The Mess of the Mass

May 12, 2012 3 comments

Several years ago I was having an early breakfast with a friend who is a Catholic priest.  We were in the middle of a good chat when he suddenly looked at his watch and said, “I’ve got to go!   It’s time to go kill Jesus.”  And he headed off for the daily morning mass.  Well, at least he was honest about it. After all, Christianity is, at its heart, a cult of human sacrifice.  All orthodox Christian denominations teach that the execution of a First-Century Jew somehow atoned for all the sins ever committed by human race.  Although nobody can agree on exactly how the atonement works.  And apparently you can still go to hell for your sins, even though they’ve been paid for.  Go figure.

Apparently the Mass/Communion/Lord’s Supper did not start out as a meal commemorating human sacrifice.   One of the earliest descriptions of  the Christian communion ceremony comes from an ancient document called The Didache or The Teaching of Twelve Apostles.   This early description of communion makes no reference at all to Jesus’ body and blood being consumed in the meal; nor is there any reference to the bodily resurrection of Jesus.   How could they have forgotten to put in something that important?  Well the obvious answer is, they didn’t forget.  Those aspects of the sacrament were added later.

And that actually makes some sense because it would have been very strange for First Century Jews to consume the blood of any creature.   The Torah contains strong prohibitions against ingesting blood:  “You must not eat any blood whatever, either of bird or of animal…” (Leviticus 7:26)   So that seems to nix rare prime rib.   Why is it that Yahweh is always against yummy food?

Long story short–several popular Roman mystery cults back in the day had communal meals which celebrated the death and resurrection of a god.  The cult of Dionysus and Mithraism are two examples.   In a stroke of marketing genius Paul and others most likely grafted elements of these ceremonies onto the Jewish Passover meal, and that’s how Christians ended up with the Mass.  It was a big hit.

Does anybody taking communion nowadays really believe they are ingesting the body and blood of a First Century Jew–either physically or symbolically?  Probably not many.  Polls show that more than half of Roman Catholics can’t tell you anything about transubstantiation.   But communion still seems to have some kind of powerful attraction for believers.   What is the draw of the ceremony?  My hunch is that the act of gathering together for a communal meal speaks to something deep within our psyches that was there long before the advent of Christianity or Judaism. Evolutionary psychologists and paleo-anthropologists, among others, have suggested that humans really took off as a species when our distant ancestors began cooking and started sharing meals together around campfires.  That’s where language began to develop,  along with advanced social behavior.  The power of communal meal sharing as a source of social bonding is so primal, and that probably explains the attraction of rites such as the Mass, Passover, and Eid Al-Fitr.

I think there are perfectly good and rational  explanations for the origins of most religious behavior.  It’s just that those answers don’t have anything at all to do with the metaphysical claims of religion.



Random Questions for Theists

Today I just want to share a few random questions and observations for theists.  These are not new questions;  they have all been posed elsewhere by many others.  But they are questions that should trouble believers, and they are questions we never get any good answers for.   I am really not trying to be flippant or “disrespectful” of religion.  I am genuinely interested in thoughtful, logical responses.

  • When you are asked “Where did God come from?”  answering that “God has always existed” or ” God exists outside the space-time continuum”  is an evasion.  These are not legitimate responses to the question.
  • Isn’t it just a tad bit self-centered to believe that God is personally choreographing the “blessings” of your day when hundreds of millions of your fellow human beings are living on the brink of starvation?
  • If God is necessary as the source of human morality, why do so many non-religious cultures have significantly lower crime rates than more religious cultures?  Japan and Sweden, for example, appear to be doing just fine without God.  (And please don’t point out that Japan and Sweden are more ethnically homogeneous, because the major racial  groups in the U.S. are all predominately Christian.)
  • Defenders of faith often like to point out that Stalin, Hitler, and Mao were atheists–ergo atheism leads to genocide.  But one of the more recent instances of genocide–Rwanda–was the result of Christian on Christian violence.  And in Bosnia it was a clash between Christians and Muslims.
  • What logical, empirical evidence exists to support any human being’s claim to divine revelation?    What is the basis for believing that anybody–from the Pope to the Dalai Lama– is privy to special knowledge about the workings of the universe?

Anyone have any thoughts to share?


