CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

In response to my Distinguished Birth series and the post, Non-Issues in the Lukan Birth Narrative, Part 1, an anonymous commentor listed some other supposed pagan birth stories which he apparently thinks undercut my arguments. Although I think my original argument stands on its own, I will respond to the new examples. I save the best -- by which I mean the worst -- for last. In short, none of these examples offer much new and end up reinforcing my original argument.

* The Birth of Minerva. Minerva was not a human who lived on earth but a Roman goddess. In fact, she was the Roman counterpart to the Greek goddess Athena. More to the point, she did not even have a mother, there was no conception, and she was not "born," at least not in any remotely normal way. Rather, Roman myth states that she "leaped forth" from Jupiter's head as a fully grown adult wearing a suit of armor. Perhaps the anonymous poster was confused because Minerva herself was known as the "virgin goddess."

* The Birth of Apis. Apis was not human. Nor was he a god that looked like a human. Rather, Apis was an Egyptian god who was also a bull. As Herodotus writes, Apis "is a calf born of a cow who after this is not permitted to conceive any other offspring; and the Egyptians say that a flash of light comes down from heaven upon this cow, and of this she produces Apis..." The History of Herodotus, 3.28. Even if Mary was comparable to a cow, it is unlikely that the cow at issue was a virgin. Not only are there few virgin cows, but the note that "after this" the cow was not able to conceive may suggest prior calves.

* The Birth of Dionysus. Dionysus was another Greco-Roman god, also known as Bacchus. According to some stories, Dionysus was the product of a sexual affair between Zeus a human woman. There is a slight, but ultimately immaterial, twist. The mother died prematurely when Zeus appeared to her in full glory. The divine child survived though and Zeus placed him in his own thigh until he was born from it. While this is unusual, there are no virgins involved. Dionysus' mother was involved sexually with Zeus. And, obviously, Zeus was no virgin and it is something of a stretch to compare the "birth" from Zeus' thigh to Jesus' birth.

* The Birth of Plato. Some apparently believed that Apollo was involved in Plato's birth. Diogenes Laertuius states that there was a story that Plato's father Ariston "made passionate love to beautiful Perictione" regularly. Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 3.1-3. Then, Apollo admonished Ariston to stop and Ariston "left her unmolested until she gave birth." Even if Apollo took the pleasure of getting her pregnant, Perictione was not a virgin when she conceived or gave birth to Plato. Although there is no explanation as to how Perictione conceived, if a pagan reader had taken the story to mean it was by Apollo, then he likely would have assumed Apollo did it the "old fashion" pagan way.

* The Birth of Scipio Africanus. Aulus Gellius wrote that there were stories that Scipio's mother conceived after being discovered laying with a large snake. The allusion to Zeus impregnating Olympia, the mother of Alexander the Great, was not lost on Gellius, who made it explicit that Scipio's mother "had the same experience as Oympias." She was not a virgin, having been married and barren a long time, and the conception resulted from the contact with a snake (though few details are offered). Attic Nights, 6.1.1-6.

* The Birth of Augustus. This story is also similar to Zeus' impregnation of Olympia. Augustus' mother -- Attia -- was impregnated by a God in the form of an animal, in this case a snake. As Dio Cassius writes, "Attia ... emphatically asserted that her child had been fathered by Apollo. She said that once, while she was sleeping in his temple, she thought she had intercourse with a snake." History of Rome, 45.1.2-2.4. Also, Attia was no virgin, but married at the time.

* The Birth of Attis. This is a story noted by Pausanias about the impregnation of a nymph/goddess. Description of Greece, 7.17.9-11. The mother of Attis was the daughter of the river God. She was not a human and there is no indication that she was a virgin. She become pregnant by physical interaction with an "almond." This was no ordinary almond, though, but was actually derived from the seed of the demon god Agdistis that had spilled into the earth after his male genitalia were ripped off. The almond/seed penetrated the nymph's bosom and impregnated her. She did not want the child, perhaps fearing it, and left it to die of exposure. The child, Attius, was rescued by a goat. If you thought Zeus was off the hook for this one, however, you would be mistaken. It appears that the demon god Agdistis is the result of the seed of Zeus which spilled while he slept.

