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SALON (.COM) has published an interesting article by Michael Shermer entitled BILL MAHER IS RIGHT ABOUT THE ORWELLIAN RIDICULOUSNESS OF JESUS AND THE TRUTH ABOUT MORAL PROGRESS, an article critical of religion in general and Christianity in particular. The original article (unedited, text format) follows my own comments and observations. In the modern world — the world of TV preachers and sham faith healers, materialism, and idolatry — Christianity is poorly understood and poorly represented. This is an attempt to shed a little light on the subject.



The title refers to a video featuring Bill Maher available on the SALON.COM posting. The video is not reviewed here. The term ‘Orwellian’, usually used in reference to state totalitarianism, seems out of place. Presumably the term here describes the sentiments of a writer who feels repressed by society, which, admittedly, can be uncharitable towards homosexuals. The claim that the article presents the truth about moral progress is both presumptuous and patently untrue, as shown by science and logic.

The underlying theme of Shermer’s article is clearly stated in the introduction: “Most religions were pulled into the modern Enlightenment with their fingernails dug into the past”. The title suggests an in-depth analysis of the impact of the Enlightenment on religion and society. Unfortunately, there is little of substance in Shermer’s article, a hodge-podge of Biblical quotes (and misquotes) which demonstrates neither scholarship nor understanding.

Shermer’s sweeping assertion on modern religion, that “Most religions were pulled into the Enlightenment … ” is empty hyperbole. There are a number of religions that date to antiquity, Christianity and Mohammedanism among them. African cults, cannibalism, voodoo, witchcraft, spiritualism, paganism, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. really don’t seem to be germane to this discussion. Buddhism is a philosophy of life, more than a religion. Hinduism with its 3,000 gods has as its central dogma a nonsensical belief in transmigration of souls (reincarnation). Hinduism has almost nothing to do with morality (hence India’s dystopian social reality.) Judaism is certainly ancient, but as it is based on ‘master race’ theology and is (ostensibly) limited to people of a Middle Eastern ethnicity, the vast majority of whom reject religion outright, it will never be of significance on a world scale. This raises the question of whether Judaism is even a religion? By their own admission, more than 90% of ‘Jews’ are atheists and do not belong to any religious organization nor do they participate in religious services. Furthermore, the Jews who do participate in religious worship services do not practice traditional (i.e. Old Testament) worship or lifestyles. From the standpoint of Shermer’s analysis, it is hard to see how Jews can be said to have been ‘dragged into the modern Enlightenment’. It would probably be more accurate to say that the Jews ‘led the way into and through the enlightenment’, discarding their religion as they went. As to Mohammedanism, the religion of Mohammed has never even heard of the Enlightenment; its adherents renounce all modernistic ideas. Sweeping assertions aside, the writer is primarily referring to Christianity in this essay. To be truthful, Christianity is in a confused state these days.

The writer seems to harbor a great deal of anger and resentment, and apparently sees all religions in the same dismal light, as if he were looking through a glass, darkly. The writer’s basic premise is sound, though — that being that religion has not been a leading factor in human ‘progress’. (In another essay I show that religion has been the primary factor *hindering* the development of the human spirit, so in this sense at least I am in agreement with the author.)

Shermer hates Jesus, and goes to great lengths to disparage the man. For example, Shermer claims that Jesus was disdainful of his mother, Mary. In making his case, Shermer comments on the Biblical story of Jesus and his mother at the wedding feast at Cana, where, according to the Bible, Jesus turns water into wine in his first public miracle. Before Jesus performs what is certainly one of the most delightful of Biblical miracles, Shermer has Jesus saying to his mother, scornfully, “What have I to do with you?” as proof that Jesus was disdainful of his mother. While Biblical translations differ, as do different versions of the Bible, it probably would be more accurate to interpret Jesus’ words as, “What has this to do with me?” referring to the problem of the shortage of wine at the wedding feast.

