Christmas and Political Correctness: There is no “War on Christmas”:

Summary:

Conservatives (both religious and non-religious) have made a big fuss in recent times over the fact that some sections of Western society are moving slightly away from the specific celebration of Christmas towards a more secular general end of year holiday. Many people have claimed that this is an example of political correctness gone mad, whereby out of fear of offending people with different cultural, religious or non-religious backgrounds we are afraid to openly celebrate our Western traditions. Hence, some conservative Christians have claimed that this is an example of the persecution of Christianity in Western nations, believing that progressives, followers of other religions and atheists will eventually seek to make Christianity illegal. Likewise, many conservatives have claimed that “if you tolerate this, then your children will be next[i]”.

All of these claims are in truth pretty much groundless hysteria. In reality Christianity still maintains massive privileges in Western society, particularly at Christmas and Easter time. The fact that many people are now choosing to say “Happy holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” should in fact be celebrated as progress, in rejecting the obviously mythological traditional religious Christmas story, and rejecting a Christocentric view of the world. No one is preventing Christians from going to church, reading the Bible or whatever. Rather, we are simply seeing the gradual reduction in Christian privilege, which can only be a good thing, though there is enormous resistance to this process within some circles, who think that the Communists will surely follow and strip us of all our parents achieved.

If anything, I would argue that Christmas still represents a major infringement on the separation of church and state. That being, Christmas is a time in which Christian religious songs (or hymns) are played in various non-religious locations (workplaces, shopping centres etc.), sung by school children in secular, government schools etc. If anything we should have greater separation of church and state, not less.

Christmas has always been more of a general mid-winter (for the northern hemisphere) feast and celebration than a time of specific religious piety, and it is only right that Christmas moves back in the direction of a secular, global end of year celebration, rather than one with specific links to one particular religion. We can however make this shift without falling into rampant materialism, and try and use the time to encourage goodwill, charity, compassion and peace, and emphasis friendship and family, without needing to base this upon a religious myth specific to one particular religion. Again, we can (and should) use the time to further spiritual values, without needing to push any one particular faith and/or culture at the exclusion of others.

Main Article:

Every year around Christmas time we start coming across articles, videos and posts from conservative Christians (and some non-religious political conservatives) claiming that Western civilization is going down the drain, strangled by political correctness and the like. In the lead up to the last US election we had Donald Trump’s making a big fuss about Starbucks and their Christmas cups[ii], claiming that Christians were executing their political power in the US[iii]. Trump and others seem to think that Christians are getting their rights squashed by a move towards political correctness, diminishing their religious freedom. As a whole I have to say that I personally find this a bit silly.

One will do well to find an expression more widely abused in the English language than the phrase “political correctness”. That is not to deny that there are some legitimate examples that deserve the expression. That is, there are indeed cases whereby people are afraid to speak out about real problems due to public perception of the issue. There are times in which the left goes too far (way too far even) in what is usually a pursuit of a good intention, losing sight of the bigger picture. Just look in the Universities if you wish to find examples of some far-left lunacy. However, from where I am standing it seems that the phrase political correctness is more commonly misused by conservatives (in both religion and politics) to deride those who (I would argue) simply display some common sense and/or common decency.

Putting it bluntly, I would say the following:

Those who make the biggest fuss about political correctness are usually those that lack an informed, balanced general knowledge, and those that display a lack of common decency in the political arena.

Conservatives complain about political correctness when it is expected that LGBTI individuals get treated with the same rights that straight people receive. This isn’t political correctness, it’s merely common decency. Likewise, conservatives complain about political correctness when efforts are made to compensate for the injustices that white, European people committed against people of color and/or indigenous peoples in many nations. This isn’t political correctness, it’s merely common sense and common decency. Acknowledging the injustices that have been committed by white people does not mean that we hate white people or Western culture, are racist against white people, or that white people are being discriminated against (all of which have been claimed by some amongst the far-right).

Likewise, religious conservatives complain when we attempt to foster an environment whereby people of different religions and spiritual paths are seen as part of one greater family. This isn’t political correctness, this is merely common decency. This shouldn’t mean that we view all faiths as being equal (as many on the left mistakenly do), or that we deny the reality that many faiths have legitimate issues (as both conservatives and progressives often do).

By comparison, political correctness is failing to call out religious ideologies as being directly linked with terrorism, or being afraid to mention that gang violence is particularly prevalent within particular racial and cultural groups. Acknowledging that gender isn’t simply black and white and that society can force rigid stereotypes upon children isn’t political correctness, but complete denial of biological differences between the majority of boys and girls is[iv].

Essentially what we are dealing with here is that Christianity is losing some of its privileges, and many Christians (primarily conservative ones) and others with more of a political motivation (that being, conservatives and white nationalists) don’t like it. As such, many have claimed that there is some sort of conspiracy being enacted by Jews, Communists and Leftists etc. to persecute Christians. Hence it could be said that many people don’t know the difference between persecution and the losing of privilege.

Public schools sing Christian hymns (that is, Christmas Carols), practically all shops play Christian hymns, nativity scenes are found everywhere etc. No one is stopping Christians from going to church, reading the Bible, celebrating Christmas, singing carols etc. However, conservative Christians really enjoy using Christmas as a time to push their beliefs onto non-Christians. Family members think it is their right to tell religious stories to my children at Christmas time and to give religious books to them for Christmas presents etc.

Christmas has always been more of a general mid-winter festivity rather than a religious birthday party for Jesus. Christianity effectively appropriated (or perhaps annexed) much of the world’s mid-winter festivities. The religious celebration of the solstices and equinoxes dates way back into history, and the evidence for this is literally set in stone. Likewise, countless cultures had their own version of a mid-winter feast and celebration, and the Western Christian tradition of Christmas fits well into this mould. That is not to say that the Christmas tradition doesn’t have strong religious links. It does. Since the 4th century CE most Christians have celebrated the birth of Jesus in sync with the winter solstice, and the Santa Claus mythos is directly derived from a Christian bishop, Saint Nicholas. However, the wider community celebrates Christmas as a time of gift giving, of feasting and revelry, and celebration of community and family.

The fact that some businesses and councils have taken to saying “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” is not indicative of some sinister conspiracy to rid Western Civilization of all that is good, but rather is something that should be applauded as positive progress. Christians shouldn’t feel upset if others don’t share their beliefs. It doesn’t impact on their freedom to believe what they want, go to church, and celebrate within their own homes.

We are not talking about persecution of Christians here, nor is this an example of Christians losing their religious freedom. Rather, yet again, this is an example of some (conservative) Christians wishing to take away the religious freedom of all others. That being, if someone belongs to a different faith or does not follow a religion and therefore considers the end of year to be a general, universal end of year, mid-winter solstice celebration rather than a specific Christian holiday, (conservative) Christians find this rather upsetting.

You see, conservative Christians rather like pushing their faith onto others. In fact, they kind of feel like it is their right, because (according to them) everything good about modern Western civilization is due to Christianity (which is of course not true…). Furthermore, they often feel like it is their duty, as they believe non-Christians are destined for an eternity of suffering (again, not true…). So, conservative Christians generally take full advantage of the privilege offered to them by Christmas and Easter time to push their religion onto others to the full extent that they can.

What we can see through all this is that conservative followers of various faiths often take significant offense when others don’t share their beliefs. It’s as if they think that their happiness and freedom depends on everyone thinking the same way. When you say it out loud, it sounds crazy, because of course it is.

Regarding Donald Trumps outrage at the Starbucks special Christmas cup (which apparently wasn’t “Christmassy” enough for him), it is hard to know how to comment on this without resorting to egoic polemics and rhetoric. Shall we say that a calm, dispassionate commentary on the topic is affectively indistinguishable from rhetoric. To put it in the mildest possible terms, the whole thing was just plain silly.

Trump even went as far as telling people to boycott Starbucks, because their special red-green Christmas cup was just too plain. It didn’t have Santa on the front, or little baby Jesus. And that just wasn’t good enough for good ol’ American Republicans. As part of his pre-election campaign Trump stated on a number of occasions that he would bring back “Merry Christmas”. So, I’m a little confused as to how he is planning on implementing this. Is he planning on sending round the Christmas police to make sure that everyone is saying Merry Christmas? Or perhaps he might deploy the military? And significant numbers of people cheered when Trump made these promises. It’s hard to know where to start to engage with such things.

Spirituality and Christmas:

Of course, there is another side to Christmas that is worthy of discussion. That is, to many people Christmas is a time when they are reminded of the importance of family, of generosity, grace, compassion, forgiveness and charity. These are things that are worth keeping as we evolve our conception of Christmas time.

Whilst Christmas time is the most exciting time of the year for many children, it is however also true that for many adults it brings great stress. I myself have felt in previous years the expectation to spend money on gifts for family and friends, whilst struggling to make ends meet myself. Certainly this is also true for many other people. Working in retail every year we can see people going a bit mad in the month (or so) prior to Christmas time. Hence, retail rage is now a thing, and shopping centres have even had to make an effort to encourage shoppers to be gentle with the staff at such times. Likewise we also see it on the roads. The manner in which one drives is generally a good indication of their psychological state, and we see the evidence of the silly season on the roads every year.

I personally feel that it may be wise for adults to end the tradition of giving gifts to other adults, and to only give gifts exclusively to children. Adults know what they want and/or need and will buy things for themselves that they find most appropriate. Much of the gift giving between adults is wasteful; that is, people spend money they can’t afford on gifts that other people don’t really need or want. The only people that benefit from this are business owners. Hence Christmas has taken on quite a materialistic value, and it has become a time of stress for so many people. As an alternative I suggest that adults merely share food with their family and friends, and encourage a time of grace, patience and gratitude with their extended family, and with the wider human family.

Whilst I am not a big fan of all the “baby Jesus” songs that are played practically everywhere during Christmas time, it is nice to have some degree of spirituality in the public arena (even if it is intermingled with erroneous religious mythology and doctrines). In our world there is much darkness, much hate, anger, fear, stress, suffering. It is a good thing for there to be times when the concepts of divine light, love, forgiveness, grace, peace and abundance etc. are in the forefront of human consciousness. When a great number of people come together with a spiritual intent there can be great power, which can be tangible to those who are sensitive to such things. It however would be great if in the future we can aspire towards these spiritual ideals without the baggage that often comes with special religious myths and doctrines. If this were to take place we could truly reach out to all beings as one whole, one family, one great Cosmic Dream.

Peace

[i] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cX8szNPgrEs.

[ii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=giU4TyVJ7v8.

[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nrmyveItPUI&app=desktop. In truth, the religious right in the US wields tremendous political power, and is a major cause of many of the US’s problems.

[iv] In case anybody doesn’t get my point here, I’m saying that gender is a continuum, but that the majority of people are far enough to one side or another that if we only counted them it might seem that there were only two clear, distinct categories. Noting that the majority of men and women are distinct in their gender however should not mean that we treat those whose gender identity is less polarized as inferior. Likewise however, noting that gender is not black and white should not mean that we deny the biological differences between most men and women, and the way in which biology alone (removed from social conditioning) can affect the way in which consciousness expresses in its outward form.

There is significant different as to the level of masculine traits amongst men, and likewise the same is also true of women. Aside from the primary genetic markers of gender, I believe that modern biology has shown that there are countless secondary factors that produce a range of different influences. Furthermore, I would argue that from a spiritual perspective, consciousness/spirit is beyond gender, and gender is merely part of the vehicle through which it expresses in this particular lifetime. As we are spirit incarnate within a body, we should respect and appreciate our unique bodily expression, but also know that which is beyond it.

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Star Wars and spirituality:

I’m a big Star Wars fan. Growing up I was warned by my (Christian) family to be weary of the Eastern philosophy spouted by Obi Wan and Yoda when they were teaching Luke Skywalker about The Force. Obviously, I do not share the concern of my family for Eastern philosophy; rather I think that they have the subject of religion largely back-to-front. That is, from my perspective it seems that conservative Christians attempt to twist fine metaphysical concepts from Eastern spirituality in an attempt to make them appear bad, whilst defending the very deep and explicit flaws within their own faith and sacred text.

Anyways, there is obviously no question that the concept of The Force was directly influenced by Eastern philosophy. I believe George Lucas has spoke of this openly. Star Wars is an important part of the modern psyche, and in many ways is the modern equivalent to the mythology of India or Greece, which often taught spiritual principles intertwined with an epic story of heroes and villains.

It is of course not uncommon for mythology to reflect common religious ideas, or to expand upon and develop them, or even to combine elements from different religions together and therefore create a new mythos. A number of prominent Christian fiction authors (C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien) have explicitly infused their writings with Christian theology. Likewise, there are countless science fiction books and movies, which have directly reflected existing spiritual worldviews, or expanded upon them.

As such, many spiritual teachers have at times used examples and language from Star Wars as a means of communicating with their students. I for one enjoy such things. However, I have also seen examples of conservative Christian apologists using the concept of The Force as presented in Star Wars as a means of attempting to demean Eastern spirituality. Hence, I would like to discuss this

Star Wars presents The Force as a kind of spiritual field that interpenetrates all life, from which everything gains its strength, from which force-users (Jedi, Sith and others) can draw supernatural power, and into which all life will eventually return. The Force is not said to favour light or dark, but rather is presented as essentially morally neutral, with the light and dark simply existing as opposite poles of its wholeness. Over the course of the canon (which goes forwards, then backwards, then fills various gaps…) we learn that it is the destiny of most beings to simply merge with The Force at death, and that retaining a degree of individuation after death is a rare feat only attained by a handful of Jedi.

Certainly there are parallels here to many different religions and philosophies. Once can certainly see parallels in the Jedi philosophy to Buddhism and Hinduism (amongst other Dharmic spirituality), Daoism and so forth. I have even heard it suggested that the primal battle between light and dark is parallel to Zoroastrianism, though one could just as easily claim the same of Christianity, or perhaps Manichaeism.

One of the clearest parallels though is obviously between the concept of The Force and the impersonal conception of God in Hinduism – Brahman. Brahman is explained in Advaita Vedanta philosophy as the substratum of reality, the ground of all being. All things exist within Brahman, and Brahman exists within all things as the Atman. The entire cosmos is but Brahmans grand divine dream, and the multitude of seemingly (but not actually) individual entities are asleep to their true nature, unaware of the greater reality that unites them, that exists within them, and that they exist within.

Conservative Christian apologists frequently attempt to portray this conception of Brahman in derogatory terms, as if it were not truly a conception of God, but rather a nihilistic non-existence, lacking love, life and so forth. On a number of occasions I have even seen Christian apologists attempt to claim that Eastern and New Age conceptions of God as impersonal lack any moral substance, but are morally neutral, like The Force, simply having a light and dark side, with no greater pure nature. This however is quite misleading.

Hindu spiritual texts state that Brahman is pure unconditional love, peace, infinite potential for manifest life, a great Mind without boundaries. The Sanskrit terms for this are Sat-Chit-Ananda, meaning (Infinite) existence, consciousness and bliss. Vedanta texts and seers both ancient and modern are quite clear that the dualities of the manifest creation are not contained within Brahman. That is, the nature of Brahman is peace, absolute unbounded love, and unity. This is happiness that is not dependent upon any circumstance, situation or person, and it can never be diminished nor disappear. It is always there, shining like the sun, and it can only ever appear to be obscured, but can never be extinguished.

The question of how one can equally accept the existence of a supreme reality that is absolutely pure, and simultaneously acknowledge the reality that the world we live in is filled with suffering, injustice, hate, violence and so forth is one that has long plagued theologians and philosophers. Christians have their own explanation, that God gave us all free-will in order to give life true meaning, and that humanity and some of the angels chose to disobey God and exercise our free-will in distancing ourselves from all that was good.

Many religions and philosophical systems over the years have attempted to answer this question. I feel personally that possibly the best answer to the question is to simply acknowledge the reality that this is something that we cannot really do justice to. That is, any answer I could give would largely depend on the perception of a larger picture, which would be largely (if not wholly) impossible for me to verify.

I will concede that naturalists perhaps have the simplest explanation for the suffering and injustice we perceive in the world at large, and I am not going to attempt to respond to the general claims of naturalism here. Rather, I am talking about how spiritual worldviews as a whole have to deal with the problem of suffering and evil.

The questions of evil and suffering are inherently difficult for any and all religions and systems of spiritual philosophy to explain, and I understand why many people feel that they are a deal-breaker for all beliefs in a benevolent Supreme Being. I am not going to attempt a proper exploration of this topic here, however I wish to make a point that this is a problem that all religions and spiritual philosophies must bear almost equally.   That is, Christian apologists and theologians cannot expect to side step their own responsibilities but then expect other faiths to bear the burden of this enigma alone.

From my own experience I would state that the material world is indeed filled with extreme polar opposites. Love and hate, life and death, pleasure and pain, success and failure, health and disease, prosperity and poverty, peace and violence, justice and injustice. Such is the nature of this world. And yet, we all have access to this great love that is within us at all times. It is always there, it is not dependent upon our state of health, our wealth, our age, the colour of our skin, our gender, our place within our community, or the state of the world around us. This love always exists, and we can choose to move into it through grace in harmony with self-effort. Such is the nature of reality.

This is what Advaita Vedanta teaches, and it can be directly experienced, not merely as a theoretical, intellectual conception, but as a living, breathing reality. I however am not merely claiming that Advaita Vedanta is the only religious or philosophical system to have taught this, or to have lead human beings into this experience. Rather, as a Perennialist I acknowledge that human beings from almost every nation, race and time period have experienced this same reality, though I do not claim that every religion equally represents this truth. Although I may critique the claims of conservative Christians and Muslims, I have no doubt that many amongst their ranks truly experience the peace of God in their hearts, even if I will still passionately argue that the doctrines of their faith (and the scriptures they hold sacred) do not accurately represent God in truth. Likewise, I will still argue that many of the world’s religions also simultaneously profess ideas that in actuality lead humanity away from the peace of God, and I don’t limit this criticism strictly to the Abrahamic faiths (but rather, I attempt to see objectively the strengths and weaknesses of the worlds faiths as they actually are).

Getting back to Star Wars, the picture of The Force as presented by George Lucas doesn’t seem to show the ultimate superiority of the light over the darkness. In this respect, this simply shows the choice of the founder of the mythos to create his own fictional universe in a way he chooses. This does not reflect back upon Eastern and New Age spirituality though. This is art imitating life, and one cannot then turn it around and criticize life on the basis of art.

There are indeed some amongst the vast world of ideas that do indeed claim that reality is fundamentally amoral, or morally neutral. From what I can see, it is largely those that seek to practice the black arts (whether or not they have any real, objective power) that espouse such views. That is, it is only really occultists and sorcerers that operate without any sense of right or wrong that seek to justify their beliefs and actions with such a philosophy. I believe that Anton LaVey is well know to have claimed that there is but one power in the universe, and that those that seek to only use it for light are fooling themselves into creating a false dichotomy, deluding themselves into thinking they are different from those that are happy to call on occult forces to harm others. LaVey does not speak for the spiritual community at large though; his was not the voice of Eastern philosophy or the New Age community as a whole.

One can argue as to whether strictly pantheistic worldviews believed in a moral purity behind the apparent duality of life. Such things are indeed up for debate. Perennialism and general Eastern philosophy are not merely strict pantheism however, though pantheism is part of their explanation of reality. I do know of many amateur philosophers that likewise espouse a form of moral neutrality. I would question how many of them have truly attempted to construct a systematic worldview. It is fine to speculate, but I am not convinced that such worldviews have truly been completely thought out.

Anyways, my point is that those that seek to artificially deride other religions have at times directly misused analogies from Star Wars in applying to real-life religions and spiritual philosophy. Let us remember that fear leads to anger, and anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.

