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On the Road

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Name: Jack Neefus
Gender: Male
Hometown: Newark, NJ
Home country: US
Current location: Baltimore, MD
Member since: 2001
Number of posts: 20,761

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Email: jneefus@gmail.com

Journal Archives

The Way That the Romans Spread Religious Pacificism

was by promoting emperor worship along with Roman gods and holidays. A divine savior was a potential competitor.

Jesus seems to have been regarded as a potential revolutionary as shown by his arrest and method of execution. Since revolution was known to run in families, Domitian had Jesus' grandnephews dragged in to see if they were dangerous. They were dismissed as hapless rubes, which seems to be largely how Christians were perceived except when their refusal to sacrifice to the emperor got them sent to the gladitorial ring, as recounted in sources like Perpetua's diary.

Atwill seems to do what a lot of people do who charge others with not reading the Bible -- fail to read it himself. The Gospels are shot through with angry condemnations, calls for divine judgement, and prophecies of destruction which are utterly alien to anything Josephus or the Romans would have wanted to spread. I can't see Mark 13 fitting into this scenario at all along with a lot of other passages.

Personally, I don't think Jesus was violent during his lifetime, but I do not know if he would have become violent in the event of an uprising -- he might have felt called to lead the revolt and been more like a bar Kosibah figure. Or he might have remained more like his brother James, alternating among benevolence, mysticism, and vicious denunciations.

I really do appreciate Atwill's bringing the kind of political perspective that he does. I believe it is more useful, however, to abandon the invented Jesus portion of the theory along with the Josephus speculation and apply those insights to the realm where it would have taken place -- namely the Jewish political and religious hierarchies who were constantly trying to quell the kind of rebellion that eventually led to national ruin. For example, you could take the approach that the Sermon on the Mount was added later as a pacifistic element by Paul's followers. Many of the sayings in Matthew 4-6 are similar to teachings of people like Hillel the Elder, who was an accomodationist with Rome and a favorite of the upper classes. That line of thinking might be worth developing.

Atwill hasn't really done the homework necessary to propose a different authorship for the Gospels. The complex relationship between the four books has been studied for about a century and a half and is well established. You don't just read a list of place names in Josephus and say the Gospels were all made up by the same author. Even if he is seeing a legitimate influence, there are more likely alternatives such as a 2nd-century date for the Gospels which would allow for an influence by Josephus's writings. That is less sensational but more likely.

If Josephus wanted to invent Christianity,

he was a bit late to the game -- Paul beat him by several decades. The core of Paul's letters is universally considered genuine and placed in the 50s and 60s.

I would be interested in seeing how Atwill lines up the events in Josephus which supposedly prove that the Gospels are derivative. A lot of ancient itineraries are determined by the terrain and limited road structure. Galilee-Samaris-Judea was along one north-south axis. Certainly Titus followed the same roads and stopped at the same places that Jesus did going from Galilee to Jerusalem -- because everybody did. (It would be like saying "What an incredible coincidence -- I stopped at Breezewod, Pennsylvania too!")

Now, the motivations Atwill attributes to the Romans were real. They certainly wanted a pacified population and would not stoop to religious manipulation. They deified their emperors. However, a divine Christ was also a potential competitor to the Emperor. If it came from anwhere in the political power structure, it is likely to have originated in the Jewish vassal state.

If Atwill had wanted to develop that theory, he really should have looked in the direction of Paul. Paul was apparently a member of Herod's clan and had a vested interest in the status quo. You could argue that Paul built the Christian church as a Roman-inspired secret society specifically to provide an alternative to zealot groups that posed a real threat. It is certainly no accident that Paul's church took an unthreatening form, although maybe not as the result of the kind of deliberate machinations he imagines.

Not enough scholars IMO look at Biblical history in terms of general historical and political patterns like this. I appreciate Atwill raising the issue in terms of the New Testament. I just think that government attempts to pacify the population through religious belief are universal and continuous, and that there are more likely ways that this might have influenced early Christianity than the unlikely one Atwill has constructed.

It Weakens His Case

because it emphasizes its fallibility when there is no real need to do so. However, I see your point in that Daniel Fincke's goal is rhetorical rather than logical -- he is trying to illuminate the difference between everyday knowledge and faith. And that is instructive in itself.

