Love in Transoxiana

The first thing to know is that Transoxiana (Transoxania) is a western fiction: The name stuck in Western consciousness because of the exploits of Alexander the Great, who extended Greek culture into the region with his conquests of the 4th century BC. Transoxiana was the far north-eastern point of Hellenistic culture until the Arab invasion. During the Sassanid Empire (>7th century CE) it was often called Sogdiana, a provincial name taken from the Achaemenid Empire, and used to distinguish it from nearby Bactria. These now sound like names out of mythology. Perhaps they are, partly. But their purchase on the land, the culture, the people, and the cities is permanent.

Once upon a time this was a center of Arabic learning—in the so-called Sassanid period—due to the immense wealth the region derived from the silk road. The Arabs knew it simply as the “land beyond the river” (Ma wara’un-Nahr ) and its two great cities—Samarkand and Bukhara–attracted large numbers of well-off and educated Iranians to the area. (Their descendants are easy to spot. They are fair, often have startling blue eyes) Later still, between the 8th and 14th century Transoxiana flourished under successive Arab dynasties and then under the rule of Genghis Khan and his successors.


But that is history, mixed with mythology and characterized by loose geographical borders and the migratory patterns of mountain people who clung to their nomadic ways and cultures, away from the meccas of central Asian civilization. The later history of this area is a history of consolidation under the protective wing of Mother Russia, under the Czars, and under the Soviet Regime. East Europeans, Germans, and thousands of Russians entered or were enticed to the area creating an ethnic mix unlike anything you are likely to encounter anywhere else on earth.

When you leave China—which, recall, is essentially a one- family country since the end of Mongol rule—the Han of the Middle Kingdom–you leave the pleasant ennui of a pattern of physical and facial features that evolves from three thousand years of family business. Westerners are often accused of a kind of racial blindness when they say All Chinese look alike. Obviously this is not true at one level—especially if you are Chinese. Your uncle Harry looks different from your father, after all. But the fact is, one will never feel so foreign as one does in China, especially in a country that celebrates its cultural sameness in much the same way that mono-cultures have throughout history. “God made everyone different,” a Facebook poster says. “He got tired by the time he came to China.”

But to cross the border from far western China into Kyrgyzstan is to cross from mysterious Asia to a mystical Indo European world where Asian features, raven hair, dark eyes, high cheekbones and a severe intelligence blend with pale skin, auburn hair and blue eyes at every corner, in every shop and restaurant. If you know the fascinating history of the Silk Road, the trading route that traversed the mountain ranges and valleys of central Asia into China, you can easily imagine camels and horses and elephants along the way. Even in the 4th century BCE Alexander lost soldiers to the allure of the area, and began a long history of people toppling into the patchwork of khanates and kingdoms that would emerge as the modern nations of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. –stan, incidentally (meaning the place where one stays) has the same Indo European root, Persian *sta-, as its distant Germanic cousin, English (stand).

What ties everyone together here is language, which in Bishkek (and Kyrgyzstan, more generally) is Russian. Russian is spoken by everyone, all the time, as the principal means of communication. Following the pattern of many nations, the local language, a Turkic language, Kyrgyz is spoken by the rural population and by others, usually at home, who see it as an import symbol of national identity and independence. If you want to buy a shirt, or a hamburger, or a shot of vodka, or a massage, however, you will need to know Russian.

Which is okay, because after German I like Russian best. My taxicab Chinese and my reach-for-the-dictionary-Arabic have gotten me by. But Russian is a language worth knowing. It has more grammar than, well, a Russian bazaar has sausage. It has all the intricacy a linguist could desire: complex verbs, gendered nouns, weird plurals, case endings, idioms that seem to rise out of the sinew into the consciousness as easily as steam pours off water. Russian is a good language for pot-bellied bureaucrats with square jaws and also for slim, throaty beauties named Natalya. After French it is the best first language to speak if you want to speak sexy English or just sound like a person who needs to be taken seriously. I don’t think you can refuse someone with a Russian accent anything.


Bishkek, which used to be Frunze, is the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic, which used to be the Kyrgyz Soviet Republic, and an integral part of the Soviet Union, which is now the Russian Federation, sort of. After year five, Russian-speaking children in schools were given the choice of learning German or English, at least in city schools, and many chose English. Unlike China where even university students are immune to the dulcets of English and the general population totally unaware that their Han dialect isn’t universally apprehended, a lot of people in the central Asian capitals speak a little English. Some speak it well. I’m told there used to be a sizable German population in the city—now nowhere to be found, as a group, but their legacy is that a lot of Kyrgyz people know a little German as well.

Bishkek was once the greenest capital in central Asia and of all the former soviet republics. Taxi drivers will now wag their heads sadly and say, No. Not anymore. Now it’s (take your choice) Almaty (the capital of Kazakhstan) or Tashkent, the capital city of Uzbekistan.

But Bishkek is undeniably special: it is very green. The streets drip with leafy trees, the city is dotted with parks and flowers are planted in every crevice. Behind this vernal cover there are interesting shops filled with clothes, fabrics, toys, books, and food. Bishkek has no tall buildings, unlike its competitors in the larger neighboring states. It is queenly and quiet and clean. The sidewalks are a jagged mess of original cement and decades of patches, but it gives them a kind of durability, as long as you’re not on your way home from a local watering hole at 1 AM and balance-challenged on your journey.


I fell in love with the city at first sight, and now every day I can hardly wait to get out into it.

Unlike east Asian cities, it has no obvious love for glitz or modernity. Unlike the soviet days, it seems full of plenty: produce and merchandise spill out onto sidewalks. There are no shortages, no sad faces, no empty stores—or not many. Compared to American cities I’ve seen in the last year, where whole malls are a spread of dead retail space, Bishkek is alive and happy. It’s packed with vegetables and fruit—and what fruit—enough for everyone to have a watermelon every day and the largest and most succulent white melon (not cantaloupe, which I hate) I have seen anywhere. I am not a melon fan, but I am being converted to the taste.

Whereas China counts success by the number of mobile phone stores that can be squashed into a city block, Bishkek is inadvertently varied, understated, sophisticated and eclectic: you can probably find what you want here, not always easily or at first shot, but the fun is in the looking and sometimes finding what you don’t want. I’ve bought sausage at Osh Bazaar, a lampshade at an IKEA rip off store that calls itself IKEA and uses its bags, done my grocery shopping at a Turkish market called Beta, and my electronics browsing at the old Soviet megastore called TSUM. I have stumbled into clean, modern dental offices by accident to pay my rent, and rented satellite (sputnik) TV that (notwithstanding occasional power outages) gets me 120 stations, 20 in English. Nineteen if I discount CNN, which truth to tell uses some other language that sounds like English but makes no sense.

There is something very French about Bishkek, but I keep shoving the analogy to the back of my analogy pile. It reminds me of the French (Catholic) sector of Beirut, (Ashrafieh) الأشرفية where I used to get coffee and pastries when I felt like making the slog over from Hamra where I lived. Bishkek is like that: a curity of cafes and bread and tea and delicious things, punctuated by interesting whisky (read: vodka) bars and restaurants of every conceivable taste and provenance.


I came here for a reason: the attraction was the American University of Central Asia, which in its brief twenty years has established itself as the premier university in central Asia, the only one of real quality, and one of the best examples of the American liberal arts tradition overseas.

AUCA has a student body of about 1500, students from all the ‘stans’ working—entirely in English– towards degrees in the classical subjects areas in alliance with Bard College, a potted ivy league liberal arts institution in New York State, about four hours away from my home in Ithaca.

I came with some reservations. To be cynical, the term “American” appended to the word “university” has become devalued by overuse. The original two—the American University of Cairo (1919) and the redoubtable American University of Beirut (1866) were founded as bold democratic experiments that clung tightly to the founding principles of liberal education, then sadly lacking in the Middle East.

The British had built schools and even organized a few external degree programmes with the University of London in their colonies, especially in Africa and India. Much later, just at the edge of the independence era after World War II, they created British-style universities in Africa. But as time would prove, these universities were almost unsustainable without injections of money and European “missionary” faculty, and only a few today have any reputable programmes. (I speak as a recurrent missionary faculty type.)
But the two original American universities grew and prospered and became real beacons of learning for the sons and daughters of the wealthy and well-educated classes of the region. Over the course of time they developed significant programs in medicine, law, the sciences and business. AUB, for instance, carried out a vigorous program to create a Palestinian intelligentsia who then went on to successful careers in academia and business. Their success was so great, in fact, that in the 1990s new “American” universities sprung up in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Sharjah, and even Afghanistan and Iraq (Sulaimani). Some were funded by petrodollars but almost all were academically weak, their relevance and connection to the prototypes a simple matter of name-as-cash-value rather than vision.

The American University of Central Asia followed a completely different course: it grew organically from a kind of educational liberalization movement in Kyrgyzstan itself, a rebellion against soviet-style lockstep, lockjaw education. In 1991, as independence swept across Central Asian countries, the region advanced deliberately into a fast-changing world of free markets and democracy. This wave of change spurred new ideas in the educational system resulting in the establishment of the Kyrgyz-American School within the Kyrgyz State National University in Bishkek in 1993. The “school” experienced such dramatic growth over the next four years that it could no longer remain a dependent school within KSNU. In 1997, by a decree of the president of Kyrgyzstan, KAS became the American University in Kyrgyzstan and an independent international board was established as the governing body. The university was helped to achieve its goals by the Open Society Foundation of George Soros along with recurrent grants from USAID –the United States Agency for Industrial Development– which among its many unsung achievements helped to create the Lahore University of Management Studies (LUMS) in Pakistan, one of South Asia’s most distinguished universities.

