Monday, April 27, 2015

Quote of the Day: G.W. Foote (On Faith)

"What is Faith? Faith, said Paul, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” This is a faith that sensible men avoid. The man of reason may have faith, but it will be a faith according to knowledge, and not a faith that dispenses with knowledge. ... Religious faith, however, is something very different. It is not belief based on evidence, but the evidence and the belief in one. The result is that persons who are full of faith always regard a demand for evidence as at once a heresy and an insult. Their faith seems to them, in the language of Paul, the very substance of their hopes; and they often talk of the existence of God and the divinity of Christ as being no less certain than their own existence." --G.W. Foote

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Bonus Quote! (Even more) G.W. Foote (On the meaning of the word 'God')

"The word 'God' means anything or nothing. Give your God attributes, and see if they are consistent with Evolution. That is the only way to decide whether there is any 'logical antagonism' between Evolution and Theism. The trouble begins when you are 'logical' enough to deal in definitions; and the only definition of God that will stand the test of Evolution is 'a sort of a something.'" -- G.W. Foote

Quote of the Day: (More) G.W. Foote (Science frees the mind, Religion shackles it)

"We tell the men of God, of every denomination, that they are Devil Dodgers, and when they cease to be that their occupation is going. Old Nick, in some form or other, is the basis of every kind of Christianity. Indeed, the dread of evil, the terror of calamity, is at the bottom of all religion; while the science which gives us foresight and power, and enables us to protect ourselves and promote our comfort, is religion’s deadliest enemy.

Science wars against evil practically; religion wars against it theoretically. Science sees the material causes that are at work, and counteracts them; religion is too lazy and conceited to study the causes, it takes the evil in a lump, personifies it, and christens it “the Devil.” Thus it keeps men off the real path of deliverance, and teaches them to fear the Bogie-Man, who is simply a phantom of superstition, and always vanishes at the first forward step of courage."  -- G.W. Foote

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Quote of the Day: G.W. Foote (Jesus Christ is a Myth)

"Christ has in no wise redeemed the world. He was no god of power, but a weak fallible man like ourselves; and his cry of despair on the cross might now be repeated with tenfold force. The older myth of Prometheus is truer and more inspiring than the myth of Christ. If there be gods, they have never yielded man aught of their grace. All his possessions have been cunningly, patiently, and valorously extorted from the powers that be, even as Prometheus filched the fire from heaven. In that realm of mythology, whereto all religions will eventually be consigned, Jesus will dwindle beneath Prometheus. One is feminine, and typifies resigned submission to a supernatural will; the other is masculine, and typifies that insurgent audacity of heart and head, which has wrested a kingdom of science from the vast empire of nescience, and strewed the world with the wrecks of theological power." --G.W. Foote

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Ignosticism 101: The Negative Space forms an Elephant or A Conversation with Rockhound570 theist

I am having a conversation with a person who goes by the name Rockhound570 theist about ignosticism and the implications of it as it relates to God

He brought up a point that many people, in my experience, often seem to be confused about. It seems there is an ongoing debate in theology as to whether or not we can fully comprehend God, should such a being exist. Or, as some contend, God is so far beyond our understanding that we cannot grasp him.

Before moving on, let's not forget that the first question relating to ignosticism asks, "What do you mean by God?"

This is a fair question, and a good starting place I might add, since human experience tells us that humans have invented a wide range of religious customs and beliefs, have erected competing religious ideologies, and have subscribe belief to a seemingly endless supply of supernatural deities and gods. 

So, as you can see, "What do you mean by God?" is a very good question to ask before getting too deep into theological discussions.

Now here's the thing. Ignosticism says it should be relatively easy to find an agreeable definition for God and what the term "God" actually means. Ignosticism holds that if God is real then all we need do is look at the referent (the thing itself) and simply describe it. If everyone's answer matched, then we'd all have a working definition for God. But this doesn't appear to be the case. 

So, naturally, theists like Rockhound (or Rocky for short) suppose that God simply isn't comprehensible. We just cannot understand or perceive God fully enough to explain in any greater detail. As such, we can only perceive God dimly, or as St. Thomas Aquinas suggested, we can only recognize him why what he is not -- sort of like feeling out the empty space in a room and determining that it is the ever illusive elephant in the room.

But I have a different suggestion. My suggestion holds that, if ignosticism is correct in its assessment, the reason nobody can agree as to what they mean when they talk about "God" is *not because they haven't fully comprehended God but because there are different competing definitions for supposedly the same thing.

In response to my article on Ignosticism being the best argument against God, Rocky stated that

I don't care about human definitions of God. I care about whether or not God exists as a reality independent from the capability of humans to adjudicate. That is a more fundamental question than any you have asked. That requires clarification from you before you can logically proceed.

