Saturday, May 17, 2014

Zealot: How a Muslim Found Jesus and What He Did to Him When He Found Him

I recently finished reading Zealot, by Reza Aslan, of whom I learned after watching the hostile interview that a Christian facilitator from Fox News did of the author.

I must, from the onset, admit that I do not have any particular or definite views about the historicity of Jesus because I'm simply not convinced that it matters much.  It's impossible at this point to determine if Jesus really lived and who he was, plus I'm a non-believer and much more fascinated with the biographies of Epicurus and his associates.

The Jesus Seminar is (so far as I know) the only comprehensive scholarly attempt to find a historical Jesus from out of the convoluted, varied and contradictory scriptures that were written to promote him by the people who deified him.  According to the Jesus Seminar, only about 18% of what is attributed to Jesus was actually said and done by the historical Jesus.  The rest is fiction concocted during the "oral period" between his death and the writing of the Gospels.

I found Zealot a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable read.  Aslan is a great narrator, in fact he teaches the art of writing, and his skill at weaving an intriguing narrative is evident in Zealot.  Characters, many of whom are very likely real people that lived in history, emerge from the pages much more alive, colorful, and complex than when I was subjected as a child to the comprehensive Catholic brainwashing program known as catechism.  Their intentions, their milieu, the politics and the hostilities of the moment in time in which they lived, are much easier to understand and appreciate.

The Fox News interviewee accused Aslan of being a Muslim attempting to undermine traditional Christian faith and presenting Jesus as a terrorist.  The book does that.  It does make a compelling case that the real Yeshua was a seditious Jew who hated Roman occupation and its priestly enablers in the Temple, and who was part of one of many violent intifadas that were organized to expel the most powerful army on Earth from Judea.

Aslan cites references to passages in the Gospels where Jesus calls for violence, and brushes off the many passages where he calls for non-violent conflict resolution.  In the end, we must grant that it is entirely likely that Jesus may have had terrorist sympathies and was later reformed by his worshippers into the peaceful hippie of scripture.  The violent and fanatical Jesus has to be recognized as one of the historical possibilities, after all he wouldn't be the first or only crazy cult leader to have lived.

The mythical Jesus is not the only character that is reformed in light of their historicity.  John the Baptist and Saul of Tarsus are also looked at through a magnifying glass, the myths about them deformed and debunked.  The Baptist becomes Jesus' Guru, who baptised him and sent him on his mission just as Obi Wan Kenobi did with Luke Skywalker. Jesus was John's disciple, but was later made to look greater than John. When Jesus goes on his mission, he tells people to repent and seek God's Kingdom, just as John the Baptist had preached.

Aslan's Baptist reminded me of Bradford Keeney's Shaking Medicine, a book which introduces a shamanic practice of Christianity and which derives much inspiration from the traditions of the Quakers and the Shakers, and of Pentecostals who shake not in fear of God but due to what they believe to be a sign of the power of Spirit.  Keeney argues that Jesus was a shaman, a medicine man who--like many medicine men of primitive cultures--talked to spirits, ordered them around, argued with them, healed the sick, etc.

There is merit to this other version of Jesus.  It's true that, after the initiatory baptismal bath, Jesus went into the desert supposedly for 40 days to meditate and to seek a vision.  This is done in traditional native societies still today.  It's called a vision quest, and it's a necessary part of the initiation after which a person may enter into his new identity as a priest, as a warrior, as a prophet, or as an adult man or woman.  Jesus did not begin his mission until he went on his vision quest.

However, Jesus' vision quest included a curious scene where he's tempted by the devil, who offers him rulership over all the lands. This, Jesus rejects and later, in John 8:44, Jesus tells a group of people identified simply as "the Jews" that they worship their Father, the devil, who was a murderer from the beginning.  This is probably the most shocking indictment in the entire Bible of of the Jewish God as a genocidal monster, by far worse than Jeremiah's diatribes, which funnily include the Bible's own admission of having been falsified in Jeremiah 8:8.

