Letters

 

Ingersoll Grave Recognition

Allow me to register a tiny complaint about one otherwise splendid article (one of many) in your October/November issue. In Tom
Flynn’s fine report on the various new headstones erected and graves dug (“The Great Agnost ic Would be Proud,” I note that twice he speaks of Mary Livingston Ingersoll’s “resting place.” It’s a lovely and conventional thought, but I would think that the Council for Secular Humanism’s wise commitment to
“a naturalistic philosophy” might have suggested a less “superstitious” term. How about “grave”? Or “burial”? I think your splendid creed should be heeded not only in this world but . . . oh, well, just this world.

Jamie Spencer
St. Louis, Missouri

Tom Flynn responds:

I am usually quick to react when secular humanists use superstitious language, such as saying that someone “passed” instead of flatly saying that the person died. Terms like “rest” (or to name a close cognate, “repose”) strike me as more ambiguous when applied to the dead, because they don’t necessarily imply that an agent is consciously enjoying that state. Yes, a hiker rests gratefully after an all-day trek. But “objects at rest tend to remain at rest”—even objects as inert as pebbles and paperweights. (Speaking of paperweights, one reposes next to my computer screens as I type.) I’ll grant that all other things being equal, it’s best to avoid language that lends itself to a superstitious interpretation, but in an essay in which I had to refer to Mary Ingersoll’s burial place as many times as I did, I opted use all the tools the language provides in order to avoid prose-deadening repetition.

Is Mary Livingston Ingersoll at rest? With all due respect, I very much doubt that she is active.

 


 

In Support of a One-Line Constitution

Ophelia Benson’s article “Sense and Sensibility” (FI, October/November 2016) was not wasted on me. Despite agreeing with the need for different opinions and motivational feelings, when framing policy objective evidence must be the overridingly weighted parameter in the final equation. Therefore, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s one-line Constitution: “All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence” is an ideal goal.

“Humans are not so constituted as to be able to function in a world of pure rationality,” writes Benson. But leaders of society must! Evidence alone appeals to reason. Cultures by their very nature are heavily influenced by religious mores and are the origin of our fundamental feelings. Feelings are personal and for personal use.

Leaders must make decisions that are best for the whole of society based on evidence. As Carl Sagan said, “We are an “insignificant planet of a humdrum star” overpopulated and misguided by overpowering belief systems that ignore our reality. Leaders must be held to a higher scientific standard—the standard of #Rationalia: All policy must be based on the weight of evidence.

Michael Murphy
Concord, Massachusetts

 


 

Fox News and America

In her article “The Foxification of American Democracy, Part 1″ (FI, October/November 2016), Shadia B. Drury seemingly inexplicably states: “However, to claim that radical Islamic terrorism is an existential threat is a gross exaggeration. Although repugnant, Islamic extremists have so far killed an insignificant number of Americans in comparison to those killed by gun violence.”

Yes, what Islamist extremists have done and are doing, not just in the United States but throughout the world, may be “repugnant.” Considering the extent of the barbarity—for example, beheadings—associated with their religiously based hate and religiously based justification for their random murders of people innocent of any wrongdoing except for not being a Muslim, I can only question why Drury would use such a mild adjective! I cannot help but wonder what she would say to the surviving loved ones after she tells them that the death of their beloved kin was insignificant—and that is not including any further degree of cruelty that may also have been inflicted on them—and they have had a chance to react to her nonsensical statement and comparison.

Have we once again entered the era of quantitative death? At what number does the death toll become significant? This thought reminds me of a time in Western New York in the early 1960s when I was invited to speak to a very large group of people, primarily of German extraction, about the Holocaust. One woman, holding a flyer that was handed out by some group just prior to my talk, asked me if it was true that six million Jews were murdered. I responded, in essence, that if one is asking me if the actual number was 5,999,999 or 6,000,001 I could not say, but, according to the latest official figures I had access to, the round number is six million. Then I asked her why she asked that question. She responded that she heard that only three million were killed. I could not contain myself. I asked her and the audience: “Is it acceptable if only three million Jews were killed instead of six million? At what number does the number killed become unacceptable? How is that number arrived at?” Then I asked: “Do you mean to tell me that even the murder of one Jew—just because this individual does not have the same religious belief as you—does not disturb you? What if it were you and your kind that was being singled out for murder? What kind of people are you? Why are you filled with such intense hate? What kind of society do you wish to live in? Have we entered the period of quantitative death?” A pin-dropping silence ensued.

