Thursday, November 29, 2012

Figuring Out Death



All religions, all humanity have pondered death.  It’s the greatest mystery, the reality that all of us must confront and yet usually ignore until the inevitable becomes painfully obvious.

The question becomes particularly poignant this time of year, both because of winter when all plants in the northern climes seem to die and the landscape becomes bleak, and because of the continued belief that the world will end this December.

Recently, four scientists who have examined consciousness and near-death experiences were interviewed on a TV show about what death really means.  Naturally, they did not agree.  Science requires facts, evidence that can be reproduced in a laboratory and can withstand close scrutiny.  Such evidence is hard to come by with such an amorphous subject like death.

Koch
One of the scientists believes nothing happens after a person dies. Christof Koch,(left)  the chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute of Brain Science and the Lois and Victor Troendle Professor of Cognitive and Behavioral Biology at California Institute of Technology, said, “You lose everything. The world does not exist anymore for you. Your friends don’t exist anymore. You don’t exist. Everything is lost.”

Koch didn’t convince Bruce Greyson, professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia, who said that “if you take these near death experiences at face value, then they suggest that the mind or the consciousness seems to function without the physical body.”

In the same vein, Dr. Stuart Hameroff, a physician and researcher at the University Medical Center  in Tucson, Arizona, said his research opens “the possibility of life after death, reincarnation and persistence of consciousness after our bodies give up.”

Alexander
Then, neurosurgeon and author Eben Alexander (right) added, “I have great belief and knowledge that there is a wonderful existence for our souls outside of this earthly realm and that is our true reality, and we all find that out when we leave this earth.”

All of them can’t be right. 

This is all we know:

(1)   Some people who nearly died claim to have seen long-dead relatives or been drawn to a bright light or, on occasion, met some religious figure.  However, not everyone claims such experiences.  Some people said nothing happened; indeed, they had no awareness of the time between the dying and being reviving.

That implies that the post-death events are not consistent, which makes little sense since humans have the same basic anatomy and, hence, should share, similar post-death experiences.  That’s why some scientists dismiss near-death experiences, arguing that they result from internal brain reactions =and not from an external source.

(2)   The universe will end someday.  It will simply exhaust all available energy.  At that point, nothing will survive, on Earth or anywhere else.  In essence, none of our experiences then have any meaning beyond an immediate time period.  On that basis, heavenly life in a nonexistent universe is simply implausible.

If life on Earth has no meaning, what possible meaning could life in heaven have? 

(3)   No evidence of a soul has ever been discovered.  Photos showing something leaving the body simply turned out to capture the gap created when energy stops being generated by a once-living person.

Besides, souls must be invisible.  As such, all souls must be blind since light would pass right through such an individual, and we need to capture light to see.  Heavenly beings, therefore, must use canes.

(4)   People do claim to have lived previous lives and have shown precocious knowledge of forgotten events.  On the other hand, serious research could uncover the same facts.  Moreover, the effort to visit “previous” lives, called regression, is spotty at best with false memories abounding.  The “memories” seem real, but can be shown to be completely erroneous.

(5)   No one can imagine himself not existing.  That would imply existence continues after death.  However, many animals are aware of self, too.  Does that mean, they, too, have an existence after death?  Where does the process end?  Or, is post-life simply a continuation of life?  If so, why bother with death?

Under the circumstances, it’s possible to go back and forth on this issue without ever reaching a clear consensus.    Besides, without any real facts, it has to be all conjecture anyway.
Christian heaven

That’s where religion enters the discussion.  True believers have no doubts, depending on the pap they’ve swallowed from different faiths. For example in Christianity, the faithful go to heaven; nonbelievers are punished in Hell.  The same is true in Islam, except those rewarded are Muslims. 

Both can’t be correct.

In that case, however, they are on par with any science poking into this dark and unfathomable mystery.


Long-time religious historian 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.net.  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at http://www.udemy.com/comparative-religion-for-dummies/?promote=1



Monday, November 26, 2012

Pope's Books Stops Short of Truth




Pope Benedict XVI
Just in time for the holiday season, Roman Catholic Pope Benedict XVI has opened his mouth about the birth of Jesus and stuck his pen in it.  He’s written a book titled Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, which is already a best-seller.  A writer like me can only be envious, since it will eventually be translated into 20 languages and had an initial run of 1 million copies.

The book is being marketed as history.  Actually, it is almost complete fiction.

