Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Spirit of Paranoia: A Critical Analysis of “Zeitgeist” (Part 1)

The discussions of the origins of Christianity in Zeitgeist may sound very compelling to one who is desperately searching for that elusive single argument that destroys Christianity as a credible belief system in one fell swoop. The primary thesis of Part I of this film is essentially that Christianity stole various beliefs and rituals wholesale from other earlier religions, particularly Egyptian mythology, incorporating these borrowed beliefs and rituals into its own theological structure. This is only partly true; the formation of Christianity was certainly influenced by other religions and mythologies. But to the extent that this is true, it is trivial. Only to the claimed extent that this assessment is profound is it somewhat false and very misleading, and herein lies the problem. Instead of pointing out the actual religions that Christianity was influenced by, such as the Babylonian set of religions and Zoroastrianism (which were the two primary formative influences for Christianity) Zeitgeist opts to dive into completely unrelated belief systems and form spurious connections between them.

With the rise of Zoroastrianism and the Babylonian faiths, we essentially see the rise of monotheism and the dualistic concept of good and evil in its first stages of development. Concepts such as a worldwide flood, angels and demons, Manichean dualism and other elements of this sort were heavily influenced by Babylonian tales. Taken together in context, it becomes obvious where Judaism acquired these elements. The historian can then trace the various changes, additions and deletions that eventually formed what we recognize as orthodox Christianity today. Determining the source of Christianity's major tenets and rituals is not a difficult task, and anyone who wishes to research this subject will find evidence of a conspiracy in play during Christianity's formative years to be sorely lacking. Much of the information relevant to this research is contained in the pages of the Bible itself; a careful reading of the Bible will reveal that the Old Testament is essentially a buffet, from which the various off-shooting sects of Judaism that eventually became collectively grouped under the umbrella of Christianity chose which elements and themes they wanted, incorporated these into the documents that eventually formed the New Testament, and added in information about Jesus the Christ.

Rather than pointing out historical facts along these lines and delving into what is actually flawed about Christianity, the filmmaker makes claims about Horus being the Sun God of Egypt (which is erroneous; Horus was the god of the sky) and drags in lists of elements that are characteristic of most religions, such as resurrection from the dead. It is as if Peter Joseph is under the illogical impression that rising from the dead is a feat that would not be a ubiquitous desire across religions! Resurrection is a concept almost all people throughout history have been heavily interested in, especially people in ancient times who had little to no concept of medicine and who had very little understanding of what life really was. Thus, it comes as no surprise that it was very common and popular to believe that the sun created all life or that the sun is a powerful deity because it provides daylight and sustains life. Christianity had no need to steal these concepts. To claim otherwise, as Peter Joseph does in his film, is to be ignorant of history; Christianity had its own particular formative influences, one of these being Judaism, which in turn borrowed from earlier belief systems. Similarity does not in and of itself denote wholesale borrowing from the earlier idea. The bottom line is that Peter Joseph protests far too much in Zeitgeist. As mentioned above, there is a rich buffet of theological concepts and ideas within Judaism and the Persian religions its adherents came into contact with for the Jewish sect of Christianity to have selected from. Why would the proto-Christian believers have any need to turn to Egyptian mythology for inspiration? One does not have to study the history of Christianity very long before discovering the similarities with many other cultures in the surrounding regions; the stories being told over and over again did not all come out of Egypt.

Those who are familiar with Kersey Grave's seminal 1875 work The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors will recognize the strong allusions to its central themes in Zeitgeist [1]. In his book, Graves discussed a large number of comparisons and alleged precursory connections to the Christ story among other gods, Horus being only one. Much of what is discussed in Part I of Zeitgeist come from Grave's work. The fact that this book is not sourced in the film may be owing to the general consensus among historians that the book is unscholarly and unreliable. The primary sources listed for Part I of Zeitgeist are mythicist and conspiracy theorist D.M. Murdock (more popularly known as Acharya S) and the nineteenth-century self-styled Egyptologist Gerald Massey, upon whom Murdock heavily depends in her own writings. In fact, all sources for Part I ultimately lead back to Gerald Massey and other like-minded authors who are cited often by Acharya S, authors who are dismissed by most scholars as unreliable in their research methods. Because the claims contained in this part of the film are so strongly connected to the ideas that have made Acharya S famous, some background on who she is and what her methodologies are is in order.

It becomes fairly clear to any impartial follower of Acharya S's work that she seems to harbor a bizarre agenda against Christianity. Of course, it is popular among certain groups and demographics to hate Christianity, most especially among teenage atheists. But fostering an agenda-based dislike of a worldview one personally disagrees with, a mindset that predisposes those who hold it to discrediting rather than studying, is a phase people tend to grow out of. Acharya S seemingly has not grown out of her sophomoric crusade against Christianity, a crusade that is unscholarly at best and dishonest at worst. Having read many of her articles and blog posts on her website, what strikes me most are the claims she makes about her education. On both her “Who is Acharya S?” and “Credentials” pages, she claims to be fluent in Greek and Hebrew, and on the latter page she actually claims to have “sat down with the Bible – in English, as well as in the original Hebrew and Greek – long enough to understand it more than most clergy” [2].

This claim clashes starkly with her attempts to prove a connection between Jesus and astrological understandings of the sun by suggesting that “God's Sun = God's Son.” This is etymologically impossible, especially when it is the Greek and Hebrew languages (the languages she is allegedly a fluent expert on) we are talking about. “Sun” and “Son” sound similar only in English and Germanic languages, and in a few Slavic languages. But outside of Indo-European languages, the phonetics of these two words is completely different and there is little or no linguistic similarity whatsoever. The Hebrew word for “sun” is השמש (shemesh) [3] and the Hebrew word for “son” is בן (ben) [4]. Even the Akkadian word for the Babylonian/Assyrian sun god was Shamash. The only reason the two words sound similar in English is because the word for son was “sunu” [5] and the word for sun was “sunne” [6]. But Acharya S continues to promote the “God's Sun = God's Son” notion, signaling that her claimed credentials as well as the foundations of her "discoveries" are to be highly questioned. One would think that a person who is well versed in many languages, especially Hebrew and Greek, would realize that these connections cannot be made in this way. This criticism is borne out when one examines her use of sources. She uses Gerald Massey and similar writers as a secondary source quite heavily, but almost never uses primary sources. On the few occasions in which she does throw in a primary source to support her claims, it is often done so dishonestly.

I am not necessarily charging Acharya S with lying. It is entirely possible she is merely embellishing. It is also possible that she is uncritically receiving her information and sources directly from Gerald Massey, who has been denounced as a pseudo-historian by the academic world for over a century. Regardless of where Acharya S is coming from, much about her research methods and conclusions are flawed. Debunking Christianity is not difficult at all; lying and fabricating damning evidence is completely unnecessary. There is no need to make claims to the effect that Christianity was invented out of wholecloth from Egyptian religion, or that it was stolen from both Buddhism and Egyptian religion, as Acharya S claims [7]. Nobody's academic reputation is served well by going overboard with drawing parallels that do not exist between religions, to say for instance that other god-men from earlier religions were crucified when in fact they never were, and then to twist the knife in the wound by suggesting that such parallels necessarily means that the later religion must have stolen from the earlier one. Of course, it is true that Christianity borrowed many concepts from various Roman faiths. But Christianity did not steal nearly as many concepts from earlier faiths as Zeitgeist or pseudo-scholars such as Acharya S would have us believe. Even if it did, it is a logical fallacy to conclude that a religion whose tenets feature concepts such as recurring life and death (as one example) must have been taken from an earlier religion, simply because the earlier one also featured tenets of recurring life and death.