The American University became the American University of Central Asia by default: guided by a pioneering faculty and visionary leaders, students from thirty countries, most but not all from the Central Asia region, enrolled to study for degrees. The reputation grew. When I was at JFK Airport a month ago, a woman returning to Istanbul asked me where I was headed. To Bishkek, I said. Are you at AUCA?, she asked. It struck me as surprising. Yes, I said. Going to teach there. Excellent place she said. I smiled nervously.
But in this small university tucked away in the gray-brown former headquarters building of the Supreme Soviet of the Kyrgyz Republic (1938), the halls are filled with languages, and energy, and beauty and hope: the opening ceremonies awash in colorful displays of national dress and tradition and music. Students can study Russian Art History under the tutelage of the distinguished scholar, poet and translator Andrew Wachtel (who happens also to be the University president) or international politics at the region’s leading policy research organization the Tian Shan Centre.  Or do prehistoric archaeology in Naryn –or Islamic Civilization with R. Joseph Hoffmann. It is my favourite course. I love to teach it. I am privileged to teach it, especially here where one Tamburlaine rampaged and shouted, according to Marlowe, “Is it not passing fair to be a king and ride in triumph through Persepolis.”


Excuse the Wow. The place is not for everyone: Especially not for people who see the progress of culture as the next tall building, the next long bridge with the most LED lights. That is an entirely different Wow. It is the Dubai Wow, the Hong Kong Wow. The Bishkek Wow comes from the heart. It comes from the love of green places, the pursuit of excellence, and the splendid variety of humanity.

So as to AUCA and what it has to offer this complex place–I suppose when it comes down to it, the beauty of the American system is the beauty of the menu at a good diner: So much is on offer that it gets your tummy rumbling and your mouth watering. At least that is what it’s like here, in beautiful Bishkek, at AUCA.

A happy start to the new academic year to everyone who joins with me in the struggle to keep at bay the powers of darkness!

PS: I Love Omnia.

Paul Kurtz: December 21, 1925 – October 20, 2012

Like my relationship with my own father, my relationship with Paul Kurtz was complicated. My feelings about his death are equally complex. On the one hand, clichés must be spoken: Paul was one of the great secular leaders of the last century, and devoted more time and energy to the life-stance he called secular humanism—a humanism without gods—than almost anyone in the contemporary humanist world.  His living monument, the Center for Inquiry (and its component organizations, the Council for Secular Humanism and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) will no doubt feel his loss intensely.

At the same time, truth must be told:  at the end of his life, the secular vision is unfulfilled–through no fault of his own–and many of the ideas he espoused have been reformed or rejected by a simpler and more callous approach to secular humanism than Paul ever could have imagined.

It is, as they say of irreplaceable figures, unlikely that anyone will take his place.  Paul himself was keenly aware of this: as he grew older he was very much concerned that the lessons he had taught had not been fully learned  by his younger colleagues and proteges.  For thirty years, I was privileged to be one of those.  It is fortunate that another of his young colleagues, Nathan Bupp, has published in the last year a thoughtful collection of some of Kurtz’s most significant writings, a garland from the forty books that Paul wrote over his long career as a teacher, lecturer, activist, and theoretician.  They show a mind consistent in objectives and sensitive to application.  If secularism had a “great communicator”–someone who could make philosophy appealing to ordinary readers and listeners–it was Paul Kurtz.  My guess is that in terms of others discovering the importance of his thought, his best days are ahead of him.

With death, wars end, hatchets are buried and clouds resolve into clear images of the future. I personally hope that this will happen at the CFI. One thing that can be said without contradiction about Paul: he lived for the future, and lived passionately with the optimistic and “exuberant” belief that the world can be made a better place through human effort. His entire humanist vision was rooted in that belief. When he underwent valve replacement surgery at Cleveland Hospital in 2007, he confidently looked forward to another decade of engagement with the causes and challenges that most engaged him.

When he wasn’t campaigning for reason and science, he liked hearing jokes, telling jokes, and chuckling over collections of Woody Allen monologues. He loved music.  He couldn’t sing.

Paul Kurtz was never really comfortable with the “new atheist” doctrines that began to appear in the early twenty-first century. While cordial to everyone, he deplored direct frontal assaults on religion as being out of keeping with the “humanist” side of his philosophy. Authentic humanism, he believed, must be radically secular. It should expel the gods and eschew dogma and supernaturalism. It should embrace science, reason, and ethical praxis—a combination he named eupraxsophy, a recipe for the good life.

For Paul, this was not a new idea but a “stirring” that could be detected in the great philosophers going back to Plato and Aristotle. Virtue is as virtue does. Happiness is its consequence.

Some of his critics thought that Paul was too philosophical. Others, that he treated religion too politely. His final departure from the Center for Inquiry came from the organization’s decision to get tough on religion and sponsor cartoon and blasphemy contests—a contravention of the gentler approach to religion that he advocated.

He liked to boast that in the ecumenical spirit after Vatican II, he had attended two Vatican meetings as part of the Catholic Church’s colloquium on the Church’s relationship with unbelievers—a colloquium that indirectly and eventually resulted in the Vatican’s concordat on science and faith, endorsed by two of Paul’s heroes, Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould. He had a special admiration for French Cardinal Paul Jean Poupard who headed the colloquium—and indeed, for smart people in general, theists or atheists. When I asked him once why he did not admire Billy Graham for the same reason he answered with a wry grin, “Because Billy Graham isn’t very smart.”

But Paul himself could be tough on religion: Beginning in the 1980’s he set out to subject religious truth claims to tests in the interest of exposing the flim flam of television evangelists and the religious right. From opposing Ronald Reagan’s “Year of the Bible” to the born-again George W. Bush’s “faith based initiatives,” he believed that religion had no place in national politics and that its abuse could only be corrected by exposing its hypocrisy. In 1982 he founded the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion to work in tandem with his Council for Secular Humanism as a quasi-scholarly watchdog commission. CSER was defunded by CFI in 2010, shortly after Paul Kurtz resigned from CFI.

But the difference between new atheism and Paul’s vision is crucial. First and foremost, Paul believed in education, in getting the word out to ordinary people. Like John Dewey, he believed that the liberal arts and sciences were transformative. He was not the kind of man who would divide audiences into brights and dims: for Paul, everyone who had the will to listen and learn was potentially bright and inherently humanistic in their aspirations. In literally hundreds of conferences and seminars and through the work of on-site meetings and the aegis of Prometheus Books (which he founded), he replicated the energy of the old tent revivals. In fact, some of his earliest editing work included anthologies of the puritan philosophers in American history, including the “father” of the Great Awakening Jonathan Edwards. Edwards’s goal was to deliver the saints from the devil and sin. Paul’s mission was to deliver them from religious hypocrisy.

His gospel was a gospel of freedom from superstition, a gospel of freedom through learning.

He was a professor until the end.

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.


The Case: 13 Key, Unarguable Principles

The train crash that is modern mythicism is built on the train crash that was earlier mythicism. The chance of the crash happening twice in just the same way?  About 50%.

In a previous post I reproduced chapter three of Shirley Jackson Case’s 1912 study, The Historicity of Jesus, which is a fair account of the state of the question in his day. At the end of his book, Case writes,

 “If the possibility of his non-historicity is to be entertained at all it must be brought about by reconstructing, without reference to him, so strong a theory of Christian origins that the traditional view will pale before it as a lesser light in the presence of a greater luminary. Will the radicals’ constructive hypothesis stand this test?”

The new mythtics (some anyway) have claimed that their argument can be won by the application of Bayes’s theorem.  Confronted with arguments about why the theorem is useless in deciding a question like this, their recourse has been to repeat two assertions: (1) It is too useful; and (2) People who say it isn’t useful don’t “get” it.  Whereupon they usually invoke some parallel as distant from what they are trying to prove as Herakles is from Jesus.

The rush of excitement that greeted Richard Carrier’s suggestion that the Jesus question could be settled with relative finality has been offset slightly by the failure to recognize that the first step in using Bayes’s Theorem is to establish plausible assumptions.  A few bloggers at Vridar have suggested that proving Jesus is like proving a case at law: after all, we’re trying to reach a verdict on whether Jesus existed, so, since a trial deals with events that happened in the past, and Jesus existed in the past, you could say that the application of probability to the Jesus question is like determining guilt or innocence.  All you need to do is compile the evidence,  plug it into your probability machine, write the equation, and you’re home free.

Except you’re not.  In a law case–let’s make this one a murder so we can use DNA–the variable to be decided is not the event (E), the crime, but the cause (C) of the crime.  Let’s make it a ghastly murder, a murder most foul (they like to quote Shakespeare over at Vridar– just trying it on).  You postulate a murderer. Good job.  You discover a bloody knife.  A glove–shades of OJ–fingerprints, crime scene, probable time of death. It is a linear progression of data that points to Mr. Jones as the perp: the right man in the right place at the right time with the right motive and the right DNA.  What has not changed in all of this?  (E) has not changed: the murder itself is not in doubt. It raises the speculation and creates uncertainty about (C).

In the case of Jesus, as the mythtics frame the case,  we are doubting an event (E) has taken place at all: the mythtics are not asking whether Jesus rose from the dead (= dealt the fatal wound causing E) but whether there was an E.  They are saying all the reports of E–what he said and did are falsifications of an historical occurrence.

To prove this contention (the groundwork of the assumptions that will then be used to establish probability) they offer not evidence but a succession of increasingly more tortuous challenges to the only available evidence, thus trying to prove through improbability what a linear progression of known, envalued variables (the sort of thing that makes statistics useful in law cases)  cannot readily establish.

In no particular order, individually and conglomeratively mythicists have argued:

1.  The evidence for E is hopelessly tainted and unreliable, proving that E did not occur.

2.  The sayings and deeds attributed to E are the work of a single author or the “church” and were intended to propagate a cult.

