Separation

This evening, over the course of fairly standard dinner conversation, I was asked why atheists needed to be considered under the same aegis as any other religious group- and why the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario was getting involved.

I had no idea what she was talking about, but my first thought was essentially along the lines of ‘holy cows, these New Atheists are becoming as dogmatic and doctrinaire as those ‘believers’ from whom they wish to distance themselves.’

My inquisitor sent me this link to a recent ‘Day 6’ discussion on CBC radio.  According to the National Post the case was brought by a a father- from small town Ontario- who, as a ‘secular humanist’ objected to the distribution of Gideons’ Bibles in the public school his children attended.

He countered this by suggesting that Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children be made equally available.  The Niagara District School Board did not agree with his suggestion, so the gentleman in question took them to the Human Rights Tribunal on the basis of “discrimination because of creed.”

Huh?

Okay.   In 2013, what the bleeding hell are the Gideons doing in the PUBLIC SCHOOLS of Ontario passing out bibles?  Unless the bible is being discussed for its value as the mythological representation and source of three of the world’s major religions from a scholarly (i.e. not belief-based) perspective, it does not belong in public, tax-funded schools.

(please don’t get me started on the tax-funded Roman Catholic school system in this country- THAT is a rant for another day…)

Likewise, texts stemming from other world religious traditions should not be present in our public schools except as indicators of history and cultural development, illustrating the similarities and differences that have marked humanity’s evolution.

I, like Mr. Chouinard, self- identify as a secular humanist (or Big-H Humanist- whichever you prefer).  I believe that human decisions have to drive our morality and ethics, but also that we are more than capable of coming to the right moral and ethical decisions without the presumed intervention or influence by any kind of supernatural actor- whether good or evil.

The interworld is full of pithy little posts like this one.

If you’ve been visiting me here at colemining for any length of time, you’ve probably caught on to that by now.

I am an atheist.  I do not believe in any deity/deities nor do I assign such creatures roles in the creation/governance/maintenance/destruction of the universe- both known and unknown.  I believe we create our deities- giving them the characteristics of the other humans we encounter- goodbad, mischievous, helpful, indifferent- and that continuing to rely on these external forces (when we should have learned better by now) is irresponsible and, frankly, a cop out.

All that said (and I will likely say it again), I also do not get- at all– the seeming need of atheists these days to band together into societies, or churches, or Kaffeeklatsch or whatever.

So much of the activity and response I see on atheist websites and chat groups and blogs and television appearances is unreasonably hostile and, well just plain jack-assery.

I saw a recent blog post actually bemoaning the prevalence of atheists who are total jerks, and talking about why they should just freakin stop it.  Had to concur.  The defensiveness and hostility is painful to witness- and it often only very thinly veils an ignorance as deep- and often as ugly- as anything that they are claiming their ideological opponents are guilty of.

Dialogues in which you call your opponents ‘stupid’ aren’t likely to be all that productive- or all that legitimate, argument-wise.

One of the beautiful aspects of Humanism, regardless of specific type or form, is that it respects other humans- for their perspectives, beliefs and ability to contribute to discourse in a reasoned and open-minded manner.

Do I want any one particular faith group having any kind of toe-hold in the public school system that is funded by my tax dollars?  Of course not.  Do I believe that atheists/humanists/secularists can/should be lumped together in any real ideological groupings?  Again, big nope on that one.  People believe/disbelieve different things for all kinds of reasons- and the reasons are not always going to jibe with my own.

And that’s okay.  I can likely learn from them, and hope that they can learn from me.  As I have learned things from people of faith- in all kinds of different things- that I have met over my lifetime.  And as my many students- those who lay claim to a particular religious background and those who do not- have, hopefully learned from me.  From my example and from my perspective.

Atheism is not something that is new and novel (although to hear some people talk, you’d think they came up with the whole thing all by themselves just now).

This guy was talking about it back in the 4th century BCE.

Angry anti-religionists are just as ugly as angry pro-religionists.  I’m not sure why people can’t get that through their heads.

The bitchy back-and-forth fire-and-brimstone vs. reason-and-science has grown tiresome.  Scholars, like Jacques Berlinerblau from Georgetown University in particular, who are emphasizing the importance of regaining true secularism in our political systems- these are the discussions and arguments to which I am paying the most attention at the moment.

Religion, as a human phenomenon, is here to stay.  Short of state-sanctioned ‘reconditioning’ like that seen in Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone episode ‘The Obsolete Man, no one is likely to change the minds of a vast proportion of the population of the world.

I’m not sure that we should be aiming for that sort of thing anyway.  In truly free societies people get to think what they want to think provided it does not negatively impact the lives of their fellow citizens.  This, as Professor Berlinerblau argues in How to be Secular, involves a true separation of religion and State.  We must rethink those laws and policies drawn from putative morality based exclusively in one belief system or another and separate them from the political systems we rely on to govern us, teach our children and provide for our sick, economically and socially challenged citizens.