The pope doesn’t see it that way. He is willing to concede there were no animals in the stable where Jesus was supposedly born, that there were no angels singing and that the traditional date of the birth is a mistake.  That’s a start, but he didn’t go far enough.

Benedict insists much of the biblical account of Jesus’ birth is factual.  After all, he says, Gospel authors Matthew and Luke “didn't want to write stories but history, a real history.”

It’s just, he says, that the texts have been interpreted by faith. 

In short, the facts have been changed to match belief.  In short, they aren’t true.

Actually, they can’t be.  They contradict each other. Two books, John and Mark, have no birth stories at all. Mark, the oldest text, does not know of any.  John, the oldest of the Gospels, clearly rejects such tales because he was well aware of the other books.

The holy family en route to Egypt.
The remaining two Gospels completely disagree with each other.   In Matthews’ account, the family is living in Bethlehem and is visited by three kings from Persia.  They are magi, members of a completely different faith.  They are guided by a star to the holy family’s home.  King Herod, alerted by the arrival of the foreign dignitaries, seeks to kill Jesus, so Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus must flee to Egypt for safety.

Herod died around 4 BCE. .Jesus must have been born before then.

Luke, however, has the family head from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of a census. There is no room at the inn, so Jesus is born in a feeding trough surrounded by animals. Then, after the birth, the family goes to the Temple in Jerusalem for the traditional baby-naming ceremony.

No magi, no escape to Egypt and, obviously, no Herod.  

There was a census, but it took place in 6 CE, 10 years after Herod died.  Roman authorities required the census because they had relieved one of Herod’s sons of his leadership position and were assigning one of their own lackeys to run a third of the south Syrian protectorate. That part didn't include Nazareth, which was unknown in that day and probably did not exist. In addition, the census did not force anyone to return to an ancestral home, as Luke claims.  That would have been absurd.  The census wasn’t just to count people.  The Romans wanted to know what they could tax.  Jesus’ family had nothing to tax in Bethlehem. 

There were also no inns in those days.  Travelers stayed in private homes, right along with the animals.  The stable came from the story of Mithra, an alternative deity born in a cave.  Other stories about the birth Jesus place him in a cave with the star of Mithra shining above.

Giotto's Adoration of the Magi
The contradictions demonstrate that both stories cannot be correct.  In fact, modern Christmas tales typically combine the two accounts, having the magi visit Jesus in a stable with the guiding star overhead. Older artists, like Giotto, did the same thing, but used a comet instead of a star. (right)

The pope credits Mathew’s star to a “major planetary conjunction” that occurred in 6-7 BCE.  The conjunction did take place then, but the alignment has commonly appeared for millions of years.  Somehow, only one Jesus was born.  Moreover, the timing does not work out with Luke’s version, which has no star anyway.

The myths surrounding Jesus’ birth are only one limit to the pope’s book’s historical claims.
Benedict also insists in the story that Mary really was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus, as Matthew and Luke both claim.   

Jesus’ birth and his resurrection from the dead, the pope wrote, are the two moments in the Gospels when "God intervenes directly into the material world."  He adds that "this is a scandal for the modern spirit," since in today's world, God is "allowed to operate on thought and ideas but not on matter." But, for just this reason, he adds, Mary's virginity is a "test" and a "fundamental element" of the Christian faith.

Funny, early Christians didn’t think so.  Not even Matthew.  Computer analysis shows that his original text lists Joseph as the father.  Even Paul, the leading propagandist of the faith, knows nothing about a virgin birth, and he was writing no more than a decade or two after Jesus died or some 2,000 years before the pope.

The Vatican said that Benedict began the project while a cardinal and has devoted "every free minute of his spare time” to it.  Too bad he didn’t use some of those hours to do some real research.  Just for starters, he could have mentioned that the texts were written by anonymous authors.  The names Matthew and Luke were added around 150 CE.   And all four Gospels were written from 40 to 70 years after Jesus lived. 

Chances of accuracy faded with each passing year.

Of course, Benedict produced his book for the faithful.  That would naturally limit his scope and willingness to provide accurate information.  Still, a few actual facts would have been nice for a nonfiction best seller.

In writing this book, however, the pope has inadvertently revealed something really worth contemplating.  Like all religious leaders in any faith, he is loath to trust followers with the truth.

Long-time religious historian 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.net.  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at http://www.udemy.com/comparative-religion-for-dummies/?promote=1


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Something to be Thankful For



Since Thanksgiving falls on the day I usually post a blog, I’m posting it a day earlier.

