The nature of religious privilege…

December 29, 2014

On BBC local radio here in the UK after the Sydney cafe siege, the presenter had a conversation with a local Imam on the subject of religious extremism. The Imam reiterated that the attacker was a lone nut, who didn’t represent Muslims. The conversation was one of damage limitation and worry for Muslims who may be abused and attacked in the aftermath. The rise of anti-Muslim hate must be addressed – one would hope with the promotion of civil rights & protections for all – but I was unsure that the conversation on BBC local radio that day was particularly helpful, when at one point, the presenter insisted that ‘all religions promote peace and love‘. To begin from that uncritical premise – as if it is a matter of undeniable fact – is just as problematic as beginning from the premise that all religions are violent and oppressive. The problem of religious dogma – that is, the chaining of morality to a single time and place (usually very patriarchal, middle eastern tribal squabbles) – is suddenly dismissed, and other explanations for extremism take its place. The rise of ISIS was blamed on Blair, Bush, and the Iraq war, sometimes on Israel, but little attention payed to religious dogma. It is almost as if it is too uncomfortable to accept that such ingrained religious traditions & much loved religious ideas may present issues within themselves and autonomous of surrounding context. And so it is a distinct religious privilege, to free its problematic dogma from shouldering any blame for extremism, instead blaming everyone else for its problems. No other ideological framework of power has that privilege. But it isn’t the only privilege religions currently enjoy…

When the debate over same-sex marriage came up before Parliament last year, the only dissenting voices – and those who believed themselves to have the privileged right to tell others whom they can and can’t marry – were those of the religious. It is as if “it’s unnatural, because Leviticus says so” is a legitimate argument in a 21st century that has extensive knowledge of the natural spectrum of sexuality. It is therefore a religious privilege for Christians to believe that firstly they own the institution of marriage; Secondly, that they and they alone have the right to tell others whom they can and cannot marry based on discredited myths; and thirdly, that breaking the barriers to equal rights and freedoms regardless of sexuality, is an assault on Christianity.

It is breathtakingly delusional to believe that extending rights that you have always enjoyed, to those traditionally oppressed by your faith, is oppressing you. It is even more delusional to assume that the institution of marriage is a solely Christian, unchangeable institution. Hebrew society engaged in polygamy much of the time, it certainly wasn’t frowned upon. Monogamy in a marriage is a pretty new development. We know that the Mohammad married Aisha when she was 6 years old. In Ancient Rome, marriage was civil, it was not overtly religious. In India, if the bride was born when Mars and Saturn are “under the 7th house”, she is considered cursed and could end up murdering her husband. And so to break the curse, the bride must first marry a tree, the tree is then destroyed, and the bride is free from the curse forever. In the Tidong community in Northern Borneo, after marriage, the couple must not urinate for three days. Marriage is not official within the Neur tribe in Sudan, until the bride has had two children. It was only in 1967, that the US allowed interracial marriage. By 1910, Arizona, California, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah had all banned interracial marriage. And what was used to justify anti-miscegenation laws in the US? Of course it was the Bible. The destruction of all other concepts of marriage, to the benefit of just one concept – the Christian concept – and then attempting to ensure that single concept reigns supreme, is wildly oppressive to say the very least.

A couple of months ago on the Bill Maher show over in the United States, in a debate on extremism Sam Harris referred to Islam as the ‘mother lode of bad ideas‘. Consequently, actor Ben Affleck- also appearing on the show – referred to Harris’ statement as ‘racist‘. It is a curious criticism and one that had me considering the unique nature of religious privilege, the language that sustains it, and its lashing out – by among other things, demonising criticism – when challenged. It is a religious privilege to be able to claim racism at criticisms of an idea. As a secular liberal, I define racism as the institutional disenfranchising and denial of equal civil rights based on ethnicity. Language can & does of course further add to the perpetual dehumanising of an ethnicity. Also as a secular liberal, I believe all ideas must be up for inquiry, criticism, satire, and mockery. Religions are not immune to this, nor should they be. Racism is not criticism, or even complete contempt for a religion. Much like racism is not criticism, or even complete contempt for a political ideology. Further, and by implication, I would argue that if words that offend a religion are to be deemed racism, then equally words that offend non-believers must also be deemed racism. And so, left-leaning commentators like Mehdi Hasan would be deemed racist, for rants like:

“We know that keeping the moral high-ground is key. Once we lose the moral high-ground we are no different from the rest of the non-Muslims; from the rest of those human beings who live their lives as animals, bending any rule to fulfil any desire.”

– I am quite certain that if Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris had referred to all Muslims as ‘living like animals’, Hasan would be the first to call racism. Further, the New Testament, Old Testament, and Qur’an would be deemed incredibly racist books. Most chapters of the Qur’an begin with God explaining how great he is (a little arrogant), followed by a lovely little description of the fate that awaits those of us who have not been convinced that a God exists:

“[10:4] To Him is your return. This is Allah’s promise that will certainly come true. Surely it is He Who brings about the creation of all and He will repeat it so that He may justly reward those who believe and do righteous deeds, and those who disbelieve may have a draught of boiling water and suffer a painful chastisement for their denying the Truth.”

– Whilst Sam Harris simply referred to a religion as a bad idea and was deemed racist for doing so, Holy Books go beyond criticism, and become threats of eternal torture for non-belief. This of course would also mean that the idea of a Caliphate – in which non-believers are barred from highest office – is institutionally racist. It would mean that South Carolina was institutionally racist when Herb Silverman ran for the post of Governor in 1992 but was discarded from the race for refusing to swear an oath to God. It took five whole years for the courts to rule in his favour. It is therefore a massive religious privilege to demand and expect respect for a book that threatens people like me, with religious institutions that disenfranchise anyone ‘outside’ of the religion, whilst yelling racism if I am to call that book the ‘mother lode of bad ideas’. If one is to be considered racism, so must the other.

Along with compulsory worship in schools, and a Monarch whom also happens to be head of the Church of England, it is a religious privilege in the UK, for over 25 Bishops to have a permanent position in the national legislature, as if they have some sort of natural right to consider legislation based solely on which invisible being it is they believe in. To be called ‘Lords Spiritual‘, as if spirituality is a supernatural phenomena consigned to the religious only. The perpetuation of privilege based on the bizarre belief that a deeper understanding of a very unproven deity somehow grants one a position to legislate above the rest of us. It is worth noting that no religious scholar has any more of an idea about what happens after we die, than the rest of us, and that filling in that gap in human knowledge with myths is a ‘science’ consigned to the history books in every other realm of human understanding, yet when it comes to this particular question, we put Bishops in the Lords for their adherence to 1st Century Palestinian myths. It is also worth noting that spirituality does not in any way require a belief in God, or an afterlife, and is a perfectly natural and human trait. Religious supremacy has no more place in a national legislature, than racial supremacy, sexuality supremacy or gender supremacy. The very fact that structures of religious supremacy are not treated with the same contempt as those of racial, or gender supremacy, is in itself, a vast privilege milked for every drop it is worth by those in positions of religious power.