The filmmaker even goes beyond the erroneous parallels he makes between Jesus and other earlier gods such as Attis, Krishna, Dionysus and Mithra to make the claim that the cross is representative of the Zodiac. At the beginning of the film, Peter Joseph explains as follows by way of background:

This is the cross of the Zodiac, one of the oldest conceptual images in human history. It reflects the sun as it figuratively passes through the 12 major constellations over the course of a year. It also reflects the 12 months of the year, the 4 seasons, and the solstices and equinoxes. The term “Zodiac” relates to the fact that constellations were anthropomorphized, or personified, as figures, or animals.

In other words, the early civilizations did not just follow the sun and stars, they personified them with elaborate myths involving their movements and relationships. The sun, with its life-giving and -saving qualities was personified as a representative of the unseen creator or god. It was known as “God's Sun,” the light of the world, the savior of human kind. Likewise, the 12 constellations represented places of travel for God's Sun and were identified by names, usually representing elements of nature that happened during that period of time. For example, Aquarius, the water bearer, who brings the Spring rains.

The film implies that the Zodiac has always been connected with the constellations, and that there have always been only twelve of them. The oldest known zodiacs do not have twelve signs; the Babylonian zodiac, for example, originally consisted of eighteen signs [8], while the Mayan Zodiac consisted of twenty [9]. Despite the fact that the Egyptian and Greek zodiacs do contain twelve signs, these signs are not and were not recognized as representative of cosmic truth by all civilizations. Furthermore, there are in actuality thirteen constellations that the sun passes through. For some odd reason, modern astrologers do not take into account Ophiuchus, the missing constellation [10].

Later on in the film, Joseph adds sensationalism to his unscholarly understanding of the Zodiac's history and meaning, as we can see here:

Coming back to the cross of the Zodiac, the figurative life of the Sun, this was not just an artistic expression or tool to track the Sun's movements. It was also a Pagan spiritual symbol, the shorthand of which looked like this. This is not a symbol of Christianity. It is a Pagan adaptation of the cross of the Zodiac. This is why Jesus in early occult art is always shown with his head on the cross, for Jesus is the Sun, the Sun of God, the Light of the World, the Risen Savior, who will “come again,” as it does every morning, the Glory of God who defends against the works of darkness, as he is “born again” every morning, and can be seen “coming in the clouds”, “up in Heaven”, with his “Crown of Thorns,” or, sun rays.
The history of the cross has very little to do with the Zodiac. The cross represents the traditional understanding that Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross, and this is why Christians use it as the symbol for their religion. They have never used the cross to represent the Zodiac. If Jesus had been beaten to death with a club, perhaps the Christian symbol would be a club rather than a cross. Peter Joseph has simply taken the easy path of making false connections in order to prove something to people that conforms to and serves his agendas, and the people who fall for Joseph's claims are those who do not follow up with research of their own. Even if Joseph's claims were true, Christianity would still not be proven wrong, which is something that can be accomplished without a great deal of effort. Again, lying is completely unnecessary in accomplishing that task. Resorting to lies only suggests to those of us who have done our homework that Joseph and others with similar ideas have perhaps uncritically fallen for Christian apologetic tactics, and consequently proceeded to base their critique of Christianity on ideological or agenda-driven motives, rather than on reason.

The film's claim that “this is why Jesus in early occult art is always shown with his head on the cross” is not the case. Early occult depictions of Jesus showed his head on a halo, not a sun. Between the third and sixth centuries CE, halos were quite common for deities and other holy people. Many other deities and holy people with similar details surrounding their personages can be seen in ancient art that have no connection to the sun [11]. The filmmaker then attempts again to establish a connection between Jesus, the sun, and so forth. In this instance, the film fails to convincingly do so because it interprets all titles and traditional descriptions of Christ too literally.

Furthermore, there are a multitude of other instances in which the Zodiac could be used as a loose argument for establishing metaphorical connections. The ancient Hebrews, for example, were very aware of the Zodiac, as indicated simply by the existence of their phrase mazal tov (deriving from a Mishnaic word meaning “constellation” or “destiny,” and literally translating as “good luck”). But whether or not the cross of crucifixion (or any other cultural symbol pre-dating Christianity) is represented by the Zodiac is another matter entirely. In the case of the cross, the evidence from anthropology strongly indicates otherwise. The cross is one of the oldest symbols known, dating from as early as the Neolithic era, and was used by every known culture since that era for a variety of reasons that differ widely. The particular capacity in which the cross was used by any given culture in the past depended largely upon what the local population believed the cross to symbolize or represent. The cross-shaped sign in its earliest known form was represented as a crossing of two lines at right angles, in many cases forming an X that would be used to denote the mark of one who was buried. Another cross that challenges Joseph's portrayal of the symbol as one that remained sterile and conformed to interpretations of the Zodiac throughout history is the ankh, or ansated cross. This ancient Egyptian cross form, featuring a loop that circles on the top, symbolized eternal life and fertility and often appeared as a sign in the hands of the goddess Sekhmet.

I am not excluding entirely the idea that elements of Christianity were lifted from earlier influential mythologies. But to suggest that Christianity is nothing more than an amalgamation of different mythological ideas and that it was stolen from one single source and therefore somehow managed to perpetuate ages-old hijacked symbolism is far too great a stretch. There is no question that many concepts within Christianity were taken from or inspired by pre-existing belief systems and mythologies. But this is not the same as the misleading and inaccurate claim that every concept was stolen. The architects of Christianity were not actively or consciously stealing concepts from Egyptian religion and mythology as part of a conspiracy to politically control the lives of people.

