Esteemed cosmologist and popular atheist Lawrence Krauss wrote: “It sometimes surprises me, although it shouldn’t, how religious devotees feel the need to regularly reinforce their own convictions in groups of like-minded individuals”.
It is curious then, that he has made the long trip down-under to join the faithless as part of the weekend’s Global Atheists Convention.
Following a debate with analytic philosopher William Lane Craig last year, a frustrated Krauss took a passing swipe at the historical evidence for Christianity. As a student of history, I am getting weary of the a priori assumptions of secular fundamentalism that infect the blogosphere and are routinely trotted out as fact. Don’t get me wrong, theists circulate more than their fair share of bullshit too – but it benefits nobody when the discussion degenerates into the intellectual equivalent of a freestyle gangsta rap battle.
So here are five myths of popular atheism that we need to leave behind!
Myth 1 – The Chicken or the Egg?
First on the agenda is the assertion that There is No God. While the scholarly opinion of the likes of Dawkins, Krauss and Sam Harris is best articulated by the London bus campaign “There’s Probably No God”, their assault on religious belief suggests a deeper conviction. It’s the great unwinnable argument that is carried on by True Believers on both sides. The debate can be entertaining and thought provoking but, as philosopher Alain de Botton points out, it has ground to a “sterile stalemate”. Nobody changes their worldview because they lose an intellectual arm-wrestle. The punters that attend these public debates are about as open minded as a footy fan at the MCG.
Myth 2 – The Unhistorical Jesus
Quoting again from Mr. Krauss, “many historians believe that Jesus never existed”. He is of course paraphrasing The God Delusion, but even Mr Dawkins has retracted this point: “Maybe I alluded to the possibility that some historians think Jesus never existed, I take that back. Jesus existed.”
For Dawkins it’s a moot point and “petty”. But if it’s of no consequence to popular atheism then why is it so often repeated? As a person of spiritual conviction who attempts to live according to Jesus’ teachings it is of great importance to me that I understand both the man and the message within the context of history. There is indeed a small collection of historians that have challenged the existence of Jesus of Nazareth but they are about as numerous and credible as holocaust deniers.
Myth 3 – Religion is The Cause of All Wars
Really, which ones? The Babylonian conquests? Alexander the Great? The Mongol invasion? WW1? WW2? Vietnam? Korea? Cambodia? Iraq parts 1 and 2? Generally the answer will be some sort of mumble about the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and Northern Ireland. Yes, it is true that atrocities have been, and continue to be, perpetrated in the name of religion. But really, lets not get hysterical. The greatest slaughters in the World’s bloodiest century – the 20th – were perpetrated by godless regimes who between them racked up more than 153 million corpses.
Many of the prime targets under these despots were and remain people of faith. Richard Dawkins was dismissive when right-wing broadcaster Bill O’Reilly linked atheist regimes to genocide, replying: “it’s just incidentally true that Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin happened to be atheists… what drove them was a political ideology that had nothing to do with atheism”. I agree with Dawkins that the causes of human conflict are much more nuanced. The common denominator in the history of human conflict is not religion or the lack of it but an unquenchable desire for power.
Myth 4 – The Gospels are not reliable history but are instead a construct of the church
Krauss again: “there are no definitive eyewitness accounts of these events, and in the case of the claimed resurrection the scriptures were written decades after the claimed event, and the different accounts are not even consistent.” For a start, as any historian, or judge for that matter, will tell you, the accounts would be far more suspicious if they did synchronise too closely.
I am the first to agree that the gospel writers, like all biographers, have an agenda. The purpose of these documents is not to provide a chronological account of the life and times of Jesus. They are attempts to collect his teaching and construct a narrative that explains his life. In particular, the writers are working overtime to explain through the Jewish scriptures why Jesus’ shock crucifixion was not a failure but a victory.
Contrary to popular opinion, a publicly disgraced and crucified leader was not a bonus for early Christians! To suggest that dating the gospels in the decades after Jesus’ death makes them unreliable is to imply that one could not construct an accurate portrait of a figure like Martin Luther King today by conducting interviews with his surviving friends and family.
Myth 5 – The Jesus story is a conflation of near eastern myths
In a key scene in Bill Maher’s 2008 film “Religulous”, Maher ambushes an actor dressed as Jesus with the revelation that his story is borrowed from the Egyptian account of Horas. Various facts comparing the accounts are scrolled across the screen to a rocking soundtrack and we all laugh at the dumb Christian. Ironically, as any Egyptologist will tell you, the joke is on those who get their mythology from comedians. Even a quick visit to Wikipedia will demonstrate that there is no obvious correlation between the accounts.
As for links to Mithras and Krishna, the weight of scholarship dates these well within the Christian era. Instead, the New Testament is infused with thousands of quotes and illusions to the Jewish Scriptures. The Christian faith began as a Jewish sect, spread to the Hellenic Jews and then the wider Greco-Roman world. If you want to tie Jesus to the mythology of the past, look no further than the Judaism he and his followers practiced and preached.
Well, that’s enough from me. No doubt I’ve given the True Believers on both sides plenty of ammunition. All I ask is that we keep an open mind to truth and try to avoid lazy history.