More gems from the wacky world of militant secularism

kim_kardashian

Regular readers will have noticed that this blog hasn’t covered the Decent Left much of late. Truth be told, apart from the new book by coincidence theorist David Aaronovitch, and Nick Cohen’s increasingly desperate attempts to commit suicide by cop at the Observer, there isn’t all that much to report. The end of the Bush-Cheney administration took the wind out of their sails, and they’ve never really recovered. I hear that Alan (Not The Minister) Johnson is planning a big new reinvention in September – or at least another one of his thousands of online vanity projects – but even NTM will be hard pushed to inject some life into it.

No, I expect it will be more of the same old crap. Norman Geras boring on about universal values, how the values that he, Norm, stands for are truly universal, and how (insert fancy footwork here) these universal values are consistent with special pleading for Israel. David “Mr” T running more exposés about Gilad Atzmon, in between lunches at Nando’s. Marko D Ripper holding forth on how the Serbs are trying to sap and impurify all of his precious bodily fluids. HP’s resident guest lunatic Morality Blog popping up in the comments boxes to dishonestly accuse people of being dishonest. This will all be bound together by a portentous manifesto that will sink without trace after two weeks of frantic puffery.

The trouble is, I get bored easily, and while one can always get some enjoyment from shooting fish in a barrel, you don’t want to always be shooting the same fish in the same barrel. A bit of variation is nice. So, while I may come back to the Decents if they say or do anything interesting, in the meantime let’s keep with a theme from recent weeks and pop over to the “National Secular Society”, a body that is to secularism what Mel Gibson is to Catholicism. The NSS’s weekly upload of articles normally has something to pique the interest. And indeed, Titus Oates decides to eschew Papist plots this week in favour of bashing the Presbyterians. But more of that later.

I was first struck by this article on the withering away of Judaism in the United States. The article hails the growing number of “secular Jews”, by which it apparently means atheists with Jewish surnames. Actually, the spin is that increasing numbers of US “Jews” are choosing to identify themselves by ethnicity rather than religion. Well, it depends what you mean by Jews, I suppose. Orthodox congregations aren’t doing too badly, and of course haredi communities are growing rapidly. There is, on the other hand, a noticeable decrease in religious observance, and increase in marrying out, amongst those liberal Jews who weren’t very observant in the first place.

I saw this and wondered how it fit in with the article run by the NSS the other week on the court ruling in the JFS admissions case, attacking the idea that the organised Jewish community (in this instance, the United Synagogue with which the JFS is affiliated) could decide who was Jewish for the purposes of admission to Jewish schools. The two don’t mesh together very well – and the JFS article was deeply confused – but the “secular Jews” line is probably a safe one to take, lest the NSS annoy their mates at Harry’s Place. The Saucers, particularly the Jewish ones, are very big on Jewishness as a racial category but don’t particularly like Judaism.

Just so the Catholics don’t escape for a week, there’s also a piece on how the Sarkozy administration in France is destroying the constitutional separation of church and state. This seems rather unlikely, given Sarko’s frequent appeals to laïcité whenever he wants to bash the Muslims. And indeed, all this amounts to is foreign minister Bernard Kouchner creating a panel of religious experts to provide guidance to French diplomats in being culturally sensitive in whatever countries they’re stationed in. This doesn’t seem problematic to me, unless you belong to the missionary school that says that cultural sensitivity is an expression of weakness, and western diplomats’ role is to elevate the natives to our level of civilisation.

But now to the main event, and NSS head honcho Titus Oates bursts into prose to lambast Gordon Brown. The occasion for this is an interview Brown gave to Premier Christian Radio. Now, Brown doesn’t talk very much about his Presbyterian background, but when he agreed to go on Premier it was only to be expected that he would be asked about this background, and about his thoughts on issues of Christian concern. Which is what he spoke on, although in rather general terms:

In Britain we are not a secular state as France is, or some other countries. It’s true that the role of official institutions changes from time to time, but I would submit that the values that all of us think important – if you held a survey around the country of what people thought was important, what it is they really believed in, these would come back to Judeo-Christian values, and the values that underpin all the faiths that diverse groups in our society feel part of.

It’s not really exceptional, if you’re talking about the values of the culture and where they come from. If we say that the cultural values of Spain or Poland are informed by Catholicism, or that Moroccan or Iranian culture is shaped by the Islamic tradition, that’s no more than a statement of fact. Indeed, as Friedrich Nietzsche liked to point out, the morality of secular humanists is basically New Testament Christian morality minus its theological underpinnings. For some reason, secular humanists get very irate when you say this.

Brown continues:

I think it’s impossible because when we talk about faith, we are talking about what people believe in, we are talking about the values that underpin what they do, we are talking about the convictions that they have about how you can make for a better society. So I don’t accept this idea of privatisation – I think what people want to do is to make their views current. There is a moral sense that people have, perhaps 50 years ago the rules were more detailed and intrusive, perhaps now what we’re talking about is boundaries, beyond which people should not go. And I think that’s where it’s important that we have the views of all religions and all faiths, and it’s important particularly that we’re clear about what kind of society we want to be. So I think the idea that you can say: ‘What I do in my own life is privatised and I’m not going to try to suggest that these are values that can bind your society together’, would be wrong.

Again, this is not outrageous, unless you believe that political leaders have no place talking about values – and again, I hold that you have to be a pretty extreme utilitarian to believe that values and morality shouldn’t have any place in political discourse. What Brown says is more or less in tune with the mainstream of British liberal Protestant thought. It isn’t consonant with the common British view that morality should be totally privatised, but that isn’t something that many politicians could state openly.

Anyway, Titus waxes wroth here, taking as a jumping-off point some remarks Brown makes about diversity, cohesion and integrating immigrant populations:

What are we to make of this in relation to Mr Brown’s claims that this is a “Christian country” run on “Judaeo-Christian principles”? What must the Muslims think of that? The Government seems to be plying the “Muslim community” (i.e. the “faith leaders”) with bribes on the one hand and then telling them their religion is secondary to Christianity on the other.

Leaving aside the faux concern for Muslim sensitivities, which is belied by the “appeasement of Islam” stuff Titus puts out on a regular basis, the trouble is that I don’t think Brown said what Titus said he said. Did Brown say that Britain was a Christian country run on Christian principles? No, he did not. He talked in a somewhat woolly way about the Christian derivation of British values. But to Titus, that’s as near as damn it Brown advocating a theocratic government.

Not for the first time, the NSS’s output reminds me a little of the Workers Revolutionary Party of blessed memory. Gerry Healy would always take one of two tacks: either the revolution was around the corner, or the fascist coup was around the corner. Titus has a rather similar shtick, based on alternating triumphalism about the decline of religion (which often includes suggesting that lots of people who identify as religious are lying, and should really be counted as atheists) with his “OMG! The theocrats are taking over! If we don’t watch out, Britain will be just like Iran!”

Gerry understood very well that this sort of thing helped to galvanise the troops. But it can be a bit enervating, and it leads me to think that maybe Titus would do well to cut down on the caffeine.

96 Comments

  1. Harry Monro said,

    August 16, 2009 at 8:01 am

    So whats the lovely Kim got to do with this post?

  2. ejh said,

    August 16, 2009 at 8:16 am

    Up to a point (and this piece, may I say, is a damned sight better than your previous excursions on the subject). But a couple of points occur. One is that there’s a difference between a culture being shaped by a religion that has been predominant within it for a long time, which of course is necessarily going to have happened, and the question of “judeo-Christian values”. I’d want to see those defined before I went along with that, and while I appreciate that can’t be done all that tightly, it’s not at all clear what they are.

    It might also not be at all clear how they would differ from, say, Islamic values or for that matter secular values. We can go back to “thou shalt not kill”, if we wish (or “thou shall do no murder”, as I’ve seen it adapted in a number of Wren’s churches in the City of London) and that’s identifiably a Judeo-Christian value, because there it is, prominently, in a holy book central to both traditions: but is it either specific to that tradition, or more prominent within it than in others? I’d be reulctant to say so.

    Well, one might say, that’s not so important: the point is that in, say, England, that particular ethical message would usually derive from that particular religious source. Which is fair enough. But it leads us perhaps to another question, which is how much both the culture and the ethical values of a mainly Christian country don’t just derive from the Judeo-Christian tradition but from the reaction to it and against it. In other words a large part of what is rightly valued in Britian or Ireland or Spain actually exists because of people saying “the Judeo-Christian tradition is wrong, we reject the Judeo-Christian tradition”. I’m not just thinking of the reaction against religion in laws and morals which has characterised recent decades, I’m also thinking of the way in which the Enlightenment (if I may use the term) involved a very deep suspicion – and often rejection – of intellectual habits and moral positions which were derived from religious texts.

