Archive for November, 2007

Religious Similarities and Continuity between Jews and Christians in Ancient Palestine

November 30, 2007

Going through the latest issue of the Oxbow Books catalogue, I found an interesting item on the similarities and continuity between Judaism and Christianity in Byzantine Palestine. Oxbow Books are an Oxford bookseller which specialises in books on history and archaeology. Their stock ranges from popular history and archaeology, like Channel 4’s Time Team to very detailed, academic works, such as technical treatises on the precise significance of the prehistoric megafauna found at a particular cave from the standpoint of a particular archaeological school.

The piece that caught my eye was Eliya Ribak’s Religious Communities in Byzantine Palestina: The Relationship Between Judaism, Christian and Islam AD 400-700. The blurb for this states:

‘This study is an archaeological analysis of the relationship between religious communities in Byzantine Palestina, based on a catalogue of excavated Byzantine sites in teh region (forming an appendix to the work). This shows that, although there are clear-cut examples of Jewish and Samaritan synagogues and Christian churches, these buildings are often so similar that it is difficult to differentiate between them. It is also shown that Jewish and Christian burial practices were so similar that, unless accompanied by inscriptions or symbols, the religious identity of burials is often difficult to recognise. This evidence is used to argue for closer and more peaceful co-existence between religious communities in Byzantine Palestina than is usually supposed’.

The Byzantine Empire was the eastern half of the Roman Empire, which survived the Fall of Rome in 415 until its capital at Constantinople was finally conquered by the Turks in 1454. Palestine and the other Byzantine provinces in the Levant and Egypt, were conquered in a series of campaigns by the Muslim Arabs in the 630s and 640s. Basically the book is discussing the relationship between Jews and Christians in Palestine under the Christian Byzantine Empire and very roughly the first half century of Muslim Arab occupation.

I can’t say I’m particularly surprised at the similarities between the places of worship and the burial practices of Jews and Christians in Palestine at this time. Christianity was originally a Jewish sect, and St. Paul, the pharisee and a son of pharisees, preached in synagogues. The language of the Peshitta, the version of the Bible used in the Maronite Catholic Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Syrian Jacobite Church,and the Nestorian Church, is Syriac, descended from Aramaic, the language of the Jews and other nations of the ancient Near East at the time of Christ. One particular dialect of Syriac, that spoken by communities around the village of Malula, north of Damascus and Mardin, east of Urfa in Turkey, is still called Aramaic today. The Roman Catholic priest and archaeologist, Carsten Peter Theide, in his book Jesus: Man or Myth? mentions an early Jewish Christian synagogue discovered by archaeologists in Palestine. Now used by an Orthodox Jewish community, the synagogue-church was identified by ancient Christian inscriptions on its walls and by the fact that the niche for the scrolls of the Torah was aligned not towards Jerusalem, but towards Golgotha, the site of Christ’s execution by the Romans.

Other archaeologists I’ve heard speak have also remarked on the continuity between places of worship in Palestine, even after the Muslim conquest. Last year I was fortunate enough to hear an archaeologist who had excavated such places of monuments in the Near East talk at Uni. He remarked on a particular Christian site he had excavated in one Middle Eastern state in the region, dedicated to the veneration of a local mar or saint. Excavating it, he found an inscription giving peace to all who entered the shrine’s precincts in Arabic, indicating that Muslims too had found sanctuary and spiritual benefit at the shrine. There were also indications that the pilgrims to this Christian shrine also included Jews.

Speaking of the transition from Paganism to Christianity in Egypt, the same archaeologist stated that while pagan temples in the towns were destroyed after the conversion, in the countryside they were largely respected and left untouched. In fact architectural elements from some ancient Egyptian temples even ended up in some Christian Coptic churches. One example of this which he showed was a slide of a beautifully decorated interior of a Coptic church in Cairo.

It was a fascinating lecture, and important because of the way the history of the relationship between the monotheist religions has often been presented as entirely violent. Yet despite the conquest of Palestine by Islam, relations between the Jewish, Christian and Muslim inhabitants appear to have been peaceful and respectful in this period. As for the continuity between ancient and Christian Egypt, this was in strong contradiction to the image presented by one of the BBC’s programmes on the subject. In the last of his series on Ancient Egypt about a year ago, Dan Cruikshank dwelt on the Christian destruction of pagan monuments and temples after the country’s conversion. Now that clearly occurred, but elsewhere the change was far less violent. However, that doesn’t make such dramatic television as images of angry mobs of fanatical Christians desecrating temples.

Now while as a Christian I think there are dangers with religious syncretism, I thought nevertheless that these indications of continuity and community between Jews, Christians and Muslims needed to be more widely known. The charictature of religious interaction that has become the received wisdom since the Enlightenment is that it is nearly always violent, a charicature that has taken on renewed relevance after 9/11. The evidence from archaeology shows otherwise. Violence is there, true, but so is respect and veneration, especially amongst Jews and Christians, who in Byzantine Palestine would have been the descendents of Jews, worshipping a Jewish saviour, in the language they shared with their Jewish friends and neighbours.

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The Nun Who Nurtured Reggae

November 29, 2007

Now I think that if you asked people what religion they’d associate with Reggae, they’d probably say Rastafarianism rather than Roman Catholicism. However, it seems that the Roman Catholic church in Jamaica also had a role in bringing the world the mellow sounds of Reggae. Last Saturday, the BBC broadcaster and Reggae fan, Jonathan Charles, presented a programme, ‘The Nun Who Nurtured Reggae’ talking about the role of Sister Mary Ignatius Davies in fostering the music. She ran the music programme at the Alpha Cottage School for Wayward Boys in Kingston, Jamaica. Without her, the blurb for the programme in the Radio Times declared, ‘Reggae music might never have flourished’.

This came as a surprise to me. My knowledge of Reggae extends to Bob Marley and the Wailers, and UB40, so I’m absolutely no expert on it whatsoever. However, given the rock’n’roll lifestyle of excess and parental outrage, I’d always assumed that Reggae would be the type of music the Church would want to stop its charges playing, rather than encourage them. Obviously, I was totally wrong. I’m afraid I missed the programme, so I can’t tell you what it was like. Hopefully it’ll be repeated. On the other hand, the churches have been highly influential in fostering young musical talent amongst kids from poor or underprivileged backgrounds. I’ve got a feeling that one of South Africa’s great Jazz trumpeters was encouraged to play the instrument by his local Anglican priest, for example. Outside of the church, one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, Louis Armstrong, was brought up in an orphanage. Arrested for brandishing a firearm in St. Louis, Satchmo’ could have been caught up in a life of crime and prison incarceration. Then someone gave him a clarinet.

And thus was born one of the greatest Jazzmen of the 20th century, and one of the instrument’s finest virtuosos. I’ve got a feeling Armstrong holds the world record for the number of top C’s played consecutively on a clarinet.

Sister Mary Ignatius Davies clearly did something similar for her kids in that school for boys in Jamaica. It probably raised a lot of kids out of poverty, but pop stars being pop stars they still remained ‘wayward’. Nevertheless, they created some great music and gave kids around the world a hope and enjoyment they probably would never have had.

Pullman’s Atheist Propaganda Film Hits the BBC News

November 29, 2007

Last night the BBC on the Six O’ Clock News did a little piece on Philip Pullman’s atheist fantasy, The Golden Compass. They gave a short synopsis of the movie, and briefly covered the issue of its antagonistic stance to religion. As Pullman is a very outspoken atheist who makes no secret of the fact that he wrote the book and its successors in the His Dark Materials trilogy to counter what he saw as the Christian propaganda of C.S. Lewis’ books, I thought this latest development demanded comment here. The film hasn’t even opened in the cinema over here yet, but already the adverts for the movie are plastered over the buses in town. There’s some real hype going on for it, and it’ll get worse the closer we come to its premier.

There’s already been a great deal of concern about its atheist propaganda content by Christians already. Frank Walton in his Atheism Sucks blog has put up a post about it. I’ve also seen at least one book, which expressly critiqued and rebutted the books’ anti-theist assertions from the Christian viewpoint. I’ll see if I can track that one down before too long, as clearly Christians need to present their case against the film and book in a cogent, well-informed manner.

As for the film itself, going by the synopsis the Beeb presented, it seemed boringly familiar. A tale of heroic scientist struggling to bring about his revolutionary discovery against concerted opposition by the Church, here presented as an evil conspiracy. In this instance, the hero is a scientist researching the existence of parallel universes, while his ecclesiastical opponents are a shadowy group called the Magisterium. We’ve been here before: it’s the war of science against religion again. And of course the religious types have to be evil members of a conspiracy. And some how I doubt very much that it’s an accident this conspiracy is called the Magisterium. There’s more than a strain of anti-Catholicism here. We’re back in Da Vinci Code territory, served up this time as a kind of anti-Narnia.

The Beeb’s brief coverage of the religious angle simply consisted that there were anxieties about the book’s anti-religious stance, and whether this would make it into the movie. Daniel Day-Lewis and Nicole Kidman, the two stars, were briefly interviewed. Day-Lewis stated very clearly that the film was anti-religious, and felt that this should have been explored further in the film. Nicole Kidman denied that it was an anti-religious film at all. I’ve heard that Kidman is actually a Roman Catholic, so it’s possible that by saying this that either she doesn’t want to face up to the fact that it is an anti-religious work, or else it’s such a grotesque parody of religion invented by Pullman that bears no relationship to the reality of religious faith and practice that she simply hasn’t recognised how irreligious it is.

Now let’s say a few things about the movie.

Going by what’s been said on the Beeb, the film’s wrong on a number of points from the outset. No historian takes the view that there has been a war of science with religion. There are tensions and controversies, but never an outright war. Nevertheless, the myth that there has been a war between the two areas of human experience and endeavour has proved an enduring favourite with intransigent Naturalists like Pullman. This is atheist fantasy, and not just at the literary level.

Pullman’s espousal of the Many Worlds theory is also severely flawed. Despite its immense popularity, very few scientists actually take it seriously. A Christian friend of mine told me he always thought that science was solidly behind the idea of a multiverse, until he was shown otherwise by the Wessex Sceptics, a rationalist group devoted to debunking the paranormal, like CSI and James Randi. The multiverse is quite popular among some New Agers, and I’ve come across one work of popular science, which traced the idea across the centuries in science, literature and religion. So despite the fact that some atheists have made the multiverse an article of their rationalist faith, rather than face the possibility of a Creator god, I suspect that if a scientist really claimed that multiple universes not only existed but were accessible, he’d face more criticism from within the scientific community than outside.

Nevertheless, a lot of Naturalists seem to need to support the theory in order to avoid the tricky issue of the apparent creation of the universe in the Big Bang. A few years ago Channel 4 screened the popular science series, What Remains To Be Discovered. Hosted by the Astronomer Royal, Dr. Martin Rees, this had a very strongly naturalistic slant. It was very strongly in favour of Multiple Universe Theory, unsurprisingly, since Dr. Rees is one of the major researchers in this area. The fine-tuning of the universe was briefly discussed, with various scientists stating that when they discovered it, they felt real anxiety at finding signs for a Creator. It was significant that even when discussing the possible evidence for God, they couldn’t even say the word. Then Multiple Universe Theory was presented as the solution to this apparent problem: no need to believe in Creation, Multiple Universe Theory means that it didn’t happen. No God is required.

Now not only has this view been attacked by Christian philosophers like J.P. Moreland, most scientists probably don’t believe in it either. So it’s fair to describe the aggressive promotion of Multiple Universe Theory by Naturalists as a piece of atheist propaganda – a faith position intended to win converts, but which need not represent reality. Pullman’s use of Multiple Universe Theory in opposition to religion is clearly another piece of atheist myth-making.

Then there’s the conspiracist angle to the book, with the religious opponents of the noble scientist being an evil clandestine group. Kh123, a commentator over at one of the posts on Atheism Sucks stated that it should be no surprise that the supporters of God and religion are presented as an evil conspiracy considering the way the Jewish people had been portrayed as just such a conspiracy down the centuries. He’s right, but the conspiracist libel against people of faith isn’t confined to the Jews. Denyse O’Leary pointed out how much the Da Vinci Code charicature of Opus Dei was based in Protestant charicatures of Roman Catholicism. That’s true, up to a point, but you could also find similar conspiracist attacks on Protestants in some Roman Catholic countries. What I found looking at the conspiracy literature is that such representations of clerical organisations as evil murderous conspiracies, like Opus Dei in The Da Vinci Code and the Magisterium in Pullman, is that they’re essentially based on libels directed against the Jesuits. That particular order was the subject of rumours by both Protestants and Roman Catholics that made them into a vast, murderous conspiracy. They were supposed to be experts in brainwashing, torturing any of their novices who were unable to believe their doctrines in dungeons in their monasteries. They were alleged to prey on young widows, using all their charms to persuade them to give their wealth to them, rather than keep it themselves or pass it on by marrying again.

And they were the ultimate assassins who were secretly present at every level of society, and with absolute loyalty to the Pope. When not murdering their opponents themselves, they used all the pomp of the Church to brainwash the men acting for them into complete fanaticism. Blood curdling rituals were supposed to go on in their monasteries, in which the would-be assassin was ceremonially presented with the richly decorated dagger he was supposed to use to despatch his victim, and promised that if killed in the act, he would go straight to heaven. The twisted image Dawkins and the rest of the self-declared Brights have of people of faith as brainwashed, theocratic would-be suicide bombers ultimately has its origins in such myths about the Jesuits. Dan Brown gave new life to such old conspiracy theories in the Da Vinci Code, although the murderous order there was Opus Dei, rather than the Jesuits. Now Pullman has served it up once again as ‘the Magisterium’.

