Secularism Isn’t Atheism

Jacques Berlinerblau’s recent HuffPost religion column touches on a theme that is near and dear to the heart of this blog: the difference between atheism and its false equivalents.

In the past months (and years) I’ve occasionally commented on the highjacking of the term ‘humanism’ by atheists in search of an upmarket brand name.

As most readers will know, its combination with the term ‘secular’ to make the brew even weaker and more tasteless (e.g., by the so-called “Council for Secular Humanism,” a limb of the uniquely misnamed “Center for Inquiry”) continues to appeal to shrinking numbers of full-blooded atheists.  Increasing numbers of atheists are happy to be known as atheists; and a few of those are just as pleased to be free of the moniker “secular humanism,” which  never meant anything anyway.

But on the pretext that words and definitions matter, neither secularism nor humanism are explicitly irreligious, anti-religion, or atheistic.

Their core propositions, as Berlinerblau says, are agnostic.  Moreover, their first dim stirrings were in the fight for religious tolerance and more this-wordly philosophies of life.  Secularism has its roots in the writings of the 12th century  Andalusian Muslim thinker Ibn Rushd, centuries before the notion occurred to thinkers in the Christian west.


From The Huffington Post 7/28/12

By Jacques Berlinerblau

Secularism must be the most misunderstood and mangled ism in the American political lexicon. Commentators on the right and the left routinely equate it with Stalinism, Nazism and Socialism, among other dreaded isms.

In the United States, of late, another false equation has emerged. That would be the groundless association of secularism with atheism. The religious right has profitably promulgated this misconception at least since the 1970s.

More recently politicians such as Newt Gingrich have gleefully fostered this confusion. During his raucous, unforgettable 2012 presidential run, the former Speaker of the House fretted that his grandchildren were poised to live in “a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”

Claiming that secularism and atheism are the same thing makes for good culture warrioring. The number

of nonbelievers in this country is quite small. Many Americans, unfortunately, harbor irrational prejudicestoward them. By intentionally blurring the distinction between atheism and secularism, the religious right succeeds in drowning both.

Yet it is not only foes, but friends of secularism, who sometimes make this mistake as well. Nowadays most major atheist groups describe themselves as “secular.”  Many are in fact good secularists. But others, as we shall see, are beholden to assumptions that are strikingly at odds with the secular worldview.

Let’s start with some brief definitions. Atheism, put simply, is a term that covers a wide variety of schools of thought that ponder and/or posit the non-existence of God/s. Among scholars there is a fascinating debate about when precisely atheism arose. One compelling theory (see writers like Alan Kors and Michael Buckley) is that nonbelief as a coherent worldview developed within Christian theological speculation in early modernity.

Secularism, on the other hand, has nothing to do with metaphysics. It does not ask whether there is a divine realm. It is agnostic, if you will, on the question of God’s existence — a question that is way above its pay grade.

What secularism does concern itself with are relations between Church and State. It is a flexible doctrine that can embody a lot of policy positions. Strict separationism is one, but not the only, of those positions. At its core, secularism is deeply suspicious of any entanglement between government and religion.

Secularism needs to be disarticulated from atheism for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, these two isms are simply not synonyms. One concerns itself with primarily with politics, the other with (anti-) metaphysics. They have different concerns, intellectual moorings and histories (though, interestingly, it may be that both emanated from Christian theological inquiry).

Second, for secularism to reinvigorate itself it needs to reclaim its traditional base of religious people. As I noted in my forthcoming book, the secular vision was birthed by religious thinkers, such as Martin Luther, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (the last two, admittedly were idiosyncratic believers, but believers nonetheless).

Throughout American history it has been groups like Baptists, Jews, progressive Catholics as well as countless smaller religious minorities who have championed secular political ideas. But religious believers today, even moderate religious believers, will not sign on to secularism if they think it’s merely the advocacy arm of godlessness.

Finally, we need to distinguish secularism from atheism because some atheists, of late, have taken a regrettable anti-secular turn. True, secularism is a proponent of religious freedom and freedom from religion. It sees the “Church” as a legitimate component of the American polity. It doesn’t view religion as “poison” (to quote Christopher Hitchens) or hope for an “end of faith.” As noted earlier, secularism has no dog in that fight.

Most atheists, of course, are tolerant to a fault and simply wish for religious folks to reciprocate (and most do). Yet as long as some celebrities of nonbelief continue to espouse radical anti-theism (in the name of “secularism,” no less) the future of secularism is imperiled

The New Oxonian


(originally published in New Oxonian 2009)

I was having dinner with friends before leaving the sweltering Lahore summer to return to Maine in June.  Discussion turned to politics, as it often does in foreign parts.  Having spent most of my professional life, by choice, outside the United States, I have learned to fine –tune my discourse, even to absorb comments that betray a woeful lack of information or historical perspective on America.

The one that requires the deftest response is what I have come to call the “German question.” Every expat has heard it in one form or another:  “How is it that America continues to be strong?”  A rough translation is, “Given your Coca-Cola view of the world, your cave-dwelling masses who can’t find Europe on the map,  a national legislature whose debates we run on our comedy channels, why hasn’t your country blown itself up?”

America, as we…

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Genetics 101: “Please Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful”

Genetics 101

by admin Posted on December 9, 2011

A recent response from a reader aptly named “Hunt” about atheist criticism and tactics quotes one of the mavens of the movement (now that new atheism is not new they seem to want the name back), Greta Christina, who runs a site called Greta Christina.

I am taking Hunt at his usually impolite word when he says she says,

“People don’t dislike atheists because of  our tactics; they dislike atheists because of who we are”

I don’t have any idea of what that throwaway line means either (“I don’t like you because you’re a mean and nasty old bugger Uncle Crank. I dislike you because you’re an uncle”).  But giving Ms Christina the benefit of a doubt, since I have occasionally smiled at her postings, let me just say that “Hunt” has ripped another page out of the Atheist Surefire Response Manual (send $750 to me for your free copy along with prayer request), while totally belying everything Ms Christina is vouching for–because Hunt’s tactics are a lot like Uncle Crank.

Uncle Crank

In the history of fighting for basic human rights, from which Hunt’s “rationale” is derived, there have certainly been instances where the genetic argument works:  African-Americans were not disliked for their actions but for the colour of their skin (who they were).  Women and gays were held in contempt by an unconscientized America as women and gays.

At a certain point, however, the dis-resemblance of victimized classes overrides resemblance and the genetic argument becomes a genetic fallacy.  America’s first experience of this is when fat people wanted to be considered a civil rights cause:  After all, they suffered workplace discrimination, weren’t happy that the racks at Walmart couldn’t accommodate XXX-L in sufficient quantity (though that has hugely changed) and weren’t popular on airplanes.

But whatever the merits of seeing fatness as a socially, genetically and psychologically determined condition rather than an outcome, people still think fat people are fat. And blacks, gays, women and Buddhist monks–probably even atheists–groan when they see a fatty waddling down the aisle toward the only remaining seat, next to them. Me, I’d prefer the fatty to the Buddhist monk. Monks are rude and don’t use deodorant.

my Space

That is what happens when you try to make atheists the same sort of “victims” that blacks, gays and women have historically and really been on the basis of suspicion and dislike.  The difference of course is that the three latter classes are powerless to control or alter, except through extraordinary means, anything about who or what they are.

Changing your mind is not at all like changing your skin colour.  I had a useful discussion about this with Paul Cliteur a few years back in Amsterdam while he was finishing his superb book The Secular Outlook.  It should be required reading for every atheist.  But don’t bother reading it if you want different information than I’m giving you here.  Go on believing what you have believed because you read it on an atheist website.

“Believing” or disbelieving something is not the same sort of thing as being something, even though we use the verb ‘to be” to describe various kinds of conditions ranging from illness to sexuality.  Anyone who claims a modicum of philosophical sophistication knows what a category mistake is, so you will know that you can’t shove everything into one box and call it sand when there are sea shells and dead animals and coins and syringes in it.  Atheists have the power to change their mind–indeed once prided themselves on this ability.

Atheists have, theoretically, the ability to become believers.  Believers have the power to become atheists.  I know people who have gone in either direction and swing, like me, both ways. That’s the routine.

which is it

It’s precisely this intellectual motility combined with the methods that you use or choose to get there that define you as an atheist.  But to say that people dislike you because you don’t believe in god surely has something to do with the way you externalize that belief.  If that weren’t true, we wouldn’t be appalled at fundamentalism. If radically conservative Christian and Muslims were Quakers or non-voting Amish who would care about them?  We care about them because they are vocal and in-your-face with their absurd moral agendas.

Consequently, like it or not, the basic reason people dislike atheists is not because of some hypogeal characteristic that makes atheism an essence but the observable things that atheists say or do.  The same reason you don’t like uncle Crank.

And like it or not, that makes them (us) much more like the heretics and apostates of yore, our close cousins, than like the victimized members of twentieth century rights-struggles. If, in other words, you choose categories, be careful what you choose.

Never mind.  I dealt with this issue a couple of years ago when people were sleeping.  I don’t buy the fact that the word atheist is a scary word: that’s something atheists like to think because it feeds the victimization mentality now resurgent in the community.

Have a look:

Who Was You?

The Boston Lowells knew who they were. From their perch on Beacon Hill they enjoyed a perspective that encouraged them to believe in the Unitarian credo: the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the neighborhood of Boston. When William Filene opened a discount store in the basement of his father’s store to sell overstock and closeout merchandise through his “automatic bargain basement” (off the rack, serve yourself), Beacon Hill was a swarm of indignation. The son of a (Jewish!) peddler would throw Boston society into disarray. Cheap clothes that looked like finery? Now even Irishwomen who worked as chambermaids could look respectable. That is, if you didn’t look too closely.

Never to be persuaded without a firsthand look, Anna Parker Lowell walked into Filene’s downtown store near Washington Street, coiffed and umbrellad, sought directions “to the so-called Basement” and took the steps with the polish of someone who was used to grand staircases. Once aground she saw women flipping through racks of dresses like playing cards–choosing, refusing, playing tug-a-war, even threatening bodily harm if a latecomer tried to prise her find away from someone with a prior claim. “Disgusting,” Mrs Lowell tsked to herself. “Just look at them.”

Just when she had satisfied herself that Edward Filene’s brainstorm would mean the end of high society in Boston her eyes lit on a beautiful taffeta gown that looked just the thing for the spring ball at Harvard. She moved closer for a better look. As she reached to collect her prize, a woman of questionable pedigree snapped it from the rack and headed for the till. “Not so fast my dear,” said Mrs Lowell. “I was about to have that dress.” “You was,” said the woman without slowing. “I don’t think you understand.” I had chosen that dress. I was just about to collect it.” “You was,” said the woman, unable to evade Mrs Lowell’s pursuit because of a crowded aisle. “Look here, madam. I didn’t want to tell you who I was, but I will if you persist.” The woman stopped, turned, looked Mrs Lowell in the eye, and said “Ok dearie: Who wasyou?”

