Comparing Religions V: Historical Accounts

In this installment of Comparing Religions, we will tackle two of my proposed questions in a single post, which has the nice side effect that it brings the post numbers and the question numbers into synch with each other.

4. Are the primary texts describing some sort of mythological pre-history, or are they set in historical times?

Sometimes a document that purports to be from the distant past is simply an outright forgery.  For example, the Book of Mormon's anachronistic description of American cultures that somehow left no archaeological evidence, supernaturally preserved in a nonexistent language on invisible golden plates.  Some supernatural claims really are more obviously bogus than others!

Other times, a book may be a collection of mythological stories from an even earlier era.  For example, the Bhagavad Gita consists of a dialogue with Krishna, who is supposed to have lived around 3,000 BC.  Since this was thousands of years before writing came to India, that's obviously much too early for this text to be a historical record, even leaving aside the obviously mythological content.  (There was some discussion of this in the comments to another post.)  The Gita is one part of the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic which (like Homer) involves gods living among men in various shapes and guises.  Although traditionally the Mahabharata was believed to be authored by the Vyasa (a sage mentioned in the story), in fact the earliest known possible external reference to the Mahabharata dates to the 4th century BC, and it might have continued to change significantly until the 4th century AD.

(The Vedas, a more foundational set of Hindu religious texts, include hymns that are probably significantly older than the Mahabharata; I gather that these were composed during the Vedic period c. 1500 – c. 500 BC, but I have not studied them enough to comment intelligently about them.)

In Judaism, the traditional date of the Exodus/Torah is around 1400 BC, give or take a century or two.  This is significantly later than the supposed date of Krishna, and postdates the invention of the alphabet.  Even so, there is difficulty confirming the events in question from archaeology or other written sources.  Although there are a few corroborating details, they are hard to fit into a consistent chronology with e.g. Egyptian histories.  While I personally accept the historicity of the Exodus (and its accompanying dramatic miracles) this is mainly because I am already a Christian for other reasons, and also because some parts of the Torah (especially all the boring bits!) sound rather like the minutia of real historical documentation.  It is not because I think there is strong extrabiblical evidence for it.

Other parts of the Old Testament were written significantly later, and some of these parts do have confirmation from other ancient historical records.  Notably, the miraculous defeat of Sennacherib is in both Isaiah/Kings and in Herodotus' Histories.  Herodotus was the father of Greek-style investigative history, although sometimes he is often a bit overcredulous.  His version of the event is significantly different from the biblical account: in it the Assyrians are defeated because mice eat all of their bowstrings.

On the other hand, the New Testament comes after Greek historical methods were widely disseminated (this was because of the conquests of Alexander the Great, which spread Greek culture all over the place).  There are many other histories generally regarded as reliable, written at around the same time in the same culture, and some of them mention Jesus as a historical figure.  We know pretty much when he was born (c. 4 BC), and when he died (30 or 33 AD).  He fits into the 1st century Jewish context and makes sense in that context, etc.

Similarly, no reasonable person can deny the historical existence of Mohammad, or that we have at least some accurate accounts of what he said and did.  (There are unreasonable people who subscribe to Mohammad mythicism just as there are unreasonable people who subscribe to Jesus mythicism, but they are regarded as crackpots by the greater scholarly community.)  And of course the same goes for most founders of modern religious movements.

5. Related, does it sound like fiction, or does it sound like history?

Reading fictional myths about great heroes like Achilles or Beowulf or Frodo is a very different experience than reading actual historical documents, which fit into the historical context of the real world, talk about circumstantial details in the right way, provide plausible and realistic reportage of people's reactions, and so on.  For the most part, we can tell which books in the library are fiction and which are nonfiction by their literary style.

Educated ancient Greeks knew perfectly well that Homer and the other ποιητης (poets, but the word literally means "makers") were writing fiction about the gods; the Athenians laughed at people who actually took them literally.  Sure, the Greeks thought the Trojan War was an actual historical event, but Homer's description of it was their equivalent of Shakespeare, not the Bible.  Which is why the poets began by invoking the Muse, who is the goddess of literary inspiration, not historical accuracy.

It is true that a religious fanatic like Euthyphro might answer affirmatively when Socrates asked him if he took the myths literally:

And do you believe that there really is war among the gods, and terrible enmities and battles, and other such things as are told by the poets, and other sacred stories such as are embroidered by good writers and by representations of which the robe of the goddess is adorned when it is carried up the Acropolis?  Are we to say that such things are true, Euthyphro?

(Plato's Euthyphro, Grube translation)

but we know from earlier in the dialogue that Euthyphro was generally regarded by other Athenians as being nuts!

No sensible person could believe that the myths about e.g. Hercules are sober documentary histories, comparable to e.g. the history of Thucydides (the first really excellent Greek historian).  This is not to say that the Greeks disbelieved in their gods, or that you wouldn't get into trouble for completely denying their existence; but their actual religion was not really identical to their mythology; still less was it the same as their philosophy or their history.  These things were kept somewhat separate.

But Christianity brings historical claims and theology together.  At the level of literary genre, the Gospels (and Acts) read much more like actual accounts of real events; they talk about contemporary historical individuals (such as St. John the Baptist, Joseph Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, the Herods, etc.) whom we know existed from other historical writings.   Not to mention St. Peter and the other Apostles, who founded an organization that is still around and left written records.  There are numerous miracles, but they are pretty firmly embedded in this particular historical context.

The New Testament fits into its historical context

One of the Gospels opens its account of Jesus' ministry with the following words:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  (Luke 3:1-3)

In other words, these are events whose beginning can be dated precisely based on the political administration in a particular year (AD 29), and which took place at a known geographical location.

The New Testament includes practical details

And throughout the Gospels, the sense of being actually present (e.g. having to deal with logistical concerns related to bustling crowds) is often quite palpable:

Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed.  When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon.  Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him.  For he had healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him.
Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat.
(Mark 3:7-10, 20)

These are not the sort of practical details that one would expect to be included in purely mythological fiction (any more than an ancient poet would bother to tell us where Perseus stopped to use the restroom on the way to kill Medusa).  Yet this sort of texture pervades the canonical Gospel narratives.

(The Fourth Gospel, attributed to St. John the Apostle, has a noticeably different style from the other three "synoptic" Gospels; for example there are long conversations between Jesus and his interlocutors, and his claims to have divine status—while not unique to John—are more frequent and explicit.  However, there is still a significant overlap with the events of the Synoptic Gospels, and its narrative parts show detailed knowledge of 1st century geography, architecture, and Jewish feasts.  And in several places, the Gospel of John actually reads the most strongly of any gospel as if it were written by an eye-witness of the events in question, who sometimes even seems eager to "correct the record" regarding quite minor circumstantial details of events reported by the other 3 Gospels.)

The New Testament Jesus is recognizably Jewish

Unlike later Gospels that were rejected by the Church, the Gospels portray Jesus and his contemporaries as Jews, with Jewish concerns.

While this fact may seem obvious (Jesus was in fact a Jew, so his Jewishness ought to be obvious in any historically accurate representation of him), it provides a sharp criterion for distinguishing the historically informed primary source material from all the unreliable legends composed later (after Christianity became detached from its parent religion and there was no incentive or ability to portray Jesus in this way.)

As another Christian blogger St. Anne / "Weekend Fisher" writes at her blog:

In my research on the history of the liturgy, I came across a book described by its dust jacket as "the most complete scholarly study of Jewish liturgy in existence today."  Naturally, I couldn't resist getting a copy.  The book is Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History by Ismar Elbogen.  The original edition (1913) was in German.  At the time of the 1993 English translation, it was noted (again, from the dust jacket), "Eighty years after its first appearance, Elbogen's magisterial work remains the most thorough academic study of the Jewish liturgy ever written."  His primary sources are many and varied, including the Talmud, Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, a host of Jewish writers through the ages, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Paul's letter to the Galatians, the Didache, Justin Martyr, and the Apostolic Constitutions, among others.  Curiously (or not so curiously), I have not been able to find any references in this book to the Gospel of Mary, or the Gospel of Philip, or any of the non-canonical gospels.

Before we look at why this might happen, I should mention why this work takes so much notice of certain Christian writings: it uses them to establish historical facts about Jewish liturgy and worship, especially as it is practiced in the synagogue.  The canonical gospels contain first-century evidence of what Jewish worship was like.  There is a record of Hanukkah being celebrated in Jerusalem under the name the Feast of Dedication; it is applicable to the discussion of the history of Hanukkah. The book considers parallels between traditional Jewish prayers and other prayers recorded in the canonical gospels, and uses that to show how far traditional Jewish prayers were already developed at that point in time.  The canonical gospels were referenced for peoples' reactions to the practice of giving scholars preferred seats in the synagogues, for whether the Jewish synagogue worship already included readings from the prophets and sermons on those readings, for whether the twice-weekly fast was already in place before the fall of the Temple.  There is evidence on the development of the role of the synagogue leader in speaking to people who were out of order; when Jesus heals on the Sabbath, the fellow who objects has the proper title for the person who was supposed to maintain order in the synagogue.  There is even evidence in the New Testament for some very detailed aspects of the Jewish liturgy: that the person who gave the sermon was first called to read, that the reading occurred while standing, that the sermon occurred while sitting.  The gospels are used as evidence for the location of certain particular synagogues, and for the practice (also known elsewhere) that non-Jews might contribute to building a synagogue.  All these very Jewish facts in the New Testament are placed alongside a continuum of Jewish writings to form a coherent whole of which they are an integral piece.  (The historical Jesus is Jewish)

The fact that the canonical Gospels are useful historical sources for a Jewish liturgist with no interest in Christianity, besides the desire to gain period knowledge about Judaism, shows that they are not mere legends but contain significant quantities of historically accurate information.

It's hard to make a good fake

Neither do the Gospels have the same character as forged historical texts, a process which tends to give itself away through tell-tale signs.  As Richard Feynman wrote (about a fake Mayan astronomical codex):

Those people who copy things never have the courage to make up something really different.  If you find something that is really new, it's got to have something different... In addition, there should be a number of things in it that are not understandable, and are not exactly like what has been seen before.  That would be a good fake.  (Bringing Culture to the Physicists)

Most forgers have very little historical sense, and their forgeries end up being transparently obvious.  They are derivative where they should be original, yet somehow fail to partake of the spirit of the things which they are copying, and they are missing the little details which ought to be to provide a sense of reality.  There is not enough "roughness around the edges", showing the cut of the original unpolished wood.

