An Inquiry into the Ideas and Forces that Link the Thought of Our Time with our Religious Past
Western culture is inextricably linked with the doctrines and practices that have come down to us today in the form of our Judaic-Christian heritage. Every person in the West, regardless of their social and cultural background, has in some way or another been touched, and therefore influenced by this pervasive religious-philosophical system of thought. Yet most of us live day by day, oblivious to all the ways in which our past and heritage effect some of the most crucial issues of our time– and how we (and others) will respond to these.
One reason most people are not aware of the tremendous multi-varied religious culture that we have inherited is because history courses have typically been “sanitized” of all religious thought and passion! We learn about dates and names of kings – without knowing what people believed and about their hopes for the future. The result, in my opinion has done incalculable harm towards a true, deeper understanding of world history. For it is a fact that religion has probably been one of the most important forces in explaining great events throughout recorded history–be they wars, inquisitions, or periods of renaissance and learning.
As I shall attempt to draw out later, it is my opinion that we as a people will never truly understand who we really are and where we are all going as part of the human race if we do not attempt to understand the religious forces that have affected our culture and our way of thought.
But there is a circular relationship here, because our religious culture can also affect how we even begin to approach such an inquiry! Or to put this another way — our religious heritage is so much a part of our very psyche that it can affect how we go about questioning what is true.
INTRODUCTION: The Pursuit of Truth in the Western Tradition– Divine Revelation vs. the Critical Tradition
I. The Tradition of Divine Revelation Historically, the search for truth throughout Western civilization can be broken down into two basic traditions:
(1) The RELIGIOUS, or ecumenical tradition, and
(2) the CRITICAL, or university tradition.
The religious tradition, which can trace its roots through all three of the great Western religions–Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, stresses the importance of obtaining knowledge through DIVINE REVELATION. That is, God is believed to have revealed His divine truth to specific individuals who, in turn, have passed this information down from one generation to the next. Religious followers accept these revelations of the founder, based upon trust and faith.
Often the nature of these religious revelations are purported to be so deep and complex, that the human mind cannot conceive or understand all of the implications of the revelation. This is why it is important to UNQUESTIONINGLY accept the truth as it has been divined by religious authorities. Trying to understand would be a futile, and possibly even a misleading effort. To have faith is therefore the key element for obtaining truth and salvation.
One obvious advantage of this perspective on truth, is the sense of CERTAINTY it gives to the religious believer–And with certainty also comes feelings of comfort and security. Some religious authorities emphasize that this state of comfort is what God intended for mankind. That is, God does not want mankind to question His doctrines, but instead to obey His Divine dictates!
Presence of Many Religious Leaders — who Claim “Special Knowledge” of God’s Will
Even the most devout follower is usually aware that there are many religious groups who all claim “special” knowledge of God’s will. Some groups claim that they (and they alone) possess the only saving knowledge of God. Even those that stress the universality of their beliefs with other religions, will usually maintain that their views are “superior” to those of others.
Because the views and revelations from differing religious groups often CONFLICT with each other, often IRRECONCILABLY–they cannot ALL be true!
For example, Judaism, the oldest Western religion, to which both Christianity and Islam trace their roots, believes that it is blasphemy to speak of a Trinity godship, let alone a man who was god incarnate. Most Christians believe it is blasphemy to disbelieve in the existence of the divine Trinity, with Jesus as its Son. Islam believes that anyone who refuses to acknowledge that Mohammed was the prophet of the one God, Allah, is an infidel. Both Christians and Muslims believe that hell is the consequence of not believing in their respective doctrines.
Today, Muslims and Jews argue that they both have an inheritance to Palestine. In the Judao-Christian Old Testament, Jews trace their historical rights to Palestine through Isaac, through whom God promised to build a large nation (see Genesis 22:17). However, in the Koran, the same story implies that it was Ishmael who received this blessing. Thus Arabs trace their rights to Palestine based on these verses. Both sides are faithfully following the traditions written down in their holy texts. They cannot BOTH be true, because each believes their ancestor received exclusive rights from Abraham.
