Monday, May 18, 2015

End of Christianity?



Recently, on Facebook, several folks who I met by writing this blog on religious history began to advocate for the end of Christianity.  They insist the world would be a better place.

They are wrong.

In the first place, the disappearance of one religion only ensures the birth of a new one or the takeover of an existing one.  All societies in history developed religious beliefs.  Recent studies have suggested that religious ideas are literally built into our brains. 

Besides, the Facebook folks have chosen the wrong target.  They are attacking a religion.  That’s not the problem.  Christianity, like all religions, has decayed in the face of history and science.  Pious stories don’t add up.  Mythology has overtaken reality.  However, the falloff isn’t that extreme:  About 72 percent of Americans still think of themselves as Christians, although only 25 percent are active in churches and their faith.
Such figures are really only of interest to statisticians and sociologists.

My friends aren't looking at the data either, but at what devout Christians are trying to do.  They could care less about the religion; they just don’t want Christian teachings and stories stuffed into them.  They see community leaders pushing Christian concepts as if such ideas are not beliefs but proven truths.  They listen to elected officials cite the Bible as if it’s established fact.

That's why they want to see Christianity disappear.  They are missing a key point: What makes them think the same things wouldn’t recur if Christianity ceased to exist?

Modern Zealot
Historically, every religion that gained a dominant position has tried to impose its teachings on the population.  On behalf of their chosen deity, they will murder opposition.  In the Bible, for example, Phineas is credited for being zealous for the Lord after killing a Jewish man and his non-Jewish female companion when Judaism banned intermarriage.

The canonical book of Ruth, in which heroic King David is identified as the product of intermarriage, was written to counter religious support of Phineas’ kind of lethal behavior.

ISIS with murdered victims
In the Middle Ages, murderous European Christians happily killed pagans, Jews, Muslims and everyone else, including other Christians, who didn’t follow the dominant Roman Catholic faith.

In the Middle East, we’re watching the same effort to place people under religious control, this time by rampaging zealots under the umbrella term ISIS who are brutally massacring nonbelievers in their form of Islam.  The same thing is happening in Africa with Boko Haram.

Such groups are advocating a modern form of Nazism: the horrific belief that everyone else is dispensable simply because they don’t belong to the “elite” group.  Such an approach divides everyone into “us” and “they.”  Any nonbelievers face extermination.

As a result, ending Christianity then would accomplish nothing.  It would simply give an opening for extremists of any faith to march through.

Mother Tersa
Moreover, Christianity isn’t “wrong.”  No belief is.  It’s only wrong to nonbelievers.  And, the faith has engendered incredible acts of love and charity, such as Mother Teresa’ heroic efforts among the poor in India.  Religion makes such loving efforts possible.  All religions honor those who willingly sacrifice themselves on the behest of the downtrodden and needy.

Finally, religion has long served as societal glue, a philosophy that underpins human efforts to live together.  The late religious historian Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan pointed out that Western civilization would be nothing without Christianity.  That view is correct, and it’s also true of any culture.  Belief in gods empowered the Egyptian, Greek, Roman and other societies.

Religion provides meaning and context for an otherwise meaningless existence.  Nothing else in human thought carries that enormous weight.

Osiris
Christianity still could disappear.  After all, who believes in Osiris anymore? Dionysus?  Zeus?  Christianity has no anchor or claim to immortality.  It has only existed for less than 2,000 years anyway, a merely fraction of human existence.  In a few years, however, the next generation of Facebook friends probably would be calling for the elimination of whatever faith replaced it.

Any belief may die out.  Religion is not going anywhere.




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, May 13, 2015

Limitations of Heaven


Jesus in heaven
Heaven has always been one of those nebulous illusions that morphs to fit any mindset.  For a Christian, for example, it’s some kind of cloud-filled place with multiple angels playing harps.  One minister, Rev. Brown, told me that he expected to spend eternity at the foot of Jesus soaking up knowledge.

He didn’t explain what he would do with that information since classrooms and seminars were not part of his vision.

For Muslims, heaven is a kind of reward for a good life or valiant death.  There, virgins await incoming souls.  I’m not sure who the virgins are or what happens to the valiant wives left behind.  Maybe they are transformed into virgins when they ascend to heaven, assuming women can go to heaven.  I doubt Muslim beliefs would give them male virgins as playthings.
vision of Hindu heaven

Jews just sleep until united with God.  They used to have a heaven and hell, but those ideas were smothered by Christian teachings, so the Jews shucked them.

Hindus are reborn, coming back in a form commensurate with their previous actions on Earth until they finally work off all the bad karma and become one with the universe.  Buddhist work toward Nirvana, a heavenly state of bliss beyond the cares of the world, but admit only a few achieve such enlightenment.  The rest have to try again in the next life.

Zoroastrians came up with the idea of heaven.  They see it as a reward for following the “truth” of their faith and not the “lie” perpetuated by the evil Ahriman.  Their heaven is filled with radiance and great wonders.  By the way, they also invented the three-day waiting period before ascending to a judgment, where they are designated for heaven or hell.  It’s akin to what happens when kids learn their homeroom assignments in a high school. 

To me, these various heavens are interesting, but obviously have a problem.  A person who dies is stuck with whatever type of spiritual body he started with.  By that, I mean that a woman doesn’t suddenly become a man or vice versa. 

Paul tried to counter that by arguing there is no male or female in heaven.
Heavenly choir

Fine, but what about talent?

