The Missionary Position by Christopher Hitchens

Notorious atheist Christopher Hitchens has written this short volume, subtitled “Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice” as a critique of the enigmatic Catholic nun that everyone knows so well – or do they? My opinion of Mother Teresa, prior to reading this book, was stereotypically positive, informed only by the TV news. I don’t like Christianity, but regardless of one’s religion (or lack thereof), it is possible to live a life of selfless devotion to others. Few of us choose that path, but if anyone shines brightly in this regard, it’s got to be Mother Teresa, right?

Wrong. Hitchens shows how Mother Teresa’s fame began with a documentary made about her Calcutta orphanage – the director insisting that he had captured the first ever miracle on camera. This miracle was the strange quality of the light within the building, which the director believed could not be explained naturally. The media ran with this, giving birth to a legend. The cameraman, who attributed the “miracle” to the quality of the new Kodak film, had no impact.

Hitchens, with painstaking research, unearths records of people who have visited Mother Teresa’s “House for the Dying.” We find a woman who, instead of attempting to improve the lives of “the poorest of the poor”, is interested first and foremost in the advancement of a religious view that makes a virtue out of suffering. While millions of dollars in donations lie dormant in accounts, she insists on maintaining strictly ascetic living conditions, not only for the nuns of her order, but for all her patients. Dying men are not allowed a simple comfort like watching TV or receiving visitors. People languish in pain without freely available painkillers. There was a particularly horrific case of a fifteen-year-old whose life could have been saved if he had been taken to hospital to receive proper medical care, but this was not permitted. “They would all want it,” was the excuse.

Meanwhile Mother Teresa is immune to criticism from a media that fails to inquire deeply enough. Her actions are judged by her reputation, rather than her reputation being judged by her actions. Instead of being a compassionate person, she is motivated first and foremost by the advancement of her religious order.

It’s hard to argue against Hitchens’ dark depiction. From now on, when I think of the word “humanitarian,” it won’t be Mother Teresa’s face that comes to mind.

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Myth and Ritual in Christianity by Alan Watts

This is a very different look at Christianity from how it is commonly understood. It says that Christianity is not so much a historical faith of God’s actual dealings with mankind; it is mythological in character, telling a story with symbols – a story that is told, not just in Christianity, but in the core teachings of all of the world’s religions. I suppose you might call this Mystic Christianity. The idea is that you have to get past all the dross of conventional religion to find the nuggets of truth that are intuited at the heart.

Is there anything to this notion? Well, yes, at least to a degree. For instance, consider the prevalence of the number 12: twelve tribes of Israel, twelve disciples of Christ, etc. The significance of this is the twelve months of the year, with the sun (Jesus) at the centre. The notion of the incarnation (God becoming man) is viewed, not as a historic event that happened once for all time, but as a symbol of the divine and earthly natures of all men. We are all both God and creature. To comprehend this, you have to appreciate consciousness as something more profound than how it is considered within the constraints of materialistic science.

Before reading this book, I was already in touch with hints of what Watts’ explains. The idea of God having two natures (Father and Son) was not as absurd to me as it is to most atheists, because I had already come to appreciate that consciousness has metaphysical roots that are non-dual. There is little-me here in the material realm and big-me running the show from beyond space-time. But both are me.

While this was an interesting read, and by far the strangest book on Christianity I’ve delved into, I’m not sold on the idea that there is any value to be had in attempting to restore Christianity to some sort of mystic relevance. Christianity, for the most part, has long been interpreted as a historical record of God’s dealings with mankind. The idea of convincing the world that it is better treated symbolically can only happen after the world has been convinced that it is non-historical – at any which point ex-believers will be disenchanted at having been conned all their lives and will have no wish to translate the fictions of their imprisonment into symbols of genuine metaphysical worth. At least, that’s how being an ex-Christian makes me feel. Perhaps Watts’ approach to Christianity will have some relevance to a lapsed Catholic who has been trying long and hard to make something good out of it.