The appearance of such conspiracist paranoia within a certain type of virulently anti-religious secularism isn’t coincidental. It goes all the way back to Voltaire in the 18th century who denounced organised religion, and Christianity and the Roman Catholic church in particular as a conspiracy against society. And such myths have consequences. The libel of the global Jewish conspiracy created anti-Semitic oppression and culminated in the horror of the Shoah. The paranoia about the Jesuits led to their suppression by states all over Europe in the late 18th century. And it was because Christianity was a conspiracy that the French and later Communist revolutionary closed churches and other places of worship, and systematically imprisoned and martyred millions of religious believers. Pullman by creating the fictional ‘Magisterium’ is thus part of a long tradition of paranoid anti-Catholicism, most definitely in the ‘paranoid style’. As literature there’s nothing particularly new in Pullman’s attack on religion. There’s a very strong atheist subtext in several of the novels of the British Fantasy writer, Michael Moorcock. The various incarnations of his hero, the Eternal Champion, are pitted in epic battles against the gods of Chaos and Order which rule Moorcock’s multiverse. Several of these novels culminated in the slaying of these gods in order to free humanity and the other inhabitants of that particular fantasy world. In the last book of the Chronicles of Corum, Moorcock’s hero of the same name is killed in fulfilment of a prophecy by a weird amalgamation of man and harp. As it shoots him, the harp proclaims ‘Death to all gods!’ In one of his other novels, the hero enlists in the legions of Hell in the war against the angels of Heaven. He also wasn’t afraid to generate controversy with specific attacks on Christianity. In his novel, Ecce Homo, the hero, Glogauer, travels back in time to meet Christ, only to find that the Lord and Saviour is a severely mentally retarded idiot. Shocked, Glogauer takes Jesus’ place, acting out the events of the Gospels, ending with the crucifixion. The veteran SF author and one-time colleague of Moorcock’s at New Worlds, Brian Aldiss, in his treatment of the book in his history of SF, Trillion Year Spree, denied that the book was blasphemous. In his opinion, it was a serious exploration of a philosophical issue. I’m not convinced, as I’ve seen the same subject – that of a time traveller who becomes the hero he travels back to meet – treated without any reference to religion. The hero of Tim Powers’ Fantasy novel, The Anubis Gates, for example, travels back in time expecting to meet the 19th century poet Ashbless, only to find that Ashbless does not exist, and he must adopt Ashbless’ role, writing his books and living out his life. It’s the same theme, but without the religious subject matter of Moorcock’s book.

Gore Vidal did something similar to Ecce Homo a few years ago in Live from Golgotha. This was about a TV crew who travel back in time to film the Crucifixion. Instead of a person with learning difficulties, Vidal’s book cast Jesus as a time-travelling Zionist terrorist not at all like the Prince of Peace of the Gospels. The book ends with Jesus being defeated before He can commit the terrorist atrocity He has been plotting, and is then recast as the more pacifist figure of the Gospels by St. Paul. The book was performed in London as a stage play a few years ago now. The British satirical magazine, Private Eye, which has been ruthlessly lampooning bad literature, as well as everything else in public life, which strikes them as ridiculous, gave Vidal’s book a blistering review. After pointing out its numerous failings, the magazine concluded that despite being bad and offensive literature, it wasn’t blasphemous. It was so ludicrous that it really didn’t say anything about Jesus or Christianity. What it did show was Vidal’s own preoccupations – human sexuality, and anti-Christianity and anti-Semitism. Vidal’s logic in the book seems to be that Jews are terrorists now, they were against the Roman 2,000 years ago, and so Jesus, as the Jewish messiah, must have been a terrorist too. And of course, the Christian Church being notorious for forgery clearly covered this up.

So in writing his anti-religious work, Pullman actually isn’t doing anything new or different from what a number of other writers have done before. There’s still the question of what Christians can do about it.

My own approach would simply be not to go to see the movie. Don’t indulge in displays of anger and outrage, like burning books. Just don’t give Pullman, Day-Lewis and Kidman your custom and your money. And if you’re mounting a campaign to show your objection to the movie, do it in a calm, reasonable manner giving clear, reasonable justifications. They’re there, and reacting in a low-key, reasonable manner over this will frustrate Pullman more than a campaign of outrage.

Pullman and those who share his viewpoint see people of faith and Christians as fanatical bigots who want to stop people thinking for themselves. The campaigns by outraged Christians in the past against certain books gave some of them the satisfaction of seeing Christians live up to their prejudiced view of them. The British Horror writer, Ramsey Campbell, for example, said in an interview in a British SF magazine a few years ago that he has a video of Fundamentalist Christians in America burning one of his books, amongst numerous others. Every time he felt depressed, he put this on the video.

There is also a real danger that any attack on Pullman’s movie will be presented as an attack on Fantasy literature as a whole and as a campaign to control children’s imaginations. This is what happened in the 1980s when some Christians mounted campaigns against the increasingly adult themes and material, such as homosexuality, that were beginning to be incorporated into comics and other genres of young and young adult fiction. Many people, and not just atheists, were upset and concerned by the violent denunciations of the Harry Potter books and films for supposedly glamorising the occult to children. The attacks on Potter to those not convinced that the books represented anything more than a fairly standard type of children’s story- there have been children’s books about magic and wizardry since the 19th century, including at least one set in a private school – seemed to be irrational, hysterical and intolerant. It’s important to avoid making the same impression again, and strengthening the image Pullman and his fellow New Atheists wish to give of Christians and other people of faith as intolerant bigots opposed to literature and imagination.

In fact there’s not only a way to avoid giving this impression, but in Pullman’s case to turn it around against him and interrogate his book and New Atheism over the question of who is trying to control and limit whose imagination.

It needs to be pointed out that while Christians, like everyone else, object to literature they consider is immoral, this does not mean that Christianity is opposed to literature as a whole. Literary scholars have suggested that the modern novel has its origins in the genre of spiritual autobiography of the 17th century. As regards Fantasy, this has its basis in pagan epic, medieval legend and folktale, but is not necessarily antichristian, and Christians have valued such literature down the centuries. The great epics of Irish mythology such as the Lebor Gabala, the Book of Conquests, were written down in the Middle Ages by Irish monks. They objected strongly to paganism, but like their counterparts elsewhere in Europe who copied Homer, Virgil and the pagan Latin authors, they clearly saw these tales as worth preserving as great literature. Similarly the great medieval legends, which include the later staples of genre Fantasy of errant knights, noble ladies, giants, dwarves and elves, were all written by Christians and were permeated with the medieval Christian worldview. While the Christian content of such tales may have diminished over the centuries, nevertheless the culture which produced the literary fairy tale in the 17th century was Christian. The 18th century chapbook, The History of Fortunatus, includes a variety of magical events, including a wishing hat and the hero’s meeting with the goddess Fortune, is nevertheless very much written from the Christian worldview. It specifically states that teh hero, Fortunatus, wishing to have children after marrying his wife, Cassandra, ‘made it constantly the petition in his prayers to God, that he would be pleased to send him an heir’. 1 It was this legendary lore of supernatural adventure and wonder that inspired genre Fantasy when it arose in the 19th century. Although much Fantasy literature now is very secular, nevertheless it has its Christian writers and exponents, such as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. The importance of Fantasy as a genre in developing children’s imaginations is still valued by Christians. Pope John-Paul II once praised J.K. Rowling because her Harry Potter books had done so much to stimulate kids’ imaginations and sense of wonder.

It’s also the case that the supernatural element in folktales has resulted in objections from some Secularist parents. The folklorist Linda Degh, in her study of contemporary legend, Legend and Belief, discusses instances where Secularist parents have complained to school authorities after folktales with a supernatural content, like ghost stories, were told in class. They felt this was indoctrinating their children with a belief in the supernatural. Similarly the psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim in his study of the positive benefits of fairy stories for children’s emotional and mental health, The Uses of Enchantment, states the objections some parents have to telling fairy stories to their children in case it promotes magical thinking and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Bettelheim strongly argues in his book that this is not the case, and the magical worldview of the fairy tale is a different thing entirely from the magical thinking of OCD. Additionally, although Fantasy literature is now a secular genre, many of the authors who founded it in the 19th century were profoundly alienated from what they considered to be the dehumanising effects of contemporary industrial, mechanised society. The development of genre Fantasy by authors like William Morris, one of the great founders of the British Arts and Crafts Movement and one of the leaders of the British Gothic revival, was partly a reaction to the disenchantment created by industrial rationalism. Pullman by creating an atheist Fantasy novel has effectively subverted the worldview on which such novels are based.

Now I have to say that I like Fantasy literature, and am a great fan of Michael Moorcock. Moorcock at his best is a great novelist with a deep love of heroic fantasy and a mastery of its conventions. His characters are baroque, memorable, and often humorously grotesque, and his books are filled with an inventiveness, which enriched the genre. Like the other members of the SF New Wave, Moorcock drew on a number of different literary genres, including Surrealism. He creates worlds of wonder, depicting lost cities, strange, alien peoples and races from bizarre civilisations, awesome vistas of the weird past and far distant future. It was the stuff of Romance and legend, and his doom-laden, tragic heroes, who are drawn inexorably to their fate as events move to their inescapable conclusion, have the pathos and heroic pessimism of the ancient epics. Beowulf ends with the hero’s death by the dragon he succeeds in slaying, while Hercules, after all his feats dies after putting on a poisoned shirt. So Moorcock’s best-known hero, Elric, meets his end after a tragic career, which sees him kill his wife and destroy his civilisation. It was rich, full-blooded heroic stuff, and a welcome relief from the bleak realism of much of serious literature and popular culture. It’s a pity that Elric has never been translated to the big screen.

As I said, there’s an atheist subtext to some of Moorcock’s work. However, Moorcock’s gods are fictional and so, while Ecce Homo was blasphemous – in my opinion – mostly I took the atheist statements in some of the books to be simply a statement of his own point of view without any particular relevance to my own beliefs. I enjoyed the books, but didn’t feel threatened by the atheism in some of them or found it attractive. It was no doubt what he genuinely believed, but it could also be viewed as a literary device affecting only the imaginary gods of Moorcock’s fictional worlds.

And that’s one of the ways to approach Pullman and his work of explicitly atheist propaganda: rather than accept it uncritically, encourage an informed and discerning attitude towards it.

It’s possible to turn the Secularist demand that people of faith develop critical thinking and think for themselves back against Pullman and his associates. The British literary scholar, Martin Barks, in his study of children’s comics, their history, and the controversies over them and their perceived influence on the young, Comics, Ideology and Power, points out that when reading a text, people don’t necessarily accept its content uncritically. Rather, they enter into a dialogue with it, and take from it that which they find satisfying, and leave what they don’t. Now Pullman is clearly hoping that people will accept the atheist message of his book and film. However, a major obstacle to this is going to be if the audience he wishes to reach have a critical attitude towards his text. Greg Bahnsen, in the excellent videos giving his students an introduction to worldview in preparation to their encounter with secular philosophies, which Frank Walton has posted up at his Atheism Sucks site, recommended to his audience that they critically examine what their professors and fellow students were saying to see if it conformed to the Christian worldview. In the case of Pullman and his movie, clearly it doesn’t. Do the book and the movie say anything true or worthwhile about God and His worshippers? No – they’re just a grotesque charicature. So is there is any reason to take them and their message seriously? None at all. You could probably even turn this into an opportunity to get people to be critical about anything claimed to be true from a Naturalist perspective, but whose presupposition were extremely dubious – like that Darwin has somehow made God irrelevant, for example. My guess is that the last thing the self-proclaimed champions of critical thinking and independent thought want, is to have their own philosophies subjected to critical thinking and people to be independent from their worldview.

As a writer of Fantasy literature, I have to say I don’t have much respect for Pullman. Unlike some of the great masters of Fantasy literature with a similar anticlerical or secularist slant in their books, Pullman doesn’t seem to respect the genre in which he writes. Moorcock, on the other hand, for example, has a deep love of the genre. In his overview of heroic fantasy, Wizardry and Wild Romance, he’s keen to defend it from the disparaging view of the literary establishment and makes it very clear that he believes that a return to its Romanticism would invigorate and renew literature as a whole. Writers, publishers and fans of Fantasy and SF have stories of Moorcock’s own generosity and help to people trying to set up SF and Fantasy magazines and similar genre-based enterprises. Amongst his colleagues who like and respect him are those who take their Christian faith very seriously, such as the British Fantasy artist, Rodney Matthews, who has illustrated a number of his books, the best known being Elric at the End of Time. Pullman, while doubtless a great bloke personally, on the other hand has stated that Fantasy is a very trivial genre, and the only reason he wrote it was because his adult books simply didn’t sell. It’s a very cynical attitude towards the genre that I dislike.

So, Pullman really isn’t doing what others before him haven’t done in creating an atheist Fantasy. Although the books and the movie are clearly intended to make atheism attractive, it’s based on bad history and conspiracist paranoia, which Christians can easily counter. As for any charge that Christians are intolerant for criticising Pullman’s film, the reply is that Christians have always enjoyed good Fantasy literature, while some atheists find supernatural tales problematic. This isn’t an attack on literature, or Fantasy or an attempt to control children’s imaginations. Christians are merely concerned about its misrepresentation of religion and object to its distorted worldview and propagandistic message. And rather than merely accepting things uncritically, Christian do think for themselves. It’s because they do so that many Christians aren’t impressed with the movie and the book on which it’s based. Christians should encourage people to think critically, and apply this critical interrogation to the film and its atheist message.

And the New Atheists can have no complaint when they do, and the book and film are found to be flawed and rejected. After all, they’ve been asking people to think critically all along.

Notes

1. ‘The History of Fortunatus’ in John Ashton, Chapbooks of the Eighteenth Century with Facsimiles, Notes and Introduction (London, Skoob Books, undated), pp. 134-5.

