Liberal Scarecrows, Shadows, and Atheist Internet-Experts

eorge Rupp, former president of Columbia and before that the dean of Harvard Divinity School wrote in 1979 that “Christian theology is in disarray; it has neither a goal nor a purpose,” trends follows fads with such dizzying speed, he wrote,  that the discipline is more like a carousel gone wild than an academic discipline.  If Rupp were observing the current state of New Testament scholarship in 2012, he might have written just the same thing.

Why has this situation arisen?  While generalizations are always more convenient than precise, I think it’s safe to say that three overlapping trends explain the current crisis in New Testament studies.

irst, of course, New Testament studies is simply a mess.  It is a mess because many otherwise conscientious scholars (many of them either refugees from or despondents of the Jesus Seminar) had reached the conclusion that the New Testament should be regarded as a theory in search of facts.  Accordingly, the “facts” were arranged and rearranged in sometimes ingenious ways (and sometimes absurd) to support personal theories. The harsh truisms of 100 years of serious “historical-critical” study (not atheism or scholarly extravagance) were largely responsible for the rubble out of which the scholars tried to build a plausible man, but the men they built could not all be the same character as the one described in the gospels.  They differed from each other; they differed, often, from the evidence or context, and–perhaps vitally–they differed from tradition and “standard” interpretations, which had become closely identified with orthodoxy–which in turn was identified with illiberal politics and hence ludicrous and bad. Having left a field full of half clothed and malformed scarecrows, the theorists packed their bags and asked the world to consider their art.

ECOND: the rescucitation of the myth theory as a sort of zombie of a once-interesting question.  The myth theory, in a phrase, is the theory that Jesus never existed. Let me say for the hundredth time that while it is possible that Jesus did not exist it is improbable that he did not. For the possibility to trump the probability, the mythicists (mythtics in their current state of disarray) need to produce a coherent body of evidence and interpretation that persuasively challenges the current consensus.  No argument of that strength has been proved convincing.  Moreover, there are serious heuristic questions about why many of the mythticists want the theory “proved,” the most basic of which is that many are waging a kind of counter-apologetic attack on a field they regard as excessively dominated by magical thinking.

Bruno Bauer

And the “proof”  is unlikely to appear. As someone who actively entertained the possibility for years, I can report that the current state of the question is trending consistently in the direction of the historicity of Jesus and partly the wishful thinking of the mythtics is responsible for the trend. The myth theory, in its current, dyslectic and warmed over state,  has erected the messiest of  all the Jesuses in the field, constructed mainly from scraps discarded by the liberals and so startling (perhaps inevitably) that it looks more like an Egyptian god than a man, less a coherent approach to its object than an explosion of possibilities and mental spasms. Like all bad science, its supporters (mainly internet bloggers and scholarly wannabes)  began the quest with their pet conclusion, then looked for evidence by alleging that anything that counted against it was false, apologetically driven, or failed the conspiracy smell-test. A survey of the (highly revised and hideously written) Wikipedia article on the Christ Myth Theory shows its depressing recent history–from a theory that grew organically out of the history-of-religion approach to Christianity (which drove my own work in critical studies) to a succession of implausibilities and splices as limitless as there were analogies to splice.

The prototype of the Jesus story?

Yet the myth theory is explained by the woeful history of liberal scholarship: ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. It is a direct result of the mess liberal scholarship made of itself.  If the problem with “liberal” scholarship (the name itself suggests the fallacy that guides the work) is that a flimsy, fact-free, wordless Jesus could be a magician, a bandit, an eschatologist, a radical, a mad prophet, a sane one, a tax revolutionary, a reforming rabbi (anything but Jesus the son of God)–the mythical Jesus could be Hercules, Osiris, Mithras, a Pauline vision, a Jewish fantasy, a misremembered amalgam of folk tales, a rabbi’s targum about Joshua. In short–the mirror image of the confusion that the overtheoretical and under-resourced history of the topic had left strewn in the field.  If the scarecrows concocted  by the liberals were made from rubble, the mythtic Jesuses were their shadows. If the bad boys of the Jesus Seminar had effectively declared that the evidence to hand means Jesus can be anything you want him to be, there is some justice in the view that Jesus might be nothing at all.