May The Force be with you, always.

James

Ego identity and football:

Roughly six months ago I was having dinner with friends and discussing politics, and a mate of mine made an observation in response to some of my own thoughts about the rise of political far-right. Politics isn’t football.

I live in Victoria, Australia. We have rugby and soccer like most other countries, but we also have our own form of football: Aussie rules. I like Aussie rules football, it’s a great game. I enjoyed playing it at school, and I still enjoy a kick of the footy with friends. I don’t necessarily always like the culture that goes with it though.

I understand that for many people, that statement is tantamount to blasphemy. A significant percentage of men and women in this country live and breathe football. That is, they don’t merely appreciate the game, but rather they are totally consumed by it. Football fans of all ages often get quite obsessed with their team, and allow their emotions to be controlled by the results of the latest game. That is, grown men (and women) get angry and upset when their team loses, and can even sulk for days (or weeks) after a loss. Grown men and women scream obscenities at the players (on both sides), umpires and supporters of other teams. And of course, excessive alcohol consumption only makes this worse.

All forms of football are quite physical, and by very nature players come into physical contact with other players. Whilst players accept this, it is common for it to be taken too far, contact becomes excessive, and those on the receiving end resort to knee-jerk reactions, and brawls are the result. Fortunately, Aussie rules football fans don’t generally riot, as do soccer fans worldwide (or Ice Hockey fans in the US). So perhaps then, in this respect they are relatively restraint.

Anyways, the point is that sports fans often allow their emotions to be controlled by events that are completely beyond their control. A victory brings on a euphoric high, and a loss brings a gut-wrenching low. Whilst I admire the skill, fitness and intelligence required to play the game well, football players themselves sometimes get overtaken by an inflated image of themselves, or take on an overtly harsh personality as a result. It is good to be strong, but power and strength can have both positive and negative manifestation.

All this being so, this is not what this article is about. Rather, the reason I am writing this article is to show that life is not like football. Most football fans choose a football team to support, and then they give themselves over completely to that team. They become one-eyed, they develop narrow vision (or tunnel vision). They support their team regardless of what happens, and they consider other teams to be their enemies. They write a blank cheque to their team, and will honor it no matter what. There are of course many people that might take a more sensible, moderate approach to football. Such people may enjoy the game with a smile regardless of the outcome, appreciate and respect players of various teams, and recognize the relative strengths and weaknesses of all teams (including their own). Likewise, not all players (and other people closely associated with the game) make football part of their artificial identity – their ego. So, when I talk about football culture and the ego, I don’t mean to say that everyone who plays or enjoys the game is the same. However, the fact remains that football culture is saturated by ego.

Many people that are passionate about religion and politics display similar tendencies and behaviour to that of hardcore, one-eyed football fans. That is, many people (particularly those we would term conservatives), approach religion, politics, national identity and so forth as if they were football. That is, they choose a team (for whatever reason), and they write a blank check to their team to do anything, and they will always take their side.

But life isn’t football.

At least, it isn’t like how many people view football. Complex and important topics naturally demand a more complex, nuanced approach. Questions of how we view life as a whole, how one chooses to live, how you choose to treat others, how you sort through the myriad of competing views about the nature of humanity and the cosmos, and how best should a nation govern and regulate behaviour, resources and finances, naturally demand a sensible, objective and well-considered approach.

Complex subjects frequently demand that we weigh up opposing interests and find a sensible middle-ground. It is true that – as my brother David frequently says -, “Truth isn’t necessarily always found halfway between two opposing views”. That is, there are some areas of debate in which one side may be completely correct, and the other completely wrong. However, whilst truth isn’t always found somewhere in the middle between polar opposites, it often is! That is, most commonly, in most areas of division and dichotomy, a reasonable and informed opinion finds itself flanked on all sides by more extreme, unbalanced views.

Those that simply choose a team and identify with it may feel a sense of inflated ego as a result. That is, they feel superior because they believe they are on the right team. They feel justified when they demonize those that differ from themselves. They overlook the flaws of their own team, and refuse to acknowledge the strengths of their opponents. They are however holding on to a false sense of self, and they refuse to see the whole as it is. If you place your happiness upon the foundation of a false identity, it has a precarious existence. You will feel threatened by any challenge, as if your own being was at stake, and will react emotionally, without balance and depth.

From where I am standing, the commentary given by people that treat politics and religion like football has little value, as sorting out the half-truths from their bias is often so difficult, you are better off to start from scratch. It is necessary for reasonable and intelligent people to sort through the maze of opinions out there and offer a true alternative. We must however be careful not to be drawn into reactivity to the ego in others. That is, it is often hard not to react in kind towards inflammatory remarks made by others. We must have the courage to face up to what is not true, whilst holding in our hearts what is true.

Peace.

Why all religions are NOT equally exclusive:

Summary:

Christian apologists generally go out of their way to attempt to respond to common criticisms of their faith. In response to criticisms of the exclusivity of orthodox Christianity, a number of Christian apologists (most notably Ravi Zacharias) have claimed that all religions are equally exclusive. Whilst I would generally argue that the vast majority of claims made by such apologists are false, this claim is probably one of the very easiest to be able to refute.

That is, whilst many sub-topics relevant to religion require significant time and space to cover in enough depth to make a convincing case one way or another, this issue is indeed different. Once the facts are seen it is quite clear that there is no possibility of reasonable disagreement over this issue. Christian apologists are quite simply confusing two different things: 1) Exclusivity of absolute truth/s, and 2) Exclusivity of salvation. The two things are not completely unrelated, but they most certainly are not the same thing.

Exclusivity of truth states that two alternate theories on the same subject cannot be equally true. For example, the orthodox Christian doctrine that all beings will either spend eternity in heaven or hell dependent primarily upon whether or not they accepted Jesus as their saviour through grace accepted through faith, and the general Dharmic concept that all beings transmigrate in and out of different lives in a continuum of existence, are mutually exclusive. That is, they cannot be equally true.

Exclusivity of salvation however deals with the conditions required by a religion to receive salvation, and the consequences that the faith in question believes will fall upon those that are not saved. In this respect, the Abrahamic faiths are mostly (but not entirely) unique in their exclusivity. Orthodox Christianity states that if you don’t receive salvation through Christ you are damned[i], hence it is extremely exclusive. Hinduism by comparison states that the unenlightened soul merely travels to a heaven (or hell) after death depending on their nature, and then takes on another life where they continue on in their spiritual evolution. Hence, Hinduism does not have such drastic consequences for the unliberated soul, nor does it state that there is only one way to achieve spiritual liberation. Hence, Hinduism is not exclusive by nature; rather it is pluralistic or inclusive.

When non-Christians criticize Christianity for its exclusivity, they are clearly referring to exclusivity of salvation. Christian apologists are deliberately confusing the two issues in an attempt to diffuse this criticism. The fact that such apologists are wrong is not in itself definitive proof that orthodox Christianity and their concept of religious exclusivity are false. However, it does show that such apologists need to stop claiming that all religions are equally exclusive, and accept the fact that their religion (along with a number of others) are extremely exclusive by comparison to many other options in the world of comparative religion.

Hence, Christian apologists should focus their attention upon defending such exclusivity on its own merits, rather than making erroneous claims about comparative religion at large. Christian apologists such as Ravi Zacharias need to concede that they have been wrong, retract their previous claims about religious exclusivity being universal, and cease making such claims in the future.

Main Article:

One of the most common and obvious criticisms of Christianity is that it teaches that only Christians will be given eternal life in heaven after death, whilst all the unsaved will suffer eternally in hell. Christians themselves like to present Christianity in positive terms, as the “good news” (gospel) that all beings can be saved simply through faith in Jesus Christ, regardless of who we are or who we have been. To those outside the faith however, it appears that the “good news” comes along with a presupposition of very, very bad news: That without this salvation all beings are not simply merely imperfect and prone to a degree of human suffering, but rather, are destined for eternal, infinite, undying suffering.

Anyways, as a consequence, Christians reject all other forms of religion, spirituality and philosophy as being either empty human attempts to reach out in the dark, or diabolical belief systems that lead human beings into darkness and eternal death. Hence, Christians often find themselves fending off criticisms that their faith is extremely exclusive, and that this exclusivity is intrinsically offensive.

Christian apologists such as Ravi Zacharias however have come up with a way to attempt to deflect such accusations. That is, by claiming that all religions are equally exclusive[ii]. Hence, Zacharias (and others) are claiming that religious exclusivity is not merely an issue that Christianity has to deal with (along with the other Abrahamic faiths and a few other smaller, lesser known faiths and sects), but rather, a universal fact of religion as a whole. They are however doing a great disservice to those people that trust them to give them honest and informed answers on the subject of religion, and it is time that this issue was resolved once and for all.

The vast, vast majority of attempted rebuttals of the apologetics of Zacharias and co. come from atheists. Hence, almost all (if not absolutely all) responses to Christian apologetics come from those that do not have any spiritual beliefs at all. Hence, Christian apologetics that deal with other religions very rarely (if ever) get a response from anyone. Eastern religions, the New Age movement and other faiths have all been almost completely silent in regards to Christian apologetics aimed against them. This is not to say that there are not any responses that can be given to Christian apologetics, but rather, there haven’t been many people (if any) that have felt the need to do so. I on the other hand think it is time that a response was given to Christian apologetics on Eastern and New Age spirituality; hence this is one of the main topics of which I write about.

In their attempts to respond to criticisms of Christian exclusivity, apologists such as Zacharias immediately turn to the question of the exclusivity of absolute truth, a move that I consider misdirection (whether conscious or not). Zacharias (and co.) are indeed correct when they state that absolute truth is by very nature exclusive. Answers to basic mathematical equations can only be true or false; that is, there is generally only one correct answer, and there is an infinite array of false possibilities. Likewise, many scientific questions have only very specific correct answers, and it has commonly been the case that they have had to compete with a myriad of false ideas about how the natural world operates before gaining widespread acceptance.

However, it is also true that there are questions in life in which there are no truly objective right or wrong answers. Personal taste in music, food and fashion are all relative and subjective. One cannot simply state that their taste in music is better than that of someone else. In the realms of science, theoretical physicists seek for a way to view the entire universe that resolves apparent contradictions in many different fields, which in their own areas appear to operate as if they give a correct representation of reality. For example, physicists have been trying to find a way to harmonize General Relativity with Quantum Mechanics for some time. A number of theoretical physicists have presented attempts at a Grand Unified Theory to put all other fields into perspective, and one popular contender for the title is String Theory. Therefore, scientists have to accept that some things that they hold true (such as General Relativity) may not be absolutely true (and are hence only relatively true), but that there is a greater truth that envelops it.

There are many examples in life whereby two seemingly mutually exclusive concepts are both either equally true, or both have their place. For example, we know that matter is made up primarily of empty space and fields of energy, and yet we experience it as if it is solid (except of course in the case of liquids, gases and plasmas). Hence, two contradictory statements (matter is empty – matter is solid) are both true (though perhaps not equally so). Likewise, in the field of politics there are many issues whereby we need to balance out two conflicting interests. Sensible political policy attempt to recognize these interests, and attempt to direct policy in a way that achieves a balance between the two poles.

Anyways, my point here is that you cannot simply assume that all discussions of a religious nature need to be limited strictly to black and white, absolute conceptions of truth. It is up for discussion (elsewhere) as to how one applies concepts of absolute and/or relative truth to various issues relevant to religion, spirituality and philosophy. This is important to note because Christian apologists are trying to conflate two different forms of exclusivity, by implying that they are necessarily the same thing. I am not contesting the fact that an absolute truth is by very definition exclusive. However, I am pointing out that you cannot simply assume that religious exclusivity (exclusivity of salvation-liberation) must be black and white. That is, one cannot simply presuppose the view that you are either saved or damned. Rather, that is something that Christians need to argue on its own merits.

Moving on to the main point of this article, the fact is that exclusivity of truth is not necessarily the same thing as exclusivity of salvation/liberation. Exclusivity of truth deals with the fact that two mutually exclusive doctrines cannot both be equally true. As stated in the summary at the beginning, the orthodox Christian model of salvation and the Hindu model of reincarnation and eventual spiritual liberation cannot both be equally true. Likewise, multiple different competing Christian models of where the saved live in eternity (earth, a heavenly Jerusalem, a non-physical, spiritual heaven or a physical – but yet spiritual – heaven) could not be equally true (that is, assuming that some form of Christianity was true). The orthodox Christian view that resurrection occurs in a restored, eternal physical body is mutually exclusive with the view of some early Gnostic sects that that Christians were raised in spirit only.

Likewise, the view of Advaita Vedanta that the absolute reality is the impersonal Brahman[iii] is mutually exclusive with the view of the ISKON sect (known as the Hare Krishna’s – effectively a Hindu Vaishnava offshoot) that the absolute reality is Krishna (in their conception, God as a distinct person). One could go on. Multiple, specific, competing doctrines simply cannot be equally true. On this at least, Christian apologists are correct.

However, this does not mean that we should assume that in the grand scheme of infinity that each one of us is either saved or damned for eternity. To simply assume that would be to presuppose Christianity before even considering it[iv]. Rather, if we are to objectively consider the questions of comparative religion, we can consider other ideas about the state of humanity and the pathway of eternity.

Advaita Vedanta philosophy[v] states that the vast cosmos (of which the physical universe is part) and all the beings within it are ultimately dreams within the cosmic mind of God – Brahman. We appear to come into this world, take on form and personality in forgetfulness of our true nature (Maya – the cosmic sleep or illusion), pass through a continuum of earthly and astral lives (more on that shortly) in which we undergo psychological and spiritual evolution, until we eventually become liberated and merge back with Brahman. This view does not state that anybody is damned, nor can they ever be, for all existence is actually divine, only that we are all asleep.

Now, one can certainly debate various aspects of Hindu doctrine, and I certainly disagree with the way that Christian apologists present these things. However, this is not what we are discussing today. The question relevant here is whether or not Hinduism is as exclusive as Christianity. The answer is simply no. If Christianity is true, Hindus are in deep trouble. If Hinduism is true, Christians are fine. If Christianity is true, Hindus will be subject to eternal torment. If Hinduism is true, Christians will go to heaven for a while, then take on another life somewhere in some form and continue their journey.

Hinduism has a long history of pluralism, accepting many different spiritual paths as leading towards the same ultimate goal. For example:

Truth is One; though the sages know it variously.”[vi]

As people approach me, so I receive them. All paths lead to me”.[vii]

Anyways, the point is that Hinduism does not condemn people of other faiths to an eternity of suffering. It considers all religious followers to be seeking the same ultimate goal (though, as I have repeatedly stated throughout my various writings, this does not necessarily mean that all religions are equal or identical).

Personally, I consider Perennial Philosophy to be a progressive philosophy, which is largely derived from Advaita Vedanta, but with a view to the highest common denominators in comparative religion, along with legitimate insights that have come from many modern fields. As such, I am somewhat cautious about acceptance of the strict traditional conception of karma (that being, that suffering experienced in this life is due to mistakes made in past lives), and I obviously view references in Vedic texts to heavenly sojourns in between earthly lives in light of the information gathering from Near Death experiences and other fields.

One could hardly claim the Perennial Philosophy that I espouse to be equally exclusive with Christianity. I believe that Christianity is a mixed bag, and bears mixed fruit. Most conservative Christians I know are really good people that do lots of really good things, though some of them also hold some horrid views. This doesn’t however make them bad people (they may be far better people than me in many ways), nor does it invalidate their lives. I believe that after death they will naturally leave their body behind (at the surprise of some) and move in their astral bodies to the astral heavens where they are greeted by beings of light, are given a review of their life and then spend a period of time in a suitable astral heaven, after which they eventually take on another life.

In this view it doesn’t even matter if one is religious at all, except in the way that ones beliefs managed to affect ones behaviour and attitudes, the degree to which one showed love, compassion, grace etc. to others, and the degree to which they lived their own life to the full. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Daoists, Platonists, agnostics, atheists etc. all generally find their way to the astral realms regardless of whether or not they ascribed to a particular creed. The true measure of ones psychological or spiritual makeup is not defined by whether one was a true believer in any particular god, or a devout follower of a particular sect.

If for whatever reason a soul becomes earthbound or trapped in the lower astral (affectively a mind-created hell, simply an extended nightmare), higher beings seek to elevate such a soul from their state and effectively rescue them. There are references to astral prisons for wicked souls that are found in some Eastern and Western metaphysical literature; I however cannot really express anything more than a speculation on that topic. From the Perennial perspective, even the worst, most wicked soul is ultimately still God on the inside, and will eventually make amends and find grace, peace and bliss.

I should note that Christians might seek to respond that I am espousing salvation through works, and that the salvation through grace that they espouse is superior. I am however not espousing damnation to those that seek to achieve perfection in this particular life. Hence, the argument is mute. Furthermore, there is actually much room for grace within Perennialism (and within traditional Hinduism for that matter as well). Spontaneous spiritual experiences do happen, instant and irreversible shifts have occurred to many people, and a number of spiritual practices and beliefs are centred around instant grace (such as the self-inquiry of modern Vedanta teachers such as Papaji or Mooji).

Now, I have only really discussed orthodox Christianity, Advaita Vedanta and my own Perennialism (which is largely derived from Vedanta) here. There are of course many other religions and sects that could be mentioned. Islam is certainly equally exclusive as Christianity, and my own criticisms of Christianity apply equally to it. Judaism is a little more complicated, as there is such a variety of views, none of which are clearly expounded in the Hebrew Bible. From what I have read it seems that many Jewish philosophers believe in a concept similar to the Catholic purgatory, in which unclean souls experience a temporary purging, after which they enjoy eternal life.

There are many other world religions that are somewhat pluralistic or inclusive, such as the Sikh faith and the Baha’i Faith. Furthermore, many world religions don’t even have much to say about those outside their ranks, but only speak to the soul of their followers. I have read of a number of modern Chinese sects that teach that they are the only means through which one can attain spiritual salvation. However, the question still stands as to whether or not they teach absolute damnation for those outside their sect. If they do not, then their exclusivity is of a much softer nature than that of orthodox Christianity.

There are of course more liberal Christian views about other faiths and eternity than what I have discussed above. Some of these have ancient foundations (in the writings of Clement of Alexandria and Origin – also of Alexandria.), whilst others have come about through progressive liberalization in Christian denominations such as the Uniting Church. Some Christians believe that all beings are saved through Jesus Christ, regardless of whether or not they consciously acknowledge it. Likewise, other modern liberal Christians see the Bible as mere allegory, taking from Christianity what they find useful, and simply ignoring and/or rejecting the rest. Many people consider themselves Christians and still acknowledge truth in other places, and reject any belief in hell and damnation.

So, the fact remains that out of the vast religious landscape of the world, the orthodox forms of Christianity and Islam are mostly in their own category in terms of religious exclusivity. That is, there are many, many religious, spiritual and philosophical worldviews that are inclusive and/or pluralistic, and do not propose dire consequences for those outside their sect, or for those that fail to achieve the aim of their philosophy.

So, ultimately, it is quite clear that Ravi Zacharias and other Christian apologists that claim that all religions are equally exclusive are quite simply wrong. Whilst there are many things that are up for debate in the world of ideas, and there are many grey areas whereby we can accept reasonable disagreement, this is not one of them. Zacharias and co. have been making erroneous claims, and need to stop and acknowledge this, retract their previous statements and refrain from making the same erroneous claims in the future.

Now, I would like to think that Zacharias and others like him are capable of admitting when they are wrong and changing their beliefs to accommodate new information. Given that they may never have had this pointed out to them before (unlike other issues whereby their critics have attempted to tackle them head on), they may not have had the chance to engage with the above arguments before.