In order to establish weak connections between Christianity and astrology, the filmmaker even stoops to the level of misquoting and misrepresenting the Bible (King James Version), a book that is already full of mistranslations as is, and which lacks a substantial amount of information that is represented in Christianity. Consider, for instance, what the filmmaker has to say about the Passover:

At Luke 22:10, when Jesus is asked by his disciples where the next Passover will be after he is gone, Jesus replied: “Behold, when ye are entered into the city, there shall a man meet you bearing a pitcher of water . . . follow him into the house where he entereth in.” This scripture is by far one of the most revealing of all the astrological references. The man bearing a pitcher of water is Aquarius, the water-bearer, who is always pictured as a man pouring out a pitcher of water. He represents the age after Pisces, and when the Sun (God's Sun) leaves the Age of Pisces (Jesus), it will go into the House of Aquarius, as Aquarius follows Pisces in the precession of the equinoxes. Also, Jesus is saying that after the Age of Pisces will come the Age of Aquarius.
While the reply from Jesus is quoted correctly here, the question asked by the disciples is not. Luke 22:10 is quoted correctly [12], but the misleading nature of the claim the filmmaker is using this verse to support becomes clear when we take a closer look at the context of the disciples' actual question. Luke 22:7-9 tells us: “Then came the first day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. And Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and prepare the Passover for us, so that we may eat it.’ They said to Him, ‘Where do You want us to prepare it? [13]’”

The disciples in this passage are not asking “where the next Passover will be,” but rather where they would be preparing and partaking of the Passover that evening. Still, even if the filmmaker represented the context correctly, the symbolism put forth by the film is inaccurate as well. The film describes Aquarius as “always pictured as a man pouring out a pitcher of water.” In the passage of Luke, however, the man the disciples meet is not pouring out a pitcher of water, but rather carrying a pitcher of water. If this is the symbolic reference that the film claims it to be, one may well ask why the symbolism is wrong.

This level of misrepresentation and misquoting is representative of the film's treatment of other Biblical passages as well, such as the filmmaker's claim that Matthew 28 is the main source for Christian understandings of end-times doctrines, as we see in the following quote:

Now, we have all heard about the end times and the end of the world. Apart from the cartoonish depictions in the Book of Revelation, the main source of this idea comes from Matthew 28:20, where Jesus says “I will be with you even to the end of the world.” However, in King James Version, “world” is a mistranslation, among many mistranslations. The actual word being used is “aeon,” which means “age.” “I will be with you even to the end of the age.” Which is true, as Jesus' Solar Piscean personification will end when the Sun enters the Age of Aquarius. The entire concept of end times and the end of the world is a misinterpreted astrological allegory. Let's tell that to the approximately 100 million people in America who believe the end of the world is coming.
It is interesting to note that the filmmaker dismisses the Book of Revelation as containing “cartoonish descriptions,” considering that the Book of Revelation contains the majority of the end-times predictions in Christianity's theological system. Either Peter Joseph has not read the Bible or he is utilizing very selective tactics in order to draw a parallel between the Zodiac and the Bible, a parallel that Revelation does not readily conform to. Matthew 28 is by no means the “main source” for Christian eschatology. Passages in Matthew 24 [14], Second Thessalonians 2 [15], the Book of Daniel [16] and of course Revelation [17] are far better and more in-depth sources. But it is clear that such misrepresentation and selective reasoning is required in order to prop up a case that the Bible is an astrological document. The King James Bible contains a total of 31,102 verses [18]. If the Bible is an astrological document, one would expect that there would be much more than a few verses indicating astrological connections between Jesus, Passover, the Zodiac, the dispensations, and so forth.

Also of interest is the fact that the film claims the King James Version of the Bible contains mistranslations, such as the word “world” actually meaning “aeon.” Yet the filmmaker uses the King James Version as a basis for his claims. The filmmaker appears more interested in levying a general attack on the reliability of the translation, presumably so that he can spin passages of his choosing however he chooses. While it is true that “world” in this case actually is a mistranslation of what should be “aion,” the Greek word is “αιων” [19] which means “eternity” rather than “age.” The Greek word for “age” is “παλαιώνω” (palaiono) [20]. Thus, despite the mistranslation, the general idea remains correctly conveyed, i.e., “even to the end of the world” versus “even to the end of eternity.”

The ideas presented in Part I of Zeitgeist concerning the origins of Christianity and the Egyptology/Christianity connections it makes have begun to make their way into popular culture, despite the fact that these ideas came into their own over a century ago at a time when in-depth scholarship on Christianity was not yet fully developed. For example, popular social critic and political commentator Bill Maher has begun to follow the same path in some of his statements. Many of the connections between Jesus and Horus that were made by Peter Joseph were made by Maher in his documentary film Religulous [21]. But this is the only aspect of the film as a whole for which Maher did not investigate claims as closely as he should have, and this demonstrates the need for even skeptics of the supernatural to be discerning in what we base our arguments on. Religulous is an example of a film that contains mostly hard-hitting and challenging truth, with a small amount of fiction mixed in. The opposite is the case for Zeitgeist; a very few points are correct, but the overwhelming majority of its points are untrue, nonsensical or completely irrelevant.

Conclusion

It is certainly true that the story of Christ is echoed by way of similarities or mythological motifs within ancient religions pre-dating Christianity. But this was by no means unique to Christianity, and to build a special case for Christianity being a fraud consciously perpetrated upon the masses based on the existence of similarities in past religions is illogical to the utmost. Furthermore, the film is also deceptive in the manner it presents arguments; the film makes direct claims to the effect that Christianity only stole its various central tenets from the ancient Egyptians, not bothering to reference any other influence upon the Christian religion. Christianity was indeed influenced to a slight degree by Egyptian religion, but there are far more inconsistencies than there are similarities, and the similarities that are there exist only to the extent that the ideas and concepts incorporated by Christianity were ubiquitous throughout Mesopotamia and beyond. Moreover, when religious scholars and anthropologists encounter concepts or philosophies in one religion that are more or less exactly the same across two pre-dating cultures (for example, the Egyptian faiths and Babylonian faiths), tracing the source of influence is often a matter of asking which culture or civilization was closer to the centers in which the newer religion developed. In the case of Christianity, it was the Babylonians who were closer and who therefore had a much more direct influence on Christianity's development. If Christianity borrowed elements from any earlier culture or religious system, it was the Babylonians, specifically the concepts of monotheism, dualism, angels and demons, a worldwide flood, and others. This is especially the case if one comes from a culture similar to surrounding cultures. In this case, it comes as no surprise that similar conclusions are sure to be reached, or that concepts are going to be borrowed simply because the people striving to create a model of the world that makes sense to them find other cultures' ideas very satisfying.

I do not have an ulterior motive in being highly skeptical of these claims in the film. I am by no means a Christian, much less an apologist for the Christian faith. Christianity remains a very flawed religion whether Peter Joseph's claims are true or not. Thus, it does not make a difference to me if I am falsely charged with being a “closet Christian.” What matters is discerning truth from falsehood, and this is not accomplished based upon what a person or group professes to believe as opposed to what I or anyone else believes. Thus far in our examination of Zeitgeist, the central arguments presented in the first part are seen to be factually and logically wrong, and are easily debunked by following up on the sources used in the film itself. There is nothing at stake for me personally if I am wrong; if the various disparate claims contained in Zeitgeist were proven to be true tomorrow, I would not have a reason to care, except to correct my critiques. A great many conspiracy theory enthusiasts are under the false impression that skeptics make the time and effort to debunk conspiracy theories because we have something to gain from debunking them. Hence, the most common accusations levied against skeptics of conspiracy theories such as those promoted by Peter Joseph is that we are closet Christians, government agents, or on someone's payroll. When cornered in debate, accusations of this ilk are often the conspiracy theorists' only recourse.