Not only are Judaism, Islam, and Christianity at odds with each other, typically there are major sectarian differences within each religion itself. One of the most dramatic examples could be seen within Christianity during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Catholics and Protestants accused the other of following “Satan’s” religion–while waging brutal wars to destroy the others “heretical” views. Since their beliefs contradicted each other, they could not both be true! (Indeed most modern Christian sects agree that, during this time, BOTH sides were wrong to have waged such ferocious wars against each other.)
Religions cannot agree on other basic doctrines- as a few examples capital punishment, euthanasia, abortions, drinking – even dancing (See Section VI, Chapter 3.) I remember watching a panel of local religious leaders comprised of Protestant, Catholics, and Jews discussing how a crazed lone-man had entered a local Church and slaughtered innocent people. The panel could not even agree who was ultimately responsible for the heinous actions of the madman — i.e., was it God (for “allowing” the evil to take place); or the Devil; or was it solely the actions of the deranged man himself?
Growing Movement Away from Liberal Tolerant Religious Groups Towards Conservative Intolerant Groups
Religions have splintered off recently into so many different factions, that some conservative leaders openly yearn for a return to the distant “past” when things seemed “simpler”. But, as we shall see in detail in later chapters of this book, this is an extremely naive view. For whenever there was the appearance of uniformity and harmony, there was also a powerful, conservative authority in the background, which applied strong social, political, and economic pressure against any dissenting group(s). Indeed, prior to the fourth century AD (i.e. BEFORE the catholic or “universal” church gained absolute power), history will show that there were a LARGE number of Christian sects, which were, if anything, MORE diverse in beliefs and doctrine than what we see today in modern times (See Section V, Chapter 1).
It has only been in the last few centuries that Christianity has evolved along a relatively liberal, humanistic tradition. Prior to this time for roughly one thousand years, Christian sects were far more conservative AND intolerant. (See Section V).
Of course there exists, even in recent times, conservative/fundamentalist Christian groups who advocate intolerance towards others outside their faiths. For example, the Protestant fundamentalist, Jimmy Swaggart, made the following strong attack against Catholicism in the January 1983 edition of his monthly magazine, The Evangelist: “Catholicism is a false cult. The mark of a false cult is that it has some authority other than or besides the Bible. The Roman Catholic Church forms its doctrines and methods from human pronouncements and labels them as “traditions”, totally ignoring the Word of God and adding to or taking away from it as they see fit. This means it cannot be the true church representing the Lord Jesus Christ. Wherever Catholicism has had broad authority over people, the people have been led into ignorance, superstition and sin. When the Catholic Church teaches people to offer Masses for the dead and to pray them out of Purgatory, when they teach people that they are free to confess their sins to a man who is an unmarried priest and then expect divine forgiveness, when they teach people to pray to Mary, saying she will intervene with God for them–they are teaching heresy, error and total contradiction of the Word of God. I don’t see how a nun, a priest or a Catholic layman can remain in this tradition as they become familiar with the Bible and realize that the Catholic tradition is in complete contradiction to the Word of God.”
Per Swaggart, even the famous nun Mother Teresa of Calcutta was going to hell because she followed Catholicism and not the “true” religion of Protestant fundamentalism. As for Jews, Swaggart strongly suggested on one of his television shows, that the Holocaust was God’s punishment for their “disbelief” in Christ.
Although all religions have their conservative elements, probably Islam today has the largest number of extremist fundamentalist adherents. As is typical with the more extreme fundamentalist groups, great emphasis is placed on the “divine” nature of their leaders’ revelations. Believers are supposed to accept these revelations upon faith – or else be branded as an “infidel”.
The belief that one holds the only “true” religion, not infrequently leads to intolerance of all other religious points of views! The Ayatolla Khomeini’s strong belief that only Muslims possess the “true” faith, led him to declare in 1979: “Christian, Jewish and Baha’i missionary centers are spread in Tehran to deceive people and to lead them away from the teachings and principles of religion. Isn’t it a duty to destroy these centers?” Likewise Taliban religious leaders in Afghanistan blew up ancient Buddhist statues and imprisoned Christian missionaries in their attempt to “purify” their faith from outside infidel sources. When Muslim followers of Osama bin Laden flew airplanes into the World Trade Center towers on Sept 11, 2001, killing thousands of innocents, the Muslim terrorists aboard the plane were absolutely convinced Allah would “reward” them with eternal life in paradise.
