Sunday, March 21, 2010

Christianity and the Rejection of the Law

A long-winded explanation of why Jews can't eat bacon but Christians can

As a final project for a class on the Bible, I wrote an essay entitled "Christianity and the Rejection of the Law." I endeavored to explain the historical shifts that allowed Paul (by interpreting Jesus) to cast down the Mosaic law.  The professor put forth a theory that the repeated conquests of Israel by pagan cultures (Egypt and Babylon in particular) caused the Jews to create the Mosaic Law (dietary restrictions, rules of uncleanness, etc). He mentioned this in lecture, and I developed it in my final paper.

I decided to post a revised version of it here as a response to a post over at Unreasonable Faith.

Nature worship in the ancient Near East
The Egyptians/Babylonians were nature worshipers, emphasizing the cyclical nature of the natural order. “To everything there is a season,” that kind of thing. Furthermore, Egypt and Babylon were both flourishing agricultural states in a relatively arid region. They owed their wealth, and indeed their very lives, to the cyclical flooding of their rivers; in Egypt, the Nile; in Babylon, the Tigris and Euphrates.

Picture taken from
Israelites' place in the natural order
These kingdoms always conquered the Israelite peoples. Essentially, the Israelites’ “natural order” was really shitty. To them, cycles were not benevolent forces bringing prosperity and bounty, but rather malevolent forces bringing about periodic invasions by the neighboring kingdoms. This is noted in the Bible– Jews were first slaves in Egypt, then captured by the Babylonians. While the story of the exodus is not historically true as presented in the Bible, belief in this founding myth during the early Christian era would have the same effect.

The institution of the Law
Virtually every aspect of the Mosaic Law is a rejection of and revolt against nature.  The practice of animal sacrifice (instructions: Exodus 29, Leviticus 1-10, 22), while also present in pagan cultures, can be seen as a destruction of a natural being—not for the natural purposes of consumption and the continuation of life, but merely as a gift to a higher power.  The dietary rules (Leviticus 11) are certainly a rejection of nature. The ultimate natural act, that of birth, is unclean according to Leviticus 12:2: “If a woman have conceived seed, and born a man child: then she shall be unclean seven days.” Leviticus 15 & 20 and Ezekiel 18 all affirm the uncleanness of menstruating women. But perhaps the most infamous and outright rejection of nature is the practice of circumcision. Instituted in Genesis 17 as a demarcation of the Abrahamic covenant with God, the ritual practice of cutting off a piece of one’s flesh is anti-naturalism at its most evident. The choice of the sexual organ further emphasizes the rejection of nature by associating this practice with sex, a natural act.

The rejection of the Law
If the Jews had this vital reason to institute the Law, how would it later be rejected?  Just like the imposition of the Law, the rejection of the Law arose out of historical pressures. The law could be rejected because keeping the law is hard, because the pax Romana was a relatively good time to be a Jew, and because Jewish proselytizing(!) had created a large body of potential converts, restrained by the onerous Law.
Keeping the Law is a Pain
Perhaps most importantly, keeping the Law is hard. Even the Bible itself admits this: the entire course of the historical books of the Old Testament could be seen as a pattern of falling from the law and regaining it. It is not difficult to imagine how it would be tempting to eat bacon every once in a while, and not mutilate your child's genitals.

A good time to be a Jew
After Julius Caesar defeated Pompey and became emperor, he established Judaism as an official religion. He also excused Jews from paying agricultural taxes every 7th year, the Sabbatical Year when Jews neither planted nor harvested. The Jews were not required to worship the emperor, only make a sacrifice at the temple in his honor. They did this every day until its destruction. Furthermore, Herod the Great performed many legendary building projects throughout the area; he built an artificial harbor and port city named Caesarea and many palaces scattered throughout Judea. His most important project, however, was the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. He transformed the temple into a huge complex. It is the Western retaining wall of this complex that is known today as the Wailing Wall. These occurrences are evidence of the privileged status of the Jews in the early Roman period, relative to other points in their history. The Law was born out of historical chaos: the pax Romana brought order and prosperity.

