Thursday, January 31, 2013

Identifying the Antichrist



Members of Westboro Baptist Church, those nice, open-minded folks who picket the burials of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, have decided the President Barack Obama is the “antichrist.”
Westboro Baptist pickets

At the recent inauguration, a few protestors carried signs that read "Antichrist Obama", "Fags Are Worthy Of Death" and "God H8s Fags," and stood on American and rainbow flags, according to a Washington Post report.

Parishioners in that godly establishment, who also picketed the burial ceremonies of the children murdered in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, have been outraged by Obama’s support of the gay community and, of course, his mention of gay rights in his inaugural address.

As a result, they evoked a hoary image of the antichrist from the more-vicious side of Christianity’s past. 

Image of the antichrist
The antichrist idea arose from Bible.  The word “antichrist” only appears in John I and II in the biblical epistles, but the concept is educed from other texts to refer to an evil creature who will battle with God.  The good side wins, initiating a new era of people and love.  Muslims also have an antichrist who will tussle with Jesus at the end of the world.

Basically, this is no different that Superman vs. Lex Luthor or Spiderman vs. the Green Goblin.  Great heroes need equally great opposition.  Otherwise, victory comes too easily.  Professional wrestling follows the same credo:  to build up the babyfaces, the heels have to been equally powerful or worse.  Both religion and professional wrestling share that trait and create myths at the same rate.

That’s never truer than with the antichrist.  That mythological creature has moved far beyond the devil. 
Since Jesus was seen as god incarnate with human characteristics, the antichrist quickly morphed into a human with downright vicious qualities.  It was just a question of identifying him.

Christians have had a field day with that opportunity.  Most everyone of any prominence has been labeled the antichrist in the past 20 centuries, including American presidents, popes, other world leaders and more.  Amazingly, I was also called the antichrist during a call-in radio show about religious history .  In that case, the label is factually correct – to a point – since I reject the idea of a messiah.  On the other hand, I don’t have any power or ability to confront a deity.

Mussolini
To “identify” that person, Christians have resorted to mathematical gymnastics.  For example, Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator of Italy from the 1920s through the 1940s, earned that label because his title, “Duce,” can be written in Greek and assigned numbers for each letter.  The result is 666, the mark of the devil, according to the biblical Book of Revelation.

Numerology also turned the pope’s title “Vicar of Christ” into 666, too.  That’s true for President Franklin Roosevelt’s name as well as Bill Clinton’s.  Bizarre religious guru Aleister Crowley took the number “666” as a nickname and was also called “the Beast.”    When John F. Kennedy won the 1960 Democratic Party presidential nomination in 1960, he received 666 votes.  The coincidence was enough for some people to label him the antichrist.

Others noted the Ronald Wilson Reagan has six letters in each of his name.  When his term ended, he and Nancy moved to 666 St. Cloud Road.  What more proof did anyone need of his antichrist status?

Stalin
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, earned the distinction simply because he’s so wealthy.  Mikhail Gorbachev, head of the atheistic Soviet Union, was called the antichrist before he dismantled the country.  The problem was that he wanted peace, and to antichrist fanatics, the peace symbol is really an “inverted, broken Christian cross” meant to signal the end of the religion. Gorbachev’s birthmark on his forehead completed the picture.

Of course, there were the old standbys German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, Communist head Joseph Stalin and Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.  Obama?  He joined the list because the day after his election, the daily pick-three lottery number in his home state of Illinois was 6-6-6.

See? The proof is so obvious.

Not that the godly members of the Westboro Baptist Church need such evidence.  Obama’s fair-minded effort to have all Americans treated equally is enough to outrage them.  In their fantasy world, everyone else is the antichrist.

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, January 28, 2013

Search for Bible Facts Excludes Faith



Pitcher found at Shiloh
The recent discovery of a burnt, broken clay pitcher (left) has helped clarify an account in the Bible.  The shard, found at the Tel Shiloh dig site in northern Israel, which was formerly called Samaria, proved that the ancient sacred city was burned down.

The city, once the capital and religious center of ancient Judah, was captured by the Philistines, according to the account in the biblical Book of Samuel.  However, the text never explains what happened to Shiloh. 

The pitcher has been dated to around 1050 B.C.E., matching the approximate date of the city’s demise.

To many religious people, archaeological support for a biblical account comes as welcome news.  After all, believers seem to think that historians deliberately ignore the Bible or continually try to prove everything in it is not true.  They are sure the Bible is accurate and that scholars just can’t stand that idea.
Michalski

They are wrong.

"Science is special because we are allowed to change our minds," explained Joseph Michalski, of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz., and London's Natural History Museum.  He was speaking in another context – an exploration of Mars – but the concept is the same.