he Myth Theories, in some respects, but not every detail,  are the plus ultra of the old liberal theories rooted in the Enlightenment and the philosophy of Kant and Schleiermacher, abetted by the work of Strauss and his sympathizers. Perhaps that is why New Testament scholarship is so eerily quiet or so lazy towards them, and why the proponents of the theory feel betrayed when scholars who point them to their own scarecrows  suddenly say that while the scarecrow exists, the shadow doesn’t.  That is what happened (unmysteriously) when the very liberal Bart Ehrman, thought to be a “friend” to atheists and mythtics, decided to draw a ring around his neck of the field and say that a makeshift Jesus made of doctrinal rags and literary plunder is better than no Jesus at all.  It is not nice to be driven into a field, invited to choose the most appealing strawmen to reject, and then told that only scholars can reject scarecrows. New Testament scholarship defends its nominal field with a No Trespassing sign that invites the suspicion that there is very little to protect.

inally, the New Atheism.  In a minor scholarly rhapsody called Of Love and Chairs, I tried to suggest that not believing in God is not the same as not believing in Jesus.  In fact, it is only through making a category error that the two beliefs can be bought into alignment.  It is true that both God and Jesus are “discussed” in the Bible (though Jesus only in an appendix).  And it is true that later theology understood the Bible to be saying that Jesus was a god or son of God. But of course, very few scholars today think the Bible actually says that or meant to say that.  It is also true that the God of the Hebrew Bible walks, talks, flies through the sky, makes promises, wreaks venegance, gives laws and destroys sinners. And surely, that is a myth–or at least, extravagantly legendary. Thus, if God and Jesus occupy the same book and his father is a myth, then he must be a myth as well.

This reasoning is especially appealing to a class of mythicists I’ll call “atheoementalists,” a group of bloggers who seem to have come from unusually weird religious backgrounds and who were fed verses in tablespoons on the dogma that all of the Bible is, verse for verse, completely, historically, morally and scientifically true.  To lose or reject that belief and cough up your verses means that every one of them must now be completely false.

The New Atheism comes in as a handy assist because it came on the scene as a philosophical Tsunami of militant opposition to religion in general but biblical religion in particular.  NA encouraged the category error that the rejection of a historical Jesus was nothing more than the logical complement of rejecting the tooth fairy, the sandman, Santa and the biblical God. Conversely, believing in the god of the Bible, or Jesus, was the same as believing in (why not?) a Flying Spaghetti Monster. The NAs were less driven by the belief that religion was untrue than that religion was all bad, that God is Not Great, that it is toxic, hostile to science (the true messianic courier) and a delusion, a snappy salute to Freud’s diagnosis.

While the books of all four NA “Horsemen” were roundly thumped in the literate press as hastily conceived and shoddily reasoned attacks–largely provoked by the anti-religion and anti-Muslim rage of the post-9-11 world–they became canonical, and strategic, for large numbers of people who wanted to take Dawkins’s war against religion from Battleship Mecca to Battleship Biblicana. It is intersting for example than in the Wiki article on the Christ Myth Theory referenced above, where almost anyone who has floated the notion gets a mention,  someone has felt it necessary to insert Richard Dawkins’s irrelevant opinion that “a good case can be made for the non-existence of Jesus,” though he “probably did” exist (God Delusion, 2006, 96-7).  –Irrelevant and non-supportive.

IBERAL scarecrows, mythicist shadows, and atheist internet-experts who argue history as though scholarship was a polticial slanging match of opposing “opinions.” That is not the end of a story but the description of a situation.  I do not believe that “professional” New Testament studies, divided as it still is, especially in America, by confessionally biased scholars, fame-seekers, and mere drudges, is able to put its house in order. Their agendas only touch at the Society of Biblical Literature conclaves, and there c.v. padding and preening far outweigh discussion of disarray and purpose.  I think the situation in New Testament studies has been provoked by a “Nag Hammadi” generation–myself included–who weren’t careful with the gifts inside the Pandora’s box, so greedy were we for new constructions of ancient events.

But as part of a generation that thought it was trying to professionalize a field that had been for too- long dominated by theology, Bible lovers, and ex-Bible lovers, it is disheartening now to see it dominated by the political interests that flow from the agenda-driven scholarship of the humanities in general–attempts to see the contemporary in the ancient.  The arrogance of the “impossibility of the contrary” has displaced the humility of simply not knowing but trying to find out.

I have to sympathize with the mythtics when I lecture them (to no avail) about the “backwardness ” of their views and how New Testament scholarship has “moved beyond” questions of truth and factuality–how no one in the field is (really) talking about the historicity of the resurrection any more. How the word “supernatural” is a word banned from the scholarly vocabulary, just as “providential” and “miraculous” explanations are never taken seriously in assessing the biblical texts. They missed the part where we acknowledged it wasn’t true, and so did the people in the pews. They want to know–and it’s a fair question–where it has moved to.  This is not a defense of mythicism; it a criticism of the stammering, incoherent status quo and failure to do what a discipline is supposed to do: look critically and teach responsibly.