Some have argued that Christian fundamentalists are not as extremist (intolerant and violent) as their Muslim fundamentalist counterparts. For example, the Christian fundamentalist Jerry Falwell created a storm of controversy when he suggested that God “allowed” the terrorists to demolish the World Trade Center, because His divine anger had been stirred (like Falwell’s) against gays, abortionists, and the ACLU.(2)
Still, it is an important distinction that even Jerry Falwell never actually advocated “killing” his enemies. But this is a short term snapshot. Historically, one can see that Muslim Arabs have not akways had a tradition/culture that supports extremism! Indeed, prior to the Crusades, the Muslims were considered to have (relatively-speaking) a more advanced culture than that of the Christians, and along with this a stronger tradition for toleration. (Section V, Chapters 6,7).
How Can One Tell Which Group is Truly Inspired?
Because there are a diverse number of groups who insist that “THEY” and “ONLY THEY”, have divine inspiration, an important question emerges:
How can one tell when a religious leader has truly been commissioned with a divine charter from God Himself, as opposed to someone who is leading his followers down the path towards some ill-fated humn venture?
As John Locke so eloquently put this question:
If strength of persuasion be the light which must guide us; I ask how shall any one distinguish between the delusions of Satan, and the inspirations of the Holy Ghost?
As we shall see, the problem is not a recent one. Indeed, history will show that this problem is far older than Christianity–and has existed in virtually all religions, both ancient and modern alike.
The Example of The “Children’s Crusade”
One example dates back to the thirteenth century AD. Although documentation during these “Dark Ages” was poor, there were a series of reports by some eyewitness priests, whereby children were inspired to join in a “Children’s Crusade” to save the Holy Land from being controlled by “heathen” Muslim Turks:
It was the year 1212 AD. Two youths, one French and the other a German, called for a crusade of children to rise up and rescue the Holy Land from the Turkish “infidels”. Early waves of armed ‘adult’ crusaders composed of knights, noblemen, soldiers and peasant volunteers had marched earlier to fight the Turks’ domination of the Holy Land. After many battles, the Turks still remained in control of Jerusalem. The idea of using children to defend the Holy Land was thereupon suggested. The use of weapons was not felt necessary for the Children’s Crusade, as surely God would look down kindly upon their selfless deed and grant them a miraculous victory. Protests from the children’s parents and elders were of no avail against the impassioned call to holy battle.
The Children’s Crusades ended in total disaster, with tens of thousands losing their lives. On the way to the Holy Land, many youths fell prey to thieves, wolves, snowstorms, and starvation. Of the thousands who set sail on merchant ships, some were lost at sea, while others were treacherously sold into slavery in North Africa–some right off the ship. (Some historians believe the old medieval legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin Town who led all the children away from the town to the tune of his pipe had its origins in this ill-fated Children’s Crusade)
The Crusades waged on for nearly two hundred years with much violence and destruction. Yet when it was over, non-Christians still ruled over the Holy Land and nothing ‘godly’ had been accomplished. Historian Will Durant commented on these times how ‘Thinkers were much exercised to explain why God had allowed the defeat of His defenders in so holy a cause, and had granted success only to . . . villainy” (Durant 1993)
I first saw the story of a Children’s Crusade in a religious publication. They appropriately dubbed the Children’s Crusade as a misguided human endeavor– and NOT a divine call to action! However, the religious authors of this publication strongly implied that “THEY” did understand God’s True Will.
Thus the familiar pattern emerges –Everyone is sure that “THEY” are the exception, and are uniquely positioned to understand God’s True Will. The leaders of the Children’s crusade obviously were also confident that “THEY” knew God’s will when they asked for volunteers to fight the “infidels”. Indeed, the Children’s Crusade had ALL the appearances of a holy unselfish cause–to rid the Holy Land from the ‘infidels’. Not only did religious leaders tell the people that this was an inspired crusade, some actually traveled with the troops themselves. It is only in hindsight, that one really sees that this disastrous mission could not have been an inspired endeavor!
That many “divine” (and therefore, “infallible”) laws were, in reality, only human (“fallible”) acts, can be seen by tracing through history how many of these decisions have been reversed over time.