Before finishing up, I would quickly like to mention in passing something that could be relevant if an apologist were to attempt to hold their ground and refuse to acknowledge the above logic. I have frequently heard Christians claim that the Dharmic faiths do not have any concept of heaven or hell, but rather only unconscious reabsorption into an impersonal universe. Hence, they could attempt to present Dharmic liberation as no real liberation at all, but more akin to death and non-existence. To respond I will stick mostly to the territory I am most closely familiar with, that being of Hinduism.

There are actually many references to heavens and hells in Hindu texts, and anyone actually directly familiar with them will know this. The Bhagavad-Gita speaks of the Vedic rituals as being aimed merely at achieving the temporary pleasures of heaven rather than attaining enlightenment[viii], and likewise explains that yogis that fail to achieve liberation in one lifetime spend time in heaven after death, before returning to earth to continue their practice[ix]. Likewise, the Isa Upanishad refers to the land of the demons where wicked souls go temporarily[x], and the whole of the Katha Upanishad deals with a person named Nachiketas who seeks to know the greatest secret of total liberation, and cannot be tempted by offers to simply attain temporary heavenly pleasures. Not to mention that there are other forms Hinduism that believe in a personal form of God as the absolute reality (devotional Vaishnava sects for example) and a personal, heavenly eternity. Furthermore, this is not to mention the vast variety of views about the afterlife that have been found in virtually every corner of the globe across recorded history. Pretty much every nation and culture has held some belief in life beyond the veil of death.

Furthermore, attempts to deride impersonal conceptions of God and spiritual liberation are vastly deceptive. Mystics that speak of such concepts do not describe their experiences as being less than normal personality. They do not speak of anything missing in a true sense. They certainly do describe them as being empty by comparison to common, earthly things. However, they equally describe their experiences as being full of infinity. In losing their personality, they gain God; they lose a drop of water and gain the ocean. These conceptions are not merely abstract, theoretical metaphysical speculations, but are rather based on a direct experience that all of us can have. Many people give up every earthly thing in order to immerse themselves fully into this unspeakable love that is found in the spiritual heart, where normal conceptions of personality fall apart and there is only one Great Being, one infinite reality.

Obviously Christian apologists have many, many arguments that they employ to attempt to deride other faiths. They could seek to respond that they believe that every other religion is false anyways, for such and such reason. I could again respond to such arguments, and I have done so in my upcoming book. This article is however not about which religion or what religious worldview is correct. This article however is simply about whether or not any all religions are equally exclusive, and I believe I have made my point.

Peace.

[i] Though Christians have their own defences of this, arguing that non-Christians choose to be apart from God – that is another kettle of fish though…

[ii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWY-6xBA0Pk – See 0:25.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5qJPZySo7A – See 6:30.

[iii] A concept which has been significantly misrepresented amongst apologists.

[iv] There are indeed Christian apologists that attempt to do so, a field named “Presuppositional apologetics”. Such apologists claim that Christianity is the only worldview that can sustain a logical, reasonable and ordered universe, and that all people presuppose Christianity when seeking to apply logic and reason. Of course, those of us that aren’t Christians think this is absurd.

[v] Which I will refer to here simply as Hinduism for ease of use, knowing full well that Hinduism is a blanket term for a vast multitude of different – but related – religious sects and views.

[vi] Rig Veda 164:46.

[vii] Bhagavad-Gita, Chapter 9, Verse 23.

[viii] Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 9, Verses 20-21.

[ix] Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 6, Verses 37-42.

[x] Isa Upanishad, Verse 3.d

Marriage is NOT a Judeo-Christian concept:

I have been intending to publish a piece on marriage equality for some time, but I haven’t got around to finishing the article I started quite some time ago on the topic. Anyways, the media has been all over tennis legend Margaret Court over the past week or so after she announced her intent to avoid flying Qantas (where possible) due to its support of same-sex marriage.

I was watching Court’s interview on “The Panel”, and as is common when hearing conservative Christians discuss their opposition to marriage equality, it was quite clear that Court believes that somehow marriage is a Judeo-Christian concept, as if it was invented by Jews (and Christians), and as if it were dependent upon the Bible.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The origins of the concept of marriage appears to be lost somewhere in the realm of pre-history, as practically all recorded history shows the presence of some form of concept of marriage. That is, the very earliest surviving written records reveal that men and women formed life-long partnerships that were recognized as akin to formal marriage. That is, the kings of ancient Egypt had their queens, who were of course their wives. The gods of ancient Mesopotamia had their female consorts – their wives.

These early records significantly pre-date any evidence of Hebrew culture and/or religion by well over a thousand years, showing the existence of concepts of marriage well prior to any historical evidence for a Judeo-Christian tradition. Of course, Christians can claim that their religious tradition existed well before the earliest definitive and widely recognised historical evidence (roughly 1200 BCE). The same however is true for Egypt, Mesopotamia and India (amongst others). Hence, we cannot simply grant the Jewish-Christian claims without evidence and not do the same for other cultures.

Concepts of marriage exist in practically all cultures, most of which are clearly independent of any Judeo-Christian tradition. Obviously there are vast differences in the details of marriage traditions, but the fact remains that marriage is a universal concept, existing from time immemorial.

I have pointed this out to many Christians before me who had been claiming that marriage was a Christian (or Judeo-Christian concept), who have then sought to move the goalposts by arguing that, “well, our modern Western conception of marriage is derived from the Christian tradition”, or “the West is built upon Judeo-Christian foundations, and marriage in Western countries is based upon the Bible”.

This is of course simply a matter of splitting hairs, as if they are saying that because Western culture is different in some details from the innumerable cultural traditions of the world at large, that therefore marriage in our society is different. So, what they are trying to say is that Christian marriage is a Christian concept. Well, of course it is. Just like Hindu marriage is a Hindu concept. But Hindu marriage and Christian marriage are both marriage. And an Australian Christian husband and wife are recognised as being married in India, just as an Indian Hindu husband and wife are recognised as being married in Australia.

Furthermore, our modern Western culture is secular, not Christian. It was Christian, but thankfully over the past several centuries we have separated church from state, leading to the potential for dramatic reforms, allowing for massive improvements in women’s rights, religious freedom, multiculturalism and general liberalisation. Of course our modern culture is not perfect, but to take the flaws of modern culture as evidence of “cultural Marxism” or the evils of a relativistic, secular world as the far-right claim, would be mad. We have come a long way. We still have much progress to make, we may have regressed in some ways, but there is no point looking back to a time when religion ruled all, as in truth things weren’t so rosy back then.

To claim that marriage in general is based upon the Bible is absurd, and simply factually incorrect. Of course, Christian marriage within a church is based upon the Bible. But marriage as a whole; no. So, when Christians say that we should leave marriage alone, they are trying to reunite church and state. Modern marriage is largely a secular and legal matter to be determined by the state. Of course people can still choose to be married in a church or temple if they are so inclined, but they have no right to deny the legitimacy of someone else’s marriage just because they are outside their faith, or their sexual preference is abhorred by an ancient text which they hold sacred.

Whilst I will save my thoughts about marriage equality in general for a further article specifically on that topic, I will say this now. I have little sympathy for conservatives who claim that they are being bullied when called bigots for opposing marriage equality. Just to be clear, obviously I don’t condone actual bullying of people on the basis of their beliefs.  Freedom of speech is important, as is freedom of religion, even if we don’t approve of things that people say or believe.  However, when people cite the Bible in their denouncement of homosexuals and speak of diabolical conspiracies taking aim at our children in reference to pro-marriage equality political lobbying, such things deserve to be actively denounced.  Those that make such statements cannot expect others to simply let such comments fly without a response.  I have seen lots of bad arguments against marriage equality, but no good ones. Whilst Christians are indeed persecuted in some parts of the world (particularly many parts of the Middle-East), I don’t believe Christians are being persecuted in Western countries (though there have been some cases whereby activists have gone too far). Rather, Christians are losing their privilege, as they should. Christians need to accept that in a secular culture they cannot expect to say “the Bible says so…” and expect people to follow suit. Fortunately, the Bible has no standing in a secular culture.

Certainly our conception of marriage has already changed dramatically over time, and this is certainly a good thing, not something to mourn. For much of history, marriage has literarily been a transfer of property (the bride) from her father to her husband. The fact that in Western culture we largely aim towards the ideal of men and women being equal and autonomous entities in themselves is certainly a major step forward from historical norms. The modern Western conception of marriage is as a formal, legal and cultural recognition of a life partnership between two adults who love each other, and share both deep friendship and also romance and passion. In recent times we have come to recognise marriage between men and women of different faiths, races and cultures as perfectly healthy and normal. Recognizing marriage between members of the same gender is simply the next natural step in evolving modern morals and ethics in the direction of truly universal and timeless ethical ideals, and away from backwards and superstitious cultural norms.

There is obviously much more I could say on the topic, but again, I will save that for a further article on the topic in general. I just wanted to say that when you hear Christians claiming that marriage is a Christian concept, based on the Bible, you can call BS. It’s simply not true. Christians should stop making this claim, and they should retract their previous statements.

Peace

On interpretations of Scripture: Why many religious conservatives and progressives misread ancient texts, and misunderstand religion in general:

Note:

The following is a (somewhat) condensed adaption of a recent add-on I wrote for my upcoming book “The Web Unwoven”, the last extra material I wanted to add prior to publication. My original version of The Web Unwoven featured an in-depth discussion of Jewish and Christian origins and the nature of the Bible as a whole. However, the entire text ended up around 1,000 pages, which I felt was fairly well unreadable, so I eventually separated the text into two halves, the first of which I will publish shortly specifically on comparative religion, and the second half which I will later re-write and seek to publish separately.

Whilst reviewing part 1 (on comparative religion) I felt that I needed to put back in a (relatively) short discussion of the actual problems within some religious scriptures, and the way that people seek to view and interpret these texts. I feel it is fundamental to understanding comparative religion and religious pluralism properly. Hence, I feel that this is perhaps one of the most important sub-topics on which I can write (or speak). I believe that reviewing religious texts as they are will naturally refute the far left and right perspectives on comparative religion, and naturally push both ends towards the centre. Hence, this article summarizes a subject which I believe is central to why we are not currently resolving the problems inherent in religion, and I hope that it offers a solution and a way forward.

Please note that this article touches on things that really tend to upset a lot of people on both sides of the religious spectrum. Please understand that I do not seek to go about offending people, and that I do not take any pleasure from doing so. However, I think it is important to speak out on important issues, and I believe that the conclusions that I am laying forth here are well founded. There is no need for this to be taken personally. When I make strong claims about certain views being untenable, misinformed or simply due to attachment and bias, I do not mean to denigrate individuals that hold such views. We human beings are complex creatures and we have a myriad of different strengths and weaknesses. I know of many people that will hold the views of which I am seeking to refute, who have great strengths in areas where I am personally weak. So again, this doesn’t have to be personal.

Summary:

Religious conservatives frequently attempt to portray their scripture of choice as a flawless, divinely inspired work, whilst attempting to portray holy texts of other faiths in the worst possible light. Alternatively, religious progressives generally attempt to portray all holy texts as genuinely inspired texts that all teach the same philosophy. Hence, when critics point out obvious flaws in these scriptures, both religious conservatives and progressives attempt to argue that the critics are taking the text out of context (with the difference being that conservatives will only defend their own text, whilst progressives will generally defend all of them).

These approaches correspond directly with the overall views of comparative religion as taken by conservatives and progressives. Conservatives generally believe that their faith alone is good and true, whilst all others are evil and false, whilst progressives generally believe that all religions are equally good and true. As a result of this, both sides attempt to make the evidence fit their presuppositions, rather than considering the evidence as it actually stands. This approach has a long history through many cultures, in which human beings become psychologically attached (or even addicted) to particular texts and give them divine status, from which they attempt to defend such texts against any criticism and refuse to acknowledge the actual content of such texts in the context of how they were originally conceived.

If we actually approach the interpretation of holy texts without any presuppositions, we can see that there is a great diversity amongst the world’s scriptures, though I would argue that we can still indeed see a universal philosophy as the highest-common denominator between them. If we approach each text on its own merits, we can see that many of the criticisms of ancient religious texts are indeed legitimate (and are not simply the case of less mature believers twisting the tenets of a faith). Hence, I believe that genuine spiritual seekers should denounce the divine status of such texts. Likewise however, not all religious texts suffer equally from these flaws, and whilst some are the product of primitive superstitious minds, others espouse a sublime philosophy capable of leading a genuine seeker towards true liberation.

Whilst conservatives are correct that not all religions are equal or identical, and that they do contain mutually exclusive concepts, their general conclusion that there is one true faith at the exclusion of all others is completely untenable. On the other hand, whilst the common approach of progressives to proclaim all faiths pure and equal is also untenable, an honest investigation of comparative religion will indeed result in the conclusion that spirituality is truly universal, and no single faith or text can claim exclusive rights to truth. However, examining the world’s scriptures on their own merit will lead to the conclusion that we must differentiate between genuine spiritual insights and backwards superstitions.

Main Article:

Anyone that has ever been involved in debating religion knows that it is common for people to claim that their sacred text is being misquoted, or taken out of context whenever someone criticises some aspect of it. Practically everyone does this. The question is whether this is sometimes true, and if so, how do we differentiate times when it is from other times when it is not?

Obviously we must attempt to consider the facts on a case-by-case basis, and leave personal biases at the door. It is vital that we form our opinions on the basis of the facts, rather than trying to make the facts fit our preconceived opinions. Obviously religious literature contains a mixture of historical or pseudo-historical narratives, ancient law, mythology, allegory, poetry, philosophy and metaphysics. Once cannot simply read all religious texts in the same manner; however I would argue that it is usually fairly easy to determine which texts should be read in which manner.

A common problem that we face here is that human beings typically become psychologically attached to religions and sacred scriptures as wholes, and find it hard (or even impossible) to differentiate different features of said religion or scripture which may be true, from others, which may not. That is, we typically elevate our faith and scripture of choice to a divine status, and refuse to acknowledge its true strengths and weakness. Rather, we reject contrary views out of hand, as if the very fact that someone is not of the same persuasion as us renders their opinion ideologically biased, and thus mute.

The fickleness of the Greek gods and the evolution of Yahweh:

This behaviour has a long history, from ancient Israel and the classical Greek Empire, through to the Christian and Muslim worlds. Likewise, the same can also be found in the East, with the elevation of the Vedas to divine status within orthodox Hinduism, amongst other examples. The Homeric writings were held in high esteem in ancient Greece, to the point that the Greeks encountered natural problems as their own ethical ideals and conceptions of divinity transcended the norms of Homers time. In the Homeric works the gods were portrayed as fickle and harsh, with little genuine concern for human suffering, and this largely reflected social norms of the time (which were likewise found in other nations and cultures). However, the elite Greek philosophers of the 6th century BCE onwards held to higher ideals, to a universal morality and a more transcendent conception of Deity.

This produced problems in relation to the content of the Homeric works, as their content didn’t match with the new emerging ethical and spiritual ideals. As a result, prominent Greek intellectuals started to project their newer ideals back onto the Homeric texts, and sought to reinterpret them in light of the new standards. So, the mistake that some of the ancient Greeks made was to give (almost) divine status to the Homeric texts, to consider them to be flawless and beyond critique. As their own morality and metaphysics evolved, they didn’t face up to the challenges of the Homeric texts, and rather than accept them as simply being important works of classical literature, they tried to see them as they wished they were, rather than how they actually were.

We see a very similar situation with regards to the Hebrew Bible. That is, the Tanakh reflects the religious and social norms of the time and place in which it was conceived, leaving much room for critics to point out legitimate flaws in its theology, narrative and law. Whilst conservative Christians try to see Yahweh in the same conception throughout the Bible, mainstream Biblical scholarship recognises that the conception of Yahweh evolved over time, from originally being a tribal god – one of many sons of the supreme Canaanite deity El – into merging with El as the highest God in their pantheon, and later into a transcendent, universal conception of God.

The Hebrew Bible condones and mandates full-blown slavery[i], presents women as the property of men[ii], condones cultural genocide (including the slaughter of women and children), presents God as frequently lashing out against mankind in murderous rampages, demands the death penalty for all manner of trivial affairs, mandates a form of theocratic government in which there was no religious freedom, and it attests to the practice of human sacrifice in conflicting terms[iii]. Yahweh is presented for the most part in quite unflattering terms: As jealous, vengeful, petty and fickle.

Throughout much of the Tanakh we see the general theology of the text as a whole played out in the narratives that are told. We see a correspondence between the law sections and the stories of the Hebrews, whereby the laws are applied, often in a literal manner. Likewise, the general theology of the Tanakh – whereby Yahweh is thought to bless the Hebrews for obeying his covenant, and curse them when they break it and worship other gods – is likewise played out in the narratives themselves. So, we see a direct relationship between the laws, prophecies and the historical (or pseudo-historical) narratives within the text. For this reasons, mainstream Biblical scholarship largely accepts much of the laws and narratives in the Tanakh as being intended for a fairly literal reading (even if they reject the full historicity of the narratives in question), and see them in their historical context as being largely par for the course in the ancient Near East.

However, in due course Jewish culture developed, partially through the natural process whereby cultures evolve by themselves, and also due to their close contact with neighbouring civilizations and foreign invaders (Persian, Greek and Roman). At the turn of the Common Era we encounter Philo of Alexandria, a prolific writer and philosopher from the centre of Greek culture and learning at the time. Philo synthesized Greek philosophy with traditional Judaism, seeking to portray Judaism as a contemporary to the highest metaphysics of the Hellenistic world. However, as is typically the case, Philo did not see himself as changing Judaism, as reinterpreting it or merging it with Greek philosophical monotheism. Rather, he saw himself as explaining the true nature of the Hebrew scriptures.

Following in the manner of Philo came an abundance of Christian philosophers and theologians, who likewise reinterpreted the Hebrew scriptures to attempt to make it fit their own needs. That is, they claimed that the Jews themselves had misread much of their own scriptures, they mined the Hebrew scriptures for anything that they could reinterpret as prophetic of Christ, and one can argue that they blended the theology of the Hebrew bible with that of contemporary Greek philosophy.

Obviously there is much allegory in the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments. Psalms and the Song of Solomon are spiritual poetry, Daniel is filled with allegorical imagery, and the prophecies of Isaiah are also open for interpretation. Likewise, the Gospels themselves are filled with parables and the Epistles are somewhat open for interpretation as to the original theological and historical context of these letters. And obviously the Book of Revelation is filled with allegorical imagery that cannot be read in a strictly literal manner.  However, the fact remains that the allegorical excuse cannot be applied to the Bible as a whole. Let us now have a brief look at some of the specific problems with the Hebrew Bible.

Ethical problems within the Bible:

(Please note my previous article where I recommended my readers to check out Thom Stark’s online response to Paul Copan titled “Is God a Moral Compromiser?” for a detailed examination of this sub-topic[iv].)

Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.”[v]

In the above passage it is said that slaves are literarily the property of the slave owner, and a distinction is made between foreign slaves who can be ruled harshly, and Israelite slaves, which cannot be treated in the same way. There were provisions for Hebrew slaves to be released after six years (as with other ANE nations); however no such provisions applied to foreign slaves, who were seen as mere chattel. So, just as with slavery in the southern US states prior to the American civil war, a distinction was made between citizens of the nation that were granted basic human rights, and those outside the nation that were not.

Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property (or money).”[vi]

Whilst some Christian apologists have been known to present this passage as showing that Hebrews weren’t allowed to mistreat their slaves, the exact opposite is indeed the case. Rather, the above passage shows that Hebrews were legally entitled to beat their slaves to a pulp, as long as they “recovered” after a few days, as the slave was their possession.