I guess it stuck out to me because it highlights some weak areas in the new atheist argument. For example, Fincke seems to think that the scientific knowledge is uncertain only to the extent that data samples are unrepresentative (hence his belief in a tiny, tiny chance of error). An infinitely larger source is the human element in applying and interpreting the scientific method. This is easy to see from taking any of the many quaint or wrongheaded scientific consensuses a century ago. However we might correct the reasoning from 1913 today, the point is that at the time the proponents believed they were arriving at a scientifically valid conclusion. New atheism does not appear to recognize the possibility of human error or misapplicaton, although it is highly likely that in a hundred years our beliefs will seem equally quaint.

Another way of approaching this would be to say that valid scientific thought depends on there being a rational agent to apply, interpret, and evaluate it. It is difficult to see how rationality arises from the observable world the new atheists limit themselves to. It is a way of disqualifying yourself from making your own argument, so to speak.

Then there are the issues inherent in logical positivism, which seems to be the closest school of thought to any of the new atheists I have personally read. From the Wikipedia article:

Early critics of logical positivism said that its fundamental tenets could not themselves be formulated consistently. The verifiability criterion of meaning did not seem verifiable; but neither was it simply a logical tautology, since it had implications for the practice of science and the empirical truth of other statements. This presented severe problems for the logical consistency of the theory.

Another problem was that universal claims (e.g. "(all) philosophers are mortal") are problematic in terms of verification. The verifiability criterion was seen as being too strong. In its initial formulation, it made universal statements meaningless, and this was seen as a problem for science. This led to the weakening of the criterion.

And since Finke seems to feel that the consensus of scientists is relevant (“out of over 230,000 participants, roughly 63% of the survey participants have chosen “atheist” as their primary identifier”), there is this:

Most philosophers consider logical positivism to be, as John Passmore expressed it, "dead, or as dead as a philosophical movement ever becomes". By the late 1970s, its ideas were so generally recognized to be seriously defective that one of its own main proponents, A. J. Ayer, could say in an interview: "I suppose the most important (defect)...was that nearly all of it was false."

The new atheists seem to maintain a very 19th century sensibility – an unshakeable belief in logic and their ability to create a coherent, perfectible intellectual world. By contrast, 20th century thought was troubled and uncertain precisely because the limitations of those things became obvious. The most astonishing thing to me is that they have waded directly into these waters in a very public way without an apparent awareness of any of these issues. It is as if the whole 20th century never happened.

Now, new atheists may claim that their concern is not philosophy, but the public debate between atheists and evangelicals. That may be true, but by restricting their audience the only prize they might be said to win is “Congratulations – you’re smarter than an unlettered fundamentalist.”

The NSA Should Never Have Gone from Two to Three Steps

in analyzing calling patterns.

Whoever thought it was a good idea to assemble a call detail database in secret is an idiot and ought to be fired, even if they did manage to get the support of the FISA court. Politically, you can't do something of this magnitude without telling anyone and not risk serious repercussions.

Having said that, none of the specifics that I have heard have sounded anything like the characterization that the NSA is spying on everyone and listening to our phone calls. I think a lot of the people most outraged by this are either listening to inaccurate characterizations or else were not paying attention in 2008 when some of the foreign surveillance provisions that were up for renrewal were being debated. Obama's position then was similar to his position now.

The NSA does not spy indiscriminately on domestic targets. What they do is spy on domestic locations linked to recognized foreign targets. The secrecy surrounding the program apparently led management to exceed its mandate. It needs sunlight, and the rules need to be followed.

The NSA has pretty much admitted it overreached its mandate. It needs correction, oversight, and modification, but I think those are less major than most posters here seem to think.

I Don't Doubt You When You Say

"I am an atheist. I do not believe that there are gods of any kind. I do not pray. Ever."

On the other hand, the phenomenon is old enough and frequent enough to have become a commonplace: "there are no atheists in foxholes." I don't think you can infer that atheists do not pray either from your personal experience or from the observation that praying is inconsistent with an intellectual position of atheism.

How behavior can coexist with incompatible belief systems is another matter. It may seem trivial, but it is these are the kind of questions that lead to greater understanding. It could be that many younger atheists are uncomforable with this kind of analysis, since it moves the discussion from the realm of science and reason to the irrational world of psychology, emotions, and behavior. However, being able to deal with it in those terms will ultimately provide modern atheists with a more sophisticated version of human belief sytems.

