Sunday, January 10, 2010

What Happened?

There are some fanatical anti-Islam extremists who draw all sorts of extreme and fanatical conclusions from the meeting of the Mufti and Hitler -- or perhaps it's more accurate to say: from this picture

of the two. I wonder if the whole brouhaha would ever have developed if they didn't have this photo which they can whip out in lieu of this or that argument. I mean, lots of people met with Hitler, but it seems that not every one had or her picture taken with him.

Maybe I shouldn't extrapolate too much from my own stoopid Internet debating experience: I wasted a lot of time online arguing with one person in particular who had all sorts of extreme anti-religious beliefs. I'm an atheist myself, but that doesn't mean that I stop talking to someone and condemn then if they're not atheistic, or assign all of the blame for every problem I ever become aware of to religion.

This guy did. I would describe his attitude toward Islam as a medieval Western one, except that that would be unfair to some medieval Westerners. Anyway, more than a few of his posts in our debate would consist of that picture, as if that picture ended all reasonable debate.

He was also Mr. Judaism-was-invented-no-earlier-than-300-BC. And an anti-Mason conspiracy "theorist," in quotes so as not to insult by association those people who have actually theorized about things. He would scour the web looking for anti-Muslim, anti-Catholic, anti-Mason and radical Minimalist material, (Minimalist as the term is understood in biblical studies: Minimalists argue for a later date of composition of the Old Testament, Maximalists for an earlier date. Arguing that NONE of the books of the OT existed in ANY written form before 300 BC is quite radically Minimalist -- and, it seems to me, antisemitic. But that's a whole other topic -- but there are some very prominent Biblical scholars who take such positions.) And he would post it uncritically. I had to wonder how much he ever actually read of what he linked and copied and pasted, because the various texts contradicted each other quite a lot.

He linked a few things from a website called I think it's quite a plausible theory, a theory which most biblical scholars to this day dismiss much too hastily, that Jesus never existed, that the figure of Jesus in the New Testament and other primary Christian texts could be a composite of wishful thinking and bits and pieces from Mithraism, Buddhism, Platonism and Zoroastroism, with perhaps some biographical details from some actual Jewish preacher or preachers thrown in, perhaps named Jesus -- there were a lot of wandering Jewish preachers at the time, and there a lot of Jews named Jeshua (Jesus), and a whole lot named Joshua, one letter away from Jeshua. A lot of that primary material was written after AD 70, when the Romans sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, exiled Jews, and, just to add insult to injury, renamed Judea and Israel Palastine, after the Philistines, the ancestral enemies of the Jews. All of which was extremely traumatic for religious Jews. It is a natural human tendency, in times of severe trauma, to escape into fantasy-worlds, to seek comfort from heroes, real and imagined, to believe that everything will miraculously be set right again.

It's a plausible theory that Jesus may never have existed, but it's far from having been conclusively proven. The evidence for His existence is slim, but slim evidence of something has never constituted proof of the opposite. If someone insists that they know that He never existed, then they seem rather silly to me. If they call their website than they seem very silly to me. And they are announcing that they are not interested in debating a point which remains eminently debateable. And they are guilty of some of the very things which constitute a rational argument against religion, such as uncritically accepting any arguments which they are able to fit in a primitive way into their own worldview.

Sort of like another simpleton I knew at the time who was radically pro-Catholic. Both of these guys insisted that Hitler was a Catholic. Technically, this is true, because Hitler was baptized as a baby, and never went to the trouble of officially cutting his tie to the Catholic Church. But I think that describing Hitler's insane murderousness as specifically Catholic is weak. The antireligious nut said that Hitler's supposed Catholicism demonstrated the evil of the Catholic Church, of which the Third Reich was but a tiny part.

The Catholic apologist nut said that it showed that the Nazis weren't really so bad. He also showed pictures of Bob Dylan and Pope John Paul II, showed them as proof that Dylan had remained a Christian since his famous conversion in the late '70's. In reply, I contended that Dylan had gone through a born-again phase and then gotten over it, and posted pictures like this

with snarky remarks like, "Hey look! Arafat was a Christian! Who knew?" but of course the guy was not enlightened by my efforts.

I even posted a link to an interview from the '90's where Dylan said that the born-again thing was a phase, and that he was no longer a Christian. Did the guy admit he was wrong? No, he pointed out that in the interview Dylan said he still considered himself religious, and claimed that I had said Dylan was an atheist. Which I hadn't.

History is a very long and detailed answer, or attempts at an answer, to the very basic human question, "What happened?" Most of us would probably agree that it is essential to human life to answer that question to some considerable degree. At what point it's no longer so important to search for a more detailed answer -- is a question which doesn't interest me much. I spend a lot of time reading historical works, and things written long ago, including works of history written long ago. It gives me pleasure.

It's pretty hard to prove anything to me, one way or the other. My life and actions are pretty much based on assumptions which are subject to change at any time. Like with the Giant Hardon Thingy over there in that there Europe these days: I assume that probably most or all of the physicists associated with that and other supercolliders are very smart, sensible, responsible people who are not endangering us and the world as we know it. But no-one has completely convinced me that there could be no horrible unforeseen consequences of such work. And I'm not completely ignorant about physics.

On all sorts of historical topics, I see a lot of really egregious simpleminded stuff passing itself off as history these days. I don't know whether there are lower standards of scholarship and more pseudohistory today than a few decades ago; very possibly I'm simply more aware of it than I used to be just because I'm much more interested in history now. There sure is a lot of simpleminded crap on the History Channels. Before I hooked up in 2008, I had not had non-broadcast television in my home since 1992, when there was only one History Channel. It seems to me in retrospect that the History Channel was more serious back then, but I totally can't back up that impression. These days, though -- Mother of Sweating Jesus! as Hunter S Thompson said. There are a lot of "psychic" shows on the History Channels and other channels, a lot of air time given to charlatans and conspiracy nuts and others who just don't have their facts and figures straight. Don't get me started. Too late. Sorry. Whatever.

In the case of the historical Jesus as with any other historical question, I think that the more we know, the better. I don't want to prove that He did exist or didn't -- I want a more detailed answer, whether it tends more toward yes or more toward no. I want more detail, whether it supports my preconceived notions and strengthens my arguments, or weakens them. In any case, I don't believe in coming back from the dead after a couple of days, or magically multiplying a half-basket's worth of bread and fish into enough to feed a huge crowd, or walking on water, or curing horrible diseases by laying hands on someone and praying to a God in Whom I also don't believe, or any of that sort of foolishness. But whether or not there was a Jesus who came from Nazareth and preached to many people and was eventually ordered executed by Pontius Pilate, that much I don't know. I think that Jesus and Christianity are particularly relevant and important subjects of historical inquiry, because of the very fact that Christianity has persisted for an extremely long time, and because there are about 2 billions Christians alive today, give or take.

Not to dismiss the importance of Socrates and Plato and Zoroaster and Buddha and Mithras and Moses and Mani and Mohamed and Nanak and others. They are all important for the same reason Jesus is: because of their popularity and influence. Whether they existed or not. Whether those who say they follow them really know what they teached or not. Whether one finds them sympathetic or awful or both or neither.

What do we really know? How do we know? A serious historian looks for primary sources, accounts written as near the events described as possible. He looks for multiple sources and compares them. He tries to understand any biases the writers of those sources may have had. He considers what other historians have made of those sources. He looks for help from archaeology and other sciences, and from the study of art. Oftentimes he learns much from fiction and poetry. (Fiction is sometimes a lot more non-fictional than non-fiction. Just because it's an author's stated intention to present facts is no guarantee that he'll be any good at it.)

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