I have always wondered what people mean when they say “That’s who I am,” but usually they mean something silly and parochial: I’m a Catholic, a democrat, a creationist, a car dealer, an ex-con, a neo-con. It’s the substitution of code for argument, a conversation stopper rather than an invitation to discuss a position or idea. Clearly identity matters, but the twentieth century was distinctive in breaking down the sorts of identities that isolated people from majority communities and power structures.

There are big identities and small identities, weak and strong. Part of this has to do with the nature of language and part with the nature of things. Being a democrat or a used car salesman are weak identities: you can change those things tomorrow if you change your mind or lose your job. Being an African-American or a male, despite the fact that we know a lot more about race and sexuality now than we did fifty years ago, still have a lot to do with properties and are much more difficult to change. To say, “I’m gay,” is not just to say “I’m not straight” but to challenge the idea of straight as normative and authoritative. That’s different from saying, “I’m Catholic,” if by that you mean you’re on your way to heaven and the guy you’re talking to is going the opposite way. Beware of anyone who says “That’s who/what I am” with a smile on his face.

Identities can be a great source of fun, as when Ambrose Bierce (the Devil’s Dictionary, 1925) defines a bride as “a woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her” and “Brute” as husband, or a “minister as “An agent of a higher power with a lower responsibility.” Too bad that in Bierce’s day the Vegan craze wasn’t what it is in the twenty first century, but he did have this to say about clairvoyants: “A person, commonly a woman, who has the power of seeing that which is invisible to her patron, namely, that he is a blockhead.”

The weakest identities of all are the ones that have to do with what we believe to be the meaning of life. I can remember in college three distinct phases of change: being a socialist at seventeen, a half-hearted anarchist at twenty, and an existentialist at twenty one.

I recovered from these infatuations by not permitting myself to stop reading and never reading Camus after thirty. With confusion intact, I went to Divinity School and emerged as confused and doubtful as ever. Voltaire (or maybe his aunt) said it was only his skepticism that prevented him from being an atheist. That was me, too.

I can’t doubt that there are “meaning-of-life” identities that one holds passionately and therefore appear to qualify for the “That’s who I am” category of identification. I have known people whose non-belief is as fervent as the belief of a twice born Baptist or Mormon elder, people who say “I am an atheist” as proudly as an evangelical says “I’m born again.” It’s tempting to say, isn’t it, that the difference between these two statements is that the atheist is smart and the Born again needs his intelligence quotient checked. But we all know that identity statements are code for a whole range of ideas that need to be unpacked and call for explanation. An atheist who felt his non-belief in God entitled him to murder children because of the absence of divine commands to the contrary would be no better than a cult member who believed that disobedient sons can be stoned because it says they can in the Bible.

I feel my Atheist Reader squirming, because while you liked the Bright-Dim difference, you don’t like equivalences. When Katherine Hepburn turns out to be an atheist people say, “I just knew it. Such a strong woman.” When Pol-Pot says God is bunk, we think “Well that’s different, isn’t it—and so far away?”

Personally, I don’t like people who say “That’s who I am,” or “That’s what weare,” or “We need to be honest about who we are.” At a crude level I want to say WTF? It’s eerily metaphysical when atheists do it—not only because it’s the language God uses when he introduces himself to Moses on Sinai. You remember, right?: Moses hasn’t been properly introduced and God says, “That’s who I am,” and when pressed after Moses accuses God of being slippery says “I am what I am.”

I reckon what he really means is, “You know—God—the one who does firmament, landscaping, Leviathan, floods, human beings God.” In fairness, however, the Hebrew Bible insisted that God was not just a proposition but an actor on the human stage. I don’t believe that God did any of the things ascribed to him in the Bible, but to believe in a doer and deeds is a perfectly legitimate way to establish an identity—even if it’s a fictional identity. That’s why Jewish atheists begin by denying the deeds and then the doer. None of this silly ontological stuff: too Christian, too mental.

But I find it a lot harder to know who I am or what we are on the basis of not believing something.

“We need to be honest about who we are” coming from an atheist doesn’t translate easily into the propertied descriptions of being black, gay, female or physically challenged–things over which people have no choice and no control.

It’s tempting, I know, to think the things we believe or don’t believe have the same status as the things that constitute us as persons or collectives of persons. But you would laugh at a used car salesman saying at dinner, “Dammit, Mother, I’m tired of hiding from who I am. Tomorrow I’m going right into the boss’s office and say to him, ‘Mr Jones: I am Bill Smith and I’m an atheist.” You would not laugh at someone who said, “Mr Jones: I haven’t had a raise in two years. Is it because I’m black?”

Atheists often complain when religious groups claim special treatment on the pretext that any speech against religion is defamatory while claiming equivalent protection for their own beliefs. But atheists need to be very careful about traveling the road of victimization and minority rights or simply adopting the legal definitions supplied under non-discrimination laws. Especially when racial, sexual orientation and gender provisions do not apply to atheism and the protection accorded to religious beliefs, if embraced by atheists, creates a stew of issues–not the least of which is that there is no settled definition of atheism and if there were a true freethinker would reject it.

Difference is deceptive, especially when it comes to self-definition. Is coming out atheist like coming out gay, an act of courage? On what basis–the fact that terms like “minority,” “unpopular” and “misunderstood” can be applied to both categories? But simply to embrace a minority position toward a “divine being” based on denying a premise is not an act of bravery. It doesn’t make you who you are or what you are. It’s neither race, profession nor party platform—not even a philosophical position or scientific theory. It’s not something to be ashamed of or proud of. It’s just about an idea—even if it’s a really Big idea.

Lesson I: What Mormons Believe about History – Native Americans

Offered without annotation or change from the Encyclopaedia of Mormonism (Salt Lake, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1992), by Thomas Garrow and Bruce Chadwick. rjh


The Book of Mormon, published in 1830, addresses a major message to Native Americans. Its title page states that one reason it was written was so that Native Americans today might know “what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers.”

The Book of Mormon tells that a small band of Israelites under Lehi migrated from Jerusalem to the Western Hemisphere about 600 B.C. Upon Lehi’s death his family divided into two opposing factions, one under Lehi’s oldest son, laman (see Lamanites), and the other under a younger son, Nephi 1 (see Nephites).

Jesus preaches to the Nephites during his visit to America

During the thousand-year history narrated in the Book of Mormon, Lehi’s descendants went through several phases of splitting, warring, accommodating, merging, and splitting again. At first, just as God had prohibited the Israelites from intermarrying with the Canaanites in the ancient Promised Land (Ex. 34:16; Deut. 7:3), the Nephites were forbidden to marry the Lamanites with their dark skin (2 Ne. 5:23; Alma 3:8-9). But as large Lamanite populations accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ and were numbered among the Nephites in the first century B.C., skin color ceased to be a distinguishing characteristic. After the visitations of the resurrected Christ, there were no distinctions among any kind of “ites” for some two hundred years. But then unbelievers arose and called themselves Lamanites to distinguish themselves from the Nephites or believers (4 Ne. 1:20).

The concluding chapters of the Book of Mormon describe a calamitous war. About A.D. 231, old enmities reemerged and two hostile populations formed (4 Ne. 1:35-39), eventually resulting in the annihilation of the Nephites. The Lamanites, from whom many present-day Native Americans descend, remained to inhabit the American continent. Peoples of other extractions also migrated there.

The Book of Mormon contains many promises and prophecies about the future directed to these survivors. For example, Lehi’s grandson Enos prayed earnestly to God on behalf of his kinsmen, the Lamanites. He was promised by the Lord that Nephite records would be kept so that they could be “brought forth at some future day unto the Lamanites, that, perhaps, they might be brought unto salvation” (Enos 1:13).

The role of Native Americans in the events of the last days is noted by several Book of Mormon prophets. Nephi 1 prophesied that in the last days the Lamanites would accept the gospel and become a “pure and delightsome people” (2 Ne. 30:6). Likewise, it was revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith that the Lamanites will at some future time “blossom as the rose” (D&C 49:24).

Ancient Israelites in costume

After Jesus’ resurrection in Jerusalem, he appeared to the more righteous Lamanites and Nephites left after massive destruction and prophesied that their seed eventually “shall dwindle in unbelief because of iniquity” (3 Ne. 21:5). He also stated that if any people “will repent and hearken unto my words, and harden not their hearts, I will establish my church among them, and they shall come in unto the covenant and be numbered among this the remnant of Jacob [the descendants of the Book of Mormon peoples], unto whom I have given this land for their inheritance”; together with others of the house of Israel, they will build the New Jerusalem (3 Ne. 21:22-23). The Book of Mormon teaches that the descendants of Lehi are heirs to the blessings of Abraham (see Abrahamic Covenant) and will receive the blessings promised to the house of Israel.

THE LAMANITE MISSION (1830 – 1831). Doctrine and a commandment from the Lord motivated the Latter-day Saints to introduce the Book of Mormon to the Native Americans and teach them of their heritage and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Just a few months after the organization of the Church, four elders were called to preach to Native Americans living on the frontier west of the Missouri River (see Lamanite Mission of 1830-1831).

The missionaries visited the Cattaraugus in New York, the Wyandots in Ohio, and the Shawnees and Delawares in the unorganized territories (now Kansas). Members of these tribes were receptive to the story of the Restoration. Unfortunately, federal Indian agents worrying about Indian unrest feared that the missionaries were inciting the tribes to resist the government and ordered the missionaries to leave, alleging that they were “disturbers of the peace” (Arrington and Bitton, p. 146). LDS pro-Native American beliefs continued to be a factor in the tensions between Latter-day Saints and their neighbors in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, which eventually led to persecution and expulsion of the Latter-day Saints from Missouri in 1838-1839 and from Illinois in 1846 (see Missouri Conflict).

RELATIONS IN THE GREAT BASIN. When the Latter-day Saints arrived in the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1847, they found several Native American tribal groups there and in adjacent valleys. The Church members soon had to weigh their need to put the limited arable land into production for the establishment of Zion against their obligation to accommodate their Native American neighbors and bring them the unique message in the Book of Mormon.