Earlier, I suggested that all definitions of God are conceptually derived. In my book titled Ignosticism, I explain that we have two ways in which we ultimately settle on definitions. There is the first method, in which definitions are pragmatically derived -- that is, we observe a referent (i.e., the thing itself),  like an apple, and then we test and examine it thereby supplying the information we all need to recognize and reasonably describe what an apple is. 

As such, "apple" is merely the name we assign to the referent (the thing itself), and the description of its features or characteristics supply us with a working definition for it. In this case, we have a crunchy, juicy, greenish / or redish / or yellowish fruit with a delectable sweetness or sourness and an easily recognizable fragrance, which all people can agree upon whenever they stumble upon the thing in person, and can say quite emphatically that it is an apple.

I have mentioned that other cultures, and other languages, will name the referent (the thing itself) differently. This is to be expected. Thus, in Japanese, an apple is called "ringo." But the fact remains, the description of an apple, whether you are American, Japanese, or Russian, will always match everyone else's description since we are all reliant on the same referent (the thing itself) that we must derive our description from. 

Hence, we have pragmatically derived a proper definition from the referent (the thing itself) by observing, testing, and examining it.

Now, there is another kind of definition which is derived, not from any object, but from an idea or concept. 

These sorts of definitions are not explaining anything in the real world but, rather, these definitions are the combination of ideas and concepts which, together, form a conceptual framework in which we can better understand said ideas or concepts. 

An example of this would be the concept of a Democracy. Democracy isn't a thing unto itself that has any referent in the real world. Instead it is a political ideology regarding how we ought to organize societies and what rights citizens ought to be allowed in such societies. The democracies that exist today do not supply us with the definition of what constitutes a democracy, rather, the definition of a Democracy gives us the ability to descern and recognize what constitutes working democracies.

What this means is that the concept of a Democracy is a collection of specific, yet recognizable, political philosophies and ideologies collected together to form a conceptual framework for what we mean by the term "Democracy." Therefore, whenever we see a system of government that contains these specific political philosophies or ideologies, we will call it a Democracy.

This is what I call a conceptually derived definition, since we lack a referent to describe but we have, in essence, a well established or elucidated concept or idea. 

During our conversation, it seems that Rocky took umbrage at my suggestion that the term "God" was conceptually derived, although I don't see how it could be otherwise. Allow me to explain.

All definitions of God, if derived from a referent (the thing itself) would presumably match -- that is, they would be in agreement with one another about the thing they were seeking to describe -- just as we saw was the case with apples. But this we do not find.

Rather, definitions of "God" tend to vary drastically, since people are using religious templates to create their ideal God based on subjective experience, usually through the lens of their culture and/or religion, of what they feel or believe God to be. In my mind, God is clearly a conceptually derived idea.

We know this precisely because we can ask anyone what it is they mean by "God" and what it is any particular definition of God seeks to describe? If there was actually a referent (the thing itself) which people could experience first hand, as with apples, then whatever they might call God, whether it be Yahweh or Allah or Vishnu, at least they would be explaining a tangible referent (the thing itself) and their definitions would align. But this we do not find. Which, I feel, is a big indicator that we are absent a referent and are in all likelihood dealing with competing conceptualizations.

Rocky went on to add that

You say that I must supply a third party referent. That implies that the human psyche can fully and adequately grasp the concept of God so clearly that all humans will agree upon it. How do you know this is so? 

Naturally, my suggestion that a third party should be capable of describing a referent (the thing itself) in virtually the exact same way was to point out that regardless of culture or background, everyone knows how to describe an apple to someone else of a different culture or background -- and that between the two of them they can agree on what apples are. 

But when it comes to God, this kind of semantic agreement is virtually lacking. Why? Because there is no centralized source to derive a common definition from. Rather, it seems to be the case that all definitions of "God" are conceptually derived, thus lending to a divergence in opinion on what "God" is or what attributes he (or she) has. What this means from the point of view of the ignostic is that God is a semantically confused term.

Continuing in our conversation, Rocky goes on to say:

That just leads me back to what I asked before. How do YOU know that such a definition is even possibly attainable? Why is such a definition needed if the real project is to try and decide if a transcendent reality that gave rise to all that exists is possibly there. By implication, it must be, or God is just an individual concept. OK. Well and good. That is a truth implication that you must clarify before we can proceed. If you cannot, your thesis is founded upon a non-provable supposition and it fails. I am quite certain that I can supply more challenges than this first simple one that comes to mind. If just really seems that you are trying to evade the deeper question of God's existence simply by citing the cloud of confusion of defining something that may not be fully available to limited human perception.

To which I replied:

**We know, at least, that humans can recognize other intelligent minds. If God is not an intelligent mind, of a sort, then what is it you claim to be experiencing -- when by your own admission it is not comprehensible? 