To illustrate this point, here's some nice examples of pseudo-apostolic frauds: The Gospel of Mary and 3rd Corinthians.  The former being a Gnostic gospel fragment, and the latter an anti-Gnostic piece of correspondence purportedly between the Corinth and St. Paul.  Just reading the texts makes it instantly clear, to the trained eye, that neither is authentic.  They try to copy the mannerisms of the New Testament, but it sounds forced: it is clearly not the sort of thing which an actual person at the time would ever have written.  I'm not going to say that fakes are always this obvious, but usually they are!

A slightly better example, but still obviously biblical fan-fiction, is the Protoevangelium of James, which supposedly describes the birth and childhood of Mary the mother of Jesus, but is generally dated to the 2nd century.  It shows little evidence of compatibility with known Jewish customs of the 1st century BC.  Most shockingly, it describes the child Mary as being allowed to enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple, yet it does not describe angry mobs demanding her execution (as would inevitably have happened if people thought she had profaned the holiest site in the Temple, which not even the priests were allowed to enter, except for the High Priest once a year).  It is not as though the Jews already believed she was going to be the mother of the Messiah.  It reads exactly like the sort of text that a later Christian would make up, in order to fill in the disappointing lack of detail regarding Jesus' parents.

As St. Lewis pointed out, when people make up legends, it's actually really hard to make them sound like historical reportage (and mostly forgers didn't even try very hard).  Speaking of the canonical Gospels, he writes:

I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life.  I know what they are like.  I know that not one of them is like this.  Of this text there are only two possible views.  Either this is reportage—though it may no doubt contain errors—pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors, or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.  If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind.  The reader who doesn't see this has simply not learned to read.

It took until modern times for novelists to figure out how to make fiction sound like history, and even then, it usually doesn't.  (Modern novels, whether "realistic" or "fantastic", tend to deviate from documentary reportage in the opposite direction, by giving far more circumstantial detail than anyone would ever remember about an event unless there was a camera-man following them around.)  It seems like it should be easy (just write whatever you would have written if it had really happened), but it is actually quite tricky, since the little details give you away.  It's a bit like how you can easily tell whether a picture hanging in an art gallery is a painting or a photograph, just by looking at it.

I suppose I should go on in this post to describe some examples of non-Christian religious scriptures whose style and content clearly indicates that they are legends.  But, it turns out that it will be more convenient to give some examples in the following post, which concerns dating.  So stay tuned for the next installment!

Next: Early Sources

Posted in History, Theological Method | 1 Comment

Comparing Religions IV: Supernatural Claims

Continuing my series on comparing the evidence for different religions...

3. Did the religious founder claim his message came from supernatural revelation, or is it only the reflections of some wise philosopher who didn't claim to have divine sanction for their teaching?

In this post we will consider a number of philosophers who touched on religious subjects, and compare their self-conception with Jesus' own claims.  We will see that many so-called "religious founders" never intended to put themselves forward as individuals with a supernaturally special role.

Confucius (Confucianism)

For example, take the case of Confucius, for whom I have the greatest respect.  (After I read the Analects in grad school, I immediately wanted to read it over again.)

Confucianism is sometimes called a religion, but if you go back to the actual primary sources it is clear he was a political philosopher and ethicist, not a prophet who claimed to have any sort of supernatural revelation.  Still less did he claim to be any kind of divine figure.  Naturally legends and cults of veneration sprang up later (e.g. stories of his miraculous birth appear in Records of the Grand Historian, composed 4 centuries later).  But Confucius himself made no claims to have any access to supernatural knowledge:

The topics the Master did not speak of were prodigies, force, disorder and gods.  (Analects VII 21)

He was a humane, pious, and wise man who taught principles of virtuous conduct, and who happened to live in a society in which all departed ancestors were venerated by their descendents (of which he had many).  And yes, one of his principles of conduct was sincere participation in the religious rites of his culture.  But it would be just as wrong to call him a religious founder, as to call Aristotle or Benjamin Franklin or Abraham Lincoln a religious founder.

This does not mean he was an "agnostic", as some have strangely claimed, since he does seem to have had an explicit religious belief in some sort of higher power providentially guiding history:

When under siege in K'uang, the Master said, "With King Wen dead, is not culture (wen) invested here in me?  If Heaven intends culture to be destroyed, those who come after me will not be able to have any part of it.  If Heaven does not intend this culture to be destroyed, then what can the men of K'uang do to me?" (Analects IX 5)

In this (and several other sayings) of Confucius, the term traditionally translated as "Heaven" is Tian (天), a word with a broad range of possible meanings.  According to one scholarly explanation of the classical Chinese word:

This term can refer to the sky, hence the standard translation "Heaven."  However, Heaven can also be a sort of higher power. Various thinkers conceive of this higher power in different ways, though.  Thus, Heaven seems to be very much like a personal god in the Mohist writings, but is more like the impersonal processes of nature in the writings of Zhuangzi and Xunzi, and is somewhere in the middle in the sayings of Kongzi [i.e. Confucius] and Mengzi.  In the period covered in this anthology, Heaven is not primarily thought of as a place, and is not connected with any explicit views about an afterlife.   [bolded emphasis mine]

Thus while 天 could be taken, without absurdity, to allude to a distant but personal deity, it could equally well mean "the grand scheme of things".  But this modern Western uncertainty about how to translate 天 into our own concepts shouldn't be projected onto Confucius himself, who clearly had a fundamental conviction about the reality and importance of the harmonious order associated with 天.

As I read him, Confucius' religious beliefs were at least adjacent to belief in God in the monotheistic sense, but that does not imply that Confucius thought of himself as having a relation to the divine beyond what any other teacher of ethics would have, if he were the last remaining voice in civilized society advocating for traditional moral culture.  While Confucius viewed 天 as a source of guidance for conduct, he did not view it as being responsible for any sort of verbal revelation, beyond what can be read from Nature itself:

The Master said, "I am thinking of giving up speech."  Tzu-kung said, "If you did not speak, what would there be for us, your disciples, to transmit?"  The Master said, "What does Heaven ever say?  Yet there are the four seasons going round and there are the hundred things coming into being. What does Heaven ever say?"  (Analects XVII 19)

Even on the most robustly theological interpretation of these passages, if believing that your mission in life comes from above makes you a religious founder, then quite a few of the Christians I know would also be religious founders!

The fact is, I have already given a highly misleading impression of Confucius simply by quoting three of the more "religious" passages in the book.  Read it yourself, and you will see how little there is on this topic.  Here is how Confucius wanted to be remembered:

The Duke of Sheh asked Tsze-lû about Confucius, and Tsze-lû did not answer him.  The Master said, "Why did you not say to him,—He is simply a man, who in his eager pursuit of knowledge forgets his food, who in the joy of its attainment forgets his sorrows, and who does not perceive that old age is coming on?" (Analects VII 19)

Laozi (Taoism)

Another example of a "religion" that clearly started out as a mere philosophy is Taoism, which is generally known in the West as a source of provocative but somewhat cryptic wisdom like the Tao Te Ching:

Thirty spokes unite around one hub to make a wheel.
It is the presence of the empty space that gives the function of a vehicle.
Clay is molded into a vessel.
It is the empty space that gives the function of a vessel.
Doors and windows are chisel out to make a room.
It is the empty space in the room that gives its function.
Therefore, something substantial can be beneficial.
While the emptiness of void is what can be utilized. (XI)

Its author, the sage Laozi, only makes these modest claims about his own wisdom:

I alone remain quiet and calm
like an infant who is pure and innocent.
And I alone appeared to be lost like one who has no where to go.
All people have a surplus,
but I alone was simple and left out like a fool.
People seemed bright and shrewd, while I seemed dull.
People like to dispute, while I alone remain quiet.
I am calm and peaceful like the boundless ocean.
I am open-hearted and free
like the wind blowing high above the sky without hindrance.
Everyone thinks of themselves as capable and outstanding
while I appeared unlearned.
I am the only one to be different from others
for I value highly the Great Tao [Way] and joyfully act accordingly. (XX)

While the Tao that pervades Nature comes across as a mystical concept, the text does not imply that Laozi has any special status, besides being a keen observer of Nature.  This is simply not parallel to the claims of e.g. the Hebrew prophets to have received special verbal revelation from God.

In practice a lot of later Taoism was mainly concerned with alchemical and sexual tricks to try to live as long as possible.  You can call that a "religion" if you like, but it would probably be better to classify that as a (mostly) pseudo-scientific medicinal tradition, competing with other forms of fad dieting advice.  Either way, Taoism is clearly better classified as a philosophy, not a religion.

(There is a third strand in so-called Taoism which is simply traditional Chinese paganism that venerates various local and heavenly deities, sometimes considered as manifestations of a single unifying divine principle, but this strand presumably predates Laozi and is not very different from pre-Christian paganism in the West.)

Socrates (Stoicism, Neoplatonism)

Of course, in the modern West it is not at all traditional to regard Socrates as a religious founder, instead we typically recognize him as one of the key progenitors of Western philosophy.  Yet when it comes to exotic Eastern traditions, Westerners usually categorize them as alternative "religions", when it might be more illuminating to treat them as philosophers.  So it seems illuminating to compare Confucius and Laozi to Socrates, who really is closely parallel to them.

Socrates was a pious man, but he was a philosopher and not a prophet.  (Even though two later religious philosophies, namely Stoicism and Neoplatonism, did take him as their hero.)  This is completely obvious to anyone who reads the Platonic dialogues.  True, when the prosecutors at his trial accused him of atheism, he did defend himself by ironically suggesting he had a divine mission (confirmed by the oracle of Delphi), to ask people annoying questions.  But no divine message:

I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others: but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and in this oracle [that "there is no man wiser than Socrates"] he means to say that the wisdom of men is little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name as an illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.  And so I go my way, obedient to the god, and make inquisition into the wisdom of anyone, whether citizen or stranger, who appears to be wise; and if he is not wise, then in vindication of the oracle I show him that he is not wise. (Plato's Apology)

It is also true that Socrates made mention of a daimonion, or divine sign, speaking to him; but he claimed that it never told him what to do or say, but only (on occasion) what not to do.  Whether this was just a poetic way of referring to what modern people would call a conscience, or whether (as I would like to think) it was an actual supernatural gift, is not something we need to decide here, since it was not in any case the basis of Socrates' teaching method.  Instead, Socrates believed in using reason and dialogue to draw the truth out of other people in conversation.

Buddha (Buddhism)

The case of Buddha is considerably murkier, but something similar may be true in his case as well.  If one goes back to the earliest sources, Buddha does not seem to have made the claim to be a divinity or god.  Nor does he claim to be a prophet in anything like the biblical sense.  Instead he was claiming to have acquired enlightenment about the nature of the "self", by his own meditations and contemplations.