Sheldon F. Gottlieb, PhD
Boynton Beach, Florida

Shadia B. Drury responds:

Sheldon Gottlieb’s moral outrage is totally justified, even if only a single innocent person is killed. But it does not follow that Islamic terror (at least at this point) poses an existential threat to the United States in the same way that the Soviet Union did, with its arsenal of nuclear weapons. Moreover, the United States may be more vulnerable to the threat of terror in general, not just Islamic terror, because of its extremely lax rules regarding the purchase of assault weapons. There are some concrete things that the country can do to reduce its victimization by random gun violence. But too many in Congress are beholden to the financial support of the National Rifle Association (NRA). This is why campaign finance reform is necessary to stem this corruption. Moreover, I think that the focus on Muslim terrorists allows the likes of Fox News to avoid facing the gun problem in the United States, because it shares the NRA’s vision of the country as populated by gun-toting rugged individualists ready to take back their country from socialists and other nefarious usurpers.

I know that there is a culture in the media that distinguishes between Muslim gunmen who are called “terrorists,” and non-Muslim terrorists, who are referred to simply as “gunmen” or “mentally disturbed” individuals. I think that they are all terrorists and they are all mentally disturbed. The fact that religious education is sometimes the cause of the derangement is a reason for recognizing the danger of religion and not allowing its total unimpeded exercise, as Americans are inclined to do.

 


 

Apocalypse Coming . . . Or Not

Re: “Follow the Trend Lines, Not the Headlines; Terrorism is Not an Existential Threat” by Michael Shermer (FI, October/November 2016). Small nuclear bombs can now be carried in a suitcase. Deadly biological agents can be carried in a small bottle. Suicidal religious fanatics such as members of ISIS will stop at nothing to wreak havoc in the lives of thousands. Mass communications is around the world. Economics is now global. A terrorist attack in one part of the world can cause chaos in another. How then can it be said that terrorism is not an existential threat?

John L. Indo
Houston, Texas

Michael Shermer responds:

It is not impossible that some terrorist group somewhere will get its hands on a nuke, dirty bomb, or biological weapon, but it is extremely unlikely. But even if they do, does Mr. Indo really believe that this would result in the end of the United States as a nation, much less the extinction of Western civilization? Even if a million Americans died in a terrorist attack, will the other 323 million Americans surrender sovereignty to a group of thugs? I think not. Nor will the dozens of other Western nations that make up NATO, the United Nations, and the like.

 


 

The Existence of Jesus

I must take issue with Raphael Lataster’s article “Jesus Probably Did Not Exist” (FI, October/November 2016) which, among other things, describes the Gospels as the work of Christian authors eager to promote Christianity. This represents the most common misreading of the New Testament. Gospel authors not only did not support the prevalent theology of the non-Christian Greco-Roman world but actively contended against it. I develop this rather obvious position in my book, Jesus, Joshua, Yeshua of Nazareth: Concluding Edition, which I mention not for marketing purposes (I’m retired) but for understanding of the Gospels. The Gospel of John, of course, can be labeled “Christian,” but if Paul’s theology constitutes the existing baseline, the same cannot be said of the synoptic Gospels.

To support his position, Lataster minimizes widespread scholarly criteria for determining more authentic material in the Gospels. He represents scholars’ approach as “uncritical and inconsistent,” apparently for no
etter reason than that their conclusions differ from his. He seems to think that if scholars cannot produce firm evidence for events two thousand years ago, they just make it up. He takes issue with the scholarly view that Jews would not have imagined for themselves a suffering Messiah. His position goes against the grain of everything the Jews are known to have anticipated in a Messiah. Paul, himself, said Jesus’s death on the cross was a stumbling block for Jews.

