass burnings of apostates and heretics, served as amusement for the masses who flocked to enjoy them. 

With the rise in the Protestant revolution in the 1500s, the religious battling got worse.  The 100-Years War almost depopulated Europe.  The battles continued on the sea and in distant lands where Protestants captured by the Spanish were treated with utter contempt and brutality.  In desperation, the English took turns attacking each other.  Henry VIII burned Catholics.  His daughter, Mary, burned Protestants.  Or had them drawn and quartered.  The amusement level was the same.

Old history?  That’s OK.  There’s plenty of new history.  The Holocaust ended in 1945.  An estimated 6 million Jews were killed simply for their religion.  The Vatican can protest all it wants, but the Church then did little to nothing to intercede for fear its members would be attacked next. 

Besides as a 1960s Stanford University study pointed, churches are directly responsible for the continued poison of anti-Semitism, which regularly leads to the deaths of innocent people.  In 2009, for example, a gang calling itself the Barbarians tortured a French Jew for three weeks and then killed him, all because they thought all Jews were rich.  In 2010, two men were arrested in the Ukraine for murdering two Jewish pilgrims visiting the grave of a beloved rabbi.

No religion is exempt.  Buddhists and Hindus have engaged in murderous assaults on each other in India.  And Buddhism may the world’s most peaceful religion.  Members aren’t even supposed to focus on this world.

Islam is hardly alone, although Muslims have been more ardent in recent times.  That’s why when the Norwegian killings hit the airwaves, newscasters worldwide speculated whether Arab terrorists were involved.  After all, Islamic radicals have been busy bombing and murdering people for decades, all in the name of religion. 

O’Reilly can continue to spout all the poppycock he wants, but religion has certainly has motivated many mass murders through the ages.  Christians regularly talk of peace and love, but they have demonstrated the ability to kill unhesitantly along with the best of any religion.

After all, the idea of using weapons to deal with a situation is supported by the leader of the Christians.  Just open a Bible:  Jesus is quoted as saying, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” (Matt 10:34) and (Luke 22:36) “He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.”  Sure, he said other things.  And, of course, there are many apologists ready at the drop of a comma to spring into defensive action, but the words are clear and easily could have motivated someone like Anders Behring Breivik to go out and kill innocent people.

The truth is that any religion is as correct as another one.  Belief in Osiris is no different than belief in Jesus to followers of either faith.  No one has a monopoly on the truth.  Besides, as the Bible quotes the great Jewish sage Gamaliel saying of Christianity: Refrain from these men, for if this work be of men, it will come to naught. But, if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it, lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.” (Acts 5: 38, 39)

Good advice.  Let God handle it, and pray other people see the desire for peace that lies at the heart of all faiths. 

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  Many of his essays are posted at www.williamplazarus@blogspot.com




Friday, July 15, 2011

No Political Party Has Monopoly on Hypocrisy

By William P. Lazarus
www.williamplazarus.com

Anyone following the news these days has to be pretty sick of the charges and counter-charges being flung around by Democrats and Republicans.  The partisan infighting is fierce with each side accusing the other of hypocrisy.

Actually, they are both right.

Both parties have repeatedly shifted positions enough over the years to cause a disk jockey to get dizzy trying to follow the spinning logic.
  
No field has been left untouched by the sordid slime of hypocrisy.  Let’s start with the budget.
The Republicans are pushing for fiscal responsibility and reduction of the national debt.  However, the two presidents who oversaw the largest expansion of government and the greatest national debt were both Republican – Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.  The last president to balance a budget was a Democrat, Bill Clinton.  Before that, Republican Dwight Eisenhower balanced the budget.

Vice President Joe Biden, when a senator, voted against increasing the national debt ceiling.  Today, he favors it.  President Barack Obama has also been on both sides of the issue.

How about Civil Rights?

The Republicans started in 1856 in opposition to slavery.  That was the sole reason for the party.  They lost the presidential election that year, but came back in 1860 to win with Abraham Lincoln.  The election of the Great Emancipator, considered one of this country’s greatest presidents, precipitated the Civil War.  South Carolina seceded, convinced that, with an anti-slavery advocate in office, it could not retain its distinct culture.

In time, however, the conservative South eventually turned solidly Republican for years, opposing the so-called liberals of the Democratic Party who were seen as pro-Civil Rights.  Today, in complete opposition to its origins, the Republican Party contains relatively few Black members. 

Democrats hardly have anything to crow about.  Founded in the 1790s, the party was led by Thomas Jefferson, who was to become another highly ranked president and was committed to civil liberties.  Yet, Democrats were the primary proponents of racist policies in the 1950s, led by Sen. Harry Byrd of Virginia.  Civil Rights laws proposed by Democratic President John F. Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, changed the ground rules, this time against Republican opposition.

Religion?
The political candidate who started today’s emphasis on religious faith was Jimmy Carter, who, in 1976, promoted his Southern Baptist roots.  He is a Democrat.  In contrast, Democrat Jefferson and Republican Lincoln were at best deists.  Neither was very religious.  Lincoln did not belong to a church and rarely went to religious service.  His religious feelings were private and intense.

