The Ultimate Martyrdom Myth

My interview with Notre Dame Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity Candida Moss, author of “The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom” (buy here) for Minnesota’s Atheists Talk radio show is now available streaming on this site, downloadable, or subscribable via podcast or iTunes.

I did miss the opportunity to press a little bit further on the discussion around how Biblical scholars determine that some martyrdom stories are myths. In essence, they seem to use questions such as the following to calculate the level of trustworthiness of a given story:

- Were the stories written by non-eyewitnesses, long after the event?
- Do the stories seem to be retellings, recastings or appropriations of older mythic stories from other cultures?
- Do the stories contain anachronisms? References to ideas, institutions, people or places that were not current at the time of the events but were at the time of the writing?
- Are there multiple, inconsistent versions of the story, changing over time?
- As the stories change, do they become more hagiographic? Do they make the “star” of the story even more saintly, the acts even more miraculous?
- Do we lack confirming testimony from other, independent sources, of the events or people in the story?
- Do the stories seem designed to push a specific orthodoxy, perhaps against an idea of the time that was becoming popular but others wanted declared heretical?

Now my question (which I did ask in the show) was that all of these issues above, when asked of the traditional 4 Gospels, have an affirmative answer. Consider for example the transition from Mark to Matthew to Luke to John, where Jesus goes from a suffering, questioning crucifixion (“Why hast thou forsaken me”) to a stoic, accepting death (“It is finished”) over the years between which the books were written, multiple decades after the events in question.  A stoic death was very admirable among martyr myths in antiquity, as we see in Socrates’ case or in the disgust over the sniveling death of a Trojan prince at Achilles’ hand in Homer’s Iliad.  This example easily covers 4 or 5 of the points above, with a potential 6th depending on how much of the crucifixion story was addressed specifically at, e.g.,  the Marcionites and Ebionites.

So why did scholars (such as the Bollandists), trying to weed out whether the martyrdom myths were true or not using the criteria above, not end up casting an eye towards the Gospel books and deciding that there was probably as little proof of those being true as there is of many of the apocryphal martyrdom stories?  Was it only because the “original” Christian martyrdom story was untouchable by definition?  It would seem to me to be a prime candidate for this kind of analysis and (given the results from scholarly responses to the questions above) eventual rejection as apocryphal, for the exact same reasons the Bollandists reject so many martyrdom stories from the first centuries.

I really enjoyed having Professor Moss on the show, and I’d love to invite her back to talk about this.

Re-defining marriage

Bill Donohue is the president of the Catholic League. I don’t claim that he speaks for all Catholics, since I know too many Catholics who disagree with him, but he claims he does; for some reason all the media keep inviting him back on to their shows as an expert on the topic when same-sex marriage comes up.

And this interview is a fascinating insight into his mind, the mind of the (not-insignificant) number of Catholics who DO agree with him, and the mind of the people presenting the cases before the Supreme Court regarding marriage.


“The whole purpose of marriage is to have a family. It’s not about making people happy. It’s not about love.”


Now let’s compare that to the brief presented by the petitioners for the Hollingsworth v. Perry case (regarding Prop 8) before the Supreme Court: in that brief, the lawyers representing the group of citizens that stepped in to defend Prop 8 after California officials refused to, argued that the state’s interest in marriage was procreative only. In other words, the state should only be interested or involved in marriage in the sense that it creates more citizens for the state. A similar argument to the above, a slightly different angle, but with the same foundation: marriage is not about love.

The Prop 8 brief doesn’t mention the word “love” once in 65 pages.

And compare that to Paul Clement’s brief in U.S. v Windsor supporting the DOMA in the other same-sex marriage case currently before the SC: marriage, as described in that case, is for taking care of “whoops! babies!”. The argument used in that brief was that marriage is necessary NOT because people love each other, but because two people with particular combinations of sex organs might accidentally produce an unplanned baby, and therefore they should be married in order to provide stability for that baby. And that is ultimately the state’s primary interest in marriage: generating more citizens.

The DOMA brief doesn’t mention the word “love” once in 60 pages.

Never mind that the only reliable way to have a stable family and give it the highest opportunity for happy, healthy children is for that family to be based on the love of the two people that were there first.