Brigham Young taught that kindness and fairness were the best means to coexist with Native Americans and, like many other white Americans at the time, he hoped eventually to assimilate the Indians entirely into the mainstream culture. He admonished settlers to extend friendship, trade fairly, teach white man’s ways, and generously share what they had. Individuals and Church groups gave, where possible, from their limited supplies of food, clothing, and livestock. But the rapid expansion of LDS settlers along the Wasatch Range, their preoccupation with building Zion, and the spread of European diseases unfortunately contravened many of these conciliatory efforts.

A dominating factor leading to resentment and hostility was the extremely limited availability of life-sustaining resources in the Great Basin, which in the main was marginal desert and mountain terrain dotted with small valley oases of green. Although Native Americans had learned to survive, it was an extremely delicate balance that was destroyed by the arrival of the Latter-day Saints in 1847. The tribal chiefs who initially welcomed the Mormons soon found themselves and their people being dispossessed by what appeared to them to be a never-ending horde, and in time they responded by raiding LDS-owned stock and fields, which resources were all that remained in the oases which once supported plants and wildlife that were the staples of the Native American diet. The Latter-day Saints, like others invading the western frontier, concerned with survival in the wilderness, responded at times with force.

Native American Rabbis

An important factor in the conflict was the vast cultural gap between the two peoples. Native Americans in the Great Basin concentrated on scratching for survival in a barren land. Their uncanny survival skills could have been used by the Mormons in 1848, when drought and pestilence nearly destroyed the pioneers’ first crops and famine seriously threatened their survival.

The Utes, Shoshones, and other tribal groups in the basin had little interest in being farmers or cowherders, or living in stuffy sod or log houses. They preferred their hunter-gatherer way of life under the open sky and often resisted, sometimes even scoffed at, the acculturation proffered them. Nor did they have a concept of land ownership or the accumulation of property. They shared both the land and its bounty-a phenomenon that European Americans have never fully understood. The culture gap all but precluded any significant acculturation or accommodation.

Within a few years, LDS settlers inhabited most of the arable land in Utah. Native Americans, therefore, had few options: They could leave, they could give up their own culture and assimilate with the Mormons, they could beg, they could take what bounty they could get and pay the consequences, or they could fight. Conflict was inevitable. Conflict mixed with accommodation prevailed in Utah for many years. Violent clashes occurred between Mormons and Native Americans in 1849, 1850 (Chief Sowiette), 1853 (Chief Walkara), 1860, and 1865-1868 (Chief Black Hawk)-all for the same primary reasons and along similar lines. Conflict subsided, and finally disappeared, only when most of the surviving Native Americans were forced onto reservations by the United States government.

Still, the LDS hand of fellowship was continually extended. Leonard Arrington accurately comments that “the most prominent theme in Brigham’s Indian policy in the 1850s was patience and forbearance…. He continued to emphasize always being ready, using all possible means to conciliate the Indians, and acting only on the defensive” (Arrington, p. 217). Farms for the Native Americans were established as early as 1851, both to raise crops for their use and to teach them how to farm; but most of the “Indian farms” failed owing to a lack of commitment on both sides as well as to insufficient funding. LDS emissaries (such as Jacob Hamblin, Dudley Leavitt, and Dimmick Huntington) continued, however, to serve Native American needs, and missionaries continued to approach them in Utah and in bordering states. Small numbers of Utes, Shoshones, Paiutes, Gosiutes, and Navajos assimilated into the mainstream culture, and some of that number became Latter-day Saints. But overall, reciprocal contact and accommodation were minimal. By the turn of the century, contact was almost nil because most Native Americans lived on reservations far removed from LDS communities. Their contact with whites was mainly limited to government soldiers and agency officials and to non-Mormon Christian missionaries.

RELATIONS IN RECENT TIMES. Beginning in the 1940s, the Church reemphasized reaching out to Native Americans. The Navajo-Zuni Mission, later named the Southwest Indian Mission, was created in 1943. It was followed by the Northern Indian Mission, headquartered in South Dakota. Eventually, missionaries were placed on many Indian reservations. The missionaries not only proselytize, but also assist Native Americans with their farming, ranching, and community development. Other Lamanite missions, including several in Central and South America and in Polynesia, have also been opened. Large numbers of North American Indians have migrated off reservations, and today over half of all Indians live in cities. In response, some formerly all-Indian missions have merged with those serving members of all racial and ethnic groups living in a given geographical area.

An Indian seminary program was initiated to teach the gospel to Native American children on reservations, in their own languages if necessary (see Seminaries). Initially, Native American children of all ages were taught the principles of the gospel in schools adjacent to federal public schools on reservations and in remote Indian communities. The Indian seminary program has now been integrated within the regular seminary system, and Indian children in the ninth through twelfth grades attend seminary, just as non-Indian children do.

The Indian Student Placement Services (ISPS) seeks to improve the educational attainment of Native American children by placing member Indian children with LDS families during the school year. Foster families, selected because of their emotional, financial, and spiritual stability, pay all expenses of the Indian child, who lives with a foster family during the nine-month school year and spends the summer on the reservation with his or her natural family. Generally, the children enter the program at a fairly young age and return year after year to the same foster family until they graduate from high school.

From a small beginning in 1954, the program peaked in 1970 with an enrollment of nearly 5,000 students. The development of more adequate schools on reservations has since then reduced the need for the program and the number of participants has declined. In 1990, about 500 students participated. More than 70,000 Native American youngsters have participated in ISPS, and evaluations have shown that participation significantly increased their educational attainment.

In the 1950s, Elder Spencer W. Kimball, then an apostle, encouraged Brigham Young University to take an active interest in Native American education and to help solve economic and social problems. Scholarships were established, and a program to help Indian students adjust to university life was inaugurated. During the 1970s more than 500 Indian students, representing seventy-one tribes, were enrolled each year. But enrollment has declined, so a new program for Indian students is being developed that will increase the recruiting of Native American students to BYU and raise the percentage who receive a college degree. The Native American Educational Outreach Program at BYU presents educational seminars to tribal leaders and Indian youth across North America. It also offers scholarships. American Indian Services, another outreach program originally affiliated with BYU, provides adult education and technical and financial assistance to Indian communities. In 1989, American Indian Services was transferred from BYU to the Lehi Foundation, which continues this activity.

In 1975, George P. Lee, a full-blooded Navajo and an early ISPS participant, was appointed as a General Authority. He was the first Indian to achieve this status and served faithfully for more than ten years. Elder Lee became convinced that the Church was neglecting its mission to the Lamanites, and when he voiced strong disapproval of Church leaders, he was excommunicated in 1989.

The Church has always had a strong commitment to preaching the gospel to Native Americans and assisting individuals, families, communities, and tribes to improve their education, health, and religious well-being. Programs vary from time to time as conditions and needs change, but the underlying beliefs and goodwill of Latter-day Saints toward these people remain firm and vibrant.


Arrington, Leonard J. Brigham Young: American Moses. New York, 1985.

Arrington, Leonard J., and Davis Bitton. The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints. New York, 1979.

Barney, Ronald O. Review of Utah’s Black Hawk War, by John Alton Peterson. BYU Studies 38:4 (1999):189-191.

Chadwick, Bruce A., Stan L. Albrecht, and Howard M. Bahr. “Evaluation of an Indian Student Placement Program.” Social Casework 67, no. 9 (1986):515-24.

Christensen, Scott R. Review of Sagwitch: Shoshone Chieftain, Mormon Elder, 1822-1887, by Scott R. Christensen. BYU Studies 39:3 (2000):188-189.

Livingstone, John P. “Establishing the Church Simply.” BYU Studies 39:4 (2000):127-160.

Thursby, Jacqueline S. Review of The Trial of Don Pedro Léon Luján: The Attack against Indian Slavery and Mexican Traders in Utah, by Sondra Jones. BYU Studies 42:3-4 (2003):107-109.

Walker, Ronald W. “Native Women on the Utah Frontier.” BYU Studies 32 (Fall 1992):87-124.

Walker, Ronald W. “Toward a Reconstruction of Mormon and Indian Relations, 1847-1877.” BYU Studies 29 (Fall 1989)23-42.

The New Oxonian

“The divine right of husbands, like the divine right of kings, may, it is hoped, in this enlightened age, be contested without danger. -Mary Wollstonecraft


There’s been a stir on the subject of misogyny within the atheist “community” lately, with predictable cracks and fissures between the male-guru caste of  new atheism and their anointed bloggers, and a number of outspoken atheist women who say, in a nutshell, Enough is enough.

The origins of the latest tension are explored in an article by Julia Galef for Religion Dispatches.  In it she examines an “incident” involving Skepchick blogger Rebecca Watson and an unnamed man at a July Skeptics’ conference.

Watson produced a video on the episode which has become a point of reference in a larger discussion of the status of women in the atheist and skeptics movement.

New atheist hierarch Richard Dawkins and outspoken anti-religionist P Z Myers responded to…

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Jesus Minimus


Let’s pretend the year is 1757 and you have just come away from reading a new treatise by David Hume called an “Enquiry concerning Miracles.”  Let’s assume you are a believing Christian who reads the Bible daily, as your grandmother taught you.  You normally listened to her because in her day most people still could not read, and if families owned a book at all it was likely to be the Bible.

Part of the reason you believe in God, and all of the reason you believe that Jesus was his son, is tied to the supernatural authority of scripture.  You have been taught that it is inspired—perhaps the very word of God, free from error and contradiction—passed down in purity and integrity from generation to generation, and a  reliable witness to the origins of the world, humankind and other biological species.

You know many verses by heart:  Honor your father and your mother.  Blessed are the poor.  Spare the rod, spoil the child.  The love of money is the root of all evil.  –Lots of stuff about disobedient children and the value of being poor, confirmed in your own experience: there are many more poor than rich people, and children often don’t listen to their parents.

Based on the bits you have read and heard preached about, you think the Bible is a wise and useful book.  If you are a member of an emerging middle or merchant class—whether you live in Boston or London or Edinburgh—you haven’t read enough history to wonder if the historical facts of the Bible are true, and archeology and evolutionary biology haven’t  arisen to prove them false.

The story of creation, mysterious as it may seem, is a pretty good story: It will do.  As to the deeper truths of the faith, if you are Catholic, your church assures you that the trinity is a mystery, so you don’t need to bother with looking for the word in the Bible, where it doesn’t occur.  If you are a churchgoing enthusiast who can’t wait for Sunday mornings to wear your new frock or your new vest, it doesn’t bother you that there’s no reference to a nine o’clock sermon in the New Testament.  If you are a Baptist and you like singing and praying loud, your church discipline and tradition tells you to ignore that part where Jesus told his followers to pray in silence and not like the Pharisees who parade their piety and pile phrase upon phrase.  After all, the parson has said, we don’t see many pharisees on the streets of Bristol or Newport.

