Monday, 19 March 2012

Don't Pray For Fabrice Muamba!

Not, of course, if you want to increase his chances of getting better.  

A meme appears to have begun to circulate about praying for the footballer Fabrice Muamba, who suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch during a cup quarter-final earlier this week.  As an aside, it appears that the internet is not yet the sole domain of memes; the football world can spread them rapidly too. 

Muamba's family are deeply religious, and have asked fans and players to pray for Muamba's recovery.  This has had a great impact, and has no doubt been very comforting to the family; it may yet be comforting to Muamba himself in the future. 

But the campaign is for more than that.  It is in the belief that a campaign of prayer can actually have a direct, supernatural impact on an individual's health.  Now this leaves me feeling very conflicted.  Muamba may, of course, recover; he is receiving the very best medical care, and has been from within seconds of the incident.  Yet should he recover, many people will give the credit for that to their God, and indeed take it as evidence for the reality of their world-view.  Which puts me in an awkward position.  Clearly, I can't wish for him not to recover; certainly not to make a rather tedious point that the True Believers will not accept anyway (should he die, it will be God Working In Mysterious Ways, of course).  Yet if he does recover - and at the time of writing, that seems to be the most likely outcome - we will have to put up with tedious fundamentalists trying to use a success of modern medicine to prop up their belief in an anti-scientific superstition.

Such is life. 

Bish Spotting

As I think I may have mentioned before, if keeping up with the latest news is your thing, you are looking at the wrong blog.  Still, the news does filter through, even to me, and one of the big religion-oriented stories this week has been the impending resignation of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury. 

Now, on the one hand, of course, this is neither here nor there.  The ABC leads a small bloc in the House of Lords, and is in theoretical control of the theoretical official religion of the UK, but he has little actual power.  Even if he did, who gets the role clearly has little bearing on the truth (or otherwise) of the beliefs held by members of that faith. 

And yet... the Church of England seems riven between the 'liberals' and the 'evangelicals'.  Williams may have been somewhat ineffectual and uncharismatic, and he may have been prepared to hide his liberal leanings in order to appeal more to the fundamentalist wing of the church, but at least he wasn't actively pushing it to be more intolerant.  There is really little guarantee that the next incumbent won't be a positive menace to society. 

And besides, it's always more fun to follow an election process when you know who you should be cheering for. 

The Guardian has an interesting article on some of the contenders to be the next ABC- Dr John Sentamu (AB of York) seems to be the clear favourite. 

Now, Sentamu has done some admirable things.  But his record on, for instance, gay rights is mixed at best.  He has spoken against the Ugandan 'kill the gays' law (Sentamu is Ugandan by descent), yet refused to sign the Cambridge Accord, which declared support for very basic human rights for gays in the UK.  And he has been vocal in his championing of 'persecution of Christians in the workplace', which usually translates as failure to give legal sanction to Christians imposing their faith on others. 

Should Sentamu become ABC, we can look backward to a return to the bad old days of Carey's incumbency.  The question then would be whether that would reinvigorate and already aggressive fundamentalist section of the C of E, or simply drive the religion ever further from the public mainstream?  Or both? 

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

While I'm On The Subject Of The 'Tedious' Side Of Religion...

One for all the Nazis-were-atheists brigade:
Atheism, Himmler wrote, “is the only world- or religious view that is not tolerated within the SS.” He further wrote, “I have not tolerated an atheist in the ranks of the SS. Every member has a deep faith in God, in what my ancestors called in their language Waralda, the ancient one, the one who is mightier than we are.”

Via Pharyngula. 

The Giford Test

I have this rule, see.  I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements:

  • One, it has to have at least two aliens in it. 
  • Who, two, talk to each other. 
  • About, three, something besides invading Earth. 
(With apologies to Alison Bechdel.) 

Sunday, 4 March 2012

The Tediousness of the Biblical Literalist

My browsings on the more acceptable reaches of the internet have alerted me to another problem with the timeline of Jesus, of which I was not previously aware. 

I would like to use this as (yet more) evidence that the Bible cannot be taken literally and unquestioningly as a historical document.  I would also like to use it as a springboard to explore why I continue to attack a 'literalist' interpretation of the Bible that is neither interesting nor supported by 'sophisticated' theologians. 