It is also quite interesting to note that conspiracy theorists with an agenda-driven mindset, such as Peter Joseph and Acharya S, seem to operate under the false assumption that nothing original can be created within new religions or belief systems, or that all true ideas are necessarily original. This is seen in the film's baseline assumption that every single concept within religions such as Christianity must have been stolen from earlier sources. What they either ignore or fail to realize is that it is not difficult to come up with original ideas and concepts, to imagine supernatural reasons why the sun shines, for instance.

NOTES

1. Kersey Graves, The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors: Christianity Before Christ (1875; Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 2001).

2. Acharya S, “What Are Acharya's Credentials?” Truth Be Known, http://www.truthbeknown.com/credentials.html (accessed 30 March 2011).

3. “השמש” http://tinyurl.com/ypqxbg (Hebrew language - reference for word only, accessed 30 March 2011).

4. “בן” http://tinyurl.com/29jd22 (Hebrew language - reference for word only, accessed 30 March 2011).

5. “Son (n.)” Online Etymology Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=son&searchmode=none (accessed 30 March 2011).

6. “Sun (n.)” Online Etymology Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=sun&searchmode=none (accessed 30 March 2011).

7. Acharya S/D.M. Murdock, “Is Buddhism Atheistic?” Truth Be Known, http://truthbeknown.com/lifeofbuddha.htm (accessed 30 March 2011); Acharya S/Murdock, “Beddru is Beddou is Buddha,” Truth Be Known, http://truthbeknown.com/beddru.html (accessed 30 March 2011).

8. Derek and Julia Parker, The New Compleat Astrologer (New York: Crescent Books, 1990), p. 194.

9. Barbara Tedlock, Time and the Highland Maya (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1992).

10. Ian Ridpath and Wil Tirion, Stars and Planets: The Most Complete Guide to the Stars, Planets, Galaxies, and the Solar System (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).

11. “Artists by Nationality: Greek Artists,” Artcyclopedia: The Ultimate Guide to Great Art Online, http://www.artcyclopedia.com/nationalities/Greek.html (accessed 30 March 2011).

12. Luke 22:10 and Parallel Translations, Bible Suite, http://bible.cc/luke/22-10.htm (accessed 30 March 2011).

13. Luke 22:7 and Parallel Translations, Bible Suite, http://bible.cc/luke/22-7.htm (accessed 30 March 2011); Luke 22:8 and Parallel Translations, Bible Suite, http://bible.cc/luke/22-8.htm (accessed 30 March 2011); Luke 22:9 and Parallel Translations, Bible Suite, http://bible.cc/luke/22-9.htm (accessed 30 March 2011).

14. “Matthew 24:1” (and following web pages), Scripturetext.com: Online Multilingual Bible, http://scripturetext.com/matthew/24-1.htm (accessed 30 March 2011).

15. “2 Thessalonians 2:1” (and following web pages), Scripturetext.com: Online Multilingual Bible, http://scripturetext.com/2_thessalonians/2-1.htm (accessed 30 March 2011).

16. “Daniel 1:1” (and following web pages), Scripturetext.com: Online Multilingual Bible, http://scripturetext.com/daniel/1-1.htm (accessed 30 March 2011).

17. “Revelation 1:1” (and following web pages), Scripturetext.com: Online Multilingual Bible, http://scripturetext.com/revelation/1-1.htm (accessed 30 March 2011).

18. Stephen M. Miller and Robert V. Huber, The Bible: A History – The Making and Impact of the Bible (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2004), p. 173.

19. “Mat. 28:20,” Blue Letter Bible, http://www.blueletterbible.org/Bible.cfm?b=Mat&c=28&v=20&i=conc#20 (accessed 30 March 2011).

20. The reader can confirm this for herself by consulting the Greek-English/English-Greek online dictionary at http://www.kypros.org/cgi-bin/lexicon (accessed 30 March 2011).

21. Larry Charles and Bill Maher, Religulous (Thousand Words, 2008).

Monday, March 28, 2011

Spirit of Paranoia: A Critical Analysis of “Zeitgeist” (Introduction)

Zeitgeist is an Internet film sensation that has rocked the freethought world since its release on Google Video in the spring of 2007. The film, whose title is the German word for “spirit of the age,” has become something of a cult phenomenon; many people have expressed that the movie wholly blew them away and “opened their mind.” While Zeitgeist is useful as a primer for those unfamiliar with different fringe ideas surrounding religion and politics, I argue in this essay that people should be extremely wary of accepting its claims as gospel. I also intend to discuss why I do not agree with the majority of claims made in this film, and why I disagree entirely with the overall message that the many claims made in the film are intended to convey collectively. A great deal of the ideas presented in Zeitgeist range from the factually wrong to the outright absurd. The approach is cognitively dissonant as well. The same standards of critical thinking the filmmaker purports to utilize in analyzing religious claims are not applied to many of the historical claims employed to support his analyses.

Zeitgeist is the film that first introduced me three years ago to the world of conspiracy theories, and I have been fascinated by conspiracy theories ever since. As a result, I have followed the work of figures such as Alex Jones (a household name among the conspiracy theorist community) having seen every one of his movies and listened to several of his radio broadcasts. But it is disappointing to discover that, when one looks for information concerning the material that people like Alex Jones promotes, there is for the most part very little commentary from the opposing side. This disappointing observation was also made by atheist and skeptic Edward L. Winston, who responded by creating the “skeptical inquiry consortium” ConspiracyScience.com, an excellent website resource devoted to debunking conspiracy theories of all kinds. Winston has expanded beyond shedding light on what are typically categorized as conspiracy theories to debunking common misconceptions and regular myths that websites such as Snopes.com are not likely to cover. For example, Snopes.com will probably never discuss the accusations that have been erroneously raised by some that Barack Obama is a crack-smoking homosexual [1]. Winston's website covers issues of this variety, because he does not place undue emphasis on being family friendly. His website pushes limits to a certain extent, perhaps to a PG-13 level.

The skeptic's first and most important task in discerning truth from falsehood in relation to conspiracy theories is to seek out the source of a conspiracy theory through thorough research, including what individual or group conceived of it, what agenda they may have, and the original evidence (if any) they drew upon. When that point is reached, the skeptic then stands in an informed position to figure out exactly what is wrong with the conspiracy theory or popular myth and why different groups feel motivated to add different elements to the same story. Of course, this methodology does not work for every claim, but it does work for the vast majority of them. Consider the “North American Union” conspiracy theory as an example (this is an idea discussed in Part III of Zeitgeist). Where did the idea of a North American Union originate? The strictly hypothetical and speculative concept originated in a book written by Robert A. Pastor in 2001, entitled Toward a North American Community [2]. Prior to the release of this book, there was never any mention by anyone of the North American Union, nor of the Amero currency that Pastor proposes in the book. A few years later, Alex Jones received word of Pastor's idea and immediately declared the emergence of a North American Union to be an absolute fact, disregarding the fact that the NAU was nothing more than a speculative suggestion, which Pastor himself did not support.