The temptation scene is reminiscent of messianic prophecies where the messiah would rule from Jerusalem and extract a tax from all the nations, a prophecy that would have required generations of incessant violence to establish a global theocratic empire through jihad.  Judea would have had to gather an army of religious militants large and powerful enough to replace Rome.  The threat of messianic genocide is articulated in no uncertain terms:

The nation or kingdom that will not serve you will be destroyed. It will be completely wiped out. - Isaiah 60:12

Aslan would argue this away by saying that John's Gospel was written late and served as an attempt to clean up the dangerous, violent Jesus after the temple had been destroyed and Rome had proven its might, but it may also represent something that may even be more important than the historicity of Jesus: the intentions of the Gospel authors.  The Jesus movement may have been, in great part, a conspiracy to clean up the bloody history of Judaism and its messianic intentions, and to reform monotheism, to bring it to what it should have been.

In other words, the temptation scene might be an instance where Bible authors reasoned that if we have to live with people who believe in God, then let's make it safer, less dangerous for people to hold this belief.  If Jesus' vision quest represents a demonization of Old Testament messianic prophecy, then the Jesus conspiracy should be reevaluated as having had very good intentions after all, sort of as a benign version of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood of Dune which controls human history from space by inspiring religious beliefs that it can later benefit from.

Some of Aslan's explanations of how the Jewish Yeshua evolved into the Gentile Christ, and into a God, I was already familiar with and have even written about in blogs like Arguments Against Paul.  What we know today as Christianity is not the faith of Jesus, but of Saul of Tarsus who pulled the teachings out of a hat like the slick trickster that he confessed to be.  What Aslan adds to Paul's story in the book, again, are the nuances never presented in Sunday school but evident in the scriptures about the violent hatred between James, the brother of the historical Jesus and the leader of those who had known him, and Paul who never met Jesus, gave himself the title of apostle, and frequently expressed insolence and disdain for James and the other apostles.

Catholicism is the modern evolution of the Platonic doctrine of Paul, which evolved into the Roman version of Christianity while many other Christianities emerged elsewhere, and are still emerging.  Even we Epicureans have our own Christian Gospel of Thomas Jefferson, titled the Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus comes in many flavors ... but to be clear: the historical religion of James, and of his brother Jesus, died with them.

