The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Horseman of the Apocrypha

The Protestant translations of the Bible are not known as 'the Vulgate'. Christianity does not teach that Jesus had 'a human body but a nonhuman nature'. The title of William Paley's book on the design argument is not Natural Philosophy. The opposite of 'synoptic' is not 'apocryphal'. 'Q' is not the lost source of all four gospels. That the long ending of the Gospel of Mark is a later addition was not one of the 'more astonishing findings' of Bart Ehrman. Alpha Centauri is not the 'preferred origin' of supposed alien spacecraft. Marx, not Engels, wrote that human anatomy is the key to the anatomy of the ape. Not all Christian churches approved of slavery. Lysenko's theories did not lead to the deaths of millions. If you want to argue that Martin Luther King wasn't really a Christian, you don't clinch it by citing his refusal to hate his enemies.

That last is a lapse of understanding. The rest are matters of fact. None of these errors and misconceptions is important to Hitchens' argument in God is not Great. Getting the facts straight would have been easy - not just for a man of Hitchens' parts and learning, but for anyone with access to the Internet or a library and half an hour to spare.


Could you quote the MLK passage? I'm perversely hoping it's not quite as bad as it sounds.

Reminds me of one of the odder passages in the oddest plotline the Archers has run in some time:

Usha (to Alan, referring to Shula): But I can't turn the other cheek!


'At no point did Dr. King [...] even hint that those who injured and reviled him were to be threatened with any revenge or punishment, in this world or the next, save the consequences of their own brute selfishness and stupidity. and he even phrased that appeal more coureously than, in my humble opinion, its targets deserved. In no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, was he a Christian.'

I mean, 'And he even phrased that appeal more courteously ...'

So I take it you and Hitchens are very close, then?

No, it's true that Hitchens got a lot wrong in the book, but the meat of his argument - that the premise of religion is one which cheapens human life and draws attention away from the reality that matters - is not entirely off the mark.

The Portable Atheist, a book he edited after God is not Great, is a good deal more convincing. The variety of authors and excerpts he's put together are all eloquent in the extreme; they put up a common front and an argument against religion which is extremely difficult to refute.

On another note, would you happen to know when can I expect to see The Night Sessions in Canada? I'm buying Giant Lizards from Another Star this month and I'd like to get ahold of your latest work. I actually started my blog because of the political dimensions of the Fall Revolution series, so I'm always happy to read more of your work!

I seem to recall he also got his dates wrong with regards to the Mormon church and its gradual 'acceptance' of African Americans.

It's the bit about the Gospel of Mark that really stuns me. Eusebius was aware of the problem in the early 4th century!

the meat of his argument - that the premise of religion is one which cheapens human life and draws attention away from the reality that matters - is not entirely off the mark

Not entirely new, either. I've got the name Lucretius in my head, probably wrongly. Or I may mean Epicurus. The argument was well-known in classical times, anyway.

That's a strange line about MLK. It sounds as if he genuinely believes hellfire preachers are orthodox Christians (rather than the predestinarian heretics they so plainly are).

How do Calvinists get round the parable of the sheep and the goats, anyway? Just wondering.

Wow, that was really fun. Thank you.

Now get back to work!


Look, I'm a Christian. I really don't mind being harangued by atheists, but I ask them to please read some worthwhile atheist texts before they jump in. I disagree, respectfully, with Kautsky, Alexander Saxton and a few other mostly Marxist atheists. Hitchens and Harris are just not worth bothering with.

Steve, I think my British publisher has the Canada market (at least formally) so the book should be available there in August. Still waiting to hear from my US publisher.

I agree about The Portable Atheist: it's one of the best if not the best one-volume anthologies of atheist/agnostic writing.

Phil, I don't get it about 'predestinarian heretics' - isn't predestination an orthodox and catholic doctrine? As for the parable of the sheep and the goats, I wonder how Christians get around it, since it seems to imply that belief has nothing to do with salvation.

Jon: You may wish to check out Richard Carrier's Sense and Goodness without God.

As for your objection to Harris, I'm afraid it isn't self-evident, and he does maintain a faq/clarification page which my address your concerns.

Our fine host has a forthcoming work of fiction on this topic that I'm eagerly anticipating as well.

