What is Christianity? An Interview With Bart Ehrman

This is a really good interview with Bart Ehrman, a scholar with degrees from three prominent biblical and theological colleges who specializes in textual criticism of the New Testament, the historical Jesus, and the development of early Christianity.

He points out a lot of interesting facts, such as evidence that Jesus’ teachings and behavior suggest he was a Jewish reformer with no intention of creating a new religion; that the spreading the faith to non-Jews (and ultimately the world) was an innovation of Paul that was strenuously opposed by Peter; and that early Christianity and Judaism may have been “henotheistic“, in that they did not rule out the existence of other gods but simply argued that only one of them should be worshiped ahead of the others.

Regardless of your religious persuasion or lack thereof (I am a secular humanist), the two hour interview is well worth checking out just from an academic point of view. (Ehrman is a former born again Christian who during his studies became agnostic, but he takes a fairly charitable view of Christians overall.)

Let me know  what you think and feel free to share your thoughts.

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Why the Religious Should Value Secular Governance

Polls have consistently shown that the vast majority of Americans and clergy across different faiths, denominations, and political persuasions favor restricting political activity by churches and nonprofits (notwithstanding the existing workarounds they already use anyway).

That is because these institutions are already exempt from taxes and most reporting requirements, meaning they would be at risk of becoming channels for dark money into politics. Most people of faith do not want their churches corrupted by politics. This was a major impetus for separation of church and state being enshrined from the very beginning of American history, mostly by and with support from devout people. Continue reading

A Tree of World Religions

Humans today practice around 4,200 religions in total, albeit only a handful of which can be classified as major “world religions“, with followers in the tens of millions or more.

Throughout history there may have been tens of thousands of other distinct religious traditions, the vast majority of which are no longer followed. (The complex and often nebulous definition of “religion” makes it hard to get a solid count.)

Someone named Dzvenislava Novakіvska from what looks to be a Ukrainian consulting firm has created a gorgeous and extensively detailed “tree of world religions” (which is nonetheless labeled in English). Continue reading

The Psychosocial Roots of Religion

An international study published in Nature aims to explore religion’s role in expanding and refining beneficial social values such as cooperation, mutual trust, and fairness. The study’s premise alone is of tremendous interest to me as both a secular humanist and a science buff, but the abstract is even more intriguing. Continue reading

What Do Rabbits and Eggs Have To Do With Easter?

If, like me, you have ever wondered what things as disparate as bunnies and eggs have to do with the resurrection of Jesus in Christianity, then check out Vox’s quick but comprehensive explanation of these unusual symbols.

First, the iconic Easter Bunny.

The first historical references we have to an Easter Bunny date to the 16th-century German tale. According to this legend, a mysterious creature named Oschter Haws, or Easter Hare, visited children while they slept and rewarded them for their good behavior (similar to Santa). The children made nests for the hare, which would then lay colored eggs in them.

The tale was then brought to America by Germany immigrants in the 18th century. In the United States, the hare became a rabbit and grew in prominence as books like The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) and The Easter Bunny That Overslept (1957) were published. In 1971, ABC aired a television special called Here Comes Peter Cottontail based on a 1957 book.

The history of why, exactly, German Protestants came to associate Easter with a magical hare is somewhat murky.

One theory is that hares were traditionally associated with new life, due to their high fertility rate. Some have theorized that there is a connection between hares and the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre —€” the goddess from whose name “Easter” may be derived, according to one source.

Eggs, meanwhile, have a more complex and ancient origin. Continue reading

How Medieval Islamic Theology Can Fight ISIS

Islam is distinct from many other faiths in having a very complex legalistic character, which among other things, provides a lot of leeway for adapting to the modern world, including the current challenges posed by globalization, pluralism, and modernity.

One of example of this tradition is the ancient yet surprisingly progressive concept of irja, which, as explained by Mustafa Aykol in an excellent New York Times piece, offers a valuable counter to the regressive and viciously intolerant dogma of Islamic State (emphasis mine).

Unless you have some knowledge of medieval Islamic theology you probably have no idea what irja means. The word translates literally as “postponing”. It was a theological principle put forward by some Muslim scholars during the very first century of Islam. At the time, the Muslim world was going through a major civil war, as proto-Sunnis and proto-Shiites fought for power, and a third group called Khawarij (dissenters) were excommunicating and slaughtering both sides. In the face of this bloody chaos, the proponents of irja said that the burning question of who is a true Muslim should be “postponed” until the afterlife. Even a Muslim who abandoned all religious practice and committed many sins, they reasoned, could not be denounced as an “apostate”. Faith was a matter of the heart, something only God — not other human beings — could evaluate.

The scholars who put this forward became known as “murjia”, the upholders of irja, or, simply, “postponers”. The theology that they outlined could have been the basis for a tolerant, noncoercive, pluralistic Islam — an Islamic liberalism.