2.  The so-called evidence for E was mostly written in the second century by unknown authors, forgers, or copyists.

3.  It is based on a combination of myths and stories familiar to the forger or copyist or his naive imitators. These range from ancient stories like the Gilgamesh to first century tales about the death and apotheosis of Hercules, and everything in between (“A myth is a myth, like a rose is a rose”).

4.  Elements of the record that appear to be “historical” are decoration provided by the fabricator to create a veneer of authenticity–especially the use of place names and Aramaic, the language E is alleged to have spoken.

5.  The original second-century document was probably composed in Rome where myths and mystery religions circulated freely and a copyist could make a living and use the libraries.

6.  Prove postpositive that the gospels are fabrications is provided by the  inexplicable silence of someone [Paul] who “should have”  known him but doesn’t say much about him.

7.  References in Paul’s writings to both Jesus, his brothers, his most important followers, their interference with his mission, the existence of churches that worship him and believers who supervise them, and the correlation of names between the gospels and this writer’s references to Jesus and his circle are not dispositive because they do not fit the pattern of what this writer actually believed.

7.  Some of Paul’s letters are forged.  Those that are “authentic” and seem to speak of an historical individual are tainted, like the gospels, with additons, corrections and interpolations.  All passages that seem to speak of an historical figure are interpolations.  All references to historical-biological relatives of Jesus are figures of speech referring to the church.

8. It is plausible that this writer did not exist at all.

9.  If he did not exist, it is stronger than average proof that Jesus did not exist either. It is not necessary to explain who wrote Paul’s letters or explain what he was talking about if he did not write them.  (In all likelihood, the church wrote them too.)

10.  The fact that the gospels do not differ substantially from many Graeco-Roman historical writings concerning known historical figures, except in length and subject, is of no importance to the case.

11.  The fact that miracles, healings, miraculous births and ascensions to heaven are attibuted to historical figures in the Roman world has no bearing on the case.

12.  The external sources are completely irrelevant to the case, as they are either silent, clearly forged or heavily interpolated.  Sources almost uniformly agreed to be authentic like Tacitus are of no relevance to the case.  Sources that require more judicious treatment–like Josephus–are clearly fabrications.

13.  The fact that no ancient writer questioned the historicity of Jesus and the fact that no church writer felt compelled to defend it is of no relevance to the case.

et cetera…

The anti-evidence continues until the mythtics are satisfied that their demolition has proved the non-occurrence of E.  To challenge this brutually unsatisfying logic is to be a fundamentalist, or to use a word they are trying to make current as a counterpoint to the word “mythtic” and “mythicist,” an “historicist.”  There is a strong implication that not believing in Jesus is the rational complement to not believing in God.  As a rule, most mythicists are atheists.  As a rule, most people who subscribe to mythicism are not biblical scholars, trained in biblical studies but regard such training as a kind of “brainswashing” in the methods that have been used for the last century and a half to investigate the origins of Christanity and the context of Jesus.  To know something about human anatomy is good for a doctor.  But to know something about the technical aspects of biblical studies is a liability to knowing anything about this subject.

It seems to me that this latest and less impressive incarnation of mythicism has tried and failed to satisfy Case’s 1912 challenge to them, which, frankly, in the wake of substantial advances in New Testament scholarship, makes their work much more difficult than it was at the opening of the last century.  Salvation by Bayesth alone will not really help: they are stuck precisely where the formidable Morton Smith left them in 1986:  “The myth theory is almost entirely based on an argument from silence, especially the ‘silence’ of Paul….In order to explain just what it was that Paul and other early Christians believed, the mythicists are forced to manufacture unknown proto-Christians who build up an unattested myth . . . about an unspecified supernatural entity that at an indefinite time was sent by God into the world as a man to save mankind and was crucified… [presenting us with] a piece of private mythology that I find incredible beyond anything in the Gospels.”

They are not likely to create the plausible reconstruction demanded by their task from the debris they leave behind when they are done with their work.  In fact, there is no indication that they acknowledge or are capable of meeting that challenge.  They are puzzlingly content to locate the answer to how did it happen?in their belief that it did not happen at all, at least not in the way the only available evidence asserts.  And that is a very curious position for people who are looking for “reasonable” solutions to adopt.

When to Bayes

Richard Swinburne

The Following essay review of Richard Swinburne’s The Resurrection of God Incarnate appreared originally in Ars Disputandi (Utrecht) and is reprinted here without editorial changes.

The Resurrection of God Incarnate
By Richard Swinburne (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003; 232 pp.; hb. £ 45.00, pb. £ 16.99; ISBN: 0-19-925745-0/0-19-925746-9.)

Reviewed by Andrew Wohlgemuth
University of Maine, USA

1 Introduction
[1] Swinburne states, ‘New Testament scholars sometimes boast that they inquire into their subject matter without introducing any theological claims. If they really do this, I can only regard this as a sign of deep irrationality on their part. It is highly irrational to reach some conclusion without taking into account 95 per cent of the relevant evidence…But of course they couldn’t really do this if they are to reach conclusions about whether the Resurrection occurred…For you couldn’t decide whether the detailed historical evidence was strong enough to show that such an event as the Resurrection occurred without having a view whether there was prior reason for supposing that such an event could or could not occur. What tends to happen is that background theological considerations—whether for or against the Resurrection—play an unacknowledged role in determining whether the evidence is strong enough. These considerations need to be put on the table if the evidence is to be weighed properly.’ (p.3) Swinburne’s book has this ambitious and worthy aim.

[2] The book is in three parts, and has an appendix in which he uses the probability calculus to formalize his arguments. He concludes that the probability of Jesus being God Incarnate and being raised from the dead is very high. His assignment of what he feels to be conservative probabilities to the relevant data leads, via the probability calculus, to a probability of 97% that God Incarnate in the person of Jesus was raised from the dead.

2 The Probability Calculus
[3] Swinburne describes three types of probability: physical probability, statistical probability, and inductive (or logical) probability. (Some people identify physical probability with statistical probability.) Statistical probability is the most widely known. It rests on events—technically, subsets of a probability space. A typical probability space might be the set of all possible outcomes in some game of chance. Actuarial science and the physical sciences make use of statistical probability—which has been well developed mathematically. Probabilities in statistical probability can be assigned with precision.

[4] Logical probability is an extension of the propositional and predicate calculus—the formal logical structure of mathematical argument itself. It was developed by J.M. Keynes (A Treatise on Probability, MacMillan, 1921), because in many real-life situations one proposition, say q, does not follow another, say p, with the complete certainty of ‘p implies q’ in a mathematical argument. Instead, we might only be able to say that we are fairly sure that q would follow, if we knew p. Thus, a probability, a number from 0 to 1, might be assigned to the expectation that q would be true, if we knew that p was true. This probability is denoted by P(q/p) (the ‘probability of q given p’). Thus p implies q in the logical, or mathematical, sense provided that P(q/p) = 1.

[5] I think we all feel that it is reasonable and meaningful to ask if something is likely to happen, or likely has happened. To give an easy example, consider the forecast that the chance of rain today is 80%. We base this on experience. The forecasters notice that it actually did rain on 80% of the days that had the same early-morning conditions as today. This is an example of statistical probability. The underlying probability space is the set of days with the same initial conditions as today. The event we’re concerned with is rain.

[6] Suppose, however, that our neighbor Tom is accused of knocking his wife unconscious while in a rage. Although there may be no way to form a meaningful probability space here, we can nevertheless feel strongly that Tom is likely to have done it—or very unlikely. We do this by considerations that run deeper than the merely statistical. Of course, if Tom habitually knocks people about while in a rage, then we may not need to go any deeper than the statistical. But if the accusation is unexpected and unique, then we begin to rely on things such as Tom’s character, as it is known to us, in order to support our feelings of the likelihood of his having done the deed.

[7] This is what Swinburne is doing in his book. He is asking whether God is likely to have done certain things, and he is adding that in with the smaller world of history. Christians, of course, do believe that some things can be known about the character of God. I’ll look first at the formal treatment in the appendix, and then go to the material in Chapter 1.

[8] Swinburne lists 5 axioms of the probability calculus. (The axioms of the predicate calculus are implicitly also needed.) Axiom 4, which will play a prominent role, follows.

(4) P(p&q/r) = P(p/q&r)P(q/r)

[9] Substituting h, e, and k (letters Swinburne will use later) for p, q, and r gives

P(h&e/k) = P(h/e&k)P(e/k)

[10] Dividing both sides by P(e/k) gives

P(h&e/k)∕P(e/k) = P(h/e&k)

[11] Since h&e is logically equivalent to e&h, we can substitute

P(e&h/k)∕P(e/k) = P(h/e&k)

[12] Now by Axiom 4, P(e&h/k) = P(e/h&k)P(h/k), so we can substitute for P(e&h/k) to get

P(e/h&k)P(h/k)∕P(e/k) = P(h/e&k)

[13] Interchanging left and right sides of the equation gives

(4′) P(h/e&k) = P(e/h&k)P(h/k)∕P(e/k)

[14] Swinburne states, ‘Among the theorems that follow from the axioms is a crucial theorem known as Bayes’s Theorem. I express it using letters ‘e’, ‘h’, and ‘k’ which can represent any propositions at all; but we shall be concerned with it for the case where e represents observed evidence (data), k represents ‘background evidence’, and h is a hypothesis under investigation’ (p. 206) Equation 4′ above is Bayes’s Theorem as Swinburne expresses it. I have derived it to show that it follows from the axioms by the two simple algebraic operations of substitution and dividing both sides of an equation by the same thing. It is customary, when talking about formal languages (like the propositional, predicate, and probability calculus) to refer to anything that follows from the axioms as a ‘theorem’. In other mathematical branches with which the reader may be more familiar (like geometry or calculus, for example), the use of the word ‘theorem’ is reserved for deeper results. The foregoing should take away any mystery from the use of ‘Bayes’s Theorem’. It is really just a rephrasing of an axiom.