I personally feel that the way forward for metaphysics is to lose all religious and spiritual garb and to integrate with modern scientific language. For instance, understanding man as the Infinite focused to a point of limited awareness within space-time. That works a lot better for me than talking about man realising his godhood through his union with Christ the God-man.

An interesting and unique book, packed with a staggering amout of research by way of footnotes. But ultimately of no more value than a historical curiosity.

The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell

My guess is that only one in every hundred Christians takes the time to look into the foundation of their religion in any detail. Josh McDowell’s book, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, is written for such conscientious students, who wish to be able to hold a rational case for their faith when under fire from sceptics. The book also serves as a great information source for anyone, whether sceptic or believer, who wishes to become more informed about Christianity. It is a titanic work of around seven hundred pages. Even that figure is deceptive, because if not for the dual-columns and tiny typeface, this book would be more like a thousand pages. The “New” of the title relates to the the book’s prior publication as a smaller edition, with a later sequel. Both volumes are now brought together as one, with revisions.

I approached this work as a sceptic, but as an open-minded sceptic who is willing to be changed by what he reads, not as one who is simply aiming to reinforce his scepticism. Although I was confident in my stance, I still had many gaps in my knowledge about Christianity. I’m happy to say that I now know a great deal more, and I’ve had some of my opinions changed, as a result of reading. Beforehand, I tended to view the person of Jesus as someone who had no historical substance, but now I’m quite confident that there was an influential first-century figure who had followers and who was executed for his religious troublemaking.

As I was reading, I was trying to ascertain where the real crux of the case for Christ lay. It’s essentially this: what should we do when we come across the presence of the supernatural in a historical text? The sceptic may say, “This is contrary to experience, therefore unhistorical,” whereas Josh McDowell maintains (and I paraphrase), “We must treat all historical texts on equal terms, without judging the value of a text based on an anti-supernatural bias.” I maintain that both approaches are extremes. If the supernatural really had invaded human experience in the distant past, the sceptic’s view is so restrictive that nothing could ever prove this to him. Meanwhile, McDowell relies on an overly simplistic stance on what is essentially historical probability, not fact. A more reasonable attitude would be that when we encounter the supernatural in ancient history, it is a legitimate warning bell that we may be reading something legendary, and so the standard for evidence naturally rises beyond what we would ordinarily demand. Good evidence for something as extreme as the resurrection of Jesus would be corroboration from multiple secular sources of the same time period. But we do not have this; we only have the Gospel accounts of the Christians.

One source for the historicity of Jesus, the Roman historian Tacitus, takes a sceptical stance to Christianity, calling it a “mischievous superstition.” McDowell never draws attention to this pertinent fact, only attempts to use Tacitus’s mention of Jesus as a proof for his life in general. This shows the one-sided bias in his approach.

The size of this book is a bit daunting, but in retrospect there’s a lot less in here than one might assume. Fifty percent or more of the volume is taken up by quotes. This makes it quite repetitive at times, as McDowell often cites lengthy sections by three or four Christian apologists, who are all covering the same ground. Worse still, some of the material is repeated in different chapters. There is also a massive reliance on rhetoric to back up evidence that is fairly flimsy, rather than a straightforward presentation of facts with the onus put on the reader to draw his own conclusions.

While the focus of the book is an attempt to establish the validity of the Bible as both a historical document and the “word of God,” there is a large part at the tail end tackling postmodernism and Eastern mysticism. These are included because the author sees them as contemporary threats to Christianity, but I think a far more important subject to tackle would have been the theory of evolution. It’s certainly far more influential in the West than Zen Buddhism! Evolution renders man’s “sinful nature” as null and void, because it sees all our behaviours as part of our evolutionary heritage, tracing our nastier base instincts to the reptilian brain. And if there is no sinful nature, then there is no need for redemption. So, evolution is one of the greatest threats to the survival of Christianity in the modern world. Yet the book contains nothing more than one passing mention of the topic in the introduction.