There may be an interesting back story here. Jesus is elsewhere described in the Bible as a drunkard and a glutton. (Mat 11:19) Perhaps Jesus was quite the party animal in his younger years … as might be expected from one who could turn water into wine at will. (This might explain why we have so little information about Jesus’ early life, as those who chronicled his life felt it best to gloss over his ‘troubled’ years.) If this were the case, then it is very likely that Jesus’ mother would have disapproved of his dissolute lifestyle. Perhaps Mary was being sarcastic: “Why do you think you and your friends were invited, anyway? You didn’t bring presents for the bride and groom. You were expected to bring the wine. You always seem to have plenty of wine.” Jesus’ mother no doubt would have been critical of what she regarded as her son’s lack of self-discipline as well as his inability to hold down a regular job. Perhaps she had hoped he would become a doctor or a lawyer. One can imagine Mary, the archetypical Jewish Mother, admonishing her son: “You say you want to serve the Lord. Well, if you remember, your uncle Zach had arranged for you to get a posting as a money-changer in the Temple. But No … you have to be a cult leader, an unpaid rabbi for the poor, a friend of tax collectors and prostitutes. Oy Vey!”

It in no way detracts from Jesus’ mission of salvation to portray him as human, with human failings, especially before he was called to the ministry. The Bible is full of stories of saints and sinners being called to repentance after leading a life of sin. Saint Paul, who penned most of the New Testament and almost single-handedly lays out Christian doctrine, was himself a religious zealot who persecuted — some say murdered — believers across the Middle East before his personal encounter with the risen Christ.

Even given the benefit of the doubt (in his religious faith) I think Shermer is jumping to the wrong conclusion when he says Jesus was disrespectful toward his mother. After all, the biggest challenge any prophet has to face is … his own mother.

Shermer says that “nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus revoke God’s death sentences or ludicrous laws,” suggesting that the New Covenant essentially incorporates the same unforgiving and unrelenting relationship between man and the god of the Old Testament. This shows a remarkable lack of understanding of Jesus’ teachings, particularly coming from a writer who claims to have insight into religious truth. Nobody (except perhaps Shermer) could come to this conclusion from reading the New Testament. Jesus admonishes us to ‘turn the other cheek’ and eschew violence, to embrace all men as brothers, and to forgive those who injure or offend us “seven times seventy” times (i.e., in perpetuity.) This is hardly in keeping with the ‘one strike and you’re out’ mentality of the god of the Old Testament — a deity which, as Shermer astutely points out, is a jealous (and merciless) god. To be fair, there are probably as many references to Yahweh’s forgiving nature as there are to his wrath in the Old Testament. But they make a less colorful — and less frightening — image of the Lord. And it is fear, more than anything else, that sells religion. At least primitive religions, like the religions of the Old Testament.

In fact, according to Jesus, there is only one sin for which man will not be forgiven — the sin against the Holy Spirit. Even here Jesus makes it clear that condemnation is God’s prerogative; we are warned not to condemn our fellow man in judgment, “lest we too be judged.” Here Jesus says “as ye judge so shall ye be judged,” i.e., without mercy if we refuse to be merciful when dealing with our fellow man. This is a quite different message than that of the Old Testament.

Perhaps the most vivid imagery is displayed in the story of Jesus encountering a group of men about to stone a woman to death for the capital crime of adultery. (In the Old Testament, just about every sin was a capital offense.) The crowd of men put him to the test by asking him his position on the issue. Jesus did not say, “I instruct you not to kill this woman”. This would have raised the sticky question of whence came his authority to refute the Old Testament Law, and which, by the way, probably would have resulted in his own death as well as the woman’s at the hands of these self-righteous and violent men. Instead, he relies on an appeal to the mens’ better nature. Jesus says, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Shamed by their hypocrisy and hardness of heart, the crowd relents, and the poor woman is allowed to live.

Jesus’ meaning is often indirect … but not all that hard to decipher. I suggest the writer should read the gospels again, this time with an open mind. Saying a prayer for guidance and understanding would not hurt, either.

Shermer makes it clear that society’s acceptance of homosexuality is, in his opinion, at least, a sign of ‘progress’. According to Shermer, this is Truth; we are expected to take his word for it, although his logic in support of this position looks to be deeply flawed.

Relying on religious doctrine to define ethics and morals is, unquestionably, controversial. But Science, based on Reason, which has been handed down from the Enlightenment, does provide a sound basis for examining human sexuality, and for proscribing homosexual acts. Since we do not want to base our definitions of normal sexual behavior on any religious work, then, we must rely on sound science instead. Science has conducted a great deal of research into the functions of the various body organs. Putting it in the simplest of terms, science is clear on this point: the anus is an excretory organ, part of the digestive system. It is not a sex organ. A sexual attraction to children, or animals, or members of the same sex, or a preoccupation with a body part that is clearly not a sex organ is a perversion. It reveals an intrinsically disordered state. Let’s not mince words: sodomy is unnatural and unhealthy and, from a psychological standpoint, unfulfilling.