Today, however, his party has become the bastion of religious conservatives while Democrats are seen as more irreligious. 

In addition, Republicans started as outsiders, the upstarts who were pushing for the abolishment of slavery.  Naturally, once getting into power, they began to attract wealthy supporters.  The same thing happened to the Catholic orders, which preached poverty and accumulated vast fortunes.

In time, with only one Democratic President (Grover Cleveland) between 1860 and 1912, the Republicans evolved into the party of establish wealth.  However, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt pushed through the anti-monopoly laws as well as laws improving conditions for workers and food safety, ideas originally proposed by Socialists. 

World Policy?
Republicans often have spoken out in opposition to international treaties.  Republican isolationists, for example, headed opponents to the League of Nations. However, Republican Teddy Roosevelt started America on the road to being the international leader in 1907 by sending our navy around the world to broadcast our “power and prestige.”  Naturally, by showing off such force, Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Democrats led opposition to the Civil War.  They were labeled Copperheads by their opponents and were thought of as pacifists.  However, presidents during World I and II were Democrats, Woodrow Wilson and then Franklin Roosevelt.  Democrats were also presidents during most of the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.  A Republican served as commander in chief for the war with Iraq and the start of  current conflicts in the Middle East.

The list goes on.  Early Democrats supported strict reading of the Constitution – today a Republican theme song – and states’ rights.  The latter issue was a key element in the Civil War.  Today, the Democrats favor a strong national government at the expense of states.

Scandals have undermined the credibility of both parties.  The worst American presidents ranked by histories come from both parties:  Democrat James Buchanan, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and Republicans Ulysses S. Grant, Warren Harding and George W. Bush. 

Fortunately, leaders in both parties can rely on historical ignorance that runs rampant in this country.  People simply don’t recall that their chosen party has shifted and changed its message more than any halfback running through a broken field.

It's not a new situation either.  In the 1950s musical L'il Abner, lyricist Johnny Mercer penned these words for a song, The Country's in the Very Best of Hands:

“Them GOP's and Democrats,
Each hates the other one.
They's always criticizing
How the country should be run,
But neither tells the public
What the others gone and done.
As long as no one knows
Where no one stands,
The country's in the very best of hands.”

It’s not going to change, not as long as people don’t remember what our politicians said the day before that contradicts what they are saying today.


William P. Lazarus is a writer and an historian who expresses his opinions in blogs.  His books can be found on Amazon.com, Kindle and his website, williamplazarus.com. His blog is williamplazarus@blogspot.com.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Fishy Attack on Religion


By William P. Lazarus
A recent news story about a fish cracking open clam shells with a rock has animated vigorous debate.  A diver taking pictures caught “a foot-long blackspot tuskfish smashing a clam on a rock until it cracks open, so it can eat the bivalve inside,” according to the report.

Seems pretty innocuous, right?  After all, animals have long been known to use tools.  Chimpanzees, for example, use twigs to gather insects.  Birds have been seen dropping shellfish onto rocks to break them open.  I used to live in New Haven where the levees extending into the Sound were littered with mussel shells dropped by sea gulls.

Ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus was killed when a bird mistook his bald head for a rock and dropped a turtle on it.  

The tuskfish, however, is different.  Some scientists argue that the tuskfish was using a tool, a sign of intelligence.  Others counter that the fish isn’t smart.  After all, it does not move the rock.
Naturally, the discussion really has nothing to do with fish or rocks.  It’s really about religion.
Those who object to the idea that this fish somehow is using a tool are actually fighting for their religious beliefs.  Primates use tools; birds and fish really don’t.  One scientist called them “proto-tools” because fish and birds don’t have hands.  

That’s pretty desperate, since fish and birds will never have hands.  But, that’s not the point.  If fish use tools, they must be intelligent.  If they are intelligent, then humans – the top primate – are not special or unique.  After all, what makes us so different if not our ability to use tools, thereby bending the world to our needs?  Other creatures communicate, are aware of self and demonstrate a conscience through altruism.  Some walk upright; some use hands as we do.  Tools have always been thought as our true calling card, our supposedly God-given distinction.

However, if fish use tools, then we must not be anything more than an intelligent animal.
The answer to the biblical question to God -- “what is man that thou art mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:4) – becomes obvious:  God isn’t mindful of man at all.  We are no different than any other creature.
That’s something a lot of people do not want to contemplate.  

However, science doesn’t care about religion, belief or the status of humans.  Science gathers knowledge.  It analyzes and assesses.  It poses questions, pokes holes in past paradigms and creates new ones.

Religion today opposes science since it often contradicts belief.  However, religion was science’s chief advocate.  The idea was that science would open a window into God’s design for the world.   Muslims led the way.  They created the first observatories and the House of Wisdom – in Baghdad and then in Cairo .  Mosques were built with observatories to study the sky.  So were later churches.  Christians soon followed suit, sure that God’s plan could be pieced together by science.  That’s why, in the 1200s, a monk named Roger Bacon first developed the scientific method for experiments and church steeples often doubled as observatories.

