This is a test. This is only a test. Had this been an actual religious emergency, the omnipotent creator of the universe would surely be sending plagues and pestilence, lightning bolts, or perhaps a herd of stampeding unicorns to trample all of the blasphemous infidels slandering his good name. But …. being as no such divine punishments have thus far materialized, I guess we’ll just have to settle for the inevitable intervention by a mob of his angry, self-proclaimed minions here on Earth. Or, failing that, I suppose any highly-opinionated Internet surfers will suffice.
Before jumping straight into throwing rocks at the hornets’ nest though, it might be useful to first define a few key terms just so there’s not any confusion among a certain segment of combative readers as to what particular words actually mean. Semantics, after all, is extremely important if language is to be anything other than meaningless noise.
We’ll start with “ignorant.” Per the dictionary, this means simply “lacking in knowledge.” Contrary to what many people may think, it does not mean stupid or backward. If you’re going to try to wield it as an insult, you had better be prepared to back it up by pointing out just exactly what factual knowledge is lacking in the target of your wrath. Otherwise you’re being ignorant (of what ignorant means).
Next, let’s look at the word “rational.” Originally, this word meant simply “able to be expressed as a ratio.” It was a mathematical term, dating back to the ancient Greek philosopher and geometrician, Pythagoras (of “Pythagorean theorem” fame). He had the idea that every possible number could be represented in the form of a fraction, that is, as a ratio between two numbers. When he finally became convinced that the diagonal of a unit square – the square root of two – could not be reduced to any fraction, he is said to have thrown himself off a cliff in a fit of rage as his entire worldview came crashing down around him. Quite the irrational thing to do, one might say.
Since then, the word rational has evolved to mean “having or exercising reason, sound judgment, or good sense.” So if you wish to call someone irrational, you had better be prepared to demonstrate how their presentation or ideas fail to meet the criteria of reasoned argument, and the best way to do this is by being rational.
Lastly, let’s look at the logical term “straw man argument,” also known as the Fallacy Of Extension. This is when someone creates an exaggerated, fictitious opponent bearing little resemblance to any actual person or their position, and then they attack this fake opponent in place of taking on the real one. A straw man is not simply someone who is easy to attack – someone like Rick Santorum or any garden variety fundamentalist. While people such as these may be embarrassments to more intelligent Christians, and while such Christians may prefer that atheists match their wits with someone slightly better equipped to hold their own, say a C.S. Lewis or William Lane Craig, that is a different argument altogether.
It is perfectly valid to attack “the low hanging fruit,” as Sam Harris calls it, and doing so does not constitute attacking a “straw man.” It’s just attacking a fool. Furthermore, if you’re going to accuse someone of attacking a straw man, please have the decency to point out which part of the argument seems fallacious and why. Otherwise you’re engaging in another logical fallacy, namely, the Argument By Dismissal. Here is a link to an excellent resource on the subject so you can go study up a bit in case you’re still confused.
Okay, with the preliminaries out of the way, let’s continue. Today’s topic will be one of the ultimate taboos in Western society – territory where even atheists tend to tread lightly. It’s the historicity of the man-god called Jesus Christ.
Be forewarned, if the following analysis seems shocking or offensive, try to bear in mind that for anyone not already committed to his worship or otherwise predisposed to being reverential towards the guy, then beyond the disproportionate influence the ideas attributed to him have had on the history of Western civilization, there’s nothing particularly special about this Jesus fellow, as we’re about to see. Remember too that for someone who feels that humanity is at a critical juncture in our development, and who’s convinced that faith-based religion has become the number one impediment to the long-term survival of our species, there is absolutely no incentive to be delicate and hold back solely in the interest of not causing hurt feelings.
As a final note, it should be pointed out that as this is but one lone article and not a four hundred page book, it will necessarily have to skim just the surface of the topic, so pardon me if it seems like I’m “trying to be profound” in the space allowed. Think of this as an hors d’oeuvre platter with the main course reserved for another time. In order to help facilitate the inevitable firestorm, I’ll even number the dishes for easy reference. So here they are, some interesting facts to get the blood boiling:
1) Jesus most likely never existed.
a) There is no mention of him by any contemporary historian from the early years of the first millennium. Although the Romans were known to have kept detailed government records, his name does not appear in any surviving documents or inscriptions. Josephus, a Jewish historian writing around 94 AD (sixty plus years after Jesus’ supposed death) mentions him only in passing, and even for those passages there remain a number of legitimate doubts as to their authenticity. Tacitus, writing in 116 AD also mentions him only briefly – his probable source being secondhand descriptions from self-confessed Christians in Rome at the time. This proves nothing whatsoever about Jesus existing, no more than children believing in Santa Clause proves the existence of an elf-run toy factory at the North Pole. All it shows is that there existed credulous members of a new cult within the Roman world decades after the time period in question.