Lataster also asserts, “Paul suspiciously avoids mentioning Jesus’s earthly actions and teachings. . . .” There is nothing suspicious about it. If Jesus had promoted the kingdom of God of centuries-old Jewish tradition as many today think, Paul necessarily would have avoided it. His was a post-Easter message that differed dramatically from the message of Jesus.

Evidence for a historical Jesus (unfortunately, not presented for space limitations) far outweighs twisted half-truths to the contrary.

Gordon Clouser
Durango, Colorado

Richard Lataster conjectures that Jesus did not exist. He surmises that texts of Tacitus and Josephus are forged. Tacitus writes (Annals 15.44) that Nero blamed the fire of Rome on the “Chrestianos.” Most scholars think this is authentic. So apparently there were a lot of Christians in Rome already in 64 CE. Can the cult of an entirely fictitious person arise so quickly? The ludicrous Jesus birth story explains how a Galilean was actually born in Bethlehem. But there is only something to explain if Jesus and his followers were not so evidently from Galilee. Then, crucifixion was a particularly cruel and disgusting execution, mostly used for rebels. Why should a fictitious tale settle upon this, rather than letting Jesus ascend right away?

Marvin Harris tells in Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches (1974) a story for which he is partly indebted to S. G. F. Brandon’s 1967 book, Jesus and the Zealots. Between 40 BCE and 73 CE, Palestine was rife with militaristic messiahs rebelling against Roman colonial rule. Jesus and John the Baptist fit the profile of a minor such messiah. John came to a sticky end and two other “lestai” (zealot bandits) were crucified together with Jesus. Barabbas was one too. Jesus’s crime was an attempted riot in the Temple. After the fall of Jerusalem, the Jesus followers tried to downplay his militarism in the Gospels but could not leave out everything. That is a better explanation for the nasty and intolerant things Jesus says (and the advice to buy a sword, Luke 22:36) than the fiction hypothesis.

Some scholars claim that Brandon’s (and Harris’s) thesis is outdated, but Lataster doesn’t mention them, let alone why Brandon’s idea is so wrong that it gets zero prior probability in a Bayesian analysis.

Jan Willem Nienhuys
Waalre, The Netherlands

Raphael Lataster responds:

Gordon Clouser’s “issue” is malformed. On the one hand, the different authors did indeed have different opinions. On the other hand, they were eager to promote their versions of Christianity.

He does me an injustice. Many critical New Testament scholars now discuss the failings of the Criteria of Authenticity. Many scholarly outsiders point out the logical failings, too. As for Jews being unable to imagine a suffering Messiah, he follows Bart Ehrman in effectively assuming that Judaism is monolithic. They are wrong in principle since there were many different Jewish beliefs, most of which are now unknown and are wrong in fact since the intertestamental literature (and arguably the Tanakh) does describe suffering messianic figures.

Paul’s omission of Jesus’s earthly activities is suspicious. Even if it would not be Paul’s focus, we would expect incidental mentions and attempts for Paul to boost his authority. We get nothing. This is in perfect alignment with the Celestial Jesus theory; this is a 100 percent fit. Can we say the same for the Historical Jesus theory? Obviously not, because that would be saying that we would be surprised that Paul would mention that Jesus was recently on Earth. Even if it is 99 percent, it is up against 100 percent, so this is at least slight evidence for the Celestial Jesus theory. As for the plausibility of the Celestial Jesus idea, even Ehrman now acknowledges that some pre-Christian Jews did in fact believe in a celestial and salvific figure. Our contention is that this is who Paul is talking about, and Mark allegorized this figure as the Earthly Jesus in the first Gospel.

In my books and articles on the matter, I reveal that the evidence that the Historical Jesus theory relies on is hypothetical. Ehrman et al. appeal to sources that don’t exist. Imagine that. Proving that Jesus existed with sources that don’t!

To Jan Willem Nienhuys: if the Tacitean passage is authentic and refers to Christians, it is from the second century. His source? Probably Christians—Taci­tus wasn’t even alive when Jesus allegedly died. The rest is misinformed speculation, though I would like to point out that false beliefs, religious or otherwise, can and do spread very quickly!