    Now I think the fact (against, if I may use the term) that there’s as much rejection as reflection of the Judeo-Christian tradition is a very important point, but it’s not the same point as Mr Brown was making – it’s the bit that he left out. And it shouldn’t be neglected.

    I do agree with you, I think, that if the religious people have a virtue, it’s that they do at least think about ethics (which I would detach from “morals” in the way that religious people do not) and that this is very much a point in their favour against the very strong strain in contemporary thinking that – when it is not treating the whole idea of society as a fraud upon on the affluent – simply takes the view that if something is within the law then there is little or nothing further to be said. Which we can live with, and we can even have a functioning society of a sort if it applies, but it’s a society characterised ideologically by the screaming and shouting of the better-off whenever they do not get exactly what they want. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. Compared to which, at least the churches tend to be quiet….

  3. Ray said,

    August 16, 2009 at 9:34 am

    When the Decent Left and the Euston Manifesto kicked off, they were providing theoretical justification for ongoing western foreign policy, and representing themselves as the ‘real left’. As a project, they were worth examining and opposing.
    Arguing against the National Society of Open University Lecturers looks more like going out and finding someone to be annoyed by. It rather appears as if you want to banish militant secularism from public life, which is a little ironic.

  4. NollaigO said,

    August 16, 2009 at 11:50 am

    Gerry Healy would always take one of two tacks: either the revolution was around the corner, or the fascist coup was around the corner.

    Both were just around the corner according to Gerry thought.
    Which corner we turned depended on whether the WRP could solve ” the crisis of leadership in time”.

  5. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 16, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    Very good points from ejh.

    Kim has nothing to do with the post at all, she’s just easier on the eye than Terry Sanderson. See also, Scarlett Johansson illustrating economics posts at Stumbling and Mumbling.

  6. Ken MacLeod said,

    August 16, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    Nietzsche’s jibe may have been true about some Victorian agnostics, but the morality of secular humanists today is very different from ‘New Testament Christian morality’. For one thing, secular humanists have been pointing out for quite some time that several contradictory moralities can be derived from the NT, not all of which are even practicable, and none of which provide a sensible basis for secular morality. Just taking the popularisers – say, J. M. Robertson, H. J. Blackham, Richard Robinson, Paul Kurtz, A. C. Grayling, Margaret Knight, Julian Baggini, etc – and leaving aside the numerous atheist professional moral philosophers, you find of plenty of explicit rejections of NT morality and attempts to found morality and ethics on other principles: Aristotelian, utilitarian, Kantian and what have you. Most secular humanists would strongly agree that non-reproductive sexual acts are not in themselves wrong, that divorce and abortion are right in certain circumstances, and that doubting religious and other dogmas is a virtue and not (as the NT would have it) very very wrong. And so forth.

    On the other hand, I quite agree that Terry Sanderson is going a bit OTT in his criticism of Brown.

  7. Phil said,

    August 16, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    Most secular humanists would strongly agree that non-reproductive sexual acts are not in themselves wrong, that divorce and abortion are right in certain circumstances, and that doubting religious and other dogmas is a virtue and not (as the NT would have it) very very wrong.

    One of my permanent back-burner projects is re-reading* the synoptic Gospels and compiling a Little Book Of Things Jesus Said About Stuff. (Possibly “May Actually Have Said” or “Is Widely Thought To Have Said”, but the shorter title’s more catchy.) Not all that much for “most secular humanists” to disagree with, I suspect.

    On the “Judeo-Christian” thing, it struck me when Brown went straight from Judeo-Christian values to the values that underpin all the faiths that diverse groups in our society feel part of that he was probably intending to include Islam under the ‘Judeo-Christian’ heading – it’s the other Abrahamic faith, after all.

    *First time was slightly over-zealous preparation for an English degree.

  8. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 16, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    On the other hand, I quite agree that Terry Sanderson is going a bit OTT in his criticism of Brown.

    It’s what Terry does. I have a lot of time for the sort of old-fashioned humanists you used to meet – they were very much the same sort of people you’d find in the SPGB, and indeed there was some overlap. But Terry does go in for this superheated polemic that just distracts from whatever reasonable points may be hidden in there. Maybe I’m just nostalgic for Ludovic Kennedy.

    Polly Toynbee, of course, is a distinct case, because her version of humanism is to be taken as an aspect of her Big Sister Fabianism.

  9. ejh said,

    August 16, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    I think part of the argument Ken is making is related to the distijnction I make between “ethics” and “morals”. This is quite a hard distinction to make if your discussion derives from a religious premise, since in that instance both concepts are subsumed under the general heading “we do these things because the deity tells us that we should”. (This, as I understand it from her account, is why Cristina Odone is morally superior to the rest of us.)

    It doesn’t matter so much whether the interpretation of those instructions is crude or sophisicated, the point is that God Has Spoken is the basis on which they rest, and plainly we’re not in a position to tell God that there’s a distinction and that what people do in the privacy of their own homes (“morals”) is none of his business while how people treat one another (“ethics”>is: we can try and interpret Scripture such that it comes out that way, but it’s an intellectually iffy exercise to say the least.

    The religious, of course, will always ask the entirely reasonable question of where one’s authority for ethical discussion (or indeed for my morals/ethics dichotomy) comes from if there is no supra-human entity even posited. But my answer (about from observing that religious people are perfectly capable of ignoring any and all of God’s Laws if and when it suits and hence that it is in fact always human judgement that prevails) is that we do have a shared humanity and that concepts of right and wrong, of fairness and unfairness derive not just from our nature as human beings but from recognising that other people share it.

    Hence we naturally have a sense of ethics and a capacity to discuss what that may entail for written and unwritten law, and we naturally have a sense of society and a feeling that out individual contentment is in some way based on the contentment of other people around us. And how that is to be improved, achieved or expedited is the subject of what we call “ethics”, which is the concept of how we interact with one another without causing one another unnecessary grief or unhappiness.

  10. Fellow Traveller said,

    August 16, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    The Prime Minister neglects to address the contribution of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire to the values of modern Europe, a highly significant lacunae. The Church wouldn’t exist today without the Roman Empire, a pagan civilization bound by law and ethics which proceeded it by centuries.

  11. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 16, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    Hey, I like Cristina Odone. But we come back to Nietzsche’s question which was, if you remove the theological justification for morals, where do your morals come from? It’s the real centrepiece of the Death of God hypothesis, and was to leading in to the project of the Umwertung aller Werte, the revaluation of all values. Freddy was supposed to have begun that with Zarathustra, but although he talked about it a great deal, he was never able to do it.

    You can get around this, of course, by separating off ethic from morals. But ethics has its own pitfalls. See, for instance, Professor Normblog’s recurrent theme of universal values, although he seems unable to say what those values are or whence they derive. So we’re left with a circular argument whereby universal values are those upheld by Geras, and we may as well take Geras as an alternative to the deity as our ethical authority.

  12. Fellow Traveller said,

    August 16, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    Sorry but Fred gave the answer to the ‘conundrum’ you present – people create values as an expression of their Will to Power. Life itself values through its activity. A natural rather than transcendental origin.

  13. ejh said,

    August 16, 2009 at 5:35 pm

    he seems unable to say what those values are or whence they derive.

    He may, but I don’t: I think they derive from common humanity and human nature, as I said above.

    (Actually that reminds me, it’s at least a couple of years since the internet has seen my anecdote about how I had the chance to nick Geras’ Marx and Human Nature when I was working in the warehouse that stored it, but passed up the opportunity to do so because all the copies were so filthy with accumulated dust.)

    Oh, as I also said above, I think that the claim that we go to the deity for our values is in practice specious, given that they are mediated through human judgement.

  14. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 16, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    Actually, I have been reading Norm quite a bit lately, as a sort of masochistic exercise. All this stuff of his about ethics just makes me want to sit down with a stiff drink and some John Chrysostom.

  15. ejh said,

    August 16, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    Rachmaninov’s Liturgy of St John Chrstotom is a fantastic piece, I reckon, especially for anybody who thinks he only did piano stuff.