Amid the book’s rhetoric, there are occasional moments of very telling admission:

I took the evidence that I could gather and placed it on the scales. The scales tipped in favor of Christ as the Son of God, resurrected from the dead … Be careful. I am not saying that I proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus is the Son of God. What I did was to investigate the evidence and weigh the pros and cons. The results showed that Christ must be who He claimed to be … I was not looking for absolute truth but “historical probability.”

After a discussion on the Bible’s continuity, scope of circulation and translation, survival through time in the face of persecution and criticism, the quality of its teachings and prophecies, the scope of its influence on literature and civilisation, McDowell admits: “The evidence presented above does not prove that the Bible is the word of God. But …”

Here is a featured quote by Dr. A.C. Ivy, president of the American Physiological Society from 1939-49:

I cannot prove this belief as I can prove certain scientific facts in my library which one hundred years ago were almost as mysterious as the resurrection of Jesus Christ. On the basis of the historical evidence of existing biological knowledge, the scientist who is true to the philosophy of science can doubt the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, but he cannot deny it. Because to do so means that he can prove that it did not occur.”

In other words: “I can’t prove Jesus rose from the dead, but hey, you can’t disprove it either!” The fact that McDowell saw fit to quote something so logically fallacious demonstrates the weakness of his own thinking. Any rational thinker knows that one does not have to disprove something. The burden of proof lies upon the one making the astounding claim.

Norman Geisler is quoted, making the following observation on atheists – which he states without qualification or evidence:

Atheists who consistently try to live without God tend to commit suicide or go insane.

I advise anyone interested in Christianity to read this volume, in an open-minded but critical spirit, watching out for those weak arguments that sound good until properly examined. I remain confident that Christianity is a false religion, moreso after reading The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict.

When all is said and done, the choice of whether to believe in Christianity boils down to how much you want or need to believe and how easily you accept the supernatural in the absence of direct experience or concrete evidence.

When I am dead, If I am confronted by a God who asks me why I rejected his offer of salvation, my only reply can be, “Why did you make it so difficult to see you? Why did you put me in a position where I would have had to betray my own mind in order to accept it?”

For me, reading this book puts the final nail in the coffin of Christianity. Case closed.

God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens, recently deceased, was one of the most well known defenders of atheism, and probably needs no introduction. He was a lively and passionate speaker, able to put religion in its place with sharp wit and a startling economy of words. Never one to back down from a fight, he displayed a fierce disregard for any heckling from debaters or audiences. He never attacked religion from an overly intellectual philosophical point of view, but made his case against it on the grounds of a thorough knowledge of the horror that religion has been responsible for throughout mankind’s history. All of this made him, in my estimation, the most popular and entertaining atheist to listen to. Hard to compare him to Dawkins, since they each have a different area of expertise.

God Is Not Great is extremely useful as a catalogue of religious atrocity. Atheists will undoubtedly nod their approval of Hitchens’ presentation throughout the book. Only the most utterly brainwashed Christian or Muslim could failed to be embarrassed at the crimes done in the name of their respective religions. But the astute believer will respond, “You can’t judge a religion itself by the behaviour of its followers.” Is there merit to this objection? To an extent, yes. Hitchens appears to be making an ad hominem argument. I think Hitchens would argue that the sheer extent of the bad behaviour testifies to the destructive nature of the idea itself. These are not mere isolated occurances of evil, but appear to be stimulated by the ideas themselves. As the subtitle of the book says: “How religion poisons everything.”

This is true, but but the key question, which Hitchens does not really tackle is this: is the poison really within religion itself, or is it within people? Hitchens’s stance reminds me of the way that people have tried to condemn violent films and videogames as stimulating violent behaviour, when the truth is that the aggressive tendencies already exist within us, which is why we enjoy those kinds of entertainments. Same with pornography. Porn is bad, it is argued, becuase it stimulates sexual thoughts. No. Sexual thoughts exists, as comedian Bill Hicks put it, because of “having a dick.” Hence we have porn. Likewise, Hitchens argues, religion is bad because it turns people bad. On the contrary, the badness and the stupidity are a part of the human makeup. Religion is merely the tool that is used to express that badness and stupidity. The real accusation must be levelled at the selfish ambitions of those who reign at the top of all religious power structures. And the blame also lies at the stupidity of the common man for failing to see when he is being conned. I would put it like this: “People are stupid, therefore religion succeeds,” rather than “Religion poisons everything.”