Often, religious privilege is sustained by the powerful few, & the denial of many. Those who are so invested in their religion, refuse to accept that it might be flawed. Jumping back to the racism theme, not too long ago Twitter exploded in rage at Lady Gaga wearing a full face veil. The charge was that she – a white westerner – had ‘appropriated’ a cultural symbol of the Islamic east. It is a wildly hypocritical religious privilege to claim the veil for one religion, thus dismissing it from every other culture that has ever used the veil, whilst refusing to acknowledge that Islam has appropriated Christian & Pagan stories, Temple Mount, the Hagia Sofia, the Palestinian freedom cause (Palestinians are all who live there – not simply heterosexual Muslim men), every piece of land deemed to be “Muslim land” (no land belongs to a religion), and when Mo Ansar recently mentioned the French invading Muslim Tunisia in the 19th Century as an act of western imperialism, he neglected to mention that Tunisia was only “Muslim” by the 19th Century, because imperialist Arab Muslims had invaded it and established the Arab Aghlabids dynasty in the first place. It is a religious privilege to rewrite history by deflecting onto others, the often violent ‘appropriation’ of cultural symbols into its own black hole.

It is a religious privilege for Christianity to be so enshrined into state constitutions, that it requires a national constitution to protect everyone else:
Arkansas’ Constitution:

No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this
State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any Court.

Maryland Constitution, Article 37:

That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God; nor shall the Legislature prescribe any other oath of office than the oath prescribed by this Constitution.

Mississippi Constitution, Article 14, Section 265:

No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this State.

South Carolina Constitution, Article 17, Section 4:

No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution.

Tennessee Constitution, Article 9, Section 2:

No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this State.

Texas Constitution, Article 1, Section 4:

No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.

The list of religious privileges is endless. It includes Jehovah’s Witness families torn apart if a member decides they don’t believe any more. It includes apostates dehumanised and abused for leaving Islam & then referred to as ‘Islamophobic’ if they dare to speak out. It includes women covered from head to toe so as to not arouse the apparently uncontrollable lust of men. It includes Uganda’s Christian Minister for Ethics condemning homosexuals to a life of fear, whilst insisting that the rape of young girls in his country is, and I quote:

“… the right kind of child rape. It is men raping girls and that is natural.”

– It includes Pakistan’s grotesque blasphemy laws that punishes the ‘offending’ believers, whilst institutionalises the ‘offending’ of non-believers. It includes the Boy Scouts of America prohibiting the inclusions of atheists and whose charter states:

“The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe and the grateful acknowledgment of His favors and blessings are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing members.”

– It includes ‘In God we trust’ and ‘One nation under God’ placed on US institutions in blatant disregard of the secular founding. It includes Iran murdering gay people because an ancient, unenlightened, out-of-date myth condemns homosexuality and is taught to impressionable young minds as truth – despite the fact that many of those young minds, will be gay – whilst neglecting to teach the actual biology and genetic base for sexuality. It includes all of these things causing little uproar, whilst a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad, or a “There is no God” billboard on the side of buses causes the religious to insist that their faith is under severe attack. It is the moment the religion of one, extends to control the liberty of another. In short, the nature of religious privilege.


God’s tapestry & the problem of foresight.

September 2, 2014

There was a moment during a debate between Dr William Lane Craig & Christopher Hitchens, in which Hitchens points out that to believe in the Christian narrative, one would have to believe that for 200,000 years of human existence, through the awful conditions that our fragile species barely survived within, through the disease and violence, through it all, heaven didn’t particularly care. 198,000 years later, heaven decided it was now time to intervene, by having a 1st century Palestinian Jew tortured to death somewhere in the Middle East. Laurence Krauss used a similar argument in his debate with Dr Craig also.

Craig countered and insisted that it wasn’t the timing that was important, but population, in that only 2% of the overall population of mankind existed prior to Christ and that Christ appeared to have arrived at a time prior to a population boom. Dr Craig referred to this as God choosing “an opportune moment” to send Jesus, right before massive population growth. Leaving aside God’s lack of concern for the poor 2%, and the fact that an all-powerful God could have created a population boom whenever He pleased rendering the “opportune moment” suggestion meaningless, I think it important to note the consequences of that “opportune moment” chosen to intervene, and its implications for the premise of the Christian God.

For, not only would you need to believe that for 198,000 years heaven peered on with indifference, but you’d also have to believe that either God did not foresee the future consequences of choosing that moment and that specific region to send Christ to ‘save’ mankind and the suffering that it would entail, or He did foresee it, and was absolutely fine with it; the problem of foresight.

All religious narratives suffer a form of contradiction every so often, whether that be contradiction within texts themselves, or the text contradicting the premise of the God on offer. In this case – the problem of foresight – it is the latter that we’re focusing on, because the premise of an all-knowing God implies eternal foresight, whilst the historical consequences of what Christian’s believe to be God’s actions, imply a God unaware of how this plan was going to turn out, or simply an uncaring God (contradicting the concept of an all-loving God).

For Christianity, time – God’s creation – is laid out in front of Him like a tapestry that He wove. Before the events of Genesis 1, He already knew, because He created as a timeless absolute, the consequences of the actions of all mankind at all times, from the hugely consequential decision to convert the Roman Empire to the faith, right through to an individual’s private sex life in the 21st Century. He sees it all and crucially, He can intervene whenever He chooses. And yet it seems unfathomable that such a power would be so oblivious – or simply uncaring – to the consequences of the manner in which His followers would convey the Christian message over the centuries. Indeed, He necessarily knew the consequences, and again sat back with indifference for the next 2000 years.

Whilst not wishing to document every instance of Christian-led persecution over the past 2000 years, it is perhaps worth noting a few, in order to highlight the contradiction and the problem of foresight.