Jewish proselytizing in ancient Rome
The Pharisees, a sect of Judaism at the time, were active missionaries who sought converts everywhere (Wylen 45). The Jews in Rome itself were very successful proselytes: Horace writes to a critic in his Satires that he and his fellow poets will, “like the Jews… force you to come into our crowd” (Leon 250). In 4 BCE, a group of emissaries from Judea came to Rome to petition for the deposing of Archelaus, the newly installed leader of Judea. When they presented their case, a crowd of 8,000 Jewish men supported them. Historians have estimated that this indicates a Jewish population in Rome of about 40,000 to 50,000 (Leon 14-15, 135). It is estimated that there were a total of perhaps six to seven million Jews throughout the Empire at this time (Leon 135). Its general prevalence and influence can be seen in the fact that the Jewish division of time into weeks (to note the Sabbath) was adopted by the general heathen population (Huidekoper 66). 

Why do we care about Jewish proselytizing?
At this historical moment, Judaism was the most widespread form of monotheism. This was a new form of belief to the Romans at the time. The idea was enticing: the Divine Being of Judaism “took interest in the moral education of mankind… [and showed] interest in man’s moral improvement” (Huidekoper 17-18). The pagan gods of Rome seemed more interested in their own interactions than in the good or ill of humankind. This greater interest in humanity appears to have won over many converts. However, one thing stood in the way: the law. The Mosaic Law was a serious obstacle to accepting Judaism; one might agree with its moral precepts, but have a hard time giving up eating swine and shellfish and circumcising oneself. Huidekoper goes so far as to state that “a Jew who deemed ceremonial observances essential might… nearly repel all heathens “(24). The one who emphasizes monotheism and morality would win many converts. This is exactly what Christianity would later do.

In Summary
At the time of the birth of Christ, there were no longer any threats of invasion by the neighboring states of Babylon and Egypt. The pax Romana had quelled this threat, which was the impetus behind the initial institution of the law. At the time, Jewish evangelicals had brought the idea of morality and monotheism to the Gentile masses. Their efforts were hindered largely due to the difficulty of keeping the Law. The law was prepped to be cast down; its cause was removed, and it hindered the masses, yearning for a (comparatively!) moral, listening God, from converting. It would take an influential Jewish prophet by the name of Jesus to light this powder keg and transform Judaism.

Works Cited
The Bible Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha. New York: Oxford UP, USA, 1998. Print.
"Egyptian Religion." The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2008. 22 Nov. 2009 .
"Egyptian religion." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 22 Nov. 2009 .
Huidekoper, Frederic. Judaism at Rome. Ninth ed. New York: David G. Francis, 1891. Print.
Leon, Harry J. Jews of ancient Rome. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1995. Print.
"Old Testament Timeline." Wielding the Sword of the Spirit. Ed. Matthew McGee. 1998. Web. 23 Nov. 2009. .
Oxford history of the biblical world. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.
Sayce, Archibald H. The Religions of Ancient Egypt and Babylonia; the Gifford lectures on the ancient Egyptian and Babylonian conception of the divine delivered in Aberdeen. Edinburgh T. & T. Clark, 1902. Print. Gifford lectures.
Wylen, Stephen M. Jews in the time of Jesus an introduction. New York: Paulist, 1995. Print.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Rationalist Anthem

Here's an atheist song, written by a rapper named Baba Brinkman.

The animation is just absolutely beautiful. I want to watch it frame-by-frame, just to take in everything that's going on. I can't recommend this enough.

One of the things religion has going for it is the staggeringly immense body of cultural works that support it. Just think for a moment about how many Christmas songs there are, which are repackaged and resold every year. Then trace back 2,000 years of religiously-inspired or commissioned artwork.