* The Birth of Aristomenes. Aristomenes was a King of Messini. His birth fits into the already discussed paradigm of pagan gods having sex with mortal women in disguised animal shapes. Here we have another snake. Pausanias writes that the Messenians "assert that a spirit or a god united with his mother, Nicoteleia, in the form of a serpent." Pausanias also notes the similarity to the story of Olympia. The only difference is that the divine father is claimed to have been Pyrrhus. Description of Greece, 4.14.7-8.

* The Birth of Apollonius of Tyana. This story is a bit different than most, but not in a way that makes it more similar to Jesus' birth as reported in Matthew and Luke. Apollonius was conceived after the normal union between husband and wife. Well after the conception, however, his mother "had a vision of Proteus, an Egyptian deity, who, according to Homer, changes his form at will." Proteus informed her that she would be giving birth to "Proteus . . . the god of Egypt." Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, 1.4-7. As Robert J. Miller notes, "There is no story of a supernatural conception for Apollonius. Instead, his very pregnant mother has a vision in which she learns that her son will be the incarnation of the shape-shifting god Proteus. Nothing in this implies that there was anything unusual about how Apollonius was conceived. This shows that the ancient imagination accepted the notion that someone could be a god incarnate and yet be conceived in the natural way." Robert J. Miller, Born Divine, The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God, page 149.

* The Hatching of Glycon. The final example is Glycon, which the anonymous poster offered in response to my claim that the birth narratives of Luke and Matthew were much closer in time to the subject of their accounts than were the divine pagan birth accounts were to their recorders. According to the anonymous commentor:

Your facts are wrong. Glycon was a God invented in the 2d century AD. Glycon was the son of the God Apollo, who...

... came to Earth through a miraculous birth,
... was the Earthly manifestation of divinity,
... came to earth in fulfillment of divine prophecy,
... gave his chief believer the power of prophecy,
... gave believers the power to speak in tongues,
... performed miracles,
... healed the sick,
... raised the dead.

These stories were entirely contemporaneous with Glycon, as is Lucian's record of them. Your claim is false.

My first question was whether the anonymous poster was quoting someone else's work without attribution. It is taken verbatim from this webpage. There are other interesting similarities between the anonymous poster and the website, such as repeated references to "godman" and these "godman" living in the "sky." In any event, the comparison of Glycon to Jesus is ridiculous.

Glycon was not a human. He was not even a god in human form. He was not even a human-like creature. No, Glycon was a snake. He was a big snake, but a snake nonetheless. His handler and oracle, Alexander, presented him publically as a snake, but one with “a serpent’s head of linen, which had something of a human look.” Lucian, Alexander the False Prophet, 12. According to Lucian, Alexander invented the god Glycon as a ploy to enrich himself by selling oracles and obtaining favor among the elite. He also gained the use of "choir boys" for his sexual pleasure through his influence.

The description of Glycon’s birth as “miraculous” is yet another distorting generalization. There was no virgin birth or even one of the divine pregnancies discussed above -- which at least have the benefit of involving a human mother. Rather, Glycon the snake was hatched from a goose egg. Lucian reports that it was a specially prepared goose egg in which a baby snake had been inserted and the hole covered with a seal. After the snake appeared from the goose egg -- to an astonished audience -- Alexander substituted a large adult snake and attached the puppet head to it, using an elaborate set up to issue oracles.

The rest of the points of comparison are unrelated to the Virgin Birth. Nevertheless, I will make some points. First, Glycon was the reincarnation of Asclepius, who had been born and lived on earth before. Second, the “divine prophecy” is a vague reference but appears to be the "planting" and "discovery" by Alexander of certain bronze tablets that predicted the coming of Asclepius. Third, Alexander and Glycon acted as an oracle, selling oracles for money, which is a very different thing than a Jewish prophet which precedes the Hellenistic period in any event. Next, the comparison with miracles, healing, and raising the dead is an empty one. There are no miracles actually narrated for Alexander or Glycon. All that Lucian claims is that Alexander “was even sending men abroad to create rumours in the different nations in regard to the oracle and to say that he made predictions, discovered fugitive slaves, detected thieves and robbers, caused treasures to be dug up, healed the sick, and in some cases had actually raised the dead.” Ibid., 24.