But what really convinces you that what you do as a Christian of any denomination is the right thing to do is what theologians in the eighteenth century, the great period after the Newtonian revolution of the seventeenth, called “Christian Evidences.”

The phrase was introduced to make the supernatural elements of the Bible (and for Christians, the New Testament in particular) more up to date, more in keeping with the spirit of the Enlightenment.

Reasonable men and women who thought the medieval approach to religion was fiddle faddle—something only the Catholics still believed, especially the Irish and Spanish—had begun to equate reason with the progress of Protestant Christianity. Newton had given this position a heads up when he suggested that his entire project in physics was to prove that the laws of nature were entirely conformable to belief in a clockwork God, the “divine mechanic.”

Taking their cue, or miscue, from Newton’s belief in an all-powerful being who both established the laws of nature and, as “Nature’s God,” could violate them at will, it seemed as though miracles had been given a new lease of life.  No one much bothered to read the damning indictment by the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, twelve years Newton’s junior, who had argued that belief in a God whose perfection was based on the laws of nature could not be proved by exceptions to his own rules.  —You can play basketball on a tennis court, but it doesn’t explain the rules of tennis very well.

Anyway, you’re comfortable with Newton, and the idea of Christian “evidences,” and all those lovely stories about impudent wives being turned into pillars of salt, the ark holding Noah and his family teetering atop mount Ararat (wherever it was), those vile Egyptians being swept up in the waters of the Red Sea, and the miraculous acts of kindness and healing, and bread and fishes recounted in the New Testament.

As a Christian, you have seen all these tales as a kind of prelude to the really big story, the one about a Jewish peasant (except you don’t really think of him that way)  getting himself crucified for no reason at all, and surprising everyone by rising from the dead.   True, your medieval Catholic ancestors with their short, brutish and plague-besotted lives needed the assurance of a literal heaven more than you do in the eighteenth century.  But in general, you like the idea of resurrection, or at least of eternal life, and you agree with Luther—

The sacred Book foretold it all:
How death by death should come to fall.”   

In other words, you believe in the Bible because it’s one of the only books you have ever read—and almost certainly not even it, cover to cover.  And in a vague, unquestioning, socially proper kind of way, you believe the book carries, (to use the language of Hume’s contemporary Dr Tillotson)  the attestation of divine authorship, and in the circularity that defines this discussion prior to Hume, “divine attestation” is based on the miracles.

Divinity schools in England and America, which ridiculed such popish superstitions as the real presence and even such heretofore protected doctrines as the Trinity (Harvard would finally fall to the Unitarians in the 1820s, while the British universities came through unscathed thanks to laws against nonconformists), required students for the ministry to take a course called Christian Evidences.

The fortress of belief in an age of explanation became, ironically, the unexplained and the unusual.

By 1885, Amherst, Smith, Williams, Bryn Mawr, Rutgers, Dartmouth and Princeton colleges mandated the study of the evidences for Christian belief, on the assumption that the study of the Bible was an important ingredient of a well-rounded moral education.

Sophia Smith, the foundress of Smith College, stated in the third article of her will that “[because] all education should be for the glory of God and the good of man, I direct that the Holy Scriptures be daily and systematically read and studied in said college, and that all the discipline shall be pervaded by the spirit of evangelical Christian religion.”

But all was not well, even in 1885.   Hume’s “On Miracles” was being read, and was seeping into the consciousness, not only of philosophers and theologians, but of parish ministers and young ministers in training and indolent intellectuals in the Back Bay and Bloomsbury.  Things were about to change.

Within his treatise, Hume, like a good Scotsman, appealed to common sense:  You have never seen a brick suspended in the air.   Wood will burn and fire will be extinguished by water.  Food does not multiply by itself with a snap of my fingers.  Water does not turn into wine. And in a deceptive opening sentence, he says, “…and what is more probable than that all men shall die.”

In fact, “nothing I call a miracle has ever happened in the ordinary course of events.”   It’s not a miracle if a man who seems to be in good health drops dead.  It is a miracle if a dead man comes back to life—because this has never been witnessed by any of us.  We only have reports, and even these can be challenged by the ordinary laws of evidence:  How old are these reports?  What is the reliability of the reporter?  Under what circumstances were they written?  Within what social, cultural and intellectual conditions did these reports originate?

Hume’s conclusion is so simple and so elegant that I sometimes wish it, and not the Ten Commandments, were what Americans in Pascagoula, Mississippi, were asking to be posted on classroom walls:

No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish…

—So what is more likely, that a report about a brick being suspended in air is true, or that a report about a brick being suspended in air is based on a misapprehension?  That a report about a man rising from the dead is true, or that a report about a man rising from the dead is more easily explained as a case of mistaken identity or fantasy—or outright fiction.

The so-called “natural supernaturalism” of the Unitarians and eventually other Protestant groups took its gradual toll in the colleges I have mentioned.  At SmithCollege, beginning in the 1920s, Henry Elmer Barnes taught his students:

We must construct the framework of religion on a tenable superstructure. To do so is to surrender these essential characteristics of the older religion: (1) the reality and deity of the biblical God; (2) the uniqueness and divinity of Jesus and His special relevance for contemporary religion;  and (3) the belief in immortality.

Sophia Smith’s college had taken a new turn.  At Williams, John Bissett Pratt began his course in philosophy by telling his students, “Gentlemen, learn to get by without the Bible.”

At Yale, the Dwight Professor of theology in 1933 repudiated all the miracles of the Bible and announced to his students that

“The Jesus Christ of the Christian tradition must die, so that he can live.”

I need to remind the casual reader: I am speaking of nineteenth century America, not Tübingen and certainly not Oxford.  The American theological establishment had been so radicalized by the transcendental revolution after Emerson’s 1835 Divinity School Address that miracles had been pronounced, in most of New England, and using Emerson’s own word, “a monster.”


This little reflection on Hume and how his commentary on miracles changed forever the way people looked at the Gospels is really designed to indicate that in educated twentieth century America, between roughly 1905 and 1933, the battle for the miraculous, Christian evidences, and the supernatural was all but lost—or rather, it had been won by enlightened, commonsensical teachers in our best universities and colleges.

Of course it was not won in the churches and backwoods meeting houses of what we sometimes call the American heartland, let alone in preacher-colleges of (what would become) the Bible belt or the faux-gothic seminaries of the Catholic Church.  If anyone wants to know how superstition survived in this inauspicious climate, the answer would have to be sought in relative population statistics in the Back Bay and Arkansas.

Hume’s logic and the theological consequences of his logic barely penetrated the evangelical mindset.   And if I were to comment, I would say that we are now involved in wars throughout the world because some people, in America, the Middle East and elsewhere,  still believe they will rise from the dead and go on to lead a life in paradise, qualitatively better than the life they had led in this world.  In other words, the failure not to believe in miracles has had consequences that are not merely theological or philosophical but political.  America, the country where miracles were first to fall,  is at war with its theological others over whose afterlife is true.

When the tide rolled out on miracles, what was left standing on the shore was the Jesus of what became, in the early twentieth century, the “social gospel.”

He wasn’t new—actually, he had a long pedigree going back to Kant and Schleiermacher in philosophy and theology.  He’d been worked through by poets like Coleridge and Matthew Arnold, who detested dogma and theological nitpicking and praised the “sweet reasonableness” of Jesus’ character and ethical teaching—his words about loving, forgiving, caring for the poor, and desiring a new social covenant based on concern for the “least among us.”

There is no doubt in the world that these words sparked the imaginations of a thousand social prophets reformers, and even revolutionaries.

In Germany and America, and belatedly in England, something called the “higher criticism” was catching on.

Its basic premise was that the tradition about Jesus was formed slowly and in particular social conditions not equivalent to those in Victorian England or Bismarck’s Germany.

Questions had to be asked about why a certain tradition about Jesus arose, what need it might have fulfilled within a community of followers, and how it might have undergone change as those needs changed.

For example, the belief that he was the Jewish messiah, after an unexpected crucifixion, might have led to the belief that he was the son of God who had prophesied his own untimely death.  The fact that the community was impoverished, illiterate, and a persecuted religious minority might have led the community to invent sayings like “blessed are the poor,” “blessed are you who are persecuted,” and “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.”

But if this is so, then the Gospels really weren’t the biography of Jesus at all.  They were the biography of what the community believed about him based on their own cramped perspective and needs in a very small corner of the world at a particular time in history. How could this story have universal importance or timeless significance?

The Victorian church was as immune to the German school of thought as Bishop Wilberforce was to Darwin’s theories—in some ways even more so.  Even knowledgeable followers of the German school of higher criticism tried to find ways around its conclusions.

Matthew Arnold, for example, thought the Gospels were based on the misunderstanding of Jesus by his own followers, which led them to misrepresent him. But then Arnold went on to say that this misunderstanding led the Gospel writers to preserve Jesus’ teaching, although in a distorted and conflated form, more or less accurately.  They added their words and ideas to his, but in their honest ignorance was honesty.

Arnold’s influence was minimal. The miraculous deeds were gone; now people were fighting over the words.

John Dominic Crossan

When the twentieth century hit, few people in the mainline Protestant churches and almost no one in the Catholic Church of 1905 were prepared for the publication of Albert Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus—a long, not altogether engaging survey of the eighteenth and nineteenth century attempts to piece together a coherent picture of the hero of the Gospels.

Schweitzer pronounced the quests a failure, because none of them dealt with the data within the appropriate historical framework.  No final conclusions were possible. We can know, because of what we know about ancient literature and ancient Roman Palestine, what Jesus might have been like—we can know the contours of an existence.  But not enough for a New York Times obituary.

Beyond tracing this line in shifting sands, we get lost in contradiction.   If Jesus taught anything, he must have taught something that people of his own time could have understood.  But that means that what he had to say will be irrelevant or perhaps incomprehensible to people in different social situations. His teaching, if we were to hear it, Schweitzer said, would sound mad to us.  He might have preached the end of the world.  If he did, he would not have spent his time developing a social agenda or an ethics textbook for his soon-to-be-raptured followers.  (Paul, whoever he was and whatever he was trying to do, certainly knows nothing about ethics—just some interim rules to be followed before the second coming of a divine man named Jesus).

Schweitzer flirts most with the possibility that Jesus was an eschatological prophet in an era of political and social gloom for the Jews.  But Schweitzer’s shocking verdict is that the Jesus of the church and the Jesus of popular piety—equally—never existed.  Whatever sketch you come up with will be a sketch based on the image you have already formed.

