Saturday, January 7, 2017

Which is More Real: Global Warming, or Jesus Christ?

An exercise in epistemology.

A recent article in the magazine Free Inquiry urged atheists to not get seduced by the theory that Jesus was a mythical creation, instead of a real person. This has been a persistent and highly interesting sub-current in the community, yet the academic consensus, even among non-believing scholars, is that Jesus really did exist. As the writer, Bill Cooke, states: "Part of the problem is that there is no convincing explanation as to why a body of mythological exegesis should have built up quite quickly around someone who never existed."

The consensus of the field is not that Jesus is entirely mythical, but rather that the religion that we have now as Christianity is mostly mythical, going far, far beyond whatever kernel Jesus provided. For example, Jesus was Jewish, and had no interest in founding a non-Jewish, let alone anti-Jewish, religion. He was likely a reforming preacher, and may possibly have presented himself as an inverted Jewish messiah. But the idea that he was god, or part of a trinity, or born on Christmas, or was resurrected, or will come again ... are total fabrications, even to discerning theologians who understand their history.

But all this gets far ahead of the point of the mythicist exercise, which is not to state in some fundamentatlist way that "Jesus never existed, so nya-nya!", but rather to point out the paucity of evidence for that existence, making of it a valid question rather than glorious certainty, and making of the Bible a multi-layered amalgam of myth, piled around a little pea which, while probably real, might also be myth.

There is no direct evidence that Jesus existed. No inscriptions, no contemporary texts, no mentions at all in any text until fifty years or more after his death. And those first mentions, by the Apostle Paul, have a curiously mythical character to them, never mentioning Jesus as a person in any distinct way, but only as the crucified apotheosis of the new movement. The Jesus seminar, to take one example, has tied itself in knots trying to figure out what slivers of the Christian corpus have anything to do with its founder.

Do electric Magi dream of animatronic gods?

So the epistemological status of Jesus as a human being is not secure, but rests, as mentioned above, on the measured judgement of historical scholars about the likelihood of this cult developing the way it did, with or without the putative founder. It is a circumstantial, and preponderance-of-evidence kind of argument, far from an empirical certainty. And the epistemological status of Jesus as a current being / target of devotion, who listens to our prayers, accepts our love from the hearts that we open to him, and will return to set everything right ... well, that is completely untethered from reality, naturally. There is no more evidence for this than there is for praying to pet rocks.

Compare this with global warming and our role in causing it, which is, ironically, the subject of wide disbelief, especially among the religious and others with financial or ideological interests in not believing it. It is, like religious belief, more or less invisible and a matter of careful inference, by a priesthood of experts with occult instruments and practices. But truly, the evidence is now available in profusion, both of its existence and its inexorable (if slow) and dire consequences.

Yet disbelief persists. If god is running things for our benefit, the earth could hardly be going to pot due our greed and negligence, could it? And anyhow, if Jesus is coming back soon, who cares? The idea that humanity will be around for thousands, even millions, or, inconceivably, billions of years into the future is foreign to a mindset where one's horizon is hardly farther than a generation past or future, and everything beyond that resides in an archetypal, dreamy haze.


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