It must be the case, that an all-knowing God knew that the brutality by which Christian Emperors of Rome – like Constantius and his persecution of Pagans – would aid the growth and power of Christian dogma into a disastrous dark age and the suppression of all things ‘heretical’ – including extensive book burning – for at least the next thousand years. He could have encouraged free inquiry in medicine, democratic accountability in political affairs, astronomy, human liberty, and all over forms of inquiry that simultaneously shrink the gaps by which God traditionally resides, whilst elevating the suffering of mankind. With few exceptions, the opposite occurred. Along with the centuries-long justification of tyrannical Christian power under the guise of “divine right”, and knowing as He would have if He were all-knowing, among other edicts of suppression, that the Emperor Jovian would order the burning of the library at Antioch, through to the child abuse scandal of the modern day Catholic Church.

It must be the case, that an all-knowing God knew that a great deal of Europe’s human beings – like Thomas Moore – and their families would suffer the indignity of religious-inspired state murder; the unimaginable physical and psychological pain that comes with confinement and executed for such nuanced differences as whether or not the King or the Pope had supreme control of the Church. His own devout followers, who offered nothing but devotion and love, He knew would be subject to the most cruel punishments for simple disagreements. An all-knowing God would necessarily have seen this in great detail, long before the “In the beginning…” of Genesis 1.

It must be the case, that an all-knowing God before events described in Genesis 1, knew the tragedy that would beset Native tribes in the Americas when the sincerely believed Christian message was forcefully imposed. Indeed, He knew far greater the reason for that pain and tragedy than the Friar’s involved, yet started the ball rolling down that inevitable path by sending Christ, and very mixed messages in the Holy Book that followed. Ken Burns documentary ‘The West’ notes one 18th Century Friar during the missionary period firmly believing his life’s work must be to save Natives from damnation, confused as to its clear failure, saying:

“They live well free, but as soon as we reduce them to a Christian and community life… they fatten, sicken and die.”

– The Friar could not understand how a Godly message of what he considered to be saving grace, was having such an adverse affect on the Native population. God however, does not get the luxury of such an excuse.

It must be the case that an all-knowing God knew that Jerusalem would be a Holy centre for three major faiths, and consequently, the centre of such a violent dispute. He set humanity up for that inevitable conflict. The Gods of Islam and Judaism don’t escape this criticism either.

And most notably, it must be the case that an all-knowing God knew that 1700+ years later, a movement to prevent further Christian state brutality, and to free human ingenuity and autonomy required the disestablishing of Christian authority over the public realm.

The birth of Jesus was a moment that would change the course of history for humanity… though not for God, who knew how it all would pan out anyway. It is on that second point that it is not viable to suggest He provided that divine message, and that from that moment on, it was up to humanity to live according to it. It is not viable, because with the tapestry of time laid out in front of Him, He could see the minute-by-minute detail of exactly how His message would be used, and He chose to go with that course anyway; in fact, He created that course and intrinsically stitched humanity to it. Indeed, to suggest God is all-knowing, is to suggest humanity has no choice but to follow the path God is already aware that he/she will follow. The only possible way to deflect from that path, is to be more powerful than God, which again, contradicts the premise of the all-powerful Christian God.

And so we’re left with three possibilities; 1) God knew exactly how the course of human history would be affected by the onset of Christianity, and not simply allowed, but forced through His unbreakable tapestry, centuries of violent oppression – including the suppression of scientific endeavor – to take place for the sake of a grand scheme that He refuses to reveal. This is appealing because it allows for the all-knowing God, yet leaves a lot to be desired for the notion of an all-loving God, seeming as it does to imply that God is playing a cruel game with human beings who have no choice. 2) God is restricted by time, cannot see the long stretching consequences of His actions, which implies He is not all-knowing, nor all-powerful and if we look back over the course of history of the religion, reads like a series of bad decisions by the divine. Or 3) There is no God, and the flawed species of humanity is responsible for its own shortcomings. Because the problem of foresight as summarised in points 1 and 2 necessarily contradict the Christian premise of an all-loving, all-knowing God, I am further led to conclude that point 3 is the more likely.


God does not love you.

May 11, 2014

'The Sacrifice of Isaac' by Caravaggio.

‘The Sacrifice of Isaac’ by Caravaggio.

This morning I found a collection of old photos of family, and myself as a child. My mum has less of a 1980s Bon Jovi haircut going on these days, but nevertheless is still looking pretty similar, whilst my dad hasn’t changed a bit (though he has thankfully opted to ditch the three top buttons undone on his shirt these days). Another similarity between my parents of the ’80s and my parents of the 10s, is that neither were religious back then, and neither are religious today. And yet, the picture depicts my family all smartly dressed and me as a baby, on the day of my Christening into the Church of England.

I was baptised almost entirely because of my mother’s fear. Fear that if I died young, and the Christian God really did exist, there’s a chance He might send me to the pits of hell simply because a man in an old, elaborate crucifix shaped building hadn’t dunked my head in water. It is the hideous notion that a baby – far from obtaining the age in which they can reason – has angered God simply by existing. The sin of Adam, passed onto a completely innocent child, that now requires a bizarre ritual to cleanse, or eternal punishment. This is not a ‘love’ that any parent would wish to emulate and inflict upon their child, because it is not ‘love’ by any definition of the word.

The element of fear is doubtlessly a factor driving people to baptise not only their children, but themselves, in times of danger. In 2003, the Chicago Tribune posted an article entitled: “Facing uncertain fate, troops line up for Baptism”. It includes a quote from Cpl. Jason Irving, that reads:

“If I don’t get to see them again here on Earth, I want to make sure that I am all right with God, so I can see them in heaven.”

– The implication being that if his head is not dunked in water, there’s reason to suspect that the God of Christianity will forever keep him apart from his children in an afterlife. For myself growing up through years of school prayers, and hymns, hearing stories of what seemed to be good people destined for hell, the “love” of the Christian God seemed confusing at best, and today it seems absurd to me to claim that God loves you.

If we are to start from the premise that God is the single, infinite cause of everything (which apparently, doesn’t encompass ‘everything’, if we play by the illogical features of the commonly utilised cosmological argument), and thus has full control over all of His creation, then it seems self evident to me that human beings, and every living creature on the planet, are just small parts of a rather grotesque game. We are ‘valued’ as a pawn on a chess board might be valued, and sacrificed, and discarded, in a game of chess that God is playing against himself. We have no choice but to be chained to this game, to follow rules that are completely His invention, for a supposed ‘higher purpose’ that He created and has the full ability to achieve without the suffering He inflicts, and all appear to be for no other reason than to stroke His ego by insisting upon unquestioned worship and reverence – like a slave holder – on fear of eternal punishment.