Following Jesus’ death on the cross, the Bible relates how, for a three hour period, “there was darkness over all the land” and a massive earthquake shook Jerusalem, and then, in a crowning act of supernatural extravagance worthy of any good zombie flick, “the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.” (Matthew 27:45-53) One might think such amazing events would have drawn the attention of someone like Pliny the Elder, a Roman statesman and naturalist alive at the time, who spent his career scouring the Empire looking for unusual and inexplicable phenomena of which to write about, eventually losing his life while investigating the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. But alas, he spoke nary a word about Jesus.
In fact, the first mention by any writer of any nationality or religion or ethnicity was by the Apostle Paul, about twenty years after the supposed crucifixion and resurrection. That’s quite a long gap for the most important event in the history of the universe to go unrecorded. Then again, considering that Mormonism is one of the fastest growing religions on Earth, and its patently absurd and demonstrably false claims occurred within recent historic times (even being openly mocked by Joseph Smith’s contemporary American, Mark Twain, who referred to the Mormon Bible as “chloroform in print”), maybe it’s not so shocking after all. But I diverge.
b) It’s doubtful that there actually existed any town called Nazareth in Galilee at the time that Jesus was supposed to have lived there. Archaeological and historical evidence both indicate that the current town of that name was not built until early in the second century AD. Prior to that time it was a cemetery, and according to Jewish law, no habitation could be built over or near a tomb, so it could not have been the home of Mary and Joseph. This begs the question, if Jesus’ hometown wasn’t real, what other parts of his story aren’t true?
c) The various Gospels blatantly contradict each other on many important elements of his life including: whether or not he was born of a virgin, his paternal ancestry (which is totally irrelevant if actually born of a virgin), details of his childhood (such as the timing and duration of his flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath), what exactly happened with Mary Magdalene at his empty tomb, and many other minor, but significant details. Furthermore, although generally regarded by lay believers as eyewitness accounts, none of the Gospels actually make this claim, and most of them are written in the third person, conspicuously avoiding the use of “I” and “we.”
d) There is no authenticated physical evidence linking back to Jesus. The famous “Shroud of Turin” is almost certainly a medieval forgery, having been carbon dated to around 1300 AD. Recently, an artifact known as the “James ossuary” surfaced and briefly caused a media sensation, but most scholars and scientists who have studied it are convinced it’s a blatant forgery. Thus, with the complete lack of any verifiable archeological evidence, the case for the existence of a historical Jesus seems to rest entirely on good old-fashioned faith.
2) Whether he was a real person or merely a fictitious character in a made-up story, he wasn’t very nice, and most of what he had to say was neither original nor profound nor even very good advice.
a) To start with, what is probably Jesus’ most renowned and well-loved speech, the “Sermon on the Mount,” is nothing more than a long-winded tirade of inane babble. In it, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, Jesus advocates for the Orwellian concept of “thoughtcrime,” for when he says;
Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. (Matthew 5:28)
He utterly ignores the fundamental distinction between thought and action. He renders moot the value of self-control; of considering an action and then, having thought through the possible consequences, deciding against it.
b) Then there’s his famous instructions for instilling a slave mentality within the populace (on this point, Nietzsche was entirely correct.) From Matthew 5:38-39:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
And he goes on:
…Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
Let’s compare this to the well-known and frequently misattributed quote, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Which one makes more sense? If Jesus’ words were in any way meaningful, then why did the U.S. retaliate against the Japanese after they bombed Pearl Harbor? Why did we invade Afghanistan following September 11th? Why was America – “One nation, under God” – ever opposed to the Nazis or the Soviets? If we’re to love and bless our enemies, shouldn’t we have laid out a red carpet for them?
c) Next, let’s look at his purported “family values” that James Dobson and others of the Christian right are always going on about. Here’s a touching example of how Jesus treated his own dear mother, the Holy Virgin Mary, when she dared to interrupt a meeting of his (from Matthew 12:47-49):
Then one said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee. But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren!