Finally, Glycon post dates Christianity. This is not a mere academic observance. Alexander knew Christians and was at least somewhat aware of their beliefs. Lucian reports that Glycon despised Christians and regularly and publicly condemned them and their beliefs. So, although I do not see any substantive parallels, if someone were inclined to see them they could not rule out Christian influence here.

People can read Lucian's account of Glycon for themselves.

Interesting piece in the WSJ I have been meaning to discuss.

From the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life:

According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's monumental "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey" that was issued in June, 21% of self-proclaimed atheists believe in either a personal God or an impersonal force. Ten percent of atheists pray at least weekly and 12% believe in heaven.


A study from Gallup and Baylor University finds that traditional Christianity results in lower levels of superstition:

"What Americans Really Believe," a comprehensive new study released by Baylor University yesterday, shows that traditional Christian religion greatly decreases belief in everything from the efficacy of palm readers to the usefulness of astrology. It also shows that the irreligious and the members of more liberal Protestant denominations, far from being resistant to superstition, tend to be much more likely to believe in the paranormal and in pseudoscience than evangelical Christians.

The Gallup Organization, under contract to Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion, asked American adults a series of questions to gauge credulity. Do dreams foretell the future? Did ancient advanced civilizations such as Atlantis exist? Can places be haunted? Is it possible to communicate with the dead? Will creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster someday be discovered by science?

The answers were added up to create an index of belief in occult and the paranormal. While 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things, only 8% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week did.


New stuff? Not really:

This is not a new finding. In his 1983 book "The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener," skeptic and science writer Martin Gardner cited the decline of traditional religious belief among the better educated as one of the causes for an increase in pseudoscience, cults and superstition. He referenced a 1980 study published in the magazine Skeptical Inquirer that showed irreligious college students to be by far the most likely to embrace paranormal beliefs, while born-again Christian college students were the least likely.


Does education cause superstition? Surely not. But:

Surprisingly, while increased church attendance and membership in a conservative denomination has a powerful negative effect on paranormal beliefs, higher education doesn't. Two years ago two professors published another study in Skeptical Inquirer showing that, while less than one-quarter of college freshmen surveyed expressed a general belief in such superstitions as ghosts, psychic healing, haunted houses, demonic possession, clairvoyance and witches, the figure jumped to 31% of college seniors and 34% of graduate students.

Warning: Profanity Alert.

____________________________________

From: [Random Skeptic]

Subject: Debates!

I have studied arguments for and against for a long time now, And have come to one conclusion.Debates like these go one for ever for one reason,NOBODY really has the whole truth about anything, it's all speculation.You guy's are pretty much full of your selves/sh**!
____________________________________

From: [Chris (Layman)]

Subject: Re: Debates!

John,

Thank you for your note.

I daresay that your last sentence suggests that the sophistication of your "long time" of study was not very high.

As for having the "whole truth about anything," I do not even presume to have the "whole truth" about what I had for breakfast this morning. So I think that criticism is misplaced as applied to me and likely my fellow bloggers.

All the best,

Chris (Layman)
_____________________________________

From: [Random Skeptic]

Re: Debates!

Thanks for reproving you're arrogance, typical response from the religious brain dead.The only time I wasted on your web site was when I saw your write up about Acharya S.You said she was WRONG! If you agree nobody has complete truth, then you can't really say ANYBODY is wrong....By the way,do waste your time writing back as I will only delete your name when I see it. If I have learned only one thing from you hollier than thou's it's this,IF YOU'RE GOING TO MATCH WITTS WITH THE WITTLESS BE PREPARED TO LOOSE!

From Obama reverses Bush abortion-funds policy:

President Barack Obama on Friday struck down the Bush administration's ban on giving federal money to international groups that perform abortions or provide abortion information — an inflammatory policy that has bounced in and out of law for the past quarter-century.

Obama's executive order, the latest in an aggressive first week reversing contentious Bush policies, was warmly welcomed by liberal groups and denounced by abortion rights foes.

The ban has been a political football between Democratic and Republican administrations since GOP President Ronald Reagan first adopted it 1984. Democrat Bill Clinton ended the ban in 1993, but Republican George W. Bush re-instituted it in 2001 as one of his first acts in office.

"For too long, international family planning assistance has been used as a political wedge issue, the subject of a back and forth debate that has served only to divide us," Obama said in a statement released from the White House. "I have no desire to continue this stale and fruitless debate."