Robert Funk, a founder of the Jesus Seminar

I do not think, either, that the voices of dissent have much, if anything to offer.  I’m well aware that many of my colleagues are grossly ignorant of the history of radical New Testament criticism.  That being so, they are unlikely respondents in the defense of sound method. Perhaps that is why they are  unresponsive, in an era where non-response is always interpreted as a sign of weakness–especially in the gotcha culture of the blogosphere.

If the challenge to mythtics is to come up with something better than the more cognizant radicals had produced by 1912, the challenge for liberal and critical scholarship is to recognize that the mess that made the mess possible–the scarecrows that created the shadows–need to be rethought.  That’s what scholarship, even New Testament scholarship, is meant to be about: rethinking. That is what the Jesus Process is all about.

See also: “Threnody, Rethinking the Thinking Behind the Jesus Project,” The Bible nd Interpretation, October 2009.


God Responds to Rick Perry’s Prayer

At a Christian prayer rally called “The Response” in Austin, Texas on August 6th, Governor Rick Perry closed his remarks on the state of the nation with the following prayer:

“Father, our heart breaks for America, We see discord at home, we see fear in the  marketplace, we see anger in the halls of government. And as a nation, we have  forgotten who made us, who protects us, who blesses us.  And for that we cry out for your forgiveness.”

In unusually swift turnaround time, the Texas Governor’s office received the following reply from God at 4.30 PM, CST:

“Dear Governor Perry, Rick if I may–

My heart breaks too.  It breaks everytime I hear the voices of brainlesss politicians saying out loud what they know in their cheating hearts isn’t true.  Most world leaders don’t do this anymore.  It’s a blessing, really.  Lets me get on with my nap.  But even when I was younger I didn’t listen.  Speaking of cheating hearts, I love that song. How does it go again?  I’m guessing that it and Turkey in the Straw are the only songs you know, so I thought I’d mention it. I’ve always believed in finding the common ground. Just ask the Palestinians.  That’s called jest, Rick. It wouldn’t hurt you to smile at something other than Yo Mama jokes.

One of the few places where Nazi airheads like you still get an audience is America. Especially Texas. And Pakistan and places like that.  Places where there are lots of guns.  With all those guns, I don’t think I’d be much good to you really.  Never learned to use one.  My brother Zeus used to be good with thunderbolts. Guns, not so much.

Just a couple of corrections, though.  Since you’ve only got fourscore years and ten and have used up more than two thirds of that already, no reason to waste your breath asking for things that I can’t make can’t happen in your lifetime.

First of all, I don’t have any control over the marketplace.  That’s way out of my league, complexity-wise. I didn’t even give instructions for the ark–it was Noah’s idea.  He was afraid it wouldn’t float, so he reckoned that if everybody in his family drowned he could just say, “Don’t blame me. God gave me the plan.”  A lot of my official story, the one that’s in the book you keep in your top desk drawer next to your old copies of Maxim, is like that–stuff that you humans screwed up and came crying to me too late when it was already fucked. It worked for a couple of thousand years, but it’s played hell with my reputation.

No one could decide whether I was a sadistic old bastard who liked hurting people who couldn’t keep my rules or a nice old dad-type who sends a helping hand when things look hopeless. Like when junior runs his credit card into the ground in his first semster at Amherst.  Or when the bills come due on all the wars you Texas boys seem to like so much. Or when your daddy had that chat with the dean about whether you were going to be able to graduate with a 1.o average.  Money talks Rick.  God doesn’t.

Let me tell you something else,  Rick: I didn’t give you those commandments and I didn’t send my only begotten son to help you out.  I don’t care whose ox gores a foreigner or what you do with your neighbour’s ass.  And I certainly never had an interest in first century Palestinian virgins.  They’re all stories Rick, stories.

The fact is, I’ve never really done anything, so you can’t count on me to change the market place, or people’s cheatin’ hearts, or fish you out of the financial swamp you’re making for yourself. You know how you prayed to me (you used to call me “Merciful God” and cry when you were loaded) to make “everything OK” with the girl you thought you got pregnant ?  Sorry I couldn’t help–not even offer you a tissue.

I didn’t create you, or your lovely wife, Anita Thigpen, or anybody else.  I didn’t even make the little green apples.  And I hate it when people call me “Father”.  I mean for Christ sake, you’re sixty years old.  Grow up a little.  How much protecting and saving do you need at your age?  It reminds me of the time Abraham came running to me when it was pretty clear that Sodom was going down the sewer.  “Won’t you help us?,” he said, “What if I find a few good men who believe in you?”  “Believe in me?  What does that even mean? It won’t make any difference,” I said. “It’s going down.”  And down it went.  I know, I know: in the black  Bible book in your top drawer you have Abraham’s version–but that’s the way it really happened.  Sodom was a cesspool, full of people whose ways were continually evil, like Texas. Shit happens because people like you make it happen and then expect me to clean it up. Not my fault, Rick.  Your fault.