Adding more voices to the cacophony of groups looking for ‘special considerations’ under protections afforded to proponents of religions (or non-religions as in the recent case as decided by the Human Rights Tribunal) is missing the point.

History vs. Myth

While cruising around the interworld a few days ago I saw this blog post by Bart Ehrman.  It is largely an advertisement for his latest book, but the underlying subject piqued my interest.

Granted I’ve been out of the formal world of academia for some time now, so I might be a little behind in my reading and in keeping up with newer (or at least more vocal) groups that posit a variety of alternatives to the common wisdom/learning, but I was completely unaware of this movement of mythicists.

Sure, I’ve heard of Harpur- even read his silly book The Pagan Christ.  Didn’t really give it much thought beyond the brief sensation it caused after publication (and the questions about it I had to field from students- second only to the freakin’ Da Vinci Code in raising my frustration level… but I digress).  I really was blissfully unaware that the idea that Jesus was a composite character of pagan source material, and someone who never actually existed, had become an actual movement.

There are always those who will force correspondences and positive comparisons upon diverse traditions.  Making something fit into a paradigm to match a preconceived idea or conceit that is just too familiar and therefore must have originated directly out of an earlier tradition… Not necessarily novel.   But a movement of “writers, bloggers and internet junkies” presenting the non-historical Jesus?  This was news to me.

N.B.– This is not what Joseph Campbell was about.  He examined the archetypal themes and characters and demonstrated how similar impulses and explanations could be seen throughout the cultures of the world.  He did not attempt to directly equate specific characters with those that came before- or from dramatically different cultural contexts- or suggests that any particular mythic figure was a composite of features of earlier deities.

Nor did he claim that the figures from mythology were not historical figures.  As mentioned here, we have evidence that a significant character from Mesopotamian mythology, Gilgamesh, is found in the historical records, described as a king of Uruk sometime between 2700 and 2500 BCE.  While his story and characteristics (2/3s divine?) were embellished and enhanced to communicate a specific message, it is pretty much completely accepted that there WAS a Sumerian king named Gilgamesh.

I am (among other things) an historian, specifically an historian of the Near Eastern and Mediterranean worlds of antiquity, and it has honestly never occurred to me to question the historical existence of Jesus.  All of the scholarship- primary, secondary, tertiary and on and on- I have examined sees his historical existence as fact.

Do I believe that he was divine/part of some godhead?  Yeah, not so much.  Or at all.  But I have never doubted the fact that he lived in the early 1st century of the Common Era in Palestine, sought to reform the religious tradition in which he was raised, created a stir among others who were like-minded, and profoundly influenced myriad later writers who created a new religious movement based, in part, on his teachings.

Elements of outside influences certainly found their way into the various myths that developed around the historical figure and his (assumed) teachings.  One need not look too deeply to see the influence of Zoroastrian dualism in the apocalyptic strands that contributed to the eschatological message that became attributed to Jesus, for example (more on that to come- I am feeling a definite need to be writing about some apocalyptic stuff lately).

I am not as convinced as Ehrman seems to be that there were not archetypal elements woven into the descriptions of the mythological figure, elements that do bear resemblances to other mythological characters and themes.  As humans we have ways in which we describe and define the sacred that transcend differences of culture and point to our shared humanity.  THAT is why stories and characters and themes recur in different times and places.

Leaving his obvious academic snobbery aside (ONLY “two who actually have Ph.D. credentials in relevant fields of study” and “there is not a single mythicist who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics at any accredited institution of higher learning n the Western world”, indeed.  Could he BE more condescending?  I DO have Ph.D. “credentials in relevant fields of study” and still found his comments offensive- the credentials ain’t always the whole shebang, Dr. Bart…), Ehrman is correct in assessing the dubious scholarship upon which the theories of the mythicists seems to be based.

I agree that there is a growing movement of ‘denouncers of religion’ and that these denouncers/deniers are often extremely hostile to the religions that they deride as ‘ridiculous’ or ‘dangerous’.  I mentioned this, somewhat in passing, here.  Although I am ideologically mostly on the same page as groups like the ‘New Atheists’ (I can never say/think/write that term without the New Bohemians’ song What I Am latching on as an earworm.  Shudder), I cannot condone the disdainful and antagonistic manner in which many of the more vocal pundits of ‘science and reason’ over religion express themselves and their position.

We have to work together to overcome the perpetuated illusions that come from clinging to myths (and the doctrines and dogmas derived from them) as ‘Truth’.  But bashing each other- and belittling the beliefs that differ from our own- is not the way to do so.  I will have more to say about the ‘New Atheists’ in the next little while.  For now, suffice it to say that hostile criticism is not the humanistic way to proceed with the necessary dialogue.