Timing is everything

What Jesus did.

It seems like an insult to say that people of biblical times were ignorant and superstitious. They certainly weren’t willfully so – they had no choice. With the exception of a handful of intellectuals and politicians, people of that day simply weren’t equipped with the necessary knowledge and critical thinking skills necessary to distinguish chicanery from reality.

Even worse, no one – not even the intellectual elite – were equipped with the knowledge of biology, psychology, and neurobiology which today tells us how easily it is for the mind to be fooled. People weren’t even equipped with basic knowledge about the origins of the earth and the evolution of life.

So, most people believed in the power of souls, spirits, demons, and angels. They saw what they thought were “signs and wonders”, as the Acts of the Apostles show.

Clearly, we’re not discussing the same culture that we westerners live in today. Apart from the occasional self-proclaimed faith healer with dubious methods and credentials, we don’t generally have a lot of people gadding about town, performing signs and wonders, to the amazement of the crowds. Instead of apostles performing miracles in the public square we have Chris Angel performing illusions in Las Vegas.

Tellingly, when people see Chris Angel perform, they don’t say “Ah, he must be a god”, they say “how on earth does he do that?”.

But why is this? Is it just coincidence that the ancient Middle East was the locus of miracles? Or was it that the ancient Middle Eastern culture, more than any other since then, was steeped in beliefs and superstitions that made its people especially vulnerable to seeing apparent “signs and wonders”?

Consider this: would Christianity have gotten off the ground if it had begun in the twenty first, rather than the first? Try to imagine it. It’s the year 2011, and a young man grows up in Israel. When he graduates from high school, he wanders from city to city preaching to the passersby in public parks and on street corners. Over the clamor of cars and city buses, he shouts his message that God has sent him to save mankind from their sins, and that they must repent and follow him. The young man then goes on to claim that he can exorcise demons, and cast away evil spirits.

The most positive response such a person might get today is a quick glance from a pedestrian as she hurries on her way. Many people would wonder if he was mentally unstable.

Now, Christians might object that if Jesus really had come to us in this century, he would have used more effective methods of reaching out to people and demonstrating his power.

But why would he have done so? For the reasons already stated: we’ve become all too familiar with people who claim, from the street corner, to be God’s messenger – we’re simply not fooled by them anymore. We also know enough about the human body and mind to realize that people who suffer from, say, epilepsy, are in need of medical treatment, not exorcisms.

But if Christians agree that modern people are (rightly) hesitant to be convinced by the methods Jesus used 2000 years ago, then why are they convinced by the methods Jesus used 2000 years ago? Why aren’t they applying the same standards of assessment to the ancient Jesus as they would have applied to the Jesus on the street corner of twenty first century Jerusalem?

Furthermore, why would Christians consider it important that the biblical miracles were convincing to so many witnesses, when those witnesses held numerous beliefs about the world that we now know to be false, and when they were ignorant of biology, evolution, and neuroscience – critical bodies of knowledge when it comes to understanding perception and psychology?

The truth, I suspect, is that most Christians today don’t actually believe in Jesus purely because of the miracles reported to have been performed by him thousands of years ago. Most sensible people realize, whether they’re willing to admit it or not, that miracles reported in ancient books need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Unless, of course, they can be convinced that those books are holy and inspired by God.

And that, for sure, is one of the keys to keeping a religion going.

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10 Responses to Timing is everything

  1. Firstly, I appreciate that you were able to discuss the mythical aspects of Christianity without malice. Thank you portraying your ideas in a respectful way.

    I think it’s important to recognize that Hinduism is the first recorded religion in history, and that all religions–if they aren’t a direct descendant of Hinduism itself–are at least branches off of the same idea that there is a Force at work in the world and that we are connected to it in some way.

    Do you think that maybe the dawn of religion eventually brought Man to rediscover his surroundings scientifically, the way most people view them today? I mean, if Jesus hadn’t already been introduced as the Messiah 2000 years ago and that Brahman hadn’t already been introduced as the “Ultimate Reality” some time before that–if people hadn’t continued to reject the teachings of different religions as each was created, do you believe that we still would have come to understand the world through biology, geology, psychology, etc. in order to conclude that a man claiming he was the Savior in the 21st was, indeed, not so?

    • kpharri says:

      ourpuzzlepeace

      Very interesting comment, thank you. I think you are probably right: religion arose, it seems to me, as an attempt to explain the world, and it might therefore be considered a precursor to science.

      These explanations were heavily influenced by our tendency to be anthropocentric. We have, over the millennia, assumed that everything around us was somehow made for us, and that natural events like storms, earthquakes, floods, etc., were some sort of commentary about our behavior, rather than arbitrary natural events. It is only recently (starting perhaps with Galileo) that we’ve realized that we’re not the center of the universe, neither literally nor figuratively!