Religion has no room for doubts or revisions.  Science must.

Scholars simply want to find out the truth the same as everyone else.  That’s why there are multiple archaeological digs.  This one, for example, also showed that after the city burned down, people came back and stayed until the Assyrians conquered the land in 722 B.C.E.  However, Shiloh was never again a cultural center or home to the Ark of the Covenant.  Samuel forgot to mention that tidbit in his report.  In fact, Shiloh is never mentioned again in the Bible after it was burned down.

While believers in the validity of the Bible may rejoice at this finding, it’s really a two-edged sword.  Accepting the historical support in this instance requires the acceptance of historical evidence that contradicts other biblical claims.

Picking and choosing between archaeological findings makes no sense.  The same techniques are used in all situations to determine what happened.  If it belies faith, that’s the way it is.

Albright
And that’s the way it’s been since archaeologists first began to look for historical evidence of biblical stories.  William Albright, an American archaeologist, led the effort, starting in the 1920s.  

He called the effort biblical archaeology, because he recognized that donors were more likely to fund a vain search for Noah’s Ark than a valid effort to uncover evidence of the ancient Sumerian civilization. 

Unfortunately for Albright and those who have followed in his footsteps, very little has turned up that validates biblical writings.

That doesn’t mean the evidence doesn’t exist.  An archaeological maxim states that absence of evidence does not mean absence of evidence.  If someone can’t find proof, that could mean the proof is still hidden.
However, the more than 150-years of digging in what was once ancient Israel has turned up a lot of evidence that clearly contradicts the religious texts.

Wall-less ruins of Jericho
For example:

1.      Joshua couldn’t have brought down the walls at Jericho.  There never were any massive walls there.

2.      Ai, a city Joshua supposedly destroyed, was in ruins had been for hundreds of years before the Israeli leader and his army could have gotten there.

3.      No evidence of an Exodus from Egypt has ever been found, including evidence that anyone lived in the Sinai or anyone invaded Canaan.

4.      No evidence of a Garden of Eden, Noah’s Ark or anything cited in the Bible prior to David has ever been uncovered.

The list could go on, but it doesn’t matter.  Archaeologists will continue to dig up the ancient past.  Some of it will definitely contradict the Bible.  Some of it may support a biblical story.  None of it will be conclusive, not for believers or for scientists.

That’s what makes the searching so interesting.

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

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Religion Breeds Intolerance


The "tolerant" Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI recently called on his devout followers to remain strong against "intolerant agnosticism" supposedly prevalent in many countries.   That’s a pretty baffling statement, even from a prelate known to walk around with aides trained to remove his foot from his mouth.

An agnostic is simply someone who isn’t sure there is a god or not.  The word was coined in the 1800s by English biologist Thomas Huxley, who was advocating for research based on evidence not on emotion.  It’s a concept, however, that dates far back into history – well before Christianity – and is included in ancient Greece and Indian literature.

That view differs greatly from atheism – another word from the 1800s – which denies the existence of God, and from deism, which insists there is a divine figure in the uncharted heavens. 

And what have these terrible agnostics done to arouse the Pope’s dismay?  They have supported the concepts of homosexual marriage and women priests.

How horrible.

And what have these dread agnostics done to support such outrageous views?  Have they killed anyone?  Have they burned those who disagree in public ceremonies? Have they condemned anyone?

Marching on behalf of women priests
Nope.  They’ve signed petitions.  They have marched around with signs.  They have lobbied lawmakers and the Church.

How awful.

The Pope is definitely appalled.  "Today's regnant agnosticism has its own dogmas and is extremely intolerant regarding anything that would question it and the criteria it employs," he thundered.

Really?  Was that an agnostic who stopped a Catholic Church in London from holding gay-friendly masses for the past six years?  No, that would be the Roman Catholic Church, which originally approved the Masses in 2007.  The approving official was Cardinal William Levada who was replaced by Archbishop Gerhard Mueller, who apparently is less tolerant.

Catholics opposed to homosexuality used to protest outside during services.  Now, they will be inside.
Bishop Fellay

Was it agnostics who called Jews “enemies of the Church” and claimed Jews were behind the modernization of the Church in the 1960s?  No, that ignorant hate was spewed by Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the Society of Saint Pius X, a Catholic organization.   Fellay had been excommunicated by John Paul II, but Benedict reinstated him in 2009.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, a Jewish human rights group founded by the late Holocaust survivor, called Fellay's comments a sign of "the deep-rooted anti-Semitism that lies at the heart of the SSPX's theology.” 

Did agnostics abuse children and try to cover it up?  No, that would have been the Church again, which asked a California judge not to force it to release the names of Church officials who protected pedophile priests.   The judge said no.