The Christian God offers us His ‘love’ at the small price of suspending all of our natural faculties of reason – something He endowed us with in the first place. We are a species that values criticism and doubt in order to progress. Indeed, criticism and doubt are the essence of reason. God must have been aware of the cruelty of this. Like dangling bread in front of a starving child, and threatening to punish him if he eats it. We do not then get to claim we had a higher purpose all along. It is not ‘love’, it is blatant cruelty.

The disciple Thomas – as described in John – seems to have been a very wise, reasonable and curious man. He was not convinced by the other disciples that Jesus had returned from the dead, and so rightfully demanded proof. Thomas thus reflected the curiosity of Adam and Eve, forever punished for wishing the freedom to learn and to question according to our natural curiosity. If there’s one thing that oppressive power structures do abundantly well, it is policing thoughts and expression, for their own ends. Later, Jesus appears to Thomas and shows him his hand and side wounds in order to provide Thomas with the evidence he demanded. Upon seeing the evidence, Thomas is convinced. Jesus says:

“Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

As with Genesis, Jesus seems to be condemning doubt, and blessing unquestioned belief. Thus, both Genesis and Jesus (according to the Gospel of John) punish humanity for our natural condition, whilst demanding the suspension of that natural condition in order to achieve his blessing. A sick and completely unnecessary game of abuse. We are not free if our minds are chained. A worthwhile teacher does not teach children to believe exactly as they’re told without evidence. A worthwhile teacher inspires curiosity and a yearning for knowledge, to engage their natural desire to understand without bias or dogma. There is no love in demanding unquestioned obedience. It seems to me that if we are to indulge our curiosity and inquire into the nature of God’s ‘love’, and it is a love we identify with, it is all the more stronger if backed up with evidence, rather than a claim of ‘love’ that we are demanded to accept without question. The latter suggests that God may be a little insecure about his concept of ‘love’.

After endowing humanity with curiosity, the ability to reason and to doubt, and yet failing to recognise that we might use that natural disposition to question His demands, God sets out to fix it. In order to correct His mistake (the mistake of a seemingly unintelligent designer), He refuses to accept any responsibility, and chooses instead to violently torture to death a 1st century Palestinian Jew, and claim it was all for us. Christians today tend to argue that this was a heartbreaking ‘sacrifice’ for God to have made. To me, it seems the opposite. A sacrifice isn’t a sacrifice if the ‘victim’ rises three days later, walks around for a while, and ascends to heaven to join God as a judge for eternity. And again, this is all part of His design, His game, nothing and no-one else is responsible, it is all Him. Any deviation from his apparent plan, reflects His inability to think and plan ahead. But he can’t accept that, He refuses to accept responsibility for his dreadful workmanship, and instead punishes his creation for it. A victim blaming mentality. Indeed, absolving sins requiring a torturous death, is also His concept, His broken rules, and His idea of a fitting punishment, no one else thought this up. He may just as easily have told us that forcing Jesus to wear sandals that are too big for his feet, is the punishment required to absolve our sins. It’s all his silly little game, not ours, we didn’t ask for this badly planned dictator-like game. And what a stunningly ineffective punishment the sacrifice of Jesus to atone for sins was, given that Christians spent the next 1700+ years killing each other, forcing conversions, and building oppressive empires. It spawned just as bad, if not worse oppression, than it replaced.

All of this, a few centuries after asking Abraham to sacrifice his son to prove his devotion, before stopping him at the last minute. What needless and self indulgent cruelty to inflict upon a child. In the years between Abraham and Jesus, God chooses to make Jephthah follow through on his promise to sacrifice his child in return for victory in battle, rather than renegotiating a far less horrific deal, thus freely choosing to violate the sacred life of a completely innocent young girl. This is a God that appears to think that showing love and devotion, is intrinsically linked to torturing and murdering family members. Appeasing a problem that He created in the first place, is apparently redeemed not by accepting that His plan may not have been the most wisely conceived plan in history, but by the suffering of others; whether Adam and Eve, their progeny, Isaac, Jephthah’s daughter, Jesus, or the rest of mankind; we are all liable to be punished for His mistakes.

The predictable answer from Christians, is that we cannot know God’s love. It is a divine ‘love’ beyond our limited understanding. We are finite beings unable to conceive of the love God has for his creation. I find this to be a cop out. After all, God must know that this World is all we know, and so it would make sense for his dealings in the material World, to be sympathetic and sensitive to our condition in order to cause us the least suffering and pain. Instead, He is fine with intervening according to His own standard, knowing the suffering and pain it causes His subjects. God must be aware that by way of its cruelty, the ‘love’ he offers, is a love that no reasonable person would strive to emulate with people that we love. And in fact, in many cases – human sacrifice as a sign of devotion for example – if we were to emulate His divine standard as reflected in His example to us, we’d be condemned to Hell.

To conclude, even if we discard the horror of God’s ‘love’ for us, it would still seem to me that a finite human being, with such precious little time on this Earth, offering to spend that time loving you for just being you, is a far greater love than an infinite being, unrestricted by time, offering to love you or torture you depending on how well you adhere to His list of demands. A human being’s love for another human being, is therefore greater than God’s ‘love’ for humanity. To the Christian God, you are simply an ant struggling to survive, and God has his foot hovering just above your head, waiting to crash down upon you if you do not sufficiently beg him not to. God does not love you, God tortures you.


Behold! Cameron Jesus.

April 10, 2014

Christ_Pantocrator_Deesis_mosaic_Hagia_Sophia

There is a worrying trend among high ranking members of the Tory Party recently, to insist upon all of us, that the UK is a Christian country. Baroness Warsi doesn’t seem to understand secularism, whilst Eric Pickles thinks non-Christians should be quiet and accept we’re inferior. The Prime Minister today reiterated Pickles’ comments , and so by extension of this anti-secular, Christian-privilege position, it further implies that those of us who aren’t Christian, are not to be considered as valuable or as ‘British’ as Christians. Perhaps we should be thanking Christians for allowing us to live on land that they themselves have decided that they own. Or perhaps they should try to grasp the concept that in an Enlightened world, it should be quite obvious to all that a piece of land does not belong to any religion, instead belonging to the great melting pot of all who live in it and contribute to it.

Today, the Prime Minister took their new found obsession with Christianity a step further, by claiming his flagship ‘Big Society’ (a creative code for ‘cutting the state in order to fund tax cuts for the wealthiest, and hoping everyone else will have time to run libraries and care for the sick and disabled, whilst working longer for less pay’) was invented by Jesus, and that he is merely carrying on the work of Christ. The absurdity of such a statement lends itself wonderfully to social media parodies. And so:

cameronjesus

When religion and politics cross paths, the result is usually disastrous for all the wrong reasons. This time, was one of those rare occasions when the mixing of religion and politics produced a disastrous response for all the right reasons. Well played Twitter, well played.