This is what conspiracy theorists typically do with every piece of information they stumble across. They will read a blog post or an op-ed piece from a news source that fires up their imagination, and then proceed to declare what they have come across to be fact, a sure indication that something will definitely transpire. The internal contradiction that plagues the conspiracy-around-every-corner mindset can be seen in this tendency. Conspiracy theorists constantly tell us that we cannot trust mainstream news sources, but then attempt to back up their claims with clips from major news media sources. They trust the news only insofar as their conspiracy theories can be validated. They distrust the news when information contradicting their claims is shown by news media. When one looks at the source of conspiratorial claims, she or he will also tend to discover exactly why the conspiracy theorists making the claims harbor the various agendas that they do. It is usually the case that uninformed people who spread unfounded conspiracy theories on social networking sites have good intentions in mind, to notify people of what they have been led to believe is really transpiring. But those who initially start conspiracy theories and claims usually have monetary interests, political gain, or simply a desire for fame in mind as they use their imaginations to invent myths.

Before delving with a critical eye into the content of Zeitgeist, crucial background information on the Zeitgeist Movement is in order. The Zeitgeist Movement is a group that was started by Peter Joseph, the creator of the film, who envisioned and created the group as a venue through which the ideas that he advocates in the second and third Zeitgeist films can be actively expressed [3]. TZM is Peter Joseph's way of not only promoting his movies, but also the concepts behind an unrelated venture called the Venus Project, a movement founded by social engineer and futurist Jacque Fresco that seeks to bring to fruition an artistic dream of a Technocratic resource-based economic utopia [4]. Like TZM, the Venus Project has not outlined any goals of a specific nature and has not accomplished anything to date. One of the purposes of the Zeitgeist Movement is to attempt to construct a plan to aid the Venus Project in establishing their agenda.

Zeitgeist is composed of three parts. Part I, entitled “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” discusses the origins of Christianity, asserting that the major tenets of Christian beliefs were taken from pre-existing myths. Part II, entitled “All the World's a Stage,” discusses the “truth” behind 9/11, arguing that the attacks on September 11, 2001 were an inside U.S. Government job that was covered up. Part III, entitled “Don't Mind the Men Behind the Curtain,” is concerned with arguing that the federal government and the banking systems are conspiring for power and wealth consolidation. The main body of my upcoming critique of Zeitgeist will be written in three parts, covering each section of the film in its turn.

NOTES

1. Edward L. Winston, “Barack Obama – Obama’s Personal Life and Past,” Skeptic Project 1 August 2009, http://politics.skepticproject.com/articles/obama/obamas-personal-life-and-past/ (accessed 28 March 2011).

2. Robert A. Pastor, Toward a North American Community: Lessons from the Old World to the New (Washington, D.C.: Peterson Institute, 2001).

3. http://TheZeitgeistMovement.com/.

4. http://www.TheVenusProject.com/.

5. For more in-depth information concerning the Zeitgeist Movement, see Edward L. Winston's helpful analysis at http://www.conspiracyscience.com/articles/the-zeitgeist-movement/ (accessed 28 March 2011).

Part I: The Greatest Story Ever Told

Part II: All the World's a Stage

Part III: Don't Mind the Men Behind the Curtain

Sunday, March 27, 2011

All Agog: A Response to Chris Quintana's Prophecy Challenge


"[T]he whole business is childish and nonsensical. Interpreters of prophecy during the last few centuries have been most of them in the same position; one of them sees in the sublimities of the Revelation the form of Louis Napoleon where two hundred years ago half Christendom saw the Pope, and the other half Martin Luther. The other day one of the seers saw Sebastopol in the prophecies, and now another detects the Suez Canal, and we feel pretty sure that the Council at Rome will soon be spied out in Daniel or Ezekiel. The fact is, when fancy is their guide men wander as in a maze. Spiritualistic interpreters see, like children gazing into the fire, not what is really before them, but what is in their own heads." ~ Charles H. Spurgeon (British Particular Baptist Preacher), 1834-1892 [1].

Rapture Ready Radio,” a lively radio show which broadcasts multiple times each week, is a cult sensation among right-wing doomsday-predicting fundamentalist Christians and a potential source of great entertainment and laughs by its secular listeners such as myself (my masochistic tastes being what it is, I enjoy Rapture Ready Radio almost as much as I enjoy the likes of Ray Comfort and Kent Hovind). A typical show features long tirades denouncing as a false believer any Christian who does not stand with them on every issue and enthusiastic commentary on various natural and political disasters around the globe, which in their mind is supposed to signal the soon arrival of their god-king to whisk them away to paradise.

But on a January 4, 2011 broadcast, Chris Quintana, one of the show’s hosts, presented a challenge to Brian "Box" Brown, an atheist cartoonist who appeared as a guest on the program after featuring hosts Quintana and Matt Buff in a satirical comic. Brown, who held his own well enough during the discussion, understandably had no comment to make on this challenge, being unprepared. But Quintana’s challenge struck me as one that was worth making a serious and substantial response to, given the overly-confident manner in which he presented it:
I'd like to get your take on something here for us. One of the wars that the Bible predicts is found in the Book of Ezekiel, okay? It's in chapters 38 and 39. Here's the interesting thing: For somebody like yourself as a total skeptic, if you're to go ahead and look at the countries that are mentioned there, what you would find is that they are modern-day Turkey, everything that is pretty much south of Russia, all the way down to Iraq as far over as Pakistan, most of the northern portion of Africa with the exception of Egypt. Now, looking at that part of the world, that the time that Ezekiel wrote it, there was nothing whatsoever that galvanized that group of people, their different cultures, ethnicities, continents, everything.

Here's the deal: As Ezekiel writes all of that, there was nothing that galvanized that whole group of people. Now here's where it gets interesting. What Ezekiel saw, and the only thing that those countries now and those groups of people now have in common is Islam. And if you look at the things that those people say, their desire is to see the elimination of the nation of Israel. So here's what I have to ask for anybody who wants to be objective about this: How is it that Ezekiel could talk about a coalition of countries coming after Israel, especially in the last century when, for a good portion of it, Israel didn't even exist. And what else could galvanize that group of people in the modern day, aside from Islam?

You say that everything that we're telling you is ridiculous and that the Bible is self-fulfilling. I'm giving you an example of something that was written long before the event, and you can't give me a good reason to explain how he could have known this. Nostradamus spoke in generalities and very vague things, but there's no way that you can actually say [it's] like what Ezekiel did. He told us what is modern-day Islam, and all the people that have arrayed themselves against Israel. And I just find it fascinating that you say it's self-fulfilling. How is Israel going ahead lining up all of its enemies under a religion that didn't exist when Ezekiel talked about it? How's that work?

Please, prove me wrong! I'm serious . . . This would be great! You can go ahead and look, and you can prove it through history who he's talking about, okay? This is your great opportunity to take a Christian guy like myself and show me that I'm totally all wet and prove to me where I'm wrong. This is great! Look at the opportunity that's now before you. What I'm giving you is the opportunity to shoot guys like me completely through, you know, as far as our theory, and maybe you can enlighten me through this. How about I give you the places to look, and you can find out who they are historically. And please tell me what they now have in common aside from Islam. I'd love to know it. If I'm wrong, which you think that I am, I'd love to hear an alternate theory.