The problem of the date of Jesus' birth is well known (to me, at least).  Only two of the Gospels have nativity stories: Matthew and Luke.  Matthew tells the well-known story of the 'Massacre of the Innocents', where Bad King Herod, hearing that the Three Kings / Wise Men are expecting the birth of the next King of the Jews, has every child under two in Bethlehem killed.  It is clear that Herod is a major player in this story, and thus it cannot have taken place later than his death, in 4BC. 
Luke, on the other hand, tells the story of the Census, little donkey and manger.  The census is explicitely a Roman affair (not only does Luke name Emperor Augustus as having ordered it and Roman Governor Quirinius as carrying it out, but censuses were banned under Judaism and were not carried out while Judea was independent).  It cannot therefore have happened before the Romans annexed Judea, in 6AD. 

So I have long been familiar with the idea that there is at least a 9 year discrepancy (there being no year zero) between Jesus' birth-dates according to the two nativity accounts.  Most of these rely on Matthew's dating being accurate but there being an otherwise unrecorded period where Quirinius ruled Judea during Herod's reign.  There are many reasons this fails, but even if it did not, it would simply introduce further contradictions, as set out below. 

I have now discovered that there is a further, more involved contradiction between the two gospels. 
If we are to take Matthew seriously when he says that Jesus was born under the reign of Herod (4BC latest), and also assume that Luke is at least roughly accurate when he says that Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry (Luke 3:23), then we can calculate that Jesus' ministry began roughly thirty years after 4BC - so around 25AD.  (We might reasonably say sometime between 23 and 27AD - any earlier or later and we would expect Luke to have said 'around thirty five' or 'around 'twenty five', not 'around thirty'.)  His ministry seems to have lasted two or three years (based on the number of Passovers recorded - three in John 5:1, 7:2 and 10:22).  So Jesus must have been crucified sometime between 25 and 30AD, if Matthew and Luke are in harmony.  This would also fit with the comment made by a Pharisee to Jesus that the Temple has 'taken 46 years to build' - we know that it was started in 19BC, so it seems likely that the comment was made in 28AD.  So far, so good. 

But Luke also tells us that John the Baptist began his ministry in 29AD (In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar - Luke 3:1), and was arrested sometime around 36AD (which is consistent with Josephus, the only other source to mention John) and Jesus began his ministry only after that; so now we have an eight year discrepancy, and Luke must have been describing a 38-year-old as 'about thirty'.  Certainly, if John was arrested for speaking out against Herod Antipas' marriage to his brother's widow, John cannot have been arrested prior to Herod Antipas' brother's death, in 34AD. 
But we also know that Jesus was crucified by Pontius Pilate - and Pilate was recalled to Rome in 36AD.  So Luke's claim that Jesus began his ministry after the arrest of JtB in 36AD cannot be squared with the Fourth Gospel's claim that Jesus' ministry lasted 2-3 years.  Even if we can squeeze the ministry into the two years between 34 and 36AD, Jesus would still have been 37 according to Matthew when Luke describes him as 'about 30'. 

So this is all very exciting, of course.  And the response from most sensible theists will be that some or all of the gospellers made an error - something with which, of course, I agree.  So why am I labouring a point which seems directed at only the weakest part of Christian claims, that of Biblical inerrancy? 

The answer is that this 'weakest part' is in fact by far the dominant strain.  The number of churches teaching Biblical literalism is alarmingly high, and indeed it is not uncommon to hear anyone who would accept the idea that the gospellers might have made a mistake described as 'not a real Christian'.  It is therefore vital that someone make the case against Biblical literalism.  For whatever reason, most liberal Christians seem unwilling to take the fight directly to their fundamentalist brethren, so I therefore feel that the atheists must take up the mantle of reason. 

Unfortunately, of course, this does leave us open to the accusation that we are attacking only the weakest form of Christianity, one that no-one (read: no liberal, but an alarming number of Christians) takes seriously.  My response, of course, will be to argue equally strongly against all forms of non-factual belief, since the one option that is not available is to give a 'free pass' to some forms of faith that simply cannot be argued against.