Sunday, December 14, 2008

Dec 14th Atheist Experience Topic

In a recent AE list dialogue, I was referred to as a Conspiracy Theorist on two counts. The first count was that I stated that while I would not say Jesus never existed, I also could not say that I am certain that he did. The second count was that I stated that the church drove the "official" doctrine by creating an environment where the more powerful and popular positions simply eliminated opposition--sometimes by execution, exile or destroying dissident books.

So, the intended topic for today will be a bit about Christian history, the shaping of doctrine and the historical response to "heresy." Assuming we get to it, we'll cover the idea that there were, in fact, divisions from the time the foundations of the church were being laid. Arguments between the apostles themselves and problems between apostles and the churches are clearly recorded in the New Testament texts.

The idea, that seems to be widespread in modern Christianity, that there was a time of doctrinal unity in the early Christian church, to which they should also adhere, is simply incorrect. There has never been a unified Christian doctrine, but Constantine (Roman Emperor, 272-337 CE) attempted to remedy that when he made Christianity the official religion of Rome. If Christianity was to be endorsed and promoted by the government, it had to be defined--and that proved to be quite a task. He appointed Eusebius to work on producing a collection of texts while he called for a series of meetings (Nicea) to try and determine what would become the official church doctrine moving forward. The manuscripts Eusebius would collect would be used in conjunction with the doctrines determined in these debates. And his anthology would eventually (some centuries later) become the Bibles (there are still multiple "official" versions that contain different books) we recognize today as authoritative--meant to reflect and support a doctrine determined not by Jesus and his apostles, but rather by processes put in place much later by the Roman government. The Bible is, then, the result of an attempt to unify the Christian schisms in Rome under a legal Christian doctrine endorsed by Constantine, and to put an end to dissension, by force if necessary. Despite well documented history, the idea that the book is a message from god to Christians today has somehow sprung up and entrenched itself with modern fundamentalist Christians--many of whom are sometimes completely unaware of the basic facts surrounding the production of what today they labeled as "God's Word."

Some names and events to bone up on: Arius, Montanus, Priscillian of Avila, Nestorius, Library of Serapeum in Alexandria, Peter Abelard, Cathars of Languedoc / Albigensian Crusade.


  1. Thank you for posting this. Just the other day I was musing about the evolution of the Christian Church, and the early processes involved. Surely Creationist Christians would miss the irony of this, but it is quite true that "survival of the fittest" would describe their evolution. Granted, it would be survival of the most powerful and most able to kill off all the others, but it's a similar principle.

  2. Wow, I had the same thing happen to me too, except it was more being told I was conspiracy theorizing against a conspiracy I was taking part in.

    Talk about compartmentalization!

  3. Raytheist, another analogy is when an invasive species is introduced into a new ecosystem. Just think of the territory controlled by the Roman Empire as a large ecosystem in which early Christians had freedom of travel. Most of the pagan cults were not proselytizing religions, whereas Christianity offered a universal message.

  4. A quibble -- the Serapeaum and the Library of Alexandria were separate institutions. But your larger point is well-taken -- there has never been a uniform Christian doctrine and what any particular Christian sect accepts as Holy Wife is actually the result of centuries of expurgation and editing intended to gain advantage in long-dead political disputes.

  5. I got stuck listening to a speech last Monday claiming that the Bible was magically perfect and complete, and that was proof that "God" wrote it. Of course, the speaker also claimed that science proves the Bible is true because it mentions rain and rain really happens...

  6. Boohoo & we didn't seem to even get to the topic on the show

  7. Sounds like a good topic. Too bad you couldn't get to it and instead ended up having to discuss veganism with a Canadian and socialism with a Dane. I would have loved to hear your topic, maybe you guys should find a good way to avoid wasting time on atheist callers who just want to talk about stuff that...frankly isn't related. Just a friendly suggestion though, not complaining. Thanks.

  8. i concur with sparrowhawk. I listen to the podcast and It tickles me to no end hearing other Austinites call in with theistic stumpers that the atheist cannot answer. I am always, always disappointed to hear you take calls from out-of-towners who want to tell everyone how much they agree with you, and block our good Texas Christians from posing well-thought-out queries.