For one thing, Quintana's argument relies completely on a shaky underlying premise which, when dismantled, undermines his entire case. This premise is the assigning of modern-day countries to countries mentioned in ancient religious texts. Prophecy enthusiasts like Quintana have adopted a slapdash etymology that attempts to say that names read in the original Hebrew correspond to somewhat similar-sounding names of modern geographical locations. But this lacks any linguistic basis or sense.

In the particular case of Ezekiel 38 & 39, identifying Lud and Put in 38:5 to be Persia, Ethiopia and Libya (as the King James Version does) is in fact not far-fetched. There is good reason to think that the text corresponds to those three countries, based on other ancient references. But the traditional prophecy buffs are mistaken when they equate Meshech and Tubal in 38:2-3 to the Russian cities of Moscow and Tobolsk respectively in the U.S.S.R. Russia as a whole also finds its way into these etymological word games based on the word "Rosh" in 38:2-3, which translates to "head," implying a chief (as in the head man of a tribe). "Rosh" is thus said to be Russia, the head of its domains of Moscow and Tobolsk [2].

This is patently incorrect. The name "Russia" derives from the Rus', a tribe of East Slavic horsemen who inundated the steppelands of central Russia and Ukraine from the north in the ninth century C.E. The Rus' have no connection whatsoever to "Rosh" or the "head." Instead, Ezekiel 38:2-3 is describing the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal and does not indicate a third name. Meshech is not Moscow, and Tubal is not Tobolsk. These were two ancient territories located adjacent to the Black Sea. One can find them on just about any old "World of the Bible" atlas. Tubal was the place that the character Tubal-Cain is made an eponymous ancestor of in Genesis 4:22. Being the mythic culture hero that he was, Tubal-Cain is here said to be the inventor of metallurgy, an "instructor of every artificer of brass and iron." Tubal is mentioned in Ezekiel 38 because their people were on the map at the time the text was written, and they were metal workers. They continued the fashioning of weapons in the tradition of their father Tubal-Cain, their eponymous ancestor. Meshech is not much different; the people of this land were known as the Mushki. Neither they nor the people of Tubal have any connection with modern-day Moscow and Tobolsk. Those who claim otherwise commit an error similar to (but even more egregious than) the error of trying to trace the Turks back to the ancient Ionians. While the Turks and the Ionians lived at different times in the same territory, they are completely different ethnic groups descended from different lines. The Turks came in from central Asia much later, during the early Middle Ages.

Now to move on to Gog (the most interesting of the points to be made): The best scholarship we have on this subject strongly suggests that there is only a mythical or semi-mythical association with this name. “Magog” is not a parallel name; it simply means “land of Gog,” to denote the land which Gog rules. In Greek, “Gog” is translated Gugeis (or Gyges if one prefers to Latinize it). Gugeis was a mythical character in Meshech (ancient Lydia), or in the surrounding borders. The king of this territory was Midas. Gog (or Gugeis or Gyges, take your pick) shows up in Middle Eastern mythology as a kind of monster reminiscent of the Leviathan traditions, sometimes associated with Iskandar Dhul-Qarnayn (literally “The Two-Horned One”).

This name, which some scholars conjecture is a reference to Alexander the Great, is found in the Qur’an (Surah XVIII:83-99). According to this passage, Dhul-Qarnayn is said to have imprisoned both Gog and Magog inside a mountain from which they are to eventually escape in the end of days. Gog and Magog are also mentioned in the Book of Revelation in the Christian Bible (20:8: “And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog & Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea”).

In the Old Testament’s Book of Ezekiel, Gog and Magog are pictured collectively as a single Leviathan-like creature: “And I will turn thee back, and put hooks into thy jaws ...” (38:4a). The picture is one of God fishing the great primordial serpent out of the ocean, thereby defeating him as he did Leviathan and Rahab.

Of course, biblical prophecy enthusiasts could argue that this interpretation of the Ezekiel passage is simply mythic allusion intended by the writer himself to metaphorically describe a real state that is monstrous and dangerous in nature and which God will defeat. This may in fact be true, but this argument does not avail the prophecy apologist in any way. For one thing, mythic allusion was used to describe almost all major villains, whether whole nations or individual leaders. Even the mythical Azdahak in ancient Iran, the very first Antichrist figure to be conceived, was intended to symbolize the invading Assyrians. The vast majority of characters in ancient mythologies had political dimensions that were relevant to the times in which they were created and written about.

This means that Ezekiel 38 and 39 is not an example of prophetic writing at all. Scholars are unanimously agreed on this point. If these chapters were written as predictions of the far future, they would be completely irrelevant to the people the prophets were trying to address at the time. Gog and the land that Gog rules (Magog) have come to mean something completely different than what it was originally intended to mean in modern apocalyptic thought. At the time the author of these Ezekiel passages was writing, they were simply meant to describe (through the metaphoric picture of the great sea monsters that God had defeated in primordial times) nations that were believed to be harassing Israel at the time. They were describing current events. Both literary and historical analysis supports this understanding.

This leaves open Quintana’s question of who the armies described in these Ezekiel chapters are supposed to be if not modern Islamic countries. Remember, Quintana says he would “love to hear an alternate theory.” Many scholars say that Gog and Magog represented the historical Scythians, who swept down as mounted horsemen from the northern kingdoms, though they never did get as far as ancient Israel and Judah. However, it was anticipated that they would successfully make it that far, and that is what Ezekiel 38 and 39 are about. I would strongly advise non-scholars like Quintana not to trust the likes of Hal Lindsey and the tradition he represents in his famous 1970 book The Late Great Planet Earth of spinning etymology and history in order to make Ezekiel 38 and 39 all about Russia.

To wrap up, we must address Quintana’s claim that these chapters in Ezekiel must be prophetic of modern Islamist countries and that this is borne out by his claim that nothing galvanized the countries he thinks are mentioned together in any coherent way, until Islam gave them something in common.

For one thing (as I have already mentioned above) if these writings were about the far distant future, they could not have possibly been relevant to the original readers, Ezekiel’s intended audience. For another thing, it is highly doubtful that there exists any evidence for what Quintana is saying, whatever the nature of Ezekiel’s writings. Yes, the countries and geographical regions Quintana mentions were somewhat diverse, but he seems to overlook the fact that they were cheek-by-jowl on the map! They could not have been so different that they had nothing to unite over.

It may be technically improbable that these people would band together for a common purpose, but then again, this is exactly what people are often heard saying today concerning the Shiite and Sunni terrorists. The popular but flawed reasoning has been that there is nothing to fear, because Iraq could never join forces Iran to retaliate against us since one is predominantly Shiite and the other predominantly Sunni. Similarly, we have been told by many that al-Qaeda could never receive any support from the Mullahs of Iran, due to the same Sunni and Shiite differences. This is exactly the naïve, faulty reasoning Quintana is applying in his argument.