However, the findings began to undermine religious teachings.  So, the dominant Roman Catholic Church forced later scholars like Galileo to recant their discoveries.  Copernicus preferred to die first rather than announce his momentous discovery that the Earth was not the center of the universe.   German professor Herman Reimarus did the same thing so his investigation into the non-historical aspects of New Testament did not lead to vicious personal attacks.

Unfortunately for religion, all efforts to halt scientific research have failed.  Even the Roman Catholic Church has given up the fight.  First, Pope John Paul II – on the road to sainthood – gave his immense support to the Theory of Evolution, meaning that God didn’t create man.  Pope Benedict the XVI recently endorsed the Big Bang Theory, eliminating God from the origins of the universe.  

Now, it seems, a fish – ironically, a Christian symbol – is undermining any idea that man is different or special.  

In fact, our only distinction appears to be an adamant unwillingness to accept the truth of our commonplace status.  To do so, naturally, would erase any religious teachings.

The innocuous tuskfish is only the latest step to that reality.

William P. Lazarus is a writer and an historian who expresses his opinions in blogs.  His books can be found on Amazon.com, Kindle and his website, williamplazarus.com.


Monday, July 11, 2011

Ageless in the Modern World


By William P. Lazarus

My father turned 92 in June 2011.  My mother will reach that milestone in May 2012.  Both are still in excellent health, and exercise regularly and religiously.  With modern medicine, good genes – my father’s parents both lived into their 90s – and multiple activities, they can look forward to joining the fastest growing element of the American population – people who are more than 100 years old.  

Still, it’s unlikely they’ll match Methuselah who, the Bible reports, lived 969 years.  That lifespan, the longest recorded in the Good Book, did earn a skeptical question in Porgy and Bess, the famed Gershwin musical of the 1930s: “Who calls that livin’ when no gal will give in to no man who’s 900 years?”  Someone didn’t mind when Methuselah was 187.  That’s when his first child was supposedly born.

Noah holds the record in that department.   According to the Bible, he was 500 years old when his first son was born.  Noah would go on to live another 450 years.

Long lives were not unusual for the pre-flood generations.  The average lifespan before the flood was 912 years.   After the deluge, however, people lacked the same kind of stamina.  Their life spans averaged only 222 years, led by Shem, Noah’s son, who enjoyed his 600th birthday before kicking the bucket. 

Lengthy lives are not limited to Biblical patriarchs.  The ages of ancient Sumerian kings, for example, stretched thousands of centuries.  On monarch,  Alulim of Eridu, endured for 28,800 years.  He was an infant compared to En-Men-Lu-Ana of Bad-Tibira whose life extended for 43,200 years. 

Imagine the size of that last birthday cake to hold all the candles.

The lengthy claims naturally raised questions.  After all, even the Bible (Gen:6:3) notes that the human lifespan is 120 years.

These exercises in hyperbole probably served several functions:
·         They emphasized the importance of often-mythical people.
·         They pushed back the origin of a country and its religion, giving both added significance. 

Other explanations abound:
·       
One scholar noted that the Sumerians used base 60.  Later Jewish writers borrowed the lengthy years – they also borrowed other stories from Sumeria, such as the Garden of Eden – and simply didn’t know the dates needed to be converted to base 10.

·         Or the long years served to bridge the years between the ancient world and the time when the Bible was written.  Or the authors simply didn’t know how long anyone lived.  Or the world was different before the flood, so people could live longer.

By the time of King  David around 1000 B.C.E., life spans had dropped to what would be considered typical: three score and 10.  Even that total surpassed the average lifespan of humans well into the 1900s.  In Classical Greece, the lifespan has been estimated at 20 to 30 years.   That was true for Rome, too.  Even in the early 20th century, life spans averaged 30 to 40 years.

That doesn’t mean everyone died young.  Early American leaders like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, for example, all lived into their 80s.  However, so many children died young that the numbers were skewed.  Modern medicine has caused a huge jump.  Today, the average life span for an American male is 74 years; women can expect to live until 80.

That is definitely not the limit.  Joice Heth, who was exhibited by showman P.T. Barnum in 1835, was said to be 161 years old.  Actually, she was probably 80.  The oldest document age is 122, recorded by a French woman, Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997.  

That really gives my parents something to shoot for.  I hope I’m around to celebrate with them when they get there.

Before the Flood


Biblical Patriarch
Life Span
Age at Birth of First Son
Adam
930
130
Seth
912
105
Enosh
905
90
Canaan
910
70
Mahalealel
895
65
Jared
962
162
Enoch
365
65
Methuselah
969
187
Lamech
777
182
Noah
950
500

After the Flood


Biblical Patriarch
Life Span
Age at Birth of First Son
Shem
600
100
Arphaxad
498
35
Salah
433
30
Eber
464
34
Peleg
239
30
Reu
239
32
Serug
230
30
Nahor
148
29
Terah
205
70

Bill Lazarus is a religious historian who writes about current topics.  His books are available via Amazon.com, Kindle and bookstores like Barnes & Noble, or his through his website at www.williamplazarus.com.