[15] As to the axioms, Swinburne states, ‘It is very easy to see intuitively the correctness of these axioms.’ (p. 206) At which point he explains them in words. When he gets to axiom 4 however, he appeals to successive tosses of a coin—which doesn’t model the situation accurately. We don’t know what p, q, and r are. In order to see why axiom 4 is true, we can relate the logical probabilities to conditional (statistical) probabilities. Thus let p, q, and r be events with probabilities P(p), P(q), and P(r). Let p be the proposition ‘p occurs’, and similarly for q and r. The conditional probability P(a/b) (the ‘probability of ‘a’ given ‘b’)’ for events a and b is defined to be P(a&b)∕P(b). In this case

Axiom (4) P(p&q/r) = P(p/q&r)P(q/r)

[16] in terms of conditional probabilities is

P(p&q/r) = P(p/q&r)P(q/r)

[17] which by definition is

P(p&q&r)∕P(r) = [P(p&q&r)∕P(q&r)][P(q&r)∕P(r)]

[18] which is an identity, since the factors P(q&r) cancel.

[19] It should be noted here that while any conditional probabilities (of statistical probability) can be seen as propositions of logical probability (as we have done), the reverse is not so—simply because there may not be any well-defined probability space. It is crucial for the case Swinburne makes that meaningful probabilities can be assigned to the factors on the right-hand side of equation 4′. Once that is granted, the probability on the left side must be accepted as calculated. I have shown the ‘intuitive correctness’ of axiom 4, since it follows from definition in the realm of statistical probability, which can be viewed as a restricted case of logical probability—the case in which we would find illustrative examples.

[20] Specifying the factors in equation 4′, Swinburne states, ‘Let k now be…the evidence of natural theology (including the sinning and suffering of humans). Let e be the detailed historical evidence, consisting of a conjunction of three pieces of evidence (e1 &e2 &e3 ). e1 is the evidence of the life of Jesus set out in Part II. e2 is the detailed historical evidence relating to the Resurrection set out in Part III. e3 is the evidence (summarized in Chapter 3) that neither the prior nor the posterior requirements for God being incarnate were satisfied in any prophet in human history in any way comparable with the way in which they were satisfied in Jesus.’ (p. 210) ‘Let h1 be the hypothesis that God became incarnate in Jesus, and h2 the hypothesis that Jesus rose from the dead. h is the conjunction (h1 &h2 ). Now at the end of the day this book is interested in P(h∕e&k)—the probability that Jesus was God Incarnate who rose from the dead (h), on the evidence both of natural theology (k) and of the detailed history of Jesus and of other human prophets (e).’ (p. 211)

[21] Assigning probabilities to the factors of equation 4′ is done by building up from other factors: ‘Let us represent by t theism, the claim that there is a God of the traditional kind. P(t/k) is the probability that there is such a God on the evidence of natural theology. I suggested in Chapter 1 that we give this the modest value 1∕2.’ (p. 211) Swinburne backs up this value only in the last paragraph of Chapter 1: ‘This evidence, the evidence of natural theology, provides general background evidence crucially relevant to our topic. I have argued elsewhere the case for this evidence giving substantial probability to the existence of God. (See esp. my The Existence of God and the shorter Is there a God? (Oxford University Press, 1996)). I cannot, for reasons of space, argue that case again here. But to get my argument going here, I will make only the moderate assumption that the evidence…makes it as probable as not that there is a God…’ (p. 30) I’ll return to more in Chapter 1, Principles for Weighing Evidence, after another illustration of assigning probabilities.

[22] ‘Then let us represent by c the claim that God became incarnate among humans at some time with a divided [’…he could act and react in his human life in partial ignorance of, and with only partial access to his divine powers.’ (p. 52)] incarnation, a more precise form of the way described by the Council of Chalcedon…and set out in Chapter 2. I suggested there that if there is a God (and there are humans who sin and suffer), it is quite probable that he would become incarnate…I suggested that it was ‘as probable as not’ that he would do this, and so in numerical terms the probability of his doing it is 1/2. The probability of 1/2 is clearly unaffected if we add to [should read ‘t’] all the data of natural theology, and so P(c/t&k) = 1∕2.’ (p. 211) Since P(c/k) = P(c&t/k) = P(c/t&k)P(t/k) by Axiom 4 and the logical equivalence of c and c&t, P(c/k) = 1∕4.

3 The Grand Philosophical Principle
[23] The two paragraphs above suffice to illustrate the completely subjective nature of assigning probabilities to the factors involved in the calculations. I don’t mean to imply that being subjective is necessarily bad, although I would not want to be involved personally with arguing the case for certain subjective probabilities. In the main body of the book, there are arguments for why Swinburne believes these probabilities to be reasonable—even conservative.

[24] The most problematical assertion in Chapter 1 is the following: ‘It is a further fundamental epistemological principle additional to the principle that other things being equal we should trust our memories, that we should believe what others tell us that they have done or perceived—in the absence of counter-evidence. I call this the principle of testimony. It must be extended so as to require us to believe that—in the absence of counter-evidence—when someone tell us that so-and-so is the case…they have perceived or received testimony from others that it is the case. Without this principle we would have very little knowledge of the world.’ (p. 13) There is no doubt that we get almost all of our information about the world in this way—but we also get a very good amount of misinformation too. For example, in a letter to John Norvell in 1807, Thomas Jefferson wrote, ‘Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day.’ If we change the word ‘lies’ to the word ‘fancies,’ we get a fair account of my own experience. I also have a great skepticism of grand philosophical principles that are used to draw inferences in special cases in arguments. If the special cases are not seen to be true themselves, how can the generalization be seen to be true?

[25] Swinburne would be on much sounder ground to take, as his ‘principle of testimony’, something in his next paragraph: ‘Testimony by more than one witness to the occurrence of the same event makes it very probable indeed that that to which they testify is true—to the extent to which it is probable that they are independent witnesses.’ (p. 13)

[26] A discussion of the probability of a miracle must, I suppose, bring up David Hume. Swinburne says, ‘Hume’s discussion suffers from one minor deficiency, one medium-sized deficiency, and one major one.’ (p.24)…‘But Hume’s worst mistake was to suppose that the only relevant background theory to be established from wider evidence was a scientific theory about what are the laws of nature. But any theory showing whether laws of nature are ultimate or whether they depend on something higher for their operation is crucially relevant. If there is no God, then the laws of nature are the ultimate determinants of what happens. But if there is a God, then whether and for how long and under what circumstances laws of nature operate depends on God. And evidence that there is a God, and in particular evidence that there is a God of a kind who might be expected to intervene occasionally in the natural order, will be evidence leading us to expect occasional violations of laws of nature.’ (p. 25)

4 Proof by Lack of Imagination
[27] Since I faulted Swinburne on using grand generalizations in a logical argument, I feel the need to fault Hume on the same account. Hume states, ‘It being a general maxim, that no objects have any discoverable connexion together, and that all the inferences, which we can draw from one to another are founded merely on our experience of their constant and regular conjunction; it is evident, that we ought not to make an exception to this maxim in favor of human testimony, whose connexion with any event seems, in itself, as little necessary as any other.’ (An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, edition by The Liberal Arts Press, 1955, p.119) This ‘maxim’ is Hume’s own grand philosophical principle. It elevates mere correlation, and pronounces the discovery of causation as hopeless. The most obvious counter-example is modern medical science, where correlation most often prompts the question—to which the discovery of causation constitutes the answer. One may not think it fair to fault Hume for not being familiar with modern medical science, but that gets us to an important point. Hume’s assertion that ‘all the inferences, which we can draw from one (object) to another are founded merely on our experience of their constant and regular conjunction’ is a mere proof by lack of imagination—which, in general, would run something like this: ‘I can imagine it being like this. I can’t imagine it being any other way. Therefore, it must be like this.’ Logical possibilities cannot be ruled out simply because they do not present themselves to even the best human imagination. For a statement or argument to be truly logical, it must exclude the possibility of a counter-example. That’s what makes it logical (instead of empirical). If a counter-example is ever found, it shows that the statement or argument was not logical in the first place.

[28] There is no doubt but that Hume intended his maxim to be part of a logical argument. He begins, ‘I flatter myself, that I have discovered an argument of a like nature, which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will be useful as long as the world endures. For so long, I presume, will the accounts of miracles and prodigies be found in all history, sacred and profane.’ (ibid. p. 118) And concludes, ‘The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), ’That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous…’ (ibid. p. 123) And right in the middle of this argument is his maxim—which appears ridiculous to scientific eyes.

[29] It is interesting, to me, that Hume thinks his argument will be effective with the ‘wise and learned’. When looking through Swinburne’s references and related material, I noted numerous statements of Hume’s brilliance. Hume ponders his own ‘genius’, and is concerned with the ‘admiration of mankind’. (ibid. p. xi) I am uncomfortable in a field where people feel it appropriate to attest to the brilliance of anyone. It smacks of whistling in the dark—and I suspect the praise is lavished on those with a philosophy close to one’s own.

[30] Except for one place in which his ‘principle of testimony’ creeps in, Swinburne’s five-and-one-half page introduction states his case well. At the end of the introduction, he states, ‘Although there are, I believe, a number of original detailed historical arguments in this book, its main task is to put arguments developed by others into a wider frame so as to form an overall picture.’ (p. 6) In the body of the book, he addresses the program of the introduction, and motivates the assignment of probabilities assigned in the appendix.