  9. I was also disappointed in yesterday's show - I was looking forward to Tracie's presentation. I really like her historical research - if you have not heard them, go back in the archives and listen to her shows on Old Testament gods. I enjoy Matt's rants but the OT gods shows were among the best.

    I think it is time for an AE experiment - take no out of town calls for a few weeks. This is from an out of towner - I am in Chicago. Most don't add to the show. I fast forwarded through the vegan guy. Vegan logically follows from a set of assumptions - which are no more valid than favoring your own species or many other sets of assumptions. His road to veganism is a personal revelation - applicable to him but not something to be generalized. The socialist call was also a waste.

    The useful out of town calls are from isolated atheists looking for support. Make the call screeners work harder.

  10. Yeah, George. I neglected to mention that I find most of the ACA who represent on the show are very engaging speakers. In particular, Tracie's presentations are much more interesting than most call-in discussions. Sodom and Gomorrah in the new Batman movie, what??? Thanks for putting that together.

  11. I am going to make an amazingly selfish comment, and suggest that Tracie come back next week and actually have the show based on this topic.

    Of course, that is paying absolutely no attention to any plans, commitments, jobs, etc that she might have going on next week (none of which are anyone's business but hers). As I said, I am being completely selfish with this request.

    // Needless to say, Tracie's vote completely overrules mine!

    The early history of the church is fascinating (confession time here..I'm a history geek, so any history is fascinating) and has the potential to provide some real eye opening moments to any "true believer" who has an ounce of gray matter in their head.

    For instance, if the books of the Bible were voted on, why didn't an all powerful deity make all the votes unanimous? Consider, a room full of n theologians, which usually has n+1 opinions, all unanimously agreeing on something? That would truly be a miracle, and be quite convincing evidence for some kind of divine inspiration for the Bible. But we don't have that.

    So, more detail would be way cool!

    // Yes, if I have to, I can wait for a month.

  12. Just to say thanks for the supportive comments. But also to let you know that the people at AE are aware of the problems you're bringing up and are trying to figure out ways to address them.

    I'm sort of wondering if I shouldn't have taken Matt's suggestion to just disregard calls for a few minutes and discuss my notes for 10-15 minutes before taking more calls. I hate to have people holding long-distance, but maybe I need to just get over that.

    Meanwhile, the off topic stuff--we get that as well, and there was a note from the studio to basically move those calls along.

    I may just put my notes together and post a blog on it. However, as someone mentioned, it was intended more for theistic viewers who are unfamiliar with church history than for other atheists.

    I'm thinking for an upcoming program I might do a demonstration where I bring two jars on, one labeled "genie" and one labeled "no genie"--and illustrate the "Dragon in my garage" point.

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  14. The vegan call was just retarded. I don't want to hurt anything living, but I will eat plants, because well they aren't alive, right? If you take his argument to the extreme then you can't eat anything as we are related to every living thing, including plants.

    I am sad we missed out on some of Tracie's great historical commentary. It really is some of the best shows.

    As another out of stater, I may have to agree that you stop taking out of town calls.

  15. That's largely my opinion too, BeamStalk. We have to kill living things in order to stay alive. Consequently, we also make new living things (through agriculture and raising livestock) in order to stay alive. While I agree with Matt and Tracie that we should have more humane ways of raising and killing livestock, and while I think we should put as much of the animals to use as possible, I can't feel too bad about killing things so I can stay alive. Even if I were somehow to be able to sustain myself on synthetic materials, I'd still be killing things within my body, with white blood cells, so I could continue living. He hit a real point of inconsistency when he said he had no problem killing bugs (though presumably he wouldn't then eat it), but that the problem with meat was in killing the animal. At least then the animal is going to good use.

    The biggest problem was when he tried to equivocate the moral argument with the health argument, which are separate matters. Whether or not it is unhealthy to eat meat (and I think Matt was absolutely right on this point--the vegan should do a little research into the physical necessity of cholesterol; the point is moderation) has no bearing on whether or not eating meat is morally wrong, unless your premise is that it is morally wrong to do unhealthy things.