For example, Galileo was brought to trial as a “heretic”, for stating that he had proof (using the newly discovered telescope) that the Earth was NOT located at the center of the universe. Today, the belief that the earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around, is almost unanimously accepted by everyone–even by most Fundamentalist groups! This despite the fact that the Bible clearly does not support this view! (As in, according to Joshua 10:12-3, Joshua commanded the Sun to halt, so that Gideon would have enough sunlight to complete the massacre of the Amorites.) Galileo recanted under the threat of torture, but lived the rest of his life under house arrest. (The Catholic church did not formally reverse the formal charges against Galileo until 1992. See Section V, Chapter 12).
Thus, a review of history will show that discovering or knowing God’s “true” Will is a universal problem that transcends both time and geographic location. And that (at least some) religious people who have wished to obey God, were “fooled” by leaders who falsely claimed they were inspired by God.
As experience has shown, lightening did NOT come down from out of the sky to zap down all these false leaders for us–especially in the early, crucial periods of their careers). The dilemma this presents, can be summarized as follows: As ordinary human beings, “HOW CAN WE TELL WHICH MISSIONS ARE TRULY FROM GOD?” The answer to this dilemma, I believe, is not a simple one–and cannot be found solely in the non-critical tradition of religion!
II. The Critical or University Tradition for Obtaining Knowledge
Another tradition for obtaining knowledge is the critical or university tradition. In the critical tradition every proposition is examined and tested with every possible means to determine its truth. Typically at some point, the critical individual has listened to the “certainties” promised by authorities demanding total faith. However also observing how important doctrines have often changed dramatically over the centuries, often after the discoveries in the sciences, the critical individual sees merely a “delusion” of certainty–and one which in the past has led to such abuses as great wars, inquisitions and other inhumane activities.
The critical tradition is not necessarily in opposition to the tradition of religion! The reasoning is as follows: if God created humanity with a brain capable of reasoning and intellect, then surely He did not intend for man to turn this great asset “off”. Truly an almighty being could not even begin to feel threatened by man’s struggles in reasoning. That is, only other humans claiming to act as God’s agents– and operating in positions of power and authority–really have anything to fear from employing reason.
The critical mind does not deny at the initial stage that revelations are not possible (something fundamentalist non-believers have been guilty of at times). It merely postpones a final decision until fully examining the revelations as rationally as the human mind allows. It recognizes the probability of making some mistakes, but is prepared to correct them when new information is available.
Just as in the religious tradition, frequently the critical mind starts with propositions of faith or direct inspiration. The difference is that the adherent believes in the human ability to logically evaluate these propositions, instead of abdicating this responsibility to a “higher” authority. The critical mind is aware of the natural biases that can be a part of one’s social upbringing. Therefore the individual will typically review points of view other than his/her own in evaluating a proposition. Even when one disagrees with the conclusions of these other points of view, often new outlooks are discovered, which add a depth of understanding to one’s beliefs that did not exist before.
The critical mind understands there will most likely never be complete agreement on the truth, but accepts this as a limitation of being human. Because the critical individual is constantly “refining” truths, they are relatively more “accepting” of the great diversity of beliefs that exist in the world. Religious followers of the critical tradition often see this diversity of beliefs in the worship of God, as a part of God’s grand design: For example, John Milton wrote: “God prefers the lush and many-tinted profusion of spring to the frozen conformity of winter.” Whitehead once commented, “A clash of doctrines is not a disaster– it is an opportunity” (Howlett 1980).
An Example Of Applying the Critical Tradition — The Train
My favorite example of applying the critical tradition, comes from a story told to me by a Russian immigrant on how he had discovered the “truth” about communism!
During the 1970’s, the Soviets still wielded total control over the press, and had even constructed an Iron Curtain which physically shut out all information from the outside, non-Communist world. As was typical for the Communists, they bombarded their citizenry with outrageous lies regarding Western/U.S. life–publishing pictures of slums, race riots, and stating that this was how all people lived under capitalism. I had read from other sources how the vast majority of Russians believed this propaganda from their government Indeed, they even believed the Iron Curtain had been constructed by their government to “protect” them against evil capitalist countries like the US.