He was not alone. The agnostic, former Jesuit Alfred Loisy (d. 1940), after his excommunication, wrote a book called The Gospel and the Church, in which he lampooned the writings of the reigning German theologian Adolph von Harnack (d. 1930).  Harnack had argued that the Gospel had permanent ethical value given to it by someone who possessed (what he called) God-consciousness: Jesus was the ethical teacher par excellence

Loisy responded, drawing on his gallic and Jesuit charms,  “Professor Harnack has looked deep into the well for the face of the historical Jesus, but what he has seen is his own liberal Protestant face.”

In America, Jesus was undergoing a similar transformation.  In New York  1917, a young graduate of the Colgate Divinity School named Walter Rauschenbusch was looking at the same miserable social conditions that were being described by everyone from Jane Addams to Theodore Dreiser in literature.  Rauschenbusch thought that the churches had aligned themselves with robber barons, supported unfair labor practices, winked at income disparity and ignored the poor.  So, for Rauschenbusch, the Gospel was all about a first century revolutionary movement opposed to privilege and injustice.  In his most famous book, A Theology for the Social Gospel, he writes, “Jesus did not in any real sense bear the sin of some ancient Briton who beat up his wife in B. C. 56, or of some mountaineer  who got drunk in A. D. 1917. But he did in a very real sense bear the weight of the public sins of organized society, and they in turn are causally connected with all private sins.”

Like Harnack before and dozens of social gospel writers later, the facts hardly mattered.  Whether Jesus actually said the things he is supposed to have said or they were said for him hardly mattered.  Whether he was understood or misrepresented hardly mattered.

Liberal religion had made Jesus a cipher for whatever social agenda it wanted to pursue, just as in the slavery debates of the nineteenth century, biblical authority was invoked to defend buying and selling human beings. Once the historical Jesus was abandoned, Jesus could be made to say whatever his managers wanted him to say.  Unfortunately, ignoring Schweitzer’s scholarly cautions, the progressives failed to demonstrate how the words of a first century Galilean prophet, apparently obsessed with the end of a corrupt social order, could be used to reform a morally bankrupt economic system.

For those of us who follow the Jesus quest wherever it goes, it’s impressive that the less we know about Jesus—the less we know for sure—the more the books that can be written.

In what must surely be the greatest historical irony of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, for example, members of the “Jesus Seminar,” founded in 1985 to pare the sayings of Jesus down to “just the real ones,” came to the conclusion that 82 percent of the sayings of Jesus were (in various shades) inauthentic, that Jesus had never claimed the title “Messiah,” that he did not share a final meal with his disciples, and that he did not invent the Lord’s Prayer.

But they come to these conclusions in more than a hundred books of varying quality and interest, each of which promises to deliver the real Jesus.

The “real Jesus,” unsurprisingly, can be almost anything his inventors want him to be: prophet, wise man, magician, sage, bandit, revolutionary, gay, French, Southern Baptist or Cajun.   As I wrote in a contribution to George Wells’s 1996 The Jesus Legend, the competing theories about who Jesus really was, based on a shrinking body of reliable information, makes the theory that he never existed a welcome relief.

In a Free Inquiry article from 1993, I offended the Seminar by saying that the Jesus of their labors was a “talking doll with a repertoire of 33 genuine sayings; pull his string and he blesses the poor.”

But all is not lost that seems lost. When we look at the history of this case, we can draw some conclusions.

We don’t know much about Jesus.  What we do know, however, and have known since the serious investigation of the biblical text based on sound critical principles became possible is that there are things we can exclude.

Jesus was not Aristotle.  Despite what a former American president thought, he wasn’t a philosopher. He did not write a book on ethics.  If he lived, he would have belonged to a familiar class of wandering, puritanical doomsday preachers, who threatened the wrath of God on unfaithful Jews—especially the Jerusalem priesthood. I think that is likely.

We don’t know what he thought about the messiah or himself.  The Gospels are cagey on the subject and can yield almost any answer you want.  He was neither a social conservative nor a liberal democrat.   The change he (or his inventors) advocated was regressive rather than progressive.  But it’s also possible that we don’t even know enough to say that much.

He doesn’t seem to have had much of a work ethic; he tells his followers to beg from door to door, go barefoot (or not), and not worry about where their next meal is coming from. He might have been a magician; the law (Ex. xxii. 17 [A. V. 18]) which punishes sorcery with death speaks of the witch and not of the wizard, and exorcism was prevalent in the time of Jesus, as were magical amulets, tricks, healings, love potions and charms—like phylacteries. But we can’t be sure. If he was a magician, he was certainly not interested in ethics.

After a point, the plural Jesuses available to us in the Gospels become self-negating, and even the conclusion that the Gospels are biographies of communities becomes unhelpful: they are the biographies of different perspectives often arising within the same community.  Like the empty tomb story, the story of Jesus becomes the story of the man who wasn’t there.

What we need to be mindful of, however, is the danger of using greatly reduced, demythologized and under-impressive sources as though no matter what we do, or what we discover, the source—the Gospel—retains its authority.  It is obviously true that somehow the less certain we can be about whether x is true, the more possibilities there are for x.  But when I took algebra, we seldom defined certainty as the increase in a variable’s domain.   The dishonesty of much New Testament scholarship is the exploitation of the variable.

We need to be mindful that history is a corrective science:  when we know more than we did last week, we have to correct last week’s story.  The old story loses its authority. Biblical scholars and theologians often show the immaturity of their historical skills by playing with history.  They have shown, throughout the twentieth century, a remarkable immunity to the results of historical criticism, as though relieving Jesus of the necessity of being a man of his time and culture—however that might have been—entitles him to be someone who is free to live in our time, rule on our problems, and lend godly authority to our ethical dilemmas.

No other historical figure or legendary hero can be abused in quite the same way.  We leave Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE, Cleopatra in Hellenistic Egypt, and Churchill buried at the family plot in Bladon near Oxford.  The quest for the historical Jesus is less a search for an historical artifact than a quest for ways to defend his continued relevance against the tides of irrelevance that erode the ancient image.

The use of Jesus as an ethical teacher has to go the way of his divinity and miracles, in the long run.  And when I say this, I’m not speaking as an atheist.  I am simply saying what I think is historically true, or true in terms of the way history deals with its own.

It is an act of courage, an act of moral bravery, to let go of God, and his only begotten Son, the second person of the blessed Trinity whose legend locates him in Nazareth during the Roman occupation.  It’s (at least) an act of intellectual honesty to say that what we would like to believe to be the case about him might not have been the case at all.  To recognize that Jesus—whoever he was–did not have answers for our time, could not have foreseen our problems, much less resolve them, frees us from the more painful obligation to view the Bible as a moral constitution.

The most powerful image in the New Testament, for me, is the one that is probably today the one most Christians would be happy to see hidden away.

Its art-historical representations vary from merely pagan, to childish, to clearly outlandish.  I cannot think of one that does what I would like to see done with the event–the Ascension of Jesus into heaven.  It is simply too self-evidently mythological to appeal to liberal Christians, and not especially in favour among conservatives–though I have never understood why.

I see the Ascension as the ultimate symbol of the absence of God, the end of illusion.  The consciousness of the never-resurrected Christ, the ultimately mortal man, dawning on the crowd.  It is presented as glorification; but in reality it is perfectly human, perfectly natural: the way of all flesh: I am with you always, until the end of time.  It is the unknown author’s “Goodnight sweet prince.”  It is the metaphorical confirmation of what Schweitzer taught us: “He comes to us as one unknown.”

Did Plato Invent Socrates?

The Anachronisticon of Plato

by admin Posted on November 1, 2011

Bust Alcibiades Musei Capitolini MC1160.jpg

Being newly translated out of the original Dalmatian based on Cyrillic manuscripts thought to derive from Greek or perhaps Ethiopic sources.  We’re not sure.    By Alistair Mainly-Bluster, MA (Oxon.), CPA (Leeds)

Scene:  Somewhere, not in the forest.

Characters:  Socrates, Alcibiades, Glaucon, Xenophon and Simon the Shoemaker

Socrates:  And so Glaucon, we have examined piety, the state, justice, beauty, and the good.  Yet one thing remains.

Glaucon:  I think we’ve covered it all Socrates, and I’m hungry.

Soc.:  I don’t do loaves and fishes dear Glaucon; that motif will appear in later days.

Glau.: What yet remains Socrates?

Soc.:  The question, What is humanism?

Alcibiades:  We should put it to Diotima.  I like her stories and she still possesses a certain sensual charm, for an old woman.  Besides, if we settle it here everyone will say, Well, that’s just what a bunch of oversexed Greek men would say, isn’t it?

Simon:  Pray, Socrates: What do you mean by “humanism”?  Do you mean the craft of being human?

Xenophon:  I think he will say it’s the art of being human, for art is only the higher form of a craft, that which responds to beauty and our animal soul is our human soul.  It should be possible therefore to talk of dogism and cowism as the craft of being a dog or a cow.

Alc.:  You are such a prat Xenophon: I predict you will write history and memoirs.  He must mean that humanism is the practice [πράξη] of humanity, the realisation of what it is to be fully human. Besides, we have an absolutely terrific word for practice in Greek.

Xen.:  I don’t think he’ll go there, Alcibiades.  For one thing Aristotle is already working on the problem and he wants to call fully realized humanity ”happiness” [ευτυχία].   It sounds awful in English but brilliant in Greek.

Socrates:  Dear friends: discord is the uninvited guest at the harmonious wedding of Beauty and Mankind. Let us begin, as always, with what seems clear to all of us and go from there.  If we say inelegant or erroneous things, Plato can scratch it out later.

Glau.:  As always, proceed Socrates with your lesson.

Soc.:  Well then: Is humanity not a word like justice and beauty.

Simon: It is.  Or maybe you are trying to trap us.  I will therefore say, it isn’t.

Alc.:  Simon, listen to his inflection.  He expects us to say yes.  Yes, Socrates.  It is the name of a class or virtue.  It is an abstract noun, a κατηγορηματικός as we say in our almost perfect language.

Soc.:  And how does humanity [ανθρωπισμός] pertain to these things, I mean the ideas–as greater to lesser or lesser to greater.

Alc.: I think as greater to lesser since humanity is needed for the perception of beauty and the exercise of justice.

Soc.: So it might appear.  But we have seen that beauty and justice, the good, and truth,  exist quite apart from our apprehension dear Alcibiades.  If this were not so, then how could we recognize them?

Alc.:  That is not a question for us, Socrates.  It is a question for cognitive science, and our survival and adaptation as a species has made these things necessary.  I’m just guessing what others will say.

Glaucon:  You speak like a mad man Alcibiades.  Surely,  the only question is whether “humanity” perdures in our souls or resides in the intellect alone.