If it's incomprehensible to you, and you cannot makes sense of it, then how do you know it's God? If it is truly incomprehensible, then I have to say ignosticism is justified by the very fact that what is incomprehensible cannot also be coherent, since the prior nullifies the latter.

In other words, you cannot have a logical and consistent argument for that which is incomprehensible except to say that it is incomprehensible, and you've gotten nowhere. Are you saying God is incomprehensible? If so, the problem seems obvious. There can be no suitable definition for God, since any experience we may have of him would be meaningless since it is incomprehensible to us.

If, on the other hand, God is comprehensible, then my prior claims with how to approach this information still holds. If God is comprehensible, then we should expect, at the very least, to be able to come to agreement of that which we have comprehended. Otherwise, the problem of dissimilarity arises all over again, and we just come back to God being incomprehensible, and thus irrelevant to human experience.*

Please keep in mind that ignosticism doesn't disprove the existence of God, per se. Rather, it simply observes that there is an undeniable semantic confusion, and that in all likelihood this confusion is caused by God being conceptually derived rather than pragmatically derived. 

One possibility is that all anyone has are their individual conceptualizations, in which case, God is a figment of human imagination, a mere fancy. On the other hand, there is a real possibility that God exists but there is simply no way to know him,  that the referent (the thing itself) is out there but simply beyond our perception or understanding, in which case the ignostic's claim would revert back to the theological noncognitivist's position that it is meaningless to talk about something which cannot be talked about meaningfully. 

I think that addresses the theist's confusion as to whether or not God is comprehensible. If the theist is to believe in any God that is a Personal being or a Perfect being, then God has to, by his very nature, be discernible to us. Otherwise we could not know him and he would be rendered irrelevant to human experience. Similarly, anything said about such a God, such as him being a God of love, or him being a transcendent being, would all be lies. Unable to know anything about God, we wouldn't know anything about his basic attributes except to say he was supremely illusive. And such a God cannot be anything but irrelevant to us.

I rather think the simpler explanation, however, is that God is a type of conceptualization -- and people simply have conceived of different, often competing, ideas and concepts for what they feel God is and what the term "God" means to them personally.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Mocking Atheism

Ever since Randal Rauser kicked me off his blog three years ago, I have rarely gone back. This year my book The Swedish Fish, Deflating the Scuba Diver and Working the Rabbit’s Foot, a response to Rauser’s The Swedish Atheist, The Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails was released. Soon after, I was directed to a post on his website in which a reader asked if he’d respond to my critique of his book.

Needless to say Randal acted as I have come to expect from him, childish, overly defensive and not very professional. He went on to disparage me by slinging not one, not two, not three, not even four, but FIVE ad hominems against my character for the initial comments that got me banned three years ago.

Even so, I couldn’t help but venture over to Randal’s blog again when an interesting April 9, 2015 blog post came up in my Disqus news feed simply titled “Mocking Atheism.”

I read Randal’s comments, in which he basically sets out to defend atheists from mockery and ridicule by believers. A very noble thing for a Christian apologist to do, if you think about it!

This is one of the things that initially attracted me to Randal’s blog three years ago. He seemed like a breath of fresh air in that he was, to his credit, so unlike any of the other Christian apologists I knew. Randal does have a knack for boldly engaging with subject matter that would make most apologists uncomfortable, to say the least.

But here was this interesting blog post where Randal appeared to treat atheists with a modicum of respect and come to their defense against some nasty Christians who were mocking atheists, and that instantly set off red flags. After all, darn near every experience I have had with the guy informs me that he actually doesn’t care one iota about atheists, he certainly isn’t against calling them names, and he will straw-man atheists and what they may believe every chance he gets while banning every single atheist who tries to engage with him on his blog in honest discussion but proves to be persistent enough in their beliefs to pester Randal with differing points of view that he cannot easily dismiss.

So was Randal really being open minded and considerate, or was something else going on here?

In the post “Mocking Atheism,” Randal asks, “So is it ever appropriate to treat an atheist with ridicule, contempt and/or derision?”

Personally, I think it sort of depends on why you are ridiculing them in the first place. Randal seems to agree, when he says, “This prompts the question: to what end?”

After giving an example where a Christian mocks an atheist and then Randal goes to show that the Christian was acting immature by mocking the atheist simply because he disagreed with the atheist’s position, Randal concludes that

If you have the need to mock other people then you do nothing more than reveal your own emotional immaturity (as mom said, you can’t build yourself up by tearing others down) and your inability to grapple seriously with the ideas of other people. Mockery is little more than a warning flag for insecurity, xenophobia and provincialism.

Suffice to say, I feel there are more than a few things I need to say here with respect to mockery and ridicule, and I am going to preface this by saying I don’t just think Randal is plain ole wrong here – I thinks he’s being dangerously wrong and simultaneously completely naïve.