Knowing the truth about communism had been a subject of special interest to me since childhood: When I was around ten years old, my parents and Sunday School teachers had warned me of the “evils” of Russian communism. Being brought up a good, Bible-thumping Baptist, I worried about how Russian children could ever learn the truth about Jesus (and therefore be saved) since no one had even heard of him.
Then the thought hit me one day: “If I was the raised in Communist Russia–and everyone lied to me — would I also be able to discern the truth?” I was deeply disturbed by my conclusion: “Yes,” I remember thinking, “I probably would be ‘fooled’ because I rarely questioned what adults told me.”
I had no answer for this: I just counted myself fortunate to live in America where the people already knew the “truth”. Many years later while in college, I met a Russian couple who had recently immigrated to the United States when Russia was still Communist. Knowing the great sacrifices they had made to leave their country, I was most curious how they had discovered out that their Russian Communist leaders had been ‘lying’ to them?”
The wife responded first: She recounted how leaving Russia had been extremely traumatic for her. The Russian propaganda about the terrible lives of people in the West — especially since it was played and replayed over again – buzzed in the back of her mind (reminding me of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where the sheep mindlessly repeat whatever slogans are taught to them by the authorities.) She knew that she needed to leave Russia, but emotionally felt great stress and personal doubts about such a move. She was under such duress upon leaving Russia, that she had had become physically ill on her departure plane. Her husband’s eyes twinkled in disagreement as he listened. “I knew life was better in the West”, he stated with confidence.
“How,” I asked, intrigued:
“You see”, he replied, “even as a young man, I had always been interested in what life was really like in the West. However, as this was tightly controlled by the Communists, I did not have any direct access to information in the Soviet Union. Then, one day, I had the opportunity of visiting a used American train that had just been purchased by the Soviets and was placed on display. My supervisor from work went with me to inspect the train. When I looked inside the cabin compartments on the American train, I was saw comfortable cushions on the hard wooden seats. (You see, Russian trains did not have cushions on their seats!) I turned to my supervisor and pointed this fact out to him, saying: ‘See, life must be better in the United States, because even the American public rides on comfortable seats.
‘Wrong!’ exclaimed my supervisor, ‘Only the wealthy can afford train tickets in America.
That is why the compartments are more luxurious than the ones we have in Moscow. You see, here in Russia, even the lower classes can afford to ride the train!’
“After pondering over the matter, I had an idea. The next day I returned to the train and looked at the conductor’s seat. It too had a cushion on it!” (This meant that the train’s employees were well cared for too.)- And from that day forward I knew the truth about the Communist system!” After he finished his story, I sat amazed! For here sat before me a person seemingly trapped in one of the most powerfully controlled societies of all times–a person therefore, who would seem to have no hope of ever gleaning any truth about his situation. The important lesson this brought home to me was this: Just because one is born into a society and grows up with its doctrines, there are still measures one can take to critically examine the truth of its premises!
The tradition of critical thinking is not absent from our Judeo-Christian heritage. The diverse number of sects and beliefs within both Judaism and Christianity is proof in itself of this. Throughout history, however, there have been instances whereby conservative authoritarian religious/ideological groups have fought to forcibly impose their will on the rest of the population. Often proclaiming themselves to possess special or divine knowledge to “save” or “improve” mankind, these groups (upon gaining power) often enact harsh, inhumane measures to maintain absolute control. Critical thinking is always proclaimed an “enemy” by such groups, which if left unchecked can undermine their “true” claim to authority. It is during these periods that historically one can see strong outside pressures applied towards society to keep people from not engaging in critical thinking.
The establishment of absolute power can be seen operating historically via religious totalitarian regimes– who created the Dark Ages, fascist acts of book burning, and secret trials and purges, such as the Inquisition. The same, of course, also applies just as strongly to atheistic totalitarian regimes–which have brought on their OWN version of a Dark Age to both Russia and China — and along with it, the Communist acts of book burnings and secret trials and purges, such as the Cultural Revolution in China and the gulags in Russia! It has only been in roughly the last few centuries that a strong tradition for tolerance and democracy has gradually built up in the West that could stand up to these powerful ideological/political groups determined to control society.