    I think one of the problems with this appeal to the deity is that really it’s an appeal to authority. But an appeal to authority is only of any lasting effect if the authority can actually show up and show that their authority is effective, which God is unlikely in fact to do. Of course, for a period of many centuries God’s proxies were (and in many places still are) able to do the job for Him, which gives the Word of God some actual practical force. But it does also tend to demonstrate a fairly familiar and important paradox in religion-derived philosophy, which is that the spiritual is only effective when it is able to manifest itself temporally.

  16. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 16, 2009 at 6:31 pm

    Well, the issue of morality/ethics as having been socially mediated is not something that any theologian worth his salt has a problem with. Your major difference is between the Orthodox or Catholic viewpoints, which stress the Church as the bearer of tradition and interpreter of these matters, and the liberal Protestant viewpoint that says we read the scriptures individually and then come to our own conclusions. Both can move with the times, but the latter much more so.

    Theravada Buddhism, of course, has a strict moral code without appealing to a deity, but that’s another story.

  17. ejh said,

    August 16, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    Well, the issue of morality/ethics as having been socially mediated is not something that any theologian worth his salt has a problem with.

    It’s not, of course, but the question of “why should anybody listen?” does run into the problem that what tends to be effective is not the threat of hellfire but actual this-world punishment, thus rather undermining the religious position.

    I’m not denying the role of faith – itself of course humanly mediated – in leading individuals to respect religious codes (although I would dispute that it was any more effective than commun-humanity ethics, and where it comes to morals it is of course a great deal worse in all respects). But it’s just useful to observe that religious organisations which purport to believe that God’s threatened posthumous sanction is what prevents transgression are, in fact, very keen indeed to impose practical, this-world sanctions themselves whenever they are able to do so.

  18. Richard Farnos said,

    August 16, 2009 at 8:04 pm

    I have to disagree with Ken. If anything I think you let off the NSS crowd off very lightly when it comes to Nietzsche. From my understanding of Nietzsche (which is of course is as weak as anybody else apart from Nietzsche) what really, really, pissed him off was people’s lack of recognition of the philosophical consequences of ‘the death of God’. If God is dead or does not exist he, she or it can’t be blamed for anything. New Atheists attempt to blame God-bothering as the source of all ills in Nietzschean terms is a rigorous as burning witches!

    Isn’t it is interesting that Christopher Hitchens prefers the term ‘anti-theists’ to atheist. The irony is of course that ‘antitheism’ implies a God or gods that need resisting. I would contend that Nietzsche would see this as the point – Hitchens, Sanderson, and the whole NSS crowd are as much God-bothers as believes! The only difference is that for anti-theists God is a bit of a tyrant- rather like that can be found in Milton and Blake!

  19. ejh said,

    August 16, 2009 at 8:39 pm

    The irony is of course that ‘antitheism’ implies a God or gods that need resisting

    No it doesn’t. It implies (and obviously means) a belief in God or gods, which belief needs resisting.

  20. Ken MacLeod said,

    August 16, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    I have to disagree with Richard. To blame God-bothering for various ills is not the same as blaming God. And if I ‘ve read Twilight of the Idols right, Nietzsche blamed the Christian religion for quite a lot of ills.

    What cured me of this worry, a long time ago, was the reflection that the Greeks and Romans had managed quite well (all things considered) centuries before the birth of God, and the Indians and Chinese for many centuries after.

    Of course, if you’re an over-excited early-XX-century German or Austrian adolescent, you might conclude that the Death of God means that you can do awful things to people without going to Hell. This is actually true. But in practice, drawing this conclusion means you end up with your cities firebombed, your leaders hanged, and a third of your fatherland occupied and revolutionised by the Judaeo-Bolshevik untermenschen, which even the thickest Aryan blond beast can recognise as Not A Win.

  21. OldCrazyToby said,

    August 16, 2009 at 9:04 pm

    Very good. I enjoyed your last piece on religion, although I didn’t see eye to eye with it 100%.

    It’s useful to remind comrades everyone now and then that secularism divorced from class struggle has a way of going terribly wrong, and potentially another vehicle for bigottry.

    I suspect that’s why some Great British comrades are so taken with it.

  22. August 17, 2009 at 10:51 am

    it wasn’t only the WRP, the SWP has talked similar crap

    “The argument from the leadership has been that, with the rise of fascism across Europe, and in the absence of a revolutionary left there capable of initiating united front actions to directly confront the Nazis, the burden is on the SWP to build a mass party that would galvanise the European left. This breakthrough for the SWP must take place in the coming months, or within a year or so. Otherwise, to quote Chris Harman, we will all soon be in the concentration camps.”

    btw., it is my impression that many adherents of the “old” protestant churches in France, Italy or Spain identify themselves as “secularist”

  23. skidmarx said,

    August 17, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    Otherwise, to quote Chris Harman, we will all soon be in the concentration camps.
    Funnily enough you take this from an ISG discussion document that doesn’t even bother to put quote marks around its supposed Chris Harman quote.

    Ethics is where a girl with white stilettos and a lisp comes from.
    Harry Harrison contains a lengthy discussion of the difference between ethics and ethos in Deathworld 2

    I was watching a programme called Revelations on Channel 4 last night in which 5 religious figures were asked their views on a number of subjects. After my initial skepticism about the lack of balance with no atheist interviewees, it did pique my interest. I think it was Rowan Williams who answered a question of how atheists seem to cope without ascribing their values to God by saying “but they benefit from the work God’s spirit does”.

    11. Where do morals come from if there’s no God? Why should we think that someone pretending to receive messages from God several thousand years ago is providing any greater justification than we can come up with ourselves? It is an old canard popularised I think by G.K, Chesterton in his saying that when people stop believing in God they believe in anything. When people fail to live up to their morals they aren’t necessarily abandoning belief in God, they’re just accumulating guilt. And the belief that there is nothing beyond the here and now is a lot firmer basis for thinking it would be a good idea to get things right in the here and now.

    7. Apparently the instruction in the parable of the feast to drag people in from the hedges was one of the justifications for the Inquisition.

    • Fellow Traveller said,

      August 17, 2009 at 5:15 pm

      I’ve not often seen the Deathworld novels cited in philosophical or theological discussion. Looking back though, Slippery Jim DiGriz (different novels, yes, I know) probably did more to shape my worldview as a teenager than any other thinker.

      • splinteredsunrise said,

        August 17, 2009 at 6:31 pm

        One could choose much worse spiritual guides than Slippery Jim. And Harry Harrison is surely one of the leading thinkers of our time.

      • Fellow Traveller said,

        August 17, 2009 at 8:20 pm

        Did he ever write The Stainless Steel Rat for Pope?

      • skidmarx said,

        August 18, 2009 at 12:26 pm

        Deathworld 1 & 3 are about the shift in outlook societies undergo to survive in new conditions. 2 generally makes the case for moral relativism.

  24. Richard Farnos said,

    August 17, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    I stand by my assertion that New Atheists/Antitheists are closet God-bothers. For their criticism isn’t just that religious organisation like any other human institution or systems of human thought are corruptible, but the very act of believing in a God corrupts people. It makes them “irrational” and open to “evil” they argue. As such there is no such thing “moderate” believer; all are on the slippery slop to back to the “dark ages”. Quite how this metaphysical lobotomy occurs is never explained – it a happening is as strange as the virgin birth or the plot of ‘The Invasion of the Body Snatchers’. It almost as if there was a nasty little God creping around planting pods!

    Moreover I think that is interesting that as hardline as New Atheist are on believers they also have no truck with moral or cultural relativism, and like believers invariable argue that there are a set of universal ahistoric absolutes. This again is problematic. For while I accept you don’t have to believe in a God or gods to believe in moral absolutes, you do have to believe in some sort of supernatural order beyond that of human culture – which is equally incredible.

    As Ken points out the death of God can lead to some quiet unpleasant places. However there is little comfort to retreat to morality of that of ancient Rome or Greece, or for that matter India or China. For example live wasn’t a bundle of fun if you were a slave in ancient Rome!

    The truth to be told we are all moral and cultural relativities whether we like it or not. The real question is does moral progress exist? It is possible for generations to learn from the experiences of previous generations without reliving their experiences?

    • Fellow Traveller said,

      August 17, 2009 at 8:09 pm

      You don’t have to postulate a transcendental morality for it to exist objectively – it could have developed out of a natural process such as evolution, a point repeatedly made by natural philosophers such as Prof. Dawkins and Dan Dennett.

      • Richard Farnos said,

        August 18, 2009 at 12:19 pm

        “You don’t have to postulate a transcendental morality for it to exist objectively – it could have developed out of a natural process such as evolution” – how can an ahistoric phenomena arise out of time specific proccess.