The Power of St Peter.

February 23, 2014

Source:  Wikimedia Commons Author: By Emilio García from Parla, Spain (cropped version of San Pedro vigila).

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Author: By Emilio García from Parla, Spain (cropped version of San Pedro vigila).

It is ten years this year since my first trip to Rome. A friend of mine had given me ‘Rubicon’ by Tom Holland to read. It’s a book that chapters the fall of the Republic and the rise of Octavian. The epic nature and the timeless names of the final years of the Roman Republic, with all its contradictions, had me hooked from the first page of the book, and I endeavoured to visit the city. At that time, it never occurred to me that Rome was the cradle of not just one masterful empire, but two.

The Via della Conciliazione leads from Castel Sant’Angelo to St Peter’s Square. It’s a relatively narrow street given how central its location to Papal power. Far narrower than the Mall leading to Buckingham Palace in London. It feels like a tunnel that comes to an end at the vast opening of St Peter’s Square. St Peter’s is an odd contradiction. A beautifully crafted plaza surrounded by stone Saints and the genius of Bernini, yet funded by the hideous robbery of the poor by the church through the sale of indulgences. It was the sale of indulgences that started the ball rolling of the rejection of Papal authority, through what became the reformation.

Inside the walls of the Vatican stands St Peter’s Baldachin. Bernini’s towering Baroque structure is said to stand directly above the tomb of St Peter, which apparently – though very doubtful – lies underneath St Peter’s basilica. The giant structure and its placement echoes the power and supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church, built upon the ‘rock’ of St Peter. Which leads to the question, what is the Biblical justification for the presumed power and supremacy of Rome, and for the legitimacy of the line of succession from St Peter to Pope Francis, and all in between who have had such vast power and influence?

You will have to excuse my overlooking of the question of whether the Biblical Peter actually visited Rome at all, or in fact, actually existed. I want instead to focus on presumed Papal authority and its fundamental justifications.

Paragraph 882 of the Cathechism of the Catholic Church says:

“… the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.”

– The problem with this declaration is twofold. Firstly, there is no Biblical reason to accept that the Church in Rome was considered supreme in authority over any other sees. There is likewise no early Christian writings that establishes Rome as the supreme centre of Christendom for at least a century following the death of Peter. And even then, Irenaeus’s suggestion at the power of. Roman Catholic authority is dubious, due to its many translations. Secondly, there is no Biblical justification for a line of supreme authority succession from the Roman “Vicar of Christ”.

On the first point, it is generally argued that ‘1 Peter’ establishes – by Peter – the episcopal see in Rome as the supreme church governing all churches, with this particular verse that Peter supposedly wrote to several churches throughout early Christendom:

“The church that is at Babylon, elected together with you, saluteth you; and so doth Mark my son.”

– It is this that the Vatican uses primarily to place Peter in Rome. The common argument is that ‘Babylon’ was an early Christian code-word for Rome. The Book of Revelation similarly calls Rome ‘Babylon’, and this is used as further evidence that Peter thus used ‘Babylon’ as code for ‘Rome’. Though there is a vast difference between the writing style of Revelation – figurative, mythological – and the reference to ‘Babylon’ in 1 Peter – a plain, rather boring, matter-of-fact salutation. Revelation is also written decades after the death of Peter, and there is no reason to think Christians at the time of Peter were already using “Babylon” as a code for Rome. Also, Revelation is not speaking directly to any group in particular. Peter is tasked with speaking to Jewish communities. We know from Josephus, that Babylon had a great number of Jews at that time, and it isn’t unlikely that Peter was writing from the actual Babylon on the Euphrates itself.

The Vatican’s insistence that Rome was established as the supreme church is curious for several more reasons than just the writing style of 1 Peter. Firstly, Peter isn’t only thought to have established the episcopal see in Rome, but also the episcopal see at Antioch. And by early Christian standards, Antioch was a far more important place than Rome. And if we are to consider the idea that the word ‘Babylon’ in 1 Peter refers to another city, I’d suggest it’s far more likely to refer to Antioch, than to Rome:

Rome isn’t mentioned once as an important Christian city in the New Testament, but Antioch plays a vital role. Indeed, the importance of Peter in the early spread of Christianity, is echoed in the importance of Antioch. In Acts 11:26 we see just how important Antioch was for the early Christians:

“…And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch. And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch.”

– The concept of being ‘Christian’ comes to us from Antioch. ‘Prophets’ – whomever they are – came specifically to Antioch all the way from Jerusalem, suggesting that Antioch was a city with great importance and influence for the early Christian communities across the empire at that point. This is also where Peter specifically chooses to establish a Church.

The fascinating pre-Christian history of Antioch brings up an unexpected link with Babylon. It was Alexander the Great’s general Seleucus I Nicator that built and established Antioch as his city of governance for the new Seleucid Empire in the fourth century BC. Seleucus established himself in Babylon in 312bc, which is the year given for the beginning of the Seleucid Empire. The importance of Babylon at that point cannot be overstated. Seleucus soon noticed that the Western section of the empire including Syria, and Turkey, had considerably more advantages than the Eastern section. The Eastern section contained Babylon. The Western section needed a Babylon of its own. So Seleucus had Antioch built in the West, and soon flocks of people from the east – including a great number of Babylonians – were now moving west, to Antioch. The establishment of Antioch and other cities by Seleucus was one of the key reasons for the decline of Babylon. Indeed, it was the Babylonian Priests that dominated Antioch at that time. Antioch was so incredibly Babylonian a few years later, that the historian Franz Cumont noted:

“There can be no doubt that Babylonian doctrines exercised decisive influence on this gradual metamorphosis and this latest phase of Semitic religion. The Seleucid princes of Antioch showed as great a deference to the science of the Babylonian clergy as the Persian Achaemenids had done before them.”

“It was Babylon that retained the intellectual supremacy, even after its political ruin. The powerful sacerdotal caste ruling it did not fall with the independence of the country, and it survived the conquests of Alexander. The researches of Assyriologists have shown that its ancient worship persisted under the Seleucids, and at the time of Strabo the Chaldeans still discussed cosmology and first principles in the rival schools of Borsippa and Orchoe.”