Just a Bronze Age Text

November 25, 2007

One of the most common sneers I’ve come across about the Bible is dismissive comments about its supposed origins in the Bronze Age. These are mostly offhand statements that the Bible is Christians’ and Jews ‘favourite Bronze Age text’ or that it’s just ‘Bronze Age mythology’. Such sneers are so common that they’re actually something of a cliché. Rather than being any kind of meaningful criticism of the Bible and its relevance, these dismissive references to the Bible’s ancient origins are based on nothing more than cultural chauvinism and a simplistic belief that the value of a belief system can be judged solely on the scientific knowledge of the culture that produced it. More specifically, it tries to dismiss the Bible and its witness to God’s actions in history based on the technical competence of the Israelites in one particular area: metallurgy. Because the Israelites at the time some Biblical texts were written could only smelt bronze rather than iron, this is somehow taken as a decisive indicator of their stupidity, a technological limitation that is indicative of the invalidity of their worldview as a whole. They believed in God, but could only work in bronze, while we now have science and have a metallurgical skill they could only dream about. This is somehow supposed to refute belief in God.

Now I have an interest in the literature and culture of the ancient Near East, and comments about the Bible being just a ‘Bronze Age text’ and the like aren’t rational rebuttals to the Bible’s truth, but simple statements of prejudice. There’s an underlying assumption that people that far back in time were either so stupid that their ideas aren’t worth listening to today, or else they suffered from a mythopoeic mindset which does not related to the objective reality revealed by science. In fact what is abundantly clear when you start to read texts from the ancient world is not how alien the peoples who wrote them were, but how little different they are. They knew less, and their culture was profoundly different to our own, but at the same time they were as intelligent as we are and were capable of making the most profound statements about the human condition through their mythology and secular literature. And if our science and mathematics are better than theirs, it’s because they laid their foundations. So let’s examine the intellectual and cultural world of the ancient Near East to see if the Bible’s background in the Bronze Age really does make it meaningless in today’s technological world of space travel, atomic power and cloning.

Firstly, the point needs to be made that the Bible is not just a Bronze Age text. If one takes the view that the various books of the Bible were written between c. 1000 B.C. to c.100 A.D., that’s a period of about 1,100 years of revelation and theological reflection, going from the Bronze Age into the Iron Age. It’s roughly the same period that produced the ancient Sceptical texts that produced modern atheism when they were printed and began to circulate more widely in the 17th century. Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who argued that the gods could not and did not interfere in nature, and that this cosmos was only one of a number of cosmoi that had arisen by chance through the fall of atoms in a cosmic void, lived from 341 to 270 BC. Pyrrho of Elis, the founder of methodical Scepticism who attacked all statements about the gods as nonsensical and taught a ‘suspension of disbelief’, lived from 365 to 275 BC, and his noted successor, Carneades, from c. 214 to 129 BC. If sneering at the Bible as just ‘Bronze Age’ myth constitutes an effective refutation, then it is just as valid to dismiss Scepticism and atheism as mere Iron Age thinking. Clearly dismissing the validity of either theological or philosophical perspective, based solely on when it was being formulated, doesn’t count as an effective refutation of either God and the Bible, or atheism and the arguments of the ancient Epicurean and Sceptical philosophers who produced it.

So how stupid, or technologically and culturally inferior were the peoples of the Bronze Age?

Firstly, although their technology was vastly inferior to ours, they were certainly not stupid. They knew how to build great temples and public monuments using tools very little different from those used by masons today. If you look at the hammers, mallets, saws and chisels used by the Egyptian craftsmen, what actually strikes you is how little they have changed. The metal used might be copper and bronze, rather than iron and steel, but their form and function has hardly changed in millennia. When you come to the tools in use in the Roman period, there’s very little difference between them and those of modern craftsmen.

Both ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia were highly sophisticated civilisations with an advanced mathematics. The Babylonians used a system of base 60, before moving to base 10, the system used today, about the time of Seleucid kings. They were acutely interested in geometry because of the necessity of accurately assessing field sizes for the correct payment of tribute and taxes. One common school exercise to provide training in this was the ‘six brothers problem’. This involved dividing a trapezium in strips between three pairs of brothers. The area of the strip each pair of brothers received was to be equal, while the strips declined in length. Although an exercise in solving a practical problem, it’s been suggested that this shows that the Babylonians were also interested in knowledge for its sake. 1 Amongst the 8,000 or so square metres of streets and houses excavated in 1930-1 by Sir Leonard Woolley in Ur was a private school, whose headmaster, Igmil-Sin, taught writing, religion, history and mathematics, recording his pupil’s work, their timetable, achievements, competitiveness, and also their truancy and physical punishment. 2 Babylonian civilisation also included academies, termed bit mummi – ‘house of knowledge’, a particularly fine example being that of Nineveh. Although the ancient Greeks’ admiration for the Babylonians as magicians has coloured the modern perception of them as superstitious, modern scholars of Babylonian civilisation have been impressed by their scientific skill and cast of mind. ‘Far from being the last word in Babylonian wisdom, witchcraft and popular astrology developed as a sign of decay in a dying civilisation, and we now know for certain that Sumerians and Assyro-Babylonians alike were blessed with almost all the qualities required for a truly scientific attitude of mind.’ These scholars point to the Babylonians’ insatiable scientific curiosity, a curiosity which saw them collect ancient tablets, establish museums of antiquities and collect rare and unusual plants and animals from foreign countries. 3 They understood with astonishing precision the lunar cycle, drew up observations of Venus, detailed star catalogues and could accurately predict eclipses of the moon and sun. The astronomer Kidunu (Cidenas), active in about 375 BC, calculated the length of the solar year with an error of only 4 minutes and 32.65 seconds. His calculations were more accurate than that of Oppolzer in 1887. And this is despite the fact that these astronomers possessed as technological guides only a primitive sundial, the waterclock and the polos. This last was a device for registering the shadow projected by minute ball suspended over a hemisphere. 4

In medicine, as well as the baru-priest who divined the sin responsible for the sufferer’s sickness, and the ashipu-priest who used magico-theological rites to treat it, there was also a tradition of rational, pragmatic medicine, asutu. 5 There were manuals of symptoms and their prognosis, including treatments for depression. They also possessed a pharmacopaeia’ of medicines and their preparation. Some of these medical procedures would still be considered good medicine today after all these centuries. One scholar has said of the treatment for epistaxis recommended by king Ashurbanipal’s personal doctor, Arad-Nama, who stated that the nose should be blocked to its end to stop bleeding that ‘modern physicians would not change a word of this procedure.’ 6

The ancient Egyptians too were skilled mathematicians, scientists and doctors. They were interested in probability theory, and had a number system based on ten which advanced to a million. 7 They had an excellent grasp of the mechanics of buildings and were well able to calculate the frustrum of a pyramid.8 While the Egyptians did not recognise the year as possessing 365 days, they knew that it took the sun this long to return to its original mythological birthplace in the south-eastern horizon at the winter solstice in 4500 BC. 9 They used a precursor of the theodolite, a notched palm rib called a bay, along with an L-shaped instrument with a plumb-bob, which measured the vertical, the merkhet, for surveying. 10 The ancient Egyptians too have won the admiration of contemporary scholars for the advanced state of their medicine. They new how to set bones, perform surgical operations to remove the parasitic guinea worm, and cataracts with thorns. They also valued oratory and intelligence. The Instruction for King Merikare of c. 2020 BC includes the advice ‘Be a craftsman in speech that you may be strong … Speech is more valorous than any fighting.’ 11

So we are dealing here with sophisticated, complex civilisations, which valued science and mathematics, and considered intelligence more important than skill in war. And in their personal observations on politics some of their comments are both acute and timeless. The modern tax-payer who feels that his hard-earned money is being squandered by greedy officials on themselves, rather than providing material results, can readily appreciate this complaint from ancient Egypt:

‘Seizers! Robbers! Plunderers! Officials! – and yet appointed to punish evil! Officialdom is the refuge of the arrogant – and yet appointed to punish falsehood!’

As well as

‘The land is diminished, but its rulers are increased. The land is bare, but its taxes are heavy. The grain is little, but the grain measure is large and measured by the tax officials to overflowing.’ 12

Similar the person who today feels that the law protects only the rich and powerful, and punishes the victim while protecting the criminal can find such sentiments expressed millennia earlier in Jewish legend. For example, in the legends that grew up about Sodom, the town was reviled as the epitome of evil and criminality because of the predatory avarice of its citizens and the extreme corruption of their judges. If a stranger entered the city, he was immediately robbed of his property and clothes by the citizens, who sent him naked and poor on his way. Their judges and rulers even passed an act which outlawed charity. Anyone who gave something to another for free, even if it was giving a piece of bread to a starving beggar, was to die. Even physical assault was rewarded under their perverted laws. If a man wounded another man in a quarrel, the wounded man was obliged to pay his assailant for performing the medical operation of bleeding him. 13

Obviously the complaint of the ordinary, tax-paying citizen against civic corruption and criminality is timeless, going down the centuries. The cry of the ancient Egyptian or Israelite can be heard today in London, New York and a million other great cities.

So the people of the Bronze Age were sophisticated, with an interest in science, mathematics and wisdom, and whose attitudes in many ways were very similar, if not identical to those of today. In reply to this, it can be stated that this does not mean that their religious ideas were correct, and that science has not overturned them.

Actually, this reply makes the same mistake. It has a mistaken view of the nature of religion, and ignores the continued existence of supernatural experience amongst contemporary people. Or rather, it stigmatises it as a mental aberration, or perhaps a false evolutionary vestige in human cognition that science has shown to be false. And it still overestimates the difference between modern people and their ancient forebears.

Firstly, positivists who see science as undermining religion by correctly explaining the objects of the natural world make the mistake of seeing religion solely as providing an explanation for events. But this is not the case. Religion is not merely about providing an explanation for a particular phenomenon, but about experiencing that phenomenon as a ‘Thou’, a mind, according the view of the great German Jewish scholar, Martin Buber. This ‘Thou’ was encountered by the whole man, as life confronting life, involving every faculty of man in a reciprocal relationship. 14 The particular images of Mesopotamian myth ‘had already become traditional at the time when we meet them in art and literature, but originally they must have been seen in the revelation which the experience entailed. They are products of imagination, but they are not mere fantasy. It is essential that true myth be distinguished from legend, saga, fable and fairy tale. All these may retain elements of the myth. And it may also happen that a baroque or frivolous imagination elaborates myths until they become mere stories. But true myth presents its images and its imaginary actors, not with the playfulness of fantasy, but with a compelling authority. It perpetuates the revelation of a ‘Thou’. 15 Thus in ancient Egypt contradictory explanations for the same phenomenon could appear in myth at the same time without apparent friction. The sun was conceived as both the boat of the god Ra travelling across the sky, and as rolled across the heavens by a giant scarab beetle. Both myths explained the phenomenon, but both looked deeper to a transcendental experience, a ‘Thou’, which the myth encapsulated. It is this transcendental experience, which is the essence of myth and religion.

And such supernatural and mythopoeic experiences still occur today. Scholars of Contemporary Legends – the mythic rumours and stories which circulate today – note that humans are also Homo Religiosus – religious, as well as rational, and that the legends that circulate may also be narrated by those to whom a supernatural experience personally occurred. 16 Sceptics and secularists such as Charles Krauthammer decry the increased interest in the paranormal as ‘a flight to irrationality, a retreat to pre-scientific primitivism in an age that otherwise preens with scientific pride.’ 17 Yet this is to make the same mistake of seeing religion and science as somehow performing the same role, whereas they operate in separate, but overlapping spheres. Moreover, it underestimates just how sceptical ancient people actually were. Denyse O’Leary in her excellent ID blog, Post Darwinist, has remarked on how the great Anglo-Polish anthropologist, Boleslaw Malinowski, was surprised at how many sceptics there were about the gods in the primitive societies he studied. Even amongst believers in antiquity, not all were at all pious. Some considered themselves far more intelligent than their supernatural masters. One ancient Egyptian scribe reproached another for his impiety thus: ‘I am astonished when thou sayest: “ I am more profound as a scribe than heaven, or earth, or the underworld!’ 18 The ancient Israelites were concerned to account for the origin of the false religions around them, and sought them in what we would recognise as rational explanations. For the writer of the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon, the origin of idolatry lay in the manufacture of images by the grief-stricken parents of dead children, and subjects to impress their kings with their devotion:

‘For a father afflicted with untimely mourning, when he hath made an image of his child soon taken away, now honoured him as a god, which was then a dead man, and delivered to those that were under him ceremonies and sacrifices. Thus in process of time an ungodly custom grown strong was kept as a law, and graven images were worshipped by the commandments of kings. Whom men could not honour in presence, because they dwelt far off, they took the counterfeit of his visage from far, and made an express image of a king whom they honoured, to the end that by this their forwardness they might flatter him that was absent, as if he were present. Also the singular diligence of the artificer did help to set forward the ignorant to more superstition. For he, peradventure willing to please one in authority, forced all his skill to make the resemblance of the best fashion. And so the multitude, allured by the grace of the work, took him now for a god, which a little before was but honoured as a man. And this was an occasion to deceive the world: for men, serving either calamity or tyranny, did ascribe unto stones and stocks the incommunicable name.’ 19 Looking at the evidence of contemporary interest in the paranormal, and the rationalist scepticism of the ancient Israelites towards the false religions of the surrounding nations, there seems much less supposed difference between credulous, mythopoeic Bronze Age people and their scientific modern descendents.

It also has to be considered that the Bible isn’t a typical Bronze Age text, and its view of God and the process of creation is radically different from the mythologies of the contemporary peoples of the ancient Near East. While scholars have pointed to the similarities between the Biblical account of creation in Genesis and that of the Babylonians, there are several crucial differences.

Firstly, in the mythologies of ancient Greece, Egypt and Mesopotamia, the gods are created from a long chain of personified natural forces. In Genesis, this process is reversed. God comes before nature, and all nature is the result of God’s creative action. 20

Secondly, there is a plurality of gods in the other, pagan myths. In Genesis, there is only the One God, who acts alone. And Genesis is structured to deny any kind of divinity to the objects of His creation. The sun and moon, for example, which were worshipped as gods in Babylonia, are merely described as the greater and lesser lights. It’s a rationalist restructuring of pagan myth to bring out the point that the various objects of the created universe are only that – created objects. The true power lies behind it.