It seems that Randal has a hidden agenda. He wants to ban mockery and ridicule NOT to protect hapless atheists, mind you, but to safeguard himself and his beliefs – to protect his religion from criticism and scorn. 

Ah, and here lies the rub. The apologetic trick Randal employs here is the ole bait and switcharoo. You see, if you agree with him about not wanting these poor atheists to be mocked and ridiculed, then surely you must agree with him when he says religion must not be mocked or ridiculed too.

First, let’s go back to the example Randal gave in the post about a Christian theist ridiculing the atheist simply for thinking differently. Randal was right to call that behavior offensive and condescending, because such ridicule isn’t meant to draw attention to any greater point. It’s merely a bit of grandstanding meant to make yourself look superior while making the other side feel bad about themselves. And that’s clearly wrong. I agree.

In fact, I find such behavior bothersome and I’ve been known to call out conceited theologians who call their readers nasty names and who act condescending to their commenters because they have a superiority complex, and I won’t be nice about it. I might even mock or ridicule them. Ah-ha! But you see the difference, right?

Obviously, I have to part ways with Randal where he puts a full stop after saying that all mockery and ridicule is offensive and wrong, and promotes xenophobia and provincialism. Unlike Randal, I firmly believe that mockery and ridicule have a place. Meanwhile, it may or may not denote a kind of underlying insecurity – it really sort of depends on the context.

Whether anyone cares to admit it or not, there are other reasons to mock or ridicule someone, or something, than just to be mean. It seems that Randal goes out of his way to ignore such a possibility because he is attempting to do what all apologists do, build up his faith and protect it from exacting criticism, derision and ridicule.

But, in my view, mockery and ridicule are necessary because without these tools we could not have satire. As the literary critic Dustin Griffin reminds us in his book Satire: A Critical Reintroduction, “Some satires are of course more topical then others. At one extreme is the lampooning attack on an individual, and the other a ‘satire on mankind.’” (Griffin, p.121) So it seems that ridicule, another term for lampooning, is built into the very fabric of satire.

Randal says that mockery and ridicule of people are wrong, period. But then there are other uses for mockery and ridicule too, as is evidenced by their heavy use in satire.

In the opening paragraph of his blog, Randal defines what “mockery” means, but he neglects to give the full definition. As the Oxford Dictionary of English says, mockery can also be an absurd misrepresentation or imitation of something. This falls into the category of humor, of satire, and polemics.

The French satirist Voltaire, one of the leading figures of the Enlightenment (along with other notable figures such as Descartes, Locke, Newton, Kant, Goethe, Rousseau, and Adam Smith) was infamous for the mockery and ridicule of others. But we might wonder how could such a person ever write something as morally profound as “‘Quoi que vous fassiez, écrasez l'infâme, et aimez qui vous aime,’” or, in English, “Whatever you do, crush the infamous thing, and love those who love you.” 

Was Voltaire just a mean bully who sponsored xenophobia, provincialism, and all the terrible things Randal thinks comes out of the practice of mockery and ridicule? I think not.

Quite to the contrary, Voltaire was drastically opposed to such things, which is why he satirized them and used his fair share of mockery and ridicule when lampooning them.

Furthermore, as the author and intellectual Salman Rushdie has said, “The moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.”

He’s not wrong.

After all, Rushdie is quite familiar what the end result of cultures which have become too overly sensitive, too insecure, and too thin-skinned that any trifling disagreement might just be enough for the oppressive authoritarians and conformists to call for your death. Taken to its logical conclusion, the desire to ban criticism and ridicule is the same desire that compels one to want to ban the opinions of others, calling it a blasphemy, while simultaneously attempting to turn one’s own opinions into sacred objects that must never be ridiculed.

In such a culture, a silly or irreverent satirical cartoon drawing could spark outrage and end in embassies get burned to the ground and countless innocent people being murdered. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the cartoon wasn’t offensive, it very well may have been, but perhaps it was drawn offensively to do as Voltaire said, crush the infamous thing.

I’m sorry, I have to strongly and emphatically disagree with Randal. Mockery and ridicule are powerful tools which keep the sacred in check by balancing it with the profane. For we have all seen what happens when those who honor the sacred try to criminalize the profane, who try to make blasphemy illegal, and who try to shield themselves from any form of criticism at any cost, they grow to despise the simple threat of other ideas and opinions different from their own, so much so that they are willing to kill others out of the simple fear of hearing words they may not appreciate or find offensive, hurtful, or irreverent.

I don’t know about you, but I personally find that killing people for their opinions is a far worse crime than mockery or ridicule used to stress a valid criticism or point. Now, if you’re mockery and ridicule is malicious, and simply meant to tear others down for the sake of tearing them down, like an evil stepmother constantly nagging the stepdaughter and making her feel worthless, then yeah, I feel this makes you an asshole, but it’s not worth killing somebody over.