But let’s not kid ourselves. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Common causes are made on the basis of this truism alone all the time, and throughout recorded history. Eventually, once victory is achieved, they may turn on each other. But this is certainly not evidence of any kind that they had not once united as a group for pragmatic purposes.

Then again, all this assumes that Quintana and other prophecy spin doctors are correct in their identification of the countries attacking Israel in these Ezekiel chapters. But, as I think I have shown, he is very likely wrong in his attributions. Again, the scholarly evidence suggests that the armies of Ezekiel 38 and 39 were the Scythians. Even the ancient writer himself may have gotten the identification of the armies wrong. But more importantly, I have shown that Quintana does not have a valid argument or evidence to lean on even if he is correct in his identification of the countries.


Notes

1. Quoted in James Comper Gray (1871). The Biblical Museum: A Collection of Notes Explanatory, Homiletic, and Illustrative, on the Holy Scriptures, Especially Designed for the Use of Ministers, Bible-Students, and Sunday-School Teachers. Vol. II. Containing the Gospels According to St. Luke and St. John. London: Elliot Stock, 62, Paternoster Row, p. 179.

2. While Quintana does not in my quotes explicitly claim that Gog and Magog correspond to Russia both he and other hosts of the show have made it clear in other broadcasts that they are strong adherents of this idea. I suspect he carefully avoided mentioning this here, since Russia’s population is made up of slightly more Christians (17-22%) than Muslims (10-15%). This figure upsets Quintana’s “non-galvanized” foothold, so he instead starts with “south of Russia.”

Friday, March 25, 2011

Christian Suicide and the Danger of Theological Consistency

The human propensity to wrest what a person says completely out of context is astounding at times. An excellent example of this tendency of human nature is displayed in a YouTube video made by a moronic vlogger who goes by the name "ShockofGod." In this video, Shock appropriates a short clip from The Atheist Experience, a public-access call-in show presented by the Atheist Community of Austin which is broadcast worldwide over the Internet. In this appropriated clip, show hosts Matt Dillahunty and Martin Wagner are discussing the Christian doctrine of salvation which says that saved sinners will be spirited away to a glorious afterlife that is unimaginably better than mortal life here on earth. Matt Dillahunty then makes the point that if Christians truly believed this, they should kill themselves. Here is the contextualized quotation from the show:
Matt: Meaning and value are things that we imbue, are characteristics that we imbue upon objects, including ourselves. But the theist has this idea of some grander meaning, as if there's some other intelligence out there that would value us, and that without this other intelligence valuing us, we are worthless, that this is all irrelevant. Which I find very, very sad.

Martin: Well, they say "meaning" as being something that has to be externally imposed upon your life.

Matt: Yeah, I find that very sad. It reminds me of the people who, you know, a psychologist might evaluate somebody who's in that position in a relationship as having dependency issues where, or validation issues, where they can't do anything unless there's some approving figure to do this. But what Chris said, which kind of got my dander up, was that his view is that this life, this existence that we have, is all ultimately meaningless, even in his view. That the pain here is temporary, and that at some point you're going to graduate from this existence and go on to a better existence or whatever else, and what you suffered here will really become negligible and irrelevant. And I find that to be one of the most appalling ideas I've ever heard: There are people who believe that there is this God Thing that created your Soul Thing, and then stuck it here in this Meatsack Machine Thing for a period of x number of years to be . . .

Martin: To judge whether or not it's worthy to go on to the next phase of existence.

Matt: If you really believed that that was the case, then you should kill yourself. Now hang on, hang on. Don't actually do it. I'm not advocating that anybody do this. What I'm saying is that if it was somebody's sincere belief that this existence is relatively meaningless, and is a place to wipe your feet before you go in to the Happy Land, then the natural, logical conclusion from that is that the best thing you could possibly do is kill yourself. And religions know that this is the logical conclusion, which is why some of them have direct prohibitions against suicide.

Martin: Yeah, they figured that one out pretty early.

Matt: That was really of it. Well wait a minute, if Happy Land is where I really want to be, and all of this is irrelevant, then if I kill myself then I go there now. "Oh, no no no no no. You don't get there if you kill yourself."

Martin: Yeah, because God decides when you go. You don't get to decide when you go.

Matt: Yeah, they had to add a loophole in there, because I mean, it's painfully obvious to anybody. So for these people who have made up their own theology, who have these ideas that don't, where their doctrine or their beliefs don't include a prescription against suicide: I think it's painfully obvious that they actually do not believe what they claim to believe. They just hope that it's true. They just hope that there's something more than this. And while I think on some level it's fine to hope for more, on another level it's not so fine. Because every minute that you spend hoping for something more is a minute that you're not spending appreciating what you do have, the one and only life you know you're going to get.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1EhamIdVbIM).

At the point where Matt says that sincere believers in Christianity should kill themselves, co-host Martin Wagner and the caller on the line both chuckle, simply because the absurdity definitely prompts a little chuckling. Matt proceeds quickly to explain that they are not actually calling for people to kill themselves. He said this to make a larger point, which can be made effectively in other similar ways. One good example is seen in the horrific case of Andrea Yates, the Texas woman who in June of 2001 murdered her five young children in the sincere but delusional belief that it was better to kill them while young and below the age of spiritual accountability rather than allow them the opportunity to grow up and risk them potentially preferring sin over God, being held responsible and sent to hell [1]. Within the particulars of the religious doctrine that she firmly adhered to, this horrific act was the expression of a wholly rational conclusion. Within the confines of her delusional beliefs, what she did was the most logical and even loving thing to do. The problem was that her presuppositions and premises were wrong and obviously criminally insane.

In his video, ShockofGod, a rabid fundamentalist right-wing Christian, incorporates the narrow eight-second clip of Matt Dillahunty saying "If you really believed that that was the case, then you should kill yourself." He then goes on the following triumphant rant, taking this statement hilariously out of context and treating it as proof that Dillahunty hates Christians and wants them all to commit suicide:
Now did you hear that? That's bizarre! Look at it [zooming in to Matt Dillahunty]: the face of insanity. Let's rewind it; Now, I'm going to let you listen to it. Afterwards he says, "Now don't go do it," and this guy [zooming in to Martin Wagner] is cracking up laughing at the fact that Matt would say "Go kill yourself." This is unbelievable, and actually shouldn't even be allowed on YouTube because it's promoting suicide. But here we go, listen to this:

"If you really believed that that was the case, then you should kill yourself. Now hang on, hang on . . ."

Now, did you hear the guy laughing in the background? This is just madness, guys. I don't have time to go through all of it. They have another one where they're saying, "Well, what if hell isn't that bad?" And people are going to say they don't believe me on that, well here it is, look [screenshot of video and title]: "What if Hell isn't bad?" And they talk about how, you know, hell could be a wonderful place. I mean, it's just unbelievable! Unbelievable! So thank God you're not an atheist.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tami62FsHSQ).