Natural Obstacles to Critical Thinking
Of course, even with the presence of a democratic environment stressing individual rights, there is no guarantee that critical thinking will take place. For, as we shall see next, there are a number of natural obstacles (i.e. related to our nature of being human), which may serve to undermine critical thinking! Natural obstacles to critical thinking include: (1) Human Fallibility, (2) Human Credulity, and (3) the Presence of Deceivers and Practical Jokesters
(1) Human Fallibility/Weakness
One obvious obstacle to critical thinking alluded to earlier is the fact that we human beings are fallible creatures who are frequently wrong even when we believe with our strongest, utmost feelings that we should or must be right. We know that our senses are limited in processing information. Our unaided eyes can only distinguish among visible light, and so on. Although scientific instrumentation has broadened this range, the question remains as to the ability of our mind or intellect to perceive and process this information adequately. The use of hallucinatory drugs can conjure up images and sounds in our mind which do not really exist. Psychologists and doctors have documented that these “illusions” result from the chemical effects of these drugs on our nervous system. A large number of mental disorders, commonly known today as schizophrenia, dissociative personality disorder, and epilepsy can create delusions and hallucinations not unlike those induced by drugs. Books on psychology contain case studies of individuals who have hallucinated that they were saviors of the world, that they were famous people– from Queen Elizabeth to the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ and so on– or that they were “possessed” by some evil force. Even “sane” people have been swept up in passionate causes– which they felt they “knew” to be true–yet which subsequent generations now have evidence were false. I gave the example earlier of how Galileo’s view that the earth revolved around the sun was declared “heretical”. Other examples include the witch trials of Salem, the Inquisition of Europe, and the centuries of religious wars conducted between Catholics and Protestants.
(2) Human Credulity
In the 4th century B.C., the Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that the ability to doubt is rare; that instead people tend to believe whatever others tell them. Only the influence of education and culture could break this hold, giving the individual the ability to question and reason over what he had heard. Rene Descartes, the 17th-century French philosopher, maintained that the mind automatically places a new idea in a neutral limbo, until it is rationally and consciously analyzed by the individual as either true or false. This was disputed by the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza insisted that instead, when analyzing a new idea, the brain goes through two processes:
(1) Visualizing the new idea as TRUE.
(2)Comparing the new idea with other information that has previously been stored in the mind.
If the new idea is an obvious falsehood (such as “The blue chair is pink”) then the mind will automatically reject the thought. But if the idea is more complex and the individual has not been socially conditioned to immediately reject the idea, this second phase of rationally synthesizing and analyzing the new idea can take several seconds or even minutes. Psychological tests over the past ten years have vindicated Spinoza’s model over Descarte’s. In the 1970’s, several psychological studies established that it takes less time for a person to evaluate a statement as true than it does to evaluate a statement as false– meaning it takes more work to evaluate a statement as false.
Psychologists doing research on persuasion and lie detection have observed that people are usually very gullible–meaning they believe what others tell them them without question. In addition, if the listener performs some task that interrupts and diverts the listener from analyzing what he is hearing, he is less likely to question what he is being told. This tactic is well-known to magicians and salesmen. That is: “People who sell used cars and vacuum cleaners have long known about the persuasive power of timed interruptions and diversions.” (Gilbert 1991). In a similar fashion, brainwashing and coercion techniques involve bombarding the prisoner with some ideology (often for days at a time and depriving him of sleep) so as to fragment the prisoner’s thought processes. Forced confessions can be obtain using the same technique.
After being coerced to write down the captor’s ideology over and over again, the weary prisoner begins to doubt his own beliefs. The result: Our human brains are constructed in such a way that our first inclination is to believe what we are told. This is especially noticeable in children. Most children have no basis of experience which can be utilized in analyzing the truth of a statement — they tend to simply “accept” whatever an adult tells them. That is, to visualize the statement as true, without questioning whether it could instead be false. If children are taught to be trusting and unquestioning it can easily extend into adulthood — especially if the person does not read of other experiences, or is likewise secluded from views and opinions different from his own. The individual simply does not have the information base to question whatever he is told. Human beings are therefore, without a good education or experience base, naturally gullible and superstitious creatures. Only if the person has had an actual bad experience, say from a person lying to them, would they engage in the phase of actually analyzing whether something being said was really true.