Presumably, he was an agnostic.

The reality is that people who question faith actually do a lot of thinking about their beliefs.  They aren’t trying to convert anyone.  There’s nothing to convert them to.  They also haven’t killing people, denouncing them or doing anything more than looking for wider tolerance.  They want research and study to replace abject slavery to any belief.  No one is expected to die simply by opening a book or conducting an inquiry.

Results of the Inquisition
The Church, on the other hand, can hardly make that claim.  Over the centuries, from Inquisition to auto-de-fes, the Roman Catholic Church has happily and enthusiastically killed and harassed opposition.  It has shown extraordinary intolerance of any contrary view.

Extreme Muslims are not far behind.  For example, Indonesia, home to more Muslims than any other country, is planning to increase teaching of religion at the expense of science. That’s what the devout do: smother knowledge.

One Indonesian scholar noted that “we’re going to have a lost generation… It’s going to mean fewer researchers, less technology development. It’s Indonesia entering the dark ages.’’

The Roman Catholic Church would be right at home back there, too.

So would Orthodox Jews, who have physically attacked opponents and zealously killed, in according to biblical guidance to do just that.

Agnostics?  Not likely, regardless of the pope’s claims. They are the ones still condemned as they have been for centuries and often violently attacked for daring to raise questions that believers can't answer except with intolerance.

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









Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Religion Comes Naturally



I had to be in second grade when I started studying religion and religious history.  I can pinpoint the year because we were living in a particular house for only that one year when I recall asking my father a question about Abraham that launched my career.

He didn’t answer it, but gave me the Bible to read.  More questions led to more books, and I was on my way. In many ways, it was inevitable.

Not because of my late father: he did teach Sunday School and was raised an Orthodox Jew, but never had much interest in religion once he left home.  In fact, he was surprised while attending one of my Stetson University programs to discover I knew so much about the topic.  Neither he nor my mother had any idea of the depth of my research.

Actually, my involvement was inevitable because religion permeates our lives.  You don’t have to be a religious historian to know that.  Not only do more than 90 percent of Americans believe in God – “including one in five of those who call themselves atheists. More than half of Americans polled pray at least once a day,” according to a 2008 study published in the Washington Post

A massive 2011 study found the vast majority – 74 percent -- of Americans belongs to some kind of organized faith, although the numbers are falling.

Religion isn’t just a word; it’s engrained into us.

Some of that is cultural, of course.  Parents teach their children.  Some are so imbued with the ideas of inculcated into them, they have trouble walking away from the childhood beliefs.  I recall one family that came to the Unitarian Universalist program where I was the educational director.  The mother and two young kids stayed for the service, and the mother loved the humanistic approach.  However, the mother said they wouldn’t be back: “not enough fire and brimstone,” she told me.  I agreed wholeheartedly.

On the other hand, some of our religious fervor is built in.  It’s how homo sapiens survived. 

As humans, we really have few weapons.  We are not as strong as many animals; as big as others.  We aren’t faster, lack claws and fangs, and generally can’t stand up to even an angry chicken.  We do have intelligence, stamina and endurance, which helped our ancestors outlast prey. 

Mostly, we work together.  That’s our greatest asset.  We form teams.  Even a giant mammoth could not withstand a pack of humans armed with meager weapons.  Our ability to hunt and live together in small groups, defend and protect ourselves, developed because, as individuals, we would be leopard food in no time.   As a result, early humans with an individualistic bent most likely did not endure long enough in the wild to pass along their genes.

Canuck fans rioting
In fact, society used to severely punish anyone who opposed the majority.  History is replete with the names of such martyrs of all faiths.  Sports, like everything else, gets turned into religion, highlighted by the clashes between the supporters of the Blue and Green chariot teams and the government  in the 6th century that almost destroyed the eastern Roman Empire.  The Nika riot began in 532 and eventually left more than 3,000 ardent fans dead.

No one has to go back that far to find similar – if less sanguine – events.  In 2011, Vancouver hockey fans, fueled by both alcohol and disappointment, rioted when their Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins in the National Hockey League championship finals. The brutal beating of a Giants’ fan after the baseball opener at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles in April 2011 also offers a tragic picture of what can happen as does the stabbing of a fan after the San Francisco-Atlanta NFL Western Conference championship game last Sunday.

If we had no religion built around an invisible deity, we’d create one centered on a superb athlete or some other individual.  Think of the body painting, altars in offices or homes, and the fervent devotion that characterizes any sport.

I didn’t know that when I first became interested in religion, but, by then, I was already being taken to weekly services and attending religious indoctrination classes.  If that hadn’t happened, I would have probably found something else to believe in.

It’s in our nature.  It’s what humans do.

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