Does ShockofGod realize how stupid and inane this is? Did he really not watch the rest of the clip? Perhaps he did, but those who are familiar with ShockofGod and the material he puts out will know that this vlogger will grasp at absolutely anything he can to defame atheists, which is what most of his 850+ videos are devoted to. He has approached the theism/atheism discussion with a presupposition, and his well has been deeply poisoned such that he is only capable of looking at everything one way. The fact is that Matt Dillahunty's only implication was that the logically sound decision to make if one is a Christian who believes that the value of mortal life pales in comparison to an eternal afterlife is to commit suicide. Unless, of course, there is a specific religious prohibition against it, such as the Catholics historically invented. ShockofGod's video falsely implies that atheists are saying, in effect, "All you Christians are vile, and we want you all to kill yourselves!" It is simply mind-blowing how anybody could think in the diminutive way this vlogger thinks and still be a functioning and competent person. But ShockofGod, like all other entrenched fundamentalists, can see only a red pointy tail, horns and a pitchfork when they look at atheists. This is very amusing on one level, and at the same time not amusing on another.

As atheists, we do not want any Christians to kill themselves. Indeed, the take-home message of Matt Dillahunty's statements is that theological consistency on the part of Christians is dangerous to their own well-being and that consequently such beliefs should be avoided. What we want is for Christians to start thinking for themselves. And is there any better demonstration of how unwilling or unable a person is to think for himself when he finds an edited YouTube clip and from it immediately assumes that there is an insane and evil person in Texas who is telling Christians to kill themselves? And even if Matt Dillahunty was in fact intending to say this, what possible difference should it make to anybody? If someone was posting blogs and videos on the Internet saying atheists should kill themselves, I for one cannot imagine getting angry or bent out of shape about it. My response would be little more than to remark on what a sad and pathetic individual such a person is, and to feel sorry that he or she was filled with hate. On the other hand, I do not know or associate with any atheists who are even moderately filled with hate. I am not saying some are not out there, but simply that I have never encountered such a person.

I have often been accused of hating Christians, so this is a good place to clear up this misunderstanding. What I actually despise are the doctrines and the actions that people take on behalf of those doctrines, not the people themselves. The aforementioned case of Andrea Yates is a prime example of what I despise, not who I despise. I do not hate my parents, for example, simply because they happen to disagree with me on every single issue related to the questions of gods, and I do not hate anybody else who happens to disagree with me on the question. On the other hand, there is a sizeable number of people who firmly believe that I and every other non-Christian deserve to be tortured forever in a lake of fire. This is a fate I would not condemn anyone to or wish on anyone!

Of course, Christians attempt to soften the doctrine of the deserved tortuous fate of unbelievers by saying that they deserve such a fate as well, but that their God's magnanimous grace and mercy is going to save them. They have convinced themselves that it is somehow less vile to state that it is not only unbelievers who deserve eternal torture, that we all deserve it and that they just happen to have been saved. And I could be saved as well! Why would I not want to be?

This twisted justification reminds me of a quote from anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Donald Symons that author Sam Harris references in his book The Moral Landscape, in which he attacks moral relativism from a secular perspective:
If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, leaving only a tiny hole for urine and menstrual flow, the only question would be how severely that person should be punished, and whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction. But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, suddenly it becomes "culture," and thereby magically becomes less, rather than more, horrible, and is even defended by some Western "moral thinkers," including feminists [2].

I could not agree with this reasoning more. The cultural practice Symons describes and the morally relativistic attitude of many ivory tower intellectuals in the West towards it are absolutely repugnant to me. But the selfsame mentality is in play when Christians tell me that they deserve to be eternally tortured along with me as a way of convincing themselves and me that they are not attacking me personally. What I am strongly objecting to is, in the words of Matt Dillahunty, "the fact that you've sacrificed your humanity, your dignity, your integrity on the altar of genuflecting servility to a corrupt moral policy that is entirely bankrupt and that is poisoning and polluting the planet."

Such is the nature of my objections as well. I still respect Christians as fellow human beings, and I enjoy and value the friendship of many Christians. But my optimism that people can change is all too often mistaken for hatred by people like ShockofGod. I am not eager for any Christians to die; they should have every right to live and enjoy their life. But there does exist a radical fringe that need to get out of the way so that human progress can be maintained.


Notes

1. Carol Christian; Lisa Teachy. "Yates Believed Children Doomed." Houston Chronicle 6 March 2002.

2. Sam Harris (2010). The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free Press, p. 46.

Does the Biblical God Have a Fetish?

In answering the admittedly provocative question contained in my title, my purposes will be best served by avoiding the highlighting of a voluminous number of specific verses and passages that shed light on the question. Instead, I will keep the illustration of my point somewhat generic, and a listing of Bible verses and passages will more than suffice. Every single one of the following verses and passages refer to circumcision and/or foreskin, and those who do not believe me can check these references and/or consult any Bible concordance to verify this for themselves:

Genesis 17:10-14, 23-27; 21:4; 34:15, 17, 22, 24

Exodus 4:25-26; 12:44, 48

Leviticus 12:3

Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6

Joshua 5:2-5, 7, 8

I Samuel 18:25, 27

II Samuel 3:14

Jeremiah 4:4; 9:25

Habbakuk 2:16

Luke 1:59; 2:21

John 7:22-23

Acts 7:8; 10:45; 11:2; 15:1, 5, 24; 16:3; 21:21

Romans 2:25-29; 3:1, 30; 4:9-12; 15:8

I Corinthians 7:18-19

Galatians 2:3, 7-9, 12; 5:2-3, 6, 11; 6:12-13, 15

Ephesians 2:11

Philippians 3:3, 5

Colossians 2:11; 3:11; 4:11

Titus 1:10

What accounts for this biblical obsession with genitalia? This is a question that is often at the back of my mind when I read through the Bible. But this obsession is not unique to Judaism and Christianity; this is an element common to almost all ancient religions. Ancient Greece, for example, prominently featured fertility gods in their mythology and in their three-inch high statuettes with enormous eight-inch genitalia protruding from them (which many have speculated may have been used in ancient times as marital aids). Their deities included such figures as Priapus, rustic god of fertility, fruit plants, gardens and male genitalia (the large, permanent erection of this deity gave rise to the modern medical term priapism). These deities and their depictions in artwork were ancient metaphors for the generation of life, and such reverence obviously did not stop with the ancient Greek culture. It carried over into Jewish and Christian tradition, and this sacred view of the male's articles of procreation is reflected in each of the passages listed above.

Even as late as the 16th century, the Church fully recognized and acknowledged this divine fetish. In this period, the generative organs of French saints were revered and considered to be endowed with magical properties. These saints would have their genitals anointed with wine, which would drip into a jar where it was allowed to ferment. Once fermented, the Church sold the substance as "Holy Vinegar" to women who wanted to conceive children. And as late as the 18th century, men and women who sought treatment for negatively-affected generative organs purchased representations of sexual organs at church fairs, upon which priests poured the oil of Saint Cosmas. It was against these types of religious practice that the freethinker and philosopher Voltaire fought so eloquently against.

It is my contention that the religious obsession with ritualistic expressions of phallic preoccupation is supported in the Bible's reverent and sacred treatment of foreskins and circumcision