I can say, as a confirmed catholic anti-theist, that Catholic doctrine supports free will.

Their argument goes like this:

The Bible says there is free will, and it is a gift from God.

It is a mystery. Move along, nothing to see here.

Ken - I think saying that some people are damned and you know who they are is heretical. At least, if it isn't Hitchens' argument has some point.

As for salvation by works, speaking as a lapsed member of the Church Of Stuff Jesus Personally Actually Said, Probably (Assuming For The Moment There Was Such A Person), I find it much harder to get my head round salvation by faith. He does seem to have been rather hot on actually doing stuff and never mind the praying.

I don't think Calvinists believe they know who is predestined (although some may be guessing a lot). It may correlate rather well with the congregation of the Reformed church down the street, but the membership rolls are not where the Book of Life is kept.

I was raised Lutheran so although the theological base is a bit clearer and more thought-out than Anglicanism, I sometimes get my list of beliefs messed up when it comes to the more common varieties of Protestantism that start with Calvin.

I always thought the larger book should just have been titled 'A counter-blast against Religion' or 'A justification of the Rights of Cranky Atheists'.

To be honest, I haven't read much of the "New Atheist" books, having over-dosed on their authors' interviews, but I liked the bit of Dennett's speculation on the survival-value of religious belief (in the bit I read, he seemed to argue that credulous patients responded better to traditional healers).

Thanks, Mr. MacLeod - I look forward to putting my hands on your latest work.

This isn't your first post titled the Horsemen of the Apocrypha, is it? I seem to recall another some time ago...

"As for the parable of the sheep and the goats, I wonder how Christians get around it, since it seems to imply that belief has nothing to do with salvation".

There are at least two ways to handle this. One is to argue that this parable wasn't addressing this side of things; if so, you have simply found a point where the metaphor breaks down. It was trying to illustrate something other than what you are trying to read into it; after all, the parable of wheat and tares doesn't have the meaning "the wheat gets eaten". A sheep is a metaphor for a believer, but the question of whether or not you believe isn't covered by the parable, the question of what will happen to the sheep is.

The other is to remember just what an eternal perspective is. Just as the digits of pi exist eternally, yet they are in some sense random and certainly the only way we can get them is to work through the calculations, so also the only way we can get to even a partial knowledge of what we are is through inspecting our beliefs and confirming that by checking them against our actions. However, in an eternal sense those things "always" are, even though they really do develop through processes over time. Notice what is buried in "time", "eternal", "really" and so on (I'm not begging those questions, as their meaning is more or less understood, just drawing your attention to them - the pi analogy should help clarify those too).

Steven, I'm sure I've used 'Horsemen of the Apocrypha' before, and certainly as a chapter heading in The Star Fraction.

Brian, I second the recommendation for Richard Carrier's Sense and Goodness Without God. I intend to blog about it.

Well while Hitchens' "scathing wit" can be fun to watch, at least in the Falwell interviews, he comes off as a bit lightweight in comparison to Dawkins and Dennett of the "New Atheists". Of course it's sad that a presumed rational individual is for the Iraq war and a Neocon but he isn't exactly the first atheist in that position. Of the various atheism and freethought books I've read through the years, I still prefer Carl Sagan's "The Demon Haunted World" with the subtitle "Science as a Candle in the Dark". An essential book on scepticism and a deeply inspiring one.

I realize that I sound that I am asking you to do my research, Ken, but could you give us a reference for your statement about Lysenko? I hadn't known that his theories were thought to have caused such a drastic mortality - I thought that he had just buggered up Soviet biology for decades.

Cheers - Lars

Lars - what I said was that Lysenko's theories did not lead to the deaths of millions. The Soviet famine in the early thirties had nothing to do with Lysenkoism. The famine after WW2 had less than nothing to do with Lysenkoism. Hitchens implies that famine in the USSR was the consequence of Lysenko's theories. Lots of people say similar things online in blog comments and the like. I don't know where this comes from.

What Lysenko was responsible for was bad enough, and lethal for a number of biologists, but the famine can't be laid at his door.

Thanks for the quick response, Ken. I see that it was Hitchens who dropped this clanger, then. I just hadn't heard this particular bit of misinformation.

Cheers - Lars

Post a Comment