I would like to ask Bill Donohue and Paul Clement exactly how many marriage vows he has heard in his lifetime that don’t include the word “love” somewhere. I wonder how many marriage ceremonies has he attended where no one says “look how in love they are!”, instead preferring the utilitarian “see how fertile they look! They will be very procreatively productive!  Won’t the state be happy!”

I was married for 9 years before we had a kid, but apparently those years I spent falling in love with my wife over and over don’t count as really being married.  And the years we spent building a stable, healthy relationship into which a child could be welcomed and raised were probably just a waste of time because we weren’t popping out kidlets like ping-pong balls to keep the state happy.

But marriage isn’t about love.

Let that sink in.

“The whole purpose of marriage is to have a family. It’s not about making people happy. It’s not about love.” – Bill Donohue.

A man who just happens to be divorced, by the way: a state of affairs (not pun intended) that is mentioned multiple times in the Bible as being completely unacceptable to God, if that’s who your authority on moral issues is.  I assume it is for Bill, but I have to wonder.

The people fighting against same-sex marriage cannot use religion as the basis for their legal arguments, since they would run into obvious separation of Church and State issues by doing so.  So they have to come up with alternative, secular reasons, and the well there is… pretty dry.  So the argument becomes that the whole reason marriage exists is so that citizens can become baby-making machines to benefit the state apparatus, presumably as a source of new tax income.

And yet somehow it’s same-sex couples who are redefining what marriage means.

Persecution vs. Persecution Complex

An interesting perspective, and the book “The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom” by Prof. Candida Moss is going on my “to be read” pile, along with a couple of other ones she’s published (see “tsundoku“).

The most important point of the article, in my opinion, is that presenting yourself as “persecuted” does not exactly foster a relationship of conversation and equal exchange of ideas. It sets up the person who disagrees with you as evil and relentless, when in fact many of the concerns about “persecution” today in the US are about disagreements concerning issues like same-sex marriage, access to women’s healthcare and birth control. While these issues engender a lot of disagreement, it would be hard to classify that disagreement as “persecution”.

But a particularly vocal group wants to portray that disagreement as coming from a fundamentally evil source, and cast opponents as persecutors, which is useful to those making the claim and portraying themselves as martyrs, but completely ruinous to the conversation. You don’t, by definition, have a pleasant conversation about differences in opinion with a martyr.

See “The War on Christmas“, now in its seventh consecutive year of re-runs, or the recent flaps about how Obama is persecuting Christians because he supports access to contraception as part of a comprehensive healthcare package.

The other point of note here is the rejection of a common claim that backs up Christianity as the “one true religion”: how many people have given their lives for the idea. They wouldn’t, they couldn’t do so if it wasn’t true, right? Unfortunately the problems with that claim are two-fold: (a) many different, mutually-incompatible religions have their own martyrs, and (b) over the course of history, people have proved to be quite willing to die for ideas that end up being wrong. People die on both sides of wars and inquisitions, after all. In fact many of the religious conflicts in history have generated martyrs for both sides, which are fighting in direct opposition to each other, and therefore cannot both be right. The fact that we are willing to die for ideas that may or may not be correct demands investigation into why we humans have a tendency to do so, but it serves poorly as a demonstration of the veracity of any faith claim.

An author I’d like to try to get on the radio show, if possible.  Her book is available here.

Update: a better article from the Daily Beast here.

Which version of Christianity, exactly?

The irony about having discussions about Christian theological issues is that, in order to have the discussion, you first have to figure out what the person actually believes.  You have to actually define first what version of Christianity they agree with, out of the 40-odd thousand different versions that are out there.  You’d think that having a common religious text would mean some level of common religious belief; but even though everyone claims to be the ones who were fortunate or smart enough to be able to interpret the Bible correctly, there’s no guarantee which each person’s definition of a defensible, “Christian” position will be on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, literal creationism, evolution, the death penalty, the roles and rights of women in their organizations, their families and in society, whether the fires of Hell are literal or metaphorical, whether Hell is eternal or temporary, whether Hell even actually exists or not, what happens to children who die before they are baptized, whether baptism is even necessary or not, whether salvation comes through faith or through good works, homosexuality, whether the “Fall” was literal or metaphorical, which of the rules in Leviticus and Deuteronomy still apply and which we can ignore (tattoos, anyone?), slavery and whether it was ever acceptable, at what point does a soul “enter” the body, what’s the correct way to determine when a human life begins, stem cell research, euthanasia, end-of-life dignity, healthcare and contraceptive care, etc. etc., ad infinitum.

