Changing focus

Some time back I posted some thoughts on the potential that the stories of jesus in the christian bible might have had the barest smidgen of support, in that he might have been a historical figure. Annnnddd that’s about it, really; there isn’t anything else to say that is the least bit plausible. Recently, Why Evolution Is True featured a paper by Peter Nothnagle, who presented the case that jesus was entirely mythical and his reasoning behind this theory. Let me say this right up front: if you’re interested in the topic, I would strongly encourage you to read both my own post and Nothnagle’s paper [pdf download] before continuing, because I’m not going to reiterate the entire collection of points. And if you’re not interested, naturally you’ll want to skip to another post, which is why I’m putting the remainder below the page break.

The biblical books outlining the supposed life of jesus have way too many problems to be considered factual, which is widely agreed among virtually everyone with a modicum of honesty or scholarly background. While it is yet possible that some details within might be based on fact, there is no method to determine which, and there remains a complete lack of supporting evidence or documentation from any non-biblical source despite the epic nature of the events related; this is not encouraging. My own standpoint, that jesus might have been a real figure, or at least based on a couple of events, had two primary points of support (and I emphasize again that these are mere supposition, hardly anything one would want to argue in court): that the agreement on one person being a focal point for these tales seems to imply an existing figure of at least moderate renown, and that the tales were remarkably unimpressive and peculiar for what is supposed to be the defining event in the creator’s change of heart towards mankind. In other words, even if all of the details were entirely made up, the authors seemed to want to trade on a name already known, and if someone was creating a fable to influence followers, there could have been much better storylines that would have had more impact. But, the idea that there were existing tales of a charismatic preacher who was executed by the Romans, later embellished and made legend, seems to fit fairly well both as a reworking of an ignominious death and as a martyr that obligates followers through guilt.

Nothnagle makes a lot of points, but there are three primary ones that impact my own views. The first is something that I never knew: that the epistles, the books within the new testament that fall after the gospels and outline paul’s communications to other followers, are considered by most scholars to have been written before the gospels. Now, as noted in my previous post, the gospels undergo a particular progression, becoming more detailed and specific the later that they were written, not something that we should expect of historical accounts but exceedingly common in confabulations and embellishments. If the epistles were written even before these, however, then the gospels were not the first written accounts of jesus. What’s notable about this (and serves as the second point that impacts on my own views), is that paul’s accounts of jesus have nothing whatsoever to do with a wandering preacher and his followers; all of the tales told within present jesus as a supernatural figure not even present on Earth. This establishes a precedent for the use of a particular figure, but not one that stemmed from any unlucky preacher.

There are problems, however. Notably, the epistles show plenty of evidence of editing over the centuries, and there remains questions as to whether “paul” even existed; the letters that he supposedly wrote could just be the attempts of later church figures to create a “legendary” basis for their personal doctrines, and this certainly isn’t the first time that such has happened. We have far more evidence for that kind of shenanigans than we have for any such accounts being authentic, to be honest. So the epistles, while perhaps originating before the gospels, did not have the same content then; there remains the possibility that any portion of the narrative was added or edited later on, including pasting in the very name, “jesus.” From the multiple versions that we actually have, however, it’s safe to say that they were not protected by divine power, nor faithfully copied down verbatim since their inception. We’re left with knowing at least some of the content is mythical, and wondering just how much. That’s not much to build anything on, really.

[Note that I don’t say this to protect my own standpoint, but to show how feeble the biblical accounts really are – not exactly useful as evidence of anything.]

The third, and perhaps most damaging point to a historical jesus, is the existence of something called the Life of Aesop, the same guy that provided all of those fables. While Aesop appears to be a real figure – indeed, we have better records of his existence, including his birth and death five centuries BCE, than we have of jesus – there is an account of his life, obviously fictional, that bears more than a superficial resemblance to the prime gospel narrative: born in low caste, traveled the land dispensing wisdom, executed, but “saved” from oblivion and given an afterlife at the side of the gods. This account of his life was, according to Nothnagle, extant at the same time that jesus supposedly existed, and could easily serve as the origin of the biblical stories.