Simon:  I think the gods made us.  That’s what I say.  Of course, we can’t know for sure.

Soc.: Dear friends, remember that we are ancient Greeks, not modern Americans with deceptively impressive credentials in brain science, nor Bible-thumping fundamentalist Christians from Bethula, Georgia.  Try to follow me.

Simon:  I think he means he wants us to brainstorm this.

Alc.: Then Socrates: I say the relationship to the ideas is between lesser to greater–that humanity is fulfilled in trying to comprehend the ideas and humanism is nothing more than humanity trying to achieve this end in truth.

Xenophon:  Too general.  No wonder you never invite Democritus to our parties. He could explain–sorry, Socrates–propose–that the sole truth is the truth of nature, and only that: that which we see, measure, do the numbers on–that kind of thing. Only a truth that is true to human nature can be valuable for humanity.

Soc.:  What is the value in that my dear friend?   Is humanity a measuring rod, intellect a gauge, knowledge a scale?

Simon:  Yet Socrates, justice herself is often shown as blind with a scale in her hand.

Alc.:  Good god, Simon: it’s an image.  We covered images last year when we wrote the Republic. Justice is nothing like that.

Simon:  Is she not beautiful?

Alc.:  Yes, Simon, very beautiful, but she is not a she, she is not blind, and there are no scales except the ones on your eyes.

Xen.:  Would Socrates agree that a part of humanism is to teach the gods, I wonder?

Soc.:  Teach them what?  The poets say they have great knowledge. Some say they have all knowledge.

Xen.:  Democritus says they are of no consequence.

Soc.:  I have little to say on the matter as you know. We have said that some ideas are like dreams, and that with relation to knowledge they are false [ψεύτικος]–illusions or perforations of the sublime.  It may be the gods are like that, and it would be the task of humanity to find the truth of the gods.

Xen.: It would then be the task of humanism as the practice of humanity to deny the gods as illusions?

Soc.:  You seem to know my thoughts better than my words do: Tell me, Xenophon–or is it the daimon of Democritus I am speaking to now–tell me: have we seen the gods?

Xen.: No Socrates.  Some seers claim to have visions, but in your philosophy dreams separate us from truth.

Soc.:  Have we seen justice?  Be still, Simon.

Xen.:  Not as such, no Socrates.

Soc.:  But having never seen justice and only seen the laws and penalties of corrupt men and legislators, you yet believe justice exists?

Xen.:  Socrates, you yourself say so.

Soc.:  Yet in seeing the world, apprehending beauty and seeking good amidst its many imperfections you find it necessary to deny the gods, who are said to crave these things as much as you?

Simon: Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare.

Alc.:  It’s a good poem, Simon: but pay attention.

Soc.:  If it is possible to believe in justice in the shadow of corruption and in goodness in the face of so much evil, is it not also possible to believe in the gods in a world of imperfection?

Xen.:  It would depend on how great their knowledge, Socrates, the degree of their goodness, their power to avert harm or change hearts.  I would say that if such gods existed, then it would better to scorn and despise them than to affirm their inconsistencies.

Soc.:  Precisely, and fortunately for us, Xenophon, no such god exists and thus it is not a matter for humanity.

Alc.: You are saying that the gods are of no concern to us Socrates; and that is also what Democritus says.

Soc.:  I am saying that the gods are in the myths, like the scent of minthe is in the air. The myths carry them upward and they alight on our consciousness.  They are sensed and felt, intimated if you will, but not perceived.  They are not the objects of knowledge, and for that reason we cannot fear them, obey them, seek after them, or follow them.  Their influence is subtle and our humanity knows them only in this way.  Of course, lesser men read the myths, as Xenophon will know, as chronicle.  Zeus is angry and killed legions of men.  Hades tempts the daughters of men into his lair.  Poseidon destroys the plans of navigators in his fickle way.  But these are not the gods, Xenophon: these are monsters and illusions, the stories of our infancy.

Simon:  Poseidon is always my favorite, especially where Homer says “He tossed his curly locks, his great head,” just before he swamps Odysseus. Pure magic. Can’t you just see it?


Xen.:  You sound more like Democritus than Socrates, Socrates.  But in my calculation a myth is the opposite of truth.  The gods are real or not real.  If only their stories exist, then they are not real.  I do not smell them in the evening breeze.

Soc.: “Real” my dear Xenophon?  What kind of word is that?  Is it from the future?  Does real mean valuable, or is it one of those things that your definition of humanity as a measuring machine requires? Our life as humans is lived between the real and the not real and between what we see and what we can imagine.  I have said that the gods do not threaten, cajole, command, or punish.  They do not create. The poets have said, the gods are immortal, and we have imagined them this way. It is entirely appropriate to forego any discussion of the gods in our study of humanity because humanity is the study of what is mortal.  But it is more than the study of what, to use your word, is “real” [ πραγματικός]

Xen.:  Socrates, I will not rest until you declare the gods false [ψευδής] for if they are unnecessary [περιττός], then they are false [πλαστός].

Soc.: What logic is this, dear Xenophon, when you change terms like horses running away from battle? There is much that we do not yet perceive  [βλέπω] that will become necessary [αναγκαίος] when we perceive [αντιλαμβάνομαι]  it.  What you don’t perceive is hardly unnecessary [περιττός]; it is merely unperceived [άγνωστος].  Bring Democritus by all means.  I will happily wait for his corrections.  But the wound to your reality–shall we call it pragmatism?–is this: Is that which is real everything that we have discovered up to the present and everything we will have discovered in the future?  What is the present reality of the undiscovered thing? If it is unreal because it has not yet been discovered how can we judge its necessity?

Alc.:  That is a solipsism Socrates.  You are good at them.  You yourself would say, the gods do not help us explain nature, or the origins of the world, or the reasons for sickness and health, or the circulation of the planets.

Soc.:  That is true, Alcibiades.  Humanism needs to consider only those things that have a bearing on humanity. That is the object of our discussion–to discover what these things are.

Alc.:  Then the irrelevance of the gods is included in the nature of our task.  Humanism is the discovery of what is essential to our humanity and nothing else. It does not need to consider what is extraneous [εξωτερικός]  to it, and that which has no influence over it is extraneous to it.   And if by definition the gods are immortal [αθάνατος]  and we are mortal [θνητός], to make them our object would be foolishness.  Is that about it?

Soc.:  Well said, as always, Alcibiades.  Spoken like a true Alcmaeonid: Are you wise because you are an aristocrat or an aristocrat because you are wise?  Humanity is our concern, not only what we can measure, not only what we consider real, and not the immortal gods.  Still I say, these gods exist as surely as the memory of minthe in the evening breeze when we were boys.

Remembering Bertie

Reprinted from A Writing Tablet

Religious folk have the advantage– and I do think it’s an advantage–of hearing their sacred texts read out, as in a story, during a liturgical year.  Unbelievers and humanists have no such advantage, because we believe that no story is so sacred that it demands endless repetition.

Bertrand Russell’s life as a philosopher, logician-mathematician and social reformer can be summarized in one biographical detail:  In 1894 he married the American Quaker Alys Pearsall Smith, one of a generation of wealthy buccaneers who propped up British aristocracy through “economic” marriages from Kensington to Blenheim.  “Their marriage began to fall apart,” says Wallenchinsky matter of factly, “in 1901 when it occurred to Russell, while he was cycling, that he no longer loved her.” What could be simpler?

A few texts of the atheist tradition deserve to be enshrined in memory if not in a tabernacle.  As we approach January 2012, here is one of Russell’s best.  

TO  Dr. Faustus in his study Mephistopheles told the history of the Creation, saying:

“The endless praises of the choirs of angels had begun to grow wearisome; for, after all, did he not deserve their praise? Had he not given them endless joy? Would it not be more amusing to obtain undeserved praise, to be worshipped by beings whom he tortured? He smiled inwardly, and resolved that the great drama should be performed.

“For countless ages the hot nebula whirled aimlessly through space. At length it began to take shape, the central mass threw off planets, the planets cooled, boiling seas and burning mountains heaved and tossed, from masses of cloud hot sheets of rain deluged the barely solid crust. And now the first germ of life grew in the depths of the ocean, and developed rapidly in the fructifying warmth into vast forest trees, huge germ springing from the damp mould, sea monsters breeding, fighting, devouring, and passing away. And from the monsters, as the play unfolded itself, Man was born, with the power of thought, the knowledge of good and evil, and the cruel thirst for worship. And Man saw that all is passing in this mad, monstrous world, that all is struggling to snatch, at any cost, a few brief moments of life before Death’s inexorable decree.

“And Man said: ‘There is a hidden purpose, could we but fathom it, and the purpose is good; for we must reverence something, and in the visible world there is nothing worthy of reverence.’ And Man stood aside from the struggle, resolving that God intended harmony to come out of chaos by human efforts. And when he followed the instincts which God had transmitted to him from his ancestry of beasts of prey, he called it Sin, and asked God to forgive him.

“But he doubted whether he could be justly forgiven, until he invented a divine Plan by which God’s wrath was to have been appeased. And seeing the present was bad, he made it yet worse, that thereby the future might be better. And he gave God thanks for the strength that enabled him to forgo even the joys that were possible. And God smiled; and when he saw that Man had become perfect in renunciation and worship, he sent another sun through the sky, which crashed into Man’s sun; and all returned again to nebula.

“Yes,’ he murmured, ‘it was a good play; I will have it performed again.'”

Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

How, in such an alien and inhuman world, can so powerless a creature as Man preserve his aspirations untarnished? A strange mystery it is that Nature, omnipotent but blind, in the revolutions of her secular hurryings through the abysses of space, has brought forth at last a child, subject still to her power, but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking Mother. In spite of death, the mark and seal of the parental control, Man is yet free, during his brief years, to examine, to criticise, to know, and in imagination to create. To him alone, in the world with which he is acquainted, this freedom belongs; and in this lies his superiority to the resistless forces that control his outward life.

The savage, like ourselves, feels the oppression of his impotence before the powers of Nature; but having in himself nothing that he respects more than Power, he is willing to prostrate himself before his gods, without inquiring whether they are worthy of his worship. Pathetic and very terrible is the long history of cruelty and torture, of degradation and human sacrifice, endured in the hope of placating the jealous gods: surely, the trembling believer thinks, when what is most precious has been freely given, their lust for blood must be appeased, and more will not be required. The religion of Moloch — as such creeds may be generically called — is in essence the cringing submission of the slave, who dare not, even in his heart, allow the thought that his master deserves no adulation. Since the independence of ideals is not yet acknowledged, Power may be freely worshipped, and receive an unlimited respect, despite its wanton infliction of pain.