[31] Swinburne’s main thesis, that one should make decisions about the likelihood of things only in the broadest context available, is very well taken. For example, consider suffering. Swinburne says, ‘I argued in The Existence of God that it is “more probable than not” that there is a God. However, my subsequent more satisfactory argument in Providence and the Problem of Evil to show that suffering does not count against the existence of God relied in part on the supposition that God would become incarnate to share our suffering and to make atonement for our sins.’ (p. 31 note)

[32] Suffering has been felt to be inconsistent with an omnipotent, good, and omniscient God. The only way I can see to reconcile these is to observe that the evidence is not all in yet—except in one case. Who could say that anyone suffered more than Jesus—with sweating blood (hemathidrosis) in Gethsemane, even before the physical abuse began. Yet who would want to say that Jesus himself would be better off, now, without the suffering. Jesus is the only one of us for whom we have enough information to decide that ‘suffering does not count against the existence of God’. And St. Paul says, ‘Christ has been raised from the dead, as the first-fruits of all who have fallen asleep.’ (1 Cor. 15:20) And, ‘Just as all die in Adam, so in Christ all will be brought to life; but all of them in their proper order: Christ the first-fruits, and next, at his coming, those who belong to him.’ (1 Cor. 15:22,3) And St. James says that ‘we should be a sort of frirst-fruits of all his creation.’ (James 1:18, italics mine, of course) So where the results are in, we see that God is justified, and we have promises that when all the results are in, God will be justified.

Proving What?

The Revd Thomas Bayes

The Revd Thomas Bayes, 1701-1761

The current discussion among Jesus-deniers and mythicists over whether probability in the form of Bayes’s Rule can be used in historical research is more than a little amusing.

The current fad is largely the work of atheist blogger and debater Richard Carrier who despite having a PhD in ancient history likes to tout himself as a kind of natural science cum mathematics cum whachagot expert.

Carrier’s ingenuity is on full display in a recent book published by Prometheus (Buffalo, NY) in which he makes the claim that Bayes Theorem–a formula sometimes used by statisticians  when dealing with conditional probabilities– can be used to establish probability for events in the past.  That would make it useful for answering questions about whether x happened or did not happen, and for Carrier’s fans, the biggest x they would like to see answered (he claims ) is Did Jesus exist or not?  

The formula looks something like this:

Let A1, A2, … , An be a set of mutually exclusive events that together form the sample space S. Let B be any event from the same sample space, such that P(B) > 0. Then,

P( Ak | B ) = P( Ak ∩ B )

P( A1 ∩ B ) + P( A2 ∩ B ) + . . . + P( An ∩ B )

Invoking the fact that P( Ak ∩ B ) = P( Ak )P( B | Ak ), Baye’s theorem can also be expressed as

P( Ak | B ) = P( Ak ) P( B | Ak )

P( A1 ) P( B | A1 ) + P( A2 ) P( B | A2 ) + . . . + P( An ) P( B | An )

Clear?  Of course not. At least not for everybody. But that isn’t the issue because the less clear it is the more claims can be made for its utility.  Its called the Wow! Effect and is designed to cow you into comatose submission before its (actually pretty simple) formulation, using the standard symbols used in formal logic and mathematics.

What is known by people who use Bayes’s theorem to advantage  is that there are only certain conditions when it is appropriate to use it.  Even those conditions can sound a bit onerous: In general, its use is warranted when a problem warrants its use, e.g. when

  • The sample is partitioned into a set of mutually exclusive events { A1, A2, . . . , An }.
  • Within the sample space, there exists an event B, for which P(B) > 0.
  • The analytical goal is to compute a conditional probability of the form: P ( Ak | B ).
  • You know at least one of the two sets of probabilities described below.
    • P( Ak ∩ B ) for each Ak
    • P( Ak ) and P( B | Ak ) for each Ak  

The key to the right use of Bayes is that it can be useful in calculating conditional probabilities: that is, the probability that event A occurs given that event B has occurred.  Normally   such probabilities are used to forecast whether an event is likely to  occur, thus:

Marie is getting married tomorrow, at an outdoor ceremony in the desert. In recent years, it has rained only 5 days each year. Unfortunately, the weatherman has predicted rain for tomorrow. When it actually rains, the weatherman correctly forecasts rain 90% of the time. When it doesn’t rain, he incorrectly forecasts rain 10% of the time. What is the probability that it will rain on the day of Marie’s wedding?
StaTTrek’s solution to Marie’s conundrum looks like this:

“The sample space is defined by two mutually-exclusive events – it rains or it does not rain. Additionally, a third event occurs when the weatherman predicts rain. Notation for these events appears below.

  • Event A1. It rains on Marie’s wedding.
  • Event A2. It does not rain on Marie’s wedding.
  • Event B. The weatherman predicts rain.

In terms of probabilities, we know the following:

  • P( A1 ) = 5/365 =0.0136985 [It rains 5 days out of the year.]
  • P( A2 ) = 360/365 = 0.9863014 [It does not rain 360 days out of the year.]
  • P( B | A1 ) = 0.9 [When it rains, the weatherman predicts rain 90% of the time.]
  • P( B | A2 ) = 0.1 [When it does not rain, the weatherman predicts rain 10% of the time.]

We want to know P( A1 | B ), the probability it will rain on the day of Marie’s wedding, given a forecast for rain by the weatherman. The answer can be determined from Bayes’ theorem, as shown below.

P( A1 | B ) = P( A1 ) P( B | A1 )

P( A1 ) P( B | A1 ) + P( A2 ) P( B | A2 )

P( A1 | B ) = (0.014)(0.9) / [ (0.014)(0.9) + (0.986)(0.1) ]
P( A1 | B ) = 0.111

Note the somewhat unintuitive result. Even when the weatherman predicts rain, it only rains only about 11% of the time. Despite the weatherman’s gloomy prediction, there is a good chance that Marie will not get rained on at her wedding.

When dealing with conditional probabilities at the loading-end of the formula, we are able to formulate the sample  space easily because the “real world conditions” demanded by the formula can be identified,  and also have data–predictions– regarding Event B, which is a third event, A1 and A2 being (the required) mutually exclusive events.

So far, you are thinking, this is the kind of thing you would use for weather, rocket launches, roulette tables and divorces since we tend to think of conditional probability as an event that has not happened but can be predicted to happen, or not happen, based on existing, verifiable occurrences.  How can it be useful in determining whether events  “actually” transpired in the past, that is, when the sample field itself consists of what has already occurred (or not occurred) and when B is  the probability of it having happened? Or how it can be useful in dealing with events claimed to be sui generis since the real world conditions would lack both precedence and context?

To compensate for this, Carrier makes adjustments to the machinery: historical events are like any other events, only their exclusivity (A or not A) exists in the past rather than at the present time or in the future, like Marie’s wedding.  Carrier thinks he is justified in this by making historical uncertainty (i.e., whether an event of the past actually happened) the same species of uncertainty as a condition that applies to the future.  To put it crudely: Not knowing whether something will happen can be treated in the same way as not knowing whether something has happened by jiggering the formula. Managed properly, he is confident that Bayes will sort everything out in short order:

If you treat every probability you assign in the Bayesian equation as if it were a syllogism in an argument and defend each premise as sound (as you would for any other syllogism) Bayes’s theorem will solve all the problems that have left [Gerd] Theissen and others confounded when trying to assess questions of historicity.  There is really no other method on the table since all the historicity criteria so far have been shown to be flawed to the point of being in effect (or in fact) entirely useless. (Carrier, “Bayes Theorem for Beginners,” in Sources of the Jesus Tradition, 107).

What? This is a revolution in  thinking? Never mind the obvious problem:  If all the historicity criteria available have been shown to be “in fact” entirely useless and these are exactly the criteria we need to establish (“treat”)  the premises to feed into Bayes, then this condition would make Bayes compeletly useless as well–unless opposite, useful criteria could be shown to exist.  Bayes does not generate criteria and method; it depends on them, just as the solution to Marie’s dilemma depends on real world events, not on prophecy. Obversely, if Bayes is intended to record probability, the soundness of the premises is entirely vulnerable to improbable assumptions that can only poison the outcome–however “unarguable” it is by virtue of having been run through the Carrier version of the Bayes Machine.  Moreover, he either means something else when he talks about historicity criteria or is saying they exist in some other place.  In any event, the criteria must differ from premises they act upon and the conclusion Bayes delivers.

“Fundamentally flawed,” as I noted in a previous post, is the application of Bayes to data where no “real world data and conditions” can be said to apply.  It was this rather steep lapse in logic that led a former student of mine, who is now studying pure mathematics at Cambridge to remark,

Is this insistence [Carrier’s] of trying to invoke Bayes’ theorem in such contexts a manifestation of some sort of Math or Physics envy? Or is it due to the fact that forcing mathematics into one’s writings apparently confers on them some form of ‘scientific’ legitimacy?

The fact of the matter, as far as I know, and as I thought anyone would realize is that Bayes’ theorem is a theorem which follows from certain axioms. Its application to any real world situation depends upon how precisely the parameters and values of our theoretical reconstruction of a real world approximate reality. At this stage, however, I find it difficult to see how the heavily feared ‘subjectivity’ can be avoided. Simply put, plug in different values into the theorem and you’ll get a different answer. How does one decide which value to plug in?

Secondly, is it compulsory to try to impose some sort of mathematically based methodological uniformity on all fields of rational inquiry? Do there exist good reasons to suppose the the methods commonly used in different areas that have grown over time are somehow fatally flawed if they are not currently open to some form of mathematization?

If this kind of paradigm does somehow manage to gain ascendency, I assume history books will end up being much more full of equations and mathematical assumptions etc. While that will certainly make it harder to read for most (even for someone like me, who is more trained in Mathematics than the average person) I doubt that it would have any real consequence beyond that.”

In fairness to Carrier, however, the use of Bayes is probably not being dictated by logic, or a respect for the purity of mathematics, nor perhaps even because he thinks it can work.