It’s not that people can’t have different opinions on these issues: they can, and they do.  But you can find denominations that support both sides of each of these issues, and both will claim absolute certainty and Biblical authority for their position, and find no reason to be concerned that other denominations reach the exact opposite position using the exact same text.

You can’t all be right, you know.  You can all be wrong, but that’s a different conversation.

As an outsider looking in, when you realize that the phrase “I’m a Christian, therefore I believe X” is true for all possible combinations of positions on the issues above, for so many values of X, you start understanding that perhaps people are bringing their own morality into the equation, and then just choosing the interpretations of their religious text that agree with their pre-existing position.  Believe in support for same-sex marriage?  Sure, you can justify that biblically.  Believe that gay people should be stoned to death?  Yup, you can justify that biblically too… and in fact you can do that one much more directly and with less logical leaps interpretation (you see, it says you’re supposed to, pretty clearly).  Therefore, it seems people’s morality precedes their religious beliefs, which technically makes the beliefs themselves unnecessary (other than as selective post-facto justification) as the foundation of a moral framework.

A quick Google search will easily prove that, no matter which position a person supports on the issues above, there are plenty of religious authority figures who have posted long, detailed explanations of why theirs is not just the best interpretation of the religious texts, but is in fact THE ONLY possible logical interpretation.  Truth!  And they have the piles of quotes to support their view and the context to prove their way of thinking, and the arguments about why anyone who uses other passages to prove a different point is missing the bigger picture and doesn’t understand the context.  If you disagree with it, it must be a metaphor for something else, or it meant something else at the time it was written and therefore mustn’t be taken literally, or it no longer applies because of this other passage.  If you agree with it, it’s just true.

I’ve spent a large part of my life having discussions with people about issues like the ones above, and it never ceases to amaze me.  Perhaps I should be less surprised, considering how fractured the interpretations have been since the very beginning: even in the first centuries of the Common Era, various sects were sniping at each other over fundamental issues like whether Judaic law still applied, whether Jesus was actually a regular man with a divine spirit inside, whether Jesus ever even took physical form or was just a kind of ghost that people saw… I mean, these were groups of people who, just a few generations removed from when the guy was supposedly walking around, couldn’t come to an agreement on what it all meant.  You’d think someone who had the power to create the entire universe could have made his message a bit clearer, instead of using all that awesomeness to imprint his image on toast.  Because how clear can your message be when your followers have created over 40 THOUSAND denominations with different interpretations of it?

To answer the most common question I get when posting this kind of message: why do I have the discussions in the first place?  Well, because the people I have the discussions with are in the position of making decisions or passing laws or voting on issues that affect me, my family, and the education, well-being and rights of the people around me.  They use religious reasoning (or rather, religious rationalization) to reach a decision on what votes to propose, what standards of education to apply, how to vote.  If they didn’t do that, I wouldn’t have to have these discussions in the first place.  But I do, and the arguments before the Supreme Court starting tomorrow, Tuesday March 27th, 2013, on the constitutionality of prohibiting same-sex marriage, are proof that these conversations still NEED to happen.

Mind you, I probably still would still have the conversations: for learning purposes, since the way the brain processes information is fascinating to me.  But I wouldn’t HAVE to.

And this should be the first lesson to impart in all of these conversations, but it’s almost always the hardest. No matter what you believe on quite literally ANY of the religious truths you hold dear, in the context of the whole world, you’re in the minority.  That doesn’t necessarily make you wrong, and it doesn’t make the majority right: but you do have to live with those other people, and the plurality of thought and belief they represent.  My first recommendation, if you want to get along, is to start working on reasonings for your positions that work *without* relying on your unique interpretation of your religious text: most people just won’t believe it applies to them.  Just judging by the numbers, it’s most probably wrong anyway.