Poverty: Secularism’s True Enemy

In recent weeks, there has been huge controversy surrounding issues of religiosity in the public sphere.  A recent judicial decision that vindicates public prayer as constitutional has greatly polarized the country.  There are political currents, particularly within the religious right, that are pushing for Christianity to have a more prevalent role in public life by imposing Christian prayer.  And there are secularists who are concerned about boundaries, about state-sanctioned indoctrination.  Because religion produces a more docile citizenry, it also indirectly facilitates authoritarian regimes, and many fear that the US is exhibiting tendencies seen in states governed by religion and superstition that are invariably punitive, hostile to civil liberties, and treat their citizens like children.
The first curious fact about the controversy surrounding public prayer is that Christians who wish to impose themselves in this manner ignore Jesus’ teachings on how to properly pray. He called people who pray in public hypocrites, and it’s true that there is difficulty in discerning whether a person who prays in public is merely putting together a show, or if the display of public piety is sincere. A genuine desire to commune with God is, after all, a very intimate, private affair.
When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. – Jesus, in Matthew 6:5-6
There is another problem with public prayer: many or most atheists think it’s rude, it’s meant to exclude them and anyone who does not resonate with majority beliefs. There is clearly an overt, religious agenda at play here. Public prayers can be easily framed in such a way as to intimidate or coerce people into voting for certain policies (against the teaching of evolutionary science), or being ashamed of certain solidarities (Gay and Lesbian, Feminist). It's impossible to ensure that public prayer is not misused or politicized.
And so, Jesus thinks his followers are hypocrites when they pray in public, and atheists think they’re rude.
How should Humanists respond to this? As an Epicurean, I’m always cognizant of how people need to sustain their existential health and I feel like the atheist conversation is usually polarized and misses the context within which religiosity emerges. I think we should first evaluate and contextualize the roots of religiosity.
Gregory Paul published in 2005 the findings of his meta-research on the correlation between supernatural beliefs and quantifiable symptoms of societal dysfunction, a study which demonstrated the clear link between religiosity and crime using prison statistics and demographics and census data from many countries, including data on teen pregnancy, educational levels, marriage stability, and so on. Invariably, the more religious communities exhibit higher degrees of societal dysfunction and the least religious communities exhibit higher societal stability. This is known to be the case both when we compare the more religious versus the more secular countries and when we compare the more religious versus the more secular states of the union.
Paul later went on to publish The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions. These studies show that religion is a symptom of dysfunction that is tied to, and often leads to or preserves, an overall lower quality of life.
Intuitively, it always made sense to me that supernatural belief dramatizes a person’s desire to escape reality, and maybe gives a culturally accepted way to do so, but now there is tangible data showing the nuances of this dynamic.
It also makes sense that crime and religiosity coincide, since crime increases with poverty, which increases with illiteracy and lack of educational opportunities, and with lower levels of education there is an increase in religiosity. There is a constellation of factors that must be understood together.  Materialism teaches that people's ideologies and beliefs emerge from their materiality, from their tangible reality, from what they know.  The atheist that arrogantly treats a person's religiosity as a mere symptom of idiocy and as an isolated factor, should humanize and contextualize faith prior to judging it.
Over the last several decades, the wealth gap has widened obscenely and, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis, there has been a sharp increase in poverty and marginalization in America. Government and Wall-Street-influenced mainstream media try to hide the reality of poverty behind dubious financial data that is concocted by and only relevant to wealthy investors, who have gotten wealthier as the poor have gotten poorer. For a more accurate picture of poverty, one may visit sites that directly service poor populations, like or the National Poverty Center.
Materialist philosophy teaches that there are real necessities that are a pre-requisite for human dignity, for human civilization and for philosophy. People need food, they need shelter, they need wholesome association. They also need time for leisure in order to enjoy the things that make life worth living. As the Uruguayan president Mujica famously said in his diatribe against consumerism and the false values we’ve inherited, people need “time to love”.
When people lack food, shelter, or love, they oftentimes seek the non-tangible, imaginary consolations of religious fantasies. It is much easier for someone who lives in poverty and has nothing, to accept the false consolations of superstition, of an afterlife, the non-tangible consolations of religion. Therefore, the marketers of religions prey on those who have nothing.
What this means for secularists is that one can not effectively fight the prevalence and the saturation of public life with religiosity and superstition without also battling the poverty and the economic marginalization that feeds religiosity. There is no other way.  The secular struggle must, therefore, be re-framed as a struggle for economic justice, a struggle to close the wealth gap, a struggle for increased educational opportunities, and a struggle to end poverty.
Atheism doesn’t have to become a revolutionary political ideal that seeks a higher moral ground than religion, but if an atheist does want to diminish religious intrusion in our lives, he must become an altruistic Humanist in solidarity with the fight against poverty. He must participate in hedonic covenants: commitments to maximize everyone's pleasure and wellbeing, and to minimize everyone's suffering, which ultimately benefit individuals by increasing their stability, peace and safety.

The components of how the hedonic covenant is expressed can be as varied and creative as there are people in society. There are specific and tangible things that can be done, even by the small person, in this regard. Soup kitchens, as well as debt-management, educational, and wealth-building initiatives should all be part of the larger vision. There are lifestyle choices within Humanism that lead to limiting our cooperation with the economic system that breeds supernaturalism and the reduction in our quality of life that comes with it.
Epicureanism teaches about autarchy, the importance of self-sufficiency, and promotes frugality, living within our means, and curbing our mindless desires in order to eliminate vain and empty consumption. It gives us the tools to do the inner work required to exit the vicious cycle of consumerism, which leads to debt, which leads to wage slavery and poverty, which leads to an increased need to cling to false consolations.
Non-religious people do not want to be coerced into feigning piety, or to live in a society hostile to their civil rights, but for as long as poverty increases there will be an increase of religion and superstition in the public sphere.
Poverty is dangerous for society. It leads to greater crime and violence, and it polarizes, divides, and dehumanizes us all. We can try to ignore it, but are never unaffected by it.