But gradually, as morality grows bolder, the claim of the ideal world begins to be felt; and worship, if it is not to cease, must be given to gods of another kind than those created by the savage. Some, though they feel the demands of the ideal, will still consciously reject them, still urging that naked power is worthy of worship. Such is the attitude inculcated in God’s answer to Job out of the whirlwind: the divine power and knowledge are paraded, but of the divine goodness there is no hint. Such also is the attitude of those who, in our own day, base their morality upon the struggle for survival, maintaining that the survivors are necessarily the fittest. But others, not content with an answer so repugnant to the moral sense, will adopt the position which we have become accustomed to regard as specially religious, maintaining that, in some hidden manner, the world of fact is really harmonious with the world of ideals. Thus Man creates, God, all-powerful and all-good, the mystic unity of what is and what should be.

In this lies Man’s true freedom: in determination to worship only the God created by our own love of the good, to respect only the heaven which inspires the insight of our best moments.

But the world of fact, after all, is not good; and, in submitting our judgment to it, there is an element of slavishness from which our thoughts must be purged. For in all things it is well to exalt the dignity of Man, by freeing him as far as possible from the tyranny of non-human Power. When we have realised that Power is largely bad, that man, with his knowledge of good and evil, is but a helpless atom in a world which has no such knowledge, the choice is again presented to us: Shall we worship Force, or shall we worship Goodness? Shall our God exist and be evil, or shall he be recognized as the creation of our own conscience?

The answer to this question is very momentous, and affects profoundly our whole morality. The worship of Force, to which Carlyle and Nietzsche and the creed of Militarism have accustomed us, is the result of failure to maintain our own ideals against a hostile universe: it is itself a prostrate submission to evil, a sacrifice of our best to Moloch. If strength indeed is to be respected, let us respect rather the strength of those who refuse that false “recognition of facts” which fails to recognise that facts are often bad. Let us admit that, in the world we know, there are many things that would be better otherwise, and that the ideals to which we do and must adhere are not realised in the realm of matter. Let us preserve our respect for truth, for beauty, for the ideal of perfection which life does not permit us to attain, though none of these things meet with the approval of the unconscious universe. If Power is bad, as it seems to be, let us reject it from our hearts. In this lies Man’s true freedom: in determination to worship only the God created by our own love of the good, to respect only the heaven which inspires the insight of our best moments. In action, in desire, we must submit perpetually to the tyranny of outside forces; but in thought, in aspiration, we are free, free from our fellowmen, free from the petty planet on which our bodies impotently crawl, free even, while we live, from the tyranny of death. Let us learn, then, that energy of faith which enables us to live constantly in the vision of the good; and let us descend, in action, into the world of fact, with that vision always before us.

Although the necessity of renunciation is evidence of the existence of evil, yet Christianity, in preaching it, has shown a wisdom exceeding that of the Promethean philosophy of rebellion. 

When first the opposition of fact and ideal grows fully visible, a spirit of fiery revolt, of fierce hatred of the gods, seems necessary to the assertion of freedom. To defy with Promethean constancy a hostile universe, to keep its evil always in view, always actively hated, to refuse no pain that the malice of Power can invent, appears to be the duty of all who will not bow before the inevitable. But indignation is still a bondage, for it compels our thoughts to be occupied with an evil world; and in the fierceness of desire from which rebellion springs there is a kind of self-assertion which it is necessary for the wise to overcome. Indignation is a submission of our thoughts, but not of our desires; the Stoic freedom in which wisdom consists is found in the submission of our desires, but not of our thoughts. From the submission of our desires springs the virtue of resignation; from the freedom of our thoughts springs the whole world of art and philosophy, and the vision of beauty by which, at last, we half reconquer the reluctant world. But the vision of beauty is possible only to unfettered contemplation, to thoughts not weighted by the load of eager wishes; and thus Freedom comes only to those who no longer ask of life that it shall yield them any of those personal goods that are subject to the mutations of Time.

Although the necessity of renunciation is evidence of the existence of evil, yet Christianity, in preaching it, has shown a wisdom exceeding that of the Promethean philosophy of rebellion. It must be admitted that, of the things we desire, some, though they prove impossible, are yet real goods; others, however, as ardently longed for, do not form part of a fully purified ideal. The belief that what must be renounced is bad, though sometimes false, is far less often false than untamed passion supposes; and the creed of religion, by providing a reason for proving that it is never false, has been the means of purifying our hopes by the discovery of many austere truths.

But there is in resignation a further good element: even real goods, when they are unattainable, ought not to be fretfully desired. To every man comes, sooner or later, the great renunciation. For the young, there is nothing unattainable; a good thing desired with the whole force of a passionate will, and yet impossible, is to them not credible. Yet, by death, by illness, by poverty, or by the voice of duty, we must learn, each one of us, that the world was not made for us, and that, however beautiful may be the things we crave, Fate may nevertheless forbid them. It is the part of courage, when misfortune comes, to bear without repining the ruin of our hopes, to turn away our thoughts from vain regrets. This degree of submission to Power is not only just and right: it is the very gate of wisdom.

But passive renunciation is not the whole of wisdom; for not by renunciation alone can we build a temple for the worship of our own ideals. Haunting foreshadowings of the temple appear in the realm of imagination, in music, in architecture, in the untroubled kingdom of reason, and in the golden sunset magic of lyrics, where beauty shines and glows, remote from the touch of sorrow, remote from the fear of change, remote from the failures and disenchantments of the world of fact. In the contemplation of these things the vision of heaven will shape itself in our hearts, giving at once a touchstone to judge the world about us, and an inspiration by which to fashion to our needs whatever is not incapable of serving as a stone in the sacred temple.

In the spectacle of Death, in the endurance of intolerable pain, there is a sacredness, an overpowering awe, a feeling of the vastness, the depth, the inexhaustible mystery of existence, in which, as by some strange marriage of pain, the sufferer is bound to the world by bonds of sorrow.

Except for those rare spirits that are born without sin, there is a cavern of darkness to be traversed before that temple can be entered. The gate of the cavern is despair, and its floor is paved with the gravestones of abandoned hopes. There Self must die; there the eagerness, the greed of untamed desire must be slain, for only so can the soul be freed from the empire of Fate. But out of the cavern the Gate of Renunciation leads again to the daylight of wisdom, by whose radiance a new insight, a new joy, a new tenderness, shine forth to gladden the pilgrim’s heart.

When, without the bitterness of impotent rebellion, we have learnt both to resign ourselves to the outward rule of Fate and to recognise that the non-human world is unworthy of our worship, it becomes possible at last so to transform and refashion the unconscious universe, so to transmute it in the crucible of imagination, that a new image of shining gold replaces the old idol of clay. In all the multiform facts of the world — in the visual shapes of trees and mountains and clouds, in the events of the life of man, even in the very omnipotence of Death — the insight of creative idealism can find the reflection of a beauty which its own thoughts first made. In this way mind asserts its subtle mastery over the thoughtless forces of Nature.

HE more evil the material with which it deals, the more thwarting to untrained desire, the greater is its achievement in inducing the reluctant rock to yield up its hidden treasures, the prouder its victory in compelling the opposing forces to swell the pageant of its triumph. Of all the arts, Tragedy is the proudest, the most triumphant; for it builds its shining citadel in the very centre of the enemy’s country, on the very summit of his highest mountain; from its impregnable watchtowers, his camps and arsenals, his columns and forts, are all revealed; within its walls the free life continues, while the legions of Death and Pain and Despair, and all the servile captains of tyrant Fate, afford the burghers of that dauntless city new spectacles of beauty. Happy those sacred ramparts, thrice happy the dwellers on that all-seeing eminence. Honour to those brave warriors who, through countless ages of warfare, have preserved for us the priceless heritage of liberty, and have kept undefiled by sacrilegious invaders the home of the unsubdued.

But the beauty of Tragedy does but make visible a quality which, in more or less obvious shapes, is present always and everywhere in life. In the spectacle of Death, in the endurance of intolerable pain, there is a sacredness, an overpowering awe, a feeling of the vastness, the depth, the inexhaustible mystery of existence, in which, as by some strange marriage of pain, the sufferer is bound to the world by bonds of sorrow. In these moments of insight, we lose all eagerness of temporary desire, all struggling and striving for petty ends, all care for the little trivial things that, to a superficial view, make up the common life of day by day; we see, surrounding the narrow raft illumined by the flickering light of human comradeship, the dark ocean on whose rolling waves we toss for a brief hour; from the great night without, a chill blast breaks in upon our refuge; all the loneliness of humanity amid hostile forces is concentrated upon the individual soul, which must struggle alone, with what of courage it can command, against the whole weight of a universe that cares nothing for its hopes and fears. Victory, in this struggle with the powers of darkness, is the true baptism into the glorious company of heroes, the true initiation into the overmastering beauty of human existence. From that awful encounter of the soul with the outer world, renunciation, wisdom, and charity are born; and with their birth a new life begins. To take into the inmost shrine of the soul the irresistible forces whose puppets we seem to be — Death and change, the irrevocableness of the past, and the powerlessness of man before the blind hurry of the universe from vanity to vanity — to feel these things and know them is to conquer them.

This is the reason why the Past has such magical power. The beauty of its motionless and silent pictures is like the enchanted purity of late autumn, when the leaves, though one breath would make them fall, still glow against the sky in golden glory. The Past does not change or strive; like Duncan, after life’s fitful fever it sleeps well; what was eager and grasping, what was petty and transitory, has faded away, the things that were beautiful and eternal shine out of it like stars in the night. Its beauty, to a soul not worthy of it, is unendurable; but to a soul which has conquered Fate it is the key of religion.

The life of Man, viewed outwardly, is but a small thing in comparison with the forces of Nature. The slave is doomed to worship Time and Fate and Death, because they are greater than anything he finds in himself, and because all his thoughts are of things which they devour. But, great as they are, to think of them greatly, to feel their passionless splendour, is greater still. And such thought makes us free men; we no longer bow before the inevitable in Oriental subjection, but we absorb it, and make it a part of ourselves. To abandon the struggle for private happiness, to expel all eagerness of temporary desire, to burn with passion for eternal things — this is emancipation, and this is the free man’s worship. And this liberation is effected by a contemplation of Fate; for Fate itself is subdued by the mind which leaves nothing to be purged by the purifying fire of Time.