The bottom line is this…

There are of course those who do not want us to speak. I suspect even now, orders are being shouted into telephones, and men with guns will soon be on their way. Why? Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission.

Actually, this is a quote from the film V for Vendetta. But you can see why I chose it.

If we allow such censorship, then we lose more than just our freedom to object, to think and speak as we see fit, to go uncensored and unpunished for expressing ourselves as we wish – we lose our very vitality as human beings, we lose our ability to deliberate, argue, and confide and worse than all of this … we lose the ability to discern the truth from fiction.

Xenophobia, provincialism, censorship, and making the opinions of others unlawful, that is what comes from saying all mockery and ridicule is wrong and that all opinions, as well as the people who utter them, should be immune from criticism, derisive or otherwise. Again, as Salman Rushdie said, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

All this to say, I think Randal is entirely wrong on the matter – mockery and ridicule should not be banished from the ongoing discourse, rather they should be embraced precisely because they are necessary tools for fighting xenophobia, provincialism, and totalitarian and tyrannical censorship. Contrary to what Randal may believe, the very things he so despises, things like xenophobia and provincialism, are not the end result of mockery and ridicule. Rather, the fact is, mockery and ridicule are the immunization against things like xenophobia and provincialism!

So, returning to the question at hand, is mocking atheists okay? As I said, it depends on what your goal is. Is it simply to be mean or is it meant to raise a bigger point? Perhaps the more important question we all should be asking is: Am I, an atheist, deserving of your mockery and ridicule?

I sure hope not, but if I’ve earned it—take your best shot!

As someone who needs his ego deflated on a regular basis, I can assure you, when someone mocks or ridicules me in a way that points out my character flaws, after the initial sting of it, I find that I come to appreciate the underlying message (not always, but a lot of the time).

Needless to say, if I ever get too big for my britches I’d hope someone points it out in such a way that we can all laugh about it later. No hard feelings. After all, the only people who stay perpetually butt-hurt after receiving exacting criticism are those who can’t seem to admit that they might have flaws and, if it wasn’t obvious by now, those who simply cannot take a joke.

Finally, I wish to share with you an extended quote by the little known but influential Freethinker G.W. Foote from his essay “On Riddicule.”  

Goldsmith said there are two classes of people who dread ridicule—priests and fools. They cry out that it is no argument, but they know it is. It has been found the most potent form of argument. Euclid used it in his immortal Geometry; for what else is the reductio ad absurdum which he sometimes employs? Elijah used it against the priests of Baal. The Christian fathers found it effective against the Pagan superstitions, and in turn it was adopted as the best weapon of attack on them by Lucian and Celsus. Ridicule has been used by Bruno, Erasmus, Luther, Rabelais, Swift, and Voltaire, by nearly all the great emancipators of the human mind.

 All these men used it for a serious purpose. They were not comedians who amused the public for pence. They wielded ridicule as a keen rapier, more swift and fatal than the heaviest battle-axe. Terrible as was the levin-brand of their denunciation, it was less dreaded than the Greek fire of their sarcasm. I repeat that they were men of serious aims, and indeed how could they have been otherwise? All true and lasting wit is founded on a basis of seriousness; or else, as Heine said, it is nothing but a sneeze of the reason. Hood felt the same thing when he proposed for his epitaph: “Here lies one who made more puns, and spat more blood, than any other man of his time.”

Buckle well says, in his fine vindication of Voltaire, that he “used ridicule, not as the test of truth, but as the scourge of folly.” And he adds:

His irony, his wit, his pungent and telling sarcasms, produced more effect than the gravest arguments could have done; and there can be no doubt that he was fully justified in using those great resources with which nature had endowed him, since by their aid he advanced the interests of truth, and relieved men from some of their most inveterate prejudices.

 Victor Hugo puts it much better in his grandiose way, when he says of Voltaire that “he was irony incarnate for the salvation of mankind.”

Voltaire’s opponents, as Buckle points out, had a foolish reverence for antiquity, and they were impervious to reason. To compare great things with small, our opponents are of the same character. Grave argument is lost upon them; it runs off them like water from a duck. When we approach the mysteries of their faith in a spirit of reverence, we yield them half the battle. We must concede them nothing. What they call reverence is only conventional prejudice. It must be stripped away from the subject, and if argument will not remove the veil, ridicule will. (Seasons of Freethought, p. 260-61)


The Advocatus Atheist

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Swedish Fish Excerpts (On Whether or Not God is a Perfect being)

Here are a few excerpts from my book The Swedish Fish: Deflating the Scuba Diver and Working the Rabbit's Foot on whether or not the God of classical theism is a Perfect being or not.