I know you’ve heard a lot of stories, Rick, and you’ve sung about how great I am, but really I’m just an idea.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a great big idea, in the right minds,  so when imbeciles like you treat me like a slot machine asking for divine mercy, favor, protection and toys I have to laugh.  Is it only cowboys like you who got straight D’s in college that still believe in a god so softheaded that he would protect bumblers like you from certain disaster, a God just like your daddy, Joe Ray.

A first-class, omnipotent God would make sure you fail–maybe even wipe Texas off the face of the continent just as a precaution .  But it’s not in my power to do that or improve America’s credit rating, anymore than I can raise the average IQ of the Tea Party.  Maybe being good with a grenade launcher will help. But I’m skeptical.  I’m about as effective as your idea of me, and your idea of me is–well–pathetic.

Frankly Governor, if I did exist I’d have gone to school, and read books, and learned some science–learned about the way the world really happened, and how good governments operate, and what we can do to help each other out by using our brains. I wouldn’t have wasted my time jumping out of planes, setting off fire crackers in the men’s toilet at fraternity parties, chasing skirt and pretending that the world was all ok because my Imaginary Friend would always make things better when I got caught.  I wouldn’t waste my time making deserts out of gardens the way you have and then praying to a supreme being for more rain and another chance.  You humans have always been a big disappointment on the evolutionary tree, but you Republican humans are really making survival of the fittest an act of faith.

So, Rick, much as I hate to disappoint you, and I hope I have, there is no quick fix here, no prayable moment.

To quote someone I’ve always admired named Benjamin Franklin, God helps those who help themselves, not buggers like you who don’t use the brains Nature gave you.



Me, The Tree, and Genesis Three

People who read this site know that I am no friend of biblical fundamentalism.

I’ve quipped that fundamentalism is text without context. Even that to have a fundamentalist outlook is to have the adult equivalent of a “teenager’s fear of vampires.”

Which makes this morning’s class in the books of the Old Testament (aka Hebrew Bible) all the more exhilarating.

It seemed that everyone who came, Bible in hand, to rustle through the stories of the creation and fall had been carrying another book and reading a different story.

“Of course,” I said, turning a little aside from my PowerPoint screen, “as the introduction tells us, there are several accounts of creation.” After decades of saying this, my voice is usually flat on this riveting point–like saying “Bread can be made from several different kinds of grain.”

“Are you saying this isn’t true” a student named Jancie said, without looking up from her cell phone. Her Introduction to Business Studies book is on top her desk where her Bible was supposed to be. Both books are fat and have green covers.

“No,” I said. “I’m saying the story is composite–more like a magazine than a book with a single writer.”

“We learned in my Church that Moses is the author,” said an earnest boy who sits as far back and close to the escape door as he can get. “So, that isn’t what you’re saying?”

“It isn’t anything I said,” I said. “Moses is certainly an important figure in the books after the Book of Genesis. He doesn’t really have a walk on part in Genesis. He isn’t what Genesis is about.”

I also wanted to quip that if he’s the author of the first five books of the Bible he’s the only one in history to narrate his own death and departure. I bite my tongue.

“Genesis is about how we fell from God’s grace and why God sent his son into the world.” Laetitia, radiant, smiling, immune from having read the assignment.

“Well, that is certainly how a lot of people read the story,” I began. “But that really is not the story. Or stories. Maybe if we just forget about who wrote it and what our church teaches about it, we can look at the story.”

They looked disappointed. Years before, I had taught in places where, by this point, books would be open, cross references and footnote defenses of conservative interpretations in the Scofield Reference Bible would be checked. The Christian apologetics machine would be whirring away.

But that was then. Now, things are different. Attitudes and minformation (minimal information) have replaced informed zealotry. The students do not know that the Bible was written in Hebrew. They cannot distinguish between ancient Near Eastern civilization and the Crusades. One suggested that when the First Couple was thrown out of the Garden they went to live in a nearby castle. Another asked if Navi’s was spoken in Hebrew times.

For them, the Bible doesn’t belong to a stream of literature and pop culture that includes talking dragons, miracle workers, feats of superhuman strength, bloody battles, teenage pregnancy and torrid, hopeless love. But the Bible has all of this–had all of this–before Disney and MGM had it.