It is simply being drawn (unacknowledged) from the debater’s handbook used by Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne, who (especially through 2007) was active globally debating the question of God’s existence, under the title “Is there a God?” using Bayes’s Theorem as his mainstay.  Not only this, but Swinburne is the editor of the most distinguished collection of essays on Bayes’s Theorem (Oxford, 2002).  In case you are interested in outcomes, Swinburne formulates the likelihood of God in relation to one argument for his existence (the cosmological) this way:  P (e I h & k) ≥ .50  The “background knowledge” Swinburne needs to move this from speculation to a real world condition is “the existence [e] over time of a complex physical universe.”  In order to form a proposition for debate properly, Swinburne depends on the question “Is There a God,” which gives a clear modality:  A and A1.

Unlike Carrier, I believe, I have had the dubious pleasure of having debated Swinburne face to face at Florida State University in 2006. A relatively complete transcript of my opening remarks was posted online in 2010. In case it is not clear, I took the contra side, arguing against the proposition.

I knew enough of Swinburne’s work (and enough of his legendary style from graduate students he had mentored at Oxford) to be on guard for his use of Bayes.  Unlike Carrier, Swinburne is both a theologian and a specialist in formal logic, whose undergraduate degree was in philosophy, politics and economics.  He travels the two worlds with ease and finesse and his most prominent books—The Coherence of TheismThe Existence of God, and Faith and Reason--are heavy reads.

But he is quite uncomfortable with historical argumentation.  Historical argumentation is both non-intuitive and probabilistic (in the sense of following the “law of likelihood”); but tends to favor the view that Bayes’s excessive use of “prior possibilities”  are subjective and lack probative force.   So, when I suggested he could not leap into his Bayesian proofs for God’s existence until he told me what God he was talking about, he seemed confused.  When I scolded him that the God he kept referring to sounded suspiciously biblical and fully attributed, he defended himself with, “I mean what most people mean when they say God.” When I retorted that he must therefore mean what most atheists mean when they say there is not God, he replied that arguing the atheist point of view was my job, not his.   When I said that any God worth arguing about would have to be known through historical documents, the autheticity and epistemological value of which for a debate like this would have to be tested by competent historical research, he became  impatient to get back to his formula, which works slowly and cancerously from givens to premises–to the prize: the unarguable conclusion.  It seems Swinburne thought the fundamentalist yahoos (not my interpretation) would be so dazzled by the idea of an “unarguable argument” for God’s existence that he would win handily.

Except for those  pesky, untended, historical premises.   Not to let a proficient of Bayes get past his premises is the sure way to cause him apoplexy, since Bayes is a premise-eating machine.  Like any syllogistic process, it cannot burp out its unarguable conclusions otherwise.  The result was that in an an overwhelmingly Evangelical-friendly audience of about 500 Floridians, the debate was scored 2 to 1 in my favour: Swinburne lost chiefly because of The Revd. Thomas Bayes.

And this is the trouble Richard Carrier will also need to confront, sooner or later.  He will not solve the primary objections to the use of Bayes’s Law by telling people they don’t get it (many do), or that there are no other methods on the table (where did they go to?), or that all existing historicity criteria, to use a more familiar word in the lexicon he uses on his blog, are “fucked.”

It is rationally (still a higher term than logically)  impossible to use the existence of the world in which thinking about God takes place as the real-world condition that makes it possible to use cosmology as the real-world condition proving his existence.  As Kant complained of Anselm’s ontology, existence is not essence.  It is not argument either. The defeater in this case is history: God has one, in the sense that all ideas about God are historically generated and directly susceptible to historical description and analysis.

And he could learn a thing or two from Swinburne’s sad fate, which is adequately summarized in this blog review of the philosopher’s most extensive use of the Theorem in his 2003 book, The Resurrection of God Incarnate.

Using Bayesian probability and lashings of highfalutin’ mathematical jargon, Swinburne argues that “it [is] very probable indeed that God became incarnate in Jesus Christ who rose from the dead” (p. 214). His mathematical apologetics for the resurrection boils down to the following argument:

  1. The probability of God’s existence is one in two (since God either exists or doesn’t exist).
  2. The probability that God became incarnate is also one in two (since it either happened or it didn’t).
  3. The evidence for God’s existence is an argument for the resurrection.
  4. The chance of Christ’s resurrection not being reported by the gospels has a probability of one in 10.
  5. Considering all these factors together, there is a one in 1,000 chance that the resurrection is not true.

It’s almost impossible to parody this argument (since in order to parody it, you would have to imagine something sillier – a daunting task!). But let me try:

The probably that the moon is made of cheese is one in two (since it is either made of cheese or it isn’t);

the probability that this cheese is Camembert is also one in two (since it’s either camembert or it isn’t); and so on.

At any rate, while Carrier loads his debating machine with still more improbable premises, I am going on the hunt for those missing historicity criteria.  They must be here someplace.  I do wish children would put things back where they found them.


Two pieces in the last three days have opened my eyes to a new reality.  Being opened to a new reality doesn’t happen every day, probably because as you get older there are fewer realities that are actually new.  Just things you have forgotten that seem new when you rediscover them.

One article which was good enough to repost in its entirety came from Jacques Berlinerblau, who often says wise things and should be heeded when he does.  Jacques has commented frequently on the need for secularists and even atheists to learn table manners and not rely simply on the assumed rectitude of their position while trying to influence people and win converts.

They could learn a lesson from that old time religion, Christianity, where instead of just shouting at people, like John the Baptist did (and look what happened to him), St Paul professed to become all things to all men in order to win souls to his cause.  Eventually, that strategy made Christianity the majority faith of the Roman empire.

Of course, the atheists old and new don’t believe there are souls to be won.  But there are political values at stake, and elections, and demographics which atheists and “seculars” do claim to care about.  But so far Americn secularism hasn’t had the savvy to know how to preach its gospel in a way that (really) ups the numbers.

For Berlinerblau, this has something to do with an historical incompetence at every level of the secular movment: Without naming names that could be named, he cites

“…a colossal failure of leadership and strategic vision. Those who advocated on its behalf in the 1970s and ’80s had little understanding of who their irate, coalescing adversaries actually were. In the secular mindset these “Fundies” were just a bunch of yokels, sitting on their front porches, cleaning their guns to the musical accompaniment of Pa strumming the gutbucket. In reality, however, the movement had scads of charismatic and savvy, if not incendiary, leaders. …Secular leadership, by contrast, was static and moribund.

Which brings me to the second piece, by E J Dionne, a truly liberal soul.  The always bluff Freedom from Religion Foundation, which sees itself as a “radical” conservator of First Amendment rights, has outed liberal Catholics for being hypocrites and challenged them to do the right thing: leave the Church.  Writes Dionne:

Recently, a group called [the FFRF] ran a full-page ad in The Washington Post cast as an “open letter to ‘liberal’ and ‘nominal’ Catholics.” Its headline commanded: “It’s Time to Quit the Catholic Church.”

The ad included the usual criticism of Catholicism, but I was most struck by this paragraph: “If you think you can change the church from within — get it to lighten up on birth control, gay rights, marriage equality, embryonic stem-cell research — you’re deluding yourself. By remaining a ‘good Catholic,’ you are doing ‘bad’ to women’s rights. You are an enabler. And it’s got to stop.”

Yes, it does sound just like the nun who told you to give up looking at dirty magazines during math class. Or maybe I have given away too much of my eighth grade year at St Joseph School.

But there is a pattern here that displays itself, as in neon lights, through the shouting.  I have commented more than three times on this site about the ugliness of the American Atheists’ (and others’) billboard campaigns and the way atheism itself is promoted by using a strategy that depends, basically, on repeating one hundred times the mantra:  “Wake Up Stupid: Nobody is at Home Up There.”

This is supported by the infinitely reasonable proposition that if there is no Santa Claus, no big bad wolf, and no such thing as ghosts, there is no Sky Fairy either. Anyone who says there is is just using up the oxygen that smart people need to grow brain cells.

But guess what?  Many people who would call themselves religious–like E J Dionne, and even the resoundingly secular Jacques Berlinerblau–are not at all stupid.  And they wonder why the advocates of freethought and secularism don’t get that.  Why is a secularism that flows from principles of religious tolerance more suspect than a secularism that flows from atheist suppositions?  It is a good question, because in those countries where a dogmatic atheism has been imposed from the top, tolerance has not fared well.  Restrictive practices based on the godlike perfection of the state–witness Chen Guangcheng– have.

And that leads me to conclude: there is a troubling religiophobia going on here.  The shouters and ultimatum-givers are not just in favor of separation of church and state, or freedom of (or from) religion, or secularism or the right not to believe in God and say so openly.

There is profound stress and anxiety about religion in these movements.


Is this a teenage anger pathology that comes from a passive fear of the gods? A bad church experience that stems from the awakening that Pastor Bob (or Sister Mary Therese) lied to you about…everything? The possibility that despite social approval of your atheism, your private doubts sometimes clash with that approval and put unreasonable and seductive thoughts in your head–a hankering for a ten o’lock sermon or a quick Mass at St Aloysius?

Probably none of the above.  It’s probably more easily explained as your anxiety over the existence of what you have come to believe is SPS–Stupid People Syndrome:  your feeling that the co-existence of atheists and believers has only been paralleled in human history by the brief co-existence of Neanderthal and modern humans.  And it would, after all, be so much easier if social disapproval could be generalized and society were rid of religion once and for all–its lures and seductions driven from the world and the gods into the fiery pit.   Maybe then you could get some sleep.  And stop being so Angry.

Homo Religiosus

Until the day that happens and the First Amendment is repealed, which is what the solution would require, reading Seneca and a little Marcus Aurelius or Lucretius on the gods would help:  They had this phobia mastered long before Christian thinkers like Boethius took up the question.   The gods are lazy blighters who don’t care about you. They only care about themselves. You are on your own.