      Of course, these days, little remains in common between religion and science: they operate on antithetical premises, namely faith and doubt, respectively!

      • I love to study religion, and I hope to study it professionally one day in an anthropological light. In that way, “behavioral” science and religion are connected, but I agree that the “miracles” in religion are beyond the tangible, measureable grasp of science.

        Your view of religion is refreshing 🙂 How do I subscribe to your blog? I was looking for the “subscribe” button and I couldn’t find it.

  2. You said: “Clearly, we’re not discussing the same culture that we westerners live in today. Apart from the occasional self-proclaimed faith healer with dubious methods and credentials, we don’t generally have a lot of people gadding about town, performing signs and wonders, to the amazement of the crowds. Instead of apostles performing miracles in the public square we have Chris Angel performing illusions in Las Vegas.”

    No, it’s not the same culture, but I assure you that if someone were being raised from the dead on a regular basis, we would sit up and take notice. We would pause and study the situation and it would make the news, were someone to be exorcised of powerful demons and recover from such possession. Were loaves of bread and fishes suddenly able to feed the hundreds, we would hear about it on CNN, I suspect.

    Your skeptical take on things is based upon the unfortunate hardening of your heart and thus a rejection of and turning away from Jesus Christ; but not all have hard hearts; some are still open to the message of salvation. These people have toiled away their lives on their own steam and are miserable. They are ready for the renewal and rebirth that is living life believing in Jesus Christ. No one’s being “fooled.” This is a personal choice and decision people are making. They don’t make it out of ignorance. Take me, for example. I have a masters degree in counseling. I’m hardly uneducated or ignorant. I choose to believe because I’ve seen the differences in my life through belief.

    The “methods” Jesus Christ used 2000 years ago were simple truth. They worked because they were profound, meaningful, important, valid ways of living one’s life. They promoted and still promote a healthy lifestyle, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. People believe in Jesus Christ today because something happens within their lives, that changes them. When they are “born again,” they are made clean and whole. They are accepted and loved, perhaps for the first time in their lives, unconditionally. These are all concepts that science cannot explain or understand. This isn’t “reason,” or something one can just critically think through and attempt to explain. This simply *is.*

    • Yael says:

      People who convert to other religions besides Christianity claim the same things, that they are now clean and whole, accepted and loved. This kind of reaction is not unique to Christianity at all!

      Two stories that I find amusing immediately come to mind. A couple I know was having issues with infertility. They ‘gave their lives to Jesus’ and now are parents of six children. Isn’t it wonderful what Jesus can do for your life? Living example! Another couple I know who were also having infertility issues became observant Jews and are now parents of six children. Isn’t it wonderful what observing mitzvot can do for your life? Living example!

      I’ve been watching All American Muslim and see that a woman on that show who hasn’t been able to get pregnant is now putting on hijab in hopes that becoming more observant of her religion will enable her to have children. Perhaps in another 10 years she and her husband will also have 6 children and be convinced Allah blessed them because they became more religious.

    • kpharri says:

      Warrioress

      I apologize if I gave you the impression that I thought of belief as something that can only occur in a state of ignorance. That is clearly not the case: many perfectly intelligent, well-educated people are believers. Indeed, I still believed in God by the time I completed my Ph.D. in Physics!

      I also agree that we would take notice if there were a report on CNN about a handful of loaves feeding thousands. However, perhaps you will agree that most people will be highly skeptical of such reports, and not necessarily because their hearts are hardened in some way, but because people today realize how easy it is to be taken advantage of – to have the wool pulled over one’s eyes. People also have a greater appreciation today for how complex the world is, and how the proper explanations for things are sometimes very hard to establish.

      You comment raises another important point, namely that some people find great comfort in religion, and this can be their primary reason for converting. If, indeed, someone has not been loved unconditionally their entire lives, then I can see the attraction of being told that there is someone very special who will provide that love to them, even if it isn’t immediately obvious that that person is actually there.

      Finally, one last point: I take exception to being told that my heart has hardened. I realize that it’s difficult for you to understand how someone might come to reject a belief that you find so compelling. It’s tempting to assume then, as you have done, that such rejection arises out of anger or emotional “hardening” of some kind. But that is not the case with me. My journey from faith to atheism was made slowly and calmly, without animosity of any kind. It was the result of pondering many hard questions openly and honestly.

  3. kpharri says:

    ourpuzzlepeace: let me look into the subscription issue and get back to you – I’m not sure how it’s done.

  4. Kpharri, it’s nothing whatsoever personal, in referring to what has occurred as the “hardening of your heart.” This is what the bible calls the rejection of the God of the bible, or the rejection of belief in Jesus Christ, His purpose here, His plan, etc.

    At some point, the bible tells us that you harden your own heart or your heart is hardened by God Himself.

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