What we see happening here is a desperate reaching out for companionship and love by those who are born with a confused sexual identity. In the case of pederasts and those inclined towards bestiality there can be little hope of a normal life, as such individuals are condemned to a tormented life of shame and (hopefully) suppression of their unnatural sexual urges. Still, there is a need on the part of persons with unnatural sexual inclinations to form bonds to fill the void of human caring and companionship, and to seek acceptance and respect from society at large. The ‘homosexual marriage’ movement is an attempt to fill these needs by attempting to equate the unions formed by same-sex couples with the bonds, the commitment, and the love central to heterosexual marriage. It can never work. But it is not unreasonable for those who by nature are unable to enter into normal family life to be envious, to want desperately to experience family life for themselves. Society must try to be compassionate and understanding of those afflicted with the curse of a confused sexual identity, of unnatural sexual proclivities.

We must be wary, for this is a slippery slope. It is only a short way from tolerating homosexual unions to embracing any form of relationship, including those society regards as illicit today, as a ‘marriage.’ Perhaps the only way to resolve the impending crisis is to take drastic measures. It might turn out that in order to save the institution of marriage, we have to destroy it. In other words, society could allow ‘civil unions’ that grant the same rights of survivorship and legal powers to anyone a person chooses (of either sex), while at the same time eliminating any tax advantage and other benefits associated with marriage. Future trends, i.e. universal health care, elimination of tax deductions for dependents, etc., could eliminate what many see as privileged treatment of married couples. Every member of society would be thought of, and treated as, an individual. In such a scenario, the only reason homosexuals would continue to harp on ‘marriage equality’ would be to flaunt their unsavory lifestyles and sexual perversions in the face of everyone else. If those cursed with an unnatural sexual orientation want society’s respect, there is always celibacy. No one is forcing them to commit sodomy. And no one should expect society at large to accept sodomy as the equivalent of the love between a man and wife in the sacrament of marriage. (I apologize for using religious terminology.)

Since marriage implies a natural and normal male-female sexual relationship, there can be no homosexual ‘marriage’ between members of the same sex. There may be close friendships, even ‘civil unions’, where those with unnatural sexual proclivities form lasting human alliances and legal arrangements. But let’s not try to equate ‘gay marriage’ with holy matrimony. If two homosexual men want to live together, purchase a home together, or assign one another as beneficiaries on their insurance policies, most Americans would tolerate this. Such practices are (or soon will be) accepted everywhere. If homosexuals want to engage in unnatural sexual practices … well, don’t ask, don’t tell. On the other hand, if they want to adopt children or teach in public schools, or work in day care centers, or the clergy, or serve as Boy Scout leaders … well, that’s going too far. That is putting children at risk.

When homosexuals demand the right to flaunt their sexuality by attending the high school prom as a ‘couple’ … well, this is hardly the way to earn the respect and acceptance of society. And when a future president of the United States of America is escorted to state functions by his homosexual ‘partner’, or is seen prancing down New York’s Madison Avenue in skin-tight ‘hot pants’ in a ‘gay pride’ parade … well, if this is ‘progress’, most Americans will want no part of it. You can add my name to the list of those who want to see America rediscover traditional values and reject what Shermer refers to as progress.

C. H. Sulka 02-18-2015 15:06 -0500






(VIDEO): (Credit: HBO/Janet Van Ham)

Bill Maher is right about religion: The Orwellian ridiculousness of Jesus, and the truth about moral progress

Excerpted from “THE MORAL ARC”

Most people believe that moral progress has primarily been due to the guiding light of religious teachings, the activities of spiritual leaders, and the power of faith-based initiatives. In “The Moral Arc” I argue that this is not the case, and that most moral progress is the result of science, reason, and secular values developed during the Enlightenment. Once moral progress in a particular area is underway, most religions eventually get on board—as in the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, women’s rights in the 20th century, and gay rights in the 21st century—but this often happens after a shamefully protracted lag time. Why?