So contrary to popular belief, Islam has the potential to be a tolerant and pluralistic belief, even if it ultimately — like Judaism and Christianity — proposes an exclusivist ideology. Mainstream Muslims can draw from a deep tradition of theological compromise and pragmatism to combat the bloodthirsty expansionism and sectarianism of extremists.

And while irja sadly did not survive the tumultuous early years of Islam, its legacy remains in practice, if not explicitly.

…There are hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world who are also engaged in irja, even if they are unfamiliar with the term. Some of them are focused on the Quran, instead of the medieval Shariah, and hold on to the famous Quranic verse that says, “There is no compulsion in religion”. Other Muslims are under the cultural influence of Western liberalism. Others are under the influence of Sufism, the mystical brand of Islam, which focuses on the individual’s willful godliness rather than strict adherence to rules and laws. In its condemnation of irja, the Islamic State also targets these lenient Muslims. They are the ones … who “made Islam into a mere claim having no reality”. They must be reminded that “Allah’s mercy and forgiveness is not an excuse to commit sins”.

It is no surprise that fanatical ideologues like I.S. would be steadfastly opposed to irja. But as Aykol rightly concludes, the group and its allies will have a tougher time making their case if more and more of their fellow Muslims step up to reclaim the label and, more importantly, put it into practice.

I call on my like-minded coreligionists to join me in wearing the irja badge with pride — and revived knowledge. We lost this key theology more than a millennium ago, but we desperately need it today to both end our religious civil wars and to establish liberty for all.

Aware that irja is its theological antidote, the Islamic State presents it as a lack of religious piety. It is, however, true piety combined with humility — the humility that comes from honoring God as the only judge of men. On the other hand, the Islamic State’s zeal to dictate, which it presents as piety, seems to be driven by arrogance — the arrogance of judging all other men, and claiming power over them, in the name of God.

If any good can come from Islamic State’s bloody and disruptive emergence, it is the possibility that the group’s unleashing of Islam’s darkest elements will compel more Muslims to do some soul searching and tap into the understated wellspring of tolerant and pluralistic values. Just as the wars of religion within Christianity eventually led to a softening of Christian dogma and an emergence of more progressive strains of the faith, so, too, could Islam hopefully benefit from a similar and legitimate path towards progress — hopefully at less cost along the way.

What are your thoughts?

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Graph: The World’s Most Religious Societies

The Pew Research Center’s 2015 Global Attitudes survey measured the degree to which people around the world value religion in their personal lives.  The results show that poorer and less stable countries tend to be more religious, although there are some interesting outliers to this pattern.

Religious Conviction Around The World

Courtesy of The Telegraph

The above data is drawn from over 45,400 interviews from adults spanning the forty subjection nations. (You can learn more about the methodology here.) Continue reading

Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge About “The Self”

Even as an atheist, I have always found Buddhism – with its almost uniquely nontheistic orientation, its relatively pragmatic doctrines, and its philosophical principles — to be fairly palatable as far as religions go.

A recent study reported in Quartz confirms this sentiment by demonstrating that Buddhist teachings about the self — our concept of who we are — meshes remarkably well with the latest findings in neuroscience. Continue reading

The Hermit Monk of the Katskhi Pillar

Maxime Qavtaradze is a Georgian monk in his early sixties who has literally taken his piety to new heights: for over 20 years, he has been living in almost complete solitude atop a 131-foot natural column outside the town of Chiatura, Georgia (the country).

Monk Maxime is continuing the ancient practice of the stylites, also known as pillar-saints, Christian ascetics who lived on pillars to avoid worldly temptation and be closer to God. It was first practiced over 1,500 years ago, with the monastery on the Katskhi pillar dating back to the ninth or tenth century. Continue reading

The End of Casual Christianity

As expected, the response to a recent Pew report finding a precipitous decline in religious believers in the United States has generally been doom and gloom among most Christians. But as an article in the Washington Post rightly points out, the issue of declining piety — and its subsequent impact on society and policies — is a lot more nuanced that meets the eye.

Most of the actual decline in believers from 2007 to 2014 was concentrated among Roman Catholics and the Protestant mainline, and among those most loosely tethered to religious faith. Evangelical Christians held pretty steady, which set up an odd chain of reactions. Secularists were pleased about the decline of Christianity. Some conservative Christians were pleased about the decline of theological liberalism. The latter is evidence of an old grudge.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Protestant mainline decisively won the battle for cultural preeminence — triumphing in public battles such as the Scopes Trial and leaving fundamentalists to retreat into a subculture. So the mainline’s comeuppance is met with uncharitable satisfaction in some conservative circles — call it William Jennings Bryan’s revenge. The language of “decline”, however, is imprecise. The mainline has not so much declined as faded into the broader culture. “Liberals have learned that it’s difficult for the church to survive”, says historian George Marsden, “if there’s nothing that makes the church distinct from culture”.

Indeed, with most liberal Christians being, in effect, deists — denying retrograde doctrines and theologies — it makes sense that the natural progression would be towards outright irreligiosity, agnosticism, or atheism. Continue reading