I had not heard of this, either, and as presented, it gives a tremendous amount of weight to a completely mythical jesus. However, in doing just a little research, it seems that these stories also underwent an untold amount of editing over the centuries, and the provenance of them is still unclear. But it is safe to say that several different variations of the same kind of suffering, martyrdom, and redemption can be found with ancient roots, among them, as Nothnagle points out, Homer’s Odyssey.

This could in itself explain the curious and nonsensical nature of the savior aspect; personal redemption, a factor within many of the epic tales, makes us feel better about the trials we face, more confident that life is fair. Reworked to make jesus a martyr due to our own sins, it has a bit of leverage towards influencing a flock; we now owe him in return for our own selfishness. But as an action taken by a creator to, um, do something for the humans on Earth, it’s still pretty ridiculous. Seriously, the entire universe was poofed into existence, but there has to be some song-and-dance over a period of three decades to change the rules, or whatever the hell it is that jesus’ sacrifice was supposed to accomplish? And despite this buildup, the historical and cultural impact was nonexistent outside of a handful of followers? This is the master plan that has been known all along? It’s insulting, really.

And so we come back around to what, exactly, the tales of jesus are supposed to provide for us. We are told that this whole event was to “save” us, but it only does so if we “accept” jesus and become sworn and/or practicing christians; that’s not salvation, that’s obligation. Which presents two curious questions: One, in what way has this changed the circumstances that existed before jesus? All of those people that lived beforehand, including the countless souls that perished in noah’s flood – did they escape this grace? And two, is this supposed to mean that those that now accept jesus are absolved of, not just sin, but sinning? I mean, it kind of makes sense that people can be punished for bad behavior – that’s the underlying idea of ethics to begin with – but it seems inordinately pointless for someone to be able to buy their way out of justice, subverting ethics entirely. And if they can’t, then what did jesus actually do?

However, at this point most religious folk switch gears, and tell us that the value of jesus is in the things that he preached, conveniently forgetting the whole martyr thing. And let’s be honest: most of the things that are presented as evidence of this wisdom are actually pretty solid recommendations, such as loving one another, being humble and not seeking wealth or acclaim, being fair and not judgmental, and all that. These are qualities that are hard to argue against, and are the points that are most often considered to define “christian” in the first place.

Curiously, they’re also the points that define humanism, and while useful, they’re not exactly unfathomably deep wisdom; most of them should be blindingly obvious, really. And here’s where it gets completely off the wall, capable of making one wonder just what the hell is going on within the brains of mankind.

Because, somehow, humanism is quite often considered a terrible affront to religious people, and I mean, enough to provoke some really shitass behavior. And secular humanism exists solely because religious humanism is exceedingly rare; the goal of secular humanism is to foster laws, practices, and ethics that are not influenced by the privilege and selective oppression that makes up, honestly, a very large percentage of religious activism throughout the world. Love and tolerance are not the operative bywords of christianity – it’s far closer to superiority and privilege and judgment. We do not very often find church groups and religious organizations campaigning for, oh, fair treatment of accused criminals, or less emphasis on the pursuit of wealth; most times (by a huge margin,) the efforts are to establish old testament proscriptions as law, attempting to limit and punish behavior that they deem unacceptable, including such practices as same-sex marriage, teaching evolution, and even just churches paying taxes (otherwise known as rendering unto Caesar.) About the only time “tolerance” even appears is when it comes to what they want to do, especially if they’re restricted from doing it by law, such as the ones that require them to seek competent medical attention for their children’s illnesses instead of praying – religious exemptions for withholding medical treatment exist in most of our states, despite the fact that no one has ever demonstrated that this works at all. Religious folk, again by a vast majority, concern themselves with their own rights and treatment far more often than the rights of others, and when they’re not permitted to extend their influence in certain areas, there is no shortage of whining that someone is “out to destroy religion.” Now, I admit that I haven’t read everything attributed to jesus, but I can’t recall running across any advice about ensuring privilege and self-importance. I’m pretty sure it was exactly the opposite.

So we come to the utter pointlessness of the entirety of christianity. If we accept the overall narrative as factual (ignoring all of the contradictions and anachronisms,) we have personal salvation as the goal, which I suppose is fine if your entire focus is yourself; I tend to consider it as useful as “personal best” and “personal pan pizza” – of no interest whatsoever to anyone else, even though a disturbingly large number of christians seem to think this should make them important or reputable somehow. The emphasis on joining god’s personal club, and to hell with everyone else and any thought of improving ourselves and our community, is remarkably nihilistic, and not something that, even if true, I could find myself giving the faintest shit about.

If we ignore all of that and claim that the point is to make people behave better, among themselves and towards others – again, what we’re supposed to think of when we hear phrases such as, “good christian” – it doesn’t seem to be working terribly well. So unwell, in fact, that there are distinct ideologies aimed at improving our cultures by eradicating religious influence, something that was written into the bylaws of our country. Even after a couple thousand years of getting their shit together, christians not only cannot produce a cohesive and dependable approach to a ridiculously simple concept, they cannot even correct (and in most cases, even decry) the excesses of intolerant behavior within their very own club. Anyone can call themselves a christian regardless of their behavior, trading on the reputation of the word without having to make any effort whatsoever to embody it. Somehow, we still have to dick around and defend things like good science and natural sexuality and, holy shit, functional medicine against self-absorbed, self-righteous nitwits who proclaim their utter faith while not actually promoting the one set of traits out of the whole thing that would actually be useful.

And finally, a few observations. First off, don’t think that the constant efforts to reinforce the reputation of the title, in lieu of beneficial actions, has gone unnoticed; it appears religious leaders can accomplish something when they put their minds to it, even though a reputation for accomplishing great things should need no support whatsoever. Second, christianity is certainly not the only religion guilty of this ridiculous behavior, so no, they’re not getting a free ride here, we just happened to be talking about jesus this time around. The same kind of self-importance, coupled with the same lack of benefit and improvement (self or otherwise) can be found in most religions, imagine that.

Which does indeed suggest that these are traits of humans, and not religious instruction, indoctrination, or culture. At least, to a degree. While this is something that is exceptionally hard to prove or quantify, it seems very likely that humans have evolved to have tendencies towards certain behaviors; there aren’t too many other ways that such things could be as universal as they are, and it’s easy to make a case that, while a social species, Homo sapiens also has a certain level of self-absorption – call it ego or selfishness or what have you, but it most likely reflects a genetic legacy of protecting oneself first. Indeed, there are extensive studies into the importance humans place on self, followed closely by immediate family, with decreasing importance the more distant the relations become, and strong demarcations from others of obvious non-heritage; natural selection is highly likely to promote just that kind of genetic favoritism.

This doesn’t mean that it’s ideal; evolution is an ongoing thing that has to adapt to changing conditions, and as such is almost always at least a little behind. Again, we have strong social tendencies too, but both traits are unspecific, and can take control of our decisions even when it cannot provide any benefit to us. That’s where the reasoning portions of our brains come in. And the first step towards combating the unnecessary impulses is recognizing that they exist – realizing, for instance, that while we might want to feel superior and important, we’ll get along with others better if we stress cooperation and fairness, plus we’re probably not superior anyway.

Churches, however, take advantage of these base tendencies. Want to be superior? Say these magic words and poof! you’re superior! Feel uncomfortable with homosexuality? That’s because IT’S HORRIBLE, and god hates it, so you’re on god’s good side now! Doesn’t matter if it affects absolutely nobody, or is based on utterly nonsensical phrases (like “sanctity of marriage,”) or even if it’s proven to work better than any million prayers out there (like antibiotics or blood transfusions.) As long as the religious keep repeating it, it stops being nonsense – that’s how the world works, right?

But, shockingly, it works better when we use our brains. While it might be inviting to pick through scripture and find the bits that reinforce how we already feel, thinking this makes us “good,” it’s not exactly difficult to ignore all of that and just consider what beneficial goals and accomplishments really are.

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