(In some early versions of the Enlightenment of Buddha, the god Brahma appears to Buddha to encourage him to share his message with others; but this is only after he has already achieved full Enlightenment by his own efforts.  In general, early Buddhism was skeptical of attempts to ground religious doctrines in revelations by divine beings, who may not themselves be fully enlightened.  In any case, this putative supernatural event was seen by only a single witness at best, and then filtered through centuries of oral tradition.)

Far from being a divinely planned event, Buddha thought it was a freak coincidence that he happened to stumble across the correct path:

"Monks, suppose that this great earth were totally covered with water, and a man were to toss a yoke with a single hole there.  A wind from the east would push it west, a wind from the west would push it east.  A wind from the north would push it south, a wind from the south would push it north.  And suppose a blind sea-turtle were there.  It would come to the surface once every one hundred years.  Now what do you think: would that blind sea-turtle, coming to the surface once every one hundred years, stick his neck into the yoke with a single hole?"
"It's likewise a sheer coincidence that a Tathagata, worthy & rightly self-awakened, arises in the world."  (The Hole)

Unlike Confucius or Socrates, I think it is fair to say that Buddha intended to start a religion—if by that you mean a way of saving the human race from existential suffering, through the practice of a certain method.  But it is not a religion based on divine revelation; instead it is based on certain experiences (or, perhaps, a certain way of transcending experience) which he believed himself to have had.

On the other hand, a few of the (relatively) early Buddhist sutras do state that the Buddha claimed, as a result of his Enlightenment, to have knowledge that most of us would consider "paranormal".  For example, in the Greater Discourse of the Lion's Roar, he asserts the knowledge of all of his hundreds of thousands of past lives, and the vision of many different heavens and hells.  He goes on to strongly deny that he arrived at his views merely by speculative reasoning:

Sariputta, when I know and see thus, should anyone say of me: 'The recluse Gotama does not have any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones.  The recluse Gotama teaches a Dhamma (merely) hammered out by reasoning, following his own line of inquiry as it occurs to him'—unless he abandons that assertion and that state of mind and relinquishes that view, then as (surely as if he had been) carried off and put there he will wind up in hell.

For reasons that will become clear in subsequent posts, I do not know to what extent these sutras are authentic to the teaching of the actual historical Buddha.  If he did make such claims, they are hard for an outsider to test, since Buddha did not seem to think highly of using supernatural powers as a way to convince people:

"And what is the miracle of psychic power?  There is the case where a monk wields manifold psychic powers.  Having been one he becomes many; having been many he becomes one.  He appears.  He vanishes.  He goes unimpeded through walls, ramparts, and mountains as if through space.  He dives in and out of the earth as if it were water.  He walks on water without sinking as if it were dry land.  Sitting cross-legged he flies through the air like a winged bird.  With his hand he touches and strokes even the sun and moon, so mighty and powerful.  He exercises influence with his body even as far as the Brahma worlds.

"Then someone who has faith and conviction in him sees him wielding manifold psychic powers... exercising influence with his body even as far as the Brahma worlds.  He reports this to someone who has no faith and no conviction, telling him, 'Isn't it awesome.  Isn't it astounding, how great the power, how great the prowess of this contemplative.  Just now I saw him wielding manifold psychic powers... exercising influence with his body even as far as the Brahma worlds.'

"Then the person without faith, without conviction, would say to the person with faith and with conviction: 'Sir, there is a charm called the Gandhari charm by which the monk wielded manifold psychic powers... exercising influence with his body even as far as the Brahma worlds.'  What do you think, Kevatta—isn't that what the man without faith, without conviction, would say to the man with faith and with conviction?"

"Yes, lord, that's just what he would say."

"Seeing this drawback to the miracle of psychic power, Kevatta, I feel horrified, humiliated, and disgusted with the miracle of psychic power.  (Discourse to Kevatta)

Thus, in the absence of miracles, the only remaining way to check the metaphysics of Buddhism for yourself is to see to what extent its teaching matches human experience.

Of course, some people committed to Atheism or Naturalism think that Buddhism is the best religion for precisely this reason: they think that (after separating out all the chaff about reincarnation and psychic powers) the core doctrines of Buddhism do not require belief in any supernatural beings or events, but can be verified by one's own meditation experiences.  Some of them even argue that Buddhist doctrines can be supported by the discoveries of Neuroscience.  (We will return to this position later when we discuss religious experiences.)

Revealed Religions

In my own view, there's nothing wrong with philosophers teaching from their own personal experience; but if there are any legitimately supernatural revelations out there, I think that such revelations should take precedence over anything else.  If the God who made the entire Universe chooses to reveal himself explicitly to certain people, this seems like a more reliable way to come to know reality than groping towards it by our own efforts.

This criterion suggests we should focus primarily on religions with a strong claim to be revealed by God (or perhaps by multiple gods, but this criterion correlates strongly with Monotheism) to some prophets or holy persons.  This includes Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Islam, and various later religions.  If all of these turn out to be false or unverifiable, then we can look into the works of those who claim to have figured it all out on their own.

Among these prophets of "revealed religions", one major religious founder seems to have had a much more extraordinary conception of his own role in God's system than any of the others did.

Jesus (Christianity)

In the New Testament, Jesus does not merely claim to be a great philosopher, or even a (mere) prophet.  He claims to have a unique relationship with the one God, whom he called his Father.  Thus, if the accounts of his words are accurate, Jesus saw himself as the "Son of God" in a unique and special sense, implying that he himself shared in divine attributes.

It is true that there is a disturbing tendency for people to superstitiously worship religious leaders as divinities after their death, even if, like Buddha or Confucius, they would probably have been horrified by this development.  (There is even a religion, the Alawites, that worships Ali (son-in-law of Mohammad) as an incarnation of the Supreme Deity!  For anyone who knows anything at all about the Islamic religion that Ali was among the first to embrace, it is hard to express just how deeply ironic this is.)  But very few major religious leaders have actually claimed to be divine in a robust sense during their lifetimes (not counting pantheists, who believe everyone is part of God).

But in the case of Jesus it does not seem to be a later accretion; it goes back to the very earliest recorded traditions we have about Jesus.  For example, in the earliest biography we have of Jesus, namely the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells a parable in which God is represented as a landowner who rents a vineyard out to tenants, who represent Israel.  (This story is also found in the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and the noncanonical gospel of Thomas.)  He represents the earlier prophets (like Isaiah and Jeremiah) as being "servants" of this man, but he represents himself in the story as the "son" and sole heir!

Later in the same conversation, he playfully questions the Messianic title "son of David"—in favor of a much stronger title as King David's "Lord".  Since David lived about a 1000 years beforehand, this strongly suggests a claim to pre-existence, a divine attribute.

More famously still, in all four canonical Gospels (plus the letters of Paul, who was even earlier) Jesus refers to his own body and blood as a sacrificial meal, that initiates a New Covenant between God and humanity.  This sort of thing is not really compatible even with being a merely human prophet like Mohammad with a verbal message from God; rather Jesus presented himself as God's message.

Please note that it's not really that much less arrogant to go around strongly hinting that you are divine, than it is to assert it overtly!  Either way, something is seriously wrong with you (unless it is true).

It is true that other remarks of Jesus in the Gospels emphasize his humility or humanity.  Some, like his retort to the rich young ruler, "Why do you call me good?  No one is good except one, God" (Mark 10:18, cf. Matt. 19:17, Luke 18:19) could—if taken in isolation from the rest of the gospel—be read as denying or minimizing his deity.  But this passage can also be read as a challenge to the young man to think about what he is saying, and ask himself whether he really means it!  This sort of challenge is compatible with the teaching strategies that Jesus used elsewhere when prompting people to reflect on his identity: "Who do you say that I am?" (Mark 8:29).

In the earliest strand of biography about Jesus unrelated to Mark (the hypothetical "Q" source which most scholars think the gospels of Matthew and Luke drew upon) Jesus says:

“All things have been committed to me by my Father.  No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Matthew 11:27, cf. Luke 10:22)

Despite its early attestation, this saying is quite similar to the kind of language Jesus makes in the Fourth Gospel, which contains some of Jesus' most explicit claims to share in his Father's divinity.  For example, after healing somebody on the Sabbath, Jesus gets into trouble with the Jews:

Because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him. In his defense Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.

Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.  Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed.  For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it.  Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father.  Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him.”  (John 5:16-23)

There are even more explicit statements of Jesus' self-existence and unity with God elsewhere in the Gospel of John, but I'm quoting this one to illustrate how this doctrine does not come out of the blue, but has precursors in some of the earliest, multiply attested words of Jesus.

It is possible to find biblical scholars who would reject all of these New Testament passages as inauthentic representations of what Jesus actually said.  But as we have seen, implicit and explicit claims to be the Son of God are present in all strands of Jesus tradition, including the earliest ones.  So this does not seem to be a position which could be obtained by a neutral methodology.  It can only be sustained by a sort of circular reasoning whereby one assumes that a "high Christology" must be a later development and that any passage exhibiting it can be judged to be inauthentic for that reason alone, even if it appears in the earliest sources!

Other Divine Claimants

A few megalomaniac political rulers and minor cult leaders have made divine claims for themselves (as opposed to having somebody else make it for them after their deaths), but I think it is pretty obvious that none of these claims were made by anybody of remotely the same spiritual and intellectual caliber as Jesus.  What sensible person feels themselves to be in the presence of a great divinity, when they ponder the wit and wisdom of Antiochus Epiphanes, Nero Caesar, or (outside of North Korea) Kim Jong-un?
(Not that any of these people were claiming to be divine in a monotheistic context such as Judaism.)

These figures belong to the category that Christians call "antichrists", namely earthly rulers who become so puffed up with pride that they demand worship from their subjects and persecute those who fail to applaud them.  (Quite the opposite from the real Christ, whose divine glory was wrapped in the garments of humility, poverty, and self-sacrifice.)

Krishna (Vaishnavism)

So far we this post has considered historical individuals, not mythological ones.  If we open the door to mythological figures, then of course there are many more accounts of gods, and much closer parallels to Jesus' extravagant claims can be found, most notably in Krishna, who is woshipped by many Hindu sects as one Incarnation of Vishnu.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna is clearly portrayed as divine—not just in the polytheistic sense of being one god among many, but in the stronger sense of being the fundamental reality which sustains all existence:

Neither celestial gods nor the great sages know my origin.  I am the source from which the gods and great seers come.  Those who know me as unborn and beginningless, and as the Supreme Lord of the universe, they among mortals are free from illusion and released from all evils.  From me alone arise the varieties in the qualities amongst humans, such as intellect, knowledge, clarity of thought, forgiveness, truthfulness, control over the senses and mind, joy and sorrow, birth and death, fear and courage, non-violence, equanimity, contentment, austerity, charity, fame, and infamy.  (Gita 10:2-5)

Yet for reasons we will discuss in the next post, it seems very unlikely that Krishna actually existed as a historical personage (whereas only crackpots say Jesus never existed).  So that is a failure of parallelism to the Christian worship of Jesus.