I didn’t need to mention Brandon’s and Harris’s work. Note that this is a short piece written for a popular magazine. For the whole story, check out my book, Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists, based on my peer-reviewed articles, and coauthored with Richard Carrier. We consider two possibilities in a Bayesian analysis, namely, that Jesus was either a historical person who was later mythicized or a mythical person that was later historicized, so that this possibility is included.

Raphael Lataster’s article reinforces what I’ve long suspected—that Jesus never existed. I’m certain that if their readers had been alert when coming to the passage of the Last Supper, in which Jesus offers wine to his disciples and tells them to drink it as his blood, the Gospel writers could not have convinced them that Jesus was a historical person. According to the Gospels, Jesus was a devout Jew. As such, he surely knew that the Mosaic Law forbade the drinking of blood. Thus it’s inconceivable that he, or any Jew, would ask another to drink his blood, even symbolically.

Another example: in Matthew 16:18, Jesus tells Peter, “on this rock I will build my Church.” Again, we know he could never have said that, since the word church doesn’t exist in Aramaic, the language which he allegedly spoke.

Jesus lived, of course, but only between the ears of his creators—as do many fictional characters, including God. Despite Christianity’s success in blinding so many minds with ignorance and causing violent death and suffering to millions, I take solace in my certainty that Jesus is fictional. At least one less human suffered the slow, agonizing death by crucifixion.

David Quintero
Monrovia, California

I must applaud Raphael Lataster for his recent examination of the various New Testament scholars and pseudo-historians who postulate on historical, albeit human, Jesus (“Jesus Probably Did Not Exist,” FI, October/November 2016). Originally, when I fully embraced my atheism, I was adamant that Christianity’s central figure was entirely fictional. I reinforced my stance after reading numerous books about the pagan similarities between their “savior” gods and the Christian character.

However, I became very interested in the scholarly works of Bart Ehrman, none more so than his 2012 Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. It seemed newly plausible to me that a figure named Jesus may have lived during the early first century CE, that he was an itinerant apocalyptic preacher who amassed a group of loyal followers, and that he was crucified by the Romans for sedition. In other words, a historical human Jesus sounded like a legitimate possibility.

That is, until I read Lataster’s insightful yet far too brief critique of Ehrman’s hypothesis. To enlist the assistance isn’t just unscholarly; it borders on becoming a self-delusion. Therefore, because I abandoned religion after I reflected on its faulty logic, I feel resolved to abandon the theory of a historical Jesus because of its foundation of faulty scholarship.

Adam S. Thomas
Salem, Oregon

As an atheist, I certainly agree that Jesus the god and all other divinities are totally fictional. Yet I believe that if Jesus the person were a Christian invention, he would have been easier to reconcile with Jesus the Christian god than the scriptural Jesus is. After all, the reconciliation of Jesus the Christian god with Jesus the person required a great deal of forced convoluted argumentation and most likely also distortion. Hence, I believe that Jesus the person wasn’t invented but rather reinvented. Jesus was recreated in order to fit the Christianity of the Roman Empire. It is most likely that Jesus was recreated by distortion and immersion into the almighty monotheistic god, which could be made into whatever contemporaneous potentates wanted it to be. Consequently, Jesus became the god of eternal bliss and damnation, slavery, forced conversions, feudalism, the Crusades, the Inquisition, imperialism, capitalism, and even the supreme Hitler god.

Whether Jesus the person had existed or not, beliefs in regard to his essence define the two main approaches to Christianity. Whereas for conservatives Jesus the man has been completely absorbed into the conservative Jesus the godhead, progressive Christians believe that Jesus the person was a progressive leader who advocated peace, social justice, and religious moderation, which represent the will of Jesus the god. Neither the Christian scriptures nor other contemporaneous historical records provide good enough explanation for the hatred toward Jesus, his followers, and early Christians. Progressiveness and populism is a better explanation for the hatred of the upper classes and some of the masses and for the cruel persecutions.

Aviv Sover
Albuquerque, New Mexico

 


 

Analyzing Atheism

Stephen LeDrew finishes his article “A Response to a Review” (FI, October/November 2016) with “Contrary to standard definitions, atheists are believers. We all are.” This reminds me of the well-known saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Each statement is worse than the other. What is LeDrew’s evidence?