The rules that were dreamt up and enshrined by the various religions over the millennia did not have as their goal the expansion of the moral sphere to include other sentient beings. Moses did not come down from the mountain with a detailed list of the ways in which the Israelites could make life better for the Moabites, the Edomites, the Midianites, or for any other tribe of people that happened not to be them. One justification for this constricted sphere can be found in the Old Testament injunction to “Love thy neighbor,” who at that time was one’s immediate kin and kind, which was admittedly an evolutionary stratagem appropriate for the time. It would be suicidal to love thy neighbor as thyself when thy neighbor would like nothing better than to exterminate you, which was often the case for the Bronze Age peoples of the Old Testament. What good would have come of the Israelites loving, for example, the Midianites as themselves? The results would have been catastrophic given that the Midianites were allied with the Moabites in their desire to see the Israelites wiped off the face of the earth.

Today, of course, most Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that moral principles are universal and apply to everyone, but this is because they have inculcated into their moral thinking the modern Enlightenment goal of broadening and redefining the parameters of moral consideration. But by their nature the world’s religions are tribal and xenophobic, serving to regulate moral rules within the community but not seeking to embrace humanity outside their circle. Religion, by definition, forms an identity of those like us, in sharp distinction from those not us, those heathens, those unbelievers. Most religions were pulled into the modern Enlightenment with their fingernails dug into the past. Change in religious beliefs and practices, when it happens at all, is slow and cumbersome, and it is almost always in response to the church or its leaders facing outside political or cultural forces.

The history of Mormonism is a case in point. In the 1830s the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, received a revelation from God to enact what he euphemistically called “celestial marriage,” more accurately described as “plural marriage”—the rest of the world calls it polygamy—just about the time he found a new love interest while married to another woman. Once Smith caught the Solomonic fever for multiple wives (King Solomon had 700), he couldn’t stop himself or his brethren from spreading their seed, along with the practice, which in 1852 was codified into Mormon law through its sacred “Doctrines and Covenants.” Until 1890, that is, when the people of Utah—desirous for their territory to become a state in the union—were told by the United States federal government that polygamy would not be tolerated.

Conveniently, God issued a new revelation to the Mormon leaders, instructing them that a plurality of wives was no longer a celestial blessing, and that instead monogamy was now the One True Way. As well, Mormon policy forbade African Americans to be priests in the church. The reason, Joseph Smith had decreed, was that they are not actually from Africa but instead are descendants of the evil Lamanites, whom God cursed by making their skin black after they lost the war against the good Nephites, both clans of which were descendants of two of the lost tribes of Israel. Naturally, since the evil Lamanites were prohibited from having sexual relations with the good Nephites, interracial marriage was also banned. This racist nonsense lasted a century and a half until it collided with the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Finally, in 1978, the Church head Spencer W. Kimball announced that he had received a new revelation from God instructing him to drop the racial restrictions and adopt a more inclusive attitude.

There are three reasons for the sclerotic nature of religion: (1) The foundation of the belief in an absolute morality is the belief in an absolute religion grounded in the One True God. This inexorably leads to the conclusion that anyone who believes differently has departed from this truth and thus is unprotected by our moral obligations. (2) Unlike science, religion has no systematic process and no empirical method to employ to determine the verisimilitude of its claims and beliefs, much less right and wrong. (3) The morality of holy books—most notably the Bible—is not the morality any of us would wish to live by, and thus it is not possible for the religious doctrines derived from holy books to be the catalyst for moral evolvement.

Many Jews and Christians say that they get their morality from the Bible, but this cannot be true because as holy books go the Bible is possibly the most unhelpful guide ever written for determining right from wrong. It’s chockfull of bizarre stories about dysfunctional families, advice about how to beat your slaves, how to kill your headstrong kids, how to sell your virgin daughters, and other clearly outdated practices that most cultures gave up centuries ago.

In order to make the Bible relevant, believers must pick and choose biblical passages that suit their needs; thus the game of cherry picking from the Bible generally works to the advantage of the pickers. In the Old Testament, the believer might find guidance in Deuteronomy 5:17, which says, explicitly, “Thou shalt not kill”; or in Exodus 22:21, a verse that delivers a straightforward and indisputable prohibition: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

These verses seem to set a high moral bar, but the handful of positive moral commands in the Old Testament are desultory and scattered among a sea of violent stories of murder, rape, torture, slavery, and all manner of violence, including capital punishment for a variety of acts:

• Blaspheming or cursing of the Lord: “And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death.” (Leviticus 24:13-16)