Supernatural Effects

Of course, no such claim of divinity should be accepted without very good evidence.  But if you believe the Gospels, Jesus also performed supernatural acts to go along with his claims, e.g. miracles of healing:

Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them.  The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing.  And they praised the God of Israel. (Matthew 15:29-39)

This passage gives a very brief account of mass healings, but the Gospels go into more detail regarding places and names for each one of these specific types of healing.

More dramatically still, the Gospels describe how Jesus rose from the dead, leaving an empty tomb and appearing to his disciples afterwards.  We will go into more detail about the historical attestation for the Resurrection later; for now I will make a different point.  In many religions, the theology and the miracle claims are separable; the key parts of the religion have little dependence on any overtly miraculous events.  On the other hand, the Resurrection of the Son of God is the central claim in the earliest documented form of Christianity.  In this sense, the supernatural is far more tightly bound up with Christianity than many other religions. As St. Lewis wrote:

One is very often asked at present whether we could not have a Christianity stripped, or, as people who ask it say, “freed” from its miraculous elements, a Christianity with the miraculous elements suppressed.  Now, it seems to me that precisely the one religion in the world, or at least the only one I know, with which you could not do that is Christianity.  In a religion like Buddhism, if you took away the miracles attributed to Gautama Buddha in some very late sources, there would be no loss; in fact, the religion would get on very much better without them because in that case the miracles largely contradict the teaching.  Or even in the case of a religion like Mohammedanism, nothing essential would be altered if you took away the miracles.  You could have a great prophet preaching his dogmas without bringing in any miracles; they are only in the nature of a digression, or illuminated capitals.

But you cannot possibly do that with Christianity, because the Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, which is uncreated, eternal, came into Nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing Nature up with Him.  It is precisely one great miracle.  If you take that away there is nothing specifically Christian left.  There may be many admirable human things which Christianity shares with all other systems in the world, but there would be nothing specifically Christian.  (The Grand Miracle)

It is rather convenient for Christian apologists, that the best documented miracle claim in the New Testament, namely the Resurrection, happens also to be the cornerstone of our entire religion.  (Although it should not be forgotten that the Gospels and Acts recount numerous more minor miracles by Jesus and the apostles.)

But, it is one thing to make a supernatural claim, and another for it to be historically plausible.  That issue will be addressed in the next several questions.

Next: Historical Accounts

Posted in History, Theological Method | 8 Comments

Comparing Religions III: Ancient Roots

The next question on my list:

2. How does the religion relate to previous and subsequent religions?

If a religious prophet claims to reveal the God who created the universe... well, since God must have existed before that guy came along, that prophet should have some story to tell about what God was doing beforehand, prior to the time that his own religion came into existence!  This suggests we should look for a religion that either (a) has roots going back to ancient history, or (b) is a plausible continuation of such religions.

Imaginary Roots

Of course, just because a religion claims to originate from (or restore) some ancient religious tradition, doesn't necessarily mean that those claims are historically accurate!  There are plenty of examples of modern religious movements that have fake origin stories.  For example, certain Masonic texts describe an elaborate mythological origin for Freemasonry, involving Euclid, ancient Egypt and King Solomon's Temple, but there is no good evidence that the organization even existed before medieval times.

Similarly, Wicca claims to be based on an ancient pagan traditions, but actually has very little in common with any historical form of paganism.  (Their myth that millions of Wiccans were killed during the "Burning Times" is therefore essentially fictitious, since Wicca did not exist then.  The witch hunts of the 15th-17th centuries were on a much smaller scale, and most of those killed were falsely accused Christians.)  Wicca actually originates with the 20th century occult figures Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente, who constructed a more friendly version of the magical practices of the Satanist Aleister Crowley, by replacing the explictly selfish aspects with more humane principles.

What real Paganism was like

However, in the ancient world there was such a thing as real paganism.  Typically it involved the worship of a pantheon of mulitple gods and goddesses.  Usually, the pagan myths described their gods as beings of finite power, wisdom, and goodness, who in turn produced new deities by various scandalous methods of sexual and asexual procreation.  These gods did not create the entire universe, they just built certain aspects of it out of pre-existing materials.

These pagan religions did not usually regard themselves as making exclusive truth claims; there was plenty of warfare, but almost never over the question of whose pantheon was "real".  When polytheists encountered a new form of worship, they seldom denied the existence of the new deity (although they sometimes concluded that the victors' gods must be more powerful).  Often, they would identify the other culture's god with a corresponding deity in their own pantheon.  Alternatively, they would simply add the new god to their own pantheon, and start worshipping it alongside the others.  So the different polythistic religions should not necessarily be regarded as having rival worldviews.  They are much more like variations of the same basic thing, like different local varieties of wine or cheese.  In cosmopolitan cultures like the Roman Empire, they were freely exchanged to suit individual taste.

The Weirdness of Israel

In the middle of all this, there was something else, which by any objective standard was quite different from the rest.  Israel was remarkable for being the only ancient nation whose national religion was strict Ethical Monotheism, eschewing all idolatrous representations of God in the visible form of any created being.  Although many great philosophers from all nations have arrived at the understanding that there is one God who created everything, Israel claimed to have this knowledge by revelation, because God had rescued Israel from slavery and made a covenant with them to be his own special people, and so gave them a special responsibility to obey his Law that no other nation has:

You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire.  Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below.  And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven.  But as for you, the Lord took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.  (Deuteronomy 4:15-20)

It is difficult to express just how unusual this prohibition of images was in its cultural context, but it allowed Israel to have a more sophisticated and less anthropomorphic notion of deity than the surrounding pagan cultures.

Another rather remarkable aspect of the Jewish religion is the large number of different prophets whose teachings were recorded in great detail.  The different books of the Hebrew Scriptures were written over many centuries—about a thousand years from Moses to Malachi, if you take the biblical chronology at face value—and contain the records of dozens of different prophets, each proclaiming the words of the same Deity, with a broadly consistent message.  This is quite remarkable, and I do not know of any parallel among polytheistic religions.

While there were indeed pagan prophets and oracles, you cannot buy the "collected writings of the prophets of Aphrodite" in a bookstore, or if you could it would be a very short book!  Nor can you find an equivalent to the prophet Isaiah, in which Apollo speaks at length about his nature and his plans for human history.  (The closest one gets is a few ambiguous scraps of advice attributed to the Oracle of Delphi.)  These texts never existed, because these pagan gods simply did not reveal themselves in a definitive literary form, the way that the God of Israel does in the Bible.

Monotheism vs. Polytheism

So who is more likely to be right?  The diverse majority, or the peculiar minority?  Well, for one thing Polytheism does not seem to be very compatible with a scientific understanding of the world.  Nature is impersonal; it can be studied and normally it seems to operate according to fixed and objective principles.  Although intelligent beings more powerful than human beings might well exist, is hard for me as a scientist to take seriously the idea that different aspects of the Universe originate from a pantheon of squabbling deities.  It makes more sense to say that the real source of all things is something more basic and unified: either a single Almighty Deity, or a single Law of Nature.  So the a priori philosophical plausibility of Monotheism provides a solid reason to think that Israel is special.  All by itself, this tells us that Judaism is more likely to be true than any other randomly selected ancient religion.

(Note that, even if one were to assign e.g. an 80% prior probability to the majority opinion of Polytheism, and a 20% prior probability to the minority opinion of Monotheism, that would still make Judaism WAY more probable than 1 / total # ancient religious cults.  And that is before considering any specific evidence for supernatural or miraculous events, which we will get to in future questions.)

We Moderns would probably have preferred a more "democratic" setup, where all people groups are given equal access to divine revelation, and nobody is specially privileged.  Well, that's just too bad, because there is no religion like that.  Not unless we want to water down what we mean by religion to a lowest common denominator doctrine shared by multiple traditions (e.g. Ethical Monotheism or Pantheism) that removes all of the distinctive teachings.   Some aspects of these lowest-common-denominators might be valuable and true, as far as they go.  But if you want a religion that says anything nontrivial about God or humanity, then it has to be a specific religion, capable of making nontrivial claims that may contradict other religions.  (Although they can agree with other religions about important aspects of the truth.)

Anyone who accepts Jewish-style Monotheism must accept that Paganism was, at the very least, deeply confused.  However, that does not require us to say that it was entirely isolated from real spiritual experiences.  If human beings have a natural instinct or intuition that God exists, it is quite possible that many pagans indirectly sensed God's presence in Nature, and wrongly associated this numinous experience with a more limited, localized concept of deity.

Mythology and Christ

Some Christians have noticed that, even though Paganism is incompatible with Jewish-style Monotheism, certain pagan myths can still be thought of as foreshadowing the Gospel in striking ways.  Despite what some crackpots say, the stories about Jesus were not directly copied from pagan myths.  However, elements such as e.g. gods being sacrificed to produce a harvest, or Odin hanging himself on a tree for nine days in order to gain wisdom, do hint at the method of salvation later provided through Christ.  Christians can attribute this to the influence of the Holy Spirit preparing the nations to receive and understand the Gospel of Christ.  Since human beings are created in the image of God, it is not surprising that human myths should in some way reflect our divine origins, as St. Tolkien argued in the conversation that resulted in St. Lewis' conversion:

“Dear Sir,” I said—Although now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons—'twas our right
(used or misused).  That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we're made.

("Mythopoeia", as quoted in "On Fairy Stories")

Yet these pagan myths (which include all kinds of obscene, superstitious, and absurd elements) can in no way be regarded as parallel to the explicit revelation of God to the prophets of Israel.  The teaching of Jesus presupposes that God really did reveal himself to Israel in a special way.

Christianity as the Fulfilment of Judaism

So if Christianity is true, then the essential claims of Judaism are also true.  They are not necessarily rivals.  Instead, Christianity claims to be the fulfilment of Judaism.

I find this claim of continuity plausible because Judaism is clearly marked as provisional: there are many prophecies of a Messiah, descended from King David, who will be an exalted figure that leads to a new era in which God relates to people in a more intimate way; they describe both his suffering and his later glory.  The New Testament states that Jesus fulfilled many of these prophecies in specific and surprising ways, even though some of them are still waiting for his Second Coming.