Rimsha Masih
If there’s ever a person ready to enjoy a happy Thanksgiving, it’s Rimsha Masih, a Christian Pakistani teenager who had been charged with blasphemy.  Supposedly she burned pages of the holy Islamic book, the Quran, for cooking fuel. 

This week, Pakistan’s top court dismissed the charges. Masih was freed.  She had faced life in prison.

For burning pages of a book?

Before you say thank goodness for living in this country, try openly burning pages of the Bible and see what happens.  You’ll be met with outrage.  Same for the Torah, the Jewish sacred text.  You won’t end up in jail, unless the police charge you with causing a riot.

In Pakistan, a neighbor accused Masih of feeding the pages to the flames.  That started a huge melee.  Masih may have been beaten – accounts disagree – but was definitely arrested.

The situation is nothing new in Pakistan, an almost 100 percent Muslim country.  Supposedly, the anti-blasphemy laws were set in place some 26 years ago to reduce tensions between religions.  Naturally, they have been used to suppress minorities and to punish those who don’t toe the Islamic line.

Islamic supports of blasphemy laws.
As a result, since the laws were enacted in 1986, there have been an estimated 1,400 blasphemy cases.  As a result, Pakistan now has 15 people on death row because of the charges while 52 more have been killed by mobs before having a trial, according to published reports.

We all look at the situation a frightened teenager and her family facing an uncertain future in their homeland and scoff at the backward behavior there.  Except it would happen here if the Religious Right could figure a way to do it.

They’ve already demonstrated their willingness to impose their power.  For centuries in the Christian-dominated Europe, thousands of people were killed for daring to stand up to Church authorities.  Blasphemy, heresy and anything that smacked of either resulted in severe punishment.  Even ardent Christians who ran afoul of authorities were deprived of liberty and/or burned to death.

The death penalty may not be in play anymore, but archconservative religious figures certainly wouldn’t mind severe punishment for anyone who challenges their faith.  They are willing to subvert education to ensure only their ideas are taught and are happily learning how to use social media to condemn anyone who disagrees.  They organize rallies and protests against the inclusion of anything related to another religion – such as burning down a mosque – while simultaneously insisting their religion deserves precedent.

Todd Starnes
Fox News’ talk host Todd Starnes, for example, wants the federal government to investigate television shows that he thinks denigrate religion.  He called on President Barack Obama to denounce Hollywood.

Of course, he’s opposed to the United Nations, whose Human Rights Committee issued a 52-paragraph statement in 2011 that essentially said that “all laws restricting blasphemy as such are incompatible with universal human rights standards.”

That sentiment doesn’t work on fanatics.

Robert Spencer
Other religions do not deserve any rights in their view.  For example, Robert Spencer, an activist Catholic author, has openly attacked Islam: “Islam itself is an incomplete, misleading, and often downright false revelation which, in many ways, directly contradicts what God has revealed through the prophets of the Old Testament and through his Son Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh… For several reasons… Islam constitutes a threat to the world at large. 

Even better, Spencer, who is able to practice his faith because of the mandated freedom of religion in the Constitution said, “It is entirely reasonable for free people to oppose the construction of new mosques in non-Muslim countries.”

Spencer is one of many conservative leaders advocating such a Draconian approach to an alternative faith. 

Alan Dershowitz
Fighting back, famed civil rights lawyer Alan Dershowitz, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, detailed how the religious right is trying to impose its faith on Americans in his book Blasphemy: How the Religious Right is Hijacking Our Declaration of Independence.  In it, he explains that “the religious right is misusing the Declaration of Independence in their drive to Christianize America: from school prayer to federal funding of faith-based programs, the religious right's drive to Christianize America and abolish the separation of church and state.”

His comments are directed at Christians, because, in this country, the chief proponents of anti-religious hate are Christians.  However, they are not unique.  All religious groups, when given power over others, attempt to impose their faith and to ensure it cannot be challenged.   That’s how Pakistan came into existence in the first place.  Muslims in India could not coexist with the dominant Hindus after India freed itself from England.  As a result, the Muslims marched north into newly created Pakistan after World War II.  There, they could impose their religious control.

They ignored the lesson taught by the founders of this country, who rejected a national religion, knowing full well the turmoil that would follow when one religion was accorded dominance.

Today, on a holiday dedicated to giving thanks for our many blessings, that’s one special boon we can all be really thankful for. 


Long-time religious historian 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.net.  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at http://www.udemy.com/comparative-religion-for-dummies/?promote=1