• Worshiping another God: “He that sacrificeth unto any god, save unto the Lord only, he shall be utterly destroyed.” (Exodus 22:20)

• Witchcraft and wizardry: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Exodus 22:18)

• Female loss of virginity before marriage: “If any man take a wife [and find] her not a maid … Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die.” (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)

• Homosexuality: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” (Leviticus 20:13)

• Working on the Sabbath: “Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a sabbath of rest to the Lord: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death.” (Exodus 35:2)

Most modern Christians, however, respond to arguments like this by saying that the Old Testament’s cruel and fortunately outdated laws have nothing to do with how they live their lives or the moral precepts that guide them today. The angry, vengeful God Yahweh of the Old Testament, they claim, was displaced by the kinder, gentler New Testament God in the form of Jesus, who two millennia ago introduced a new and improved moral code. Turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemies, forgiving sinners, and giving to the poor is a great leap forward from the capricious commands and copious capital punishment found in the Old Testament.

That may be, but nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus revoke God’s death sentences or ludicrous laws. In fact, quite the opposite (Matthew 5:17-30 passim): “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” He doesn’t even try to edit the commandments or soften them up: “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.” In fact, if anything, Jesus’ morality is even more draconian than that of the Old Testament: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.”

In other words, even thinking about killing someone is a capital offense. In fact, Jesus elevated thought crimes to an Orwellian level (Matthew 9:28-29): “Ye have heard it was said by them of old time, Though shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” And if you don’t think you can control your sexual impulses Jesus has a practical solution: “If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”

As for Jesus’s own family values, he never married, never had children, and he turned away his own mother time and again. For example, at a wedding feast Jesus says to her (John 2:4): “Woman, what have I to do with you?” One biblical anecdote recounts the time that Mary waited patiently off to the side for Jesus to finish speaking so that she could have a moment with him, but Jesus told his disciples, “Send her away, you are my family now,” adding (Luke 14:26): “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

Even sincere Christians cannot agree on Jesus’ morality and the moral codes in the New Testament, holding legitimate differences of opinion on a number of moral issues that remain unresolved based on biblical scripture alone. These include dietary restrictions and the use of alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine; masturbation, pre-marital sex, contraception, and abortion; marriage, divorce, and sexuality; the role of women; capital punishment and voluntary euthanasia; gambling and other vices; international and civil wars; and many other matters of contention that were nowhere in sight when the Bible was written, such as stem-cell research, gay marriage, and the like. Indeed, the fact that Christians, as a community, keep arguing over their own contemporary question “WWJD” (What Would Jesus Do?) is evidence that the New Testament is silent on the answer.

If God really believes in equal rights for all of his people, one would think that He would have said something about them in his holy book. But such sentiments are nowhere to be found in the Bible. The closest thing to a modern moral value is in Galatians 3:28, when the apostle Paul says: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” That sounds ecumenical, but the surrounding verses demonstrate clearly what Paul is up to: (Galatians 3:1) “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?” And what is this truth, according to Paul? The truth is that “[T]he Jew in becoming a Christian did not need to become a Greek, nor the Greek a Jew. The slave might continue to serve his master, and “male” and “female” retained each its function in the ongoing stream of life.”

In other words, Paul is saying that you can carry on as you are. If you’re Greek, there’s no need to become a Jew—a significant dispensation, given that a man converting to Judaism often had to submit to adult circumcision, and this is just the kind of thing that puts a guy off the whole idea. Paul was not a revolutionary advocating violence, and he most assuredly wasn’t ghostwriting the U.S. Constitution. He was saying that if you’re a slave, you must keep on being a slave; if you’re a wife, must continue being regarded as property; no matter who you are, you can still worship Jesus Christ and be abused by your culture in whatever manner is customary for someone of your breeding and station. And in any case, slaves remained slaves for eighteen more centuries, and women remained little more than property for nineteen more centuries in Christian countries around the world. Clearly, even if Paul’s message were interpreted to mean that we’re all equal, no one took it seriously. But what Paul’s passage really meant was that anyone can go to heaven by accepting Jesus as the Christ (as instructed in John 3:16), and that’s the message of universalism—not equal treatment in this world, but in the next world.

Excerpted from “The Moral Arc” by Michael Shermer, published January 2015 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Michael Shermer. All rights reserved.

Sunday, Jan 18, 2015 06:59 AM EST