There are several possible objections a Jew might make to these claims, but probably the two most important to address are these:

First, the Torah (the Law given through Moses, contained in the first 5 books of the Bible) states that it is eternal, whereas the New Testament explicitly abrogates many of the specific ceremonial decrees of the Torah, such as circumcision and kosher rules.

Of course, the New Testament agrees that the Torah sets up an eternally valid relationship between Israel and her Lord; and also that the Torah, being divinely inspired, is a perpetual source of wisdom and guidance in the Church.  In Christianity the term "fulfilment" comes from Matthew 5:17-19, where Jesus agrees that the Torah has perpetual validity:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets [i.e. the Hebrew Scriptures]; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.  Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Of course, the reason Jesus had to say that explicitly, is that in the rest of the chapter he asserted his authority to radically reinterpret the meaning of obedience to the Law, and he didn't want people getting the impression that he was rejecting the validity of the Torah as the words of God.

The question is whether you still have to obey all the ceremonial laws in a literal sense.  And here the answer can be conclusively proven to be No just from the Hebrew Scriptures alone.  For the prophets state that the Messianic age will result in a New Covenant being made, to replace the old one.  If the sacrifices and rituals of the Old Covenant were still adequate, there would have been no talk about replacing them with a new regime in which things work differently.  (To be truly consistent with a no-updating principle, one would also have to reject most of the prophets that followed Moses, like the Samaritans do.)

Also, the Torah itself indicates that the reason for many of its ceremonial rules is to keep the Jews separated from the Gentiles [non-Jews] and their immoral practices.  For example:

“You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you.  Because they did all these things [sexual immorality and child sacrifice], I abhorred them...  I am the Lord your God, who has set you apart from the nations.  You must therefore make a distinction between clean and unclean animals and between unclean and clean birds...  You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.” (Lev. 20:23-36)

But one of the major predictions about the Messianic era is that the Gentiles will be joined with the Jews in the worship of the true God.  Many examples could be given; here is just one:

Many peoples will come and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore. (Isaiah 2:3-4)

But if the Gentiles give up their idolatry and worship God together with the Jews, this implies that the special ritual observances which were designed to keep Jews and Gentiles separate, having fulfilled their stated purpose, ought to come to an end!

The point of what the prophets (and Jesus) are saying is that nothing in God's commandments can be rejected as spurious, but if any part of God's plan "has been accomplished" (in the sense of its purpose being fulfilled) then of course the proper way of proceeding will be different from that point on.  Suppose you are driving your children to a party.  You might tell them "Don't open the car doors while we are driving!", because they need to obey that commandment for their own safety, as long as its reasons are still applicable.  But you can still tell them to "Get out of the car" once they've reached the destination, because arriving at the destination (with you) is why they were in the car to begin with!  That is the difference between abolishing and fulfilling a command.

No other gods

A second and more critical objection, is that the whole point of the Torah was to teach Monotheism, but Christianity assails this doctrine by asserting the divinity of Jesus; that he is the Son of God and eternally one of the persons of the Trinity (along with the Father and the Holy Spirit).  And the Jews were supposed to reject any prophet who told them to worship other gods:

If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer.  The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul.  It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere.  Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him.  That prophet or dreamer must be put to death for inciting rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery.  (Deut. 13:1-5)

One possible response to this is that the Hebrew Scriptures already contain several hints that the Messiah would have some superhuman or quasi-divine status.  He acts as a sort of eternal mediator between God and Israel, ruling over all the peoples:

Every warrior's boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.  (Isaiah 9:5-7)

The most important thing here is not so much the title "God" considered by itself, since the Hebrew word אֵ֣ל (el) is ambiguous and could also be translated as "judge" or "hero".   Looking at the entire context is important.  And in that context, the more essential point is that God is willing to trust a single human being with ruling all nations forever, saving us all from war and death, and acting in that capacity as a perpetual parent ("Eternal Father") and guide for the human race.  But Monotheism has no room for a semi-divine savior figure like this, since there is only one God—and as he says "apart from me there is no Savior" (Isaiah 43:11).  So it was actually to preserve the meaning of Monotheism (trusting in one God as the only source of salvation) that the early Christians decided that Jesus must be fully divine, of one being with his Father; and not a separate god from the God of Israel.

It is (once again) the fulfilment of what God was aiming at all along.  Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God states that he will come and live among his people: through their observance of his Law, their reverence for his Name, in their Temple, etc.  But none of these proved sufficient by themselves; people kept turning away.  It is a dramatic and shocking claim (blasphemous unless it is true) that God came and dwelt among his people in a temple of human flesh.  But it gives new meaning to all of these promises, which could never really be fulfilled by a mere building in Jerusalem.

Why was God not more explicit about this from the beginning?  Because like all good educators, God was revealing the truth progressively, rather than trying to present all the material at once.  (For example, it was not until the later stages of the Jewish revelation that prophets began to explicitly teach about an afterlife.)  It took over a thousand years to drill Monotheism into Israel and prevent them from continually falling back into idol-worship, polytheism and other pagan practices.  It was hard enough keeping the Israelites from having shrine prostitutes in the Temple, and sacrificing their own children to dark gods.  During this time the doctrine of the Trinity could only have been a distraction, misunderstood in the grossest possible ways (e.g. as a pantheon generated by sexual procreation).  First the Lord had to make it quite clear that he alone is God, that he is holy and righteous, and not to be depicted by an image or understood in a crudely anthropomorphic way.  Only after these lessons sunk in, could the mystery of the Trinity be fully revealed (as opposed to merely hinted at).

Islam as Further Fulfilment?

Now Islam claims, in turn, to be a fulfilment of both Judaism and Christianity.  Muslims believe that Allah sent many prophets before the final prophet Mohammad.  [Note: "Allah" is just the Arabic word for God, used even by Christians in Lebanon and other countries.  It is probably etymologically related to Elohim, the Hebrew word translated as `God' in the Bible.  There are important theological differences between Islam and Christianity, but the name used for God is not one of them!]  God has no sons or daughters.  Instead Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Mary, and Jesus were all prophets, speaking a message from Heaven, and their religions were all essentially identical to Islam (allowing for minor differences in ritual observance to suit different times and places), but unfortunately their teachings were corrupted over time.  According to Islam, Jesus is merely the second-most important prophet in history; he did not did not claim to be the Son of God or divine:

When God says: "Jesus son of Mary, did you say to people, `Take me and my mother as two gods alongside God'?" he will say, "May you be exalted!  I would never say what I had no right to say—if I had said any such thing you would have known it: You know all that is within me, though I do not know all that is within you, you alone have full knowledge of things unseen—I told them only what you commanded me to: "Worship God, my Lord and your Lord."  I was a witness over them during my time among them.  (Haleem translation of Sura 5:116-117)

The Quran also denies that Jesus was crucified or died, explaining that it only seemed like that to the bystanders:

“They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear like that to them; those that disagreed about him are full of doubt, with no knowledge to follow, only supposition; they certainly did not kill him—No! God raised him up to himself.”  (Haleem, Sura 4:157-158)

And therefore the Quran also implicitly denies that Jesus has been resurrected from the dead, although Muslims do believe that Jesus was taken into Heaven, and will return to rule over a Muslim kingdom during the End Times.

I find these claims of continuity with the past to be significantly less plausible.  It is true that Islam's strict Monotheism is superficially more similar to the teaching of Judaism, but it makes far less use of biblical prophecies and themes.  And the fact that Muslims have to resort to saying that the Torah and New Testament became corrupt whenever they contradict Islam, shows that they do not in fact fit very tightly to Islam.  It is very implausible that the process of copying the New Testament could have resulted in such thoroughly profound changes to the text as would be required to make the originals compatible with Islamic belief.  Thus, a sensible Muslim must claim that our earliest written Christian texts, even those purportedly written by Jesus' own disciples, radically misunderstood Jesus' own teachings.

The claim that Jesus was never crucified is especially historically implausible, since this is a fact which virtually every serious scholar (outside the Muslim world), even those generally skeptical of the historicity of the New Testament, agrees is historically certain.  After all, nearly all of the early sources that mention Jesus, including those by non-Christian Roman historians, allude to his execution.  (One text that may date as far back as the 6th century, the Gospel of Barnabas, claims that Judas was substituted for Jesus on the cross, but this work is highly anachronistic and has no real historical value.)

Of course most of the early texts that mention Jesus' death also mention his Resurrection, which is not generally accepted by non-Christian scholars, because then they'd end up being Christians.  We will examine the evidence for the Resurrection later, but for now I'll note that there are solid reasons why even those who doubt the resurrection accounts should still accept that Jesus was crucified.  Crucifixion was an extremely shameful way to die in the Roman world, and it is quite unlikely that Christians would have invented a story their Master died this way if it hadn't actually happened.

There is a natural tendency to resist the idea that a divinely appointed and honored prophet could suffer such an ignominious fate.  Yet in attempting to save the Christ from dishonor, Islam implicitly denies the most powerful ethical themes in Christianity: love, sacrifice, and the triumph of God even in weakness and suffering.  From the Christian perspective, this is as if one bought a generic-brand pill from a pharmacist containing everything except the active ingredient of the name-brand pill.  The active ingredient is God suffering on behalf of human beings.  Without this, there is no Christianity.

I admit, of course, that an omnipotent Deity would have the ability to successfully hoodwink everyone about what happened to Jesus.  But it is very hard to see a good reason why he would perform this particular trick.  First of all it would raise serious questions about God's truthfulness, which is fatal in a religion based on divine revelation, which requires trust in God's veracity.  I could perhaps see a motive to fool the enemies of a true prophet, but what motivation could there be to trick Jesus' faithful original disciples, whom the Quran speaks positively of:

O you who have believed, be supporters of Allah, as when Jesus, the son of Mary, said to the disciples, "Who are my supporters for Allah ?"  The disciples said, "We are supporters of Allah."  And a faction of the Children of Israel believed and a faction disbelieved.  So We supported those who believed against their enemy, and they became dominant.  (Sura 61:14)

Now consider the fact that the actual historical effects of Jesus' apparent Crucifixion—and, although the Quran does not mention this explicitly, his subsequent appearances to his disciples—were to convince his loyal disciples of (what Islam considers to be) false and idolatrous theological claims: namely the divinity of Jesus, and his ability to atone for the sins of the whole world through his death and Resurrection.  Given the verse I just quoted, it doesn't really seem consistent to blame the disciples for the mixup.  So it seems like God would be responsible for starting Christianity off on the wrong foot.