“I’m going do do something different today,” I say mysteriously.

No response, though the hope might have been walk out the door and give us a long weekend.

“I’m going to read you the story. You’re going to follow along.”

Looks-askance, muffled groans. He can’t be real. I start. Genesis 3.1.

“Now the serpent was the craftiest of all the wild beasts that the Lord God had made…”

“What page are you on,” asks Antony, the boy at the back.

“It’s not a page, Tony: it’s Genesis 3.1–we use chapters and verse numbers to find our way through the Bible.”

He scrummages around, ending (from what I could tell) somewhere near the Book of Revelation. “It’s the very first book of the first part of the Bible. First sentence —next to to the big 3 in the column.”

“Got it,” he says.

I press on. I raise and lower my voice in doing the parts of the Sepent. I make a slightly hissing sound which defeats the whole purpose of my lecture. –Slightly ditz when I play the role of Eve, then realize the very angry girl in the third row thinks I’m making fun of women. I make a note to myself that the next time through, I will cast this using the class as the dramatis personae. That way I get to be God.

I climb to verse 8: “And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day…”

“Why’d he need to cool off,” Laetitia interrupts.

“Because he hot,” says Geraldo, who had never uttered a word before and usually sits with one ear plug hanging out and one hanging in.

There are a few laughs.

“The Lord God called to the man and said, ‘Where are you?’ and the Man said, ‘I heard the sound of you in thre garden and I was afraid because I was naked….”

Dorothea (Thea) who seems to have passed through Catholic schools without much impact, wonders out loud if he is afraid and hiding because he is ugly.

Geraldo tells her that he is afraid because, you know, it’s like getting out of the shower and finding a stranger in your apartment, hellooo? Exactly, I say. Not exactly, I think.

I move on to the curses: “To the serpent he said, because you have done this thing, cursed are you before all cattle, and above all wild animals. Upon your belly you will crawl, and dust you will eat all the days of your life.”

A pale boy named Brian, who instinctively dislikes me because he thinks I only pretend to know things, says, “Nice curse, a snake has to crawl on its belly. That’s like telling a duck he has to swim.”

Feeling ever so slightly eager to increase Brian’s antagonism, I caution, “No, the serpent’s not a snake. He’s a mythical beast, more like a talking dragon. Think small dragon–feet, wings, smart.”

“She like him,” Geraldo says. “I can tell she like him more than Adam. She a dragon lady.”

“That’s certainly possible,” I said. “This story has been interpreted lots of ways. Maybe that’s there, too. But notice, he’s morphed into a snake, and for many ancient people, snakes are loathsome things.”

“My dog killed a snake once,” Brian says proudly. “I think it was poisonous.”

“No one give squat about your dog. Let the man tell the story.”

“To the woman he said, I will greatly increase your pain in childbearing; you will bring forth children in agony, and yet you will desire your husband. And he will rule over you.”

Laetitia is frowning. “So this book says that the reason women have to put up with so much shit sorry so much stuff is because God wants us too? That’s just crazy. I reading no book that has that kind of crazy idea.”

Geraldo is nodding. Brian is reading chapter four hoping for a way around all the trouble.

“And to the Man he said, because you have listened to the voice of your wife and eaten of the fruit of the tree…cursed is the ground because of you; in sweat you will eat of it all the days of your life…You are dust and to dust you will return.”

“My book says earth,” says Tony.

“Same thing,” says Thea, nailing the plot. “It’s all dirt. That’s what the story is saying, you do dirt you get dirt.”

We moved on to how God sends them out of Eden, out of paradise, out of the place where the fruit falls from the trees into their naked laps, the animals obey when they are called, where there is no sickness or disease, and no one ever sweats, where if they had played their cards right, they would never have grown old.

We explore why God is anxious to shut the gate:

“Because the man has become like one of us [gods], knowing good and evil, and might now put forth his hand and snatch the fruit of the tree of life and eat it and live forever.”

“How many trees are there?” I ask.

“One,” says Tony.

“Two,” says Geraldo, “man can’t you count. “They out of there.”

He drove the man out and to the east of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the tree of life.”

No one spoke. Even Brian had rejoined us in chapter three. Laetitia said we had ten minutes and could we read more. Geraldo finally shook his head and said.

“Professor, did anyone ever believe this stuff?”

Lateitia, who looked the most worried over the forbidden passages we had just read came up with a better answer than I was ready to give.

“It’s the only story they had.”

Defining Fundamentalism

“To be a fundamentalist, you have to have a book. And you have to forget the book has a history.”