I am in no way endorsing religion here by pointing out the ubiquity of its art: throughout history, it was prudent and economically sound for artists to create works with religious subject matter. Theology can also be an excellent source for inspiration or for allegory: who is not moved by the story of Prometheus stealing the sacred fire for humans, and suffering eternally for it? That doesn't mean we must sacrifice a bull to Zeus.

The point is: we atheists have a lot of catching up to do. Despite the not-inconsiderable body of atheist art (His Dark Materials comes immediately to mind), it is still vastly outstripped by religious work. That makes every atheist song or novel that much more important. Science has long been the province of atheism and rationalism: we must expand that scope to include art as well.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Todd Stiefel and the Secular Coalition for America

Todd Stiefel is a 35-year-old North Carolinian atheist. He is also a billionaire.

After graduating from Duke University, he became the Chief Strategy Officer for Stiefel Laboratories. He recently sold the company to GlaxoSmithCline for a whopping $2.9 billion. He has since become one of atheism's biggest benefactors.

Last month, he donated $500,000 to the Secular Coalition for America, $100,000 to American Atheists and $50,000 to the Secular Students Alliance.

I wish I had the money to be able to do something like that. The atheist movement has many lofty goals, such as ending discrimination, repealing unjust religious laws (like those protecting neglect caused by "faith healing"), and protecting the teaching of rational, evidence-based science in our classrooms. When these goals are accomplished, it will be thanks to the Secular Coalition for America.

The SCA is a 501(c)4 lobbying organization; you can visit this page to view all the current legislation they are working on. It includes promoting stem cell research and fighting a Constitutional amendment that would allow school prayer. It was the SCA who met with the Obama Administration. These people are secularism's boots on the ground, the men in Washington fighting to accomplish our goals. 

We, as atheists, have a lot on our plates. We are concurrently expanding our ranks and broadening our reach. Awareness campaigns like the "Good without God" billboards will increase our prominence in the press and society, thereby strengthening our collective voice. The Secular Coalition for America will be the ones using that voice to bring about the changes we seek.

So, good on Todd Stiefel for giving the Coalition the single largest donation in its history. They need it. And we need them.

Jon Stewart skewers Glenn Beck

Jon Stewart did an absolutely spot-on Glenn Beck impression on tonight's episode. He managed to work in a little bit of criticism of theocracy too-- by linking Jesus and Ayatollah Khomenei. But how are they related?

They both have beards. The conservatives aren't going to like that association at all.

You can find it here.

P.s. Jon, I like your Converses.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

David Thorne on Easter

David Thorne's son brought home a permission slip for a class trip to an Easter play. Hilarity ensues.

It's long, but well worth the read.

Some highlights:

"As I trust my offspring's ability to separate fact from fantasy, I am happy for him to participate in your indoctrination process on the proviso that all references to 'Jesus' are replaced with the term 'Purportedly Magic Jew.'"

"...I am actually torn between two faiths; while your god's promise of eternal life is very persuasive, the Papua New Guinean mud god, Pikkiwoki, is promising a pig and as many coconuts as you can carry."

I'd point out more, but I don't want to give it all away. Read it yourself!

Abuse Scandal Deepens in Europe

 Looks like the Catholic Church is in the news again.

The Catholic clergy child-rape scandal, which first broke in Ireland in the 1990s, has recently exploded Germany. Since the story broke, hundreds of victims have come forward. Their stories are horrifying: in one instance, two ten-year-olds were forced to sign vows of silence concerning their abuse. Their priest went on to molest children for 18 years.

The claims of abuse have since spread to Italy, Austria, and the Netherlands.

The biggest story is the proximity of the abuse to Joseph Ratzinger, now known as Pope Benedict XVI. He was the Archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982, during which time Peter Hullermann, a priest in his archdiocese, was accused of molesting boys. Instead of reporting and prosecuting this rapist, Ratzinger sent the priest to receive therapy. Once out, he was summarily transferred to another diocese where he resumed molesting boys. He was convicted by a German court for this renewed abuse in 1986, and yet he continued to preach and molest until this past Monday!