It's one thing for God to allow false religions to arise through the mendacity of charlatans; it's quite another for him to create them himself by means of direct and misleading miracles.  If God does such things, it would throw into doubt the claims of any religion based on divine revelation.  How would Muslims know that the miracles done for Mohammad were not equally deceptive?  One could never know for sure.

Bible Characters in the Quran

A related topic worth mentioning is the large number of stories about Bible characters found in the Quran.  Sometimes (as in the sura about Joseph), the quranic story is quite similar to the biblical narrative.  In other cases (such as the depiction of Ishmael) things seem distorted and inconsistent.  Now since the Quran is about 2,000 years farther removed from the people in question, it is a little difficult to believe that the traditional Arabic stories about these people were more reliable than the Hebrew traditions that went into the Torah.

The obvious reply for a Muslim, is to say that since the Quran is the direct word of God, the stories are not in fact based on Arab legends; instead they are divinely revealed accounts of what really happened!  Thus these stories were not transmitted to the present day by the usual processes governing history and myths; instead they were directly revealed by supernatural means.  But the trouble with this hypothesis, is that it fails to explain why the Quranic stories are so similar to the obviously legendary traditions that were already circulating at the time of Mohammad.

A very clear test case is the suras about Solomon.  In the Bible (e.g. 1 Kings 1-11), Solomon is portrayed as an ordinary human being, very wise and rich, but not endowed with magical abilities.  Apart from a couple visions in dreams, and a single supernatural sign to confirm God's acceptance of the Temple, nothing happens in the account of his reign which is not naturally possible.  But the Solomon of later Jewish legend is a veritable magician!  He can have conversations with birds and animals, and he can also enslave jinn (i.e. genies) with mighty magical spells and bindings, in order to force them to do his bidding, for example to help construct the Temple.  (Even though sorcery was forbidden to pious Jews.)

Now to me there is no serious question which of these is the historical version, and which is the fantasy-novel version.  But the Solomon of the Quran is the mythological Solomon.  For example, consider this excerpt from the Sura of the Ant:

Solomon was David's heir.  He said, "O people, we have been endowed with understanding the language of the birds, and all kinds of things have been bestowed upon us.  This is indeed a real blessing."  Mobilized in the service of Solomon were his obedient soldiers of jinns and humans, as well as the birds; all at his disposal.

When they approached the valley of the ants, one ant said, "O you ants, go into your homes, lest you get crushed by Solomon and his soldiers, without perceiving."  He smiled and laughed at her statement, and said, "My Lord, direct me to be appreciative of the blessings You have bestowed upon me and my parents, and to do the righteous works that please You.  Admit me by Your mercy into the company of Your righteous servants."

He inspected the birds, and noted: "Why do I not see the hoopoe?  Why is he missing?  I will punish him severely or sacrifice him, unless he gives me a good excuse."  He did not wait for long.  [The hoopoe] said, "I have news that you do not have. I brought to you from Sheba, some important information. (27:16-22)

To say that this is historical, would require believing that for some reason the Jewish chroniclers excluded from their own history all of the supernatural accomplishments of their greatest king; and then (over time) the stories about Solomon became gradually more and more accurate; until finally, under divine inspiration, it was revealed that these later myths were basically the same as what had originally happened.  Even leaving aside the absurdity of the tales themselves (if taken literally, rather than as fables), that is not how oral tradition works.

Now, let me be clear: I am not a fundamentalist when I interpet my own Scriptures.  (If we interpret either the Bible or the Quran as teaching that the Earth was literally created in just six days, then we have much bigger problems then Solomon talking to animals!)  So if a Muslim wanted to say: God was simply using fictional stories believed in by the surrounding Arab culture to teach important spiritual lessons, then in principle I would not have any objection to that method of teaching.

But most Muslim theologians seem to have a much stricter standard for the literal historicity of the Quran than that.  Their view of Scripture is not quite the same as that of the Bible.  Jews and Christians claim that the Bible is a product of divine inspiration working through the instrument of human writers, but Muslims believe that the Quran is the words of Allah revealed verbatim from heaven by the angel Gabriel, with no admixture of human skill or opinion.  I think that few Muslim theologians would consider giving up the literal accuracy of the stories about Bible characters.

And if they did, such an admission could potentially undermine the quranic claim to present a more accurate description of Jesus, whose nature is the key point of dispute beween Muslims and Christians.  (Indeed, some of the quranic stories about Jesus can also be identified as dubious Christian legends: for example the story of Jesus making a clay bird come to life comes from the 2nd century Infancy Gospel of Thomas; which fills in the gaps of Jesus' childhood with various capricious miracles, as if he were a superhero who hadn't yet learned to control his powers.)

Further Continuations

There are several more recent religions, such as the Baha'i faith, which claim in turn to fulfil Islam.  But if Islam is untenable, then it seems any religion based on it must also fail.  Or, even if Islam were correct, the fact that Mohammad seemingly claimed to be the final prophet would still invalidate them.  So there seems to be no way forwards in that direction.

In the Gospels, Jesus explicitly warns that many false prophets would come in his name afterwards, and even lead people astray with deceptive signs and wonders.  This seems like something to take into consideration, when evaluating any religion that claims to extend his teachings.

Eastern Religions

Moving over to the East, Hinduism is also an ancient religion (or perhaps more accurately, an eclectic mix of many different religious traditions, some of which are ancient).  This adds somewhat to its credibility, for reasons similar to our discussion of Judaism.  (If many people have been saying the same religious ideas for a long time, those ideas seem somewhat more likely to be based in objective reality than if one person has a revolutionary new idea about the gods, that no one has ever thought of before!)

On the other hand, Hinduism is considerably less unique looking than Judaism.  At the popular level the religion looks like standard paganism (i.e. polytheistic idol worship), but then there is an overlay of various more sophisticated philosophies, that teach more unified systems such as Pantheism, Monotheism, Materialism, Dualism, Nihilism etc.  This is more or less what the ancient Roman Empire looked like before Christianity became dominant there.  Of course, that does not automatically imply that any of these philosophical schools are wrong (that would require going into specifics) but it looks much less like a definitive supernatural revelation from Heaven, and a lot more like what you would expect people with a strong religious instinct to come up with on their own.

Buddhism clearly took over a number of important ideas from Hinduism, most notably the goal of achieving liberation from the cycle of rebirth.  The main reasons why Buddhism is regarded as a separate religion, rather than as a branch of orthodox Hinduism, are that 1) it does not accept the Vedas of Hinduism as religious scripture, and 2) it subscribes to the doctrine of anatman ("No Self") which denies that human beings have any permanent essence to subscribe to.  In these respects, Buddhism is a novel religion making a fresh start; it does not claim to "fulfil" Hindu religious scriptures the way Christ claimed to fulfil the Jewish scriptures.

On the other hand, I was surprised to learn a while ago that Buddha is regarded by many Hindus as the most recent Incarnation of Vishnu, sent "to deliver the pious and to annihilate the miscreants, as well as to reestablish the principles of righteousness."  In fact he is the only Incarnation on their list to appear in historical times (i.e. after writing came to India, but before the future).  And indeed, when I visited India to teach at a summer school, we went on a day-trip to the Konark Sun Temple and saw a relief carving of Buddha on this Hindu religious site.

But if that's true, then I don't really understand why these Vishnuists don't convert to Buddhism, since apparently that's the most recently updated version of the religion!  (When it comes to software updates, I'm not much of an early adopter.  I'd rather stick with what works, rather than migrate immediately to the newest version.  But if the next version of Windows came with a recommendation by God himself, then I might think differently about it.  And a couple dozen centuries is surely long enough to check that the new version is stable!)

Some Eastern religions, such as Sikhism, incorporate elements from both Islam and Hinduism.  This is a pretty audacious feat, since it is hard to imagine two religions that are, considered in themselves, more incompatible!  However, Sikhs identify as neither Muslim nor Hindu, and consider themselves to be an entirely new monotheistic religion, even though their Scripture includes the writings of certain Hindus and Muslims.

What happens to outsiders?

One important question that arises in any religion that claims to be revealed at a particular time and place, is what to say about those from other cultures who were never influenced by the message?  This is less of a problem for inclusivist religions (that teach that salvation can be achieved in any religion) or religions that teach Reincarnation (since these people could say that everyone will eventually be born into the right culture).  But in the case of Christianity and Islam, it raises more serious difficulties, since these religions teach that everyone ought to convert to the true religion.

(Indeed the problem is even more severe for Christianity, which teaches that union with Jesus is the actual cause of salvation.  Islam does not teach that Mohammad is a Savior; he only brought the final and most complete message telling people what God expects them to do.  This is similar to Pelagian heresy condemned by orthodox Christianity, the belief that human beings are already capable of pleasing God naturally, and only need instruction in how to behave, not a radical transformation of the human condition.)

In either case, I think the right strategy is to appeal to God's justice and mercy, to argue that people will be judged on the basis what they knew, even if they were not part of the truest religion.  I personally think the best interpretation of the Bible allows for the possibility of salvation for those who die as non-Christians, although like Christians they would be saved only through the sacrifice of Jesus.

If I were a Muslim, I would adopt a similar interpretation of Islam.  Even though there are passages suggesting that disbelievers go to Hell, there are also passages that explicitly allow for the possibility of monotheistic "People of the Book" (such as Jews and Christians) to be judged as righteous.  (On the other hand, orthodox Christians who consider Jesus to be divine would be committing shirk, the worst sin in Islam.)  It is also stated that God does not punish anyone unless he first sends a messenger to warn them:

Whoever is guided is only guided for [the benefit of] his soul.  And whoever errs only errs against it.  And no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another.  And never would We punish until We sent a messenger.  (Sura 17:15)

suggesting that even some pagan idolaters might end up being saved, if they didn't know any better.

Since the foundational principle for both religions is God's goodness, it follows that we can trust God not to judge people unfairly.  Given that there is a life after this one, God's choice to reveal his truth by a historical process (initiated at particular times and places) does not require him to leave everyone else out in the cold permanently.

Next: Supernatural Claims

[4/6/19 Updated to add section headers, fuller discussion of fulfilment, and more minor corrections]

Posted in History, Theological Method | 21 Comments

Comparing Religions II: World Evangelism

Having introduced the subject of comparing religions, we will now analyze the first question:

1. Has the religion persuaded a significant fraction of the world population, outside a single ethnic group, to believe in it?

One of the reasons for this question is that few people have time to investigate all of the numerous religions that exist.  (I've done more than most people ever will, but there are still huge gaps in my knowledge.)  Since it is not possible to do a complete analysis of every religious tradition, one must have some way of sifting out the more likely candidates from the less likely ones.  Whatever criterion one uses for this sifting, it has to be something which can be measured prior to doing an in-depth investigation.