According to the philosopher David Hume, this effect can be seen in the belief in miracles. Miracles are claimed by every religion. Yet, believers of one religion are frequently skeptical of miracles claimed by other religions. own. For example, one does not see Christians persuaded by alleged Hindu miracles, and vise versa. Why? Because most people have had some experience that taught them that not all miracles are true. Hume’s conclusion was that it was the individual’s prior beliefs that determined which new claims would or would not be accepted as genuine.
The example of the UFO believer and the scientist
My favorite example illustrating human credulity, comes from a reported confrontation between an astronomer and a believer in UFOs. After a prominent astronomer had conducted a series of public lectures to discredit the existence of flying saucers, one irate believer wrote him, “I wish that one of those space ships would land on top of Observatory Hill, and that a squad of the Little Men would seize you, put you in their ship and take you away to Venus. THEN maybe you’d believe!”
At issue is whether the UFO believer was being “over-credulous”, or whether the scientist was being “closed-minded”. Probably the UFO believer cannot prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that there really are UFOs–Just as the scientist (who can probably prove that MOST sightings of UFO’s are natural phenomenon)–still cannot prove that ALL UFOs are false sightings! Should the scientist first accept the proposition that UFOs are real before proving otherwise? Or should the burden of proof be on the UFO believer? Most people generally accept that the burden of proof should be on the UFO believer. After all, it’s almost impossible to absolutely prove that there are NO fairies, elves, leprechauns, Santa Claus, ghostly Elvis Presly appearances and so forth. As for the UFO believer who hoped that maybe the scientist would believe if a “squad of Little Men” did indeed come and take the skeptical scientist away to Venus, there would most likely still be disappointment in this “proof”: For it would be the duty of all good scientists to first rule out the possibility that they were mistaken. For example, they would need to first investigate whether or not they were under the influence of hallucinogens, or whether they were the victim of some practical joke before believing that such an event had actually happened!
(3) The Presence of Deceivers and Practical Jokesters
The intent to deceive appears to be at least as ancient as organized religion itself. Archeologists have uncovered evidence that ancient temples were constructed in such a way as to “fake” miracles. A striking example of this was found during an excavation of an ancient pagan temple in Corinth, Greece. It was already known that an underground water pipe ran from a fountain in the marketplace to the temple where it poured out of one of the temple’s walls into a large stone jar. But the archeologists were surprised to discover a small tunnel (just large enough for a person to crawl through) that had been cut out under the temple floor and which led out to meet this water conduit. Interestingly, the entrance to the tunnel under the temple had an old inscription warning of a substantial fine if any unauthorized personnel were to intrude. After reading ancient records of the temple’s activities, the function of the tunnel became clear. The temple was dedicated to the worship of Dionysus, the god of wine, and frequently performed the miracle of “transforming water into wine”. The excavators had stumbled onto the means of how the “miracle” was performed.– When the temple ceremonies called for a “miracle” a temple assistant would crawl through the little tunnel under the floor, stop the flow of water from the conduit, and pour wine into the channel. This wine would then flow out through the temple wall and into the stone jar sitting on a terrace, to the delight and astonishment of all the spectators. (4) The above was not unusual, but instead was typical of deceptions performed throughout ancient Egypt, Greece, Palestine, and Mesopotamia.
For example: “The Egyptians were particularly adept at contriving magical events having to do with worship. They made temple doors to swing open mysteriously, fires to start up apparently spontaneously, water to flow and stop, thus demonstrating to the unsuspecting worshiper … that the god of the temple was present and willing, on special occasions, to show his power.” Nor is deception lacking in today’s modern society. There are many examples of this: according to the Indian magician Premanand, gurus in India are using magician tricks to cheat poor people into spending money on worthless advice and remedies. To expose their tricks, Premanand repeats many of their “miracles” before live audiences: eating glass, running flaming torches along his bare arms, piercing a large hook through his tongue without any apparent pain or bleeding, causing pieces of paper to burst into flames upon his command, creating holy ash out of thin air, bending spoons at a touch, and of course the ever popular – turning water into wine. Unlike the “genuine” gurus however, Premanand explains to the audience how every one of his “miracles” are clever magician tricks. Christianity did not escape from its share of frauds– During the Middle Ages, the purchase of religious relics (such as bones from the saints) were believed to heal the sick, and, upon death, to help the deceased’s soul get to heaven. Various churches and private collections have contained literally hundreds of thousands of relics that were claimed to date back to the times of Jesus. There were bones from the children killed by King Herod, bones of other famous individuals including St. Peter, the three Wise Kings, St. Peter, etc, jars of the Virgin Mary’s milk, the head of John the Baptist, sixteen foreskins from the baby Jesus’ circumcision, scraps of bread and fish left over from Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5000, a crust of bread from the Last Supper, a hair from Jesus’ beard–the list goes on and on.