– From the clear influence of Babylonian culture on the foundations of Antioch, and from the clear central importance of Antioch to the early Christians, I would suggest that if we are to follow Papal reasoning, that Peter was not referring to Bablyon – then the reference to ‘Babylon’ in 1 Peter is more likely a reference to Antioch, and not to Rome. The Seleucid’s may have moved to Antioch, but remained the Kings of Babylon. This seems too significant for me, to simply overlook.

So, if we cannot reasonably suggest that Peter had established the church in Rome as the supreme authority, and placing aside the translation issues of the often quoted Irenaeus passage for the supremacy of Rome from around 120 years after the death of Peter – is there any Biblical reason to presume the supreme authority of Peter, and that of the established line of Papal succession?

Biblical scholars date the Gospel of Matthew to between 80ad and 110ad. At best, around fifteen years after the death of Peter in Rome, and at worst around half a century after the death of Peter in Rome. Between the death of Jesus, and the Gospel of Matthew, there is no hint of justification for the supremacy of the Bishop in Rome. Whilst Peter is given a special place among the apostles in spreading the message of Jesus, his establishment is never suggested supreme over all others, and the other apostles certainly are not told that they are subordinate to Peter.

The authors of the letters of Paul and Peter themselves appear to have no conception of Roman church supremacy. As shown, there is certainly more reason to suggest the primacy of the Church at Antioch, than Rome. Paul certainly isn’t preaching the supremacy of Rome, and in fact appears to consider himself to be the authority on early Christian doctrine especially in relation to gentiles. It is Paul who by his own words rebukes Peter over Peter’s apparent hypocrisy. In Galatians 2:11-14 Paul says:

“When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?”

– Paul here – and later – argues that old Jewish laws should not apply to gentiles. Peter didn’t seem to know where he stood on certain Theological questions of the early Christians, which Paul then goes on to argue and address. The only mention of Peter, by Paul, is an argument between the two, and Paul rebuking Peter. It is afterall not the case today, that Christians must observe the laws of Moses.

Indeed, the author of 1 Peter himself seems to hint that Christians in Asia Minor are also to be considered stones upon which Churches are built, in much the same way as Matthew describes Peter:

“4 As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house[a] to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

– Later in the same chapter of 1 Peter, the author’s use of language is not demanding – as one might expect from the supreme leader of the Church over all other Churches – but simply one of an advice giver:

“11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.”

– He ‘urges’. There is no authoritarian demands, as one might expect from the single authority of Christian dogma. There is simply suggestion. He has no authority to demand. He isn’t ever claiming to be an authority on the entire church.

It is clear from the Gospels that Peter doubtlessly plays a more pronounced role in the spread of Christianity, but not as the single supreme authority on the new faith. There is no hint in Peter’s letters in the New Testament, that he considered himself to be the supreme head of the entire Christian faith. This idea seems to come from one brief and ambiguous passage in Matthew – written decades after Peter’s death, and presumptions of superiority due to his elevated status among the other apostles. There is no hint anywhere in the Bible that Peter ever set out to establish a supreme Church to rule all the churches, from Rome. There no hint in the Bible or in the writings of Peter or Paul, that an apostolic line of succession for the Bishops of Rome would forever be the ultimate Christian authority. There is nothing from Paul to indicate that he had any idea of the supremacy of Peter – indeed, Paul rebukes and argues with Peter – or the necessity for a central authority in Rome. This has no basis in anything but later conjecture, that seems to begin with the Gospel of Matthew and – as usual – relies heavily on cherry picking.

So the question remains; for such a powerful institution that has controlled and influenced the land, the art, the expression, the sexuality, the thoughts and the lives of so many Christians and non-Christians over the centuries, on from clear Biblical basis does the Roman Catholic Church derive its power?


The immoral teachings of Christ.

January 5, 2014

Caravaggio_Doubting_Thomas

It is often the case that the Biblical version of Jesus is portrayed as the peaceful replacement for the out of date and largely anti-social and antiquated Leviticus or Kings. Countless nonbelievers are of the opinion that Jesus was a sort of hippy of his time. A preacher of non-violence, of loving thy neighbour, of blessed are the meek. This is the picture we have of the Christian Jesus, and yet when we read the teachings of Jesus, a slightly different picture emerges.

It is true, that in comparison to the Biblical heroes that enjoyed God’s grace before him – King Saul’s brutal God-ordained genocide of Amalekite children comes to mind – Jesus was a little less maniacal according to scripture. But he isn’t completely without a tendency to cruel reaction, contradiction and wholly immoral sentiment.

It is prudent to point out that Jesus himself insists that the Mosaic laws of the Old Testament are not defunct by his arrival. The cruelties of those laws and commands, and the irrational and heartless judgements from the God of the Old Testament, Jesus insists he has come to confirm. For Jesus, the moral teachings of the Old Testaments are perfectly reasonable. In Matthew 5:17 Jesus says:

“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.”

– This alone, is enough for fundamentalists to use for the sake of anchoring what they see as the legitimacy of heterosexual-supremacy and Old Testament ordained Patriarchy, regardless of any scientific and social advancement and a more informed understanding of historical processes. The same-sex marriage debate was laden with references to Leviticus. It appears to be the only Leviticus verse that the Christian-right have decided to take seriously.

The New Testament gives the impression that Jesus has two different personalities, as if two different characters. The Gospel accounts present a more peaceful – to a degree – version than the Jesus of, for example, Revelation. In the Gospels, Jesus’s message at times is no less harmful, just less violent. In Luke, we find a teaching of Jesus directly reflected in the policies of the horrendous church of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In Luke 14:26 Jesus says:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.”

– Control is the key to this verse, much like control is the key to countless verses from all religious texts. For Christ, you must be willing to break off natural family bonds – an evolved social structure that is hardwired into the fabric of humanity on so many levels – for the sake of the ‘faith’. This is control at its most repugnant. If you’re willing to place faith above your natural family ties, if you’re willing to ‘hate’ everything you are naturally disposed to love, the faith has you in the palm of its hand.

Jesus continues his anti-family demands through the Gospels, including Matthew 19:29:

“And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.”

– Here, Jesus provides an incentive to leave your family. It is beneficial for you to leave your family. Again, this is control. I noted in a previous article the destructive anti-family policies of the cult of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The horrific way those who choose to leave the cult are treated, and shunned, and whose family members are encouraged to disown them. In January 2013, The Watchtower said this on family members no longer wishing to be a part of the cult:

“Really, what your beloved family member needs to see is your resolute stance to put Jehovah above everything else – including the family bond. … Do not look for excuses to associate with a disfellowshipped family member, for example, through e-mail.”