But atheists do pray -- I have done so myself on a few occasions, usually under stress of some kind. The questions is whether that is dealt with by dismissal or by attempt to understand how people's belief systems interact with their behavior.

Yes, That is Exactly the Argument You Hear:

"Oh, I don't want to be naive or unsophisticated. It's all corrupt. They're all a bunch of criminals."

Now you can't blame anyone for being suspicious. The problem occurs when suspicions based on ignorance and insecurity are given the weight of belief, adopted as a worldview, and provided as an answer for any question to which the answer is not known and cannot be observed.

As a reality test, when you hear some version of this argument ("they're all liars"), does it usually come from the most or the least knowledgable people in the discussion?

I am Sure You Would Like to Know About it

but the government has been listening in on people's calls (as opposed to collecting phone logs) for over a century now. Few people seem to have a problem with it, largely because a warrant is required.

Information on local wiretaps is not routinely distrbuted, and few people know if they have been a subject of a warrant. Whether you have a constitutional right to information on wiretaps has not been decided by the courts:

...courts have not been clear about whether the public has a right to review warrants and related materials. Indeed, in a series of cases arising out of the same 1988 investigation, different federal appellate courts came to very different conclusions.


It doesn't sound like the FISA warrants are being any more restrictive with information than either local law enforcement or other federal investigations of criminal investigations or terrorist groups.

On the other hand, if your phone call data is captured while making an international call to a location covered by a warrant, do you really want that distributed to the general public? Is that protecting privacy?

Although I Think James Tried to be Universal,

his collection of religious experiences does seem to have been dominated by various Protestant incarnations. There is so much internal variety that I think James thought he was covering the field.

I also think James would argue that he was writing about the breadth of religious experience, and that this is primarily determined by human nature and personality rather than the religion itself. Both 'the sick soul' and the 'healthy minded' believer have representatives in every experience.

I think one thing that makes people uncomfortable nowdays is James's inclusion of nonreligious belief systems along with various faiths. For example, in the chapter on conversion, he prominently includes a conversion to atheism.

Maybe it's my psych major background, but it makes sense to me to look at how human belief systems function across faiths and non-faiths in the way that James did. It's certainly not the only way, but it helps distinguish what is human from what is part of the belief system itself. This is part of what is frustrating about the new atheists is their complete cluenessness that any traits or patterns common to adherents of a belief system apply to them despite how obvious it might be to anyone else. It is a syndrome common to everyone, but especially the young.

James's writings were groundbreaking a century ago. They are fascinating partly because they are such vivid period pieces, but they are also outdated. Belief sytems are universal. I wish there had been more development of James's basic approach by other people in the last hundred years.

Per the Article, the Claim that Marx Was Mostly Wrong

was specifically about Marx's belief that the "even though the ruling class could appease the working class by using the state to redistribute and share the fruits of economic growth it would never do so."

It is true that the upper classes have been successfully fighting since the 1980s for a larger slice of the pie at the expense of the working classes. Before that, by all accounts, distribution of wealth was greater and more equitable than it is today. Based on that history, Marx's argument that the ruling classes would never allow this appears to be permanently shown to be false.

Marx's historical analysis is still studied and valued at the academic level. What is more pertinent to this discussion, however, are Marx's ideas on how to build a government and run and economy. Those are not held in high esteem nor should they be.

It's Not Just Modern Evangelicals

Some traditional fundamentalists have had the same belief. It really goes back to the Reformation, although it might have been expressed differently.

The rationale is that the Christian gospel involves salvation by faith in Jesus alone, which is spelled out in Paul's letter. Catholicism, ooh, teaches a different gospel, one in which good works and obedience to the church are important, and amounts to little more than Christianized paganism. Reformation-oriented Protestants hold that believing in sola fides and sola scriptora (only faith and only scripture) are essential to true Christianity.

There is a whole host of associated criticisms of the Catholic church which highlight the stranger elements and those that do not seem to be in keeping with specific Bible passages. These includes having a pope and a hierarchy, praying to Mary and the saints, and placing church tradition on a par with the Bible. Some of these are surprisingly similar to anti-historical-Jesus arguments such as incorporating elements of Mithraism into the church.

There is a whole spectrum of attitudes towards Catholicism. Simply dismissing it as a non-Christian religion is kind of an extreme one, but it's prevalent. If you live in an area of the country with no Catholics, you can go years without having your views disabused.
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