      • Fellow Traveller said,

        August 18, 2009 at 12:23 pm

        It didn’t because objective morality is not an ahistoric phenomena. At one point (at least prior to the emergence of human life) it didn’t exist.

        You’ll need to read Darwin’s Dangerous Idea to get it. I can’t explain a 300 page book in a few sentences. His Freedom Evolves takes much the same line on Free Will – it didn’t always exist either.

  25. Ray said,

    August 17, 2009 at 7:09 pm

    What, they all believe this? Did Antipope Dawkins issue a bull?

  26. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 17, 2009 at 10:56 pm

    Stainless Steel Rat for Pope? I’d buy that, even in Esperanto.

    • Fellow Traveller said,

      August 18, 2009 at 3:55 pm

      Jim did have a wife, the lovely and deadly Angelina, which could pose a problem. Still, the Borgias got around it and would form the ideal role model so why not?

      • skidmarx said,

        August 21, 2009 at 12:02 pm

        Sleepery Jeem’s position on the G delusion, expressed during his holiday on Paraiso-Aqui, is “Not only is there nobody upstairs, there isn’t any upstairs.” Maybe Archbishop of York would be more appropriate.

  27. frunobulax said,

    August 18, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    Looks like MNIM* is working the karma again – the list keeps on growing. Of course, the latest savaging of SS is nothing to do with what’s stated in the article. The real reason(s)? Lets guess:

    (a) Suggesting the moniker “My Name Is Marko” in the first place.
    (b) Supportive comment on Grey Falcon’s blog.
    (c) Splinty looked at Marko “in a funny way” 94 years ago.

    I suspect a bit of all three.

    *My Name Is Marko

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      August 18, 2009 at 8:58 pm

      I’ll have to take your word for it, fruno. It’s not like I actually read the guy.

  28. frunobulax said,

    August 18, 2009 at 9:44 pm

    Come, come – I bet you peek, at least a little.

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      August 18, 2009 at 10:45 pm

      Seriously, I don’t have the heart. I read Geras, but you have to draw the line somewhere. Anyway, I just end up morosely thinking how good his parents used to be.

  29. Matt Wardman said,

    August 19, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    Interesting conversation. Thanks.

    >But it leads us perhaps to another question, which is how much both the culture and the ethical values of a mainly Christian country don’t just derive from the Judeo-Christian tradition but from the reaction to it and against it. In other words a large part of what is rightly valued in Britian or Ireland or Spain actually exists because of people saying “the Judeo-Christian tradition is wrong, we reject the Judeo-Christian tradition”.

    I’d point out that traditions can have disagreements within themselves, so that the tradition can reject part of itself and still develop. In the broader Christian tradition in the UK, medieval Catholic autocracy followed by a Protestant emphasis then embryonic “human rights” concepts coming in with the nonconformists and born out of their own persecution by the official Anglicans and reflection on the New Testament – all based on different emphases within the Scripture/Tradition as seen through the lens of the time.

    The long-term success or otherwise of a tradition perhaps depends on its ability to have that dialogue within it’s own ranks.

    Compare, e.g., RCs with American Protestants and, switching to politics, the Conservative Party with the splintered left.

    >that doubting religious and other dogmas is a virtue and not (as the NT would have it) very very wrong.

    Not sure on that “very very wrong”. Doubting Thomas?

  30. ejh said,

    August 19, 2009 at 5:19 pm

    Thomas, a fictional character, doubted what he saw, not any particular religious dogma – and it’s not at all clear that his propensity to doubt is considered to his credit.

  31. Matt Wardman said,

    August 19, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    >and that doubting religious and other dogmas is a virtue and not (as the NT would have it) very very wrong.

    >Thomas, a fictional character, doubted what he saw, not any particular religious dogma – and it’s not at all clear that his propensity to doubt is considered to his credit.

    Not sure on that either. But – if you insist on that – the NT presents doubting of religious dogma as a virtue in the case of Saul/Paul for a start, and then presents him as a hero for doing so.

    It is not as simple as implied.

    Still not

  32. Matt Wardman said,

    August 19, 2009 at 5:54 pm

    Simple/straightforward.

  33. decent interval said,

    August 19, 2009 at 7:20 pm

    “Thomas, a fictional character, doubted what he saw, not any particular religious dogma”
    No, he doubted the resurrection, which is a very particular religious dogma, and believed when he saw. And why is he a fictional character? There can be few of the lesser apostles whose existence and activities are so much attested to by early historians.

  34. ejh said,

    August 19, 2009 at 8:06 pm

    When you say “early historians”, do you mean anybody at all who had information on Thomas’ life independent of that provided by Biblical sources?

  35. decent interval said,

    August 19, 2009 at 8:49 pm

    “do you mean anybody at all who had information on Thomas’ life independent of that provided by Biblical sources”
    Yes, obviously, since he is barely mentioned in the bible and the whole tradition of his apostleship to India, for example, is separate from biblical sources. The apocryphal Gospel attributed to Thomas is thought to predate the accepted Gospels.
    Both Gregory the Great and Augustine have commented on the theological significance of Thomas’s doubt, with the latter pointing out that Thomas “saw and touched the man, and acknowledged the God whom he neither saw nor touched; but by means of what he saw and touched, he now put far away from him every doubt, and believed the other.”

  36. ejh said,

    August 19, 2009 at 9:07 pm

    the whole tradition of his apostleship to India

    Uh huh. So what would be the primary sources here then?

  37. decent interval said,

    August 19, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    “The earliest record about the apostolate of St. Thomas is the apocryphal Acts of Judas Thomas, written in Syriac in the Edessan circle (Edessa, today called Urfa, in eastern Turkey), about the turn of the third century A.D. Even though this work has been acknowledged as apocryphal, Gnostic in touch, and romantic in style, several scholars find in it a historical nucleus, which represents the second century tradition about the apostolate of St. Thomas in India”
    It is of course difficult to find voluminous official records concerning the lives of penniless mendicant preachers in the first century near east of the type that would presumably satisfy you, but there is certainly reason to describe Thomas as fictional in the confident manner that you do, unless you are in some kind of pointlessly aggressive militant secularist mode, in which case you could equally well describe Jesus or Pontius Pilate as fictional characters. And let’s not get started on Mohammed.

  38. decent interval said,

    August 19, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    Sorry, that should be “certainly no reason”, obviously.

  39. Matt Wardman said,

    August 19, 2009 at 9:43 pm

    >a fictional character

    “Fictional” – as for example an invented character by Hercule Poirot – is a very revealing description to apply to a first century source. Especially to Thomas in the NT, since you can’t possibly know whether it is fiction or not. It is a category from the 20C that doesn’t fit the type of literature that is the NT – or any other literature from the period I can think of. It tells us more about the cultural lens that you looking at this through than it does about Thomas. I’m not getting into an argument on this point.

    But this is a side discussion. The point is that the NT does not regard doubting religious dogma as a bad thing – it is a far more human account than that and is full of doubt and questioning.

    And that fits with my original point that traditions – whether religious or political – are not monolithic and often have internal contradiction and argument, and that internal experimentation is one factor that lets them adapt.

    a) The

    My point is that

  40. Matt Wardman said,

    August 19, 2009 at 9:43 pm

    Bah – more extra bits at the bottom. Sorry.

  41. ejh said,

    August 20, 2009 at 7:12 am

    I’m perfectly happy to consider Jesus as a fictional character.

    Fact is, regarding Thomas we don’t have any contemporary records at all. For all the sulking and complaints about aggressive secularism, I’m speaking as somebody with a history degree and an interest in historical and intellectual enquiry. And I can also smell bullshit, so that when I come across this:

    It is of course difficult to find voluminous official records

    I’m aware that what it really means is “yes, under pressure we have to admit we’ve got nothing, but we’re going to take a pass on the normal standards of historical scholarship because it’s a religious figure, and hence we’ll consider traditions founded decades and centuries down the line as proper evidence.”

    Well, we wouldn’t accept the historical existence of Robin Hood or King Arthur on those grounds – though we would and do consider them as legitimate subjects for investigation. But, as it stands, we have no biographical details, no eyewitness testimony, no offfical records, no contemporary accounts, no likenesses, no nothing. All we have is “traditions” which are themselves based on this character’s appearance in a religious text and develop it.

    That’s not good enough, and the fact that when these questions are asked – as any proper historian would in fact ask them– some people start whining about militant secularism tells us a lot about what they’re up to.