Hitchens insists on dropping the capital “G” from the word God throughout the book, which is disappointing to me. I’m no fan of religion, but there is philosophical merit to the idea of God, whether understood deistically or pantheistically. There is nothing poisonous about metaphysics. My personal favourite term for the creative agent of the universe is the Infinite, and I always spell it with a capital “I”, purely in reference to its metaphysical nature. And I do not think of the Infinite as a transcendental entity, like the monotheistic religions.

The most disappointing aspect of the book was the slightly hypocritical note on which it closes. After earlier praising pluralism and free speech, Hitchens finishes by saying that we need a new Enlightenment and religion must be excluded from all discussion. How tyrannical of him to decide that for us all. Organised religion might one day die of its own accord, but I doubt that will bring an end to organised stupidity and intolerance. Those unfortunate human traits will simply find a new means of expression.

Hitchens’ critique of religion is, for the most part, valid. It just doesn’t quite reach the heart of the matter. God Is Not Great is a very useful book. An important catalogue of the misuse of religion throughout history.

From Witchcraft to Christ by Doreen Irvine

When I was fifteen, in high school, we had one period of Religious Education per week. For about half of the school year, this lesson consisted solely of our class reading through From Witchcraft to Christ, chapter by chapter. Today, revisiting the book two decades later, I’m amazed by how much of the story I remember. You might say it had something of an impact on me originally; it certainly reinforced Christianity and coloured my opinion of the occult.

When I was fifteen I was completely naive, and when I became a Christian at age seventeen, I wasn’t much brighter. Now, however, as an adult who survived the brainwashing exercise of religion and came out the other side with a razor sharp intellect, my memories of Doreen Irvine’s autobiography take on quite a different light. My intention in re-reading this book is to either confirm or deny my suspicion that what we are dealing with here is a liar.

The problems begin with the author’s note at the beginning. “I have of necessity omitted many details of my former life, the people I was associated with at this time and other personal details.” She explains that her intention “was to present a readable account of part of my life and to avoid having to relate definite dates and situations with known persons living or dead.” Unfortunately for the reader, such details could have corroborated Irvine’s claims, Without them we are left to simply wonder how much of what we are reading is fantasy. This is especially important given the fantastical nature of some of her claims, which we will come to shortly.

Nevertheless, the early part of book has an air of credibility; the reader gets the feel of someone relating direct experience. Irvine was a disadvantaged child, living in a council estate in Britain during World War II, with her mother, alcoholic father, and younger sisters. She was mischievous and a ringleader to the children of the neighbourhood, continually getting into trouble. Home life got worse when her mother upped and left and her father brought home a mistress. In her early teens, a local charity worker decided to help Doreen by getting her a job as a maid for a local upper class woman. Doreen stuck it out for a while, but naively longed for the idea of a better life in London. After saving some money, she left on the train without a word to anyone. In the big city, she quickly found work as a prostitute, then as a stripper, calling herself Daring Diana. In this profession, she made some serious money, and was able to afford a classy flat for herself. Despite material success, her main problem was loneliness, for which she turned to drugs. Heroin addiction ended up ruining her ability to do her job, so she returned to prostitution and also indulged in shoplifting. One day she was caught stealing jewelry and got three months in prison, which at least served as a withdrawal clinic for the drugs.