Exitio Papa

I can’t wait for the ceremony where they retire his number: a giant Pontiff hat, emblazoned with “XVI”, being lifted up into the rafters at the Vatican Staples Center.

What strikes me as amusing about this whole deal is how… *medieval* it all is. People running around consulting the rules to see if the Pope is even “allowed” to resign, and whether he resigned appropriately, following the correct, completely made-up procedures that last made sense some 600 years ago. And the rules being consulted are the same ones that up until mid-last century required the Pope to be banged on the noggin with a special silver hammer to confirm that he was dead.

What would they do, one wonders, if it was decided he *wasn’t* allowed to retire? It’s a safe bet that somewhere in the arcana there’s a whole written procedure for that too, involving sequestering the Pope onto a golden throne with a magical golden Pope lasso, and appointing a Cardinal to interpret God’s will using phrenology or–Himself forbid–uroscopy. All perfectly ritualized and followed strictly and religiously to the letter, when not a jot of it appears in the Bible anywhere.

I’m not gloating over his resignation, as many others have over the social media, in a “Ha ha! Ding dong, the witch is dead!” kind of way: it’s not like they’re done churning them out… there have been 265 Popes in a (non-sequential) row. I’m sure there will be another one along soon, and I can guarantee it won’t be a woman, or a gay married black man. Nor will the newly-elect have a better attitude towards those two groups than the current one. Or the previous 264 for that matter.

Well, maybe Pope Joan.

But for now, I’m happy to watch the whole medieval process unfold. I’m hoping he will follow the retirement path of another controversial public figure who quit the job they had once insisted God had specially chosen them for: Sarah Palin’s. A reality show, a job as a commentator for Fox News, a series of public comments demonstrating how out of touch with reality they are, losing the commentator job and then a quick spiral into irrelevance and obscurity (minus the occasional Tweet from @X-Pontifex).

Meanwhile, I’ll sit by the phone and wonder if the Cardinals will ever call, while writing “Pope Pacheco” over and over in the pages of my 13th-century vellum Trapper Keeper.

Sigh. Humans are weird.

Many miles to go before it gets better

Getting through the security line today at LAX, one of the TSA agents asked me a couple of casual questions about the book I was carrying (“America’s Unwritten Constitution”). He seemed genuinely interested, especially when I explained a little bit about what the book was about (the historical context in which the Constitution and the Amendments were written, and how these have changed over time and help inform our interpretation of it). He said he might be interested in picking it up, and then waved me through the machine.

After going through the metal detector, however, he seemed to have noticed the name of the author (Akhil Reed Amar), and was suddenly more concerned. “You sure he isn’t one of those people twisting things the wrong way?” he said, squinting dubiously and jabbing a finger at the author’s name. The implication being that, with a foreign, probably Arabic, possibly even Muslim (gasp!) name like that, the book was most probably un-American in some way or another.

Amar, by the way, is the Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale, and author of several highly-regarded books on the Constitution. He lives in CT.

I am reasonably sure that if I had been non-Caucasian, I would have been asked some more probing questions. Possibly worse if I had, myself, looked “too Muslim”.

That a member of the TSA, himself of a race that in many cities in this country would lead to him being pulled over and questioned while driving or walking down the street at a much higher rate than others simply because of the color of his skin, would be so prone to make that kind of profiling assumption, seems ironic at best, disturbing at worst. After all, these are people who are supposed to be watching and protecting us, trained to pay attention, supposedly (hopefully) without prejudice or stereotyping.

But we’re not there yet. We’re not at the point where we are judged solely by the content of our character and not the color of our skin. We’re not even at the point where we can’t be judged by the perceived origins and stereotypes associated with our names. But this event does raise my own personal awareness of the privilege associated with not looking a certain way: I have no doubt that this TSA agent was reassured more by the fact that I didn’t “look like” a terrorist (between my skin color and my lack of turban) than by anything I did or said.

It highlights, for me, how little I have to live concerned about the assumptions people have about my intentions, my intelligence, my motivations or my feelings about this country. Or even, ironically, my religion. It’s the invisible and singularly undeserved privilege of being Caucasian.