He said the ban was unnecessarily broad and undermined family planning in developing countries.

"In the coming weeks, my administration will initiate a fresh conversation on family planning, working to find areas of common ground to best meet the needs of women and families at home and around the world," the president said.

Sure, it's only a small step. But it is almost certainly not the final step. Unless he has implemented strict controls and segregation of the funds (which nothing in the article leads me to believe has happened), by permitting abortion providers to obtain federal funds, he is necessarily putting federal dollars into companies that provide abortion thereby funding abortions themselves.

I wonder if President Obama's "working to find common ground" in this area will be like his response to Republicans who are concerned about the economic stimulus plan (including the fact that the economic stimulus plan contains "'hundreds of millions of dollars' for contraceptives"):

During his private meeting with congressional Democrats and Republicans on Friday, President Obama ended a philosophical debate over tax policy with the simple declaration that his opinion prevailed because "I won."

Yup, nothing like working to find common ground.

The birth narrative in the Gospel of Luke typically faces many challenges and criticisms that are facially unrelated to its miraculous nature. Most of these arise from the first five verses in Luke’s second chapter.

Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child.

Questions about Quirinius and the timing of the census are challenging and legitimate, though not without sound responses. Other issues which are typically raised in conjunction, however, are overblown. Indeed, once the relevant verses are properly understood, these other issues become non issues, raising no historical challenges to Luke’s account. The first is commonly framed as whether Luke is wrong about August decreeing that the entire Roman Empire be subject to a census. The second is commonly framed as whether Luke is wrong that the census requiring registrants to return to the city of their ancestors. This post addresses the first question. I will address the latter question in Part 2.

The first challenge is that there is no evidence that August ever decreed that the entire Roman world be subject to a census. True enough. The challenge fails however not because this assessment is wrong or I can point to new evidence, but because it rests on a misreading of the Gospel of Luke. Luke does not mean to suggest that Augustus issued one decree requiring that the entire Roman empire be registered in one empire-wide census. Rather, he is engaging in a bit of literary hyperbole. Professor Smith makes this point well:

Here the confusion is based upon a forced interpretation of Luke’s statement that Augustus issued a decree that the “whole world be registered.’ Luke’s statement is a simple case of hyperbole, akin to Matthew’s statement that ‘all Judaea was going out’ to be baptized by John (Matt 3:5). No sensible ancient reader would be bothered or surprised by such a statement. Perhaps Luke means to refer to the census of Judaea as part of a larger census-taking strategy on the part of Augustus. There is no way of being sure, however, and it would not have mattered to Luke or to his audience. Anyone living at that time would know that emperors at various times commissioned censuses and might well do so in provinces other than their own. They would read nothing more into Luke’s hyperbole. Rather, the description of the census in this way sets a tone of global proportions: the events surrounding the birth of Jesus were of more than merely local significance.

Mark D. Smith, “Of Jesus and Quirinius,” CBQ, 62 (2000), page 288.

There is nothing "cute" about this response to the challenge. Notably, Professor Smith is no apologist. He elevates Luke's birth narrative at the expense of Matthew's in terms of historicity. More to the point, many of Luke's readers likely knew as well as he did whether there was one empire wide census resulting from one decree and Luke elsewhere shows himself well informed on issues related to Roman administration.

Furthermore, as Prof. Smith suggests, Luke was likely referencing August's "census-taking strategy." The relevant background information is that while there does not appear to have been any one decree covering the entire empire, Augustus did have a policy of stepped up administrative procedures such as the taking of censuses.

Historian A.N. Sherwin-White reminds us, "A census or taxation-assessment of the whole provincial empire ... was certainly accomplished for the first time in history under Augustus." Luke then would be referring in a general way to this unprecedented event.

New Testament History, page 65.

It is for this reason that Francois Bovon, who thinks that the statement is “mistaken in literal terms,” admits that Luke “correctly capture the history of the time, and of the emperor, in narrative and popular terms.” Francois Bovon, Luke, Hermeneia, page 83. But Luke is only "mistaken in literal terms" if he meant for his audience to understand him in strict literal terms here. He very likely did not.