You can tell that this is shaping up to be one of those sensationalist Christian testimonies where the author revels in telling the audience how rotten she was, and how great God is for saving her. In all honesty I have nothing but contempt for such screw-ups. If you’re dumb enough to invite a man to stick a heroin needle into your arm, then you deserve whatever consequences befall you; I have no sympathy. The only time I felt any sense of respect for Doreen was when she was getting it together as a stripper (something she no doubt looks back on with disdain). Not the most respectable of jobs, but you’ve got to salute a woman who brings about material success for herself using whatever assets she has. That said, for the most part, this is the story of a young girl who squandered the opportunities given to her and whose recklessness brought about her undoing. The message of the book is basically: “God rescued me from my stupidity.” Am I being too harsh? Frankly, the people I have respect for are those who have the sense not to ruin their lives, or those who bring themselves back from the brink of disaster by their own determination. Doreen Irvine, however, belongs to the self-pity school of thought: “Poor me. Help me, Lord.” You ever notice how such testimonies are always about acceptable sins: “I was an alcoholic, but God redeemed me!” “I was addicted to heroin, but by the grace of God I’m now free.” “I was an IRA hitman, but by God’s mercy I am forgiven!” “I was a Satanist, but the might of Jesus freed me from the power of the devil!” You never hear anyone say, “I used to rape little boys, but through the blood of Christ my sins are washed clean!” That’s why I can’t stand these big boastful displays of past sin, because there’s sin that’s trendy to parade, and there’s SIN that isn’t.

You may have noticed that From Witchcraft to Christ hasn’t yet included any witchcraft. That’s because there’s not a lot of it, only a couple of short chapters worth. And it’s these chapters where Irvine’s credibility falls asunder. The believable detail of the early chapters is replaced with the sort of summarising brevity that is indicative of someone who wasn’t really there doing what she claims to have been doing. But that’s only a minor criticism. The details that she does give are enough to damn her.

When she came out of prison, she went back to her life as Daring Diana the stripper. One night, she overheard two girls talking about a “Satanist temple.” She asked them about it. At first they were reluctant to say anything, but with a quick nudge, they conceded to take Doreen to their Satanist meeting place. Doreen was blindfolded and taken by car to a secret location. There were about five hundred people in the hall, which was draped in black. A Satanic ceremony takes place, involving the sacrifice of a cockerel, people dressed in robes, and lots of chanting. The ceremony is said to last two hours, but Irvine gives practically no detail. Afterwards, she is asked by the chief Satanist if she would like to join their religion. And she does.

Anyone who has done some research into the occult will see that Irvine has no more knowledge of the subject than you would gain from a few Hammer movies or Dennis Wheatley novels. She refers to her religion as “the order of Satanism,” not seeming to realise that an order is a subdivision of a religion – a religion that is never named. Perhaps it’s the order of Satanism of the religion Satanism? On another occasion she refers to it as “the most ancient order of Satanism.” If so, you would think that the leader would be called by a legitimate occult title like “Ipsissimus” or “High Priest.” No, Irvine has no familiarity with occultism, so in her limited imagination she continually refers to the leader as “the chief Satanist.” Often, she erroneously refers to Satan as Lucifer, something that crept into Christian tradition through a mistranslation of the Old Testament into Latin. You would think the real Prince of Darkness would know that he isn’t a minor Roman deity. Irvine is also fond of calling her master Diablos; it’s unfortunate that the devil can’t spell (correct rendering “Diabolus”).

Irvine furnishes us with some of the rules of Satanism that she was required to obey:

1. Secrecy is the keynote for all Satanists. They must never reveal the whereabouts of the temples to an outsider or the things that go on inside the temple.

And yet somehow all it took for Doreen to be transported right into the heart of the most secret organisation (one whose existence isn’t even known today in the internet age) was to ask a couple of its members in a stripclub?

3. Satanists must never enter a Christian church unless sent in to spy by the chief Satanist.

Why not? What would a Satanist be afraid of? The power of the Christian Gospel? I think not.

4. Satanists must never read the Holy Bible for their own edifiction.

Again, why not? What self-respecting Satanist would be afraid of a book he thinks is full of lies? Compared to Anton LaVey’s “Nine Satanic Statements,” Irvine’s rules of Satanism seem rather infantile.