Furthermore, women in general were also treated as the property of men, who could literarily own a woman just as they could own a slave or animal. Critics of the Bible have long pointed to the rape laws in Deuteronomy 22 to highlight the injustices of Biblical law:

“If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father 50 shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives”.[vii]

So, if a woman is not married (or pledged to be) and is violated, her rapist is “punished” by being forced to marry her, and she likewise has no choice but to marry him. To our modern sensibilities this seems to go against basic reason, but to the culture from which this emerged there was a simple logic behind this, as can be seen in the other verses from Deuteronomy 22:13-30 (read it all for yourself). The common logic throughout this section is that if a woman is violated then a property offence has been committed against her “owner”; either her father (if she is unmarried) or her husband. In the above cited passage from Deuteronomy 22:28-29, the rapist is forced to pay the dowry to the woman’s owner (her father), as his property was violated and he would no longer be able to fetch the price from his property that it was worth (the dowry upon marriage), not to mention that other potential husbands would not accept her, as she was no longer a virgin.

Of course, conservative Christian apologists have tried various tricks to attempt to defend the text. However, they all fall apart on close examination. Paul Copan has tried to argue that the passage cited above does not refer to rape, but merely consensual extra-marital sex. Thom Stark however pointed out that the Hebrew word used in the passage explicitly refers to the taking of something by force[viii]. Likewise, J.P. Holding has also tried the same erroneous argument[ix], as well as a number of other responses that stretch things even further. For example, Holding has also argued that the rape victim may have wanted to marry her rapist[x], and he has also argued that similar laws that are found in other cultures have been found to “hold the culture together”[xi].

Whilst on the subject, we should also mention that the Hebrew Bible also contains many examples of the Hebrews capturing “virgins” (pre-pubescent girls) as the spoils of war, or even simply because they “needed” them! In possibly one of the very worst segments of the Bible as a whole, Judges 21:10-24 tells a disturbing account of the Israelites complaining to Yahweh that they don’t have enough wives for all of them.  So Yahweh tells them to wait by the roadside until some virgins come past, and then leap out and grab them. The parent’s of the young girls complain to the Israelites, but the Israelites explain in response that they “needed them”. Likewise, multiple passages refer to the Israelites taking women (sometimes specifically referenced as virgins) as the spoils of war[xii], again with the blessing of Yahweh.

Another common criticism of the Hebrew Bible is that it presents Yahweh either ordering the murder of women and children (not to mentioned the indiscriminate massacre of adult men) in war narratives, or performing the massacre himself by supernatural means. For example, in the well-known story of Jericho we read:

“When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it; men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.[xiii]

Similar things are found throughout Joshua and Judges, and although we should note that there are good reasons for doubting the historicity of the accounts, the texts are clearly attempting to present a (pseudo) historical narrative, hence we may therefore still judge the morality of the text as it reads.

A number of Christian scholars/apologists have argued that the frequent commands to murder all women, children and animals along with adult men was simply typical ANE hyperbole, and that in such instances only the enemy soldiers (adult men) were actually killed. However, various examples from the Tanakh itself differentiate between civilians (women and children) and soldiers (adult men), thus refuting such apologetic claims. For example, Deuteronomy 20:10-18 makes a differentiation between how the Hebrews were to treat the “plunder” (women, children, livestock and treasures etc.) they took as part of their conquests, depending on whether or not the city was far away from them and not part of their neighboring nations that Yahweh had commanded them to take:

When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves…This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby. 

However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them…as the Lord your God has commanded you…”.

So, there is no possible way to argue that in the second example the text does not explicitly command that women, children and livestock are to be killed along with adult men.

Likewise, in Judges 20 the Israelite tribes attacked a fellow Israelite tribe (the Benjamites) for failing to hand over some rapists, and killed nearly all the Benjamite soldiers, and all of the women and children.  Just to confirm that all the women and children really were killed in the story and it wasn’t merely ANE hyperbole, the next chapter (21) shows the Israelites being concerned for how the surviving Benjamite soldiers were to find wives, as they themselves had sworn an oath not to give them any of their own daughters, and all the women (young and old) had been killed. So they decided to attack another Israelite town (that hadn’t participated in the Benjamite massacre), murdered everyone except for virgin women and then brought the virgins to the surviving Benjamites as wives. So again, in the above example there is no possible way that the original massacre of the Benjamites could not have included women and children, as the rest of the story is dependent upon this being the case (and we should mention that the entire story is just rotten).

1 Samuel 15 tells of Saul being commanded (by Yahweh, through the prophet Samuel) to attack the Amalekites, being told:

Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”[xiv]

So Saul attacked the Amalekites:

“…and all his (the kings) people he totally destroyed with the sword. But Saul and the army spared Agag (the king) and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs…”.[xv]

This angers Yahweh, because he had commanded Saul to kill everything, so Yahweh sends his prophet Samuel to rebuke Saul and to tell him that Yahweh regrets making him king. So again, contrary to claims that these passages shouldn’t be read literarily we have a case where the Israelites get into trouble with Yahweh for not taking his command to kill everything literarily.

And then we have Numbers 31:1-18, which tells of the Israelites going into battle against the Midianites, killing all the men and taking all the plunder (which is explicitly said to include people and animals) back to camp with them. However, Moses cracks it with them when they arrive:

““Have you allowed the women to live?” he asked them. “They were the ones who…enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord…Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”

So yeah, let us not entertain any apologetic claims that the Hebrew Bible doesn’t really mean to imply that the Israelites really killed civilian women and children along with male soldiers. And let us remember that in many, many passages, the command to kill women and children apparently comes directly from Yahweh, and that many of the laws (which were likewise regarded as handed directly from Yahweh) also command the destruction of civilians in war.

And then of course, there are various laws that demand death for things that we can argue were not really crimes (or not worthy of death):

If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman…They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.[xvi]

If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town…Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death.[xvii]

Anyone who shows contempt for the judge or for the priest who stands ministering there to the Lord your God is to be put to death.[xviii]

Do not allow a sorceress to live.[xix]

A man or woman who is a medium or spiritist among you must be put to death. You are to stone them; their blood will be on their own heads.[xx]

“…Anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death.

All who would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, were to be put to death, whether small or great, man or woman.[xxi]

If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, “Let us follow other gods”…you must not listen to the words of that prophet…That prophet or dreamer must be put to death…If your own brother…secretly entices you, saying “let us go and worship other gods”…Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. You must certainly put them to death…If you hear it said about one of the towns the Lord your God is giving you to live in that troublemakers have arisen among you and have led the people of their town astray, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods”, then you must inquire, probe and investigate it thoroughly. And if it is true…you must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town. You must destroy it completely, both its people and its livestock. [xxii]

And just to be clear; these are not isolated examples. Rather, these kinds of passages are found throughout the Hebrew Bible, and the above is only a very short list.

Again, in response to Christians who claim that such things were never meant to be taken literarily, I present the following example to show that at the very least, in some cases, such passages were indeed intended to be read literarily. Exodus 31:14 reads as follows:

Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day is to be put to death.”

An example of this law being applied in practice can be shown in Numbers 15:32-36:

While the Israelites were in the wilderness a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the Lord commanded Moses.

There are also examples in the Bible of Yahweh employing supernatural power to murder people for trivial things. In 2 Kings 2:23-24 we read the following:

From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.

This story seeks to illustrate the message that to mock one of Yahweh’s prophets is to mock Yahweh, and that Yahweh will have his revenge. Again, this is wholly consistent with the theology of the ancient Hebrews, as attested throughout the text. Without any supportive evidence (and contrary to all evidence), many Christian apologists (such as J.P. Holding) have argued that the above was simply a tale of some youths first harassing Elisha, and then attacking some bears, after which some of the youths were injured (or killed). To refute these claims by Christian apologists that we are misreading the text, take note of a very similar story in 1 Kings 20:35-36:

By the word of the Lord one of the company of the prophets said to his companion, “Strike me with your weapon,” be he refused. So the prophet said, “Because you have not obeyed the Lord, as soon as you leave me a lion will kill you.” And after the man went away, a lion found him and killed him.

Again, the point of this story was that Yahweh’s prophets must be obeyed as the voice of Yahweh himself, and anyone that defies Yahweh will die. We can therefore see how erroneous it is to attempt to defend the Biblical text, whether that be from conservative Christian apologists or even liberal, Eastern or New Age sources, who may also attempt an allegorical, mystical reading of the text to suit their needs.

So, we can see that critics are indeed correct in their critiques of the Hebrew Bible, and that it is actually those seeking to defend it that are twisting it with egregious misinterpretations in attempting to preserve it’s reputation. So, it is quite clear that the Bible has enormous moral issues.

Ethical problems with the Koran:

Similar problems are also found within the Koran. Two of the primary themes of the Koran are strictly exclusive monotheism (with dire consequences for those outside the faith) and a coming day of judgment in which sinners/non-Muslims will be condemned to eternal torment. For example:

“…then fear the Fire, whose fuel is men and stones, prepared for the disbelievers.” 2:24

And those who disbelieve and deny Our signs – those will be companions of the Fire; they will abide therein eternally.” 2:39

Yes, whoever earns evil and his sin has encompassed him – those are the companions of the Fire; they will abide therein eternally.” 2:81

And whoever disbelieves…I will force him to the punishment of the Fire, and wretched is the destination.” 2:126

Those who followed will say, “If only we had another turn (at worldly life) so we could disassociate ourselves from them (those who worship other gods)”…And they are never to emerge from the Fire.” 2:167

Indeed, they who conceal what Allah has sent down of the Book…those consume not into their bellies except the Fire. And Allah will not speak to them on the Day of Resurrection…And they will have a painful punishment…How patient they are in pursuit of the Fire! That is (deserved by them)…” 2:174-176

Indeed, those who disbelieve…And it is they who are fuel for the Fire.” 3:10

And fear the Fire, which has been prepared for the disbelievers.” 3:131

We will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve…And their refuge will be the Fire, and wretched is the residence of the wrongdoers.” 3:151

Allah has certainly heard the statement of those (Jews) who said, “Indeed, Allah is poor, while we are rich.” We…will say, “Taste the punishment of the Burning Fire.” 3.181

And whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger…He will put him into the Fire to abide eternally therein, and he will have a humiliating punishment.” 4:14

Indeed, those who disbelieve in Our verses – We will drive them into a Fire. Every time their skins are roasted through We will replace them with other skins so they may taste the punishment. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted in Might and Wise.” 4:56

But those who disbelieve and deny Our signs – those are the companions of Hellfire.” 5:10

They will wish to get out of the Fire, but never are they to emerge therefrom, and for them is an enduring punishment.” 5:37

Indeed, he who associates others with Allah (anyone who ascribes divinity to any other being or god)…his refuge is the Fire.” 5:72

But those who disbelieved and denied Our signs – they are the companions of Hellfire.” 5:8

But the ones who deny Our verses…those are the companions of the Fire; they will abide therein eternally.” 7:36

…indeed, Allah is severe in penalty. “That (is yours), so taste it.” And indeed for the disbelievers is the punishment of Fire.” 8:14

And if you could but see when the angels take the souls of those who disbelieved…They are striking their faces and their backs and (saying), “Taste the punishment of the Burning Fire.” 8:50

And of course, this is only a small sample. These passages are found throughout the Koran, and they are a defining element of it. Likewise, many passages urge Muslims to fight and forcibly convert others:

O Prophet, fight against the disbelievers and the hypocrites and be harsh upon them. And their refuge is Hell, and wretched is the destination.” 9:73

And when We intend to destroy a city, We command its affluent but they defiantly disobey therein; so the word comes into effect upon it, and We destroy it with (complete) destruction.” 17:16

And let not those who disbelieve think they will escape. Indeed, they will not cause failure (to Allah). And prepare against them whatever you are able of power and of steeds of war by which you may terrify the enemy of Allah and your enemy…” 8:59-60.

Fight against those who do not believe in Allah or the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth (Islam) from those who were given the Scripture – (fight) until they give the jizyah (tax) willingly while they are humbled…May Allah destroy them; how are they deluded?” 9:29-30

And when the sacred months have passed, the kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush”. 9:5

The passage directly above (9:5) clearly establishes that the Koran is not merely speaking of self-defense, but rather of offensive war against unbelievers. The passage goes on to say that if they should repent, convert and pay a tax they can be spared, after which it says, “Allah is forgiving and merciful”. So, when apologists claim that the Koran teaches forgiveness and mercy, this is the context in which it speaks.

Apologists and other defenders of Islam often claim that such passages are speaking of a spiritual struggle, as in purging the ignorance and hatred from oneself. However, to argue such a thing is to ignore the context of the Koran as a whole, as these verses are found repeatedly throughout the work. Furthermore, these passages reflect the historical reality in which Mohammad lived. The late great Perennialist Huston Smith argued in his book “Islam: A concise introduction”[xxiii] that Mohammad unified a previously war-torn Arabia, fighting only out of necessity for survival. However, history tells us that Islam has repeatedly sought to expand its power and bring the world’s nations and their people into submission to its totalitarian rule.

As with the problems inherent in the Bible, giving divine status to these texts takes a snapshot of human barbarity and makes it sacred, to be kept alive and passed down to future generations. Certainly, Mohammad himself preached a doctrine of judgment and hellfire, he himself held to the cultural norms of the day in regards to women (in which they were most certainly not treated as equals), he insisted repeatedly that no form of religion other than that which he himself preached was acceptable[xxiv], and Mohammad and continuous generations after him initiated war against people of practically all lands and faiths, seeking to establish a theocratic Islamic kingdom across the globe.

Obviously this doesn’t make all Muslims bad people; likewise criticisms of the Tanakh are not the same as anti-Semitism, and criticism of Christianity doesn’t denigrate Christians as people. However, it is vital that we recognize when there is a link between the actual content of religious texts and the problems that we see with the behavior of some of those who hold such texts to be sacred. Many religious liberals seem to believe that we can denounce bigotry whilst simultaneously upholding the Bible and Koran as they stand. I can only point out that this makes no sense, and this approach is destined to fail.

Many people have managed to avoid facing the issues inherent in various religious texts by convincing themselves that their critics are simply motivated by ignorance, bigotry and bias. However, even if someone is incorrect about many topics, it does not mean that everything they claim is incorrect by means of association. It is not hard in this day and age to get access to a translation of a sacred text in most languages. Therefore, there is no excuse now for being unaware of the actual content of these texts.

New revelations on the apocalypse of St. John:

Before moving on, I’d like to quickly point out that whilst most moral criticisms of the Bible relate to the Old Testament, there are some issues in the NT as well, most notably in the Apocalypse of St. John (Revelation). There are a number of different traditional views on the interpretation of Revelation, and many New Age authors have recently given their own opinions on this matter. However, upon a quick examination of the relevant facts, any informed and unbiased observer should be able to clearly identify what the text is largely about.

Aside from its introduction (which is largely an anti-heretical polemic), Revelation is a nightmarish recollection of visions, portraying a cosmic battle preceding the end of the world. Without a shadow of a doubt, Revelations was an outpouring of anger and hatred towards the Roman Empire, in hope of divine revenge as compensation for the hard times that had fallen upon Jews and/or Christians. Many scholars attribute the persecution of Christians under Domitian (81-96 CE) as the primary cause of the anger of the author/s, though the motivating cause could easily have been (possible) persecutions under Nero (60 CE), or even the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Either way, an objective reader must conclude that the author of the visions was largely motivated by the desire for revenge against the Romans.

Whilst the visions contain a vast number of symbols (of which the precise meaning are open for interpretation), there are a number of symbols that explicitly link the visions to the Roman Empire in the first century CE. Revelations 17 refers to the “whore of Babylon” as a clear code for the Roman Empire (Rome and the Roman Empire as a whole were often depicted as a woman – Roma[xxv]), saying she was “drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus[xxvi]. Revelation contains many common symbols with the Book of Daniel, which presents itself as being written during the Babylonian captivity[xxvii]. The Roman Empire fulfilled the same role relative to Jews and Christians in the 1st century, given that Judea was under Roman rule, the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE after 3 years of war, and Christians were alleged to have been persecuted by a number of Roman emperors. A number of other Jewish/Christian texts from the same period likewise use the same metaphor[xxviii], one example even being found in the NT itself (1 Peter 5:13).

Likewise, Revelations 17:18 states that the whore of Babylon is “the great city that rules over the kings of the earth” (clearly Rome, given that it was the center of the most powerful Empire in the world at the time), and 17:9 states that the woman sits on seven hills, referring to the seven hills of Rome[xxix]. Furthermore, the infamous passage about 666 being the number of the beast was almost certainly a reference to Emperor Nero. Jewish people had a numerological practice called gematria, in which letters were given numerical value. Nero Caesar’s name thus becomes the number 666 in its Hebrew transliteration from the Greek, whilst the Hebrew transliteration from the Latin becomes 616, which is attested in a number of manuscript variants as being the number of the beast. Likewise, Revelation 17:10-11 refers to seven kings, five of which have fallen, noting “the beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king”. Whilst the exact reading of this is complex, the seven (and five fallen) kings are almost certainly the Roman Emperors[xxx], and the reference to the Beast here references a legend in which it was thought that Nero would return from the dead.

Furthermore, the “mark of the Beast” almost certainly refers to the image of the Emperor on Roman coins, which was essential for trading in the Roman Empire. The Jewish prohibition against idolatry in the Ten Commandments[xxxi] was considered by many to include the images of faces on coins, hence simply using Roman coins could have been considered idolatry under Jewish law, and during the first Jewish-Roman war (under Nero) the Jews revolted and coined their own money, which did not feature any human faces on them. Furthermore, the “image of the beast” which men were forced to worship in Revelations 13:14-16 probably refers to the Roman Imperial cult, in which Roman Emperors were seen as gods, and the population were legally compelled to worship them and offer sacrifices to them. All of this combined means that there really isn’t much in the way of doubt that the author was indeed literarily speaking of the Roman Empire in the 1st century CE, and there are no shortages of sources that have reached this conclusion, dating back to the 2nd century CE[xxxii].

Now that we have dealt with the interpretation side of things, we may now consider the moral nature of the text itself. As a whole, Revelation is a nightmare of gruesome imagery, of supernatural entities torturing humanity:

Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake…The first angel sounded his trumpet, and there came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was hurled down on the earth. A third of the sea turned into blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died…[xxxiii]

And out of the smoke locusts came down on the earth and were given power like that of scorpions of the earth. They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads. They were not allowed to kill them but only torture them for five months. And the agony they suffered was like that of the sting of a scorpion when it strikes. During those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them.[xxxiv]

And the four angels who had been kept ready for this very hour and day and month and year were released to kill a third of mankind…A third of mankind was killed by the three plagues of fire, smoke and sulphur…[xxxv]

If anyone worships the beast…They will be tormented with burning sulphur in the presences of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night….[xxxvi]

The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath…and blood flowed out of the press…[xxxvii]

The first angel went and poured out his bowl on the land, and ugly festering sores broke out on the people who had the mark of the beast…The second angel poured out his bowl on the sea, and it turned into blood…and every living thing in the sea died…The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was allowed to scorch people with fire…God remembered Babylon the Great and gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury of his wrath….From the sky huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds fell on people…[xxxviii]

When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth…But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.[xxxix]

The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books…Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.[xl]

New Age authors James Redfield and Eckhart Tolle have attempted to present Revelation in terms of a coming golden age, in which large portions of humanity become spiritually awakened, and thus create a “New Earth”. Likewise, Edgar Cayce also offered an interpretation of Revelation as relating to the various stages and processes of spiritual evolution within an individual, and humanity at large. Whilst I admire Cayce, Redfield and Tolle (and particularly recommend Tolle as essential reading on psychology and spirituality), their readings of Revelation are quite simply untenable. Trying to imagine that Revelation is a spiritual allegory is like arguing that a horror movie is actually a love story.