A New Oxonian Oldie

I’ve been puzzling about this recently: whether there is anything that Christian and Muslim fundamentalists have in common. I’ll leave the Jews and the Sikhs and Hindus to one side for a minute. Just because I want to.

First of all, you have to have a book to be a fundamentalist. It’s no good trying to say you take your religion seriously if you don’t have a page to point at or a verse to recite.

Theoretically, various gurus can exert the same sort of control that a book can exert over the mind of a true believer. But usually gurus begin by pointing at books as well.

That’s what both Jim Jones of People’s Temple, Inc., and David Koresh of Branch Davidian fame did. They were just the messengers, albeit the ones you had to sleep with to get the keys to the kingdom.

They became convinced that they were the fulfillment of texts they’d read one too many times. In the same way, the music of rote repetition seems to inspire Taliban leaders like Mullah Omar and the late and invidious Baitullah Mehsud as well. Fundamentalists read texts written 1000 years ago as though they were hot off the press–like this from the world’s most famous MIA:

Praise be to God, who revealed the Book, controls the clouds, defeats factionalism, and says in His Book: “But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war)….The Arabian Peninsula has never–since God made it flat, created its desert, and encircled it with seas–been stormed by any forces like the crusader armies spreading in it like locusts, eating its riches and wiping out its plantations. All this is happening at a time in which nations are attacking Muslims like people fighting over a plate of food.” (1998 fatwah)

It’s so easy to forget the Crusades, isn’t it? Especially since the last one ended in 1291 with the interlopers in full retreat, barely managing to keep the booty in their saddlebags as they galloped away.

But to review, two things pop out at us immediately when you think of fundamentalism: you have to have a book that you take deadly seriously, and you have to forget that the book has a history.

The second point is massively important, because it permits the fundamentalist to ignore science, cultural change, and prevents the possibility of seeing the book as being, in any sense, out of date, irrelevant, or out of touch with current political or ethical contexts. If people had prophets then, who’s to say they can’t have prophets now?, say the David Koreshs and Dale Barlows of this world. We say so, say the Omar Bakri Mohammeds and Abu Izzadeens right back. After all, we’re reading different books. We can’t all be right. Fundamentalism is always particular to the truth claims of a group: one man’s fundamentals are another man’s pornography. Both responses to books written a long time ago are manifestations of historical illiteracy.

Revd Hagee

Another thing, an important feature: fundamentalists have to be right. Not in the sense you and I might be right if we scored a Daily Double on Jeopardy. Right in the sense that there has to be a slope-shouldered, humiliated wrong sitting next to it. Right in the sense that there can’t be a middle way between good and evil.

Fundamentalists have no trouble doing this because the world of late antiquity where their ideas were forged in an atmosphere of petty monarchic rivalries and mythic theomachies–mainly in the Middle East and North Africa, by the way–was an easily divisible cosmos. Us and Them, equated easily to good and evil, in political and hence in religious terms. That’s what Mani taught, what Zoroaster taught before him.


It’s also what Muhammad and his followers preached, what the Qumran War Scroll is all about (1QM, 4Q491-496) and (no good trying to wriggle out of it: read Mark 13.13) what Jesus taught, in his eschatological rhapsodies at least.

The notion that in the end, “all of Darkness is to be destroyed and Light will live in peace for all eternity” is very appealing. But there’s a good chance the person next to you belongs to the other side. At least that’s what you’ve been taught. To be a fundamentalist is to have the religious equivalent of a teenager’s fear of vampires.

That’s what makes the next two characteristics of fundamentalism so important: extermination (in two forms) and conversion. The People’s Temple, the Yearn for Zion (YFZ) Mormons and the Branch Davidian “cults” created or were ready to create manufactured mini-holocausts to vindicate their beliefs.

When the sheriffs’ cars rolled up on the edge of their compounds, the sacred boundary between purity and corruption, they were ready to go home. Everything about the outside world was smutty, dirty, and unchaste–huge horrible spaces swarming with unbelievers who mocked them and raced home in a satanic frenzy to watch smutty, dirty and unchaste television shows.

They had a point of course. The culture is filled with crap and we do tend to regard people who wear gingham dresses (and worry so much about chastity that they will only have sex and babies with a purified leader) as a bit off the beam. It’s a tired observation, I know, but fundamentalism is self-marginalizing:the blessings of secular culture and the contempt of its protagonists for nonconformity serve as proof to every child eight and up that daddy and mommy are “right” because difference is the ultimate distinction.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, self-extermination, a form of martyrdom, is a way in which Christian crazies can vindicate their readings of sacred writ.