Thirdly, the actual process of creation in Genesis is rather different from the very anthropomorphic account in contemporary paganism. While the Enuma Elish gives a very graphically anthropomorphic account of the gods knotting veins when they create the first man, for example, Genesis is much less anthropomorphic. It doesn’t describe how God creates the objects of the universe, only that He does. ‘The language of Genesis 1 tells us nothing about the mechanism or mode of ‘creation’.’ 21 Clearly the description of Adam being formed from the ‘dust of the earth’ and having life blown into him by God is anthropomorphic, but less compared to the surrounding myths.

Apart from the physical act of creation, God acts in history in a way that transcends the mythological time of contemporary paganism. The Babylonian myth of Adapa has been compared to the Genesis account of the creation of Adam. In the Babylonian myth, Adapa is created by the gods to serve them. Travelling to heaven to clear himself after he angers them by breaking the wing of the south wind with a curse, he loses the opportunity of immortality by refusing the bread and water of life offered him by the gods, mistaking them for the bread and water of death. It is similar to the Biblical story of the creation of Adam by narrating how the gods create a man, and how this man then loses the opportunity for immortality. However, the Adapa myth is set in an ahistorical mythological time. It does not have the genealogies present in Genesis, which link the events in Eden to the figures of Israelite history.22 In Genesis the story moves from myth into history, pointing to the effects of the primal theological events in the contemporary world of historical experience.

This experience of God as apart from nature, and acting in history, set ancient Israel profoundly apart from the neighbouring peoples, their mythologies and ideologies.

‘Not cosmic phenomena, but history itself, had here become pregnant with meaning; history had become a revelation of the dynamic will of God. The human being was not merely the servant of the god as he was in Mesopotamia; nor was he placed, as in Egypt, at a pre-ordained station in a static universe which did not need to be – and, in fact, could not be questioned. Man, according to Hebrew thought, was the interpreter and the servant of God; he was even honoured with the task of bringing about the realization of God’s will.’ This task saw humanity ‘possessed of a new freedom, and of a new responsibility’. 23

Whatever one believes about the literal truth of the account of Creation in Genesis, the movement away from God as the personification of natural forces, as a transcendent being active in time and yet apart from it, paved the way for modern science and was far superior to the pagan cults of nature. Franz Cumont, the great pioneering scholar of the Roman cult of Mithras, observed that if the cult of Mithras had survived.

‘it would not only have preserved from oblivion all the aberrations of pagan mysticism, but would also have perpetuated the erroneous doctrine of physics on which its dogmatism reposed. The Christian doctrine, which broke with the cults of nature, remained exempt from these impure associations, and its liberation from every compromising attachment assured it an immense superiority. Its negative value, its struggle against deeply-rooted prejudices, gained for it as many souls as did the positive hopes which it promised.’ 24

Thus attempts to discredit the truth of the Bible by pointing to its origins in the Bronze Age are profoundly wrong and inadequate. The peoples of the Bronze Age weren’t stupid or uninterested in science and mathematics, even if their knowledge in these areas was much less than ours. They were capable of profound philosophical insights and expressing timeless truths of human existence in their myth and wisdom literature. The same period that saw the formation of the Bible also saw the formulation of the classic atheist arguments. Furthermore, the Bible and ancient Israel in their view of God and His relationship with the world transcended the mindset of the other ancient Near Eastern peoples to create a view of the world that was both deeply religious and rational and sceptical. Rather than sneer at the Bible for being just a ‘Bronze Age text’ or ‘Bronze Age mythology’, the arguments and experiences recorded in the Bible need to be judged according to their own merits as the result of timeless human experience.

And despite the claims that modern science has somehow disproved them, the arguments against the Bible’s truth are all deeply flawed. The testimony of the Bible still stands, and the glory of the Lord does indeed proceed from age to age, from the Bonze Age into our own.

Notes

  1. Ivor Grattan-Guinness, The Fontana History of the Mathematical Sciences (London, Fontana Press 1997), p. 30.
  2. Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq (London, Penguin 1992), pp. 220, 223.
  3. Roux, Ancient Iraq, p. 358.
  4. Roux, Ancient Iraq, pp. 365-6.
  5. Roux, Ancient Iraq, p. 367.
  6. Roux, Ancient Iraq, p. 370.
  7. Grattan-Guinness, Mathematical Sciences, p. 32.
  8. Grattan-Guinness, Mathematical Sciences, pp. 34-6.
  9. Ronald A. Wills, ‘Astronomy in Egypt’ in Christopher Walker, ed., Astronomy before the Telescope (London, British Museum Press 1996), p. 34.
  10. Wills, ‘Astronomy in Egypt’ in Walker, Astronomy, pp. 36-7.
  11. Esmond Wright, ed., History of the World: Prehistory to the Renaissance (Feltham, W.H. Smith 1985), p. 57.
  12. John A. Wilson, ‘The Function of the State’ in Henri Frankfort, Mrs. H.A. Frankfort, John A. Wilson and Thorkild Jacobsen, Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1949), p. 97.
  13. Angelo S. Rappaport, Ancient Israel: Myths and Legends (London, the Mystic Press 1987), pp. 264-5.
  14. H. and H.A. Frankfort ‘Introduction: Myth and Reality’ in Frankfort, Frankfort, Wilson and Jacobsen, Before Philosophy, p. 14.
  15. H. and H.A. Frankfort ‘Introduction: Myth and Reality’ in Frankfort, Frankfort, Wilson and Jacobsen, Before Philosophy, p. 14.
  16. Linda Degh, Legend and Belief: Dialectics of a Folklore Genre (Bloomington, Indiana University Press 2001), p. 68.
  17. Degh, Legend and Belief, p. 267.
  18. John A. Wilson, ‘The Nature of the Universe’ in Frankfort, Frankfort, Wilson and Jacobsen, Before Philosophy, p. 69.
  19. Wisdom of Solomon 14: 15-21, The Apocrypha, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), p. 68.
  20. Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Chicago, University of Chicago Press 2003), pp. 40-45.
  21. Roger Forster and Paul Marston, Reason, Science and Faith (Crowborough, Monarch 1999), p. 276.
  22. Roux, Ancient Iraq, p. 107.
  23. H. and H.A. Frankfort, ‘The Emancipation of Thought from Myth’ in Frankfort, Frankfort, Wilson and Jacobsen, Before Philosophy, p. 245.
  24. Franz Cumont, The Mysteries of Mithras, Thomas J. McCormack, trans., (Chicago, The Open Court Publishing Company 1910), p. 198.

Halley’s Cometary Flood Theory Returns

November 24, 2007

Usually I don’t pay much attention to the various theories that surface from time to time about the Great Flood. Most just seem sensationalist and lacking a foundation in informed science. I don’t think it’s really that important whether the Great Flood really did cover the whole Earth, or if it was merely a local flood confined to Mesopotamia that appeared to the people there to cover the whole of the Earth. What matters is the theological message behind this action: that God is determined to wipe out evil, but that no matter how corrupt humanity and the world is, He will not destroy it again. God’s mercy far outweighs His justice.

However, this piece in Discover magazine is interesting. According to the article at http://discovermagazine.com/2007/nov/did-a-comet-cause-the-great-flood/article_view?b_start:int=1&-C= a group of scientists, the Holocene Impact Working Group, consisting of Bruce Masse, an environmental archaeologist, Ted Bryant, a geomorphologist and Dallas Abbott, and assistant professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, have suggested that there really was a global flood as described in Genesis. This was caused by a three-mile wide comet striking the Indian Ocean off Madagascar, producing tsunamis, superheated steam, torrential rains and darkening the sky for months on end. 80 per cent of all life on Earth may have been destroyed. The trauma of this impact was preserved in myths and oral history, while physical evidence exists in the form of chevrons – special rock formations produced by the resulting tsunamis containing deep-sea microfossils on the coastline of Madagascar and other places. The group suggests the collision took place in 2800 BC.

The theory is highly controversial, however, with Jay Melosh, an expert on cometary impacts at Arizona University strongly disputing it. According to Melosh, such an impact should have also produced fused rock and glass, which so far have not been found.

It’s an interesting theory, particularly as it’s a modern version of a very old one. Way back in the 17th century, the British Astronomer Royal, Edmond Halley, the discoverer of the comet that bears his name, presented several papers to the Royal Society outlining and refining his view that Noah’s Flood had been caused by the impact of a comet.

‘But the Almighty generally making use of Natural Means to bring about his Will, I thought it not amiss to give this Honourable Society an Account of some Thoughts that occurr’d to me on this Subject’, explained Halley in his ‘Some Considerations about the Cause of the universal Deluge, laid before the Royal Society, on the 12th December 1694. By Dr. Edmond Halley, R.S.S.’ 1

Halley believed that a comet had struck the Earth, changing the inclination of the poles and the Earth’s rotation, causing the sea to recede from the new position of the poles, and increase in their previous site. It also caused a ‘vast agitation’ in the sea, heaping vast quantities of Earth and high cliffs upon beds of shells, which once were at the bottom of the sea: and raising up mountains where none were before, mixing the elements into such a heap as the poets describe the old chaos.’ 2 Halley considered that the evidence for such a Flood and impact included the fossil remains of animals, great depressions like the Caspian Sea and other great lakes, and the intense cold in the American North, such as Hudson’s Bay. This latter may have been due, according to Halley, to that part of the world originally lying much further north than it is presently, and so preserving vast amounts of unthawed ice, which lowered the temperature in that region today. ‘that some such thing has happened’, stated Halley, ‘may be guessed, for that the Earth seems as if it were new made out of the ruins of an old world’. 3

Halley’s ideas about the possible extent of the damage caused by such a cometary impact seem naïve today. Certainly I can’t imagine many physical geographers giving much credence to his speculation about the cause of the intense cold of the American north being due to the existence of unthawed ice predating such an impact. Nevertheless, his approach wasn’t mistaken: he was looking at the evidence from fossils and the physical effects on the Earth’s geomorphology. Moreover, he compared the evidence of the Bible with ancient Greek mythology and its description of a primal chaos. Halley did realise, however, that such a violent impact itself posed problems for the Genesis account. If such an impact had occurred, then there was the problem of how Noah and his family in their ark escaped the general destruction around them: ‘In this case it will be much more difficult to show how Noah and the animals should be preserved, than that all things in which was the breath of life, should be destroyed.’ 4

A similar approach was taken nearly over a century later by Joseph Townsend, the rector of Pewsey in Wiltshire in England. In his The Character of Moses Established for Veracity as an Historian recording events from the Creation to the Deluge of 1813, Townsend, like Masse today, cited the evidence from the world’s mythologies, noting the existence of a global flood in Chinese, Japanese, North American Indian and Greenland myth and legend, particularly amongst the Iroquois and Mexicans peoples. He also considered accounts from ancient European and Middle Eastern historians, such as Josephus, Nicholas of Damascus, the Babylonian historian Berosus, and the unknown Egyptian author of the Phoenician Antiquities, as well as Plato, and the ancient Greek myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha. 5 Townsend then went on to consider the evidence from geology and geomorphology for corroborating the Mosaic account of the creation, citing the geologists of his day and their analysis of geological and physical geographical features, and concluding ‘The description of Moses, short as it is, corresponds exactly with the phenomena produced by this grand convulsion’. 6

Apart from contemporary Creationists, I doubt many geologists would give credence to Townsend’s arguments today. They were controversial when he published them. Townsend himself discusses the arguments from the geologists of his time against physical geographical evidence for a global flood, stating

‘Some vain pretenders to science, have been ambitious to display their knowledge and sagacity, by an appeal to natural evidence for the antiquity of the present system, in opposition to the Chronology of Moses’ and attacking in particular Canon Recupero, the great French scientist Buffon and others. 7 Nevertheless, even if they were wrong about the particulars, if Masse, Bryant and Abbott are correct, then Halley, Townsend and their successors were on the right lines and considering the right types of evidence.

Even if they’re wrong about a global Flood, Masse has himself contributed important evidence supporting the veracity of ancient, mythological accounts of events by demonstrating how Hawaiian legends about Pele accurately preserved memories of the volcano’s eruptions, and that Chinese mythology included accurate descriptions of comets and celestial events. Indeed, the British astronomer, Dr. Alan Chapman, presented a series on Channel 4 in Britain, Gods from the Sky, in which he suggested that the events of Egyptian mythology in particular referred to the movement of the planets and constellations as part of a religions based on the movements of these bodies. Chapman himself is no religious sceptic, but stated during the series that he was a Christian, and while believing in evolution made it very clear that he was not sympathetic to those who loudly announce that it disproves the existence of God.

Back to this story in Discover magazine, it’s likely that this will die down in a few days and the theory will be quietly shelved, depending on whether further evidence can be found to support it and convince sceptics like Dr. Melosh. Nevertheless, it’s one to keep an eye on, and shows that there are still secular scientists prepared to give a global flood, as experienced by Noah and described in mythology and legend around the world, some credence.

Notes

  1. ‘Edmond Halley (1656-1742): ‘Some Consideration about the Cause of the Universal Deluge’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 33 (1724-1725), 118-123’ in D.C. Goodman, ed., Science and Religious Belief 1600-1900: A Selection of Primary Sources (John Wright and Sons/The Open University 1973), p. 248.
  2. Halley, ‘Universal Deluge’, in Goodman, Science and Religious Belief, pp. 248-9.
  3. Halley, ‘Universal Deluge’, in Goodman, Science and Religious Belief, pp. 249.
  4. Halley, ‘Universal Deluge’, in Goodman, Science and Religious Belief, pp. 249.
  5. ‘Joseph Townsend, The Character of Moses Established for Veracity as an Historian recording events from the Creation to the Deluge’ in D.C. Goodman, ed., Science and Religious Belief, pp. 334-6.
  6. Townsend, Moses as Historian, in Goodman, Science and Religious Belief, p. 343.
  7. Townsend, Moses as Historian, in Goodman, Science and Religious Belief, pp. 343-5.