Some people became suspicious when duplicates began cropping up. For example, two churches both claimed to have obtained the official head of John the Baptist (Most reasonable people would agree that John had one head!) Another popular item that made its rounds in medieval times, was wood that reportedly came from the cross of Jesus. There are so many pieces of wood that have been claimed to belong to the cross of Jesus that it has been estimated that if all these wood pieces were collected together in one place, it could fill a forest! (6) The Catholic church receives so many fraudulent claims of miracles (some of which are honest mistakes) that they have set up a commission to validate them. Thus one may see or hear of public relations personnel selling tourists packages to visit Lourdes, France claiming that as many as 30,000 people have been cured at Lourdes. But, Church authorities are more cautious–stating that only 100 claims have been fully documented over the years– and of these only 64 have been “officially” recognized as true miracles. (As we shall see in a later chapter, there are skeptics who even question the 64 that are left!) While many groups today are trying to use science to either prove or disprove their position, there is enough uncertainty in these approaches (especially among those who are not well educated in the disciplines of the different sciences of biology, physics, etc.) to make it difficult to sort out which group is really right or wrong.
This book attempts to take an honest approach by primarily focusing on history as the main tool in inquiring back to the roots of our Judeo-Christian heritage. I believe it is instructive to study the political, social, and economic environments that existed during the writing of the books in the Bible. Likewise, we shall be looking at competing religious beliefs and customs and trace their effect on the emerging Judaic-Christian doctrines. We shall then follow evolving beliefs within the Christian church over roughly two thousand years of history. In this we shall look for consistency. For surely absolute truths should be just that; unchanging through time, geography, and the influences of different social-economic cultures. Some scholars have argued that we can never know what is really true, and therefore any time spent in this area is worthless. Their reasoning is as follows: no matter how much we learn about the world (through science, philosophy, and other “modern” means), it is never enough, because regardless of how much we learn, there will always be a small piece left over that we do not know. And it is this remaining “unknown” piece (however small) that could contain the most important, the most crucial information. I believe there is a solution to this seemingly hopeless riddle. Although I cannot know all there is to know in the universe, I can study how other peoples’ beliefs over the centuries have affected them, either for the better or for worse. Various belief systems will be studied, whereby one can review if they made individuals wiser, more profound, or even just better human beings for their efforts. Just as the Russian who studied a foreign train found that this gave him an important clue regarding the “true” nature of his government, I believe human ingenuity and common sense can likewise lead us toward discovery of general truths on the universe if the mind is free and open enough to see them.
Our ultimate goal will be to know as much as possible about our Judeo-Christian heritage. It is admittedly an impossible task to ever attempt to know every detail that ever happened! However, as we shall see in later chapters, there is a rich source of historical research that has been made and continues to be made as you read this sentence. Shockingly, much of this information has not been widely publicized, but has been written up in obscure technical manuals that no one seems to have read. This book aims to present some of these analyses to the interested reader, and organize it much as one would attempt to assemble the pieces of a great puzzle. Much of this book is a composite of high-level analyses taken from a large number of scholars/historians. Admittedly it takes on a wide scope in trying to appropriately tackle many complex issues related to our Judaic-Christian heritage, and therefore it tries to cover a lot of ground as quickly as possible. Most of the focus has therefore been placed on the early development of our Judaic-Christian culture, with less emphasis on more recent developments. Interested readers are strongly recommended to read the referenced books (in addition to others they may know of) to add to their understanding of this complex but vital subject of our religious heritage.