United with his fellow-men by the strongest of all ties, the tie of a common doom, the free man finds that a new vision is with him always, shedding over every daily task the light of love. The life of Man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible forces, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach, and where none may tarry long. One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent Death. Very brief is the time in which we can help them, in which their happiness or misery is decided. Be it ours to shed sunshine on their path, to lighten their sorrows by the balm of sympathy, to give them the pure joy of a never-tiring affection, to strengthen failing courage, to instil faith in hours of despair. Let us not weigh in grudging scales their merits and demerits, but let us think only of their need — of the sorrows, the difficulties, perhaps the blindnesses, that make the misery of their lives; let us remember that they are fellow-sufferers in the same darkness, actors in the same tragedy with ourselves. And so, when their day is over, when their good and their evil have become eternal by the immortality of the past, be it ours to feel that, where they suffered, where they failed, no deed of ours was the cause; but wherever a spark of the divine fire kindled in their hearts, we were ready with encouragement, with sympathy, with brave words in which high courage glowed.

Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned to-day to lose his dearest, to-morrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.

The New Oxonian

January 6, 2012

By admin

“Our century is probably more religious than any other. How could it fail to be, with such problems to be solved? The only trouble is that it has not yet found a God it can adore.” Teilhard de Chardin, SJ (1959)

“The reach of naturalistic inquiry may be quite limited (Chomsky 1994)

“We will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology.” (Chomsky 1988)

THOUGHTFUL response from a reader asked me why I had stopped commenting on the excesses of “religion” and turned my attention to damning the excesses of atheism.

I haven’t. But it’s a good question. I replied that it would be like asking Luther why he stopped momentarily condemning the abuses of the Roman Catholic church and turned his attention to the marauding protestants. For everything nasty Luther had to say about the pope…

View original post 2,764 more words

Processing the Project

A reader named Reg writes,

1. Why the name change again – Project, Prospect, Process?
2. Line-up is a bit European/American. Could do with some post-colonial theologians who might have a different ‘spin’ on Jesus.

Agree with two. –As long as spin doesn’t mean that a postcolonial spin would be any different from a responsible non-postcolonial spin.  Otherwise we are talking theology, and that has been the unseen barrier to unlocking some of the mysteries we are trying to solve.

As to the name:  I am reposting here a blog from 2010 that announced the new project.  Flatly put, the Center for Inquiry which funded, then defunded the Jesus Project in 2009 at the same time it suspended the operation of CSER, its “host” organization, is happy to let it lie dormant as though it were not dead.  I have asked repeatedly that it be taken off life support and be permitted to die with dignity but it lingers still.  The post following reflects that period.

The announcement of the defunding of TJP and discontinuation of CSER for financial reasons were announced in the ultimate volume of CAESAR: A Journal of Religion and Human Values (which I edited) by Ronald Lindsay in 2009.

As the refugees from the Project discussed a new name (the new president of CFI had written a rather stern warning about “infringement”), it was suggested that “prospect” was a poor substitute.  As plans and enthusiasm grew, the word “process” seemed about right: After all,  we were dealing with two things–the way in which the Jesus tradition developed inch by inch, the way it materialized in writings,  canon and doctine in the second century (that sort of process), and also the methodology that we use to put the picture together.  The emphasis on self-criticism and evidence, and the need to exclude both theology, apologetics, and extreme master-theories, such as “Christ Mythicism,” was the guidepost for choosing “process.”  That’s the explanation, but…

Read on:

The Jesus Prospect

R Joseph Hoffmann

The indefinite suspension of the Jesus Project by its original sponsor, the Center for Inquiry, was a serious blow to an effort that had reached a critical point and was in need of an infusion of trust and money.

Funding such a project appears to have been a factor in its “relative” demise. It’s also true, however, that certain organizations suffer from a kind of chronic indecisiveness about the core premises of their existence and hence the causes they want to support. The Jesus Project in my view was simply an illustration of where a messy mission statement and messier programming gets you. The JP was naturally suspect in the press and among biblical professionals of having an axe to grind because its providing organization ground axes, usually for the purpose of cutting the heads off religious truth claims.

In the long run, no harm done. Groundbreaking (and who doesn’t hate that word) scholarship is actually more common without the razzmatazz of conferences and media hits–through the normal and often isolated networking habits we develop as scholars and critics. If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, the Jesus Project was trending (like the Jesus Seminar before it) to produce not a conclusion but Jesus Vishnu, a god with multiple faces, disguises, incarnations and questionable plausibility.

I was once asked why the Jesus Seminar was so much more visible than the Project and my answer, which was halting, was that the Seminar, while Robert Funk lived, had a better press agent. A little like Paul was to Jesus.

As a matter of fact, online, offline, in a series of articles for the popular web-journal Bible and Interpretation, and in ordinary conversation, I spent more time defending the Project than developing it.

However Jesus would have come out of this inquisition, it would have been the equivalent of a new scourging and crowning with thorns, if not an outright crucifixion. The sensationalist clatter that greeted the announcement of the project in 2007-“What if the Most Significant Man in Human History Never Existed?“–was enough to send chills up the spines of thoughtful men and women who reasoned that scientific investigation began with an accumulation of evidence and not with conclusions in search of support. We have seen bibliosensationalism for decades now, and it seems to be getting worse each year. It’s about selling newspapers and the Christmas week edition of Time, not scholarship.

Felix culpa, then, that the suspension of the Project has worked out well for those of us who felt CFI was simply not “scholarly” enough, not academically credible enough, and not neutral enough to sponsor such an inquiry. This is not to say that what they do they do not do well. But biblical research and historical inquiry, even in their most radical, secular and revisionist forms belongs in a different circle. Ideally it begins in the seminar room, not a marketing session and is driven by the desire to know or discover something, not the opportunity to get flakes and nutters on the same platform with dues-paying scholars.

That is what most of those associated with the project thought before the freeze, what the freeze confirmed, and what set many of us looking for alternatives more suited to the currents and trends in New Testament studies. That is where the Jesus Prospect comes in.

The name reflects the state of the question that the Jesus Project was trying to address: it is an historical issue. It is not a question that was going to be answered by men and women whose minds were made up, some of them laying out new documentary hypotheses, some of them assuming the essential historicity of the gospel story, and some of them fundamentally committed to the doctrine of a mythical Jesus. Here there be monsters. Or more precisely, here there be three different games being played, each with its own set of rules, but using the same all-purpose ball.

I am happy to be working with New Testament scholar Stephanie Fisher in re-writing the script and continuing the work we had begun. We will be making an announcement of consultation members very soon. This space should be watched for who is in and who is not (Matthew 22.14). But unlike the Jesus Project, we want to avoid any impression that results are dictated by foregone (or are they forlorn?) conclusions or that an earth-shattering result is at hand.

D F Strauss, an original myther of sorts

At a speech in Berkeley given by Richard Dawkins last year, the papal atheist was asked why he didn’t debate creationists. He smiled like the cat who knows the canary cage is wide open and that a bird sits tremulously on its perch inside. “For the same reason a geneticist wouldn’t debate a believer in the stork theory,” he announced to the approval of the audience.

That is why the Jesus Prospect must be restated and restarted as an evaluation of evidence, not bullish hypotheses that have been held by their postulators with the same zeal Catholics propose local saints for the calendar.

In fact, there is a good prospect that Jesus of Nazareth existed. It is the most efficient explanation for the gospels, the writings of Paul and the formation of gospels and the church. There is a possibility he did not. The thin possibility cannot be supported by sweeping away the gospels like so much Palestinian debris that occludes a master-theory, anymore than the uncertainty of who the Scythians were proves that Herodotus made them up. I am of one mind with April DeConick when I assay the work of the “mythers”–the born again pre-committed–a term I don’t like very much, but in an odd way one that points to the hollowness of many of the non-historicity arguments.

Jesus Christ or a Jesus Impersonator?

And let me reiterate what I have said, and what’s been blogged about far too much. I don’t know what really happened, the Archimedean point at which Christianity “began.” I think I could construct a perfectly plausible if not indefeasible argument for the non-existence of Jesus. I can do this by ignoring the bare story of the gospels and concentrating instead on the political and literary needs and the quiver-ful of analogous myths of the early church, the door through which Christ entered as savior. But the savior the mythers begin with is not the historical Jesus, and perhaps the Jesus of the gospels has already achieved that status. Everyone (almost) agrees that most of Jesus is a myth of the church, and even the church trades on the mythical power of a name that is basically unhistorical. We don’t need to convince scholars of that. They know it already, and rather wonder why it’s such a big deal to mythers. It’s really a question of knowing where to begin.

Methodologically (if I can be brave) there are two problems. Despite considerable changes to this pattern in the last century (namely an awareness after Walter Bauer that Christianity was not one thing but many, virtually from its cultic origin) there are those scholars who focus too much on the New Testament as a self-authenticating corpus of evidence waiting to be explained through context and various forms of criticism. And there are those, although still a minority, who use context to explain almost everything, particularly the arousal of the religious interests that lead to the New Testament (and the literature of other groups, such as the gnostics). The Jesus assumed to exist as an historical figure exists in the canon of the former. The Jesus of the mythers and pangnosticists exists in penumbra of the latter.

The Jesus Prospect is essentially, in the French sense, an essay–a try–at developing a middle way where the obvious influence of Judaic and Hellenistic belief and the myths that enfold it do not totally suffocate the prospect of an historical Jesus, and the primacy of canon does not totally obliterate the prospect of a savior god who became historicized as a matter of religious evolution, from cult to church.

The headline “Jesus never existed” is not the end-game of this process. But an insistence on the importance of a hearing and verdict on the best available evidence is. And while you are keeping things in mind, keep this in mind: it is almost inevitably true that the result of such an investigation will not pay big dividends. No one will ever be able to render a “scientific” conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth was made up. It is waste of time to try. The proof of this axiom is its opposite: No one–at least no one interested in doing this kind of work or addressing this kind of question–has been convinced by the discovery of the “tombs” of the Jesus dynasty or the Nazareth domiciles. No reputable scholar feels that the Jesus of the Gospel of Judas is any more historical than the canonical Jesus (and perhaps vice versa) or the Jesus of Nag Hammadi.

Increasingly, scholars are returning to question whether the existence of “Q” is more a quest for the grail than a quest for a real document. I count among my friends many who have memorized two, four, and twelve source theories with the enthusiasm ordinarily reserved for a good bottle of wine. But in my opinion, the search for Q ended with Austin Farrer; its reconstructions have been fanciful. And they have been the greatest distraction in New Testament studies for almost a century.

Austin Farrer: Warden of Keble College and Biblical Studies Gadfly

Negative as these tendencies are, they are very healthy tendencies because they show that skepticism is not dead, that a will to find out more is still alive It shows that quick-fix radical, and quick-fix apologetic faith-engendering and overly speculative studies may not win the day, even in the study of the Bible. What hath Schweitzer wrought?