  42. decent interval said,

    August 20, 2009 at 7:39 am

    I think a proper historian would distinguish between “somebody who may or may not have existed” or “somebody of whom we know very little” with ” a fictional character”. Do you admit any difference between St Thomas and, say, Til Eulenspiegel? Why are the existence of Robin Hood and King Arthur legitimate subjects for investigation and not the existence of Major Hannay or Philip Marlowe? And why do you consider Jesus a fictional character whereas Pontios Pilate isn’t? [that is a leading question, by the way].
    But your original point was that St Thomas was a made-up character and his doubt was of no theological significance. I have pointed out the theological significance, and whereas for you there is no difference between St Thomas and Mr Wordly Wiseman that is not true for believing Christians, who are the relevant group when it comes to assessing this significance.
    You didn’t ask any questions – you emphatically asserted that St Thomas never existed . That doesn’t seem to be the method of the good historian, but rather the militant secularist ignoramus. Weren’t you the person a while back who thought Bach was Catholic? What are they teaching them in history departments these days?

  43. ejh said,

    August 20, 2009 at 8:06 am

    And why do you consider Jesus a fictional character whereas Pontios Pilate isn’t

    Existence of evidence in the case of the latter.

    Why are the existence of Robin Hood and King Arthur legitimate subjects for investigation and not the existence of Major Hannay or Philip Marlowe?

    Because we know who made up the latter and therefore know for sure that they were made up? And therefore they’re not of the slightest interest to the historian who asks “I wonder where that story came from”?

    But nobody actually thinks that Robin Hood or King Arthur did exist – it’s just that people will and do investigate the tradition to see what it may be based on. As they may do with Thomas, or Jesus. But in all these instances they are dealing with characters we can assume to be fictional given the lack of any supporting evidence for their existence of the life-actions attributed to them. That’s another thing historians do, y’see – they make conclusions based on the data. We have the same data for Thomas and Jesus as we do for King Arthur and Robin Hood, i.e. some made-up stories a long time after the events described. And the conclusion, subject to revision if future evidence emerges, is that none of the four existed.

    who are the relevant group when it comes to assessing this significance.

    Actually they’re not, and the fact that you can claim otherwise speaks volumes about the nature of your thinking. Christians first: the privileging of Christian views and traditions. And then complaining that they’re being picked on when they can’t have it.

    History departments: I dunno, but hopefully not that “there can be few of the lesser apostles whose existence and activities are so much attested to by early historians”, which claim, when we interrogated it above, turned out to mean something completely different to “early historians”. I’ll be interested in your opinions on historiography when you find yourself able to comprehend the difference between a a historian, and a text of interest to historians.

    Oh, I don’t think you know what a religious dogma is, either. When presented to Thomas in the story, the resurrection was not a religious dogma. It only becomes a religious dogma much latter, because at this stage there isn’t actually a religion. You see the difference?

  44. decent interval said,

    August 20, 2009 at 8:07 am

    “Worldy Wiseman” of course.
    The assertion that the NT thinks doubt is very very wrong would also be contradicted by Jesus’s very evident doubts about his mission in the Garden of Gethsamene and at several points prior to that. But doubtless I will be told that Jesus is a fictional character and therefore irrelevant to a proper historical study of Christian thought.

  45. ejh said,

    August 20, 2009 at 8:15 am

    The assertion that the NT thinks doubt is very very wrong

    Can I ask where you’ve got this assertion from, by the way? A specific reference would help although normal standards of footnoting and citation will be waived on this occasion.

    • Matt Wardman said,

      August 20, 2009 at 8:39 am

      “The assertion that the NT thinks doubt is very very wrong

      Can I ask where you’ve got this assertion from, by the way? A specific reference would help although normal standards of footnoting and citation will be waived on this occasion.”

      Well, I got it from comment 6 in this thread 🙂

  46. decent interval said,

    August 20, 2009 at 8:36 am

    “Existence of evidence in the case of the latter”
    Yes, precisely. There was no physical evidence for Pilate’s existence until the discovery of an inscription referring to him in 1961. Prior to that, we had the NIT and the fact that he is referred to in Josephus (as is Jesus). But few would have been so bold or stupid as to call him a fictional character.
    “and therefore know for sure that they were made up”
    Yes, that is what a fictional character is. Can you tell me how you know for sure that Jesus and Thomas were made up?
    “We have the same data for Thomas and Jesus as we do for King Arthur and Robin Hood, i.e. some made-up stories a long time after the events described”
    No, in the first two cases we have some romances composed several centuries after the alleged events, whereas in the NT we have St Paul who tells us of a Jesus who was crucified about 20 years after the event, and the first three gospels set down c30 to 40 years after the event and very obviously based on a core of sayings and activities handed down by contemporaries, rather than a set of vague and utterly fantastical tales filled with obviously made up events and characters.
    “And the conclusion, subject to revision if future evidence emerges, is that none of the four existed”
    That may be your conclusion. It would be the opinion of very few contemporary New Testament historians.
    “Christians first: the privileging of Christian views and traditions”
    Yes, when the assertion is made that Christians cannot deal with the concept of doubt I confess that my exhibit number one in relation to this will concern the belief patterns of Christians, rather than the mating habits of muskrats. I apologise if this offends your sensitive secular conscience.
    “something completely different to “early historians”.
    I see. You don’t consider church historians to be historians. I don’t know what period of history you specialised in, but I would advise you not to have a go at the classical or medieval periods if that is your approach.
    “because at this stage there isn’t actually a religion.”
    So a group of people who believe their recently executed leader is the resurrected son of God isn’t a religion. Again your working definitions seem a little shaky to me.

  47. decent interval said,

    August 20, 2009 at 8:42 am

    “Can I ask where you’ve got this assertion from, by the way? ”
    Ken Mcleod, point 6/

  48. ejh said,

    August 20, 2009 at 9:14 am

    Indeed, Ken McLeod. So what the fuck it has to do with

    But doubtless I will be told that Jesus is a fictional character and therefore irrelevant to a proper historical study of Christian thought.

    escapes me.

    Now what I said was this:

    it’s not at all clear that his propensity to doubt is considered to his credit.

    And it’s not, in the book, is it? Thomas is explicitly compared to people who are praised for beliving without proof. And that’s the point. It really doesn’t matter, in that context, what Augustine thought when pondering the life and character of Thomas several centuries down the track.

    And the reason I delat with Thomas is that Matt Wardman had invoked him as an example of admirable doubt, and this, it seems to me, is – from the text- not at all right.

    Or, put another way – if you want to drone on about the general relationship of NT-derived thought to the question of doubt, try having that discussion with the person whose assertion was to the contrary, huh?

    Now, back to historiography.

    There was no physical evidence for Pilate’s existence until the discovery of an inscription referring to him in 1961.

    And when you come up with any physical evidence for Thomas’ existence, do let me know.

    So a group of people who believe their recently executed leader is the resurrected son of God isn’t a religion

    No, not at that stage in the book it isn’t. At the stage it has no dogmas, no organisation, no name either chosen or given to them. It’s just a bunch of people with a resurrected leader. That’s not what a religion is and it’s not what a religious dogma is. And I think any, ah, “working definition” seeking to suggest otherwise would be a definition of convenience.

    very obviously based on a core of sayings and activities handed down by contemporaries, rather than a set of vague and utterly fantastical tales filled with obviously made up events and characters.

    Before I pick this to bits, I’ll just ask – are you sure you waqnt to hang on to the second part of it? Because I’m inclined to have a lot of fun with it if you do.

    I see. You don’t consider church historians to be historians.

    I didn’t say that, and it’s dishonest of you to pretend otherwise. I consider historians to be historians. I don’t consider writers of, ah, works

    acknowledged as apocryphal, Gnostic in touch, and romantic in style [in which] several scholars find …a historical nucleus

    to constitute historians. I consider them writers of texts of interest to historians.