Here is the part that so many people do not seem to understand:

Recognizing Cayce, Redfield and Tolle as overall preaching legitimate spiritual truths does not necessarily mean that we have to by association, accept every single view that they gave. Likewise, rejecting their perspectives on Revelation does not mean that we have to reject their overall worldview. Rather, we need to be careful that when we ascribe a somewhat enlightened status to someone, that we do not therefore abandon reason, and simply side with them on particular sub-topics whereby it is quite clear that they are simply wrong.

Can’t it all just be allegorical?

In the face of the above, many will still argue that the Bible and the Koran are allegorical, and that the primitive, violent language and imagery is simply allegories for the struggles of the soul. Many progressives respond to critiques of religious scriptures by stating that such critics shouldn’t simply believe everything the media tells them, as if it were only highly biased, tabloid conservative media that make these cases, contrary to what they encounter from liberal academics. We can however be honest about the reality of world religions and scriptures without condoning the overall methodology and conclusions of those that commonly are vocal in pointing out the flaws in various religions.

Claims that religious texts are allegorical can only go so far. One could seek to extrapolate the same methodology onto any text and thus conclude that it actually means the opposite of what it presents. Perhaps “50 Shades of Grey” is an allegory for a healthy, respectful relationship? Maybe “The Communist Manifesto” was a satirical critique of socialism, and perhaps Ayn Rand was a closet communist? Obviously, such things are utterly ridiculous. The same is true of the misuse of the allegory argument, which has now amounted to a blanket excuse for the flaws of many a religious text.

Obviously, people are free to believe as they wish, and I don’t wish to come across as being overtly harsh as to other people’s spiritual beliefs. I know many wonderful people who hold these common liberal views on religion (and I generally commend such people for rejecting religious fundamentalism). Ultimately my goal here is to counter religious exclusivity and to promote a more open, tolerant perspective on spirituality and world religion. However again, the reason why I also critique the current progressive approach is because it is clearly flawed, and it is preventing further progress. Religious liberals and those amongst the “spiritual, not religious” crowd should not take offense at this, as I believe that I am on their side. Rather, I wish to show how we can be far more effective, in taking a truly informed perspective on world religion, in order to lay the foundation for lasting religious reformation.

The difference between criticisms of other faiths and religious scriptures relative to the Abrahamic faiths:

A common claim made by fellow progressives is that the problems associated with Christianity and Islam are not specific to these faiths, but rather are shared equally by all faiths. I understand that many people believe that this sounds like a tolerant and mature perspective on world religion; the problem is that it is categorically false. The Tao Te Ching does not have a single passage that could possibly be read in a light comparable to the issues with the Bible or the Koran. I have never seen anybody quote a single passage from one of the many Buddhist sutras that compares in any way to the problems of the Abrahamic scriptures.

Amongst the vast Vedic library there are indeed some problematic passages, such as those that discuss the Indian caste system, or the place of women. Likewise, there are some Tantric practices that are quite challenging, of which we may find somewhat disgusting. However, again, I have never seen any evidence of issues in the vast Vedic library comparable to those found in the Bible and Koran. Rather, whilst there are legitimate criticisms to be made of some aspects of Indian religion and culture (which are reflected in some Indian texts), such issues are not of the same scale as those relevant to the Abrahamic faiths.

In seeking to present Buddhism as having the same potential for violence and other misuse as Christianity and Islam, many people have raised the example of the role of Zen Buddhism in WW2 Japan. Whilst it is indeed true that many Buddhist Temples were openly supportive of the Japanese governments war efforts, this doesn’t mean in any way that Buddhism was responsible for the military aggression and general wartime atrocities committed by the Japanese during WW2.

In his book “Zen at War”, Brian Daizen Victoria discussed various aspects of Buddhism that were adapted by the Japanese government in favor of their war effort. However, unlike the relative problems of the Abrahamic faiths, the most that could be produced was the emphasis of Buddhism on person spiritual development (rather than social activism), with teachings on inner peace and the acceptance of things as they are possibly leading to a failure of Japanese Buddhists to stand against their government. As far as I am aware, there aren’t any Zen Buddhist sutras that can be cited in favor of violence or other injustices. Rather, we just have the case that unfortunately the presence of a spiritual tradition within a culture did not prevent the people of that culture from being swept up in violence and injustice.

A similar situation is found in relation to Christianity in Nazi Germany. That being, WW2 Germany was predominantly a Christian nation. It is difficult to pin down the precise religious views of the Nazi party as a whole, as there are a complex mixture of different elements at play, and one will encounter a range of different opinions on the topic[xli]. Certainly at some times the Nazi party was professed to be Christian, as it presented its own form of anti-Semitic Christianity: Positive Christianity (which, by the measures of orthodoxy was certainly heterodox). Likewise, there were a number of prominent occultists within the Nazi ranks. However, it seems that by and large, the Nazi party were predominantly driven by racial and nationalistic ideology, though of course religious views naturally come into that mix.

In many respects the Nazi party waged a war against Christian churches, as part of broader measures that persecuted various peoples and organizations. However, the fact remains that the majority of Christians in WW2 Germany were either supportive of Hitler or passively complicit to the atrocities committed by the ruling Nazi party. Most members of the Nazi party and German soldiers considered themselves to be Christians (even if one can argue that their actions were not generally consistent with the teachings of Christ). There was a small percentage of Christians in Nazi held territories that were involved in hiding Jewish people and helping them escape. However, by and large, the moral teachings of Christianity did not lead to a widespread resistance against the Nazis by German Christians.

Here’s the thing, we don’t blame Christianity for Hitler, and neither do we have any right to blame Zen for Japan’s WW2 activities. Christianity has long had association with religious anti-Semitism (or more correctly, Jew hatred), with the Protestant reformer Martin Luther being a prominent figure in its development (not to mention many early Church fathers), and the NT shows mixed views in regards to the Jewish people. However, one can legitimately cite various NT passages as preaching love and compassion, and thus opposing the atrocities committed by WW2 Germany. Therefore, one simply cannot blame the Holocaust (and other atrocities committed by Nazi Germany) upon Christianity.

Hence, we can see that the military aggression and general atrocities of Japan and Germany during WW2 and their relationship to Zen and Christianity are a different category by comparison to the previously raised issues within the Bible and Koran. That is, we are not applying a double standard here. Rather, we are simply differentiating different cases whereby in some cases the religion (and religious scripture) explicitly promotes the injustices in question, and other in which they do not.

An example that is often raised by conservative Christians in their attempts to present Hinduism as a dark, demonic religion is that of the Hindu goddess Kali, and the atrocities that have been committed in her honor. Presented as a fierce, bloodthirsty deity with a garland of skulls hanging around her neck, the goddess Kali is presented in Hinduism as a representation of the destructive power of nature, and a divine power that destroys demons (which is often interpreted allegorically as destroying ignorance). In this sense, Kali is more akin to a Biblical angel of death than an evil spirit or deity, as the wrath of Kali is pretty much always directed at forces of evil. Mythological tales abound of Hindu goddesses transforming into Kali in order to kill demons, hence showing the inherent potential within the divine feminine principle to unleash awesome power to defeat evil.

The well-known movie “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” featured an Indian Thuggee cult that worshipped Kali and offered human sacrifices to her. Many people seem to think that this is the true face of Hinduism. There were indeed real Thuggee cults in Indian that were associated with the worship of Kali. They were essentially a tribe of professional thieves and murderers, and much of the literature about them claims that they worshipped in front of large statues of Kali. Likewise, in rural India there have been cases whereby sorcerers[xlii] calling themselves Tantriks (practitioners of Tantra) have told their clients to murder people (even infants) as a sacrifice to Kali in order to gain some boon from the goddess.

So, it is indeed true that Kali is represented in fearsome imagery as a bloodthirsty goddess, and that there have indeed been well documented cases of people in India committing atrocities in her name. However, this does not mean that this reveals the true dark nature of Hinduism. The earliest evidence we have for the conception of Kali is as a fierce protector of goodness, a defender of righteousness and enemy of evil (rather than a perpetrator of evil). Only later do we have evidence showing Indian cults and individuals doing evil works in the name of Kali. So, this is indeed a very different kettle of fish to cases whereby the original conception of a deity was as a barbaric tribal deity that incurred divine wrath on all those that defied it, and only later evolved into a benevolent, transcendent and universal deity.

These examples of the Thuggee cult and Tantriks committing (or ordering) atrocities in the name of Kali actually bear the same relationship to orthodox Hinduism as Theistic Satanism has to orthodox Christianity. That is, Theistic Satanism exists within the same overall religious bubble as Christianity, except that it exists as its polar opposite, opposed to all its central tenets. In a similar vein, the Thuggee cult exists within the vast, dynamic and diverse religious world known as Hinduism, yet they likewise defy all the central tenets of orthodox Hinduism (which has always taught strict moral and ethical codes).

In this regard then, using examples of atrocities committed in the name of Kali to try and denigrate Hinduism as a whole would be similar to citing examples of heavy metal obsessed teenagers committing atrocities in the name of Satan to denigrate orthodox Christianity. Obviously the latter is absurd; therefore, so is the former.

Whilst on the topic we should probably mention the Indian Aghori cult, an ascetic Shaivite or Tantrik sect known for their complete rejection of social norms and deliberate seeking out of various taboos. The Aghori’s denounce clothing, smear their (sometimes completely naked) bodies with cremation ash, meditate with corpses and human skulls, and smoke hashish (and/or marijuana) amongst other things. Hence, they deliberately seek to immerse themselves in unclean practices in order to realize the illusionary nature of dualistic opposites, and thus transcend duality and attain the state of liberation to which more orthodox Hindu sects also aim. Now, whilst the various practices of the Aghori may raise our eyebrows, I’m not sure if they are really harming those outside their sect, and we have no way to really assess their personal spiritual attainment.

Again though, it would be extremely misleading to present such examples as indicative of the true nature of Hinduism as a whole. Let us remember that even orthodox Christians have been known to whip themselves in imitation of the suffering of Christ. Likewise, we should note that in their descriptions of various heterodox Christian sects, the early proto-orthodox heresiologists (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Epiphanius et al.) cite various beliefs and practices that would certainly raise the eyebrows of modern readers. Hence, were it not for the state sanctioned purge of heterodox Christianity in the 4th century, we would know Christianity as having a similar degree of diversity to Hinduism, and one would be able to cite Christian (albeit heterodox) examples to parallel that of the Hindu Aghori.

I will certainly concede that the fearsome imagery and mythology surrounding Kali leaves the door open for people to commit atrocities under the guise of religion, citing Kali as their example. Regarding the use of dark and violent symbolism in religion and mythology, I’m not sure where we draw the line, and this is a problem that plagues many different faiths. This is perhaps a topic which should be discussed in more detail elsewhere. Nevertheless, it is a different case to that of the violent imagery found in the Bible and Koran, as in both cases we historical context of the works reveals that they were intended to be read largely in a literal manner.

The problem is of course that religious conservatives are compelled to argue that their sacred scripture alone should be read in the most generous light and that all others should be read in the worst possible way, whilst progressives are likewise generally compelled to argue that all scriptures should be read generously. And of course, people like myself will generally get accused of applying double standards when we attempt to differentiate cases whereby a text actually is bad and directly causes injustices, from other cases whereby a text uses symbolism which is taken out of context and misappropriated to support some aberration in the name of religion, or where atrocities committed by members of a religion are effectively unrelated to the teachings of the religion in question (as was the case regarding Zen and Japan’s WW2 atrocities).

Followers of Aleister Crowley and his religion Thelema often find themselves accused of child sacrifice. In the Thelemic holy book “The Book of the Law”, we find the following:

Now let it be understood that I am a god of War and of Vengeance…I will give you a war-engine. With it ye shall smite the peoples; and none shall stand before you…Worship me with fire & blood; worship me with swords & with spears. Let the woman be girt with a sword before me: let blood flow to my name. Trample down the Heathen; be upon them, o warrior, I will give you of their flesh to eat! Sacrifice cattle, little and big: after a child…Mercy let be off; damn them who pity! Kill and torture; spare not; be upon them! The best blood is of the moon, monthly: then the fresh blood of a child, or dropping from the host of heaven: then of enemies; then of the priest or of the worshippers: last of some beast, no matter what.”[xliii]

Now, that is certainly some nasty sounding stuff above, and if we took it literarily then one would certainly be right to view Crowley and his followers as bloodthirsty practitioners of a barbaric and wicked form of black magic. However, in truth, the above is simply code for sex magic, involving the consummation of menstrual fluids and semen in magical ritual (Crowley used to joke about masturbation as sacrificing children). Ok, so that’s still pretty full on, and I could understand many people still viewing it with repulsion. I have to say that I think Aleister Crowley had a sick sense of humor; not indicative of a spiritually advanced soul. However, it seems debatable as to whether they actually hurt anybody else outside of their own cult (directly at least), so one can certainly argue that their faith is perhaps less offensive than those religions that have indeed used violence against others outside their religion of choice.

I am no big fan of Crowley, and I am not seeking to defend him here. Nevertheless, my point is simply that whilst the above cited passages from The Book of the Law are pretty awful as read straight off the page, we do here have a true example whereby something that seems awful if taken literarily is certainly (at very least) somewhat less so in its true context[xliv].

This is indeed very different to the examples previously cited from the Bible and Koran, as in both cases we do indeed have direct evidence from the pages of history that they were originally intended to be taken literarily. That is, we know that many of the horrible passages from the Bible were intended to be taken as given, by the fact that they simply represented cultural norms of the Ancient Near East, and by the fact that the Bible contains many stories that relate to the relevant laws, showing their literal application. Likewise, the same is true of the Koran. That is, the pages of history tell us how Mohammad himself was said to have acted, along with those that directly followed him. Hence, with the Koran we can see that the atrocities contained within were acted out by those that were directly involved in writing the text itself.

If followers of the Abrahamic faiths are able to bypass and transcend the psychological processes that prevent them from viewing their own faith and sacred text objectively, they will see a completely different reality. Comparatively, the Bible and the Koran are not great texts at all; rather, they contain some of the lowest expressions of human potential in written form[xlv]. It is time for reasonable, intelligent and decent people to recognize the vastly inflated importance that has been given to the Bible and the Koran, and look elsewhere for spiritual and philosophical wisdom, both amongst the myriad of works that have emerged from all over the world over history, and also amongst modern works, many of which are free from the dogmas that have diluted true spirituality across the ages.

A falsehood repeated a thousand times does not become true:

The common and deeply flawed approaches of both conservatives and progressives in relation to religious scriptures are largely held in place through repetition, and because the public at large are dependent upon specialists to direct their opinion. Conservatives have armies of apologists and religious scholars trained from their very own universities that tell them exactly what they want to hear, regardless of what the truth actually is. Conservative academia merely exists to maintain the status quo, to uphold the divine status of the Bible and Koran. Regardless of what evidence and argument is given against them, conservative apologetics always holds their ground.

Likewise, progressives at large are influenced by liberal academics (who are also often university qualified) and otherwise well-meaning spiritual teachers, who tell them that religious scriptures should be upheld, and that we simply need to read them differently. In the cases of the Bible and Koran, liberal Muslims, liberal Christians and New Age spiritual teachers all largely seek to uphold the texts, arguing that all criticisms are the results of misinterpretation, and are largely motivated by bias and bigotry.

In both case, the common apologetics are preventing spiritual seekers from actually examining religious scriptures themselves, and/or accessing unbiased and informed opinions on them. Both conservatives and progressives respond to criticisms of their scripture of choice (or all scriptures for progressives) by viewing the critic as being misinformed by poor journalism and scholarship, driven by ideology and bias. Hence we need to spread the word that there is another option for how to view religious scriptures, and how to apply this perspective to our approach to comparative religion as a whole.

Throughout the 20th century there was an outpouring of Western esotericism and Eastern mysticism through the Western world, with Theosophy, Spiritualism, Edgar Cayce, Dion Fortune etc., through to a great number of Indian sages (Yogananda, Vivekananda et al.). Common to nearly all of them was the attempt to interpret Christianity in light of a Perennial Philosophy (which is basically philosophical Hinduism). As such, many tried to force their interpretations upon the Biblical text, with the sincere belief that they were actually revealing the original truth of the text.

For example, I am a big fan of Paramahansa Yogananda, and I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read “Autobiography of a Yogi”. Yoganandas guru Sri Yukteswar wrote a book titled “The Holy Science”, in which he argued for the fundamental unity of all religions, in particular focusing on attempting to harmonize the Bible with philosophical Hinduism. Whilst I am personally a big fan of Yogananda, the unfortunate fact is that the view of Jesus and the Bible as a whole taught by him and his guru (Sri Yukteswar) is simply untenable. That is, whilst I am certainly down with their overall philosophy, their perspective on Christianity and its sacred text just cannot possibly be correct. I would like to emphasize the following, as I think it sums up the heart of the problem here:

Unfortunately many people who lean towards Eastern religion or general New Age spirituality can’t seem to accept that they can simultaneously acknowledge someone like Yogananda as a legitimate spiritual teacher, whilst rejecting his perspective on Christianity, as it is incompatible with the relevant data. Whilst Sri Yukteswar was no doubt a great yogi who may indeed have been extremely enlightened, this does not mean that his opinion on absolutely everything must necessarily have been correct.

The truth is that whilst I admire much of what most Eastern and New Age spiritual teachers have taught, very few (if any) of them have actually examined the evidence in question for themselves in relation to many of the world religions they seek to defend. Just to clarify, I am not saying that Eastern and New Age spiritual teachers are completely unfamiliar with world religion. Rather, I am only stating that they are not familiar with the textual and historical evidence that shows that the criticisms launched against some particular faiths are in fact legitimate. Hence, whilst their overall teachings may be good and true, they are largely speaking out of ignorance and wishful thinking when it comes to the problems inherent in many religious texts.

I personally suspect that higher spiritual beings do not attempt to directly overturn human belief systems, but rather leave that to us, and instead try to communicate to us through the context of our sacred beliefs. For example, in his altered states of consciousness Edgar Cayce was not told to abandon Christianity, but rather was told to view Christianity through the filter of Perennialism. Likewise, the same is true of countless people who have had Near-Death experiences, or visions and peak mystical experiences through the practice of meditation, or who have communicated with non-physical beings through mediumship and trance.

It is ironic that so few people within the field of religion itself can actually perceive the true nature of religious scriptures as they as are. Rather, it has often been those outside the field (that being naturalists – atheists) who seem to be some of the only ones able to look at texts such as the Bible and the Koran without presuppositions, and take the texts as they stand. Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris (amongst others) have all raised very legitimate objections against the Bible and the Koran, and a large percentage of religious people of all persuasions have failed to integrate the truths that they have spoken into their overall worldview (though obviously I disagree with naturalists on more general counts, such as the objective reality of spirituality as a whole).