Sue Blackmore and the Suicide of the Enlightenment

November 19, 2007

Sue Blackmore is in the news once again. She’s was in the on-line comments page of the liberal British paper, the Guardian, arguing that belief in God is merely a meme, and that this explains why it’s so dangerous today. Needless to say, she’s wrong, and if anyone’s been preaching dangerous nonsense, I’d say it was Sue Blackmore herself.

Blackmore is a psychology lecturer at the University of the West of England in Bristol. When she was an undergraduate she had an Out Of Body Experience, which awakened in her a strong belief in the paranormal. She spent 20 years in the Society for Psychical Research, a society of British scientists, which researches the paranormal, investigating ESP and the paranormal and trying to replicate her experience. Then, a few years ago, she decided that it was ‘all tosh’, left the SPR and became an extremely outspoken Sceptic. Following Daniel C. Dennett she decided that the mind and consciousness don’t exist. Brains are just biological machines for processing ‘memes’. Indeed, she wrote a book on the subject, entitled The Meme Machine. Now a self-described ‘Zen atheist’, she spends her time telling the world that the self doesn’t exist and that belief in God and anything remotely supernatural is very stupid.

I saw her speak on this subject on a blazing hot June day last year at the Cheltenham Festival of Science. Listening to her preaching her views on the absence of the self it became apparent to me that she had pushed Enlightenment ideas to their ultimate, and dehumanising conclusion. The liberating belief in rationality that the Enlightenment had embraced against what it saw as oppressive superstition had now turned around and cut its own throat with its mechanistic logic. In the genteel, neo-classical splendour of Cheltenham’s Town Hall, the Enlightenment had publicly committed suicide live on stage in front of a paying audience of the British chattering classes.

I’ll explain what I mean.

I went up there with friends to see her speak. I’ve an interest in science as well as the paranormal. Cheltenham has for many years hosted a very well respected Festival of Literature in October, and a few years ago began to host a similar Festival of Science in June. Both are worth going to if you’ve an interest in literature and science, though the format is basically the same for the two festivals. They tend to consist of authors talking in front of the paying audience, promoting their latest book. This is usually on sale in the book tent set up by one of the local booksellers at the back of the Town Hall, and to which some of the authors make their way to sign copies and meet their audience after speaking. They do have some very good speakers in, ranging from veteran BBC foreign correspondents, like John Simpson, media dons like Jenny Uglow, and cult figures on the SF and fantasy circuit, like Terry Pratchett and Brian Aldiss. The tone is generally BBC Radio 4 and quality broadsheet, with the audience generally being what was once described as ‘the chattering classes’. In the case of the Festival of Science, this also has hands-on science exhibits from a centre in Cardiff, and various scientific toys and games for sale, like junior electronics and chemistry sets.

Blackmore had just published her book, Conversations on Consciousness, which consisted of her interviews with a number of senior researchers on consciousness, such as Susan Greenfield, and the Churchlands. Blackmore herself is an entertaining speaker, recalling some great stories, like the elderly Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD, appearing at a scientific gathering. Slowly coming forward on the stage, Hofmann had excused his lack of vigour with the words, ‘I’m sorry, but I keep forgetting I’m not 98 anymore’.

However, it was very clear that she was approaching the brain from a rigidly reductionist, materialist perspective. Benjamin Libet’s brain scans, which apparently showed that the brain initiated the preparations for actions before consciously deciding on them, proved, according to Blackmore, that humans didn’t have free will. She went further to state that the sense of self was itself illusory, and illustrated her denial of the ‘I’ by referring to herself as ‘this body’, ‘this machine’. When someone asked her what she got out of telling herself that she didn’t exist, she thought for a while before replying ‘a sense of freedom’.

It was the final culmination of Enlightenment materialism, and one of the most blatant and profound statements of the ‘abolition of man’, as C.S. Lewis put it. It was Lamettrie taken to its logical conclusion. Lamettrie, an ardent materialist, had written his L’Homme Machine during the 18th century to express his rationalist, materialist belief that humanity was only an organic machine, reacting to material stimuli like any other organism, or machine, without any interference by God, whose presence was not needed and deemed to be absent. Because of his vehement near atheism, the book became one of the most notorious works of Enlightenment Scepticism, an attack on religion and the religious conception of the human creature. Although very conscious of his radical attack on the religious establishment of the time, Lamettrie himself actually didn’t think he was doing much that other philosophers hadn’t already done. Descartes, for example, had considered animals as merely organic machines without consciousness or soul, and Lamettrie merely extended this reductive analysis to humans. Descartes had considered humans as also acting like machines, but believed that they were saved from being wholly so through the presence of the soul in the pineal gland. Blackmore made pretty much the same mistake. At times she seemed to be saying that she didn’t believe in consciousness or the soul, because there wasn’t a specific part of the brain devoted to consciousness, like Descartes’ pineal gland.

I have to say that this didn’t impress me. Although I don’t share Aristotle’s materialism, the Neoplatonist view of the soul as ‘the form of the body’, which allowed for the location of specific functions of the soul in the brain and body while also allowing it a transcendental character, seems to me to make this type of reasoning just daft and simplistic. It’s also very, very dangerous. Morality, and moral feelings, are constructed around the statement that pain and suffering are very real. People, as conscious beings, aren’t robots to be tinkered with at will, who can be programmed and reprogrammed according to the whims of society, but genuinely feeling, thinking beings with an innate dignity and value. Moreover, the whole of Western society and its concepts of justice are based on this idea of humans as rational, autonomous beings capable of taking informed decisions to shape their own futures and those of others responsibly.

Now Blackmore realises this, but trivialises it. She mentioned it was intensely controversial and threatened long-cherished views of the human animal. However, rather than saying anything about how it threatened to undermine democracy and human dignity, she flapped around the stage waving her hands around to act out the panic of some people over the philosophical implications that if they didn’t exist, why should they get up in the morning. When discussing her question to Susan Greenfield about the implications of this materialist removal of the soul for freedom of choice, she instead reported Greenfield making various comments about how this would affect whether she had certain things on the menu. This irritated me, as it seemed an attempt to laugh off a very serious, profound threat to human freedom.

Eventually her presentation came to an end, and during the question and answer session one or two people challenged her denial of the self. After briefly diving into the canteen area for lunch, my friends and I headed off to the book tent so we could challenge her there. We didn’t get very far. There was an extremely long queue ahead of us, with people earnestly speaking to her. We were still patiently waiting in the queue when the announcer on the tannoy declared that the signing was over, and she and her husband got up and left. After failing to meet and challenge her in debate, all that was left was for us to head off back into town.

It wasn’t all bad, however. Cheltenham in the summer is glorious, though packed with people. Not only was the Festival of Science on, drawing crowds, but the pubs and restaurants were packed with people watching the football during the lunch hour. After spending the afternoon going round town and talking, I finally took the train back home. I did hear afterwards that someone in the audience who also wasn’t impressed with her denial of the soul tried to get through to her on her website, but gave up after finding it full of stuff on John Lennon. Well, Lennon and McCartney were great musicians, but to me they don’t quite cut it as philosophers.

As for Blackmore’s views on the mind, they’re actually becoming increasingly untenable. Very few scientists take memes seriously, and a few months ago the papers over here carried a story about fruitflies having free will. Apparently scientists had analysed their flittering about, and come to the conclusion that it was not random, but the product of conscious decisions. As for the problem for free will caused by Libet’s brain scans, there also seems to be evidence against that as well. Some neuroscientists now consider that there are different parts of the brain which initiate different actions, and that these act independently of each other, although they do communicate. Thus it seems to me that it’s quite possible that the part of the brain initiating the actions Libet measured was doing so as part of a conscious process, but only appeared to be unconscious because of the time lag created while it communicated with the other part of the brain Libet was also measuring.

There is also some intriguing evidence from recent neuroscience research that the brain tends to react to circumstances three seconds before these circumstances arise. For a good overview of this, go to: http://publicparapsychology.blogspot.com/2007/11/brain-response-to-future-event.html.

There are also strong arguments against Blackmore’s materialism from the perspective of traditional Cartesian dualism.

Thus it seems that Blackmore herself has gone from one extreme position – as an ardent defender of the paranormal – to another, where as a Sceptic of the Dawkinite variety she vehemently attacks it. In the meantime, the Enlightenment she so vociferously seeks to defend has reached its ultimate reductio ad absurdum and effectively killed itself. The great ideologues of the Enlightenment firmly believed in human rationality and people’s capability of making informed, rational, responsible decisions. The whole concept of democracy, which philosophes like Voltaire so passionately defended against tyranny and what they perceived as superstition, is based on this. By denying human rationality and personal responsibility, the basis of democracy is being undermined, while by regarding the human organism as simply ‘this machine’, human dignity itself is similarly denied.

Blackmore and Dawkins view religion as the enemy of reason and freedom. Yet in Switzerland, the heartland of European democracy, vox populi did indeed mean vox dei. Similarly in ancient Greece, the popular assembly of the polis made the decisions and laws, which were then ratified by the oracle. Democracy, or public participation in government, existed with and supported by religion.

Here the situation is reversed. Blackmore and Dawkins materialist attack on the supernatural also has the effect of attacking democracy and responsible human government. Never mind protecting society from religion. It could well be argued that the greatest danger to society is Scepticism like theirs.

Dawkins’ Secular Morality

November 17, 2007

Richard Dawkins has gone on record as stating that if someone takes their morality form the Bible, their morals must be ‘hideous’. Instead, he recommends that people base their morals on intuition, philosophy and law. Now I intend to critique Dawkins’ sweeping dismissal of Biblical morality in due course, but for now, let’s see if his view of intuition, philosophy and law forming a solid basis for morality.

Intuition

Now there are real problems with the human intuition as the basis of morality. This philosophy Dawkins’ articulated here is intuitionism – the idea that humans instinctively know what is morally right or wrong. Largely, this is true. People the world over consider murder and theft wrong, for example. The problem is that human morals also differ widely across cultures. What is condemned in one culture may be applauded in another. The punishment of crime is a case in point. For fundamentalist Muslims, the amputation of a hand for theft is a perfectly just punishment, which can be rationally defended as a suitable deterrent fitting the crime. Those Muslims who support this punishment will denounce the Western prison system instead as expensive and dehumanising. For liberal Westerners, however, physical mutilation for crime is a horrendous punishment, the brutality of which far outstrips the offence itself.

Intuitionism also suffers from the same drawbacks as fideism, the belief that God exists, because people believe in him. Intuitionism similarly states that something is right, because people instinctively feel that it is so. Now Dawkins himself is vehemently critical of anything that smacks of fideism, believing that this corrodes critical thinking. It is therefore contradictory of Dawkins to promote an intuitionist attitude to morals.

Thus, human intuition by itself does not provide an adequate guide or basis for morality, and Dawkins essentially has double standards if he promotes this while rejecting religious faith.

Law

Law is similarly flawed as a guide or a basis for morality. Firstly, laws don’t actually need to reflect morality, only what is considered useful and necessary to require legal sanction by the state in a particular society. For example, the Code of Hummarabi from ancient Mesopotamia contains many clauses dealing with the proper maintenance of Babylon’s system of irrigation ditches. While it was necessary that the system was properly maintained for the fields to remain fertile, it’s questionable whether this is a piece of moral legislation of quite the same character as the prohibition of murder or theft.

Secondly, laws themselves are merely the enactment of what a society considers moral at the time, and not necessarily the expression of transcendental morals, which are objectively true, regardless of the situation and society. For example, for centuries before 1807, British law sanctioned the slave trade. The vast majority of people in Britain now naturally find that situation horrific and deeply immoral, yet it was accepted and encouraged by the law at the time.

Thirdly, the law itself can be used to oppress. The various laws enacted punishing runaway and rebellious slaves are a case in point. It’s possible to go even further, however. One of the ancient philosophical schools in ancient China were the Legalists, who recommended harsh, authoritarian legislation in order to restrain people from criminality and brutality and maintain order and the state. Some historians have compared their views with contemporary totalitarian ideologies such as Fascism.

Thus, the law by itself is not a firm basis for morality, and only shows what society or the ruling class considers is acceptable at the time, not what is moral in and of itself.

Philosophy

Then there is the problem of philosophy. Now I have a very high regard for the use of reason to investigate moral problems and, hopefully, to provide a solution. However, philosophy by itself also may not offer an unfailing guide to morality. Philosophers themselves can differ considerably over what is to be considered moral, offering mutually contradictory arguments in favour of various positions. They can also create and promote regimes, which are deeply oppressive through a basis in philosophical rationality. Plato’s Republic, for example, contains thorough, rational arguments for a totalitarian state few people would actually wish to live in. Postmodern philosophy, which considers all worldviews equally valid, also problematises the use of reason in apprehending an objective morality, by stating that all moralities are essentially social constructions. Even philosophy itself becomes problematic in this worldview. The Postmodernist and atheist polemicist, Richard Rorty, for example, declared that philosophy as a discipline was dead and moved to his university’s English department instead. If all views of reality are considered to be equal, then Rorty contradicts himself by violently opposing theism, as he himself admits he can never know this to be untrue, which is a good argument for not taking Postmodernism or Rorty seriously.

