Friday, March 10, 2017

Bedeviling God

Michelangelo's God
A dear friend was able to find an affordable apartment after much aggravation from dreadful neighbors in her old residence as well as financial problems.  She promptly thanked God for helping her.

According to her bedrock Christian belief, God made sure she had a safe place to live.

Oddly, she didn’t blame God for her husband suddenly dying just a couple of months earlier, a sad event that led to many of her problems.  She didn’t blame God for taking away her rented home after many years – the owners decided to sell it -- placing her initially  in an apartment with hateful neighbors and a blasé management who threatened my friend with eviction  She didn’t blame God for not supplying her with enough funds to do little things, such as repairing her truck.

Nope.  She only thanked God for the positive aspects in her life.
Definitely, God is in the catbird seat.  He can’t do a thing wrong and gets all the praise when things go right.

In fact, that’s why Christianity invented the devil.  Who has to be responsible for all the negative things that happen?  In that scenario, God provides strength to overcome the evil caused by Satan.  How convenient.

There really was no choice for early Christians who had grown up believing in Judaism, which doesn’t have a devil.  They believe only in God.  When things go wrong, they blame themselves.  Amidst troubles, they must have disobeyed some arcane heavenly law, and so God punished them.  Even such a catastrophic event as the eviction of millions of Jews from Spain in the 1400s was labeled the “birth pangs of the messiah.”  Bad things had to happen to prepare the way for a Jewish king who would reconquer Israel and create an independent Jewish state there.

Of course, that didn’t happen for another 500 years – without a messianic figure -- but no Lucifer had to be invoked to cope with the disaster.

Holocaust: God was angry?
The same is true with the Holocaust, an even more-horrid assault on Jews.  No devil was cited as the cause.  Orthodox Jews actually blamed their less-religious counterparts for incurring God’s “just” anger, turning Nazis incredibly into heavenly avengers.

On the other hand, Christians didn’t adopt that “blame self” approach.  Nope, they went even further into absurdity by imagining a dark avenger who constantly attacks humans.  Why?  He just wants to do bad things, sort of the Iago of the netherworld.  They drew on images of pagan gods for inspiration and declared everything outside their narrow tenets as evil and heretical.

So, today, in the Christian mindset, there are two gods: one, a supreme deity who spends His eternal days confronting the other one, called Beelzebub or many other names, who is constantly causing problems.  How else could Christians explain the existence of evil in a world supposedly overseen by a perfectly good deity? No other monotheistic religion has that problem.  In Islam, for example, “genies” try to lead true believers away from the correct path, sort of a test of faith, but the ultimate decision for good and/or bad choices rests on the individual.

That’s not the Christian approach.  That religion’s far-fetched reasoning brought into existence such things as witches.  After all, someone must be abetting Satan.  Why not the old woman who lived down the street and worked with herbs?  She isn’t friendly; she must be in cahoots with the devil.  So must be anyone who dares to raise intellectual objections to the faith’s absurdist philosophy.

Witch?
Politicians today still blame the devil for some of the problems that beset our country.  No prayer in school?  That’s allowing Lucifer free rein.  Fewer people going to church?  Again, the devil’s evil work.  Less religion in daily life?  Yep, that’s Satan again.

It’s an easy answer, of course.  It absolves the individual of any blame.  While Jews hunker down to study holy books and look for answers, Christians battle an imaginary, sinister creature they invented.

And everyone praises God, who doesn’t have to do anything but take credit when something positive happens.  Actually, Christianity must insist on the existence of the devil.  Without Satan to kick around, churches would lose support from frightened and gratefully deluded members, like my friend.



Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history with an occasional foray into American culture.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University and an M.A. in communication from Kent State University.  You can reach him at wplazarus@aol.com. 

 He is the author of the famed novel The Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus as well as 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 Comparative Religion for Dummies.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

New Jesus Research Just Recycled News



Freke
 Jesus just can’t escape old news.

In a recent CNN article, a mythicist named Timothy Freke claimed that Jesus didn’t exist.  He based his argument on an ancient amulet showing the crucifixion of the god Dionysus and calling him the “savior” of mankind.  In fact, Freke claims that 1st century Jews invented a Jewish savior to counter Dionysus.

Naturally, he put his thoughts into a book.

Freke has lots of company.  For example, Robert Price, a former Baptist pastor, wrote his own book in which he agrees with Freke that Jesus never lived.  

State of Dionysus
The problem isn’t that these two scholars, and many more, are trying to sell books by pimping controversial arguments.  Nor does it matter that they are trying to prove Jesus didn’t exist.

The problem is that all of this is old news.

Dionysus, for example, is just one of 17 recognized savior gods in the ancient Middle East, many of whose life and death paralleled claims about Jesus yet preceded him for centuries.  But that information has been detailed since the mid-1800s.  So are claims that Jesus was a magician or a king for a day and then sacrificed or is just imaginary.

None of that matters.  The current debate over the existence of Jesus says more about the state of scholarship than Jesus.  After all, Christianity is the world’s largest religion and isn’t going to vanish anytime soon, whether or not the Christian deity really lived or didn’t.

The truth is that most people don’t seem to care.  They also don’t know that the questions swirling around the existence of Jesus are old hat.