We rarely get the opportunity to experience even the tiniest bit of what it must be to be other than what we are, and to be pre-judged and stereotyped for it before we even get to open our mouths. That I became paranoid after the event–worried that another agent, who seemed to be close by me every time I looked around at the gate, was going to prevent me from boarding–was probably a one-time situation for me… and even more probably just my over-active imagination. For others who don’t look “the right way”, it’s most probably a way of life.

Unplanned and unintended consequences of proof-reading your briefs

Paul D. Clement, the lawyer before the Supreme Court who is defending the DOMA, made a very interesting argument as to why same-sex marriage should not have the same protections and rights as “traditional” marriage: apparently the state has an interest in supporting the “unplanned and unintended offspring” of different-sex couples, and that’s why their parents need the additional rights, protections, benefits and tax breaks afforded by the Federal definition of marriage.  Same-sex couples, on the other hand, have to plan ahead if they want offspring, so they can be better prepared, which means they don’t need government support.

It’s the first time I’ve EVER heard anyone make the case that same-sex marriage shouldn’t be allowed because gay people are MORE responsible, prepared parents. And the first time I’ve heard a Republican-backed legal argument FOR a government-provided safety net for the unprepared and irresponsible. Following that logic, the government has a greater interest in supporting Catholic families over non-Catholic ones, and a vested interest in giving money to people who don’t understand how birth control works.

It’s SUCH a weird argument to make, it almost boggles the mind. If the interest of the state is only in supporting unprepared parents, then marriage is meaningless and irrelevant and deserves no rights or protections at all until an “oops! baby” is born to the couple. And NO rights or protections should be made available to couples who adopt either, since they also have the opportunity to plan ahead.  But here’s the most bizarre part: many of the children that couples (gay or straight) adopt  come from “unplanned and unintended” pregnancies.  And since the brief quotes Baker v. Nelson (1972) by saying there is a legitimate government interest  in providing support for an institution designed to facilitate the raising of such offspring, the brief simply undermines itself on that point: if the government interest is there, then it exists for support of parents of unplanned and unintended babies AS WELL AS those who adopt them, gay or straight.

But he’s making the argument that straight people are a burden on the state, and therefore deserve more government money. 

Sure, I get where he’s going from a legal perspective: he’s trying to differentiate between the classes of people involved on either side, since you can only make an argument of allowable differences in treatment (AKA “discrimination”) if there are, indeed, significant differences between the classes. But this is pretty thin soup on which to base the case.  Granted, it’s not the ONLY argument made in the 60-page brief: it also makes the case that providing Federal benefits to same-sex partners would be an unforeseen and unbudgeted expense.  In essence this means that your rights and protections depend on whether we have chosen to pay for them or not, and if we have it in the budget this year.  It’s amusing that this is the case being made by a legal group paid by Congress (not the Executive branch through the DoJ, who has been told not to defend the DOMA), happily billing taxpayers up to $3 million to do so.

But it’s obviously the “unplanned and unintended” argument that’s getting the most attention, and for a good reason: it’s the weirdest one of the lot.

Clement spends a lot of time describing how the Federal government has the right to define marriage for the purposes of treatment, and to take into consideration how the states have defined it without being constrained by those definitions, but I’m not sure anyone is arguing against that.  And a lot of time making a “uniformity” argument: that the government has the obligation to treat everyone as equally as possible (which is true), but that invalidating DOMA and redefining marriage would inevitably lead to some couples getting one set of Federal rights in one state that recognizes same-sex couples, but no rights in a difference state that doesn’t recognize them.  How he reaches that conclusion is not explored, since the Federal government can easily make the definition of marriage at the Federal level dependent on whether the couple is considered “married” in any state in the Union, and treat that couple the same for the purposes of Federal benefits and protections regardless of the state law.

And of course, the “it’s for the CHILDREN” argument.  As if the only reason to support marriage is to encourage the baby-making and biological parents-only family.  As if all couples get married for the sole purpose of procreation. As if there are no childless-by-choice married couples, no infertile couples, no couples who choose to adopt children (from unplanned and unintended pregnancies) rather than bear their own, no couples who raise children from their spouses’ previous relationships as if they were their own.

Shouldn’t the fact that there are people who can’t have children who want to get married invalidate that argument?