In fact the great English philosopher John Locke was acutely aware of the shortcomings of philosophy in establishing true morality, and argued strongly that it was partly through the inability of philosophers to establish a true, moral religion and conception of God that made divine revelation necessary:

‘It should seem, by the little that has hitherto been done in it, that ‘tis too hard a task for unassisted reason to establish morality, in all its parts, upon its true foundation, with a clear and convincing light. And ‘tis at least a surer and shorter way, to the apprehensions of the vulgar and mass of mankind, that on, manifestly sent from God, and coming with visible authority from him, should, as a king and lawmaker, tell them their duties, and require their obedience, than leave it to the long and sometimes intricate deductions of reason to be made out to them: which the greatest part of mankind have neither leisure to weigh, nor, for want of education and use, sill to judge of. We so how unsuccessful in this, the attempts of philosophers were, before our Saviour’s time. How short their several systems came of the perfection of a true and complete morality is very visible. And if, since that, the Christian philosophers have much outdone them, yet we may observe that the first knowledge of the truths they have added are owing to revelation; though as soon as they are heard and considered they are found to be agreeable to reason, and such as can by no means be contradicted.’1

Now collectively intuition, law and philosophy do provide a powerful, but imperfect guide to morality. However, they do not lead to an objective morality on their own. Such transcendental, objective morality is only the case when based on the existence of a transcendental, moral Creator. This transcendental moral Creator – God- now only provides an objective basis for morality, but also allows humans to discover this morality through their participation in His nature. Humans have an innate knowledge that good and evil exist, because they are created in the image of God. God created the universe through the divine Wisdom, and it is through Wisdom that kings and rulers govern wisely and with justice. In Proverbs 8: 15-16, Wisdom states: ‘by me kings reign, and princes decree justice. By me princes rule and nobles, even all the judges of the earth.’ Again, Wisdom in Proverbs 8:29 states firmly the rational, lawful nature of the universe: ‘When he gave to me His decree, that the waters should not pass His commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth.’

Thus, alone and unaided, human intution, philosophy and law cannot provide an adequate basis for morality, but grounded in the divine revelation, they allow humanity to participate in God’s rational, lawful, moral nature and create a rational morality expressed in just laws on Earth.

Notes

1. John Locke, ‘The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695)’ in David Wootton, Divine Right and Democracy: An Anthology of Political Writing in Stuart England (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1986), p. 483.

Tyranny and the Complacency of Scientism

November 14, 2007

This is a supplement to the piece I posted on Sunday about Hitler and Christianity. Going through Hitler’s private thoughts on Christianity and religion, as noted down by Martin Bormann, it’s remarkable how close they are to contemporary religious sceptics and the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the Rational Response Squad. Hitler wasn’t an atheist, but he believed in a kind of Spinozan god, who consisted of the operation of natural laws throughout the universe. Richard Dawkins, speaking at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature promoting his book, Unweaving the Rainbow, stated during the question and answer session with the audience that ‘God’ was only the name scientists gave to the interrelatedness of physical laws. Hitler denounced the Bible and Christianity as a ‘fairytale’ produced by ‘filthy Jews and epileptics’. He sneered at Christians for being stupid, and stated that the reason why the Finns had a higher rate of mental illness than anywhere else in Europe was because they took the Bible seriously. ‘Christianity’, he declared, ‘is an invention of sick brains!’ 1 You can compare this to the RRS’ assertion that religion is a ‘mind disease’, and similar attacks on it by Harris and Dawkins. Christianity was intolerant and anti-science, and he looked forward to scientific progress eradicating Christianity. Indeed he felt the state should support science education to this end, and so recommended establishing an astronomical observatory in every district to promote scientific rationality.

Fascism has been described by some historians as an anti-tradition, a reactionary rejection of the Enlightenment and the progress of European history towards greater human freedom, dignity and democracy. Yet in his philosophical pronouncements, Hitler was himself a product of the Enlightenment, praising the philosophers Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. He admired Kant for his attack on the Christian philosophical heritage of the Middle Ages:

‘His complete refutation of the teachings which were a heritage from the Middle Ages, and of the dogmatic philosophy of the Church, is the greatest of the services which Kant has rendered to us.’ 2 While his regime bitterly cracked down on its ideological and political opponents, Hitler himself praised and advocated the freedom of scientific and philosophical enquiry:

‘I do not agree with the idea that liberty of research should be restricted solely to the fields of natural science. It should embrace also the domain of thought and philosophy, which, in essence, are themselves but the logical prolongation of scientific research. By taking the data furnished by science and placing them under the microscope of reason, philosophy gives us a logical conception of the universe as it is.’ 3

Dawkins, Harris and the Rational Response Squad similarly have attacked religion by presenting a spurious contrast between religious dogmatism, and the continually changing nature of science as it uncovers new data and refines its concepts. So too did Hitler:

‘To open the eyes of simple people, there’s no better method of instruction than the picture. Put a small telescope in a village, and you destroy a world of superstitions. One must destroy the priest’s argument that science is changeable because faith does not change, since, when presented in this form, the statement is dishonest.

Of course, poverty of spirit is precious safeguard for the Church. The initiation of the people must be performed slowly. Instruction can simplify reality, but it has not the right deliberately to falsify it. What one teaches the lower level must not be invalidated by what is said a stage higher. In any case, science must not take on a dogmatic air, and it must always avoid running away when faced with difficulties. The contradictions are only apparent. When they exist, this is not the fault of science, but because men have not yet carried their enquiry far enough.’ 4

‘Religion draws all the profit that can be drawn from the fact that science postulates the search for, and not the certain knowledge of, the truth. Let’s compare science to a ladder. On every rung, one beholds a wider landscape. But science finds that it has to revise one or another notion that it had believed to be definitive, at once religious gloats and declares: ‘We told you so!’ To say that is to forget that it’s in the nature of science to behave itself thus. For if it decided to assume a dogmatic air, it would itself become a church.’ 5

There isn’t anything in these comments which you can’t hear from ordinary religious sceptics today, and Hitler’s opinion of a war between science and religion, which religion must lose, is precisely the same as Dawkins, Stephen Weinberg, Sam Harris, Neil de Grasse Tyson and the other self-proclaimed atheist ‘Brights’ who attended the La Jolla ‘Beyond Belief’ conference.

Now I’m not suggesting here for a single moment that by sharing these beliefs Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and the others are somehow Nazis or Fascistic. Clearly they’re not. Richard Dawkins has always stated very clearly that he vehemently non-Darwinian in politics, while Carl Sagan was definitely a political Liberal who attacked sexism, racism, militarism and imperialism and colonialism.

I am simply suggesting that Hitler’s own religious scepticism, and faith in science undercuts their naïve view that somehow a rejection of faith makes one less likely to commit acts of terrorism and atrocity.

Dawkins has repeatedly claimed that faith is belief without proof, something, which actually the Bible does not teach. Nevertheless he and his fellow misotheists state most vehemently than people of faith, simply by being people of faith, promote the unquestioning acceptance of authority, a situation that leads to atrocity. Hence, even those who are moderately religious are lumped in with the most splenetically fanatic. Dawkins makes no distinctions.

Hitler raises a very large question mark over this. He believed in almost exactly the same things they did, to the point where you can place some of his pronouncements on religion and Dawkins’ and Sagan’s side by side and you wouldn’t know the difference unless you were told. Yet Hitler’s regime was one of the most brutally authoritarian the 20th century endured, responsible for the organised, systematic extermination of millions of innocent men, women and children.

Clearly, religious scepticism was absolutely no preventative against a regime whose atrocities now continue to stagger the imagination.

Neither is the statement that science must be superior to religion because science is changing and self-correcting.

Historians and scientists commenting on the scientific racism of the Reich make the point that it was utterly wrong. This is undoubtedly true, but at the time all too many scientists did feel that it was correct, and acted with the consciousness that science is changeable and that they could be proved wrong, without ever believing they were. Furthermore there is the moral problem that even if the racial science upon which the Reich was based had been correct, that still would not have made the atrocities of the Reich any less odious and culpable.

Here Dawkins’ own belief in the flexibility of morals undercuts his own arguments for atheist moral superiority. When the British journalist Rod Liddle questioned him about the ‘wishy-washy’ liberal nature of his revised list of 10 Commandments Dawkins’ placed in his book, The God Delusion, Dawkins stated in reply that he left it deliberately so, so that it could be revised according to the zeitgeist. However, if morality is only a matter of temporary fashion, and are not eternal, then Dawkins has no argument against the perverted morality which planned and executed the enslavement and butchery of millions on an industrial scale with scientific precision.

Thus, the atrocities committed by the Third Reich, engineered by people like Hitler, who espoused Enlightenment religious scepticism and the same faith in science that informs the New Atheists, utterly refute the New Atheist claim that somehow religious people are more inclined to brutality, intolerance and atrocity. No doubt the New Atheists genuinely believe that their religiously sceptical scientism will save the world from similar horrific regimes, but history does not bear this out. Indeed, violence of supposedly secular, rationalistic regimes in the 20th century has shown this to be a hollow doctrine, that should now be rejected by anyone who genuinely believes in human dignity and freedom, whatever their own view of the existence of God.

Notes

  1. Hitler’s Table Talk: Hitler’s Conversations recorded by Martin Bormann (Oxford, OUP 1953), p. 144.
  2. Hitler, Table Talk, p. 720.
  3. Hitler, Table Talk, p. 719.
  4. Hitler, Table Talk, p. 323.
  5. Hitler, Table Talk, p. 84.

Hitler and Christianity

November 11, 2007

One of the major issues clouding Christianity in the 20th century has been the question of how far Christianity was responsible for the horror of the Holocaust. Historians tracing the origins of the genocidal anti-Semitism of the Third Reich have suggested that it was at least partly based on Christian anti-Semitism which took on a distinctly German character through the influence of Lutheranism and the rise of viciously anti-Semitic Christian socialist parties like those of Adolf Stoecker in Austria and Karl von Luegerer in Vienna in the 19th century fin de siecle. Christian theologians like the Protestant Franklin H. Littell and the French Roman Catholic scholar have discussed the origins of the Holocaust in the traditional contempt for Judaism, which they felt permeated Christian theology. 1 The racial nationalism which expressed itself in the political sphere in the Nazi party had its religious counterpart in the German Christians, who sought to purge Christianity of its Jewish elements and create a militaristic, ultra-patriotic church in which military drills, patriotic marches and Nazi flags were added to the Christian liturgy. 2 There were also, odiously, elements within the Roman Catholic church which were extremely favourable to the Nazi regime. There was a Nazi Roman Catholic periodical, Reich and Kirche, dedicated to building the Third Reich through Nazism and Roman Catholicism, while the Catholic historian Joseph Lortz in his The Catholic Entrée to National Socialism, saw Nazism and the Third Reich as saving Germany and Europe from the threat of Communism. Karl Adam, a theologian, wrote in its pages essays like ‘The German Volkstum and Catholic Christianity’ celebrating Nazi racism as a recovery of German national consciousness, viewed as ‘German blood and Christianity’. 3 A Christian bishop presided over Hermann Goring’s marriage to his second wife, Emmy Sonnemann. The Lutheran bishop Ludwig Muller and the Benedictine Abbot Alban Schachleiter both met Hitler to give their support to his regime.4 Christian ministers served in and gave communion to the garrisons of the concentration camps.

This complicity of certain parts of the Christian churches in the horrors of the Nazi regime has rightly troubled the post-War Christian conscience, and there have been considerable attempts by Christian theologians to address this issue and promote reconciliation between Christians and Jews. However, to many people still Christianity remains ultimately responsible for Nazism and the Holocaust. There are a number of atheist websites that explicitly claim that the Nazis were Christians. Last week this claim was angrily advanced yet again after Dinesh D’Souza presented a piece rebutting the supposed Christian basis of the Third Reich. Thus, it’s time to re-examine these claims that the Nazis were Christians, and see if there is any truth to them. It’s a vast subject, but some insight into the views the Nazis had of religion, and their intentions for it, can be gained by Hitler’s own pronouncements as stated in Mein Kampf and his private comments recorded by Martin Bormann in his Table Talk.

Luther and Anti-Semitism

Firstly, while Protestants have found Luther’s theology inspiring and liberating, it is true that his character was marred by antisemitism. After hoping that his theology would appeal to Jews, he was severely disappointed when they did not convert and became vehemently hostile to them in the 1540s. His 1543 tract On the Jews and Their Lies, recommended a savage campaign of persecution, demanding the banning of rabbinic teaching, Jewish prayer books, and razing their homes, synagogues and schools. If the Jews still refused to convert, then he recommended that they should be expelled from Germany, even going so far as to say that Christians would be ‘at fault for not slaying them’. However, the German authorities showed absolutely no interest in following his recommendations, and so Luther contented himself by stating that the solution to the problem of the Jews would have to wait till the return of the Christ at the end of time. 5 However, antisemitism certainly is not part of Lutheran theology and over the centuries there have been countless Protestants who have looked upon Luther as a hero, while utterly rejecting his antisemitism.

Luther’s influence on Hitler seems to have been minimal. There is only one reference to him in Mein Kampf, where Hitler simply states that he was a great reformer alongside Frederick the Great and Richard Wagner. 6 Rather than his antisemitism, what Hitler admired in Luther was his defiance of papal authority and the influence of Luther’s translation of the Bible in creating a unified, modern standard German.

‘But Luther had the merit of rising against the Pope and the organisation of the Church. It was the first of the great revolutions. And thanks to his translation of the Bible, Luther replaced our dialects by the great German language!’ 7

Thus Luther appears to have had little influence on Hitler, except as a great figure of general German history, and the Fuehrer’s admiration of him was based on Luther’s break with Roman Catholicism, rather than his antisemitism. Although the Jews suffered discrimination in Germany in the centuries after Luther, this was part of the general segregation and degradation of the Jews in Christian Europe at the time. With the impact of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, conditions for the Jews began to improve in Germany until German Jews were confident they enjoyed far more equality and respect than anywhere else in Europe. There is thus little direct continuity between Luther’s attitude to the Jews and that of Hitler and the Nazis.