Homicidal martyrdom is the trademark of Islamic fundamentalists, a much messier way to do business. You begin with the same premise as the one quoted above from bin Laden, the exemplary coward who has caused the deaths of tens of thousands of his fans, as when he sings the praises of young men who behead unbelievers:

The youths also reciting the All-Mighty words of Quran: Smite the necks…(Muhammad; 47:19). Those youths will not ask you for explanations, they will tell you, singing, there is nothing between us that needs to be explained, there is only killing and neck smiting….They have no intention except to enter paradise by killing you. An infidel, and enemy of God like you, cannot be in the same hell with his righteous executioner. (bin Laden, 1996)

Pleasure to know, moreover, that the martyr-fundamentalist does not experience the excruciating pain of his bleeding or burning infidel victims; they have the word of no less an authority than Saheeh Al-Jame’-as-Sagheer, who lived “in the seventh generation” after the Prophet and attributes the saying to Muhammad. “A martyr will not feel the pain of death except like [sic] how you feel when you are pinched.”

The idea that the martyr dies painlessly while others are screeching around him is meant to be reassuring to the half-hearted volunteer, whose rational soul tells him that he has never witnessed a death free from agony and that comrades who have been wounded in engagements with the unbelievers suffer immensely. Still, they have the word of as-Sagheer ringing in their ears: “With the first gush of [your] blood, [you] will be shown thy seat in paradise, decorated with jewels.”

Finally, fundamentalism is all about conversion, heavily infatuated with growth. It isn’t enough that the fanatic kingdom-comers of the world erect temples. They want to put people in them. That requires a recruitment program.

The statistics speak for themselves. In our stunningly up-to-the-minute culture where we can instantly communicate mathematical solutions and the latest groundbreaking article in medical research from The Lancet around the world with the flick of a key, people who think death can be like a loving pinch or noogie are clocked (in terms of percentage increase since 1989) as follows:

Islam in North America, +25%
Islam in Africa: +2.15%
Islam in Asia: +12.57%
Islam in Europe: +142.35%
Islam in Australia: +257.01%

This is not all “conversion,” of course; but conversion is a geographical and cultural mandate in Islam, and conversion from more lenient to more literal forms of Islam is also on the rise. According to an October 2009 estimate, Taliban numbers of fighters alone–those who are attracted mainly by martyrdom rather than philanthropy and virtue, went from 7,000 in Northern Afghanistan to 25,000. (Reuters, Saturday Oct. 10, 2009).

By comparison, it is becoming more difficult to define what a “fundamentalist” Christian is, potentially because the ground under his feet is more prone to cultural shift. But if we think of biblical literalism, an intolerance of  “soft” forms of Christianity (often equated to a kind of mainstream liberal heresy), the importance of conversion (in this case, evangelism), and prophetic fulfillment as the non-negotiables of fundamentalism, the following statistic is, you should pardon the expression, revealing:

Pentecostal and charismatic denominations have grown by 37% since 2001; the Churches of Christ by 48%; the Assemblies of God by 68%. (United) Methodists and Northern Baptist by 0%, Jews, -10% and Catholics, through a healthy infusion of Hispanic and Latino votaries, a mere 11%. The undeniable appeal of taking God’s word seriously is unslaked by contemporary life.

Which causes me to muse: Did you ever stop to think that no matter how many times you read Peter Pan as a child you could never quite persuade yourself that you could jump out of a third story window and fly, just by thinking wonderful thoughts? Maybe you tried launching yourself from the top bunk–just once, but never the window.

I hope I make my point.

Atheist Tantrums: The New Loud


What do you get when you cross a new atheist with a Jehovah’s Witness?
Someone who knocks on your door for no reason at all.

This will be brief. Blasphemy Day, God love it, has come and gone. Soon the giggling will stop. Dogs, horses and Episcopalians will be left wondering what the point was. The few Pentecostals who can read a newspaper will say, “See, told you so,” and head for the basement before the anti-Christ rides through town.

I was musing yesterday why, as a pretty fervent Roman Catholic in the 1960’s, I fell on the floor in paroxysms of laughter when a friend (also Catholic) played Tom Lehrer’s “Vatican Rag” for me for the first time. I still laugh when I hear it, even though most twenty-first century Catholics don’t know what a kyrie eleison is or bother to stand in line for confession. In college, a little less fervent, I knew priests (many of whom aren’t any more) who knew the song from front to back. We used to break it out on cue at Charlie’s Beef and Beer (RIP) at Harvard.

So if irreverence can be funny (and I love irreverence as much as I love Mahler) why do I think Blasphemy Day was such a fuckwitted idea?

Well for one thing, as I said in my two posts on the topic, bad art, bad jokes, and behavior designed to be stupid and offensive are seldom funny except to insiders.