“If God was perfect, and benevolent, then he’d answer all of those people’s prayers, he’d heal the sick, and he’d work a few miracles to avoid all the needless suffering and a perfect being who was all loving couldn't, by his own nature, permit suffering (this objection is known as the Problem of Evil).” –The Swedish Fish (p. 200)

“Perfection literally amounts to that which has no flaws. In the previous chapter I raised the question of whether or not a perfect being would ever get lonely or seek adoration and exaltation. The reason for raising these concerns is that one who seeks to be exalted above all things would be considered vain, which is a character flaw I find, and so such a person could not be considered entirely perfect. 
Similarly, a person who suffers bouts of loneliness and desires companionship would not be perfectly content, and so could not be perfect due to the necessity of having to seek out companionship in order to be pleased. Unable to be satisfied with the way things are could also be seen as an imperfection, in the same way that old wives who nag constantly about their husband’s imperfections can never be satisfied until the hapless man changes into the husband they want him to be. 
It stems to reason a perfect being would be perfectly content and would therefore desire nothing and could, at any time, seek to make his ideal vision of existence come true without expressing any weaknesses in his character.” –The Swedish Fish (p. 209)

“If God was a perfect being, a personal being, and a loving being, his perfect foreknowledge would alert him to the fact that people would go to hell based on his allowance of free will, and if so, his perfect love would prevent him from allowing this unfortunate series of events. As a perfect being, God could not go against his perfect nature. Therefore logic dictates that a perfect being would have done away with either free will or the doctrine of original sin.” –The Swedish Fish (p.233-34)

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Examining even more Parallels Between Jesus and Dionysus: Looking at Archetypal Literary Criticism, The Raglan Scale, Mythemes, and the Hero archetype

In literary criticism there is an entire field of study devoted to archetypal literary criticism. This branch of study focuses on the parallels between the various myths, pointing out such things as common mythemes and things like the hero archetype which are present in many of the ancient stories of myth and religion.

Usually, when introducing people to this subject matter for the first time, I like to mention the Raglan scale as a good starting place when discussing the subject of comparative myth and legend and historical figures.

The Raglan scale lists 22 basic traits that most mythical and legendary figures typically share. If a figure from antiquity shares many of the traits with other well known myths, then they are more likely to be legendary in nature. Likewise, if they share relatively few of the traits then they are probably more or less historical.

The Raglan scale follows as such:

1. Hero's mother is a royal virgin;
2. His father is a king, and
3. Often a near relative of his mother, but
4. The circumstances of his conception are unusual, and
5. He is also reputed to be the son of a god.
6. At birth an attempt is made, usually by his father or his maternal grand father to kill him, but
7. He is spirited away, and
8. Reared by foster -parents in a far country.
9. We are told nothing of his childhood, but
10. On reaching manhood he returns or goes to his future Kingdom.
11. After a victory over the king and/or a giant, dragon, or wild beast,
12. He marries a princess, often the daughter of his predecessor and
13. And becomes king.
14. For a time he reigns uneventfully and
15. Prescribes laws, but
16. Later he loses favor with the gods and/or his subjects, and
17. Is driven from the throne and city, after which
18. He meets with a mysterious death,
19. Often at the top of a hill,
20. His children, if any do not succeed him.
21. His body is not buried, but nevertheless
22. He has one or more holy sepulchres.

Now this scale is just a good gauge to use when determining if a figure of antiquity is more or less likely to be a historical figure or if it seems they may have been impregnated with some myth and legend. Many historical figures, such as Pythagoras and Alexander the Great (just to name a couple), have been highly mythologized and turned into enduring legends. The Raglan scale itself, however, doesn't prove any direct correlation between the corresponding myths exactly, since depending on translations, and writing styles, similarities can change in terms of accuracy and consistency. But, I find, it is a good list to help learn as one sets to the task of recognizing potential literary influences and storytelling archetypes found in our literary traditions, both past and present. Simply put, it's a useful tool for highlighting what may turn out to be more than just a coincidence.

At the same time, if we should discover that there is a direct correlation between two figures, or two literary works, then that would be extremely interesting. Take for example the story of Moses and Superman. These two figures, although entirely different, arising in different cultures and different time periods, share some surprising yet undeniable correlations.

The fact is, the parallels between the biblical Moses and Superman are there because Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster modeled Superman, in part, on the biblical patriarch Moses. That is to say, Moses is an archetypal model for Superman.