Lies are compounded upon lies, as Irvine thoroughly insults the reader’s intelligence in her tale of how she became initiated as “the queen of black witches” (another title that has no existence in occult lore). She had to walk through a bonfire, and as she did so, the devil walked with her, visibly as a black figure. On several occasions she talks about seeing Satan physically, hearing his voice audibly, then later as a Christian she makes the same claims about Jesus. Of course, there’s not a shred of evidence, and the reader is simply expected to take her word for everything. One night Irvine is with her witch chums on the moor when several men come over the hill. She uses her Satanic powers to make the witches invisible, and avoid getting caught. Brimming with occult power, with zero esoteric knowledge. How does she do it?

In the two brief chapters about Irvine’s experiences with Satanism and witchcraft, she had opportunity to completely blow the lid off this. But she refains. Details are scant, events are summarised, locations remain unknown. She talks about how the meeting places used as Satanist temples change regularly to maintain secrecy, but after she becomes a Christian she doesn’t seem to have any trouble getting in touch with her old pals and attempting to convert them.

Irvine’s conversion to Christianity is fraught with difficulty, as apparently she is possessed by numerous demons. Rev. Arthur Neil exorcises her over a period of many months. The demons that leave her have names like Doubt, Deceit, Lust, Lies, Pride, Witchcraft, Tormentor. That’s right, folks, if you’ve ever experienced doubt, that’s not your brain’s way of making sure you have a robust enough reason to believe in something; that’s an infernal demon from the pit of hell gnawing at you! There’s even a demon called Lesbian. Yes, all you rug-munchers; you are possessed!

Once Irvine is on the “right path,” the final quarter of the book is taken up by sanctimonious, melodramatic stories of her early ministry as an evangelist. Oh, now we get the detail. I had to smile when she sprained her ankle and had to cancel one of her appointements, for she believed that to be Satan’s doing. This reminded me so much of the silly damaging ideas that used to occupy my own brainwashed mind in another life.

It’s difficult to know how much of Irvine’s story is deliberate deceit and how much is down to over-enthusiatic evangelists preying upon a psychologically unstable woman. In any case, it is clear that Irvine’s witchcraft experience is entirely bogus, or at best grossly exaggerated for dramatic effect.

Interestingly, there’s not a single mention of the Satanic ritual abuse (SRA) of children, something which became a staple of Satanic testimonies in the 1980s and 1990s (the period known as the Satanic Panic). Clearly, in the 1970s, when Irvine wrote her story, SRA hysteria had not become part of the zeitgeist. It’s omission makes From Witchcraft to Christ an important book historically, for it demonstrates how people simply accept sensationalist tales, regardless of their content or veracity. This book has become a big seller in Christian circles and is still in print today. That depresses me, because the material is easily debunked by anyone with a healthy sound mind. Sadly, the success of this book only attests to the credulity of the general mass of humanity.

Let the honest Christian reader take note, you should be every bit as concerned as I am to expose people like Doreen Irvine. Liars in your ranks do you no credit.

If you would like to see this lady in action, telling porkies for Jesus, look her up on YouTube.

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

I’ve reviewed a number of Christian books in the past, but this is the first one I’ve reviewed from the perspective of no longer being a Christian. I consider “getting out of your comfort zone” to be one of the most important aspects of any genuine truth-seeking – reading books that do not defend your worldview as a means of challenging yourself. Consequently, I’ve read books like Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Bible, etc. And I think it’s no bad thing to revisit the Christian religion a couple of years after abandoning it, to determine afresh whether it ought to have any bearing on my life.

I appreciate Lewis more than most Christian writers because he is, at heart, a philosopher rather than a preacher. He uses the tool of rational deducation over the tool of “Thus saith the Lord!” Unfortunately I found myself having strong disagreements with his stance, almost from the get-go. He posits an argument for the existence of a personal God based on the moral nature of man, but the first thread he hangs this viewpoint on his that man is different from the animals. I see this difference as a difference of degree, not a difference of kind. We are more intelligent than dogs, and thus we possess much more complex behaviour patterns, but I don’t see how this in any way classifies us as a special category on our own, when we are, frankly, mammals. Lewis takes this extremely tenuous thread that “man is different” and builds a complex philosophy about the nature of good and evil. He takes our concepts of fairness and judgement and instantly transposes these onto God without the merest pause. What I noticed, however, is that he is making God in man’s image – taking that infinite, eternal “something” beyond space and time and projecting our human natures onto it. Whether we ought do that is an essay in itself, but Lewis simply ploughs on unaware of the vast assumptions he is making. What you end up with is a whole house built on a couple of flimsy stilts, ready to topple with the merest breeze.