  49. decent interval said,

    August 20, 2009 at 9:45 am

    “escapes me”
    Ok I will spell it out for you. If I was attempting to reply to Ken Mcleod’s assertion that the NT did not entertain the concept of doubt, I would supplement Matt Wardman’s observations concerning St Paul and St Thomas by pointing out that Jesus himself evidently entertained doubts. However, had I done so, you would have intervened, as you did in relation to Matt Wardman, to point out that Jesus is a fictional character and therefore not relevant to the discussion. Indeed, since in your view the entire New Testament is a work of fiction you would presumably have dismissed the whole discussion as irrelevant.
    “And when you come up with any physical evidence for Thomas’ existence, do let me know”
    Well there is a papyrus gospel which purports to be written by him dating from the middle of the first century. Which is more evidence than exists for the vast majority of humanity, frankly. All circumstantial, of course, like the evidence for Pilate’s existence before 1961. But for what reason and on what basis do you so aggressively pursue this denial of the existence of the characters in the NT?
    “at that stage in the book it isn’t”
    The NT is not some kind of linear history and we have no way of knowing precisely what the disciples believed and how they were organised immediately after the first Easter.Evidently the truth of Christ’s resurrection was a topic of heated debate among them and to some had become a dogma for all intents or purposes. Perhaps you might supplement your history degree with some studies in the sociology of religion, and you might become aware of the diffculties in adequately defining what a religion is.
    “I’m inclined to have a lot of fun with it if you do.”
    Yes, that’s fine, I did go through fourth form at school so I have met your type and am used to your type of fun.Perhaps with this precious history degree of yours you might consider how, and in what ways, a historian might differ in their approach to the gospel of St Mark and the Bhagavad Gita?
    “I consider historians to be historians”
    Yes, I cited the earliest non biblical text relating to St Thomas. But as you are keen on proper historians, is Eusebius good enough for you?

  50. decent interval said,

    August 20, 2009 at 9:52 am

    And you are misrepresenting Matt Wardman – he did not say that the NT presented Thomas’s doubt as praiseworthy, but rather as legitimate.

  51. ejh said,

    August 20, 2009 at 10:05 am

    But for what reason and on what basis do you so aggressively pursue this denial of the existence of the characters in the NT?

    I think the aggression may be projection on your part, but in truth my interest in the absence-of-evidence for these characters is because I think that traditionally and even contemporaneously, the standards of evidence of historical enquiry are not applied to certain religious figures remotely as rigorously as they should be. And the response to the attempt to do so is met with, shall we say, a certain amount of aggression.

    The case of Jesus is particularly egregious in this context, where we have a series of apparently extraordinary events which – perhaps almost as miraculously as the events themselves – seem to have escaped contemporary observers entirely, and this in a Mediterranean world in which communication were really quite advanced. Somehow I am supposed to be able to discount the events as likely mythological but take the personnel involved as real, which strikes me as something I should not, by and large, legitimately be prepared to do. And the fact that people will scream “militant secularist” when the normal standards of historical enquiry are applied is not something that impresses me.

    The NT is not some kind of linear history

    Well, in fact it does have a certain amount of linearity, I think, and Thomas’ encounter with his just-risen chum does, I believe, come in between the chum’s crucifixion and the chum’s Ascension.

  52. decent interval said,

    August 20, 2009 at 10:27 am

    “traditionally and even contemporaneously, the standards of evidence of historical enquiry are not applied to certain religious figures remotely as rigorously”
    Can you give me some examples of contemporary NT historians who you believe are insufficienlty rigorous in examining the standards of evidence concerning the historical Jesus?
    “Somehow I am supposed to be able to discount the events as likely mythological but take the personnel involved as real”
    Yes, as you will find yourself doing frequently if you are dealing with classical or early medieval history, or indeed the lives of any religious personages. You presumably have no a priori problem with accepting that Padre Pio existed while discounting the stories about him, and you can believe that Daniel O’Connell existed while not believing that he was the son of the god Lug, while the veracity of Che Guevara’s existence does not hinge on the stoires now current in Bolivia of miracles occurring at the place of his death. Yes, there are written records of all these people existing, but simply to rule out a priori the existence of everybody who did not for some reason appear in the records of the Roman Empire in the Ist century is a quaint approach to near Eastern history.

  53. ejh said,

    August 20, 2009 at 11:00 am

    You presumably have no a priori problem with accepting that Padre Pio existed while discounting the stories about him

    Because, very obviously, I have evidence of his existence independent of the stories.

    but simply to rule out a priori the existence of everybody who did not for some reason appear in the records of the Roman Empire in the Ist century is a quaint approach to near Eastern history.

    If you ever find anybody who does that, let me know. If, however, you ever find anybody who notes that a given individual is the subject of no contemporary records and yet is the subject of lots of unbelieveable stories a generation or much more down the line, you’ll hopefully find somebody who draws sceptical conclusions from that.

  54. decent interval said,

    August 20, 2009 at 11:26 am

    “If, however, you ever find anybody who notes that a given individual is the subject of no contemporary records and yet is the subject of lots of unbelieveable stories a generation or much more down the line, you’ll hopefully find somebody who draws sceptical conclusions from that.”
    Yes, presumably you would think that the stories are untrue, but have attached themselves to a real personage who had impressed in some way as being especially devout or pious . Why on earth would you conclude that the person around whom the stories accrued did not exist? And how about the details of those contemporary NT historians whose methods you find insufficiently rigorous?

  55. decent interval said,

    August 20, 2009 at 11:37 am

    And I confess I am puzzled by this method. Imagine there were no records at all of Padre Pio, and I told you that in the 20th century a monk lived in the Po Valley who was noted for his piety. You would accept that at face value, I presume. I would add that many of his followes believed him to have supernatural powers, which again I assume you would find unexceptionable. I could say that he had the stigmata, and you would have no problem with that since there could be perfectly rational explanations for that. Assume I then continue to say that many believed he had the gift of bilocation – you would have the option of dismissing this as a most unlikely tale, or simply deciding that everything I had said previously must be discounted and the monk never existed. I am not a historian, but it hardly seems a rational or fruitful approach to me.

  56. August 20, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    there is plenty of more sophisticated stuff on that topic, see e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historicity_of_Jesus#References & http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ_myth_theory#Further_reading

  57. ejh said,

    August 20, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    Why on earth would you conclude that the person around whom the stories accrued did not exist?

    Because the sources for their existence would be enormously unreliable, on account of their obvious tendency to fantasy.

  58. decent interval said,

    August 20, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    No the veracity of some of the tales concerning their deeds might be thought unlikely. I don’t know of any evidence that religious people are more likely to invent completely fictitious human beings and honour them then sturdy secular folk such as yourself. And I don’t know what branch of history you specialised in, but it sure as hell wasn’t subaltern studies. But hey, let’s learn at your feet. How precisely would you construct a search for the historical Jesus? A simple look at what you could find of the official Roman government records (which as I say, don’t even refer to Pilate) would be enough for you tp declare that there was nothing to see here? Do you think every Jewish holy man of the period didn’t exist, or is it just Jesus?

    • Ray said,

      August 20, 2009 at 3:23 pm

      I don’t want to get drawn into this fight particularly, but what do you mean by saying ‘Jesus existed’? In your Padre Pio example, if we agree that “a monk lived in the Po Valley who was noted for his piety” and his name was Padre Pio _but nothing else_, do we agree that ‘Padre Pio’ existed?

      If we can agree that there was a carpenter’s son called Jesus who lived in Nazareth – not that he was descended from kings, or spoke at the temple, or performed miracles, or was crucified – is that enough to say that ‘we agree Jesus existed’?

  59. decent interval said,

    August 20, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    Perhaps your principles might be extended to the legal field, so that in your ideal secular state the testimony of a religious person would have only, say, half the value of that of a secular person, since the former are inclined to fantasise and make up completely fictitious people.

  60. decent interval said,

    August 20, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    Ray, broadly, yes, in both cases. The carpenter’s son thing is probably based on a misinterpretation of a proverbial saying, incidentally. But what is at issue is whether there was a historic personage at the origin of the cult that became Christianity. Or, as I understand it, whether we should make an a priori assumption that people around whom religious cults develop never existed, unless their existence is officially validated by state records.

    • Ray said,

      August 20, 2009 at 4:48 pm

      and if there was a guy called ‘Jesus’ who preached armed uprising against the Romans and was crucified for his trouble, didn’t say any of things that are attributed to him, didn’t claim to perform any miracles or claim to be the messiah, but was the original ‘Jesus’ that the myths built up around – is that enough to say that ‘Jesus’ existed?
      What if his name was Jeebus, and there was a typo along the way?

      What is the minimum requirement for you to say that ‘Jesus existed’?

  61. ejh said,

    August 20, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    Perhaps your principles might be extended to the legal field, so that in your ideal secular state the testimony of a religious person would have only, say, half the value of that of a secular person, since the former are inclined to fantasise and make up completely fictitious people.

    No, I think we can say in the historical field that people who have a propensity to make things up are significantly less reliable as witnesses than people who don’t. I realise this is picking on people who makes things up, but there you go.

    unless their existence is officially validated by state records.