19th Century Tolerance and Integration

However, despite the segregation of the Jewish population in ghettos and their status as second-class citizens, humiliated and degraded by a plethora of discriminatory laws in Germany as elsewhere in Christian Europe, by the 19th century the Haskalah – the Jewish Enlightenment – had had profound effects in liberating Jews and integrating them into German life. Between 1871 and 1878 36 Jews were elected to the Reichstag. 8 Many Jewish intellectuals felt that in Wilhelmine Germany the Jewish people at last enjoyed the freedom and dignity that had been denied them for centuries. The historian Heinrich Graetz, in his 1871 History of the Jews, stated that

‘Happier than any of my predecessors, I may conclude my history in the joyous feeling that in the civilized world the Jewish tribe has found at last not only justice and freedom but also recognition. It now finally has unlimited freedom to develop its talents, not due to [Gentile] mercy but as a right acquired through thousandfold suffering.’ 9 English observers in Berlin during the Franco-Prussian War remarked on the considerable integration between middle class German Jews and Christians, remarking that German Christians were actually far more tolerant than their English co-religionists. 10 Indeed, some German Jews believed that even the religious differences between Christians and Jews would eventually disappear. The radical Jewish theologian, Hermann Cohen, in his The Religion of Reason Out of Judaism expressed his belief that eventually Christianity and Judaism would merge. This connubium between the two faiths would be easier in Germany than anywhere else in Germany as it was the home of the great Enlightenment scholar, Immanuel Kant. 11 While Cohen’s views were extreme, and were hardly welcome to either religions, nevertheless ritual differences between German Jews and Christians were increasingly minimised. For example, Rabbi Wilhelm Klemperer’s small boys duly said as their bedtime prayer

‘I trust in God and His embrace

In His mercy and good grace’.

Protestant children in their turn prayed

‘I trust in God and His embrace

In Christ’s blood and His good grace’. 12

In the optimistic period of Jewish emancipation and integration with Christian Germans before the First World War, some Jews, like the Zionist Richard Lichtheim later recalled, never personally encountered any anti-Semitism. Nazism and its precursors were essentially a reaction against this tolerance and mutual respect.

Adolf Stoecker, the Christian Socialists and Hitler

A specifically Christian political anti-Semitism, based on religion, arose as a reaction to this progress with the establishment in 1879 of Adolf Stoecker’s Christian Socialist Party. Stocker was a prominent Berlin Protestant clergyman and the official German imperial court chaplain. Stoecker considered that Christians in Germany were on the defensive, and he appealed to Christian Germans who increasingly felt threatened or marginalized by the sudden expansion and efflorescence in academia, commerce and the professions of Jewish talent. However, the success of Stoecker’s party was short-lived. It collapsed amid a series of corruption and forgery scandals, and its alliance with the German Conservatism broke up. Stoecker himself was denounced by the Emperor as ‘a political pastor’ and demoted. 13

In Austria, Hitler was impressed by two politicians, the Pan-German George von Schoenerer Dr. Karl Lueger of the Christian Socialist Party. What impressed Hitler, however, was not their religious, but their political stance. While he declared them to tower ‘far above the average political “parliament” personalities, he was harshly critical of the religious basis of their anti-Semitism. 14 He admired the Christian Socialist Party for winning over large sections of the working and artisan classes, and for avoiding conflict with the Church, a tactic which allowed to gain considerable support from within the Church, but considered that it failed through relying on religion, rather than race, as the basis for its anti-Semitism.

‘The fact that this party failed in its dream of saving Austria was due to its methods, which were mistaken in two respects, and to the obscurity of its aims.

Instead of being founded on a racial basis, its anti-Semitism depended on the religious conception. The reason why this error crept in was the same as that which cause the second mistake.

Its founder thought that if the Christian Socialist Party was tos ave Austira, it ought not to take its stand not on the racial principle, since a general dissolution of the state would shortly follow in any case. The leaders of the Party considered that the situation in Vienna demanded all possible avoidance of tendencies towards disruption, and support of all points of view conducing to unity.

Vienna was at that time so strongly impregnated with Czech elements that nothing but extreme tolerance in regard to all racial problems could keep that Party from being anti-German from the start. If Austria was to be saved, that Party cold not be dispensed with. Thus they made special efforts towin the very large number of small Czech traders in Vienna by opposing the Manchester Liberal school of thought, and they hoped thereby to have discovered a war-cry for the fight against Judaism, based on religion, which would put all differences of race in the old Austria in the shade.

It is obvious that a fight on such a basis would worry the Jews to a very limited degree. If the worst came to the worst, a drop of Holy water would always get them out of their troubles and preserve their Judaism and the same time.

This doing things by halves destroyed the value of the anti-Semitic position of the Christian Socialist Party.

It was sham anti-Semitism and was almost worse than none at all, for people were lulled into security and though they had the enemy by the ears, whereas they were really led by the nose themselves.’ 15

Although Hitler was alarmed by the decline in church membership, considering that the moral effects of growing estrangement from faith to be ‘far from good’, he did had a cynically utilitarian attitude to religion. 16 He considered that the attacks on church dogma were ‘very like the struggle against the general principles of the stage, and just as the latter would end in complete State anarchy, the former would end in hopeless religious nihilism’. 17 While decrying the fall in standards of morality and behaviour caused by the decline in religious observance, caused, he declared, by the misuse of Christianity by the so-called Christian Party, and the shameless identification of the Roman Catholic faith with a political party, he nevertheless declared saw the value of religion only in its utility to the state as the guardian of behaviour and morals.

‘A politician, however, must estimate the value of a religion, not so much in connection with the faults inherent in it, but in relation to the advantages of a substitute which may be manifestly better. But until some such substitute appears, only fools and criminals will destroy what is there on the spot.’ 18

Hitler’s Hostility to Christianity

Hitler was never an atheist. He made frequent references to Providence, and considered that he was divinely guided. Nevertheless, his approach to religion was predominantly rationalistic. Despite his speeches to the churches, privately, Hitler was extremely hostile to Christianity. The German journalist Joachim C. Fest, in his biography of Hitler, traces this partly to the ‘Los von Rom’ – ‘Away from Rome’ movement in Austria when Hitler was a schoolboy. Austrian Germans felt increasingly alienated as the different, formerly subordinate nationalities in the Empire increasingly gained autonomy and influence. Hitler’s remarks about the influence of the Czechs was one aspect of this. He was bitterly critical in Mein Kampf of the way the promotion of Czech incumbents into German-speaking parishes was being used to transform Austria into a ‘Slav country’, and admired von Schoenerer for starting the Los von Rom movement and the ‘unhappy religious division in Germany’, while considering that the reasoning behind it was incorrect. 19 Elsewhere he states his intense hatred for the mixture of races in Vienna, and its ‘motley collection’ of Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, Ruthenians, Servbs, Croats, and Jews. 20 In the sequels to Mein Kampf written during and at the very end of the War, his Mein Zweites BuchMy Second Book – and Testament, he stated that if he won the War, he would have the Pope publicly hanged in St. Peter’s Square.

In his Table Talk, recorded by Martin Bormann, he makes a number of comments harshly critical of Christianity. His own religion beliefs appear to have been a kind of rationalistic pantheism, similar to that of Spinoza and some of the pronouncements of Richard Dawkins and Carl Saga. Dawkins, on stage promoting his book, Unweaving the Rainbow in Cheltenham in 1997, told a member of the audience during the question and answer session at the end of his own presentation, that ‘God’ was merely the term scientists used for the interconnectedness of scientific laws, a position almost identical with Hitler’s, and probably stemming from both Hitler and Dawkins reading the same rationalistic, sceptical literature.

‘Man has discovered in nature the wonderful notion of that all-mighty being whose law he worships.

Fundamentally in everyone there is the feeling for this all-mighty, which we call God (that is to say, the dominion of natural laws throughout the whole universe). The priests, who have always succeeded in exploiting this feeling, threaten punishments for the man who refuses to accept the creed they impose.’ 21

Despite his bitter hostility to Communism, he felt that the courageous deaths of atheist Soviet soldiers proved one did not need the comforts of religion.

‘It’s said that every man needs a refuge where he can find it consolation and help in unhappiness. I don’t believe it! If humanity follows that path, it’s solely a matter of tradition and habit. That’s a lesson by the way, that can be drawn from the Bolshevik front. The Russians have no fear of God, and that doesn’t prevent them from being able to face death.’ 22

He had a particular hatred of Christianity, stating

‘The heaviest blow that ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity. Bolshevism is Christianity’s illegitimate child. Both are inventions of the Jew. The deliberate lie in the matter of religion was introduced into the world by Christianity… In the ancient world, the relations between men and gods were founded on an instinctive respect. It was a world enlightened by the idea of tolerance. Christianity was the first creed in the world to exterminate its adversaries in the name of love. Its key-note is intolerance.

Without Christianity, we should not have had Islam. The Roman Empire, under Germanic influence, would have developed in the direction of world-domination, and humanity would not have extinguished fifteen centuries of civilisation at a single stroke.

‘Let it not be said that Christianity brought man the life of the soul, for that evolution was in the natural order of things.’ 23

‘The reason why the ancient world was so pure, light and serene was that it knew nothing of the two great scourges: the pox and Christianity.

Christianity is a prototype of Bolshevism: the mobilisation by the Jew of the masses of slaves with the object of undermining society. Thus one understands that the healthy elements of the Roman world were proof against this doctrine.

Yet Rome today allows itself to reproach Bolshevism with having destroyed the Christian churches! As if Christianity hadn’t behaved in the same way towards the pagan temples. 24

He had a bitter hatred and suspicion of Christian clergy, suspecting them of treason against the state, hypocrisy and lies, while Christianity itself was the fairy tale of Jews and epileptics.

‘The great ambition of the parson clique is, and always has been, to undermine the power of the State. And for a long as we suffer these parsons in our midst, it serves us right! Every country gets the parson it deserves, at the moment I can do nothing about it, and so I continue to keep them happy. But one of these days I shall bring this conflict, as old as German history itself, to an abrupt and decisive conclusion. I’ll make these damned parsons feel the power of the State in a way they would never have dreamed possible! For the moment I am just keeping my eye on them; if I ever have the slightest suspicion that they are getting dangerous, I will shoot the lot of them. This filthy reptile raises its head wherever there is a sign of weakness in the state, and therefore it must be stamped on whenever it does so. We have no sort of use for a fairy story invented by the Jews. The fate of few filthy, lousy Jews and epileptics is not worth bothering about… the Catholic Church has but one desire, and that is to see us destroyed… Dripping hypocrisy with the swift and poisoned arrow behind it!’ 25

Hitler made very clear his contempt for Christian conscientious objectors, and stated his satisfaction at suppressing organised Christian pacifism with mass executions and shootings.

‘The only type of treason which one might possibly regard as springing from certain moral inhibitions is a refusal to join the armed forces on grounds of religious conviction. But we should not fail to point out to these elements which refuse to fight on religious ground that they obviously still want to eat the things others are fightin to get for them, that this was quite contrary to the spirit of a higher justice, and that we must therefore leave them to starve.

I regard it as an act of exceptional clemency that I did not, in fact, carry out this threat, but contented myself with shooting one hundred and thirty of these self-styled Bible Students.’ 26

Commenting on the perceived tendency of the Finns to mental illness, Hitler considered it was due to them reading the Bible, which he denounced as ‘Jewish mumbo-jumbo’, which should never have been translated into German. He declared himself ‘flabbergasted’ that German human beings should be brought into religious mania by such ‘Jewish filth and priestly twaddle’, so that they were little different from the dervishes of the Turks and Black Africans. The teachings of Confucius, Buddha and Mohammed offered a far-better base for the religiously minded. His solution for the problem was to promote the rationalism of science, particularly astronomy.

‘The essential conclusion to which these considerations leads me is that we must do everything humanly possible to protect for all time any further sections of the German people from the danger of mental deformity, regardless of whether it be religious mania or any other type of cerebral derangement. For this reason I have directed that every town of any importance shall have an observatory, for astronomy has been shown by experience to be one of the best means at man’s disposal for increasing his knowledge of the universe, and thus saving him from any tendency towards mental aberration.’ 27

Judaism and Christianity were both severely criticised by the Fuehrer for being the enemies of beauty, in art and music, and rejoiced that

‘since my fourteenth year I have felt liberated from the superstition that the priests used to teach. Apart from a few Holy Joes, I can say that none of my comrades went on believing in the miracle of the eucharist.

The only difference between then and now is that in those days I was convinced one must blow up the whole show with dynamite.’ 28

In reminiscing about his schooldays, and his contempt for the clergy who taught him, like Father Schwarz, he stated that ‘I had read a lot of works by free thinkers, and he knew it. When I bearded him with my ill-digested scientific knowledge, I drove him nearly out of his wits.’ 29

Although he stated that he did not want atheist education in schools, as in the USSR, several times the Nazis mooted replacing religious education in schools with the teaching of philosophy, or even typing. 30 He admired the Roman Emperor, Julian the Apostate, who led a pagan revival and vicious persecution of Christianity in ancient Rome.

‘When one thinks of the opinions held concerning Christianity by our best minds a hundred, two hundred years ago, one is ashamed to realise how little we have since evolved. I didn’t know that Julian the Apostate had passed judgement with such clear-sightedness on Christianity and Christians. You should read what he says on the subject.’ 31

Hitler also intended that after the war recruiting should be made much more difficult for the Church, and rejoiced that the Nazis closure of the monasteries had released men useful to the community and able to work into secular society. 32 Hitler was certainly not an atheist – he described atheism as ‘a return to the state of the animal’ – but believed very strongly that Christianity should be left to die a natural death, worn away by science and particularly evolutionary notions of abiogenesis.

‘The best thing is to let Christianity die a natural death. A slow death has something comforting about it. The dogma of Christianity gets worn away before the advances of science. Religion will have to make more and more concessions. Gradually the myths crumble. All that’s left is to prove that in nature there is no frontier between the organic and the inorganic. When understand of the universe has become widespread, when the majority of men know that stars are not sources of light, but worlds, perhaps in habited worlds like ours, then the Christian doctrine will be convicted of absurdity.’ 33 With his coarse, brutal conception of Natural Selection, Hitler saw Christianity and traditional Christianity’s promotion of celibacy and opposition to eugenics as fundamentally unnatural.

‘By means of the struggle, the elites are continually renewed.

The law of selection justifies this incessant struggle, by allowing the survival of the fittest.