I believe that the defence of certain religious texts is entirely untenable, and completely lacking in credibility. Now, I realize that the preceding and following statements could certainly be taken as offensive to many. However, we are not discussing the overall worth of human beings here. We are simply discussing whether particular perspectives on ancient religious texts are correct, and it is important that we view the facts without emotional attachment. As such, there are three reasons why such a large percentage of religious believers of various persuasions have taken obviously flawed perspectives on religious texts:

  1. a) The persons in question are simply unaware of the actual content of the text as a whole, the historical context from which it originates, and the ways in which the content of the text has a direct causal relationship with atrocities committed throughout the history of the faith in question. This is true of both progressives and conservatives that hold firm views about the divine status of religious texts (and defend them with fervor), yet have not actually read them for themselves.
  1. b) The persons in question are in fact intimately familiar with the source material in question, yet are so attached to a particular religious perspective that they approach the text/s in question with firm presuppositions, and then attempt to view the text in light of these prior beliefs.
  1. c) The persons in question have some degree of familiarity with a text and the criticisms of it, but they have been swayed by apologetic arguments in its defence from those of the same camp. This applies to conservatives that believe that their texts have survived centuries of attack, thanks to the apologetic responses of conservative Bible scholars, historians, philosophers and theologians. Likewise, this applies equally to progressives who are swayed by university trained liberal academics who tell us that Islam is a religion of peace and that critics of the Koran are motivated by racism and religious bigotry, that the Bible is an allegorical work and that the doctrine of eternal damnation in hell was invented by the Catholic Church in the Middle-Ages

In conclusion:

As a result of this, both sides attempt to make the evidence fit their presuppositions, rather than considering the evidence as it actually stands. This approach has a long history through many cultures, in which human beings become psychologically attached (or even addicted) to particular texts and give them divine status, from which they attempt to defend such texts against any criticism, and refuse to acknowledge the actual content of such texts in the context of how they were originally conceived.

If we actually approach the interpretation of holy texts without any presuppositions, we can see that there is a great diversity amongst the world’s scriptures (though I would argue that we can still see much common ground between them). If we approach each text on its own merits, we can see that many of the criticisms of ancient religious texts are indeed legitimate (and are not simply the case of less mature believers twisting the tenets of a faith). Hence, there is a need for genuine spiritual seekers to denounce the divine status of such texts. Likewise however, not all religious texts suffer equally from these flaws, and whilst some are the product of primitive superstitious minds, others espouse a sublime philosophy capable of leading a genuine seeker towards true liberation.

We can clearly see that the claims of conservatives that their religious scriptures of choice are alone good and pure at the exclusion of all others is completely untenable. Likewise however, the claims of progressives that all the worlds scriptures are equally good and pure and essentially identical in their core message, are equally untenable. However, despite the latter case, I will still argue that an honest investigation of comparative religion will indeed result in the conclusion that spirituality is truly universal and no single faith or text can claim exclusive rights to truth. However, examining the world’s scriptures on their own merit will also lead to the conclusion that we must differentiate between genuine spiritual insights and backwards superstitions.

In light of all of this may I suggest that we should seek to apply the following approach to reading and interpreting religious scriptures. Whilst this approach may seem novel and controversial to many, I would suggest that it is simply common sense:

  1. a) Firstly, we examine different religious texts on a case-by-case basis, and we do not approach them with presuppositions about their nature. That is, we remain open about the nature of a text until we have examined it for ourselves (or weighed up multiple competing views about it), and we remember that there is a tremendous amount of diversity in world religion.
  1. b) Secondly, we remember that even if we take a low opinion about a particular scripture, that it doesn’t necessarily mean that we reject everything that is taught and practiced in the faith in question, nor does it mean that followers of the faith in question are necessarily bad people.
  1. c) Thirdly, just because a faith and culture in general may contain much in the way of dogma and superstition, it doesn’t mean that people within that context cannot still have genuine spiritual experiences. That is, even in a faith that preaches hate, some followers will still find divine love regardless. Likewise, the opposite is still true; even if a faith had been purged of imperfection, human beings would still pollute it with the lower aspect of their nature.
  1. d) Hence, when we encounter examples of mystical streams within larger faiths that are dramatically different to the orthodox forms, we need not conclude that these mystical forms are the original, pure form of the faith. Rather, these may simply be examples of evolution within a religion, rather than a return to their primal state.
  1. e) Ultimately, we can take a critical view on particular religious scriptures (and religions as a whole) whilst still upholding a universal, timeless perspective on world religion and spirituality. That is, Perennial Philosophy does not depend upon all scriptures being pure and equal. Rather, when properly defined, Perennialism should differentiate between spiritual truth and religious dogma, both in the practices and beliefs of a faith, and in the scriptures that they hold sacred.

May we all be honest with ourselves and each other, transforming our inner states and reforming the structures in the world around us.

Peace.

[i] Whilst Christian apologists attempt to twist the source material to present Hebrew slavery as merely a form of employment.

[ii] If a woman was married she was seen as the literal property of her husband, otherwise she belonged to her father.

[iii] That is, portions of the Tanakh believed to be of older origin mandate the sacrifice of first-born male children (and animals), whilst accepting the power of a human sacrifice to gain the assistance of the gods, particularly in war, as well as demanding the literal sacrifice of the spoils of war (including people) to Yahweh. Fortunately, there was a later reformation following Jeremiah in which human sacrifice was denounced outright (regardless of which god it was to), and hence we see evidence of redaction in the Old Testament texts relating to this issue.

[iv] https://jameshiscoxblogs.wordpress.com/2017/03/29/essential-reading-on-the-historical-context-of-moral-issues-with-the-hebrew-bible-thom-starks-is-god-a-moral-compromiser/. Stark’s work can be read at the following: http://thomstark.net/copan/stark_copan-review.pdf.

[v] Leviticus 25:44-46.

[vi] Exodus 21:20-21.

[vii] Deuteronomy 22:28-29.

[viii] See Thom Stark, “Is God a Moral Compromiser”, pages 133-140.

[ix] In the following video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahJpxUjOzuE, and he also provides a link to the following page: http://www.mandm.org.nz/2009/07/sunday-study-does-the-bible-teach-that-a-rape-victim-has-to-marry-her-rapist.html.

[x]First, our subject objects that the victim may not want to marry the rapist. In modern times this would be a sensible objection; but for the ancients, this was a highly viable and indeed merciful solution…”; http://www.tektonics.org/af/ancientmores.html.

[xi] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZv94om4Ry0.

[xii] For example, Numbers 31:7-18 and Deuteronomy 21:10-14.

[xiii] Joshua 6:20-21.

[xiv] 1 Samuel 15:3.

[xv] 1 Samuel 15:7-9.

[xvi] Leviticus 20:13.

[xvii] Deuteronomy 21:18-21.

[xviii] Deuteronomy 17:12.

[xix] Exodus 22:18

[xx] Leviticus 20:27.

[xxi] 2 Chronicles 15:13.

[xxii] Deuteronomy 13. Also Deuteronomy 17:2-5 and Numbers 25:1-9 continue the same theme.

[xxiii] https://www.amazon.com/Islam-Concise-Introduction-Huston-Smith/dp/0060095571.

[xxiv] Though it should be noted that at some points in the Koran, Mohammad somewhat accepted Jews and Christians as part of the same religious tradition as himself. Different passages in the Koran are both positive and negative towards Jews and Christians, though certainly the Koran is absolutely and consistently negative towards all other faiths.

[xxv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roma_(mythology).

[xxvi] Revelations 17:6.

[xxvii] Though modern scholars have good reason to believe it was actually written in the 2nd century BCE. Nevertheless, the book presents itself as being written during the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BCE.

[xxviii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whore_of_Babylon#Rome_and_the_Roman_Empire.

[xxix] And a coin from 70 CE shows Rome as a woman sitting on seven hills.

[xxx] The exact calculations are dependent upon both the time at which this verse was originally composed, and whether or not the author counted all of the Emperors from the “Year of the Four Emperor’s”, as the relatively short rules of Galba, Otho and Vitellius may not have been known throughout the kingdom. I cannot comment further on this.

[xxxi] Exodus 20:4 and Deuteronomy 4:15-18.

[xxxii]In a still clearer light has John, in the Apocalypse, indicated to the Lord’s disciples what shall happen in the last times, and concerning the ten kings who shall then arise, among whom the empire which now rules (the earth) shall be partitioned.” Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 5, Chapter 26:1: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103526.htm.

[xxxiii] Revelation 8:3-9.

[xxxiv] Revelation 9:3-6.

[xxxv] Revelation 9:15-18.

[xxxvi] Revelation 14:9-11.

[xxxvii] Revelation 14:19-20.

[xxxviii] Revelation 16:2-21.

[xxxix] Revelation 20:7-10.

[xl] Revelation 20:12-15.

[xli] Of which I am not going to attempt to unravel.

[xlii] Whether or not they actually possess supernatural power through the practices of black magic, I think it is appropriate to refer to them as sorcerers.

[xliii] Aleister Crowley, The Book of the Law, Chapter 3, Verses 3-24.

[xliv] That being, whatever you think of Crowley, surely ceremonial magick involving sex and drugs is ultimately less horrendous than bloodlust and human sacrifice.

[xlv] Though again, they are not wholly bad. Rather, they do of course also contain inspirational passages mixed in, which believers can quote mine in order to paint a rosy picture of their sacred text.

Easter and Spirituality:

For quite some time I have been intending to write articles to deal with the origins and religious significance of Christmas and Easter. Every year like clockwork, out come the articles, videos and memes, some of which give a bad representation of half-truths claiming that Christmas and Easter are both pagan, and the others again giving half of the story in claiming that they are not. At some point I would like to offer my own presentation of the facts on both Christmas and Easter, to try and bring some clarity to the subjects. However, today is not that day.

Rather, today I simply wish to talk about true spirituality and its relationship with the Easter mythos. For Christianity, Easter is a time of both mourning and celebration, for what they believe was the death and resurrection of Jesus. For Christians the death of Jesus was a cosmic sacrifice, God incarnating as a man and taking on the frailty of humanity, suffering and taking on death for the sins of humanity, so that we may be free of sin. Likewise, the resurrection of Jesus is seen by Christians as the ultimate triumph, mankind being given the opportunity to share in eternal life through divine grace, accepted through faith in Christ.

Elsewhere I have already written quite a bit on the fact that there were indeed older pagan precedents for the theme of death and resurrection, celebrated at major seasonal markers (as is Easter – being celebrated immediately following the Vernal Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere), which also associated the devotee with the deity, in order to give eternal life after death[i]. Unfortunately, this reality is still largely denied and derided by both Christian apologists and many secular religious scholars, bringing the field of religious scholarship into disrepute. Anyways, I will not be dwelling on that today.

Rather, I simply wish to speak briefly on the fact that through the incredible privilege that Christianity has enjoyed throughout the Western world over the past 2,000 odd years, many people have been taught to believe that they require salvation to be reunited with God. That is, we have been taught that we are dependent upon belief in a story, belief in a pseudo-historical myth to be freed from the natural consequences of our mistakes, and to have eternal life.

It is time that humanity at large came back into contact with the greater reality, of which they are part, and which constitutes our true, innermost being. Deep inside, within us all is Spirit, and you do not have to subscribe to a fixed belief system or religion to experience this. All you need to do is find true stillness and inner silence, and indescribable peace and love will reveal itself to you. Whilst followers of all faiths commonly experience self-validating visions and so forth that relate to the specific dogmas and myths of that particular faith, there are universal spiritual experiences that are not dependent upon faith in any conception of deity, scripture or creed. Even those that subscribe to metaphysical naturalism can experience this same inner peace, as it does not require any belief in the objective reality of spirituality.

As individuals, we basically all have issues that we struggle with, and we can all use a bit of grace. Grace however is not something that we have to earn or attempt to deserve, and likewise, it is not something that we cannot deserve and is simply given to us anyways. Rather, grace is part of the natural absolute reality, the substratum of the cosmos, and nothing we can ever do could take away our right to that grace. However, grace can be obscured and we can lose sight of it, as is often the case, and we can feel disconnected and alone in a cruel harsh world.

We do not need to believe in religious myths or stories to gain eternal life. We are eternal life. We can swim in the ocean of bliss, love and infinite creativity through deep meditation, and it is likewise possible to sustain this in everyday life, through the seemingly mundane world. For most of us it requires self-effort, but it is a path that brings true happiness, and peace to the world.

There is room in the world for religious mythology, allegorical stories that help humanity to touch that which is beyond form. It is important for us to remember however not to become attached to these forms, or to mistake them for the goal. The Abrahamic faiths in particular (but not exclusively) have been largely responsible for the idea that one needs to exclusively follow the tenets of one faith in order to find God, and that without perfect adherence to the dogmas of a particular religion one is denied eternal life in the hereafter.

The belief in eternal damnation is certainly the single most abhorrent superstition that has ever corrupted the field of religion, and it is time that it was rejected outright as being immoral, irrational and utterly supported by evidence or reason. Likewise, the idea that eternal peace could only be given to a small group of sentient beings on the basis of rather arbitrary and petty criteria is simply untenable.

Spirit is naturally eternal, and there is nothing we can do to lose eternal life. However, we can be unaware of the existence of Spirit within us and around us, leading to the temporary illusion that we have to struggle and fight in a cold and uncaring cosmos, devoid of meaning and compassion. Suffering befall us all, giving legitimate reasons to doubt the existence of anything beyond cold hard matter. Certainly, the injustices that we perceive in the world are extremely difficult (if not impossible) to harmonize with the idea that all life is created by a transcendent being with a nature of infinite love. And yet, this is the world we inhabit.

Injustice and suffering do abound in the world, and yet somehow, simultaneously, unspeakable, eternal, infinite love, joy and peace is only ever a moment away for any of us. What we seek is not far from us but right here, and with the right instruction, a little practice and some grace we can all experience it, and even live it continuously. I’m still working on it myself, but I have experienced this beyond doubt, from cosmic oneness and unimaginable peace in deep meditation, to a constant inner lightness through presence/mindfulness in daily life. Fluctuation is normal, but our internal state is within our power, as are our responses to the world outside us. We cannot control the actions of others, or the greater environment in which we live, or all the circumstances that we encounter in life. And yet we have great power over our internal state, and through taking responsibility for it we reclaim our own power, and contribute towards a better world.

Human beings have great potential to different extremes. We can be extraordinarily kind, compassionate, forgiving, joyful, brilliant and serene, and yet we can also be unimaginably cruel, unforgiving, vindictive and insane, and can fall into endless spirals of hopelessness and anxiety. We live in a world that has the capacity to sustain us all, or we can deprive ourselves and all other beings of a liveable world.

So, at Easter time I would like to say that we need not believe that Osiris really did drown in the river and was brought back to life by magic and the intervention of the gods, nor do we need to believe that Attis really was castrated by a bull and returned to life as a tree. Nor do we need to believe that Dionysus was really torn apart by the Titans, before later being reborn via the thigh of Zeus, or that Jesus was really crucified and resurrected. None of these are essential for becoming free of our lower nature, becoming reunited with God and attaining eternal life, regardless of whether or not any of these have roots in real historical events.

Grace is always waiting for us, balanced with self-effort that brings great rewards, both immediately and continuously throughout our lives. May we all find peace within us, living joyful lives of passion and creativity, and bless others around us and the world at large through showing the higher potential of humanity. May we forgive others and end the insane cycles of retribution and greed that have held us down for too long.

Peace.

[i] I haven’t as of yet published anything specifically designed to quickly summarize the evidence and logic behind this conclusion. However, for anyone that is reading this and hasn’t read my previous articles on the topic, please see the following:

https://jameshiscoxblogs.wordpress.com/2015/08/22/the-pagan-parallel-thesis-and-why-practically-every-single-major-objection-to-it-is-false/

https://jameshiscoxblogs.wordpress.com/2014/09/20/the-whole-truth-on-justin-martyrs-diabolical-mimicry-argument/

https://jameshiscoxblogs.wordpress.com/2015/08/06/on-christian-origins-part-1-why-i-favour-mythicism/

Essential reading on the historical context of moral issues with the Hebrew Bible: Thom Stark’s “Is God a Moral Compromiser?”:

I would argue that to be well informed, it is not simply a question of how much your read, but (more importantly) what you read. I know of some people that have extensive libraries in their houses and/or have studied various topics in-depth for many years, and yet are so drastically misinformed (or uninformed) on many of the topics that they have focussed upon.

Many people prior to myself have made statements to the following effect, and I would largely concur:

In this day and age, with access to the internet on any decent mobile phone or a variety of other portable devices (let alone desktop computers), there is no excuse for being misinformed.”

There are of course many cases whereby there are complex webs of evidence and arguments that are presented by multiple sides of an issue, in which it can be difficult to be properly informed from a quick glance at a topic. Serious topics like religion are perfect examples, as the psychological attachment people have to their particular religion of choice (and its sacred Scripture) frequently prevent them from being objective in considering the strengths and weaknesses of said religion and scripture. So, to be properly informed on religion you either need to be somewhat well-read yourself (and also quite objective in your consideration of comparative views), or you need to possess an innate, intuitive wisdom that helps you to recognise well informed perspectives as a whole from those that are driven by bias and personal attachment.

One absolutely critical sub-topic in the study of comparative religion is that of the moral and ethical problems of many ancient religious texts. Conservative followers of various faiths often project sacred status and authority onto the religious text/s of their faith in question (to which they will defend to the death), whilst they generally seek to view the scriptures of other faiths in the worst possible light. Alternatively, those of a liberal religious persuasion frequently seek to be as generous as possible to all sacred scriptures, and pass off any criticisms as mere misinterpretation.

Many people have raised serious criticisms towards the Hebrew Bible[i] (which Christians take as their Old Testament), accusing it of condoning and mandating slavery, presenting women as inferior to men (to the extent of being considered the literal property of men, to be owned like cattle), justifying cultural genocide and various other violent crimes, condemning homosexuals, denying any expression of religious freedom and various other things. Many critics have stated that the conception of God as Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible is one of a primitive and barbaric tribal deity, a bloodthirsty, violent, fickle, jealous deity; a projection of the lowest human potential, and not a transcendent, benevolent universal God of unconditional love, as those why typically defend it would like to claim.

Conservative Christians are heavily invested in the Hebrew Bible, as it forms the foundation for their own religion, and takes up the first half of the Christian Bible. Hence, there are extensive Christian apologetics available to attempt to defend the accusations levelled against the Hebrew Bible. One particular Christian apologist who has spent some time specifically focussing on this topic (and whom is well cited by other Christians on this topic) is Paul Copan. Copan has a number of short articles freely available from his website on the topic[ii], and wrote a full-length book titled “Is God a Moral Monster” to attempt to counter such criticisms[iii].

Enter Thom Stark. Thom Stark is a liberal Christian with academic qualifications, and a published author. Stark wrote a book-length online response to “Is God a Moral Monster”, which he titled “Is God a Moral Compromiser”. In Stark’s response, he goes somewhat in-depth into every major claim and argument made by Copan (he ignores some of the less significant material), and effectively shows how utterly untenable Copan’s attempted defense is (and by extension, this also shows how erroneous pretty much all attempted defences are of the moral failings of the Hebrew Bible). Hence, I would like to state that “Is God a Moral Compromiser” is absolutely essential reading for anyone with an interest in comparative religion, religious history and Christianity (and the other Abrahamic faiths) in general.

I would like to state that I believe that there is absolutely no question that Stark utterly demolishes Copan’s apologetic dance. Piece by piece, Stark destroys every major claim made by Copan, showing effectively that many of the criticisms launched at the Hebrew Bible are in fact legitimate. The truth is that the Hebrew Bible was overall fairly well par for the course in terms of Ancient Near Eastern (abbreviated ANE) culture. That is, the flaws of the Hebrew Bible aren’t specific aberrations of the ancient Hebrews, but rather were cultural norms from the time they were written.

Whilst many people have used this fact to attempt to excuse the Hebrew Bible (as if it was simply a record of an imperfect people living in a backwards time, and a transcendent God trying to reach them), properly understood, it actually achieves the opposite. That is, understanding that the Hebrew Bible was par for the course actually reveals the historical context and “logic” that explains many of its bizarre features. Contrary to apologetic claims, the historical context of the Hebrew Bible does not excuse it, but rather reveals the true depths of its failings.