Superman biographer Larry Tye, for example, suggests in his book Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero, that Superman's Kryptonian name, "Kal-El," resembles the Hebrew words קל-אל, which can be taken to mean "voice of God." The suffix "el," meaning "(of) God," is also found in the name of angels (e.g. Gabriel and Ariel), who are human looking agents of good with superhuman powers and can fly. Tye suggests that this "Voice of God" is an allusion to Moses' role as a prophet of God, literally the man who brings God's word down from Mt. Sinai to his people. (pp. 65-67)

Moreover, those familiar the the origin story of Moses will recognize that, like Moses, Kal-El's parents send him away in a small vessel in order to save him from impending doom, delivering him to new adoptive parents in an alien culture, where he is raised as one of their own. He grows up moral and just, and then learns he has great powers, after which he fights for the underdogs and becomes a savior to the people.

As Larry Tye says, "The narratives of Krypton's birth and death borrowed the language of Genesis."

According to the biblical scholar and historian Dennis R. MacDonald there are extensive connections between the Gospel stories found in the New Testament and the Greek myths and legends of old. In fact, MacDonald has gone further than anyone in showing that these links are more than just mere parallels but, in many instances, has revealed there to be Greek phrases lifted right out of the Iliad and Odyssey verbatim.

If these borrowings are as undeniable as MacDonald contends they are, then what about other parallels and similarities to the ancient Greek stories and the New Testament? Shouldn't these exist as well? I contend that they do.

In fact, I firmly believe that like the above Moses and Superman example, that the myth of Dionysus, specifically Euripides' epic The Bacchae, in all likelihood has had a large influence of the Gospel narrative of Jesus Christ.

Although I've talked about the parallels between Jesus and Dionysus in depth before, allow me to briefly recap some of the more striking parallels I have found. Once I've detailed my findings I'll let you judge whether or not they are pertinent of if I'm just grasping at straws (also, take note of how many of these fall on the Raglan scale).

1. In the opening lines of The Bacchae it states Dionysus changes in shape from God to man. Christians believe Jesus is God incarnate, an idea they get from the NT written by Greek authors who were, in all likelihood, well verse in the Greek epics.

2. Both Dionysus and Jesus' followers consisted of distinct male and female groups. The procession of followers of Dionysus were comprised of the thiasus (i.e., an ecstatic retinue), the bearded styrs and the loyal women the maenads. In the case of Jesus, his followers consist of the twelve Apostles (also an ecstatic retinue, and most of whom had beards) and the loyal women, namely the three Marys (and most likely other women as well). 

3. Both Dionysus and Jesus are linked to wine symbolism, and the harvest, and fit the pattern of dying and rising gods, or Corn Kings, a term C.S. Lewis used and derived from Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, in which Frazer refers to the archetypal “sacrificial-scapegoat,” such as the dying and rising gods Osiris, Lityerses, Adonis, and Bacchae as the “Korn King.” Additionally, Peter Wick has shown how Jesus turning water into wine at the Marriage of Cana (cf. John 2:1-11; and John 2:3-5 with The Bacchae lines 254-56; 493-96; and 834-35) was intended to show that Jesus was superior to his pagan counterpart Dionysus.

4. In The Bacchae, Dionysus frequently refers to himself as the "Son of God" or "Child of God" whereas Jesus is frequently referred to as the Son of God in the Gospels. Later on, both are referred to as "God’s true Son" (cf. 1 John 5:20 with The Bacchae line 1050).

5. Both Dionysus and Jesus are raised by foster parents with royal ties. King Athamas and his wife Ino raise Dionysus and Joseph and Mary of the royal bloodline of King David raise Jesus. 

6. In both cases the foster parents are instructed by angelic figures (the winged Hermes in for Dionysus and the winged Gabriel for Jesus) to raise the child in a specific way or manner. 

7. Both infants are birthed in secrecy while fleeing from the powers that would seek to have them killed; the ever jealous queen of the gods Hera in the case of Dionysus and King Herod the Great in the case of Jesus.

8. Comparing the Gospel stories of Jesus’ trial with the trial of Dionysus in The Bacchae, we discover that both Jesus and Dionysus get arrested and, subsequently are interrogated by the appointed ruler of the land; Pontius Pilate and King Pentheus respectively. 

9. After they are questioned about their intentions, both give vague responses in much the same way, the most notable being that they both claim to “bare witness to the truth.”

10. Dionysus, when facing the charge of treason for claiming divinity (which, we shall not forget, Jesus faces similar, if not the very same, charges against himself), he refers to himself as a lion walking into a net (The Bacchae, line 1036) thus predicting his own demise. This mirrors Jesus’ prediction of his own death as well. Although it could be claimed a rather loose parallel, Jesus too is likened to the Lion of Judah in Revelation 5:5. It is simply interesting to note that both figures were likened to lions by those who authored their stories.

11. Jesus, like Dionysus, was also accused of drinking too much wine and with known drunkards, and that he himself was a known glutton and a drunkard (Mat. 11:19), an accusation he never denied.

12. Both are sacrificed on a hill (cf. Mark 15:22 with The Bacchae line 1047), and both rise into the heavens upon the clouds (cf. Matt. 26:64 and Mark 14:62 with The Bacchae lines 1685-86).