In persuasive writing, it is generally considered most rhetorically effective to lead with one of your stronger arguments, so that people don't dismiss your case out of hand.  But here, the nature of the subject requires me to lead with one of the weaker arguments for a religion, namely its popularity.  But it is not so weak that it doesn't deserve careful consideration.  Later on, we will discuss some more dispositive tests.

Ad populum (appeal to mass belief) is not necessarily a fallacy, when it is used only as a probability argument rather than a deductive argument.  I would never say that a large number of adherents guarantees that a religion is correct; obviously not.  Many completely wrong beliefs (e.g. homeopathy and astrology) still have lots of people who swear by them.  There are, however, some cogent reasons why a true religion is likely to have more adherents than it would if it were false.  So while the fact that a significant fraction of the world population believes in something cannot (taken by itself) be enough reason to accept it, I do think it justifies taking it seriously enough to investigate its truth.

All Else being Equal, Truth is More Convincing

Presumably a true religion is more likely than a false one to be found convincing by a broad range of people.  It is also more likely to be regarded as important enough to share with others.  While human beings are far from infallible, it says something good about a religion if it can pick up a large number of voluntary converts.  At least some people take into account reason and evidence (and any "signs" they may happen to witness) when deciding what to believe; so all else being equal, truth should provide a religion with a survival advantage.  (If this were not true, then there would be very little point in writing blog posts analysing the evidence for or against religion, because nobody would take them into account.)

It is especially impressive if a religion has been found plausible by people from many different cultures and backgrounds.  A religion might take off in a single ethnic group because of some fluke of history.  On the other hand, a multicultural distribution suggests that perhaps the religion contains something true to life, that it is in some way suited to the human condition at large, not just one cultural milieu.  If it has seemed insightful to many kinds of poets, philosophers, and peasants, then it probably contains at least some element of universally valid truth.

A Census of World Religions

If even 1 in a thousand people (worldwide) investigate religions in a sufficiently sensible and open-minded way to identify the truth (whatever it is), then it would follow that the true religion must have at least 7 million adherents or so, which would narrow us down to about a dozen possibilities (according to the website in 2014.)  If you scroll down past the pie chart of the first link, you'll come to the following list:

  1. Christianity (2.1 billion)
  2. Islam (1.5 billion)
  3. Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist (1.1 billion)
  4. Hinduism (900 million)
  5. Chinese traditional religion (394 million)
  6. Buddhism (376 million)
  7. primal-indigenous (300 million)
  8. African Traditional and Diasporic (100 million)
  9. Sikhism (23 million)
  10. Juche (19 million)
  11. Spiritism (15 million)
  12. Judaism (14 million)
  13. Baha'i (7 million)
    [+additional religions with 4.2 million religions or fewer]

Of course, many of these categorization decisions are questionable.  Nonreligious is by definition the absence of a religious commitment (although Communism might be regarded as a religious substitute for a substantial minority of these people); Chinese traditional represents various admixtures of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and ancestor worship; indiginous or African traditional are umbrella terms for thousands of different pagan religious traditions (most of which would have less adherents than Baha'i if taken individually); while Juche is just the state ideology of the North Korean dictatorship (which has approximately the same moral credibility as Nazism).  Fringe Christian or Islamic cults might be better regarded as separate religions, and some of them (like Mormonism) I will be treating as separate religions in subsequent posts.  But the exact division is not very important.  The point is that there are really only a small number of options on the table, if you use the rest of humanity to sift out the options that have been found most plausible.

(That being said, if there is some particular religion with fewer adherents that you have some reason to think is specially promising, I'm not saying that you shouldn't investigate it.  But it is reasonable to start with more popular religions.)

Another Reason to Consider Popularity: Divine Favor

A true religion is also more likely to have divine favor assisting its spread across the world (assuming of course that the religion is theistic).  I don't want to put too much emphasis on this, since the worship of strength and worldly success is one of the crudest of all religions.  My own religion centers around the Cross, therefore it is (or ought to be) on the side of the unjustly persecuted everywhere.  Might does not make right.  Yet sometimes, when human hearts are receptive, right makes for might.  Truth may be weak, but sometimes this weakness is itself a paradoxical form of strength, as Gandhi showed in India, and the Civil Rights Movement showed in America.

If there is a religion revealed by God, then it is an obvious sociological fact that not everyone on earth has accepted the message.  For whatever reason, it is not the divine will to overawe everyone into accepting it (at least, not yet).  But if it is a genuine revelation, one expects that he would protect and defend it to some extent, at least enough to accomplish whatever goals he has in revealing the message.

At the very least, extinct religions like e.g. Greek or Egyptian polytheism are probably not worth taking very seriously—if those gods are at all real, why would they have allowed their names to be completely forgotten, except as fodder for dissertations, garden statuary, and comic books? It took a lot of kahunas for the prophet Jeremiah, way back in the 600s BC when the Jews were surrounded by polytheists, to taunt the followers of other gods by telling them (in Aramaic, the international language):

“These gods, who did not make the heavens and the earth, will perish from the earth and from under the heavens” (Jer 10:11).

But in quite a large portion of the globe, including of course the Middle East where Jeremiah was prophesying, this is exactly what has happened.  (This process is not yet complete, but if a prophet had predicted that all the world would one day consist of blue-skinned people, and then over the next few centuries half of the people on the planet had turned blue, I would start taking the rest of what he said more seriously, even if it hadn't yet happened to everyone!)

The Jewish Origins of the Idea of Progress

Historically, it was extremely unusual, in the pre-Christian world, for a religion to predict its own global dominance.  As moderns we think that every ideology should predict a future in which it is more widely successful, but that's not how most people thought back then.  The ancients usually expected that the world would keep on going more or less as it was before, or maybe keep getting gradually worse.  As Westerners we are used to ideologies having an eschatological aspect—looking forward to a future utopian society that is a radical improvement on the present—but the reason we think this way is precisely because of the influence of Judaism!  (The only other eschatological pre-Christian religion I know of is Zoroastrianism, which presumably either got it from Judaism, or else influenced Judaism in this respect.)

Universal vs. Ethnic Religions

The Jews did not (and still do not) regard it as necessary for pagans to become Israelites in order to be saved.  The Hebrew prophets spoke against idolatry and polytheism, but they foresaw the worldwide acceptance of pure Monotheism as a sign of the future Messianic Era, not as a realistic goal for the present day.

However, at the time of the Roman Empire, there were a large group of "God-fearers", who came to believe in the truth of Judaism, but did not formally convert due to the burdensome nature of Jewish ritual.  A lot of these people later became Christians, once it became clear that you didn't have to become a Jew in order to be a full member of the Christian Church.

If this model is right, then God cultivated an ethnic religion for a limited period of time, in order to produce the right circumstances in which the Messiah could come.  But now that he has come, Christianity is a religion for all people, in fulfilment of God's promises:

“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
(Isaiah 49:6)

Hence, if we wish to find a worthy rival to Christianity, it should probably be a universal religion, i.e. its message should be sufficiently relevant to the perennial human condition, that it can be adopted by people from every culture and tribe, without completely wrenching them out of their social context.  A religion cannot really be considered cosmic in scope, if it isn't even able to be cosmopolitan.  This criterion rules out a large number of purely ethnic and tribal religions.

If God were still restricting his message primarily to a single ethnic group, presumably the rest of us would not be judged too harshly for not being in on the program.  Even the insiders might not think you have a moral obligation to join their group.  This makes it a lower priority to investigate ethnic religions such as Judaism or Hinduism (unless of course you happen to belong to one of these groups already).

As the most extreme case of ethnic exclusion, some religions currently forbid conversion altogether, for example traditional Parsees (Zoroastrians in India), and the Druze (in the Middle East).  These religions also forbid their adherents to marry outsiders.  There's just no way to get in, even if you wanted to!

Other religious traditions teach that God reveals himself through all cultures and therefore it is counterproductive to cast aside your ancestral teachings in favor of theirs.  These religions may discourage converts: for example, a woman from the church I grew up in became interested in Hinduism, and went to India to study under a guru.  He told her to go back to the USA, saying that she wasn't done being a Christian yet!  I've heard other anecdotes along similar lines, so apparently this attitude is fairly common among Hindu teachers.

Then there are various small religions (such as Baha'i, which is right on the edge of my somewhat arbitrary 1/1000 threshold) that are clearly intended to be international in scope, but have failed to achieve a very large number of converts to their cause.

(In some cases this might be because the religion is new.  Of course all religious movements start out small, so we can't place too much weight on this criterion or it would imply that nobody should have followed Jesus at the beginning, when he only had a few disciples.  At the same time, it seems reasonable to say that an untested charismatic cult leader needs to clear a higher bar than a well-established religious tradition.)

Hence, to score top points on this criterion, it is best to have already convinced a significant fraction of the world.

The Three Big Evangelical Religions

These considerations suggest we should focus the most attention on Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism.  These are the 3 world religions which have had the most success in gaining converts even in radically different cultures, the ones whose message has been perceived as "Good News" to numerous people groups around the world.  (But I will still try to say some things about other religions as well, to the extent that my limited knowledge allows.)  To what extent their religious teachings actually are good news—well, that is a subject for the later posts!

Of these three "evangelical" religions, the spread of Islam is somewhat marred by the fact that the early spread of Islam, starting during Mohammad's lifetime and continuing for several centuries thereafter, was largely due to military action and subsequent cultural imperialism.  Although obviously Muslims would attribute this rapid spread to God's will, from a human point of view it seems that the sword discriminates among truths far more clumsily than rational discourse does.  (There are however a few countries, such as Indonesia, where the spread of Islam seems to have largely occurred through peaceful means such as trade.)

Of course some Muslim historians will insist that each of these conquests was morally justified by various particular circumstances.  But, to paraphrase a bit of popular wisdom: anyone might meet one or two jerks, but if everyone you meet seems to be a jerk, then you should consider the possibility that you might be the jerk, and they're just reacting to your personality.  In particular, any group that tries to conquer large parts of the world by the sword, should not be too surprised when the other countries look on with dismay and try to fight back.  (Here I am speaking historically, and not attempting to justify any particular modern wars.)

It actually took several centuries for these conquests to result in a majority for Islam in the Middle East and North Africa.  At first it was mainly the rulers of the conquered lands who were Muslims.  While pagans were required to convert at swordpoint, monotheistic groups such as Jews, Christians, Mandaeans (yes, there still exist followers of John the Baptist who never converted to Christianity!—although by now they have become very gnostic and reject even Moses), and Zoroastrians were generally tolerated, so long as they accepted second-class citizenship (dhimma), paid extra taxes (jizya), and did not try to convert Muslims to their religion.  Over the long run these legal disadvantages gave Islam a decisive advantage.