In fairness, at times Lewis communicated some valuable insights, particularly about morality, which seems to be a favourite topic of the author. These insights actually made the book a worthwhile read. Other times, the value in reading it was in scrutinizing the Christian worldview, noting the carefree leaps in logic that Christians make, the notions that hold no real rational weight. It was amazing to behold a man who could on the one hand be so studious about logic, and on the other so fanciful about the devil’s influence on the human mind.

On the subject of “faith” (the only subject that the book devotes two chapters to) there is not a single mention of the vast unthinking herds of the world, Christian or otherwise, to whom faith comes as naturally as breathing. How can anyone propose to talk about faith but leave this glaring black hole? It’s obvious to me that the pews of the world are not filled with people who come to their beliefs through reason, but mainly by people who fall in line with whatever belief system their locale dictates. Anyone who talks at length about faith should at least devote some space to a discussion of “groupthink,” the herd mentality. A discussion of that kind is, of course, damning to religion, exposing it as a lamentable triumph of faith over reason.

Regarding the history of Christianity, I don’t think it can be seriously debated that horrendous things were done in the name of Christ. I was therefore alarmed to see Lewis jumping to the defence of what I see as the terrible consequences of men who sacrifice their minds to religious authority and, as a result, end up commiting atrocities. I could hardly believe my eyes that an attitude of this nature was still around as recent as the 1950s, when the book was published (emphasis mine):

I have met people who exaggerate the differences [in moral viewpoints], because they have not distinguished between differences of morality and differences of belief about facts. For example, one man said to me, “Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?” But surely the reason we do not execute witches [today] is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did – if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather – surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did? There is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is simply about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knkowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there.

The closing chapters of the book leave philosophy behind and are chiefly concerned with explaining the Christian view of redemption: God as a triune being, Jesus’ sacrificial death, etc. These chapters were largely irrelevant to me because I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with mankind as it is. But to those who believe themselves to be evil and in need of salvation from a divine Judge, they will probably see this material as profound, as I once thought, before I figured out the lies on which the view is built.

The Resurrection – Fact or Fiction? by Richard Bewes

Occasionally, a Christian friend who knows that I’ve abandoned Christianity will try to “help” me in a nice sort of way (and sometimes in a not so nice sort of way, but that’s another story). I had one of the nice experiences yesterday, when someone gave me a small book to read called The Resurrection – Fact or Fiction? by Richard Bewes. I decided to read it carefully, just to see if I had anything new to learn on the subject of the validity of Christianity.

The author begins with a short chapter called “Just Supposing” in which he describes a conversation with a man who feels sorry for Christians, i.e. wasting your lives on an afterlife pipedream. This was excuse for the author to present a “what if you’re wrong?” argument, i.e. there’s a God you’ve ignored your whole life that you’ll have to deal with. This chapter was pointless, and was a hairsbreadth away from the emotionally manipulative fear-mongering that is characteristic of religion.

The author’s brief argument for the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts relies on noting how closely Matthew, Mark, Luke and John resemble each other. He makes no mention of the fact that it’s actually Matthew, Mark, and Luke that are similar, and John is quite different. He claims that since three different people, Matthew, Mark and Luke (if those were the authors) individually told the same account with a high degree of overlap, then the account must be true. He doesn’t mention the highly plausible theory that Matthew, Mark and Luke are all sourced from a single earlier document known by scholars as Proto-Mark, which could equally account for the accuracy, regardless of how genuine or otherwise Proto-Mark was.