For example, I can’t sing.  I try, but those who remain within earshot often begun to grimace or assume other expressions of distaste.  I have always wanted to sing.  However, in heaven (or for that matter in hell), as described and taught by religions, I won’t suddenly have that ability.  I will still be “me,” the non-singer.  I won’t have art talent or any other kind of skill I may want, such as manual dexterity so I can actually do more advanced handiwork than change a light bulb.

In fact, all religions that offer heavens to believers have that same limitation.  The “I” continues.  That’s why Rev. Brown can see himself hanging on Jesus’ every word.  He can only picture himself as male and interested in what Jesus has to say because that’s what Rev. Brown is now.  He simply transplanted himself into the heaven he imagined.

To me, that’s more of a hell. 

Angel with harp
Maybe that’s another reason why a growing number of people are leaving traditional religions in record numbers.  They want to grow and be more, to lose the limitations of their current lives.  Traditional heavens don’t allow that.

Of course, this is just idle conjecture.  There’s no proof a heaven exists any more than there is proof of God.  Nevertheless, if there is one, I don’t want to strum a harp.  I took drum lessons before proving convincingly that I have no rhythm.  I can’t even clap in unison.  After a lifetime spent in classrooms, I also have no intention of taking any more courses with or without Jesus.

Ladder to nothing
I want to sing well.

If I can’t do that, I’m just not going.

I can also decide heaven doesn’t really exist, just like the millions of men and women who are walking away from organized religion for a more realistic future.  None of them may be able to sing, but in the reality of the nothingness that follows death, it really doesn’t matter.

 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, May 7, 2015

Why Don't Religious Groups Agree?



Bible
A reader emailed me to ask what seems like a simple question: why do pronouncements from religious groups sometimes seem to contradict teachings in holy scriptures?

The answer is a bit complex.

For starters, there is no one scripture.  Every text has an original that has disappeared.  That’s true for the Bible, Qur’an, Avista or any other sacred book you can name.  The originals are gone because they wore out.  They were often on vellum or parchment, which are simply dried animal skins.  The ink gets soaked up; the words fade.  So, new copies are made.
Hieroglyphics

All the texts are old.  No one had a copier.  So, everything was copied by hand, and the previous ones discarded until, at some point, they were deemed too sacred for that.  Of course, by then, the originals were long gone. 

When something is copied, mistakes are inevitable.  There are even mistakes in hieroglyphics painted on Egyptian monuments.  Letters are duplicated and so on.  Sometimes, even words are dropped.   No one deliberately made a change.  It happens.

Moreover, the original texts were written in archaic languages, such as old Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic and the like.  Today, we don’t know what some of the terms mean.  What is gopher wood?  That’s what Noah supposedly used to build his ark.  What are urrim and thurrim, which were used to cast lots?  No one knows.

There are lots of educated guesses, but that’s all they are. 

In addition, the texts are translated.  Few of us today can read the old languages, much less translate them.  Only scholars read the Bible in the original language.  In this country, we read English translations.  However, translations are only approximations of what was actually written.  They are limited because the full context cannot be known.  After all, in modern times, a mention of the non-religious term like “Irangate” requires knowledge of why the word “gate” was attached, the circumstances around which the event took place and a myriad of other aspects known only to the people in our time period.

Talmud
Translations, per force, miss an awful lot of the meaning imbued in any statement in holy books.

That’s why scholars interpret the texts.  Jewish sages wrote down their thoughts in what today is known as the Talmud.  It contains both written discussions and oral ideas that were later recorded.  In Islam, there are three different books containing the interpretations.  Each is an attempt to explain the written word, but all the interpretations naturally are affected by the time period when they were recorded and by the viewpoint of the scholar.

As a result, there are multiple ways to read any concept propounded in a religious text.

Creation from dust
In addition, the texts are broad enough to encompass multiple ideas. After all, the Commandment that demands  “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” sounds simple, but what does “keep it holy” mean?  The answer depends on which group a person belongs to.

In addition, there are conflicting stories.  There are two stories of Noah’s flood, for example.  In one, it rains 7 days; in the other, 40.  In one, animals board 7 by 7; in the other, 2 x 2.  In Genesis 1, man and woman are created simultaneous from a clump of dirt.  In Genesis 2, woman is created from man’s rib.  The list goes on in all sacred texts.  For example, Jesus was a “secret” messiah in a book ascribed to Mark and yet much heralded in Luke. 

As a result, anyone reading sacred literature can find support for almost any viewpoint.  After all, none of the great religious books were written as a unit, but contain multiple books or chapters composed at various times in history.  Parts of Genesis date back to around 3200 years ago; other parts were written 700 to 800 years later.  In the New Testament, John is considered the youngest text, dating from 105 to 120 C.E., while Mark is the oldest and commonly dated to around 70 to 71 C.E.

That explains internal disagreements.

In addition, texts have been edited and augmented.  How much is not clear, but the earliest Mark ever found disagrees considerably from the one currently in use.  The changes, what historian Paul Johnson called “pious editing,” were not done to deceive, but to provide information later authors thought had been overlooked or to match up with new ideas in a particular religion.

Dead Sea scroll
That’s why the Dead Sea Scrolls, which contain the oldest versions of books now found in the Old Testament, include multiple variations of the current texts, ranging from apparent copying errors to entirely new material. 

The end result is that no one knows what the correct text is.  And, even if we did, we couldn’t really understand it as originally intended.

That opens the door to multiple, even contradictory, interpretations and to various sects who disagree even though they draw their inspiration from same sentences in the same book.

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