    I haven't finished the episode yet, but I've more or less enjoyed it so far. I agree with the calls for call screening, but just setting aside time at the beginning to hit the day's topic might be the best method.

  16. your blog very beautiful and more info ,make me excited. Congratulation!!.I come again

  17. Behold the lilies of the field, how they grow; they photosynthetically labor MUCH and weave sunlight and chemicals most industrially, they sow much oxygen to the air, too.

    Yes, moi once again corrects a saying that was in complete error till me little paraphrasing.

    Anywho, does a society Need its myths?
    If societies needed their myths then those ancient societies would still be around soooooooo – society does not Need myths.

    And here’s an Omas gift of song, from moi to thee

    Stay on groovin’ safari,
    Tor Hershman

  18. "In a recent AE list dialogue, I was referred to as a Conspiracy Theorist on two counts.


    The second count was that I stated that the church drove the "official" doctrine by creating an environment where the more powerful and popular positions simply eliminated opposition--sometimes by execution, exile or destroying dissident books."

    Something done overtly, with known agency or authorship, and recorded in official records is by definition not a conspiracy.

    Christian orthodoxy was created and enforced in a series of ecumenical councils and other church actions which had the force of (first late imperial Roman, then medieval European) law.

    Scriptures were approved or anathematized, as were ways of interpreting them and their related ideas. Specific writings and entire categories of thought were ruled in or out of bounds.

    None of this was conspiratorial. Indeed, it would be hard to find something LESS so than this ongoing project of defining Christianity, which began with the Council of Nicea and went all the way to the Protestant Reformation before the wheels finally came off.

    Conspiracies also require self-consciousness on behalf of their members. The authorities in the Church, contrarily, had no notion of being "up to something;" one of their explicit and proclaimed functions was to safeguard and guide the faithful in the way of correct thought.

    When the church banned books (or burned them), warned wayward scholars to watch their step or exercised tight control over education (such as it was), there were no secret midnight cabals of cardinals and bishops gathering in some Vatican chamber, scheming over how to keep the conspiracy going:

    Father X: Damn, another volume of Aristotle surfaced in south France! Several of the rhetoric lecturers looked at it! Don't we have them all locked up? Quick - check the secret vault to see if any copies are missing.

    Father Y: I like Aristotle, actually.

    Father Z: That's not the point and you know it! Also, some woman in Lombardy named her son "Arias" last week.

    Father X: WHAT?! Nobody's supposed to know he ever existed! Pack your bags, guys, we're going to Lombardy...

  19. Regarding the vegetarianism, I think Matt was too quick to dismiss the environmental argument with a red herring about about animal culling.

    I'm a meat eater and am not swayed by any argument about whether we have a 'right' to eat animals, for similar reasons to Matt's.

    The only argument that comes close to convincing me to eat less meat is the environmental one. Meat is a very inefficient way of feeding humans. It takes a much greater area of land, uses much more water, to produce a pound of meat than a pound of vegetables. You are effectively putting a middle 'man' between you and the food. Instead of eating the grain directly, you have to feed vast amounts of it to animals for a much smaller return.

    It is ironic that Matt brought up the problems relating to feeding much of the world, as lessening dependence on meat is one of the easier ways of feeding more people with the same resources.

    This is true even when accounting for the fact that a pound of meat carries more protein and calories than a pound of veg. And use of land aside, lack of water is going to become MORE of an issue in the future, again making a high-meat diet problematic for much of the world.

    Wiki: "Animals fed on grain need more water than grain crops. In tracking food animal production from the feed through to the dinner table, the inefficiencies of meat, milk and egg production range from a 4:1 energy input to protein output ratio up to 54:1. The result is that producing animal-based food is typically much less efficient than the harvesting of grains, vegetables, legumes, seeds and fruits."

    Sorry if I haven't explained this very well - I recommend people seek out better explanations online. Environmental vegetarianism on wiki is a good start.

  20. The Greek who estimated the circumference was an astronomer from Samos named Aristarchus who lived from 310 - 230 BCE.


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