“Is God a Moral Compromiser” is freely available on the Internet, you can read it whenever you want as many times as you wish. It presents an extremely well informed response, referencing current mainstream scholarship from someone that (if anything) should be invested in the defense of the Bible, but is largely forced to concede the true nature of the Hebrew Bible in light of the undeniable reality. Hence, if you are interested in these topics you absolutely must read it (if you have not done so already). I have included a link in the endnotes for the benefits of my readers to the revised 2nd edition[iv], or you can just Google it just as easily.

As far as I am aware, Copan has still failed to offer any substantial response to Stark. Rather, he initially responded to Stark’s first edition by complaining of the sarcasm and wit employed by Stark (to which Stark then responded by revising his work to downplay his tone), whilst making no real attempt to debate any of the actual content of Stark’s response. In fact, whilst Stark’s work came out over five years ago, I haven’t seen any real attempts at responding to it from any Christians (If anyone knows of any such attempts, I would appreciate any links). I do recall seeing that J.P. Holding has offered some thoughts on Stark before, but hey, J.P. Holding is J.P. Holding; I just can’t take that guy seriously[v].

Unfortunately conservative Christianity survives largely through the sheltered and intellectually isolated world in which they live (in which I was once part, so I can speak from experience). That is, conservative Christians trust other Christians to give them honest, accurate, informed and unbiased information, whilst they often reject any contrary views with the presupposition that their critics must be dishonest, ill-informed and/or just plain biased. The way to truth is found through comparison of competing ideas. In this topic there is no question: Stark utterly refutes every single shred of Copan’s stance.

On a final note, I would like to concede that I personally don’t quite understand Thom Stark’s take on Christianity and religion as a whole. I have not read enough of his work outside of his response to Stark to be able to fully reflect his thoughts on the subject, but still, I can’t understand his overall perspective on the Bible. From what I understand, he (accurately) concedes that the Bible is a deeply flawed work with largely human (rather than divine) origins, but that it is what it is, and that Christians have to work with it nevertheless.

I would argue that it makes much more sense to recognise the Bible for what it is, and likewise take other texts as they are (rather than as we want them to be), and move outside of the confines of Christianity for a universal, timeless perspective on spirituality and religion. In doing so one may still feel drawn to one particular tradition, and in fact, it is still ideal to have one primary path, through which one can travel inwards and discover the depths that can be experienced through a serious and prolonged spiritual discipline. But nevertheless, recognising the true strengths and weaknesses of various religions as they are is an essential step in both personal spiritual evolution, and the larger evolution of human perspectives of religion as a whole. Regarding the latter, I believe that both conservatives and progressives frequently fail at this due to their separate biases (of which I will be posting very shortly, and of which I have discussed in-depth in my upcoming book).

I would also like to express some slight disagree with Stark in his perspective of prominent atheist figures. I think we both share some mutual ground in our overall perspective on them, but I think we disagree on the details. In his response to Copan, Stark makes it clear that he thinks that many atheists are resorting to rhetoric and hyperbole in their criticisms of the Bible. Rather, Stark thinks that whilst Copan’s defense is erroneous, that this does not make the case that such atheists are seeking to make. And yet, I think it does. I think that after reading Stark’s response you can see just how legitimate many specific criticisms levelled by atheists against the Bible are.

Just to be clear, I would be on the same side as Stark in terms of more general criticisms by atheists against religion and spirituality as a whole (and I would actually be on the same side as Copan and Holding on that manner, even if I would largely reject their methodology on the topic). However, I think that many prominent atheists have made numerous legitimate criticisms of various religions and religious texts, and that genuine spiritual seekers and religious reformers need to integrate these perspectives into their overall worldview. In simple language, whilst I completely disagree with Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett et al. as to their profession of metaphysical naturalism and their outright rejection of the objective reality to spirituality and paranormal phenomena, I think they have many legitimate criticisms to make of particular religions, and particular religious texts, practices and beliefs.

In perhaps one of the only occasions in which I would find myself in agreement with J.P. Holding on anything, I do recall reading Holding mocking Stark for considering himself Christian (in a tone typical of Holding), arguing instead that he should just come out and reject Christianity outright and become an atheist. Whilst I think that Stark has legitimate spiritual options outside of Christianity and therefore doesn’t necessarily doesn’t need to become an atheist upon rejection of Christianity[vi], I do somewhat agree with Holding here. I wonder if perhaps Stark is leaning more towards Secular Humanism whilst still holding onto the outer edges of liberal Christianity?

Anyways, the point of all this was to encourage people to actually read Stark’s work in full (several times would be ideal). It is very readable, quite easy to digest, and the 300 odd pages actually pass quite quickly once you consider the size of the font. Then, actually compare for yourself the quality of his work to that of Copan (which Stark also recommends you do for yourself in his introduction), and you will see for yourself which of the two is correct. If you actually read the two and you think that Stark is wrong and Copan is right, well, I don’t know what to say to that. Any further analysis I could give would simply be rehashing what Stark has already done, and it would be simpler and quicker to just point any such people back to Stark’s analysis.

Human beings have the potential to either move forward and upward, or to remain where we are, or even degenerate. There are important reasons why we need to reform religion, and I would challenge anyone personally involved in spirituality and religion to face up to this. I personally look forward to the possibility of humans realizing more of our potential, and expressing more of the highest facets of the human spirit.

Peace.

[i] Traditionally known in full as the Tanakh – not to be confused with the Torah, which generally refers specifically to the first five books of the Tanakh (although it can also be taken to have a broader meaning).

[ii] http://www.paulcopan.com/articles/.

[iii] https://www.amazon.com/God-Moral-Monster-Making-Testament/dp/0801072751.

[iv] If you want the link to the 2nd edition of Is God a Moral Compromiser?, here it is: http://thomstark.net/copan/stark_copan-review.pdf.

[v] On a quick online search to find any such works it appears that Holding has discussed Stark in a newsletter, which appears to be available to purchase. Needless to say, I’m not paying to read Holding.

[vi] Some conservative Christians have attempted to dismiss practically all other religions out of hand with grossly oversimplistic and erroneous misrepresentations and arguments (as I have discussed in my upcoming book), and make it seem as if there were only two options: Christian or atheist.

The doctrines of karma and reincarnation, and hereditary caste and poverty in India:

Summary:

Conservative Christian apologists frequently attempt to portray other faiths in the worst possible light (by comparison to their own, which they attempt to portray in the best possible light), in attempting to justify their harsh exclusive view of comparative religion. However, when we examine the details of the arguments that they use to try to make their case, we see that in every example they are fudging the facts, and abusing logic in order to attempt to reach their conclusions.

In this case, Christians have been known to claim that the doctrines of karma and reincarnation naturally justify and produce injustice and poverty, as can be seen in the hereditary caste system of India (which inflicts gross injustices on the lower-castes) and in modern India’s vast poverty.  However, the fact remains that India’s cultural aberrations are not natural results of the doctrines of karma and reincarnation.  Identical doctrines of karma and reincarnation are also found in other Dharmic faiths (such as Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism) which do not give any support to concepts of caste.  As a whole, all the Dharmic faiths teach compassion and charity towards all life, all humans and animals.

Furthermore, India was actually one of the wealthiest nations in the world for almost all of its history.  It was only after British annexation of India that the Indian economy fell (from which the modern Indian nation is steadily rebuilding itself), as the British literarily raped India of its riches.  Whilst India does indeed have real issues to face, and whilst Hinduism does indeed have areas in need of reform, conservative Christians are guilty of spreading misinformation about Hinduism, and do a gross injustice to the sublime spiritual philosophy that is found in Indian spiritual texts.

Main Article:

The following is an add-on that I have been working on for my soon to be self-published book.  It may still be edited further for that purpose, but I decided to publish it here as is.  The following is being added to a chapter in my book on common arguments against Perennial Philosophy (see Eastern religion and the New Age movement), usually given by conservative Christians in their attempts to paint other faiths in the worst possible light:

(The below text in bold is therefore the accusation against Perennialism that I am seeking to here counter):

The concept of karma and reincarnation naturally leads to people ignoring the suffering of others, rather than seeking to help them. As a result, Hindus in India will step over the bodies of those suffering in the streets because they don’t want to interfere with their karma, as they believe that whatever others are experiencing is fully deserved, and it isn’t their place to interfere with divine justice. The doctrines of karma and reincarnation naturally support the evils of India’s hereditary caste system, in which lower castes are treated as sub-humans simply on the basis of their birth. Hence, the Dharmic doctrines promote suffering and poverty, and we can see what Hinduism has done for India.

Both parts of this argument are extremely common amongst conservative Christians[i], however I have found some parts of it difficult to verify. I certainly have encountered examples whereby Indians have justified the hereditary caste system by explaining that spiritually advanced souls are born to high-caste parents and wicked souls are born to low-caste parents. However, I have yet to verify for myself the claim that some Hindus will refuse to help those who suffer on the grounds that it would be interfering with their karma[1]. So, whilst I have found it hard to personally verify, let us assume that there are cases where there is true. Let us accept that there are indeed some cases whereby a Hindu may see someone suffering and may believe (or argue) that to help them would be to interfere with their karma, and therefore to interfere with the action of the gods. The question is then, if this is so, would this be indicative of the very nature of the concepts of karma and reincarnation, and of Hinduism itself?

Whilst Christian apologists would like us to believe it is so, the truth is quite the opposite. In truth, by and large, the Vedic Scriptures actually teach that to fail to give assistance to those in need would bring bad karma. There’s actually a tradition in India where they treat the stranger as if they were God, offering food, clothing and shelter freely to those in need, as if God were dwelling amongst them disguised as a beggar. Indian spiritual texts repeatedly encourage the aspirant to serve all beings equally and wholly, seeing the king and the beggar as identical in their inner, eternal nature. Hindu spiritual texts repeatedly promote compassion for all, infinite unconditional love and the unity and equality of all existence. Hence, the enlightened soul naturally stops to help those who suffer, regardless of whether or not the cause of their suffering can be clearly seen to be self-created.

A primary concept of all the Dharmic faiths (including of course Hinduism) is ahimsa – non-violence. Obviously ahimsa isn’t simply the absence of violence towards others, but rather also compassion for all living things, humans, animals and all existence[2]. Compassion for all living beings is one of the central hallmarks of Buddhism; hence Buddhists often take a vow to remain within creation until all beings are liberated from suffering and ignorance[3]. Likewise, the same sentiment can be found in Hinduism in the mantra “Lokah Samastah, Sukhino Bhavantu”, which literally translates as “May all the beings in all the realms find peace”.

It is true that the concepts of karma and reincarnation have indeed in some cases been used to justify the harsh life endured by some. In particular, the concept of reincarnation has been used by the priestly Brahmin caste to justify hereditary caste. Accordingly, they argue that each soul incarnates into a body that is appropriate for their level of spiritual growth. Hence, they have argued that a spiritually advanced soul would naturally incarnate into a child of a priest or king, an intermediate soul into the child of a merchant, and a wicked soul into the child of a servant or sub-caste. However, this does not mean that such a view is inseparable from Hindu philosophical doctrines.

To the contrary, there were (and are) a number of other well-known religions (or philosophical sects) that preach the doctrines of karma and reincarnation, but yet are largely free of the cultural issues that are associated with Hinduism. For example, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and Platonism all share these primary doctrines, yet do not also teach hereditary caste. This fact alone should refute the above argument, as it shows that the doctrines of karma and reincarnation do not always go hand in hand with hereditary caste. Likewise, as Platonism was a prominent philosophy of the elites of the classical Greek and Roman worlds, this likewise refutes any idea that the doctrines of karma and reincarnation run contrary to the success of Western civilization.

Obviously I am not attempting to defend India’s hereditary caste system and its treatment of the poor. Rather, these things are indeed worthy of being denounced, and people of all faiths and nations should speak against them. I have seen it argued that India’s original conception of caste was simply as a measure of natural tendencies, rather than a rigid designation of ones life occupation based solely upon birth[ii]. If this was the case than one can of course argue that the hereditary caste system that we are familiar with is a degeneration of the original Vedic system of caste. Otherwise, if Indian caste has always been as unjust as it is today, it is simply a case of a social institution that runs contrary to the highest ideals of India’s philosophical elite, but was upheld through the power of the ruling elites. Either way however, my responses still stand to refute the above apologetic argument.

Whilst India’s hereditary caste system is indeed a wicked aberration, one must remember that Western civilization has not been free from rigid class snobbery, in which peasants obviously couldn’t marry nobility, and the higher classes often treated servants as sub-humans. Certainly the way in which European settlers treated indigenous people in the Americas, Australia and New Zealand is every bit as bad as the treatment of the sub-castes in India, and the treatment of African slaves in the US is probably the very worst of all. Furthermore, in this last example we can actually state that the Bible itself not only does not condemn slavery, but certainly the OT actually condones and mandates slavery[iii].

Now, whilst I do criticize Christianity on the basis of the major moral issues with the Old Testament, I do not hold Christianity as a whole accountable for all the atrocities that have been committed by Christians over the better half of the last 2,000 years. Rather, I attempt to limit my criticisms of Christianity to the actual content of Christian scriptures, and the core doctrines that are central to the orthodox form of the faith. There certainly is the case that sometimes the misbehaviour of members of a certain faith can be found to be encouraged by the scriptures of the faith in question, in which case it is indeed fair game to lay some of the blame on the faith itself.

In the case of India’s hereditary caste system, one can certainly point out that it is condoned and mandated by the Laws of Manu, and thus argue that Hindu scriptures themselves condone the injustice of the caste system. In this example it is true that the Laws of Manu is considered canon by many Hindus. However, the case is quite a bit more complex than the canonisation of problematic parallel texts in Christianity and Islam (for example). In the cases of Christianity and Islam, each faith has one primary text made up of many parts[4]. A unifying feature of all orthodox Christian denominations is that they accept the Bible as a whole to be the Word of God, and likewise the same is true of orthodox Muslims and the Koran. Certainly one can argue that certain parts of the Bible contradict other parts[5], or that parts of the Koran contradict other parts[6]. However the fact remains that if a Christian were to openly renounce part of the Bible, this would immediately place them outside of the boundary of orthodoxy[7].

By contrast, the Vedic canon is not as unitary or well defined. Rather, there are a vast number of texts considered to hold canonical status, with primary texts designated sruti, and secondary texts designated smrti. In this case, the Laws of Manu are one of many, many texts generally given secondary status as smrti. In this regard different Hindu sects may focus their studies on particular texts from the vast Vedic library, and may not pay attention to competing doctrines found in another text. Furthermore, modern scholars have concluded that the Laws of Manu did not hold the same authoritative status prior to British rule. That is, prior to this period there were more than a dozen different law texts in circulation[8]. It was the British that gave the Laws of Manu its formal status, as they wanted a formal law by which to govern Hindus, just as they allowed sharia law for Muslims[9]. Hence it is much easier for progressive Hindu to accept some Vedic texts whilst ignoring or denouncing others, than for progressive Christians or Muslims, who find themselves forced to consider denouncing the Bible or Koran in part or whole.

There have been many Hindu reformers that have sought to rid India of hereditary caste, as they have argued that it is contrary to the core spiritual principles of Hinduism. On many occasions progressive Indians have sought to enact legal reform to improve the rights of the low-caste, which have been opposed by those of high-caste, who wish to keep things as they are. One could perhaps draw a parallel to examples in North America where attempts by progressives to enact policies designed to raise the minimum wage, institute universal healthcare and make tertiary education more affordable etc. are met by resistance by conservatives (who largely represent the wealthy), who accuse all such efforts of being examples of socialism.

Of course both of these examples have little to do with religion, and more to do with common behaviour of human beings possessed by the ego, manifesting the lowest potential of humanity in resisting positive change. Likewise, both of these examples show people of different faiths going against the primary doctrines of their faith. Philosophical Hinduism teaches unconditional love and absolute compassion for all beings, and given that this naturally extends to animals as well as humans, it should naturally extend to all humans, regardless of birth. Likewise, whilst there are parts of the Old Testament that could be presented in favour of conservative political doctrines[11], a major theme of the NT Gospels is social justice, compassion for the poor and sick, and likewise early Christians were known to give up their individual possessions for the community as a whole[iv].

Hence, we do not use examples of politically conservative Christians in the US being unsympathetic to the plight of the poor in their own country as examples of the true nature of Christianity, as in truth the New Testament in general praises asceticism and promotes compassion for the underprivileged, whilst condemning materialism. Likewise, we should not take examples of high-caste Indians who wish to maintain their privilege (which comes at the expense of those below them in the social sphere) as examples of the true nature of Hinduism, as the central doctrines of Hinduism teach compassion and service for all humanity, and likewise again the concepts of karma and reincarnation are present in other faiths like Buddhism and Sikhism, naturally leading to compassion for all beings.

As for the 2nd part of the argument where apologists claim that these Hindu doctrines are the cause of the poverty of India, again this is a gross misrepresentation of the truth. It is indeed true that classified under the general term Hinduism are a myriad of different sects. Certainly, there are many expressions of supernaturalism in India that can legitimately be termed superstitious, and some of these could be argued to hold back Indian culture. One could also argue that Indian spirituality is known to place too much emphasis on transcendence of the physical world, and not enough upon evolution within it. However, to argue (as Christian apologists do) that the problems of Indian society are the natural consequences of the concepts of karma and reincarnation (in contrast to Western culture, which they falsely claim is primarily a result of its Judeo-Christian heritage) is quite erroneous, as I will now explain.

In truth, from very early on in its history India was well known for its wealth, and for the majority of the past 2,000 years (prior to European invasion) India had one of the world’s largest (and possibly the largest) economies. It is estimated that at the time of British annexation India accounted for approx. 23% of the worlds economy, whilst at the time of the re-establishment of Indian independence this had fallen to as little as 4%[v]. The British placed a tax on local goods whilst placing none on imported products, they held back the industrialisation of India commerce, used prime Indian agricultural land for growing Opium instead of food crops[12], and imported Indian food and other resources back to Europe, whilst Indians were starving and living in stark poverty[13]. Tens of millions of Indians starved under British rule, and whilst there obviously was poverty in India prior to British rule, there doesn’t seem to be any question that these famines were largely due to the economic policies of the British.

Of course the issue isn’t absolutely black and white. The British did build railways, which bestowed various benefits to Indian people, plus they also built damns, which helped to create fertile land out of previously arid soil. Likewise, I am not claiming that the Indian region did not have any problems prior to British annexation. However, the point still stands. Whilst Christian apologists claim that poverty is a natural consequence of Hinduism – in contrast to the Judeo-Christian tradition, which they claim breeds prosperity – in this case, the truth is the exact opposite. Quite literarily, a so-called Christian nation screwed India, raped her economy and plundered her riches. Now, in fairness, the behaviour of the British in this manner could hardly be considered to be consistent with general Christian morality as derived from the New Testament. However, the above again refutes this general argument.

Furthermore, again we should note that Western civilization was actually founded by so-called pagans, that being the Greeks and Romans, and we could likewise argue that the foundation for Greek culture was found in Egypt and other nations prior to the flourishing of the great Hellenistic Empire. A number of major Greek philosophers actually shared the Hindu doctrines of karma and reincarnation. Hence, one could actually argue that Western civilization was founded on similar philosophical foundations to Hinduism. Now of course, the large parts of Greek and Roman civilization would not have necessarily shared the high ideals of the philosophical elite (in which case we can argue that Western civilization was founded on traditional polytheism). However, Platonic thought (for example) was incredibly influential amongst the elite of the ancient world, and so the point still stands.