Academic conference
There are several reasons why such time-worn claims are being recycled.  In the first place, much of the past debate in the field of religious history took place in the shadows of academia.  The arguments pro and con were swapped in conferences and scholarly journals.  The public had no idea.  If some of it leaked out, organized religion had enough authority to overawe scholars and bury evidence.

That’s what happened until the 1980s when use of the internet began to spread.  I remember trying to become part of an early chatroom devoted to religious history.  There was only one at the time, and it was dominated by believers.  I stopped participating since others had no interest in any factual information.  Today, multiple such sites exist with reams of good, solid research appearing on line.

No one today can simply spout a religious claim and expect it to be automatically accepted.

Typical test
The spread of knowledge, however, has not increased the ability to sift and analyze the data. Not all religious claims are inherently wrong; not all arguments against religious beliefs are automatically correct either.  Anyone facing the welter of data must be able to discern both the motives of the researcher as well as the quality of the information.

That ability seems to have vanished under the weight of incessant tests. By taking multiple choice exams, students today are being taught there is always a correct answer  That’s simply not reality,  especially in a field like religious history where nuances fill every cranny.We only know so much what happened in ancient times and are uncovering new tidbits all the time.  However, students simply learn a “fact” to answer a question and then move on.

At the same time, we have stopped looking at history and only see the immediate.  That’s a direct result of our technology and the overwhelming amount of bytes that fill our computers, TVs and phones.  No one can keep up or, for the matter, remember what happened in the past.

As such, then, a mythicist – another in a long series of invented fields -- can recycle ideas from a century or so ago and make it seem new.  It’s new to him.  Everything is.  It’s new to those who read his book.  They don’t know any better.

And the same "startling" claims will be repeated a few years from now again, and a few years after that, ad nausea.

We won’t learn anything new.  We will just recycle the same information over and over again.

There’s no reason to bother with new research anymore.  The old, forgotten stuff will do just fine, even when the topic is someone as significant as Jesus.


Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history with an occasional foray into American culture.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University and an M.A. in communication from Kent State University.  You can reach him at wplazarus@aol.com. 

 He is the author of the famed novel The Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus as well as 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 Comparative Religion for Dummies.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.




Thursday, March 2, 2017

Survey Illustrates Unity of Mankind



Sample Pew survey results
A recently published survey conducted by Pew Research Center survey found that Americans have increasingly warmer feelings about different religions.  Even Muslims, targeted by the current Administration and the favorite whipping boys of reactionaries, gained from 40 percent support in 2014 to 48 percent in a poll taken in February 2017.

Atheists, who are still targeted by laws preventing them in some states from being elected to any office, rose in popularity from 41 to 50 percent in the same study.

In fact, the survey found that every religion got a warmer rating than three years ago.

While the growing acceptance is heartening, what was not reported is even more significant.  To begin with, Americans are more tolerant of various faiths because they are losing theirs. 
Pew survey results

The decline in religious beliefs has become very pronounced. While this country remains a predominantly Christian nation, the percentage of people who define themselves as Christian has dropped to a historically low 70.2 percent.  The trend is for further plunges as detailed historical information that undermines Christian claims become increasingly well known. Once restricted to religious historians, the research is now commonplace.

At the same time, scientific investigations have toppled fundamental religious claims about creation and origins of humans. 

The findings are forcing fundamentalists to reject all science while forcefully pushing for religion classes in public schools and more funding for religion in public life.  They may be adamant, but remain on the wrong side of history.  At the rate support for traditional beliefs is falling, the United States will soon join Scandinavia, the Far East and much of Europe in the “don’t care” religious category.

Jewish Americans
The second half of the equation – warmer feelings toward minority faiths – arises through several sources.  Prior to the 1960s, many Americans might have gone through life without meeting a Jew, much less a Muslim. After all, both groups still comprise less than 2 percent of the American population. However, the first steps toward fundamental change involved African-Americans, not newcomers.

The end of military segregation in World War II heralded huge societal shifts, including the uprooting of “separate but equal” practices, the opening of higher education to Black students and the integration of American life.

First Black president
As the age of red-lining that restrict movement and other racist efforts have slowly faded, neighborhoods have become increasingly mixed.  That led not only to a Black president, but to the widespread acceptance of Blacks in media and daily life.

That, in turn, seems to have influenced feelings toward non-Christians.  Fueled by multiple information sources, such as the internet, Americans have learned about the plethora of faiths that riddle societies worldwide.  With Islam the world’s fastest growing religion, the odds of meeting a Muslim have increased.  Once again, Americans are finding stereotypes don’t match up to reality.

They are finally shedding traditional biases and learning that people are all the same, regardless of their particular faith, skin color or ethnic origin.  Even President Donald Trump has climbed aboard that bandwagon.  In his recent speech to a joint session of Congress, Trump said all Americans are "made by the same God."  That idea doesn’t hold much water with fundamentalists, but has become part of the increasing acceptance in this country of the unity of humanity.

Not everyone is as accepting.  Hates crimes have increased; multiple Jewish community centers have been threatened and cemeteries desecrated. Muslims, too, have faced attacks and abuse. Nevertheless, the trend is toward a more unified and wholesome society. The most-recent Pew survey reflects that reality.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history with an occasional foray into American culture.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University and an M.A. in communication from Kent State University.  You can reach him at wplazarus@aol.com. 

He is the author of the famed novel The Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus as well as 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 Comparative Religion for Dummies, among other books.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.