The point is, religiophobia leads to aggression and aggression often manifests itself in stupidity and rash behavior.  I am not certain, given the religious perspective that God takes care of everything, that religion exhibits fear in quite the same way–which is a poor way of saying that fear of the gods (theophobia) is different from fear that there are no gods (religiophobia).

Oh, I know: you atheists out there will tell me I am making things up and that every atheist has the courage of his convictions and isn’t afraid of the big bad wolf or the big old sky fairy or any of those things.  And I say: Good for you, Pinocchio.  Then stop worrying about what goes on in the heads of religious women and men, or their being hypocrites for believing some of the things you no longer believe.

–And read some Seneca.

Catholics and the Contraceptive Conscience

The Catholic bishops think that they have a right to an opinion about contraception and abortion.  They do.  They also think that when they speak in the name of their Church, as custodians of its moral philosophy, to people who want to listen, they have a right to be heard.  They do.

Unfortunately they think as well  that when they are heard they deserve deference and to be obeyed.  They don’t.

The right of a church (or a religion) to teach is not the same as the obligation of the people to listen, especially when listening would mean setting aside one of the core principles of a constitutional democracy: the health and welfare of its population regardless of what any individual or group, religious or secular, considers sacred truth .

In the United States, among the 43 million fertile, sexually active women who do not want to become pregnant, 89% are practicing contraception.  Whatever else the bishops might want to preach about, contraception is the least likely to result in obeisant listening: the failure of Catholics to heed the absurd teaching of Paul VI’s panicked “birth control encyclical” (Humanae Vitae, 1968) is impressively documented in every survey done since 1970.

If abortion remains a controversial topic for some ethicists, the court of public opinion gave the verdict on birth control a long time ago.

But obedience is the trademark of the Roman church, as it was originally of the Roman Empire.  When the bishops of Rome first assumed the title pontifex maximus or supreme pontiff in the late fourth century, they did so using the imperial idea that the emperor was the bridge (pontus) between the gods and mankind.  Beginning with Augustus, Roman emperors were venerated as the sons of god: it’s one of the reasons Jesus gets the title in his christological role as “king of kings,” and why in their inspired mode, ex cathedra–from the throne of Peter–popes are thought to be infallible when teaching on “matters of faith and morals”–something no protestant, never mind an agnostic or a United States congressman, is required to believe.

Welcome to America, Land of the free and home of the politically vacuous. If anyone needs to be indignant about anything in the Obama administration’s effort to secure contraceptive protection for women as part of health care coverage by employers (including corporations owned by the Catholic Church), it should be the congressional leaders who are now screaming about the government’s “intrusion” into matters of conscience.  They should be telling the Church to calm down, hush up, and learn to be American.  Congress is entrusted with the legislative function of government, yet a significant majority of American legislators, or at least those who can read, are banefully ignorant of the secular character of the document that describes their job.

Whose conscience? What teaching? By what authority? This isn’t China,  or the Europe of the Middle Ages. It’s the world’s oldest (yes oldest) continuing republic.  It is supposed to be the place where the pretensions of hierarchical religion and monarchical rule were set aside in favor of a secular constitution that guaranteed freedom of religion but not its dominance over the welfare of its citizens.  The fact that a plenum of backward politicians, if that is not a tautology, happen to find that their antediluvian religious views and political needs coincide with the teaching of Rome on this matter should have no bearing on the discussion of contraception, health care, and reproductive rights.  None.

But naturally, in  hyper-religious America, any program that seems to challenge the unwritten catechism of the Christian right is construed as an assault on the freedom to worship, on religion itself.  The Sean Hannitys and Laura Ingrahams of this old world with their rabidly anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-science agenda and traditional-Catholic fear of sexual freedom dominate the discussion with a mixture of political illiteracy, brusque stupidity and the sort of dull sophistry that we usually associate with salesmen working on commission at Radio Shack.  But they have an audience, and they have homo Americanus’ natural gift for missing the point in their favour.

If John Kennedy were a candidate for the presidency in 2012, given what likely would have been his views on contraception and abortion, he would have been trashed by the Catholic media and the bishops for being a disloyal son of the Church.  In fact, that’s just what Rick Santorum, that most mule-faced and mulishly stupid of Catholic rightists, called him.

The Church as church has every right to its doctrine and its view. But religious doctrine should not stand (in countless cases has not stood) when a religious organisation (for example) advocates child marriage, or the abuse of children in the form of corporal punishment, or life-threatening health practices that would restrict emergency treatment to minors.  The Catholic Church has lost significant moral persuasiveness in recent years by preaching on stage its gospel of life and sermonizing about the rights of the unborn, while behind the curtain abusing the born, the vulnerable and the old as “human weaknesses” that the laity should learn to comprehend and forgive.  The denial of contraceptive rights to women as a fundamental part of health care is just another example of this malignant behavior.

Deciding women's futures

Because of its antiquity, the rules and pronouncments of the Catholic church are not often compared to those of other denominations; after all, in addition to being the  world’s largest owner of private hospitals it is the world’s most ancient monarchy.  To a large extent, its theology has defined both the institution of marriage, the nature of the family, and the conflicting duties individuals face in their religious life and as citizens.

The church has argued and will continue to argue that the City of Man is the imperfect representation of the City of God–to which the church stands nearer because of its privileged position as guardian of timeless truths.  Once again, the Church is free to believe this.  It is not anyone else’s duty to accept it as true.  The Church’s position on contraception and abortion is derived from particular traditions regarded as sacred by its teachers.  By their very nature, therefore, they are not binding on the conscience of those who regard those truths as damaging, irrational or destructive.  The secular state is under no more obligation to accept the Church’s teaching on reproductive issues than it is to accept the Church’s teaching on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  If American legislators would howl at the latter example, why are they lined up behind the Church in opposing freedom of choice.  After all, the church is supposed to know more about eternal than temporal things, and nothing is more temporal then reproduction.

But the church as an owner of corporations is not acting in the same role as the Church as the avowed dispenser of God’s grace through teaching and the sacraments. Its ecclesiastical privileges cannot extend into its social involvements and projects.

What the Church claims to do for the salvation of souls is one thing: if you believe it, and it doesn’t hurt animals, by all means continue to do it.

But contaception is  matter of the flesh, for men and women who have presumably decided not to heed the jeremiads of two hundred aging celibate prelates who will never be pregnant, never suffer a miscarriage, never have to consider the risks of giving birth, or of giving birth to a child with a genetic disorder.

Most sickening of all of course is the bare teeth hypocrisy of the politicans who want to see the Obama administration’s decision about contraceptive care as a violation of the First Amendment, an infringement of the free exercise of religion.  It is the government “telling religion what to do,” they say, with the assured self-satisfaction of a high school debater who’s just scored a point against the team from the next county.

Well, exactly.  That is exactly the way our system works.  It tells religion when to climb down.  It says a Presbyterian can believe in God’s prevenient saving grace and a Catholic can believe in actual grace earned through merit and priestly offices.

It says the government couldn’t care less unless the two want to fight it out with guns (cf. Amendment II) at dawn. It says a woman can believe in a hundred gods or in no god at all and still run for elected office.  It says that a Church should not be licensed to be a hospital but might own hospitals that meet specific standards for health care. Those standards are not doctrinal but empirical, measurable, scientific.  That hospital is not required to perform abortions. It is required to provide the same standard of  care for its employees–not all of whom are Catholic–as they might expect from a hospital that was not subject to the Church’s magisterium.

If the bishops and the Christian Right and their Republican mouthpieces win this one, the Constitution loses.  But most Americans won’t know that and many won’t care.

Talking Points from Rick Santorum’s Ethics Playbook

1.  No fetus should be denied health care.

2. My mother Cathy used to say, God love her,  The best solution for unwanted pregnancy is to learn to want it.

3.  All men are created equal.  All women are created  to be mothers and teachers or nurses.

4. Life begins at conception and ends with a funeral.

5.  Marriage is between one man and one woman, Mormon losers.

6.   Abortion is a sin because the Bible says “Honour thy father and thy mother,” and how would you even be here if they had aborted you, pervert?

7.  Despite what my critics say, I do not believe everything the pope says is literally true.  For example, he might say “It look like rain” when it doesn’t.

6. Our Constitution gives people of the same sex all kinds of rights. And it gives people of different sexes different rights. Same – Different, is that too hard for you you socialist bloodsuckers.

9.  Marriage is not a right.  It is a privilege.  Except it can’t be taken away once you accept it.  It’s really complicated.

10.  Monogamous, heterosexual relationships are what make America “the shining city on a hill,” like St. Augustine John Kennedy Ronald Reagan so famously said.

11.  It hurts me to see so many Catholics turning their backs on the teaching of the bishops. I think we can all learn something important from the bishops about how to teach our children, family values, protecting the young so many things.

12.  I’m not saying I’m a perfect Catholic.  God didn’t make us perfect.  I’d only say that I am the only Catholic politican who can go to communion with a clean conscience.

13.  What a disaster John Kennedy was as the first Catholic president.  I’ll bet if abortion had been legal then he would have been for it.

14.  People ask me, “Why do you think you’ve got a direct line to the Almighty?”  I’ll tell you why, if you tell me why you’re so gay.

15. Do I believe in evolution?  Let me put it his way. I believe God has a right to change his mind.

The Conspiratoriate

On September 16, 2001 I was flying back to Beirut to begin a new academic term at the American University, located in the city’s Muslim district of  Hamra.   Logan Airport, where the two planes (American Airlines Flight 11 and United Flight 175) that plunged into the World Trade Center towers had originated, had reopened only the previous day, and the mood of all of us who were boarding international flights was, to say the least, apprehensive.  I glared at fellow passengers for any signs that they might have something to hide, and they glared at me with similar suspicion.  There were many good places to be in the days just following the attacks.  In the air was not one of them.