The moral high ground?
Apologists often claim that Catholic priests do not, in fact, molest children at higher rates than the rest of the population. However, they do claim to be the sole possessors of universal morality at much higher rates than the rest of the population. How can they pretend to claim the moral high ground when there is endemic rape of minors within their own ranks?

Complicit in the act
What really gets me is not the molestation in itself, horrifying as it is. It's the cover up. For decades, the Catholic Church believed it was more important to save face, to protect their image to the public, than to prosecute those rapists within its ranks. It is common practice for priests to switch dioceses or briefly undergo therapy, as happened in Boston  and in Germany under Pope Benedict XVI. In other cases, victims were paid for their silence.

The Catholic Church knowingly and willingly protected abusers and molesters from the full and righteous justice they deserved. Any other man convicted of molesting children would be rotting in jail. Any other institution that allowed molestation to continue would be so denounced and vilified that its continued existence would be impossible.

It is time for the Catholic Church to be brought to reckoning.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Speech from an atheist politician

[I wrote this as an assignment for a class on secularism. It is a campaign speech for an atheist politician. I have modified it slightly here.]

Many people believe that atheists cannot be politicians. A 2007 Gallup poll shows that 53% of Americans would refuse to vote for an otherwise-qualified atheist politician. Politicians must portray themselves as devout believers in order to have a chance at election.

I believe that atheists not only can be politicians, but they would in fact make better politicians.

The claim that atheists cannot be politicians is backed up by many old, hateful articles from the Constitutions of many states, including Arkansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Maryland. This claim is backed up by memorable quotes by public figures, such as the elder President Bush. This claim is backed up by our most deep-seated prejudices. This claim is false.
I believe, indeed I know, that the opposite is true. I will not be the next President of the United States in spite of my atheism. I will be the next President because of it. Atheism starts with a simple premise, and with it attempts to construct a worldview. This simple premise is that there is no God. From this, it follows that there is no afterlife. All we have is this earth and this life.

Our job on this planet is not to devote our lives and our energy into admittance to heaven or avoidance of hell. Our job is to make life better for our ourselves and for our fellow human beings. I promise you that I will not spend a moment in prayer when there are sick people in need of healthcare, veterans in need of food and shelter, schools in need of teachers, and men and women fighting for our freedom who need to come home!

I share these goals with freethinkers and people of faith alike. Where there is common purpose, there will be common action. That said, it is time to put an end to practices that benefit only the believer, at the literal expense of the nonbeliever. I propose to end the current voucher system, which takes money from every citizen in order to support religious schooling. I will work to take God, in whom not every American trusts, off of our money and out of our pledge.

Detractors will tell me that I am simply persecuting the faithful, as we infidels have so often been persecuted throughout history. They would be wrong. I am merely creating an America in which every person is free to profess their belief or nonbelief freely, without coerced assertions every morning in school or at every purchase. In short, I am aiming to reinstate the separation of church and state in the pantheon of our most cherished traditions.

With the rise of the Religious Right as a dominant political force, Jefferson’s wall of separation has been undermined. Our tax dollars pay for private, religious education. The personal rights of women have been revoked. Our schools are unable to teach scientific knowledge without diminishing disclaimers or pseudo-scientific addendums. All these are changes are wrought of a conservative Christian agenda. They have also managed to religify our public arena, to the point that most of our politicians feel the need to proclaim their devotion as often as possible. I will aim to reverse these trends, so that no religious belief is enshrined in the laws of our great nation.

The great and brilliant James Madison wrote this as part of the original draft of the First Amendment: 
The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretence, infringed.
I will work to ensure that the beliefs of a few shall never abridge the civil rights of others in our great nation.