Christianity is a rebellion against natural law, a protest against nature. Taken to its logical extreme, Christianity would mean the systematic cultivation of the human failure.’34

He did not want the belief in God to disappear with Christianity, as this would deprive humanity of the wonderful power of incarnating the divine within themselves, and stated that if the Nazis tried to abolish religion by force, people would beseech them for a new form of worship, which, as in his comments in Mein Kampf, was a situation he considered undesirable. 35

Nevertheless, he considered that Christianity was fundamentally incompatible with Nazism, and looked forward to its eventual extinction.

‘Our epoch will certainly see the end of the disease of Christianity. It will last another hundred years, two hundred years perhaps. My regret will have been that I couldn’t, like whoever the prophet was, behold the Promised Land from afar.’36

As for the synthesis between Nazism and Christianity proposed by Kerrl, the Minister for Church Affairs, Hitler considered this to be impossible as Nazism and Christianity, the source of Bolshevism, were fundamentally incompatible. 37 His believed that when National Socialism had been in power for a sufficiently long time, it would be impossible to conceive of any different way of life, and Nazism and religion would no longer be able to exist together. 38 His solution to the problem of religion, however, was to let the religions wither away or devour each other, rather than outright persecution. 39

Other leading Nazis were equally hostile to Christianity, such as Alfred Rosenberg, whose Myth of the 20th Century was viciously antichristian and such poor literature that it was disowned by the Nazis themselves, and Heinrich Himmler, who was fascinated by Germanic Neo-Paganism and organised pagan and occult rites for the SS.

Against these very clear statements of hostility to Christianity by Hitler himself, it’s been argued that Hitler must have been a Christian because of the glowing statements about Christianity he made in his speeches, and the fact that in his Eagle’s Nest home at Berchtesgaden he had a large, ornate cross. Neither of these actually refutes Hitler’s essential antichristian views.

The Nazis were propagandists par excellence, and Hitler adjusted his rhetoric according to his audience. When speaking in a working class district with a large socialist presence, Hitler generally stressed the socialistic elements in Nazism, presenting the Party as protectors of the workers against exploitation and promising to overthrow capitalist exploiters, who were, of course, the Jews, rather than German businessmen. When addressing a lower middle class audience of small shopkeepers, civil servants and tradesmen, he presented the Nazis as supporters of the values of the Mittelstand, and promised to protect them against the dangers of Marxist organised labour on the one hand, and big business on the other. For potential voters in depressed rural constituencies, like Schleswig-Holstein, however, Hitler depicted the Nazi party as the true upholders of the honest German peasantry and their values. Thus, even while secretly planning Christianity’s demise, Hitler would naturally present himself as a devout Christian in order to placate religious opinion and gain support from German Christians who would otherwise vote against him. As for the cross at Berchtesgaden, despite his hatred of Christianity, Hitler did like some church art, stating that when he went into a church, it wasn’t to overturn idols, but to admire the art. This had started when he was schoolboy, and used to visit the Cathedral to admire the art there. 40 It thus wouldn’t be surprising that he would have a cross at Berchtesgaden, especially as there is a tradition in Germany of wayside crosses placed in the countryside and mountains. The Nazis were keen supporters of German folk art with a passion for the medieval. An example of this is the notorious picture of Hitler as a medieval knight, mounted on horseback, in armour, bearing the Swastika flag. It’s not remotely impossible that Hitler liked the cross as the representative of a German folk tradition without having any sympathy whatsoever for the religion it symbolised. Furthermore, Nazi propaganda used home movies taken of Hitler, Eva Braun, their dog, Blondi, and other high ranking Nazis who visited them, to present a picture of the Fuehrer as a wholesome German family man. Having a cross at their mountain retreat would undoubtedly be a suitable image to present to the German public of Hitler as a God-fearing German, despite Hitler’s own vicious hatred of Christianity.

Thus, although it’s possible to say much more about Hitler’s attitude to Christianity and his oppression of the churches in the Third Reich, it should be clear from this that he and the other senior Nazis were certainly no friends of Christianity. As for the collaboration of certain sections of the Christian churches, this odious situation can be explained through the human fear of persecution. The Roman Catholic Centre Party, for example, voted for the Enabling Act granting Hitler power because they were afraid that if they did not, an attack on their party and its members would follow. 41 While the Church is established by Christ and His saints, its members are human, and so vilely sections of the church can be corrupted to the point where they share the gaols of evil regimes like the Nazis, or delude themselves that co-operation with them is possible in order to ward off some greater evil, like atheist Communism, or even genuinely considered that they were doing God’s work by destroying the Jews.

Nevertheless, Hitler himself was firmly antichristian and looked forward to destroying Christianity as well as Judaism and Communism.

Notes

  1. David Chidester, Christianity – A Global History (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 2001), pp. 546-548.
  2. Chidester, Christianity, p. 537.
  3. Chidester, Christianity, p. 538.
  4. ‘Hermann Goring’ in James Taylor and Warren Shaw, A Dictionary of the Third Reich (London, Grafton Books 1988), p. 150; Chidester, Christianity, p. 324.
  5. Chidester, Christianity, p. 533.
  6. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, Ralph manheim trans. (London, Pimlico 1992), p. 194.
  7. Hitler’s Table Talk: Hitler’s Conversations recorded by Martin Bormann (Oxford, OUP 1953), p. 9.
  8. Amos Elon, The Pity of It All: A Portrait of Jews in Germany 1743-1933 (London, Allen Lane 2002), p. 206.
  9. Elon, Pity of it All, p. 205.
  10. Elon, Pity of it All, p. 209.
  11. Elon, Pity of it All, p. 208.
  12. Elon, Pity of it All, p. 227.
  13. Elon, Pity of it All, p. 221.
  14. Adolf Hitler, My Struggle (London, Paternoster Library 1935), p. 50.
  15. Hitler, My Struggle, pp. 57-8.
  16. Hitler, My Struggle, p. 114.
  17. Hitler, My Struggle, p. 115.
  18. Hitler, My Struggle, p. 115.
  19. Hitler, My Struggle, p. 55.
  20. Hitler, My Struggle, p. 59.
  21. Hitler, Table Talk, p. 6.
  22. Hitler, Table Talk, p. 6.
  23. Hitler, Table Talk, p. 7.
  24. Hitler, Table Talk, p. 76.
  25. Hitler, Table Talk, pp. 625-6.
  26. Hitler, Table Talk, p. 519.
  27. Hitler, Table Talk, p. 514.
  28. Hitler, Table Talk, p. 325.
  29. Hitler, Table Talk, p. 191.
  30. Hitler, Table Talk, pp. 6, 75.
  31. Hitler, Table Talk, p. 76.
  32. Hitler, Table Talk, p. 411.
  33. Hitler, Table Talk, pp. 60-1.
  34. Hitler, Table Talk, p. 51.
  35. Hitler, Table Talk, p. 61-2.
  36. Hitler, Table Talk, p. 343.
  37. Hitler, Table Talk, pp. 144-5.
  38. Hitler, Table Talk, pp.6.
  39. Hitler, Table Talk, p. 7.
  40. Hitler, Table Talk, p. 191.
  41. See the observations of the Catholic Centre Party’s Karl Bachem on this matter, in J. Noakes and G. Pridham, eds., Nazism 19919-1945 – 1: The Rise to Power – A Documentary Reader (Exeter, University of Exeter 1983), pp. 157-8.

Many Gods, but None True?

November 8, 2007

One of the common arguments against the existence of God is that humanity has produced a vast number of gods in the mythologies of the world’s peoples, each one different from the other. As each of these gods is different from all the other gods in which people have ever believed, so it is argued that the very concept of god is contradictory and incoherent. And if there is no good reason to believe in one particular god or conception of god, so it is reasoned or implied that there is no good reason to believe in another. All ideas of God are held to be equally invalid.

There’s nothing new in this argument. The Roman Sceptical philosopher, Sextus Empiricus, advanced them in the 2nd century AD in his Outlines of Pyrrhonism, stating that

‘Since, then, some of the Dogmatists assert that God is corporeal, others that he is incorporeal, and some that he has human form, others not, and some that he exists in space, others not; and of those who assert that he is in space some put him inside the world, others outside; how shall we be able to reach a conception of God when we have no agreement about his substance or his form or his place of abode? Let them first agree and consent together that God is of such and such a nature, and then, when they have sketched out for us that nature, let them require that we should form a conception of God. But so long as they disagree interminably, we cannot say what agreed notion we are to derive from them.’ 1

Indeed, the modern use of the argument dates from the decades immediately following the first Latin translation of his complete works in 1569, and it’s become one of the major influences on modern atheism.

It is not, however, such a convincing rebuttal of theism as it might appear. Since the 16th century, for example, religious scholars have pointed to the near ubiquity of belief in gods of some kind amongst multitude of the world’s cultures as proof of the existence of God. The fact that just about every people has an idea of supernatural beings with some responsibility for and control over the Earth, despite differences of geography and culture suggests that God really exists, and that humans have an intuitive concept of the Lord.

Some religious scholars have gone even further, and suggested that many of the world’s religions may have a common origin in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob described in the Bible. Winfried Corduan, in his book Eternity in their Hearts very much takes this position, based on the experience of the Christian missionaries around the world who discovered elements in the indigenous religions of the peoples to whom they were preaching that resembled elements of the Judeo-Christian conception of God. Many polytheistic cultures, despite their plurality of gods, nevertheless believe in a single high god who is the creator of the world and the other, subordingate gods. For Corduan, this argues for an original monotheism, which declined into polytheism over time with the ‘disease of language’. The argument that polytheism is a secondary development, a decline from this primeval monotheism is based on the observation that generally in the history of a religion, gods multiply, rather than are simplified into a single deity. For example, contemporary Hinduism features a number of gods, who don’t feature in the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of the Indian peoples. It was also suggested in the 19th century by the great British anthropologist and scholar of Indian religion, F.W. Muller, that a major cause of polytheism was the subsequent conception of different names for the same god as separate gods as language became more elaborate. A similar idea appears in Judaism regarding the theological basis for the different names for God used in the Bible. According to Jewish tradition, God Himself explained this to one of the rabbis, explaining that, for example, the name ‘El Shaddai’, translated into English as ‘Lord of Hosts’, referred to God in His military aspect as head of the celestial army, and certainly not to a separate, competing deity.

It’s fair to say that the argument for a primeval monotheism as the origin of all the worlds religions is highly speculative and has been out of favour amongst scholars and philosophers of religion since the 1930s. Nevertheless, many extra-European peoples have argued for the essential dignity of their pre-Christian beliefs as a ‘preparation for the Gospel’, as ancient Platonic philosophy was for the Roman world, based on the concepts of single, transcendent creator above the other gods found in their religions. The pioneering British anthropologist, E.E. Evans-Pritchard, noted in his research amongst the Nuer people of the Sudan, for example, that they worshipped a supreme God, whom they called Kwoth, Spirit, and who believed resided in the heavens. However, Kwoth was not simply a personification of the sky, and although he was most strongly associated with the sky, he wasn’t solely based there. The Nuer believed that Kwoth is everywhere. He is cak ghaua, the creator of the universe, and also kwoth me gargar – the omnipresent/ limitless God. He is also perceived as a distinct person, who loves humanity and who is addressed by the Nuer as gwandong – grandfather, gwandan, our father, and gwadin, the respectful word for ‘father’, for example. 2 Although Nuer religion is very different from Christianity, nevertheless its conception of God, as recorded by Evans-Pritchard, is strikingly similar in some respects. Thus many religions are not so different from each other as to undermine the concept of God itself, as argued by Sceptics like Sextus Empiricus, and so the existence of similar concepts of God in a multitude of different religions across the world could be seen as supporting the existence of God.

If the existence of gods in the cultures across the world argues for the objective existence of God, the differences between these various concepts of God can be seen as the product of human limitation. God, as infinite and transcendent, is conceived in Judaism and Christianity as fundamentally beyond human comprehension. All statements about God, according to the great Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas, were analogies, metaphors, to explain to the limited human intellect what God was like.3 Thus the various names of God were a product of the limited human intellect’s inability to comprehend God wholly:

‘For since we cannot know Him naturally except by reaching Him from His effects, it follows that the terms by which we denote His perfection must be diverse, as also are the perfections which we find in things. If, however, we were able to understand His very essence as it is, and to give Him a proper name, we should express Him by one name only: and this is promised in the last chapter of Zacharias, to those who will see Him in His essence: In that day there shall be one Lord, and His name shall be one.’ 4

Thus, although there may be an innate knowledge of the existence of God, the limited nature of the human intellect, which is only able to comprehend the Lord through analogies with His creations, can produce false images of God, and even false gods altogether. In traditional Christian theology, the crucial factor in the lack of authentic human knowledge of and communion with God is the Fall, which critically separated humanity from God and gradually led to the rise of polytheism and idolatry as humanity mistook God’s works for gods.

Thus, rather than disproving the existence of God, the great variety of gods conceived of and worshipped by humanity actually does the reverse, and acts as evidence for God’s existence. Rather than the great difference in humanity’s gods demonstrating the incoherence of the concept of God itself, it’s evidence only of the inability of the human intellect to form a true conception of an ultimate, transcendent being, an inability created by humanity’s Fall and the resulting separation from both the Lord’s presence and clear knowledge of Him.

Notes

  1. ‘Sextus Empiricus: Concerning God’, in P. Helm, ed., Faith and Reason (Oxford, OUP 1999), p. 39.
  2. E.E. Evans-Pritchard, ‘God in Nuer Religion’, in Whitfield Foy, ed., The Religious Quest (London, Routledge 1978), pp. 557-558, 562.
  3. ‘That Terms Applied to God and Creatures Are Employed Analogically’ in Rev. M.C. D’Arcy, ed., Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings (London, Everyman’s Library 1939), pp. 152-153.
  4. ‘That The Divine Perfection And The Plurality of Divine Names Are Not Inconsistent With The Divine Simplicity’, in D’Arcy, ed., Aquinas: Selected Writings, pp. 147-8.