Ernst Kallenbach
Gainesville, Florida

 


 

October/November 2016 Wrap-Up

The stimulating breadth and depth of “Apocalypse . . . When?” dbated by Michael Shermer and Phil Torres well illustrates why I look forward to each issue of Free Inquiry. Leah Mickens’s discussion (“The World’s Oldest Prejudice: The Center for Inquiry’s Fight against Religious Privilege”) of religious privilege also clearly outlined an important issue in our turbulent yet often shallow examination of U.S. issues. Unfortunately, Stephen LeDrew’s response to the prior review of his book did not fit with the quality and concise organization of Free Inquiry articles. His frequent sprinkling of derogatory labels such as “cultish followers,” “junior-high-school-level understanding,” “lingering stench,” “embarrassingly stupid,” “bourgeois,” etc. also detracted from his presentation. Fortunately, Tom Flynn’s reply was a refreshingly reasoned response demonstrating civility in argument.

John Roseman
Claremont, California

 


 

New ‘Affirmations’?

I am a relatively new subscriber to FI but a longtime subscriber to many of the core ideas it espouses. I especially appreciate the “Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles,” by Paul Kurtz, which often appears in the magazine. Kurtz’s manifesto is a good and necessary beginning, but I think it needs critical review. In the interest of betterment, I would suggest revision of a few words and phrases in the “Affirmations.”

I wonder how “democracy” is the best guarantee of protecting human rights. I think the generic term is imprecise. In a pure democracy the majority rules and would therefore oppress all minorities with its voting power. Authoritarian elites also exist within democracies; they are those put into power by majority elections, those raised to authority by biased academic/business processes, and those empowered by wealth. At the least, democracy should be carefully qualified with adjectives. Better still, can we not find some more precise term that is not so laden with political muddlement?

The idea of “eliminating discrimination and intolerance” sounds laudable at first, but in practice it quickly becomes unrealistic; society must employ some degree of discrimination (i.e., meritocracy), and some things cannot be tolerated (such as terrorism). The list (two points later) of race, religion, gender, etc. covers this ideal well enough that “securing [optimal] justice and fairness in society” should be sufficient here.

The “disadvantaged and disabled” may or may not be able to “help themselves.” I think it would be better to help and support such persons to achieve improved self-determination, within the other principles presented.

To “die with dignity” has become a code word for assisted suicide so completely that it has lost any other context in our culture. A better phrase might be “to guarantee the right to exercise one’s preferences regarding the end of his or her own life and the disposal of his or her remains.” The idea is to permit self-determination and to protect individuals from the imposition of unwanted public/familial intrusions in mortality morality.

I would finall
y encourage the addition of a point that opposes retribution but supports restorative justice within the (criminal and civil) legal system.

Paul Schlueter III
Dallas, Pennsylvania

Tom Flynn responds:

“The Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles” is a historic document, composed by Paul Kurtz in the first decade of Free Inquiry and what is now the Council for Secular Humanism. So far we have not altered it since his death in 2012. That is not to say it can never be changed, but if and when we do so, the task will be approached with appropriate gravity. At that time, a “point that opposes retribution but supports restorative justice” might be eminently worth considering. There have been repeated suggestions that “democracy” needs a modifier, but I’m not sure what purpose that would serve; to the best of my knowledge, human history has never seen a “pure democracy” of ruthless majority rule at a level higher than a New England town meeting, so I question the need for a modifier to forestall that interpretation. As for “death with dignity” meaning assisted suicide, neither Kurtz nor early Free Inquiry editors and authors such as Vern Bullough and Marvin Kohl would quail from that. During FI’s early years, the preferred term was “beneficent euthanasia,” and numerous articles called for social and legal recognition not just of physician-assisted suicide but for the right of loved ones and even friends to help a suffering patient end his or her life—with appropriate safeguards against abuse, of course. To my mind, “death with dignity” is one case where developing terminology has rendered the “Affirmations” 1980 language more, not less, germane.


Letters in response to Free Inquiry volume 36, issue 6.

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