This is apparently the best that up to $3 million dollars of your tax money can buy.

Written on Jan 13, 2013, but posted today to ward off bad luck and the evil eye

It’s always interesting to note that one group’s deeply held religious beliefs are always so easily dismissed as ludicrous by those who hold different, equally implausible beliefs. I’ll see your virgin birth and raise you a demi-god born from swan rape.

The beliefs all tend to all be contradictory, so they can’t all be right. But they can all be wrong.

Insisting that something is true because there are a lot of people who believe in it (despite the evidence) doesn’t always serve to raise confidence in the assertion, either. We seem to “believe” a lot of irrational things that are demonstrably not true, and the fact that your local newspaper still probably carries the horoscope is a demonstration of that. Ditto the fact that your local hotel probably doesn’t have a 13th floor.

Think about that: hotels don’t have 13th floors because people might think they are “bad luck”. So people stay on the 13th floor after it’s renamed the 14th floor, and that they are perfectly OK with. They’re still on the 13th floor, but apparently bad luck is fooled by the number printed on the elevator button. Honestly, people: that’s just inane.

I was reminded of this fact after the radio show this week with author, film-maker, teacher and former Muslim Alom Shaha. I have received a couple of comments since the show from people whose core argument is, basically: “Well it’s easier to become an atheist after you’ve been a Muslim, because that religion forces you to believe all kinds of things that go against common sense…”

But of course YOUR religion, that one is perfectly rational.

We all seem to have a tendency to believe weird, irrational stuff, and we’re terrible at measuring coincidence, probability and risk. It’s interesting from an evolutionary development perspective (why was this a benefit to genetic survival, or was it just a by-product of a brain overbuilt for pattern-matching?), but asserting facts on the basis that you don’t understand the numbers behind them inspires little confidence in your argument.

“What are the odds?” Well, they are non-zero, for starters. That’s enough in most cases to note that the low-probability event you are so convinced demonstrates supernatural intervention is, in fact, inevitable over millions of event iterations. If you think you’re one in a million, there are seven thousand of you alive today.

And the odds are extremely high that 6,999 of them hold beliefs that you find crazy, and vice versa. But there’s way more of them than there are of you… so you have to agree that the odds are much higher that you are the one that’s nuts, right?

Gallup poll: “religion” major factor in opposition to same-sex marriage

“Religion” is the reason most people cite for their opposition to same-sex marriage. Big surprise: that was the most common reason we heard when talking to people on the phone banks with MN United.

But a pretty clear indication that most people still don’t understand that their religious beliefs cannot be imposed on others by law in this country. Your religion opposes same-sex marriage? Fine, then don’t get one, and no one will force your church to perform one either. That’s part of the definition of religious freedom.

But accept that you live in a country with religious plurality that happens to be a democracy, not a theocracy, and therefore you can’t impose your religious belief on others. There are plenty of people that belong to religions different from yours, for whom same-sex marriage is perfectly acceptable; in addition, plenty of people of no religion don’t feel a compelling need to adopt your religious opinion or the belief-based reasons behind it, and will resent you trying to force it on them.

And it happens to be unconstitutional too.

One more thing: a majority of Americans are now in favor of same-sex marriage, so your opinion is in the minority: now, I should stress that we don’t have a “majority rule” mentality on this, since protection of minorities against the majority is one of the major principles we like to defend. But it does point out the fact that your opinion on this is slowly disappearing into the fog of discriminatory history.

Fine, you won’t attend their weddings. I’m sure they’ll get over it.

Separation of Church and State: it’s not just a great idea, it’s the law. For your protection as well as ours.

Give to the Max!

Since it’s a Give to the Max kinda day, let me remind you about the the little radio show we do on Sunday mornings, which you can listen to live or as a podcast here.  Last Sunday’s show is up!

It costs only a few hundred dollars to do each show, and we get some of that through advertising, and a lot of it through donations. Science, skepticism, secular values and education are our focus, and we think it’s a laudable goal. Would you like to help the program reach it? Then donate through the link below to MN Atheists for Give to the Max, and let us know how much of the donation you want to be specifically for the show.

Do it because WE LOVE YOU!