Ritual and Religion

April 30, 2012 4 comments

The Japanese are among the least religious people on the planet–even less religious than Scandinavians.  Yet, when a child is born in Japan, the parents will more than likely dress up in formal kimonos and take the baby to the local shrine to be blessed by a Shinto priest.   Marriages, on the other hand, frequently take place in wedding chapels that look like churches, complete with a pseudo-Christian marriage ceremony, while funerals are almost always conducted by a Buddhist priest.  And there are other widely observed rituals as well, such as the holiday, “Seijinnohi” which marks the passage to adulthood for young people.Of course other cultures around the have analogous rituals.  The former East Germany instituted a Communist rite for young people to compete with the Christian confirmation ceremony.

The universality of ceremonies and rites of passage suggests that the need for ritual predates religion.  Indeed, burial sites from other hominid species such as homo habilis show evidence of ritual behavior.  Religions clearly did not create their ceremonies and sacraments by divine decree;  they merely tapped into a market for ritual that was already there. 

Take baptism (or christening) for example.   Very few people probably think that baptism has anything at all to do with the salvation of a baby, even though that’s the party line.  There is simply an understandable and universal impulse to express joy and gratitude over the gift of new life.  The particular theology surrounding the rite is ancillary.

The need for rituals, ceremonies and rites of passage is probably so deeply engrained in us as a species, that we’ll never get rid of it, even if most of humanity eventually becomes non-theistic.  This is just part of who we are.   Western Europeans mostly don’t go to church and don’t believe in God any more, but they still like Christmas as much as anybody.

So we probably don’t have to worry that the Jehovah’s Witnesses will ever take over the world.  Their hostility towards birthdays and other holidays is a fundamental denial of human nature.   That’s no fun.

Oh, and for the record,  I would love to see Darwin Day (February 12) added to the mix of holidays.

The Tragedy of Revelation

April 25, 2012 5 comments

A useless but fun exercise is to speculate “what if” about various historical events–like what if the South had won the Civil War? Or what if Kennedy had not been assassinated?  Along those lines I’ve often wondered what the history of Christianity might have looked like if the book of Revelation had not been included in the canon.   By most accounts of the New Testament’s development, Revelation almost did not make the final cut.  Unfortunately for us, it did.  And that fact may be one of the most tragic legacies of Christianity.

With it’s bizarre imagery, cataclysmic battles, and it’s vision of a vengeful Christ pouring out his wrath on the enemies of the faith, Revelation has been a source of fascination for many believers up to the present.    When I was still working for the church, I would occasionally ask students in the weekly Bible class which book of the Bible they would like to study next.  Revelation was always the most popular choice, hands down.

Now there are a lot of incomprehensible parts of the Bible, but Revelation takes the cake.  What on earth possessed ancient church leaders to claim that that this hallucinogenic rant was divinely inspired?    And because they deemed it divine, we are still suffering the consequences today.   Many Christians are not only eagerly awaiting the fulfillment of Revelation’s visions in their lifetimes; they are actively seeking to hasten Armageddon.  When you have a free moment,  do a Google search on “Numbers 19 Red Heifer.”  I’ll be some interesting stuff comes up.  And because of Revelation, many Christians actively oppose environmentalism.  After all, if this world is headed for destruction, and there is going to be a “new heaven and a new earth”  (Revelation 21:1)  why bother taking care of this earth that’s passing away?  The sooner we trash it the better.   This was summed up well in the bumper sticker I saw recently.  It was  on the back of a behemoth SUV sporting a Christian fish sign, and it read: “Friends don’t let friends become environmentalists.”

Honest Bible Study

April 23, 2012 4 comments

Nearly every day I drive by churches that advertise the times for their Bible study classes, and I often wonder what, exactly they’ll be studying.   One of the great frustrations of my time in ministry was feeling like I really couldn’t share what I knew about how the Bible came together and the geopolitical realities that shaped the text.   I get the feeling that most believers wouldn’t want to hear it anyway.

For instance,  many of the leading Israeli archaeologists say that the Exodus event probably never happened.   They’ve been scouring the Sinai peninsula for years looking in vain for any shred of evidence that there was ever a mass departure from Egypt–or even a minor departure. No remains of campfires or meals or artifacts.  Nothing has been found to corroborate the story.  Remember the Bible says the fleeing Hebrew slaves numbered more than 600,000.  Surely they would have left a little something behind!  Can you imagine any preacher who wants to keep receiving a paycheck getting up in front of the congregation, reading from the Exodus account and saying, “And we have absolutely no proof this ever happened.”