– Given the profitability of Kingdom Hall, it strikes me as a business model. The ability to scare people into staying within a faith because they fear losing their family, is extremely profitable for the governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The lack of compassion or recognition of the importance of family ties completely eludes those in charge of Jehovah’s Witnesses because it is profitable that way. But its justification can absolutely be pointed directly to in the New Testament, through the words of Jesus. The ability to play nature – that which has endowed us with reason – against itself, is key to the perpetuation of faith.

The immoral teachings continue. One of which is immortalised in the painting at the top of this article. It is a work by Caravaggio. Caravaggio was an astonishingly wonderful artist. His training and his tutor in Milan did not seem to have any recognisable effect on the genius of the artist that he would flourish into. His works always seemed to me to be a sort of lightning bolt lighting up the scene for a split second, captured on canvas. One of my favourite Caravaggio works is ‘The Incredulity of Saint Thomas’. It is the moment when Jesus seems to acknowledge that perhaps extraordinary evidence is required for extraordinary claims. John 20:24-29 relates the story of Thomas doubting that the other disciples had seen a risen Jesus. Thomas demands to see evidence. Jesus appears to Thomas and shows him his hand and side wounds. The side wound is the subject of Caravaggio’s work. Upon seeing the evidence, Thomas is convinced. Jesus says:

“Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

– This seems to me to be a condemnation of doubt. As if Jesus is forgiving Thomas for doubting that a dead man was now walking around town as if seemingly alive and well, rather than accepting that it’s understandable that Thomas may doubt such a claim. This is another prime example – the first being the focus on slowly unravelling family ties – of religions fundamentally abusing the natural condition of humanity, for its own purposes. As human beings, we are creatures of doubt and of curiosity. It is natural to our condition, and entertaining our doubt and curiosity is how we progress.

A worthwhile teacher does not teach children to believe exactly as they’re told without evidence. A worthwhile teacher inspires curiosity and a yearning for knowledge, to engage their natural desire to understand without bias or dogma. On this basis, Jesus was not a worthwhile teacher.

Thomas was right to question such an extraordinary claim offered with no evidence. Thomas was essentially told by the disciples that the laws of the known universe had been dismissed by the coming back to life of a dead human being. For Thomas to have accepted without evidence, a claim that so wildly undermines nature, would be to suspend all human reasoning and logical faculties. Observation, experiment and measuring reality has been the route to all understanding of the World we inhabit. Jesus appears to suggest this form – the only form – of gaining and applying knowledge, is less respectable than belief without evidence. This is a wholly dangerous teaching. Those who believe without evidence, sit in the House of Lords as permanent members. They rule countries and devise laws. They demand blasphemy laws to prevent natural curiosity from reaching into the realm of belief. And it would seem that Jesus would fully approve of that vast and dangerous ignorance.

Moving from the Gospels to Revelation, Jesus drops the subtle cruelty that he uses in the Gospels, and goes straight for the violence. In Revelation 2:22-23, for a woman whose crime it was to have eaten food that was meant as a sacrifice, and to believe in something other than Jesus, Christ says:

“22 Indeed I will cast her (Jezebel) into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds.
23 I will kill her children with death, and all the churches shall know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts. And I will give to each one of you according to your works.”

– Here Jesus seems to have channelled the violent God of the Old Testament. A quick read up on Theological interpretations of these verses tells us that Theologians believe that Jezebel represents ‘false Prophets’ and that ‘committing adultery with her’ is ‘idol worship’, much like those destroyed by God in the Old Testament. This is simply Jesus confirming that if you follow someone who isn’t him, you will be slaughtered. Like a jealous partner resorting to violence to keep you in check. It seems a disproportionate punishment, for the apparent ‘crime’. It gives further ammo to those ‘shunning’ family members who leave their cult, for they are now considered evil.
I would further argue that it is the mark of an evil God to bestow upon mankind the ability to think freely and to evaluate evidence, but to punish those who do not accept that which has no evidence. Not only does Jesus mistreat Thomas for the ‘crime’ of doubt, but now it is punishable. It seems the only evidence Jesus is willing to offer for the truth of his word, is a threat that if you don’t accept his word, you’ll be physically abused for eternity. This is violent punishment for thoughts alone. This cannot be construed as anything but a wholly immoral sentiment.

It is important to recognise that the teachings of Jesus – whilst certainly a step up from the cruelty of the Old Testament – are not entirely without fault in the 21st Century. The peaceful message of Christ and the focus on the most vulnerable – Luke 6:20 for example; a message that should trouble the conscience of the wealthiest of Christians – is a message that eludes or is woefully manipulated by many on the Christian right. But it is also true that one is to accept the peaceful and loving passages as the infallible words of the son of God, there must also be no reason to deny the more immoral passages as being the infallible words of the son of God also, and recognise the problems they may cause today. Anchoring morality and knowledge to one period of time, is a dangerous idea. It is hard to get away from the fact that the Bible tells us that Jesus taught to believe without evidence, to abandon family for the sake of his church, and that if you believe otherwise, you are destined for eternal and violent punishment. We must not be led to believe that the Biblical Jesus and Christianity itself represent the epitome of a peaceful, and loving religious system of belief to be adhered to at a political level. This is when faith becomes dangerous.


Exploring the Nativity.

December 11, 2013

It is often called the greatest story ever told, and we’re all familiar with the traditional sequence of events. The Christmas story; from the immaculate conception, the journey on a donkey to Bethlehem, the shepherds tentatively watching their flocks by night, the three wise men guided by a mystical star, no room at the inn, the stable, the manger, the gold, frankincense and myrrh; the story flows as if a continuous narrative. What few recognise is that the traditional narrative, is not a single story told in the Bible, but parts of two stories from two often irreconcilable gospel accounts of the birth of Christ, sewn together to forge an entirely new story.

The gospel of Mark is traditionally believed to be the earliest gospel, though the writings of Paul predate Mark by a couple of decades. On the birth of Jesus, Mark is silent, but Paul isn’t. In Galatians 4:4, Paul writes:

“But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law”

– There is no suggestion of a virgin birth. Paul does not think it important to mention. Paul then expands on the lineage of Jesus in the Epistle to The Romans 1:4:

“…concerning his Son, who was descended from David”

– This lack of any sort of mention of a virgin birth, is repeated in Mark, who doesn’t seem to see the need to even mention Jesus’ birth in the first place. For me, this suggests that the idea of the virgin birth, was not something early Christians had any notion of. It came later. This is further backed up by acknowledging descent from David, in Joseph’s line.