    ….or any independent evidence, contemporary accounts of any sort, likenesses, descriptions, reliable chronology, all sorts of things in other words which constitute that little thing called “historical evidence” and do in fact tend to exist for people who attract public attention and especially for people who are reputed to have performed miraculous acts.

  62. decent interval said,

    August 20, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    “people who have a propensity to make things up”
    ie in your view, people who believe in God or the supernatural. Jeffrey Archer would be a more reliable witness than Martin Luther King in your court of law. I ask again, how would your vaunted history degree aid you in conducting research concerning first century Palestine, where there are few reliable written contemporary records that would meet your criteria, and everybody believed in the supernatural, or was prone to making things up, in your view. Do you think historians should try at all? Again, who are the NT historians whose methods you claim to disapprove of? Jesus would have been one of any number of roving holy men who claimed to perform wonders, so would have been of little interest to the (very small) Roman presence in Palestine regardless of what he did. Nonetheless, within a couple of decades of his death people were referring to him in writing and within 40 or 50 years of his death a number of purported biographies appeared and a sizeable cult had emerged around him. It’s certainly quite a lot of historical evidence for the period in question concerning somebody who lived their life in total obscurity, and far more than we have for other holy men of the period. Again, have you considered the possibility that he might have existed but not performed miraculous acts, or that most of the purported miracles occured in the presence of his disciples or followers and therefore would not have appeared in the headlines of the mass media which you appear to think existed in first century Palestine?
    Ray, yes, most of that would be sufficient for him to have existed, although it is hard to imagine him not having said what he is supposed to have said – indeed, it is apparent that Jesus said a number of things, such as promising to destroy the temple and rebuild it within three days, which were intensely embarrassing to his disciples and which the gospels repeatedly try to explain away. It is hard to know why they would do so if these were not real words which had been spoken by a real person and with which the early church in Jerusalem would not have been constantly taunted.

  63. ejh said,

    August 20, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    Again, have you considered the possibility that he might have existed but not performed miraculous acts

    Of course. But I have no evidence for it and I don’t see why the stories require an actual historical personage to have existed. It’s an unnecessary addition. If people are going to make up ludicrous stories, why would I expect there to be somebody real underneath all the guff? If ypu can make up a resurrection, or people walking on the water, or any of the other cock, why not make up the person too?

    it is apparent that Jesus said a number of things

    It’s not apparent that Jeus said any particular thing. Or indeed anything at all.

  64. ejh said,

    August 20, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    Talking of cock….

    i“people who have a propensity to make things up”
    ie in your view, people who believe in God or the supernatural. Jeffrey Archer would be a more reliable witness than Martin Luther King in your court of law. I ask

    Now I’m not sure where Jeffrey Archer comes in as somebody who doesn’t make things up, unless of course you’re an inventing an opinion for me that I’ve not expressed, which I rather hope you would not do. Anyway, the point, as you ought to be aware but apparently aren’t, is that you can believe whatever you like – it’s what you say, and whether or not it stacks up, that matters. Many people have been impeccable scientists and historians despite believing the most ludicrous things, but the things they said and wrote, themselves, were entirely reasonable, and we can often confirm them ourselves.

    Even in the ancient world there are people who take care to try and be reliable witnesses and therefore even when they are wrong some of the time, we can usually give them the time of day. (Herodotus would be a perhaps over-familiar example.)

    The gospel writers do not, however, come into this category.

  65. Phil said,

    August 20, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    If people are going to make up ludicrous stories, why would I expect there to be somebody real underneath all the guff?

    Why would you not expect there to be somebody real? You seem more sceptical of the existence of someone-subsequently-known-as-Jesus than of someone-subsequently-known-as-Robin Hood, which strikes me as odd.

  66. ejh said,

    August 20, 2009 at 7:22 pm

    No I don’t – upthread I believed I expressed myself exactly as sceptical.

    Why would I not? #63 refers. It’s an unnecessary addition. If you’re going to make up fantastical stories, you don’t actually need a real person to pin them on. It’s as easy to make up a name as not.

  67. Phil said,

    August 20, 2009 at 9:59 pm

    If you’re going to make up fantastical stories

    Is that how it works, though? Does an imaginary hero-figure accrete to fantastic stories, or do fantastic stories accrete to an originally quite mundane hero-figure? The latter model seems more believable – and more parsimonious – to me, which is why I would never refer to Robin Hood (say) as “fictional”. Misremembered, over-written, fabulised and all in all the subject of tales that have grown a thousandfold in the telling, but I would bet on there being a real person at the back of it all somewhere. (And ditto Jesus.)

  68. ejh said,

    August 21, 2009 at 10:02 am

    It’s a reasonable point and one I’ve heard before, but I don’t agree. I don’t see any need for a real person behind it – I see every reason why there must have been people of that type. There were bandits in the woods, and isolated kings in obscure corners, and wandering preachers.

    The trouble is, for me, that the more people try and say there must have been one single individual, the more the question comes up as to why there’s no contemporary observations of that individual. Take away the individual, observe the actual existence of archtypes – and the problem, to me, is much reduced. There were Jesuses, but probably no Jesus. Robin Hoods, but no Robin Hood. And nobody now suggests that there must have been a Prester John.

  69. decent interval said,

    August 21, 2009 at 11:54 am

    “Now I’m not sure where Jeffrey Archer comes in as somebody who doesn’t make things up, unless of course you’re an inventing an opinion for me that I’ve not expressed,”
    The opinion you have expressed is that believers in the supernatural are more likely to “make things up”. I don’t believe that to be the case and were I running a court of law I would generally find a Scottish Presbyterian a more reliable witness than Peter Tatchell or David Toube, to take two secular people completely at random.
    “There were Jesuses, but probably no Jesus”
    But what evidence is there for Jesuses, applying your method? Honi the Circle Drawer did not particularly attract the attention of the kind of authorities you trust (mentioned in the Talmud, but obviously that would not be a reliable source of anything to you, would it?), and we knew nothing of the Teacher of Righteousness until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Apparently, for some reason in mid first century Palestine, a group of people decided to make up an entirely fictitious rabbi and attribute to him a number of, for the most part unremarkable but to some degree damning and self-contradictory, sayings, and to undergo vilification, persecution and death for this. Is it not remarkable, given your preference for the testimony of contemporary observers, that nobody said “hang about, I’ve been living in Jerusalem for the past fifty years and I don’r remember any preacher called Jesus ever being here”? Would not simply making somebody up be rather foolish as well as kind of pointless?
    Again, I await your insights as a historian into how you would practically approach research into the existence of the historical Jesus, and your enlightened criticisms of those lesser scholars (you could start with Renan, Schweitzer and Vermes) who have attempted such a programme.

  70. ejh said,

    August 21, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    were I running a court of law I would generally find a Scottish Presbyterian a more reliable witness than Peter Tatchell or David Toube, to take two secular people completely at random.

    Not at random of course, and that’s the point, since you’re comparing two particular individuals who you consider unreliable against ….nobody. I would also hope that you are never in charge of such a court, since we would actually want to see the evidence of our wtinesses in order to judge them. I suspect that those witnesses whose testimony was full of fantasy would struggle to convince the jury. This is also a good principle in historiography.

    But what evidence is there for Jesuses

    Sorry, are you claiming that there were not wandering preachers in Palestine in our period?

    Would not simply making somebody up be rather foolish as well as kind of pointless?

    So, let me see. It’s not foolish to make up a large number of completely unbelieveable stories….but it is foolish to make up somebody’s name.

    Hey ho.

    Apologetics ain’t dead.

  71. skidmarx said,

    August 21, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    Again, I await your insights as a historian into how you would practically approach research into the existence of the historical Jesus,
    Perhaps in the same way as the search for WMD’s in Iraq. And I don’t mean just because a number of people make up stories about what they were and what they could do we must assume there is a real WMD hidden behind the myth.
    “hang about, I’ve been living in Jerusalem for the past fifty years and I don’r remember any preacher called Jesus ever being here”?
    Given that the Jesus myth only got properly established after all contemporaries were dead (apart of course from those enjoying eternal life with Our Lord) then to have expected written documentation to have survived pointing this out this mundane fact from a contemporary Jerusalemite is ludicrous. Given the miracles ascribed to the man, it would have made a far bigger splash if the stories were true, so why has no eyewitness testimony survived for what would be the most amazing events in history?