More progressive minded Christians, who tend to have a less literal reading the Bible,  might say that the veracity of the story really doesn’t matter because it points to “deeper truths.”  One approach is to talk about the Exodus event as illustrating God’s “preferential option” for the oppressed.  (This was the view of Liberation Theology.)  Except the text doesn’t allow that interpretation because Exodus is filled with commandments that permit slave ownership.  (see Exodus 21:1-11)  So if the message of the Exodus event was “slavery is bad,” then the Israelites certainly did not get the memo.

Although I certainly no longer believe that the Bible was in any way inspired by a supernatural being, I still find it fascinating.   Parts of it are a good read, and I might find those parts inspiring in the way I find Homer, Chaucer, and Shakespeare inspiring.  But it sure would be fun, for the first time in my life, to be a part of an honest Bible study—a discussion group that isn’t afraid of looking at the text as it really is rather than pretending this is somehow a magical and divine book.


Misunderstanding Darwin

April 21, 2012 6 comments

In the weeks since my apostasy more than a few believers have asked me something along these lines:  “How can you give up the beautiful Christian vision of humanity’s divine purpose and exchange it for the grim world of Darwinian selection where the strong survive and the weak die?  It  seems so empty.”

Well first of all, natural selection describes the world we actually find ourselves in.  Living according to reality seems like a better course to take than basing one’ s life on unfounded metaphysical claims and wishful thinking.

Secondly, natural selection is not simply “survival of the fittest.”   There’s much more to the story of life on our planet than “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson put it.  These types of reactions suggest that Darwinian thought is still widely misunderstood.   Yes, the brutal elements of life are the result of the struggle for survival.  But religion doesn’t have any more palatable answers for the violence in nature.  Who’s God rooting for anyway?  The lion or the zebra?  He “made”  both the predator and the prey.

But if life comes with a lot of ugliness, it also comes with much beauty. Our sense of  aesthetics,  too,  is the result of natural selection.   Altruism, love, courage, devotion to friends and family, creativity–all of these attributes evolved in our ancestral past long before religion ever came on the scene, and they can be amply explained without recourse to myth.

Speaking only for myself, I can tell you that learning to look at the world through Darwinian lenses has brought me more feelings of transcendence in recent months than traditional religion ever did.  Evolution teaches us to appreciate our proper role in the world, as a unique but fragile species that really has not been around all that long.   Genesis teaches us that humanity has “dominion”  over the earth.  Evolution teaches us that we are related to all life forms on the planet.

Religious “Wisdom”

April 18, 2012 3 comments

The religion page in our local paper features a  section called “Wisdom,” which is a collection of quotes from religious texts.  I’ve been reading it each week hoping to find some actual wisdom.  No luck yet.  Here is a quick sample of what they’ve printed  lately.  Tell me what you think.

Jewish: “God spoke all these words, saying; I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: You shall have no other gods besides me.” (Exodus 20:1-3)  Note that the text does not say that the Lord (Yahweh) is the only god, just that other gods should not be worshiped.   The passage was probably written when most Israelites were monolatrous and not strictly speaking monotheists.  Interesting from a historical perspective but it doesn’t count as wisdom.  And please don’t tell me it’s a passage about God’s opposition to slavery.   He let the Israelites hang on to their own slaves.

Muslim: “As to the Righteous (they will be) in a position of security.  among Gardens and Springs; dressed in fine silk and in rich brocade, they will face each other.” (Surah 44:51-53)  Says who?  Just because the Prophet says he spoke to Allah, we’re supposed to believe him.  Also note that paradise is described n a way that would be very attractive to people living in a desert.   The divine origin of the text would be more convincing if paradise didn’t sound so much like an oasis.  So strike two for wisdom.

Sikh: Truth is the highest of all Virtues; but higher still is the living of Truth. (Sri Rag) OK, at least this one sounds a little more like a wise saying.  But it’s really just a platitude, which is what most religious wisdom boils down to.  Like “love your neighbor as yourself.”   That’s not mind-blowing wisdom.  It’s just common sense if you want to go through this life with at least a few friends.

I’m pretty sure, however, that I did encounter some wisdom the other night when I got to hear a lecture by the eminent biologist E.O Wilson who was speaking about his latest book, “The Social Conquest of the Earth.”   I already tweeted this quote, but it’s worth repeating:  “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”  Now that’s what wisdom should sound like–something your mind can ponder for a while and can make you see things in a new way.