13. Regarding Jesus and Dionysus, both of their sacrifices guarantees the salvation from sin for their followers (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:9 with The Bacchae line 1037).

14. During their final hours before death, both are surrounded by their most loyal female followers (in the case of Jesus the book of John mentions it’s the three Marys – his mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Mary, the wife of Cleopas – and for Dionysus it’s Agave and her women attendants) and upon rising from death it is specifically these loyal female followers who discover them risen.

15. Both overcome death and then rise upon clouds of glory.

16. After being reborn and then spirited away, it is said each will be “exalted on high.”

Although not specifically a parallel between Dionysus and Jesus, we do find further parallels between the Gospel narrative and The Bacchae, this time involving each stories main antagonists.

For example, both Pontius Pilate and King Pentheus meet similar ends, dying atop mountains. According to legend, Pontius Pilate is filled with sorrow and remorse after Jesus’ death, and commits suicide during the first year of Caligula’s reign, while another legend places his death at Mount Pilatus, in Switzerland.

Likewise, King Pentheus, whose name literally means ‘man of sorrow’ (from the greek word péntho [πένθος] which means sorrow), is driven mad and runs into the woods of Mount Cithaeron, and is killed when he runs into the Bacchanalia (the all-female Maenads), the followers of Dionysus, who cut off his head.

Now, I'm not saying these parallels represent any form of plaigarism. Just that it seems more than a little bit likely that the Greek authors of the Gospel stories knew the classics and that Euripides epic The Bacchae may have been one of the dominant influences on the Jesus narrative, especially his trial, death, and resurrection. Furthermore, it's worth noting that from the moment of the trial to the moment of his death, Jesus' narrative follows the Dionysian narrative point by point in chronological order, which is peculiar -- to say the least.

Finally, I personally find it interesting that both Jesus and Dionysus begin in religions that were once polytheistic but later become monotheisms. Although unrelated to the types of mythemes I'm considering here, it still proves to be highly fascinating from an anthropological point of view.

Ultimately, however, whether one defends or contends the parallels, the point isn't that these are verbatim borrowings but, rather, that we have an archetype where popular themes, motifs, and ideas get retold in similar ways regarding similar religious figures.

Unlike many who are quick to dismiss such literary similarities as unrelated coincidence, I feel that the connection between Dionysus and Jesus Christ may be greater than some tend to think, not only because it is well understood that the story of Jesus turning water to wine seems to have been specifically designed to compete with the popular Dionysian mystery cult at the time, but also because, knowing this, we might come to find the rest of Jesus narrative was designed to compete as a more contemporary, popular version of Dionysus as well, perhaps as a means to win over pagan converts. I find this gives us reason enough to think maybe, just maybe, these parallels are more profound than just simple mythemes and random similarities. There may be a genuine influence of one narrative upon the other, and vice verse, and that's something worth thinking about.

[Update: Since publishing this article, I've received two emails by concerned Christians expressing how offensive they found the content. Of course, my intention was not to offend, merely enlighten. My only goal here was to raise some interesting points, ones I personally feel are worth pondering, and which others may or may not have been aware of. I also made sure to mention that being offended by the mere suggestion that there might be some parallels between Jesus and Dionysus would be a lot like getting offended over the obvious parallels between Moses and Superman. It's all rather silly, if you stop to think about it.]

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Does Anyone Have the Right to Discriminate?

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex (gender), or national origin (ethnicity). It is based on the guiding principles of equality and opportunity with which America was founded upon. A Democracy, after all, requires the protection of people’s basic rights, under which they are given fair and equal opportunity, or as Thomas Jefferson phrased it — the pursuit of happyness

These rights needed to be protected to ensure the rights of the individual as well as society as a whole are safeguarded against oppression, to offset inequity, and to prevent tyrants and dictators from abusing these rights and threatening the very foundations upon which the Democracy stands. Here’s the thing though, sexual orientation wasn’t included because, frankly, in 1964 the idea of alternative sexual orientations making up the identity of the individual wasn’t well developed in the moral understanding of the public. Instead, many merely felt it was a sexual preference or proclivity, a predisposition rather than an out and out disposition, a defining characteristic of who someone is. But today, in 2015, we know better. We know that other sexual orientations exist, and that these, like race, color, religion, and gender ought to be protected by the law — and for the same reasons.

So the question is, does anyone have a right to discriminate? No, that’s why it’s called discrimination — literally the *unjust treatment of other people. So do you know what I want to say to people who say they should be allowed to discriminate based on their religious beliefs — a big fat “NO.” That’s not a right you can have. Believe what you want. But discrimination is still discrimination, and hiding behind your religion like the peevish, insular minded coward you are won’t change that.

***Okay, end rant***

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist