Sorry for the disappearing act. It seems like every time I work up a good head of blog steam, something happens to knock me off track. This term is turning out to be unusually busy. But I did want to poke my head up to take note of this recent essay, at HuffPo, by John Shelby Spong.

Spong, a former bishop in the Episcopal Church, writes books with titles like Why Christianity Must Change or Die, and A New Christianity for a New World. He is very critical of all facets of traditional Christian belief. Frankly, his version of Christianity is so theologically liberal it seems awfully similar to secular humanism. My kind of guy!

Here’s the opening of his essay:

The contrast between the way the Bible is understood in the academic world and the way it is viewed in our churches is striking. I know because in my life as a priest and a bishop I have both served typical congregations and been privileged to study and to teach in some of the best known Christian academic centers in the world. In academia I discovered that issues and insights, commonplace among the scholars, are viewed as highly controversial and even as “heresy” in the churches. The result has been that the majority of people who have remained in the church have become more and more rigid and fundamentalist, while those who have left have become more and more dismissive of everything, good or bad, about Christianity. We also now have a crop of writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who have totally demolished the fundamentalist approach to God with their clever and penetrating books, yet they are seemingly unaware that there are other ways to view Christianity.

From this you might think that Spong is making the familiar complaint that people like Dawkins and Hitchens are insufficiently respectful of moderate Christianity. You know, the kind that dispenses with a six-day creation and the story of Adam an Eve, but nonetheless retains traditional notions of the resurrection and of God’s existence and nature. But, as we shall see, Spong mostly discards every aspect of traditional Christian teaching. It is not just the fundamentalists against whom he is railing, but against far more moderate believers as well. The “other ways” of viewing Christianity Spong envisions are so far removed from orthodoxy that many would say his views are not Christian at all. Quite a lot of non-fundamentalists would claim that what is good about Christianity is precisely the part where it claims to be in possession of eternal truths that have been revealed by God.

Spong continues:

In the world of Christian scholarship, for example, to read the Bible literally is regarded as absurd. To call the words of the Bible “the Word of God” is more than naive. No modern person can still believe that a star can wander through the sky so slowly that wise men can keep up with it, that God actually dictated the Ten Commandments — all three versions, no less — or that a multitude can be fed with five loaves and two fish. No modern person understanding genetics and reproduction can believe that virgins conceive, nor can those who understand what death does to the human body in a matter of just minutes still view the resurrection as the resuscitation of a deceased body after three days.

From this it is clear that Spong simply dismisses any possibility of miracles, or of interventions by God into the natural order of things. I have met some pretty hard-core fundamentalists over the years, but not a one of them thinks that the dead can rise without some sort of supernatural intervention. Their belief in the items on Spong’s list stems not from misunderstandings of the relevant science (leaving aside questions now about Genesis and evolution), but from their belief that there is a supernatural realm that can influence our lives.

Of course, I agree with Spong that a sensible person should reject a belief in the resurrection, and in the other items he mentions. I don’t dismiss out of hand the possibility of miracles, but I will need far better evidence for them than anyone has ever provided. But pointing out that the various Biblical miracles conflict with science is not much of an argument, especially coming from someone accusing others of pretending they have discovered something new.

Spong continues:

Biblical scholars know that the accounts of the crucifixion read in Christian churches on Good Friday are not eye witness reports, but developed interpretations of Jesus’ death based on a series of Old Testament texts selected to convince fellow Jews that Jesus “fulfilled the scriptures” and thus really was the “messiah.” These issues and many others are assumed in the world of biblical scholars, but are viewed by many church-goers, together with the vast majority of television evangelists and radio preachers, as attacks on divine revelation that must be resisted in order to save Christianity. They thus, knowingly or unknowingly, join in a conspiracy of silence, ignoring truth when they feel they can and viewing biblical scholars, strangely enough, as the church’s ultimate enemy. At the same time secular critics attack what Christian scholars know is nonsensical about both the Bible and Christianity and act as if they have discovered something new.

This paragraph illustrates something that is often frustrating about Spong’s writing. His specific points are all relevant and well-taken. But why the jibe at the end about secular critics? We point out what is nonsensical about the Bible and Christianity not because we think we have discovered something new, but simply because so many other people deny that there is anything nonsensical in them at all. We are simply expressing precisely the same frustration as Spong himself. So why the snideness?

There are some biblical facts that cannot and should not be ignored, if Christians really value truth. For example, the time separating when Moses lived (ca. 1250 BCE) from when the stories of Moses were written in the Bible (ca. 950 BCE) is about 300 years, representing 15 generations of oral transmission. Can anyone knowing this continue to be a literal believer? The gospels were written 40 -70 years after the crucifixion, which means that most of what we read about Jesus in the Bible was handed down orally for two to three generations before one word of it achieved written form. The gospels were also first written in Greek, a language which neither Jesus nor his disciples spoke or wrote! How can anyone claim “inerrancy” for such material? Other facts well-known in the academy, but seemingly unknown outside by either believers or critics, are that scholars can find no evidence that miracles were associated with the memory of Jesus before the 8th decade of the Christian era, that there is no mention of the virgin birth anywhere before the 9th decade and that the narratives of the ascension and Pentecost did not appear until the 10th decade. The New Testament does not agree on such basic issues as the identity of the twelve disciples or the details of Easter. Why has none of this been made available in churches or been discovered by those who pose as the church’s secular critics?

Here again we see Spong’s antipathy towards any notion of the supernatural. Anyone in possession of the basic facts of the Bible’s composition should reject any notion of inerrancy, unless they also believe that God was guiding the various scribes and compilers. In fact, it is a common apologetic argument to point to the supposed unity of scripture, despite its composition over thousands of years, as evidence of its divine inspiration.

I don’t think that’s a good argument, of course. But Spong has a lot of nerve accusing others of thinking they have discovered something new, when his whole essay here is a recitation of standard talking points. Powerful talking points, in my opinion, but still not anything that hasn’t been hashed out many times before.

And, with regard to that last sentence, I’m pretty sure the church’s secular critics are perfectly aware of the points Spong raises. We make them all the time. We need to keep making them precisely because so many people deny them.

Spong goes on like this for two more paragraphs. Then he closes with this:

Christianity is, I believe, about expanded life, heightened consciousness and achieving a new humanity. It is not about closed minds, supernatural interventions, a fallen creation, guilt, original sin or divine rescue. I am tired of seeing the Bible being used, as it has been throughout history, to legitimize slavery and segregation, to subdue women, to punish homosexuals, to justify war and to oppose family planning and birth control. That is a travesty which must be challenged and changed.

And here I thought Christianity was about our need for, and the possibility of, redemption. It is a strange take on Christianity that makes no reference either to God or to Jesus. I am as tired as he of seeing the Bible used to justify immoral beliefs and behavior. What I don’t understand is why he persists in calling himself a Christian after vigorously discarding all of the major points of Christian teaching. What is there about expanded life, heightened consciousness and achieving a new humanity, whatever any of that even means, that is specific to Christianity?

Comments

  1. #1 Dave X
    October 26, 2011

    And just why has none of this been apparent to those who pose as scholarly Christian critics?

  2. #2 Mark Erickson
    October 26, 2011

    Good post. I agree with all of your points up until the last paragraph. First, I would use “salvation” instead of “redemption.” Orthodox Christianity is about the after life much more than real life, which I think redemption is a part of.

    He calls himself a Christian in the fact that he follows Jesus. You’re right, “Christian” doesn’t mean just following Jesus for 99.whatever percent of Xians. Spong should drop the name. But he’s trying to save Christianity – pun intended – not forsake it – again. So he has to keep the name to even get in the door with somewhat liberal Xians. If he says he’s an agnostic (or a gnostic), bye-bye best selling books and speaking engagements.

    As always, follow the money, cui bono, etc. etc.

    This point also goes to your last sentence. He’s got to have something to sell, something to uplift, something…. So like a common charlatan, he makes up good sounding stuff. Preferably unexplainable. He’s big on the oh-so-sophisticated “ground of being” and Bonhoeffer, etc. etc.

  3. #3 Sean Santos
    October 26, 2011

    “Why has none of this been made available in churches or been discovered by those who pose as the church’s secular critics?”

    I laughed at this, because I discovered some of this from directed readings the Bible myself when I still went to church (in a “fundamentalist” Sunday School!), other things from high school social studies and philosophy classes, and other things from atheist sources “outside the academy” (such as the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible and Matt Dillahunty on The Atheist Experience) that I checked against more expert sources later.

    Spong is right that most people are uneducated about important details the Bible, but he is wrong in suggesting that the entire mass of non-scholars has missed that, or that learning about these details is a magic bullet against fundamentalism.

    There are people who believe that the KJV is inerrant because God guided its translation into English. I have met them, and they are not necessarily that insane in any other aspect of their lives. But against apologetic delusion of that thoroughness and magnitude, how can the relative sanity of contemporary Biblical scholarship prevail? How can said scholarship combat an epistemology that is content with using God’s power to plug arbitrarily large holes in a story?

  4. #4 André Pineda
    October 26, 2011

    It seems like he has not only an expansive definition of fundamentalism, but an expansive definition of moderate Christianity as well, if he includes himself in it. I think cultural ties to particular religions will keep people identifying themselves as members of those religions long after they’ve discarded the beliefs that generally define them; it’s an unfortunate sort of inertia, imho.

  5. #5 Russell
    October 26, 2011

    In essence, Spong agrees with atheists on the stupidity of popular religion. Where he goes wrong is in misunderstanding the importance of those stupidities to religious motivation. There is a psychology to religious belief. The fables of Christianity, the absurdities of Mormonism, and even the outright lunacy of Scientology support the kind of group-belief that religion requires, while the more rational theism of, say, Leibniz now has only historical and philosophical interest. When it comes to worship, reason does not win.

  6. #6 Pseudonym
    October 27, 2011

    @Russell: “In essence, Spong agrees with atheists on the stupidity of popular religion.”

    Actually, it’s the other way around. Almost every academically respectable critique of what is popularly referred to as “traditional Christianity” came from liberal Christianity first.

    I hope this also answers Dave X’s question.

  7. #7 Deepak Shetty
    October 27, 2011

    Mark Erickson
    As always, follow the money,
    You don’t seem to have read much Spong. Atleast his writings seem to be very sincere.

  8. #8 Wow
    October 27, 2011

    Pseudonym, that link is trolling:

    > The title of this post is intentionally provocative.

    It’s also rather silly.

    If a window is like a hole in a wall, then by the definition of “like”, a hole in a wall is like a window.

    This is not the amazing inspiration you think it is.

    And, accordingly, your assertion “Actually, it’s the other way round” is wrong: it’s not the other way round, both are equally valid by that link you gave and therefore your implicit exclusion of Russel’s position is incorrect.

  9. #9 J. Quinton
    October 27, 2011

    Actually, I think pseudonym is correct. There was no “New Atheism” 50 or even 100 years ago, but all of the critiques that Spong talks about were promulgated by liberal Christians 50 – 100 years ago. It was these critiques that prompted C. S. Lewis to write his apologetics.

  10. #10 Wow
    October 27, 2011

    There was Atheism, then, though, JQ. Why must it be only from New Atheism? Who brought that into it, by the way? The first mention is your post, so it looks like you’re setting up your own scenario to knock it down.

    Here’s a bit of wheatstalk for you…

  11. #11 eric
    October 27, 2011

    Disagreements over what constitutes a religion is why I think scientists should stick to discussing claims.

    The earth is 4.5 billion years old, not 10,000 years old. People can’t walk on water (without technological assistance). Humanity never went through a 2 or 8 person bottleneck. Those are things science can discuss. But if you find yourself in a discussion over whether a 10,000 year old earth is a Christian belief or not a Christian belief, your opponent can pat themselves on the back for distracting you from the important point.

    Those would be my questions to the Millers and Spongs of the world. I don’t care whether you think a young earth is christian doctrine – that’s entirely your own personal concern. I care whether you think its right.

  12. #12 Mark Erickson
    October 27, 2011

    Deepak,

    His writings are absolutely sincere. I don’t doubt the sincerity of many people, especially Episcopal bishops. But I was talking about his decision to keep calling himself Christian. That decision is partly of hope: he’ll convince orthodox Christians to give up their orthodoxy; and partly of necessity: he needs the label to retain his reputation. (Which is needed to sell books)

    The etc. etc. was meant as blah blah blah, to lessen the importance of that particular argument.

  13. #13 Raymond Dickey
    October 27, 2011

    I read Spong’s books for years, but I eventually got tired of his approach. Basically he thinks it’s morally superior to redefine faith and Christianity as required by reason rather than just honestly abandon both.

    He’s not a ‘former’ bishop — he’s a retired (emeritus) bishop, which is still an important position in the Anglican churches.

  14. #14 Marshall
    October 27, 2011

    Christianity, like any religion, like any social phenomenon, has always been in a state of flux. Today’s fundamentalists are the 16th century’s raving heretics: Tyndale was executed (unpleasantly) for making the New Testament available to non-scholars; a century later the KJV was the establishment thing, and us raving heretics have moved on to explore new turf. They say “Can’t step into the same river twice”, but we can still talk sensibly about the “same river”. Not identity, but continuity.

    “Adapt or Die” is a motto evolutionists understand. Atheists like Jerry prefer ‘die’, so they like to insist that Christianity can’t adapt, but that’s just wrong, sorry. Is Spong the wave of the future? Who knows, but maybe. We could do worse.

    I think assuming he’s insincere is absurd. Fight-picking behavior where there’s no need or utility in a fight.

    Christianity that makes no reference either to God or to Jesus
    How much can be put into a HuffPo piece? See here, for instance. “God is the source of all life … God is present in all living things”. And personally, I think “achieving a new humanity” sounds a lot like “redemption”: in particular, from the imperatives of our animal nature.

  15. #15 eric
    October 27, 2011

    Marshall: Atheists like Jerry prefer ‘die’, so they like to insist that Christianity can’t adapt, but that’s just wrong, sorry.

    Sure Christianity can adapt. You just give up the notion of a single, simple, unchanging redemptive message when you do so.

    Every time you adapt you are saying, in essence, that either everyone in the last 2,000 years got the message wrong, or that God has recently changed his mind about what it takes to get into heaven.

    I don’t think atheists like Jerry or Jason would say Christianity can’t adapt. Merely that adaptation undermines your core claim to have access to metaphysical/theological truth.

  16. #16 Tulse
    October 27, 2011

    adaptation undermines your core claim to have access to metaphysical/theological truth

    Or, to paraphrase a quote from the Vietnam War, “We had to destroy the religion in order to save it.”

  17. #17 Collin
    October 27, 2011

    Just as “New Atheist” authors need the label Atheist.

    Some people act as if they’ve searched their entire brain to confirm that it doesn’t contain belief in a deity. That’s impossible. A brain cannot perform a full self-diagnostic.

    This is the reason I feel free to call myself a religious Jew and still reject all the Jewish miracles. I cannot honestly deny that the concept of objective reality and provable truth that leads me to learn about science is a form of worship.

  18. #18 eric
    October 27, 2011

    Collin: I cannot honestly deny that the concept of objective reality and provable truth that leads me to learn about science is a form of worship.

    Holding a concept in one’s mind is not a form of worship, its just cogitation. Worship is showing reverence to a deity.

    Yahweh is not revered when you think “there is an objective reality” any more than Mathweh is revered when you think “1+1=2.”

  19. #19 Russell
    October 27, 2011

    I think Pseudonym is largely correct. In areas such as Biblical history, Biblical exegesis, and theodicy, liberal believers led the way in criticizing Christianity. Of course. They were the ones who were most interested.

    There are a couple of buts. First, there is a broad spectrum of Christian belief. Some liberal believers point out the absurdities of A, B, and C, while working hard to preserve doctrines D and E. Other liberal believers point out the absurdities of C, D, and E, while working hard to preserving doctrines A and B. All try to preserve something. I suspect, even Spong. That is what makes them believers.

    Which brings us to the second point. Liberal believers typically are working from the viewpoint that belief through faith is a fine idea worth preserving, once a critical eye has been used to discard the nonsense. More or less. And that precisely is the point that the rational atheist attacks. That not only creates a kind of argument the liberal believer won’t make, but also affects how to formulate many of the criticisms that liberal believers made first. As example, a liberal believer will point to the evolution of the gospels, as argument against the fundamentalist that they are literal history, their authors’ hands guided by Jesus himself. But still takes them as somehow inspired. The atheist goes one step further, and says, “yes, that’s right, so why should they be viewed differently from any other religion’s fables?”

  20. #20 Marshall
    October 27, 2011

    You just give up the notion of a single, simple, unchanging redemptive message when you do so.

    That’s right, you do. People who aren’t willing to do that are exactly the ones that should be called “Fundamentalists.” Since I don’t have such a notion, it is not my “core claim to have access to metaphysical/theological truth”, or any other universal truth. My core claim is that I have access to a “final vocabulary” (Rorty’s sense) that works for me. And I have evidence that it works for others as well. I also have evidence that other things work for other people, and I don’t see any reason why I should have a problem with that.

    Russell, I think you are defining ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ in ways that make them oxymoronic. If you think about ‘faith’ as ‘commitment’ and ‘belief’ as ‘understanding’, your objections mostly disappear. That’s how they are used in non-religious contexts: I have faith that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow … I will plan my day with that expectation … and I believe that Einstein’s theory of gravity is substantially accurate. Why should Christianity be viewed differently from any other religion? Same as joining any fraternity: comradeship, and to have access to a deep tradition that can be mined for various useful ideas/practices. If it works for you, welcom

  21. #21 Collin Brendemuehl
    October 27, 2011

    There are several concerns here.
    First:

    The “other ways” of viewing Christianity Spong envisions are so far removed from orthodoxy that many would say his views are not Christian at all.

    These “other ways” do not necessarily lead away from orthodoxy. Check out the various interpretive methods within orthodoxy, many of which are outlined in Feinberg’s No One Like Him.

    Second:
    There is also a divide between the historic evangelical and the fundamentalist. Though close kin theologically, there are important distinctions. You may read on this in Dr. Wenger’s dissertation Social Thought in American Fundamentalism, 1918-1933. This improved understanding will help avoid the simplistic stereotyping taking place.

    The gospels were written 40 -70 years after the crucifixion, which means that most of what we read about Jesus in the Bible was handed down orally for two to three generations before one word of it achieved written form. The gospels were also first written in Greek, a language which neither Jesus nor his disciples spoke or wrote!

    Well, when the disciples crossed Samaria to go to the pagan temple at Caesarea Philippi (Mt. 16:13ff), to suggest that they were there only to speak Hebrew? Nonsense. Trade was across ethnic/national lines and this meant to be bi-lingual. The language of the NT, often mixed in structure, makes this quite evident. (eg., the structure of Luke, a doctor, and Mark differ greatly with these histories being passed between multi-lingual individuals.)

    Finally:

    And here I thought Christianity was about our need for, and the possibility of, redemption. It is a strange take on Christianity that makes no reference either to God or to Jesus. I am as tired as he of seeing the Bible used to justify immoral beliefs and behavior. What I don’t understand is why he persists in calling himself a Christian after vigorously discarding all of the major points of Christian teaching. What is there about expanded life, heightened consciousness and achieving a new humanity, whatever any of that even means, that is specific to Christianity?

    Precisely.

    Here’s a though experiment: Look at Christianity as a pre-Talmudic variation of Judaism, sans the pharisaic school. It might not answer all the questions, but it’s a starting point.

  22. #22 Russell
    October 27, 2011

    Marshall writes:

    Why should Christianity be viewed differently from any other religion? Same as joining any fraternity: comradeship, and to have access to a deep tradition that can be mined for various useful ideas/practices.

    So in your view, there are no beliefs that are prerequisite to being Christian? It’s like joining the AARP or a bowling club, and an atheist who likes parts of the tradition is as much a Christian as anyone else?

    There’s nothing wrong with using the word that way. There’s a real sense in which Dawkins, who sings Christmas carols, is a Christian atheist. I know people who have spent a lot of time in Asia who will explain how Christian atheists — meaning most American and British atheists — are different from non-believers in the far east.

    But is that really what you intend?

  23. #23 Pseudonym
    October 27, 2011

    @Russell:

    The atheist goes one step further, and says, “yes, that’s right, so why should they be viewed differently from any other religion’s fables?”

    Actually, liberal religionists do indeed go there.

    The “light” form is interfaith dialogue, where liberals respect the religious traditions of other religions and dip into non-canonical works for extra heretical wisdom. The “heavy” form is omnism, which has become quite popular, to the point where we now have seminaries which produce “interfaith” clergy, who see themselves as not being a cleric of any particular major world religion, but part of all of them.

    I don’t know if you watch Futurama, but there’s a clever parody of one possible direction that liberal syncretic religion could go in 1000 years called the “First Amalgamated Church”, the cleric of which is named Father Changstein el-Gamal.

    Incidentally, atheists are even more eclectic than ultra-liberal “theists” (a word used advisedly, because Spong isn’t a theist in the classical sense), and even less can be said about them as a group.

  24. #24 Deepak Shetty
    October 27, 2011

    @Mark Erickson
    But I was talking about his decision to keep calling himself Christian.
    Ah ok. I dont see a problem with that (a follower of Gandhi is a Gandhian – its a valid secular use). Spong is unlike some liberal Christians who argue secularly(the world must be fine tuned-hence God but not necessarily Jesus) when arguing with non-believers and speak a different language in church. So I suppose Im more willing to not read more into Spong’s use of Christian.

  25. #25 Russell
    October 27, 2011

    Ah, but I was discussing liberal Christians, not liberal religionists. At some point, the categories get so broad and fuzzy, it’s hard to say much of anything about them. Though the First Amalgamated Church does sound better than Robotology.

  26. #26 Marshall
    October 27, 2011

    But is that really what you intend?

    More or less. The one essential thing that you must believe to be considered a Christian is just that you consider yourself to be a Christian, IMO. Personally, my Christianity has to do with practice, which we could spend a lot of time on (any time!). In my church, and I think most churches, the essential thing is to show up, hang out, and do what the people there do. If Jerry is a “cultural Jew”, why not have “cultural Christians” … I don’t know whether Richard would be pleased to be considered one. If Atheism ever means that we have to drive all religious iconography out of public discourse, as some seem to think, I say that would be impoverishing. If we had to just forget all that stuff.

    The problems arise when some forget about people and start worrying about labels as if labels were justifications. I haven’t made up my mind about Romney, but really, worrying about whether as a Mormon he’s a Real Christian just leads in the wrong direction. For Atheists to be coming on like the Spanish Inquisition is just ridiculous.

    … but I would say, there’s a lot more to Christianity than there is to the AARP. A rather deeper tradition to be mined. I never heard that joining a bowling league changed anybody’s life except maybe The Dude, but you get out of it what you put into it.

  27. #27 eric
    October 27, 2011

    Marshall: My core claim is that I have access to a “final vocabulary” (Rorty’s sense) that works for me. And I have evidence that it works for others as well. I also have evidence that other things work for other people, and I don’t see any reason why I should have a problem with that.

    I doubt that would be very satisfactory for most theists, since you are essentially giving up any claim that your God actually exists in any objective sense. And I doubt very much that most theists would approve of you claiming their God is merely a concept of their final vocabulary. But if it works for you, have at it!

  28. #28 jwthomas
    October 28, 2011

    @Marshall

    “I never heard that joining a bowling league changed anybody’s life except maybe The Dude…”

    Indeed.
    http://dudeism.com/

  29. #29 Wow
    October 28, 2011

    “I think Pseudonym is largely correct.”

    Thing is, before the term a-theist is invented, how can you have an atheist?

    If you don’t get a chance to choose and are automatically enrolled in your local religion (especially if you can get killed if you’re not), in what sense does “He’s a Christian” have any meaning other than that’s the label they had to have? There are many people who were atheists but didn’t actually have the option. If the only education is from the church and that without education, you don’t know enough about the religion to write about it and be remembered as an atheist, then what difference is there between a “Liberal Christian” and an atheist who had to go through religious education?

  30. #30 Wow
    October 28, 2011

    “Some people act as if they’ve searched their entire brain to confirm that it doesn’t contain belief in a deity”

    I’ve searched my entire brain and would like to confirm it contains no belief in invisible pink unicorns.

    Apparently this is impossible for Collin.

    Collin therefore believes in invisible pink unicorns.

  31. #31 James Sweet
    October 28, 2011

    So Spong wants everyone to give up a belief in the supernatural, believes that Christianity in its current form is a travesty and needs to be either done away with or radically reformed, and holds that science is entirely incompatible with “religion” as most non-scholars understand it.

    Holy shit, he’s a New Atheist!

  32. #32 James Sweet
    October 28, 2011

    Actually, this gives me an idea… maybe our message would be more effective if we pretended to be believers/accomodationists.

    “Oh yeah, faith and science are totally compatible. What meanie says they aren’t? Of course, Jesus never existed, and there’s obviously no God. Why are you looking at me like that, I’m a Christian too!”

  33. #33 Wow
    October 28, 2011

    And you can’t prove they’re NOT incompatible, can you!

    (or for the Collin’s of the world, search your brain for a proof that a deity exists and you can’t find it, it’s impossible!)

  34. #34 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    October 28, 2011

    No modern person understanding genetics and reproduction can believe that virgins conceive

    Oh I’m down with that. Parthenogenesis and whatnot. Apparently Spong isn’t too well read in biology. But a parthenogenetic virgin giving birth to male offspring? That’s crazy talk.

  35. #35 Msarshall
    October 28, 2011

    @eric:

    I’m pretty committed to the idea that the object of my experience exists in an objective sense, aren’t you? Right now I’m not talking to theists (for the most part).

    I think you have to distinguish what people are doing from what they say about what they are doing. Modern psychology, eh? People like Jerry say those people aren’t doing anything, but clearly that’s wrong. Many people are doing a sort of moral-hygiene bowling league, which can (evidence shows!) be a healthful thing to do. Last (?) Thanksgiving PZ put up a piece saying there’s no sense in being grateful when there’s nobody there to be grateful to, but that’s just stupid, pardon me.

    Others, including me, are responding to personal experience, see for instance William James.

    I’ve said before, I think this “against all religion, all the time” attitude is a waste of time: The Problem is intolerance, of which there’s plenty among the religious because that’s humans for you, but to fight intolerance with more intolerance is at least an unpleasant, body-count mentality. Bad secularism, a wrong approach to secularism. Much nicer (and I think more likely to be productive) to be tolerant and positive and teach evolution and numeracy without insisting that’s going to solve all our human problems.

  36. #36 Russell
    October 28, 2011

    Marshall writes:

    If Jerry is a “cultural Jew”, why not have “cultural Christians” … I don’t know whether Richard would be pleased to be considered one.

    In my view, atheism doesn’t have much to say about cultural Judaism or cultural Christianity. Or any other religion that forgoes metaphysical claims. Shinto is an interesting example, because as far as I can tell, all modern Shinto pretty much is all cultural Shinto. There is a strong sense in which cultural Jews and cultural Christians are atheists. And the non-cultural Christians will press that more strongly than anyone else!

    If Atheism ever means that we have to drive all religious iconography out of public discourse, as some seem to think, I say that would be impoverishing.

    Like Dawkins, I enjoy my Christmas carols.

  37. #37 Marshall
    October 29, 2011

    as far as I can tell, all modern Shinto pretty much is all cultural Shinto. There is a strong sense in which cultural Jews and cultural Christians are atheists.

    Shinto rituals are still being practiced with sincerity. My Aikido teacher, a Japanese man, invariably started class by invoking or evoking the kami of the Founder (O Sensei Ueshiba); he considered it an essential part of practice. We practiced as if in the Founder’s presence. I really have no idea how literally my teacher thought of it. Actually there is a sense in which the Founder was present in that his memes were reflected by my teacher, and we worked hard to preserve and propagate them. Nothing supernatural, but it seems to me this does go beyond singing Shinto carols.

    Does being an atheist just mean being a naturalist? Can one rationally be inspired by the story of Jesus if one understands the Bible to be a text subject the usual historical vicissitudes? Attend services, sing praise songs and feel gratitude for “Creation” as long as one understands that there is no Creator (in the usual sense)? Is there the possibility to be a Christian Atheist?

    (That would get Al Mohler’s goat, for sure.)

  38. #38 Lenoxus
    October 29, 2011

    How many Christians — conservative, liberal, or otherwise — are willing to admit that Jesus’s values weren’t much like their own, and that he almost certainly believed in things that weren’t true — just like anyone from his time did? Far too few. It’s like American politicians and their praise of the Founding Fathers, but more commonplace. I’m a feminist, and perfectly happy to “admit” that my country’s founders weren’t. Modern Republicans may pretend that Thomas Jefferson was an evangelical Christian, but of course he wasn’t. Why should it be otherwise?

    Well, I suppose that if you bring an omnimax God into the picture, things change. The result? Nearly all liberal Christians will still argue that the “original” messages were the right ones, and that this original closely resembled their current liberal messages. This has been an assertion made repeatedly in the recent Original Sin discussions — the moderate Christians never, ever, say that Gensis is wrong, only misinterpreted as being a literal account when it wasn’t. In fact, the attitude is oddly similar to what the fundamentalists of every religion have in mind. Both factions wish to restore their faith to its pure “roots”, before various groups corrupted the message in one way or another; the disagreement is only over what exactly the roots are.

    And since they are relatively confident about the nature of the original message, they have no problem with dismissing other varieties of Christianity as more or less un-Christian, like Spong comes close to doing here:

    [Christianity] is not about closed minds, supernatural interventions, a fallen creation, guilt, original sin or divine rescue.

    Never mind that no one would literally proclaim a belief in “closed minds”, this is flat-out annoying. Of course those things are part of Christianity — not that their absence makes it no longer Christianity. Greta Christina has some well-chosen words on the subject.

  39. #39 Paul
    October 30, 2011

    I think he’s trying to say that there’s a difference between following Jesus’s teaching and Christianity.

    Unfortunately you’ve got to seperate the teaching from 2000 years of religion! Look at Buddhism – some, in my opinion, very good ideas but over the years augmented with rituals, dogma and hierarchy.

  40. #40 Lenoxus
    October 30, 2011

    Unfortunately you’ve got to seperate the teaching from 2000 years of religion!

    Not to mention that we don’t have a great basis for ascertaining the “true” messages of Jesus even given the gospels alone — they contradict one another and were written far too long aftter he would have died. And some of his more consistent messages imply beliefs that essentially no one holds today, for example “The world is going to end sometime before the 2nd century AD” (not that that’s the wording Jesus or his contemporaries used, but I hope what I’m saying is clear nonetheless).

  41. #41 Kenny
    November 2, 2011

    Fantastic post I very much enjoyed it, keep up the good work.

  42. #42 mnbmnm
    December 15, 2011

    “Biblical scholars know that the accounts of the crucifixion read in Christian churches on Good Friday are not eye witness reports, but developed interpretations of Jesus’ death based on a series of Old Testament texts selected to convince fellow Jews that Jesus “fulfilled the scriptures” and thus really was the “messiah.” ”

    It would make total sense that his death was further developed because according to historical accounts Jesus was crucified for blesphemy meaning that he actually FAILED TO PROVE that he was God or at least divine.
    How can God blespheme against himself, and how can anyone dare without, at least, a certain amount of fear to crucify God himself if he really resurrected the dead, walked on water and stopped the storm?

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