  72. decent interval said,

    August 21, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    “Sorry, are you claiming that there were not wandering preachers in Palestine in our period?”
    No, I was making a rhetorical point.There is no more evidence for Jesuses than there is for Jesus, but you choose to deliver your magisterial judgement that there were Jesuses. Can you let us know on what authorities you base this assessment?
    “It’s not foolish to make up a large number of completely unbelieveable stories….but it is foolish to make up somebody’s name”
    Yes, the point is that these stories were not at all unbelievable to first century Palestinian Jewry. Are you capable of grasping that fact? Indeed, the miracle stories obviously accrued to the initial core narrative because wonders of this sort are precisely what pious Jews would have expected of somebody purporting to be the Messiah. And yes, it is more foolish and much riskier to make up a fictitious person as the centre of your cult when your target audience would be fully aware of whether he had existed or not, than it is to attribute wonder working to a person who really existed, in a context where the working of wonders would be thought relatively normal. God help you should you ever decide to found your own religion, you wouldn’t have a clue.

  73. decent interval said,

    August 21, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    “Perhaps in the same way as the search for WMD’s in Iraq”
    Yes, good analogy, you would search for the core of truth behind the myths that had accrued, would find out that Saddam had indeed had a WDM which he had abandoned, had used poison gas against civilians in the past, that sort of stuff. And that would explain why many wrongly believed he still had them. Top marks, Skidmarx!
    “the Jesus myth only got properly established after all contemporaries were dead …then to have expected written documentation to have survived pointing this out this mundane fact from a contemporary Jerusalemite is ludicrous.
    No, it was established shortly after the first Easter in a context where potential recruits would have been fully aware of whether the centrepiece of the cult had existed or not. A rational child at the time of the crucifixion might have survived into the second century, by which time Christianity was very firmly established. You are right about it being silly to expect contemporary written documentation concerning the doings of utterly obscure sects, but I suggest you take that point up with ejh who sets the existence of such material as his barrier between fact and fiction.
    I don’t think either you or ejh have an intimate acquaintance with the NT, but if you read through it you will find most of the miracles to be pretty mundane – healings, cursing of fig trees and so on – and to have taken place in the utter remoteness of Galilee, which was not even under Roman occupation, and often only in the presence of disciples (who are generally “strictly bade” to tell nobody about what happened). You could find equivalent miracles in any Texas Pentecostalist church on your average Sunday.

  74. Phil said,

    August 21, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    a large number of completely unbelieveable stories

    You’re assuming your conclusion. It would be foolish to tell stories which were impossible to believe and expect anyone to believe them; it would also be futile. The stories collected in the canonical gospels obviously don’t fall into that category.

  75. ejh said,

    August 21, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    No, I was making a rhetorical point.There is no more evidence for Jesuses than there is for Jesus

    Yes there is. We know that there were such people but don’t necessarily know their names, just as the fact that one may never have met one’s neighbours or know their names does not mean that they are not there.

    I don’t think either you or ejh have an intimate acquaintance with the NT

    I ws raised a Roman Catholic thanks, attended a Roman Catholic school and received religious instruction therein. I can produce contemporaneous documentation for these claims, by the way.

    It would be foolish to tell stories which were impossible to believe and expect anyone to believe them

    Only if we ignore the existence of rhetoric: I think we’re both aware that “unbelieveable” is a term with overtones. Clearly some people believed them, as indeed some people believe in unbelieveable things such as UFO abduction or that Dick Cheney planned 9/11. But not, I think, people who we would regard as reliable or rational people.

    Incidentally, people in the ancient world, be they Jews or anybody else, didn’t just believe any old cock that was put in front of them. If they did, of course, the miracles wouldn’t be miracles. Walking on water? No big deal, my brother-in-law’s cousin did that on Mare Nostrum just the other week. You see the point? Now of course people’s appreciation of what was or was not humanly power was to some degree different (though I’d be wary, having read Christopher Hill’s demolition of Peter Laslett, of making in toto conclusions about what people believed in other periods of history) but nevertheless, the whole point about Jesus was that he was doing the impossible and was able to do so because he was assisted by God. And so credence to these stories would depend on (at very least) whether or not one was prepared to believe this – which very few people were. Thougj, you know, there’s always a few.

    No, it was established shortly after the first Easter

    ‘sfunny how in these discussions I’m always told not to reach definite conclusions, but the advocates of Christ are always happy to do so. “It was.” On whose account was it? Anybody independent? How critically are we prepared to examine the claim?

  76. decent interval said,

    August 21, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    “We know that there were such people but don’t necessarily know their names”
    How do we know? On which authorities do you base yourself? Your thesis seems to be that if we do know their names we should immediately deny their existence. How do you feel about the existence of Honi the Circle Drawer, for example?
    “I ws raised a Roman Catholic thanks”
    And will be aware that very little practical knowledge of the Bible is required for that.
    Yes, miracles obviously involve doing the impossible and they are by their very nature rare events. The point is that a first century Jew would most certainly have believed they were possible, which is not the same as being completely credulous. They were free to believe or not believe in tales of wonders, and in the case of Jesus, as you point out, many chose not to do so. But that is obviously not because they found the concept of a miracle to be incredible, since they would not have been pious Jews if they took that view.
    “On whose account was it?”
    On the account of virtually any respected historian of the period. Who the hell are your sources for your radical scepticism? St Paul was writing about 20 years after the crucifixion to what was obviously already an organised church with a wide geographical spread. And I am not an advocate of Christ, any more than you are an advocate of smug fatuity.

  77. skidmarx said,

    August 21, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    From memory,here’s the transfiguration story from Luke’s gospel in the first person:

    About eight days after this had been said, I took Peter,John and James up to the mountain to pray. As I prayed, the aspect of my face was changed , and my clothing became brilliant as lightning. There were two men with me, they were Moses and Elijah, and they spoke of my coming which I would accomplish in Jerusalem… Then Peter goes on to ask about tents. This is from the memorisation of parts of Luke I did twenty-five years ago for my R.E. ‘O’ Level, the rest of the NT I don’t recall in such detail.

    Yes, good analogy, you would search for the core of truth behind the myths that had accrued, would find out that Saddam had indeed had a WDM which he had abandoned,
    This is the same sort of case that was made by the supporters of the Iraq war after no WMDs were found. He had a missile programme, that the UN was well aware of, that I read about in the Guardian before the war, and played no part in the claims at the time that he had a secret programme. There was no core of truth in the claim that he had an ongoing chemical, biological or nuclear programme. Why do many people wrongly believe that there is a core of truth in the Jesus myth? That is the question you should be asking.

    You are right about it being silly to expect contemporary written documentation concerning the doings of utterly obscure sects,
    If some obscure sect is going about Corinth or Rome making claims about a made-up figure I wouldn’t expect anyone in Jerusalem to have noticed. But if a miracle man had brought Jerusalem to a halt with his antics I would expect some locals to have noted it.

  78. skidmarx said,

    August 21, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    Correction: that should be passing rather than coming

  79. decent interval said,

    August 21, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    “Why do many people wrongly believe that there is a core of truth in the Jesus myth?”
    Isn’t it rather the question you should be asking? People must be pretty stupid, mustn’t they? What prospects then for socialism?
    “if a miracle man had brought Jerusalem to a halt with his antics I would expect some locals to have noted”
    Indeed, but as I pointed out Jesus didn’t do that, no public miracles of any note were performed in Jerusalem and it wasn’t brought to a halt. In any case, there is little surviving evidence of locals in Jerusalem noting anything in this period, including its destruction. As I said before, plainly some locals did note Jesus’s promise to destroy the Temple and rebuild it, since it is a topic the evangelists return to with evident embarrassment. Why, when making up a fictitious person in order to build a reviled cult, would you make up a saying that plainly is extremely damaging to your case?

  80. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 21, 2009 at 8:20 pm

    You know, Strauss and Renan were arguing this stuff out at exhaustive length over a century ago…

  81. skidmarx said,

    August 22, 2009 at 10:57 am

    it wasn’t brought to a halt.
    Well Matthew’s gospel has the whole city being moved:
    And when he was come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, Who is this?
    Chapter 21, Verse 10.

  82. skidmarx said,

    August 22, 2009 at 11:10 am

    Isn’t it rather the question you should be asking? People must be pretty stupid, mustn’t they? What prospects then for socialism?
    Have you got an answer?
    Not necessarily.
    More likely to have a Second Coming than the carpenter’s.

    Why, when making up a fictitious person in order to build a reviled cult, would you make up a saying that plainly is extremely damaging to your case?

    I’d only be speculating. Maybe because they wanted to make the Jesus figure out to be powerful, and distance him from mainstream Jewry to enhance his gentile appeal.Why do crazy people do crazy things?


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