The author admits that the earliest fragment of any New Testament book is a piece of John dating from around 125 AD, ninety-five years after the alleged resurrection of Christ, and yet he is happy to state that we possess eyewitness accounts of the resurrection. Let me illustrate the problem. Imagine I were taking the stand in a court case and said, “I have an eyewitness account that the deed was done.” When asked to present this eyewitness account, I would then have to say, “Well, Fred saw it happen, but he didn’t write anything down for twenty years. And I only have someone else’s say-so that it was Fred who wrote it. And I don’t actually have what Fred wrote. What he wrote is long gone. Oh, but somebody else copied it before it was destroyed. No, I don’t have that copy either, but I have another one – or a piece of it anyway. This was from 95 years after Fred witnessed the deed. There you go: your eyewitness account.” I would be laughed out of court! Christians ought not to be making this outrageous statement about eyewitness accounts when they are continually relying on second-hand information.

From this point on, the author assumes his readers are on the same page and that every word of the Gospel accounts can be taken as truth. The Bible says the tomb of Jesus was empty, so it must be true. The Bible says that people saw Jesus afterwards, so this must be true. This is called evidence for the resurrection, and it is the only “evidence” presented. The author goes on to say, “Not even the smallest dent would have been made upon the world unless the disciples had been changed.” He’s saying the resurrection must have happened, because it changed the world. In other words, Christianity must be true, because if it weren’t it couldn’t have grown so big. Well, how about the impact of other major world religions? The impact of Islam is nothing to be sniffed at, for instance. Also, no mention is made of such factors as Emperor Constantine declaring Christianity to be the state religion of Rome in the 4th century. I think that might have had something to do with Christianity’s expansion across the world.

The author mentions the writings of Jewish historian Josephus as further evidence of Jesus as a historical character. Josephus wrote The Antiquities of the Jews in the late 1st century, and the volume states:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.

The authenticity of the above passage been disputed since the 17th century, and by the mid 18th century the consensus view was that it had at a minimum been altered by Christian scribes, and possibly was outright forgery. Think about it. We’re reading a Jewish historian admitting that Jesus was the Christ, and Jews do not believe that Jesus is the Christ, otherwise they would be Christians, wouldn’t they? Something smells off. Yet it doesn’t stop Richard Bewes, with his personal agenda, from quoting Josephus and completely disregarding the consensus view of historians on the matter.

Instead of using the available space in the book to provide detailed arguments, the author wastes space by accusing non-Christian readers of having a moral barrier to Christianity. He says it’s not a matter of evidence but a matter of willingness, because we may find the idea of converting to Christianity upsetting. In reality, the Christian is as suspectible as the non-Christian in being swayed by his personal desires. How about people who convert to Christianity for purely emotional reasons, in the absence of evidence? When a belief system is demanding your mind, body and soul, evidence is paramount. Smart people, Christian or otherwise, rule their emotions and don’t allow themselves to be ruled by them.

Doubting Thomas gets the limelight towards the end of the book, Thomas being the man who would not believe the resurrection unless he saw Jesus for himself. The author’s argument is that Thomas should have been able to trust the words of the people he had been living among, those who witnessed the risen Christ. And to us, he likewise says: “The reports of the original first-hand witnesses are enough for faith.” Oh yeah, that would be those first-hand witnesses that we don’t have.

The final page of the book is headed “Check the facts!” and is a list of Bible verses from the New Testament. I think it’s fair to say that the only evidence for the resurrection of Jesus are the writings of the New Testament. Beyond that there is nothing. Are the Gospel accounts real history? That’s the big question, isn’t it? I have yet to hear a convincing argument that they are history. There is certainly no corroborating evidence from other 1st century sources to say that Jesus was a real person. And there’s even a case for the view that the story of Jesus is a retelling of a much older myth of life, death and rebirth. History is full of such saviour God stories which have high degrees of overlap. Even the Old Testament account of Joseph appears to have remarkable similaries to the account of Jesus’ life.

The Resurrection – Fact or Fiction? is a borderline dishonest book, presenting flimsy arguments that bear no weight when scrutinised. The Christian who uses a book like this can walk away feeling that his faith has been strengthened, as long as he doesn’t think too deeply about statements like “We have eyewitness accounts of the resurrection.”