Mind you, at times the situation for Jews or "heretics" in medieval Europe was even worse than this.  It is easy to find examples of persecution of religious minorities in Christian history.  (Officially speaking, the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy only asserted authority over baptized individuals, but sometimes local rulers would impose Christianity on their domains, and then later the Church would try to enforce orthodoxy in these populations since they were now "Christians".)

Even Buddhists have sometimes engaged in religious persecution, e.g. historically in Japan, and at the present in Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma).  A college friend once tried to argue to me that anyone who persecuted other people wasn't a real Buddhist and therefore didn't count.  But this was an obvious use of the No True Scotsman ploy.  In my opinion the Christians who persecuted people weren't in that respect very good examples of Christianity either, but they still existed.

However, I think it is fair to say that both Christianity and Buddhism usually spread to new cultures primarily through evangelism.  This is especially true in their early years, and also in the contemporary world.

For example, after converting to Buddhism, the Indian king Ashoka (formerly a cruel tyrant) seems to have become a pacifist who promoted religious toleration (although there are some contrary traditions whose accuracy is disputed); his support for missionary activity in other countries helped spread Buddhism to many other nations.  And for the first 3 centuries the Christian Church rapidly expanded, even though it had no control over the government and intermittently went through periods of severe persecution, prior to its legalization by the first Christian Emperor, Constantine.

Of course there were plenty of instances of persecuting others which occurred after these religions were well-established.  But it is open to both Buddhists and Christians to claim that the persecutors were bad examples, that they were ignoring the explicit instructions of their own sacred texts, and ought to have known better.  And perhaps that, in the long run, their religion would have advanced just as well or even better, without the aid of violent support.  It is not really open for a Muslim to say the same thing, because then they would have to disown their own Prophet and his immediate followers.  Of course they can still renounce particular instances of expansion through warfare, as being done in an inappropriate time or manner, but they cannot renounce it on principle.

(Christians do have to deal with divinely commanded warfare in the Old Testament, although this was not for evangelical purposes and was geographically limited.  There was no command to spread Judaism to other nations by conquest!  I will reserve discussion of the ethics of this violence until later, but it does introduce our next topic, namely continuity with other religions.)

Next: Ancient Roots

Posted in History, Theological Method | 16 Comments

Comparing Religions I: Introduction

A while back, a reader named "Martin B" once asked me this question about other religions:

May I ask what it is that makes you think Christianity stands out and is more believable than other religions and faiths on this planet?

In my previous response, I came up with a list of questions to ask to compare religions.  Here they are again:

  1. Has the religion persuaded a significant fraction of the world population, outside a single ethnic group, to believe in it?
  2. How does the religion relate to previous and subsequent religions?
  3. Did the religious founder claim his message came from supernatural revelation, or is it only the reflections of some wise philosopher who didn't claim to have divine sanction for their teaching?
  4. Are the primary texts describing some sort of mythological pre-history, or are they set in historical times?
  5. Related, does it sound like fiction, or does it sound like history?
  6. How long was it between the time when the supposed supernatural events took place, and when they were first written down (in a document that has had copies of it preserved).  Is it early enough to suggest the text is based on testimony rather than later legends?
  7. What are the odds that the purported supernatural events could have occurred for non-supernatural reasons?
  8. Did the main witnesses benefit materially from their testimony, or did they suffer for it?
  9. Is there significant evidence of fraud among the originators of the religion?
  10. What is the general moral character of the religious teaching?
  11. Do people who are serious about this religion generally feel that they are put into an actual relationship with the divine?

I will now attempt to answer these questions, both for Christianity and its competitors.

Some disclaimers are probably appropriate.  Obviously there are some religions I know more about than others, and I apologize in advance to any member of another religion if I've gotten anything factually wrong.  Corrections are welcome in the comments.

Obviously, in order to say why I think Christianity is more plausible than other religions, I will have to be honest about what I think the shortcomings of other religions are.  In doing this, I do not intend to communicate any disrespect to the adherents of these religions.  I would like to believe as well of everyone as I can, but I am constrained by the truth to give my honest opinion.  I will try to do my best to highlight the good aspects of other religions as well as the problematic aspects.

I do not aim to write from a "neutral" viewpoint (nor do I think there is any such thing on this subject), but I do think I'm fair-minded enough to explore things from other perspectives, yet also—and this is equally important—interested in identifying actual evidence and truth, unlike supposedly "objective" scholars of comparative religion.

Not being interested in the truth of the underlying claims (or at least, interested in imagining what it would be like to care about the truth claims) is actually one of the most subjective ways to study a religion, in my opinion.  Because it sidesteps or brackets the thing most essential to most actual religious believers, it has a tendency to end up comparing superficial cultural similarities and differences, rather than getting to the heart of the matter.

And I am certainly not trying to evangelize my own culture.  I do not want everyone to share my own culture, but Christ.  Christian missionary work is not about the Imperial impulse, getting other people to give up their own culture, in order to learn Greek or English and become Europeans or Americans; no, it is about bringing Christ into every culture, to transform it into what God created it to be.  Certain specific cultural traditions may need to be changed because they are unjust or idolatrous—but that applies to Western culture as well!  The point of missionary work is to introduce other cultures to Jesus and let him show them what needs to change so that they can truly be themselves, not to make them over into the image of another group of people.

Some Christian missionaries have made the Imperial mistake in the past, but I think they've mostly figured it out by now.  I have seen many missionaries give presentations at churches about their foreign work, and almost down to the last man and woman, they have all seemed far more excited to share what they've learned about foreign cultures with Americans, then to spread American culture anywhere.  It is Jesus and the Gospel which they want to share, not Western culture in general.  (The one major exception is Western medicine, another type of "good news" which is beneficial to everyone, and which most missionaries are also very interested in sharing with other cultures.)

Please bear in mind that I'm trying to paint in really broad strokes here, because otherwise each of these questions would have to be a book in its own right.  So if I say that a religion is "primarily based" on something or other, or I summarize its teachings very briefly, I expect that there are plenty of nuances which I'm glossing over; due to my misperceptions as an outsider, different sects adopting different interpretations, and so on.  There is certainly potential for bias in my descriptions, but I still think these comparisons are worth doing.  Even near-sighted people can usually tell the difference between an elephant, a dog, and a rat.

While I may occasionally mention them, I will not be too concerned with the theological differences between different Christian denominations in this series.  I believe that what Christians share in common is far more important than what separates us.  (Here I am referring to geoups that actually believe in the supernatural claims of the New Testament, and have the mainstream Christian view about the basic nature of God and Jesus.  Fringe groups like Mormonism are probably better thought of as separate religions.)

In some ways, the internal differences within non-Christian religions are actually more significant for this project, because when a dispute between Christians is important, if need be I can simply defend the viewpoint I find most plausible.  But if there is a division inside of a non-Christian religion, in priciple one would need to investigate every possible permutation of the other religion to find the most plausible version.  This task is particularly vexatious in the case of Hinduism, which I am not sure should even be regarded as a single religion!  (Since you can find Hindu sects with basically all possible positions on the nature of divinity and its relation to the world.)  In other cases, I am going to try to keep things simple by focussing on the religious founder and trying to identify what form of the religion he (or she) taught, even though it's conceivable that the version that is most "authentic" to the founders intentions might not always be the version that is most true or beneficial.

Note that I will be discussing a fairly large number of criteria in the blog posts that follow, and it is not necessarily obvious which criteria are the most important.  Hence, even if I seem to "eliminate" a religion from consideration in one blog post, I may nevertheless continue to discuss that religion in future blog posts.

I am particularly grateful to my friend and fellow physicist Ahmed (of firewalls fame) for several conversations on Islam which have significantly benefitted my understanding.  I consider myself to have much more important things in common with him, than with any of the run-of-the-mill irreligious physicists I know.  Of course the views I express are my own, and so are any mistakes!

When irreligious skeptics in America bring up other religions as an objection to Christianity, it seems to me that they are quite frequently arguing in obvious bad faith.  When they look for parallels to the claims of Christ in some other religion, it is really to argue against Christ, and not because they actually take seriously, for one minute, the idea that some exotic foreign cult leader might actually turn out to be the true prophet sent by God.  If they did take these other religions seriously as rivals to Christianity, I think they would approach the question with far more caution, and would inevitably find themselves making distinctions between the plausibility of different ideas.

(Surely it is horrendously unlikely that all religions would have exactly equal plausibility.  Even if they were all fake, some fakes are a lot more convincing than others!  And you can't possibly know they're all fake, until you've investigated them carefully.)

At this point I should also mention another "skeptical" approach to evaluating religions which I think has very little merit, just to get it out of the way.  And that is to read the scriptures of a religion solely for the purpose of compiling a long list of "contradictions" that supposely disprove the books in question.  The main problem with this approach is that, generally speaking, the "worse" of a reader you are (i.e. superficial, hostile, and literal-minded) the more seeming contradictions you will find.  In other words, this is an approach which rewards poor reading.  And as St. Lewis remarked in one of his Narnia books, "the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed."  (Of course, this approach is even sillier when done by followers of another religion, seemingly oblivious to the fact that their own holy book might be subjected to the same treatment.)

You have to give a text an chance, "suspending your disbelief" and savoring its taste on your tongue, even in order to find out what it is really saying.  Only then can you judge whether the ideas in it are sound or not.  This goes doubly for texts that were written a long time ago, where the authors lived in a completely different cultural milieu from our own.  Any historian worth his salt knows that even very accurate historical texts can contain puzzling statements, which may be difficult for us to reconcile with the rest of our knowledge about the period (but the resolution might have been transparently obvious to those who lived through the events, perhaps so obvious that they didn't bother explaining it).

And when it comes to the more intangible spiritual or ethical truths, only a fool would automatically reject any hint of paradox or tension between opposing ideas.  That's like saying that because your left eye and your right eye show slightly different images, you have to disbelieve either the one or the other, or both.  The better option is to combine both images, and then you can see in 3D!

This does not imply that all religious ideas are equally valid, either historically or philosophically.  At the end of the day, there might be irresolvable contradictions in a putative religious system.  But you should always make sure to criticize the essence of what is being said, rather than sniping at superficial "gotchas".

For these reasons, I find it's usually far more interesting and productive to have conversations about religious disagreements with an actual believer of another religion.  In this case, neither participant can "win" simply by retreating into a bottomless pit of endless skepticism, since each person also has something they wish to defend!

Next: World Evangelism

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