A competition to see who can come up with the worst art, the worst joke, and the most self-referentially stupid behavior will have to be judged by how funny the insiders think it is.

I’m guessing the atheist insiders peed their pants. As for those standing outside the circle (those dogs, horses and Episcopalians), let the cattle judge.

An NPR story on the subject tried to link the Center for Inquiry-sponsored event to a growing rift between old school and new atheism.

If I bought the distinction, I would be expected to say that the “old atheism” as represented by ardent secularists like Paul Kurtz was warm and cuddly whereas the newer form, usually thought to be incarnate in Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris (et al.) is tactically less subtle, more aggressive, unkinder.

But I don’t buy it. The old atheism was full of cranks and angry old men, but some of them were clever. Many of them (as my grandmother used to say) knew a thing or two. The big distinction between the old and the new is that the old atheism depended on a narrative, based in philosophy, and linked itself to a long tradition of rational decision-making. Not choosing to believe in God was an act of deliberation, not a foregone conclusion. At its best, it was studious and reflective. At its worst, it was purely negative, abrasive and sometimes nihilistic.

The best form of the old atheism had a lot in common with certain theological trends, ranging from nominalism to religious realism and minimalism–the sort of stance you get from Don Cupitt’s best writings. The worst, rejectionist stream of atheism, was marked (or marred) by intolerance and a lack of table manners. It was an atheism for the unsophisticated young and the dispirited old. Wedged between were Philistines of all ages, one big unhappy family.

What’s now being called “new atheism” or atheist fundamentalism is really nothing more than the triumph of the jerks. Unsubtle, unlearned (but pretentious), unreflective (but persistent). They have heroes in super-jerks like PZ Myers (yes, the one who drives spikes through communion “crackers” as he calls them, and Korans) because

Edgy is what young people like….They want to cut through the nonsense right away and want to get to the point. They want to hear the story fast, they want it to be exciting, and they want it to be fun. And I’m sorry, the old school of atheism is really, really boring.

Did you get that: really? Presumably Mr Myers has tenure, but I for one would love to see his teaching philosophy unpacked when it comes out in book form. Students may also like it raunchy, naked, and loud. And that’s why we used to think a university was a good place to lead people out of the tribe and toward civilization. Not PZ. Give him a hammer and he’ll follow you anywhere.

Almost as bad is the point made by CFI executive Ron Lindsay who says that his “research” organization will “take the high road, the low road, country roads, interstates, highways, byways, — whatever it takes to reach people.” Sounds strangely like Jesus, except the bit about the low road.

To the extent this highways and hedges approach works, imagine the good news: “Rejoice greatly: for unto you this day is born in the City of Right Reason…absolutely Nothing.”

Here is my prophecy. The raw atheism of the raw atheists who have given us Blasphemy Day and probably have other delights in store for us is loud because they already know no one is listening, at least no one who matters.

The shrill tones of the movement have to be amplified for the same reason cinemas now have to pump up the volume to drown out the hundred private conversations that are going on during the film, person to person, cell phone to cell phone, tweet to tweet. It is shouting, pure and simple because loud wins. Stupid and loud is even better, and outrageously stupid and loud is best.

But while all this is going on, there are many who style themselves humanists and are not believers in any conventional sense who want to say, “Shut up-I’m watching the movie.” (More precisely, “Shut up, we’re trying to think.,” or maybe read. What we need is an intellectual resource for thoughtful humanists, the thoughtful seekers who don’t think it’s cool to “repent” of your baptism by having a hairdryer pointed at your head.

What I miss about the old atheism–even though I still find its central premises wobbly and unconvincing–is that thinking was permitted. The conversation continued. There was no infallible source of confidence. Skepticism reigned.

The new atheism is a catechism of conclusions reached, positions taken, dogmas pronounced. It is more like the Catholicism I giggled to see parodied, a church too sure of itself and its exclusive ability to save souls and reveal the kingdom.

A Prayer:

Oh Thou who hast no name and many…and may not even be there:

Bring back clever.

Smite with a bolt of intelligence all enemies of parody and good satire.

Bring low the self-assurance of the Brights, and unto the Dims give light.

With a stroke of your mighty pen lay waste the stupidity of your deniers and confound the certainty of your defenders.

Render mute, O heavenly Conundrum, the loudness of the gainsayers and the loudness of the speakers in tongues. Do it soon.

And do Thou, O King, or Something, of the Unseen Regions of my Brain, grant me the endurance to suffer religious fools as gladly as I suffer the Atheist. And failing that, send a scorching fire upon the earth, if it isn’t asking too much.