To paraphrase, it’s like, “Not now, Mom. Can’t you see I’m busy playing with my friends?” Sure, we all get caught up in our activities sometimes, but to be so busy that you turn away your own mother and siblings who have traveled from afar to come and see you? And this isn’t just anyone we’re talking about; it’s the messiah, “the Son of man,” who’s supposed to be the most perfect person ever. Then again, perhaps his behavior is not so surprising, for on another occasion he had said:
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.(Luke 14:26)
Huh? To follow Jesus you have to hate your whole family and even life itself? Didn’t he earlier proclaim, “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law,” (Matthew 5:18) which presumably includes the commandment from Exodus 20:12 to “Honor thy father and thy mother”?
d) Now let’s look at some of Jesus’ advice that is just plain bizarre (not to mention gratuitously violent). In Matthew 18:6, he says that if someone were to offend a small child (perhaps by telling them to “grow up” as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 13:11) then, “it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” Riiiiiight. Continuing in this vein, he proceeds to get even more macabre, stating:
Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee… And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire. (Matthew 18:8-9)
e) On top of dispensing useless prescriptions for death and mutilation, Jesus was also an advocate of cruelty and petty tribalism. In Matthew 15:22-26, we’re told how he’s approached on the road by “a woman of Canaan” – in other words, not a fellow Israelite. She:
[C]ried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.
So first he ignored her, then he insulted her, and finally, only after making her continue to debase herself through additional begging and excessive flattery did he finally relent and help her out. Quite the altruist and role model.
And what about the story of “the Good Samaritan” from Luke 10:30-37? Everyone remembers the punch line about showing compassion and helping out those in need, but no one ever mentions the massive elephant in the room – the unstated assumption that all other Samaritans, solely by virtue of their ethnicity or cultural identity, were worthless pieces of camel dung – otherwise the origin of the man in the story would be irrelevant. How’s that for “celebrating diversity”?
f) Now by this point, I’m sure there are numerous Christian apologists chomping at the bit, ready to contort themselves through all sorts of hoops of twisted logic to rationalize away and present the “true interpretation” and context behind these apparent contradictions and absurdities. So let’s shift gears and examine something else – the near-universally acknowledged “Golden Rule” as presented in Matthew 7:12. Although it falls apart completely if faced with a sadomasochist, for any normal, mentally healthy person, it’s generally pretty sound advice. That’s why it’s so widely recognized as such. But that’s not the only reason. It’s also because it has a long and distinguished history totally independent of, and far preceding, the arrival of Jesus on the scene. Similar statements appear in a wide variety of religious and philosophical traditions from around the world.
For instance, in Buddhism (Buddha, India, fifth or sixth century BC) we find “Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” From Zoroastrianism (Zoroaster, Persia, seventh century BC, possibly even thousands of years earlier), we have, “Do not do unto others whatever is injurious to yourself.” And in Taoism, “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.” (Lao Tzu is thought to have lived in China, like the others, sometime around the sixth century BC – a time known as “the Axial Age” for the profound impact these and a handful of other thinkers from this time had on Eurasian society.) So the Golden Rule clearly cannot be credited as originating with Jesus.
g) Lastly, just so no one gets to thinking that everyone in ancient times was as foolish as Jesus, here are a few excellent quotes from some classical philosophers whom I particularly admire. First we have Plato, writing four hundred years before Jesus came along:
Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.
Next we have Epicurus, who died around 270 BC:
It is folly for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to obtain by himself.
And finally, my personal favorite, Lucretius, a Roman philosopher who wrote his wholly-naturalistic treatise De rerum natura, around 55 BC:
O joyless hearts of men! O minds without vision! How dark and dangerous the life in which this tiny span is lived away! Do you not see that nature is clamoring for two things only, a body free from pain, a mind released from worry and fear for the enjoyment of pleasurable sensations?
And that concludes today’s presentation. Now, let’s sit back and watch with a smile as the enlightened flow of grammatically dubious, proper-spelling-be-damned, f-bomb sprinkled invectives comes flowing in, cheerfully and unselfconsciously failing to address any of the actual points with reasoned counterarguments and instead, ranting on about generalized preconceived notions and emotional biases against the overall topic. Ready? The bait is set. Nothing more to do than get comfortable and wait for the scavengers to come crawling in. Happy trolling!
Colby Hess is a freelance writer and photographer living near Seattle, WA. He is currently writing a book about science, philosophy, and freethought. Follow him on Twitter at ColbyTHess.