Saturday, 11 August 2007

Why Religion Still Makes Me Cross, Part 8: The Foundations of Belief 2 – Trapped Between Two Horns.

God is usually invoked to fill gaps – gaps in our knowledge, or gaps in our hearts. Yet we now find that belief in God is unsustainable precisely because we cannot find a gap between a bull’s rather worrying two horns. Christians who concede the Bible’s unreliability, when they feel burdened by the weight of deeply embarrassing and unpleasant guidance it contains, evade one of the two horns. It is, after all, just not done to say to a woman that, in certain circumstances “she is to be kept silent”; it would be asking for trouble to go on and explain that Eve was deceived, not Adam, and that, as a result, women can only be saved through childbirth. Vis-à-vis passages like 1 Timothy 2:15 liberals are frequently anxious to stress the Bible’s fallibility, and they are visibly relieved when I’m able to tell them that Paul almost certainly didn’t write it anyway. But those who evade one horn in this way (they don’t have to defend the Bible’s bigotry, nor try to explain away its contradictions any longer) can’t avoid being impaled by the other: they must accept that they don’t have a secure textual foundation for their beliefs, and possibly no foundation outside their subjective selves.

The alternative is to weather the storm and continue to revere the Bible, in spite of the awkward bits. But that rash and baseless course – doubtful and distasteful in equal measure – presents a very pointed horn. Even if Christians swallow their doubts and take Bible’s inconsistent content for what it is, the fact remains that can’t be weighed up or verified – we have nothing to weigh it against. Philo-Judeaus and Justus of Tiberius meticulously chronicled the first half of the first century, and they did notice various cults and figures like John the Baptist – rather strange that they didn’t notice this Jesus (lit. “the one who saves”), wouldn’t you say? (See Barker, Dan, 1992) That just leaves Josephus, born 37AD, author of The Antiquities of the Jews; Christians who give him a mention are apt to impress an easily swayed or ill-informed audience. And yet it only takes a glance at the evidence to see that scribes crudely inserted a brief reference to Jesus – “doer of wonderful works” – into later copies of Josephus’ work.

I certainly don’t want to take incredulity to reckless extremes, but if there aren’t any ‘external’ references before the second century (Suetonius and Tacitus made a couple of very vague, and critical references to the Christian movement in AD112 and AD117 respectively) then how can we be sure that the gospel writers didn’t just make it up? Paul’s Epistles, probably written in the 50s, say lots high-flown and things about “the Christ”, but entirely in the abstract. The gospels did grant this “Christ” some kind of physical life, yet even if they didn’t make things up there are good reasons to suppose that they adapted a great deal from elsewhere. After all, precedents were all around, having seeped into the culture until it was steeped in them: Jewish Talmudic literature and a pre-Christian “Joshua” cult both preceded and often paralleled the gospels. Antigonus had already borne the mantle “king of the Jews”, and been crucified, and Dionysus’ had already been a ‘saviour sacrifice’.

Then there was the popular Persian god Mithra (see Barker, Dan, 1992): now, Mithra’s birth had allegedly been witnessed by shepherds and Magi, who had brought gifts. He had performed miracles including raising the dead, healing the sick, and sighting the blind; he even ascended to heaven, after sharing a last supper with his twelve disciples. Now, here we have a most curious coincidence – well, that or the gospels writers had indeed been borrowing from here and there instead of recording real-life events. Similarly, ponder the striking similarities between Old and New Testament ‘miracles’: compare, for example, the raising of the son of Zarephath in 1 Kings 17 with the raising of the son of Nain in Luke 7. Believers who suppose that this is just chance are trapped by one of our bull’s horns, since they clearly take credulity to unwarranted excesses.

Perhaps the only option left is to make a break for it, in an attempt to sneak around the metaphorical bull rather than confront it. That means quietly putting the whole question of a verifiable foundation for belief to one side, hoping that no one will notice. And then, well, how about an unverifiable foundation for belief, religious experience? Although the religious individuals cannot offer proofs, showing that they can commune with God, they may think that it isn’t possible for anyone else to deny it – touché! Touché indeed, although not because I feel unable to deny “it” (that is the self-and-other “reality” of spiritual encounters) – I actually think it’s quite fair to assume the non-existence of “anything” if no one can show me the evidence. No, my difficulty arises when people I care for describe their experience of God to me, because I understand that, for them, this has a profound emotional, mental, and physical ‘reality’. I feel obliged to honour that, which makes remaining cross awfully difficult at times. So, they finally have me: my frustration is (temporarily) neutralised, my offensive against everything theistic grinds to a (temporary) halt, and I smile … benignly.

But wait, occasionally believers do try to affirm the genuineness of their belief experiences, and then the colour soon returns to my cheeks. They claim that their experiences must be authentic, because they spawn good works. In fairness such a view is fine and harmless most of the time, when belief in God is associated with good works. But it’s a problem when belief begets bigotry, or when prayer precedes prejudice. I’ve heard lots of testimonies, and the idea of a close union with a loving God would grab my attention, and appeal to me, if it brought forth good fruit consistently – but it doesn’t. If a group of siblings don’t turn out too well we can’t, with confidence, say that their parentage was anything special; we can’t infer the existence of an ideal cause from a less than ideal consequence.

So then, if a Basilica built on sand stays standing, it does so in spite of it’s foundations. Why invest so much time, effort, and spirit, when all those gilded depiction of heaven and hell could crumble to nothing? When Christians give their all to the love of God it’s risky, very risky: those that manage to evade torturous doubt and crises of meaning do so in spite of the absence of a basis for their belief. Acknowledging meaning in life, in real experience – in our selves and other people, as well as in things we can choose to enjoy, create, and respond to with dignity everyday – is far more secure.