Ultimately, if some Indians have used the concept of karma as a justification for ignoring the suffering and injustice inflicted upon others, they have done so in direct violation of the central tenets of their religion. Therefore such attitudes are not a direct consequence of the concept itself, but are more akin to some Christians using the concept of divine justice as a justification for the suffering of those caught in natural disasters[vi]. One must be careful in any comparison to compare apples with apples; that is, to take a fair consideration of each side rather than to stack the deck to favour one team. Hence, this is again another case of Christian apologists attempting to define other faiths by the worst examples that can be found within and around them, whilst they likewise attempt to excuse their own faith of quite legitimate criticisms.

For true progress to occur in interfaith relations (and also in other fields of study), we all need to be willing to see various belief systems as they are.  That is, we should be willing to see the strengths and weaknesses of different faiths as they stand, not as we might wish them to be relative to our own faith, in order to attempt to justify our stance on comparative religion.  We do indeed need to reform our own faiths, and perhaps when we stand outside another faith we may perhaps see their problems from a different perspective to them.  However, we should not let apologetic arguments like those above stand without being refuted.  Christian apologists are responsible for enormous amounts of misinformation on various sub-topics of religion, and these erroneous arguments deserve to be laid aside once and for all.

Peace.

[1] Though I have heard a close family member (who is Christian) tell me that she has heard this directly from an Indian woman she knows.

[2] Hence vegetarianism is common amongst the Dharmic faiths.

[3] Known as the Bodhisattva vow.

[4] Many individual books for the Christian Bible, and many chapters for the Koran.

[5] Say for example, one can take various quotes ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels and present them as contrary to the harshness of the Old Testament (as Marcion did in his Antithesis).

[6] Again, I believe that there is disagreement between early and late chapters of the Koran in relation to how Mohammad viewed Christians and Jews in relation to Islam.

[7] And again, the same is also true of Islam.

[8] Some of which were significantly more liberal by comparison to the Laws of Manu.

[9] We should also mention that there are many different manuscript variants on the Laws of Manu, and it is universally accepted that the text is subject to considerable interpolation and redaction. The British effectively gave canonical status to the first manuscript of a law text they encountered, without any in-depth consideration of the consequences.

[11] Though again, there are also parts of the OT that speak up for the plight of the poor, and feature similar social justice themes to those found in the NT.

[12] For which the monetary gains were taken by the British.

[13] And they refused to send them back as emergency relief.

[i] I believe that the above analogy was raised amongst others by Stephen Mansfield in his recent book “Where has Oprah taken us”: http://www.amazon.com/Where-Has-Oprah-Taken-Religious/dp/B007SRZ8XW.

[ii] See the following link and the further links at the bottom of the page, which contain various passages from Vedic to support the contention of the author, as well as the examples of sages becoming recognized as Brahmins (priests) on the basis of their learning, despite being born from mothers who were Shudras (servants): http://www.hinduwisdom.info/Caste_System.htm. I personally have no vested interest in whether or not this was the case, and without having studied the issue at length one must also consider the possibility that the above are merely exceptions to a system that was from its conception rigid and unjust.

[iii] One should note that as Christian apologists are well known for claiming credit for everything, they have also attempted to claim credit for ending slavery. However, the fact remains that the enslavement of African people by Europeans was instigated by Christians, that this was mandated by papal bull, and that many Christians also opposed the abolishment of slavery. See following article: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2009/11/did-christianity-abolish-slavery/. Also, we should note that Christian apologists are well known to claim that their critics are taking the Old Testament out of context, and to argue that the slavery condoned by the OT was merely a sort of employer-employee contract. I will not be going into this issue here; for those that are interested, please check out Thom Stark’s online response to Paul Copan, titled “Is God a moral compromiser?”: http://thomstark.net/copan/stark_copan-review.pdf.

[iv] This is largely encouraged in the Gospels themselves, Acts of the Apostles attests to it (and whilst I consider Acts to be largely – if not wholly – fictional, this attestation is still significant), and it is mentioned by Lucian in “The Death of Peregrinus” (again a work of satire, possibly fictional, though still an important citation). Hence, many people have correctly considered early Christians to have followed a form of socialism, much to the irritation of modern politically conservative Christians.

[v] According to the calculations of historian Angus Maddison: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_India#British_Era_.281793.E2.80.931947.29.

[vi] This has happened on several occasions in America, such as with the 2010 earthquake in Haiti (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5TE99sAbwM). Pat Robertson proclaimed that the suffering was brought on by “wickedness” and that the natural disaster was God’s judgment. Whilst these claims were heavily criticized, most observers are intelligent enough to note that such absurd and abhorrent claims are not indicative of Christianity as a whole (even though there is possibly some justification for such a view, mostly in the Old Testament). Rather, most observers can see that such comments are a result of human stupidity and bigotry, manifested within a Christian context. Likewise, the aforementioned example of Indians not caring for the suffering of others fits this last description; human stupidity and bigotry manifest within a Hindu context, and it is not indicative of the very nature of the concept of reincarnation or karma.

Apologetics vs. Real scholarship on the dating and authorship of the Gospels:

I was inspired to write this article in response to a recent post on a FB forum for fans of Dr. Robert Price. Obviously attempting to evangelize to the non-believers, a Christian by the name of Timothy Kennelly posted a summary of claims made in Brant Pitre’s “The Case for Jesus”. Kennelly claimed that Pitre made a convincing case that all four NT Gospels were written prior to 70CE, and that they weren’t originally anonymous, but rather that church tradition regarding their authorship was indeed accurate. Likewise, Kennelly claimed that Pitre showed that all four Gospel authors believed that Jesus was God. Furthermore, Kennelly claimed that Pitre showed that “many of the elements of the standard critical take on the Canonical Gospels are products of scholarly bias as opposed to good scholarship”. So, for the benefit of my readers I would like to give a quick response to these claims.

Pitre was attempting to respond to the general academic consensus that all four NT Gospels were written following 70CE, by arguing that there is no explicit mention of the destruction of Jerusalem and it’s temple anywhere in the Gospels. Pitre is not the first Christian apologist to attempt to make this case. Rather, countless apologists prior to Pitre have already made the same argument. Here lies the difference between apologetics and scholarship; Christian apologists generally make no attempt at even acknowledging the quite obvious responses that critics give to their arguments. That is, apologists make no real attempt at engaging with the opposing view. Alternatively, critics have long been attempting to directly engage with the arguments presented by apologists.

The argument that apologists like Pitre make is that had the Gospels been written after 70CE they would have featured explicit reference to it, particularly in light of the prophecies of the destruction of the temple, as found in Mark 13. For those unfamiliar, Mark 13 is often referred to as the “mini-apocalypse”, as it features Jesus giving a quite specific prophecy that the temple of Jerusalem would be destroyed, and that the end of the world would follow (Kennelly has implied that Mark 13 wasn’t specific in referring to the destruction of Jerusalem. This is of course completely untenable; the prophecy is quite explicit). Christian apologists claim that had Mark been written post 70CE than it’s author would have wanted to boast about the prophecy coming true, something along the lines of “… and look, it did happen! Therefore Jesus really did posses supernatural abilities!”.

The response to this is really quite simple. If the author of Mark had written something along the lines of “…and we all know the prophecy came true…” then that would give away that it was written after 70CE. If you are writing after 70CE but trying to pass off a work as if it were written prior to 70CE, you can’t give the game away by putting something in the text that explicitly places it after that date. Again, if you are trying to present a text as predicting some recent event before it happened, you can’t put in an explicit statement that the event has now occurred and that the prophecy has been fulfilled, otherwise you give the game away. Obviously this is just simple logic, and I am not the first to point this out. The very fact that Christian apologists are still making this argument in light of this is pretty staggering.

To further this, we should note that it was extremely common in the ancient world for religious texts to present themselves as being written in an earlier age to when they were, both to give them additional authority and in order to pass them off as being prophetic. There is actually a Jewish work known as the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch which attempts exactly the same thing as the Gospel of Mark, in presenting a prophecy of the destruction of the Temple as being given well before the even had taken place. Again, scholars date this text after 70CE for this simple reason.

Likewise, a non-Canonical (but otherwise orthodox) Christian text called the “Epistle of the Apostles” gives a prophecy of the coming of the Apostle Paul, even though the text was clearly written in the 2nd century (at least). Furthermore, it wasn’t just Jews and Christians that backdated prophecies. Rather, retroactive prophecies are also found in the religious texts of other cultures; for example, the Bhagavata Purana contains a prophecy of the spread of the Vishnu cult in Tamil country, leading scholars again to date it after this was known to have happened.

Occam’s Razor states that that the simplest explanation is often the best explanation. It is far simpler to suppose that a text that clearly references a historical event was written after the event in question rather than before, unless there is extremely strong evidence to the contrary. In the case of the Gospels, the earliest fragments are generally dated to the late 2nd century CE and beyond (with the only exception being P52, which is late 1st – late 2nd and beyond); hence we have no manuscript evidence of them prior to 70CE. Likewise, there are no external references to the Gospel narratives that are pre-70CE. There are no inscriptions, no artefacts, nothing at all.

Christian apologists have often argued that if a narrative ended at a certain point and failed to mention later traditions (relating to the death of disciples and so forth), that this is evidence for it being early (this argument is often presented for Acts of the Apostles). Again though, such arguments are entirely theoretical, and one can envisage countless reasons why a narrative would end at a certain point even if it were late.

Obviously the evidence for Markan priority is pretty straightforward, and it is mostly only conservative Christians that contest it (though there are a few other theories floating around, such as that the Gospel of Phillip or Marcion’s Gospel pre-dated Mark). Firstly, Matthew and Luke copied the vast majority of Mark verbatim, and it is much simpler to suppose that they both expanded upon Mark than to suppose that Mark is a shortened version of them. Furthermore, Mark is lacking a birth narrative or post-resurrection appearances (noting that Mark originally ended at 16:8); hence it is clear which way development went. So, considering that Mark is clearly post 70CE, this means that all four canonical Gospels are post-70CE. The evidence is really straightforward; there really isn’t much room for debate.

Regarding the authorship of the Gospels, mainstream scholarship long ago concluded that church tradition regarding the authors of the four canonical Gospels was largely (if not entirely) fictional, and that all four Gospels were originally anonymous. Kennelly claims that Pitre refuted this by pointing out that the earliest manuscripts we have for the NT Gospels have the names of the traditional authors on them.

Much has been made of the fact that the Gospel texts themselves do not have the names of the authors within them. Some have argued that this implies that they were originally anonymous, whilst others have argued that it was common for ancient works to only have the authors name at the beginning or end of the manuscript. I cannot personally offer any opinion on that. I do think we shouldn’t base any claim that they were originally anonymous on that fact alone.

However, whilst some Christians will claim that there was never any debate amongst the early church as to the authorship of the NT texts, the fact remains that we do know that there were multiple versions of the canonical Gospels in circulation, and that some of these variants went by different names to what we know them as. For example, Marcion’s Gospel appears to have been related to Luke, and we generally know of his by the name “Gospel of the Lord” (though I believe it also went by other titles). In fact, I believe that it is up for discussion as to whether Marcion claimed his Gospel was written by the Apostle Paul? Whilst church tradition maintains that Marcion removed material from Luke (thus making Luke earlier), there are some scholars that believe that Marcion himself wrote his Gospel by adding material to Mark, and that Luke is a redaction of his Gospel (and I personally believe that the evidence for this conclusion is strong).

Regarding Matthew, it seems that a number of heterodox Jewish Christian sects had their own versions of the text. In this case the works were known as “The Gospel of the Hebrews”, “The Gospel of the Ebionites” and “The Gospel of the Nazarenes” etc. Again, as with Marcion’s Gospel, I believe that a good case can be made that Matthew is a Catholic redaction of one of these Gospels. Likewise we know that many of the Alexandrian Gnostic heresiarchs used a version of the Gospel of Mark, and we do not know what theirs was called. Furthermore, there is likewise evidence that the Gospel according to John was used by heterodox Christian sects, and there is even a tradition that both John’s Gospel and Apocalypse (Revelation) was written by the Alexandrian heresiarch Cerinthus (though I personally have long suspected that Cerinthus wrote Revelation and Mark). Hence we have real reasons to doubt the original attribution of the names Matthew and Luke to their respective Gospels, and there is also evidence to suggest the same could have been so of Mark and John.

From the late 2nd century onward we have evidence of the power of the proto-orthodox Church, which wielded authority over a large number of churches over a large area. The fact remains however that at the same time, Marcion’s churches were spread far and wide, and his churches certainly would have used his canon of NT texts rather than the Catholic one we are more familiar with. The earliest evidence we have for the NT canon as we know it comes from Irenaeus in the late 2nd century, and likewise the earliest surviving manuscript fragments with names on the Gospels also date around the turn of the 2nd-3rd centuries CE. Beyond that the earliest surviving complete NT manuscripts date from the 4th century CE.

If Catholics hadn’t sought to destroy manuscripts and entire texts that they didn’t consider canon (and likewise if they had deliberately attempted to preserve such texts) we would indeed have surviving manuscripts bearing different titles to what we know today. We even know of variant titles for some of Paul’s Epistles, and again one can certainly make an argument that the Marcionite titles are more original.

We should also mention that we do not hear of orthodox Christians accepting that heterodox Christian Gospels really were written by Mary, Judas, Phillip, Peter and Thomas etc. I have never heard of any alternate tradition that gave different titles for the Gospel’s of Mary and Judas, and yet it would be foolish to presume that they were really written by  historical disciples of Jesus by those names, just because the Gospels bear those titles.

Christians of all persuasions (orthodox and heterodox) backdated their Gospels, Epistles, Acts and Apocalypses, and presented them under the names of prominent disciples in order to give them authority. This was how they rolled. Christian apologists are trying to have it both ways by using special pleading to try and defend the traditional dating and authorship of the canonical NT texts, whilst likewise accepting the conclusions of mainstream academia on the dating and authorship of heterodox texts, even though they display the same tendencies as the canonical texts.

Anyways, all of this is quite mute when you consider that aside from what names were originally attributed to these Gospels, one way or another the Gospels are largely (if not wholly) fictional. Again, as I’ve stated repeatedly, large chunks of the Gospels are Midrash, or are historically impossible, or are dependent upon pagan myths etc. There were obviously no eyewitnesses to Jesus feeding the 4,000, because it was copied from a story of Elisha in 2 Kings 4:43-44. There were no eyewitnesses to record Jesus’s last words on the cross because nobody was within earshot, not to mention the text is taken from various passages in Psalm 22.

There was no eyewitness to Jesus’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, as the disciples are all presented as being asleep. There were no eyewitnesses to the cleansing of the Temple, as the whole narrative is practically historically impossible (it would have started a riot, the Roman guards out the front would have killed them all on site, and there is no mention of such an event by Josephus, Philo or Justus). And on it goes…

Anyways, on the final claim about all four canonical Gospels teaching that Jesus was God, it certainly is true that there are some references to divinity in all four Gospels. However, I believe it is still quite correct to state that there are a variety of Christological views represented in the New Testament Gospels. For example, the Gospel of Mark has no birth narrative (but rather starts at the baptism) and describes Jesus’s family as thinking he has gone mad when he starts preaching and performing miracles (Mark 3:21). If we were to take this in isolation (bearing in mind that it was the first of the NT Gospels) we would have no reason to suspect that anything supernatural had occurred to Jesus prior to his baptism. No virgin birth, no angels, no pre-existent Logos. Just a mortal human being who was overshadowed by a divine presence from his baptism on. And what would you know, this is exactly what a number of prominent heterodox Christians who used the Gospel of Mark (in some form) believed.

Likewise, the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke (as we know them) do not necessarily presuppose a pre-existent Christ being born into the flesh. Rather, if read in isolation they simply present a god being born the same way as various pagan gods or Emperor’s were born (Dionysus, Perseus, Augustus etc.), that being via the supernatural impregnation of a mortal female by the supreme male God. They were a god, son of God for sure, but it was their supernatural birth that established this as their genesis, not necessarily their descent into the flesh. What’s more, as previously stated, we have good reasons to believe that the canonical versions of Matthew and Luke are redacted forms of heterodox Gospels, in which case Ur-Matthew was originally also an adoptionist Jewish Christian Gospel, and Ur-Luke originally featured Christ descending down from heaven.

As for John, there is no birth narrative, so we have no reason to presuppose that if read in isolation its readers would have thought that Christ was born from a virgin. However, John most certainly makes it clear that Christ was a pre-existent divine being who had taken part in Creation and had descended down from the heavens. Furthermore, a number of critical scholars have presented a very strong case that even in the form we know it today, the Gospel of John presents Jesus as not being the son of Yahweh, but rather the son of a higher God. Whilst John is big on the whole divinity of Jesus thing, it is also very critical of “the Jews”, to the point that it can be argued that it is presenting Jesus as being from a God above Yahweh, which would mean that it originated amongst Marcionite-Valentinian circles or something along those lines (to which we should cite the tradition that it was a Valentinian who wrote the first commentary on John).

Let us remember that aside from the orthodox church post-Irenaeus, most Christian sects used only one Gospel at a time. That is, prior to Irenaeus, even proto-orthodox Christians would likely have not necessarily tried to harmonize multiple different Gospels with different Christology’s. Likewise, both before and after the time of Irenaeus, the multitude of heterodox Christian sects generally made use of one narrative Gospel (though some had supplementary Gospels of a more esoteric nature). Why use multiple Gospels that contradicted each other (and the doctrines of your sect), when you could use one that said exactly what you wanted it to say?

Anyways, all of this should show rather clearly that there is a vast chasm separating Christian apologetics from secular scholarship, although it is also true that the quality of secular scholarship is compromised by the interpenetration of apologetics into its field. Nevertheless, the frequent claims made by Christian apologists as to the reliability of the NT texts and the authority of their tradition blow away in the wind when compared with the arguments and evidence presented by critical scholars.

Regardless of how many times critics refute their claims, Christian apologists have continued to make the same ridiculous claims and use the same erroneous arguments. Christian apologists are spokespeople masquerading as scholars. They are like tobacco spokespeople, or alcohol industry lobbyists. Christian apologists entered the pseudo-academic world specifically to try and uphold their presuppositions. That is, they masquerade as historians and Bible scholars to try and maintain church tradition that is essential for them to make their rather serious claims.

Of course, orthodox Christians have completely identified with their faith. That is, they believe it to be who they are; they say “I am a Christian”, as if it defines some fundamental feature of their immortal soul. They unconsciously believe that if Christianity were to fall they would become less, perhaps even nothing. They believe they would lose hope of an afterlife, of divine justice and divine love. Hence, we need to promote accurate education of comparative spirituality.

Let us remember again that orthodox Christians are not simply trying to avoid persecution and live and let live (though they are certainly persecuted outside of the Western world). Rather, many of them wish to condemn and restrict other faiths, control the legal rights of the LGBTI community, restrict science education in schools and bring religion into foreign policy etc. Conservative Christians want to tell us that we will all be tortured for eternity because we deserve it, and they base it all upon a deeply flawed collection of texts we know as the Bible. Apologetics like Pitre’s “The Case for Jesus” are essential for their case. Unfortunately for them, whether it is Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, William Lane Craig, James Patrick Holding, Brante Pitre or anyone else, the arguments are the same, and the complete lack of quality is ubiquitous to the genre.

Let us be willing to see the worlds religious text’s as they really are, not how we wish them to be. Giving up the divine status of the Bible and giving up Christianity is not the end of spirituality. I would encourage Christians to accept the reality of the deeply flawed nature of their Scripture and faith as a whole, and look into other spiritual texts, sects and practices. For those that stay within the faith, can I suggest you look to reform it into a culturally specific form of the Perennial Philosophy, which should be vastly different to orthodox Christianity as we know it.  There are of course many liberal and universal Christian sects that have already moved significantly in this direction .

Peace.