Like ‘Romans’, Luke and Matthew – the only gospels to contain the virgin birth – also give genealogies of Jesus, that place his bloodline as that of Joseph, through David, to Abraham (Luke takes the lineage further back to Adam, to signify the son of mankind, whilst Matthew sticks to Abraham, to signify the son of the Jews). Interestingly, Joseph Tyson writing in his book “Marcion and Luke-Acts: a defining struggle“, makes the case that the gospel of Marcion – a gnostic text, and almost identical to Luke except missing the nativity – predates Luke, and that Luke was written with Marcion’s teaching in mind, around 125ad. If that’s the case, then only Matthew mentions the virgin birth. One must ask whether the virgin birth was ever supposed to be included in the Christian story of the birth of Jesus.

Nevertheless, as of the gospels that made the finished Bible, only Matthew and Luke contain the story of Jesus’ birth, and often the two are entirely at odds. Over the years, the two stories have become entwined at parts, and kept distant at other parts, to create a sort of hybrid story that is often taught as definitive.

We first hear an account of the birth of Jesus from the beginning of the gospel of Matthew.

For Matthew 2:1, Jesus is born in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod. The story of the wise men sent by Herod to find the baby follows from this. Matthew 2:10-12 tells us that the wise men – having seen Jesus – were warned by an angel not to return to Herod, and so they departed and went their own way. Herod, feeling betrayed, sends out a decree that all male babies under two years old in Bethlehem must be killed. To escape this, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus escape to Egypt where they live until Herod is dead, they then return to Nazareth. This isn’t mentioned in any other Gospel, and has no basis in historical reality. In fact, unaware of this crazed child murdering venture that Herod undertakes, Luke has Jesus, Joseph and Mary returning to Nazareth soon after the birth, with absolutely no threat to their lives.

Indeed, for Luke, the story is entirely different. Luke begins with a detailed story of the miraculous birth of John the Baptist. By the time Jesus is born, Herod has been dead for years. For Luke, Jesus is born in Bethlehem, not during the reign of Herod, but during the governorship of Syria by Quirinius. Quirinius – a name not at all associated with the Christmas story – was a Roman Senator sent to Syria after the exile of Herod. It is during the reign of Quirinius that Luke speaks of an empire wide Roman census that required families to return to their ancestral homeland. And since Joseph was descended from David, his family therefore leave Nazareth for Bethlehem – the city of David. This is how Luke places Jesus in Bethlehem at the time of his birth. Matthew does not mention the family traveling to Bethlehem, for Matthew, they’re already in Bethlehem, in a house.

The problem also with Luke’s more descriptive account, is that the actual historical census of Quirinius that took place in 6ad (two years after the death of Herod) did not apply to non-Roman citizens, and did not apply to the whole empire, nor did any Roman census ever require people to return to the homeland of long dead ancestors.

As mentioned above, in Matthew, Jesus is born in a ‘house’ in Bethlehem. There is no mention of a long journey, on a donkey, from Nazareth. There is no manger, nor stable. There is no reason to assume from Matthew’s account that the house is anyone elses. From Matthew’s account, the family live in Bethlehem, and Jesus is born in the house in Bethlehem. The reference to the inn, and the journey from Nazareth, are derived entirely from Luke.

So, so far the Christmas story contains Herod and the wise men from Matthew – but not mentioned in Luke – and the travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the manger from Luke – but not mentioned in Matthew.

A glaring omission from the Christmas narrative, is that of John the Baptist. The story of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth (who is barren) and her husband Zacharias, mother and father of John the Baptist appears to us in Luke, and takes up the entire first chapter. For Luke, the birth of John the Baptist is given more prominence and in greater detail, than the birth of Jesus. Luke therefore seems to be suggesting that John is a vital precursor to Jesus, and integral to the story.

The story in Luke tells us that both Elizabeth and Zacharias are in old age and that Elizabeth is barren. They are visited by an angel who informs them that they will have a child and to name him John. Zacharias questions the angel, and so as a particularly cruel and unnecessary punishment, the angel renders Zacharias mute, until John is born. This was in the time of Herod – so, whilst Luke does not mention Herod in the context of Jesus birth, he does mention Herod elsewhere. Matthew on the other hand, doesn’t mention Elizabeth or Zacharias at all. Curiously, Matthew picks up the story of John the Baptist, when John is an adult. Apparently one miraculous birth is enough for Matthew.

So, to summarise, the stitched together Christmas story that we all know runs as follows:
In the time of Herod (Matthew 2:1), Mary is visited by an angel who tells her that she has been chosen as the mother of the son of God (Luke 1:27-38). Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-6). Jesus is born in a manger (Luke 2:7) in a stable (neither account), because there is no room at the inn (Luke 2:7). Three wise men were sent by a very jealous King Herod to find the child, they bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:7). They follow a star (Matthew 2:10). They arrived at the stable (neither account mentions a stable) and gave their gifts. Shepherds watching over their flocks by night were visited by an angel who told them all about the birth of Jesus. They decided to investigate for themselves (Luke 2:9-20). After visiting Jesus, an angel visits the wise men and tells them not to go back to Herod (Matthew 2:12). And everyone lived happily ever after.

One may argue that each of the two gospel writers commenting on the birth of Jesus simply fill in the gaps left by the other. But this cannot be the case, if one gospel writer is writing through the context of King Herod hot on the tails of the divine family, whilst the other writes from the context of no such threat ever existing. The entire context surrounding the wise men, is their relationship to Herod. The entire context surrounding the reason the family are in Bethlehem – according to Luke – is an empire wide census that relates Jesus to David, and thus to Adam. They do not leave Bethlehem through fear and flee to Egypt according to Luke. The two stories are entirely different, written for different audiences, with different purposes, with only the names seemingly agreeing with one another.

The Christmas story as we know it, is a story that neither of the two gospel writers – nor Paul – ever conceived. Parts of one story are taken out of their surrounding context, and placed in the other story. It sews together parts of the story, whilst omitting others. Not too many people will have heard the names Quirinius, or Elizabeth in the context of the birth of Jesus or Christmas. Nor will many have heard of the cruel muting of Zacharias, or the miraculous conception of John the Baptist. Nevertheless, the extra-Biblical story, with all its stitching together of various gospels, with its omissions, and with its pure inventions (the stable) has emerged as perhaps the most well known story in the history of the Christian faith and Western tradition. And yet, at its core, it is the perhaps one of the least understood.

But it means I get gifts, wine and turkey in a few days time. So I’m fine with that.