Back in Lebanon, out of the blue, my driver began by asking how I was, how America was (the answer: a little shaken) and then for no reason apologized to me for the actions of all Muslims, everywhere, with the caution, “This is not Islam.  These people are not Muslims.  They are madmen who defile Islam.”

It was an explanation I would get in one form or another for weeks thereafter, delivered with sincerity, often with unnecessary and misplaced contrition, from students and colleagues.

Similar platitudes about the “true nature of Islam” were emerging in a constant stream from Washington, which affected to make a clear distinction between Islam as a religion of peace and the image of people leaping from tall buildings to avoid being burned alive by the engulfing fire of a senseless and wholly evil act, done in the name of God, by partisans of a particular faith.

I discussed some of this in a 2006 book, Just War and Jihad: Positioning the Question of Religious Violence.  In doing research for my piece of the book  even I was surprised at how ritualistic the actions of Mohamed Attah, Abdulaziz al-Omari and Hani Hanjour were.  In 2012,  Attah’s name and that of his comrades in arms are all but forgotten by most Americans.  What remains are the recycled images, the date, and the sense that some sort of preternatural evil had touched Manhattan Island that day.

The very scale of the spectacle made theological explanations tempting: irresistible to Christian fundamentalists who believed the events vindicated their belief that Islam was a satanic parody of biblical faith, and also, ironically, atheists who felt that it corroborated their belief that Islam epitomized religion’s inherent destructive power over the mind.  Hollywood could leave it alone; sometimes art cannot imitate nature, and among other things September 11 was irreproducible spectacle.  Few of us in our lifetime will witness even one murder. On that day the world saw the internationally televised ritual murder of three thousand people.

But even the platitude makers in Washington were lying to themselves and then began lying to everyone else.  In the weeks and months ahead, America got used to a new vocabulary.  Homeland Security. The Patriot Act.Operation Enduring Freedom.  Rendition. Guantanamo. And a new cast of  very odd characters, talking endlessly about radical Islam and threats to the security of the American people.  Even the word “homeland” was contrived by Bush phrasemakers to evoke an image of nation and common good not evinced in words like “country” or “national security.”  Home is where you lived, what you loved, where you went to be secure; you would do anything to protect it.  What do you protect a home from? Intruders. Outsiders.  Foreigners.

Bush himself in eight years of incompetent bumbling on all fronts is famous for two magic moments:  one, when he impulsively grabbed a bullhorn at “Ground Zero” (another imbecilic phrase) and said to the crowd, “I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people —  who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”

The second is his unilateral declaration of a win in Iraq in 2003, against the background of a festoon that read “Mission Accomplished.”  Besides Bush, who before this date was just a guy who’d stolen the Florida election won by Al Gore, there were others the American people got to know from briefings, news conferences, security alerts and news updates.  Rudy Giuliani, the “tough DA” who just happened to be mayor of New York on the fatal day; Ray Kelly, the NYC police chief and tough talker; Tom Ridge, the guy appointed by Bush to be the director of new Homeland Security agency, and under whose leadership the red-green-orange alert system  (reminiscent of how you learned to cross a street in first grade), evolved.  They all seemed like emanations of Bush’s plain spoken Wanted- dead- or- alive approach in his “war” on terrorism.

Alongside them, available on call for public ceremonies, were a modest retinue of Islamic spokesmen who were used by the Bush regime as mannequins for modeling what “good Islam” looked like: Wahlid Phares, Zuhdi Jasser, Tawfik Hamid.

If you have missed these faces (I have not) they are reunited for the first time since the passing of the Bush era in a video (released in 2009, but not widely distributed), designed to warm the cockles of your heart’s worst paranoid fears.  If you do not have the stomach for the full 72 minute version (Netflix has it) of The Third Jihad, there is an equally disturbing 32 minute free version that cuts right to the most graphic images and the bottom line delusion:

There is a well developed underground jihadist movement in America.  It is in a perpetual state of struggle against American culture and American values. It wants no prisoners, only victory. Your children are not safe.  “We the people” (i.e. “real Americans”) are not safe.  Wake up and tell a neighbour.  They use our laws against us.  They will not stop before the Constitution of the United States is replaced by Sharia.  Their first real victory? The presidential election of 2008.

For those of us (barely) old enough to remember the None Dare Call It Treason scare tactics of the 1960’s that kept the Domino Theory and rumours of atheist dominion flowing like sewage through the psyche of the American right, this is the Islamaphobe X-rated version of the same lunacy.

The film  is the brainchild of  former Navy physician and “concerned” Muslim Zuhdi Jasser who is most celebrated for his testimony before Congress in connection with the June 24, 2011 hearings on HR 963–known as the “See Something, Say Something Act.” Jasser is also heavily in with the American Islamic Forum for Democracy which recently has been shouting down the New York Times’ campaign against the film, especially its use in training New York City policemen.

If anyone has any doubts about the second-rate nature of the AIFD, then the quality of its website, its projects, and literature should out all doubt to rest.  It has the smell of a hate group whose odour has been unsatisfactorily sprayed over by the use of academics like Bernard Lewis and (important) dissidents like Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  The majority of the interviewees in the film are self-styled experts with a book and a private theory to sell: Rachel Eherenfeld, Mark Steyn, and Melanie Philips fit that description; other like Giulinai and Tom Ridge are there because they bring back the fragrance of Bush era fear management.  It is not that independently these writers don’t have a piece of a thesis to argue; it is that they have been made in the film into a chorus of frogs.  Their incoherent views aren’t intended by filmmaker Raphael Shore and Wayne Kopping to lay out their worries in a coherent way but simply to bludgeon the viewer with  the director’s master-theory of radical Islam.

Confronted by the New York Times blast against The Third Jihad, Mayor Bloomberg ordered its use in training sessions discontinued immediately.  It was soon revealed that Commissioner Ray Kelly (listed in the film’s credits), after initially denying he had had any knowledge of the NYPD’s using the film, had actually cooperated in its development.  The AIFD explained the reversals this way:

The NYPD’s initial denial of having widely used the film for training purposes-and subsequent public apologies issued by Commissioner Kelly (“It shouldn’t have been shown”) and Mayor Bloomberg (“Somebody exercised some terrible judgment. I don’t know who. We’ll find out.”)–are in and of themselves deeply troubling, and say far more about the current state of American society than about The Third Jihad itself. In fact, these public denials and apologies demonstrate the remarkable success achieved by the Islamist lobby in North America, which seeks to prevent any and all public discussion of the supremacist political ideology that non-violent Islamist organizations share in common with terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. In other words, the behavior of the NYPD, in this matter, tends to confirm the film’s thesis.

Well, why not?  The best proof of anything is to say that suppressing it proves it was (dangerously) correct.  In rare cases, as with Galileo and Yu Jie, this turns out to be be right assessment.  But in most cases, there is no real suppression–just a correction of hideous error, and this film is designed to be hideous, with its visual manipulation, dark corners and spliced commentaries.  New York cops were being taught that homegrown Islamic terror cells are growing like cancer in the United States. (Remember Fort Hood? The film was begun in the year of the shootings, 2008). Now the public is meant to believe that vital information is being withheld by a government gone soft on terror because the Islamist lobby is hugely influential in media and politics.  Make you blood boil?  Oh George, Tom, Dick: where are you when the country needs your help?

The thesis is so absurd at every level that it beggars serious discussion. All the more reason that we should be indignant that officers pf the law were told to believe every word and image in it was true.

The worst part of The Third Jihad-philosophy, however, is that it is not the face of American Islam.  It is the face of fear-mongers left over from the (pardon the expression) Bush intelligentsia who are driven by their own political agendas.  Fear, after all, was good for them; it got them legally elected once and kept the country in the pocket of mean-spirited men for almost a decade–an unforeseen stroke of luck for an ignorant man and his lunatic far-right supporters.  These are the same voices who would have goaded Bush into bombing Iran if the mood had struck him, the same cohort who succeeded in pushing him to invade Iraq and stir the hornets’ nest in Pakistan.  These are people who want the Peacock throne and their villas back, but who are not so stupid as to think they can say this out loud.  It is not about Islam; it is about the private agendas of a distraught expatriate community and oil guzzling supporters who think American-style democracy would be good for the Middle East, good for the Islamic wold in general.

They’re banking on a tried and true constant in American politics:  American ignorance of the inner workings of the world beyond these shores. To do this they have to convince Americans that they are complacent while really under siege.  The message of the film is that smart (and patriotic) Americans will not be led astray by peace and tranquility.  Smart and patriotic Americans know that there is a war going on between their values and the values of foreigners.  The film argues, if that is the right word–rather impresses–that while violent jihad against the United States may be in suspension right now, cultural jihad is being waged by Islamic groups who are using the laws and rights they are given to work against society and overthrow it.  The tissue of silliness on which this master theory is based is something called the Explanatory Memorandum On the General Strategic Goal for the Group In North America.  Written by a member the Muslim brotherhood, Mohamed Akram,  in 1991,  it reeks of the overblown jihadist sentiment of that era, sentiment more eloquently purveyed in bin Laden’s fatwahs against America.

But it is all mularkey. The kind conservatives in Washington seem to get off on. –Factory-produced xenophobia repackaged as patriotism. There is no “Third Jihad.”  There is no “stealth jihad.”  And the third Jihad conspiracy-sellers can only persuade two kinds of people: people who feel more secure when they are fighting a war against some spectral enemy they are largely ignorant of, and people who stand to profit from convincing the public that they must be eternally vigilant, eternally suspicious, and as a consequence, eternally irrational.

We have a lot of people who fit that description, and a lot more who might buy  the sinister vision of an Islamic apocalypse that the film promotes.  It seems to me we have a lot more to worry about from those kinds of people.