Ironically, most scholars and readers -- even those critical of Luke’s historicity regarding the decree -- admit that Luke engages in literary hyperbole in this passage. The conceded but unremarkable hyperbole is Luke's reference to the census being taken of “all the inhabited earth.” Obviously, August was not conducting a census every place on earth. Roman subjects knew full well that the Roman Empire did not cover the entire earth. They understand that by referring to "all the inhabited earth" Luke was referring to the Roman Empire. Such hyperbole was expected from a Roman subject writing about the Roman Empire to an audience of Roman subjects.

This global emphasis permeates the first two chapters of Luke, where "‘[e]ntire’ or ‘all’ are used twenty-three times.” Robert H. Stein, Luke, NAC, page 105. Examples of literary hyperbole include but are not limited to: Luke has investigated “everything” carefully. 1:3. Zacharias and Elizabeth were blameless in “all” the commandments and requirements of the Lord. 1.6. The “whole multitude of the people” were in prayer. 1:10. Regarding the birth of John, “[f]ear came on all those living around them; and all these matters were being talked about in all the hill country of Judea.” 1:65. After Jesus' birth Mary treasured “all these things” in her heart.” 2:19. Anna the prophetess spoke of Jesus to “all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” 2:38. These uses of "everything" or "all" are not meant to be taken in absolute terms. This does not Luke's use of them misleading or the Gospel of Luke unreliable. It simply means he used a common literary device to stress certain points. This would have mislead no one in Luke's audience, though some more modern (supposedly more discerning) readers may miss the point.

The only way to claim that Luke was wrong in his reference to the scope of August's decree is to take him to mean something he did not mean and his audience would not have understood him to mean. August initiated and completed a policy of conducting censuses throughout the Roman Empire. That is enough to justify Luke's bit of literary hyperbole, rendering this a non issue when it comes to evaluating the historicity of Luke's birth narrative. Indeed, properly understood Luke accurately reflects Augustan policy of the time and an awareness of the broader historical context.

I suspect that the reason some commentators seize on the decree's scope -- setting aside the grasping skeptics who will seize on anything handy -- is because it leads up to a virgin birth account. Obviously, there is nothing miraculous or supernatural about Augustus' decree. But perhaps the attitude is, "Oh, I see where this is going so I'm going to kick in the suspicion early on." On the other hand, it could be that there are more legitimate questions about the census and its timing (though I think sometimes even these questions are sharper than they would be without the upcoming virgin birth account). Perhaps it is a mixture. Whatever the reason, a more dispassionate reading of Luke resolves the issue.

In Part 2 I will address the issue of whether Luke described the census as requiring all registrants to return to the home of their ancestors.

Over the past few years, I have noticed a tactic being used in national debate that destroys legitimate conversation while bringing us no closer to truth. Unfortunately, there is no name for this new tactic, so I will christen it the Über-Abusive Ad Hominem. (Okay, I'm mixing German and Latin, but let's go with it for now.)

The Abusive Ad Hominem

The Über-Abusive Ad Hominem extends the usage of the ancient fallacy of the ad hominem, i.e., arguing toward the man instead of the argument. Anyone who has spent any significant time on Internet message boards is undoubtedly familiar with this tactic: when someone can't respond to the merits of the argument they choose instead to attack the messenger. The Nizkor Project gives a very good and tight definition of the argumentum ad hominem:

An Ad Hominem is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). This type of "argument" has the following form:

Premise 1: Person A makes claim X.
Premise 2: Person B makes an attack on person A.
Conclusion: Therefore A's claim is false.

The abusive ad hominem (which is largely the type of ad hominem described in the Nizkor quote) is a specific form of the ad hominem which is the most common use of the fallacy. In Logic by Robert Baum, Professor Baum defines the abusive ad hominem (in the second edition) in this way:

A disputant is unlikely to change his opinion because his opponent has dubbed him an "unrealistic fool." But it takes considerable independence of thought on the part of the listeners to support him in spite of such a label. Thus, an abusive argument leveled against one's opponents can have the effect of discrediting any statements they make - something former Vice-President Spriro Agnew recognized in his campaign against journalists and newscasters who criticized the Nixon administration. By calling them "an impudent corps of effete snobs" and "nattering nabobs of negativism," he tried to diminish their influence on the American public.

Agnew understood the game: beat down your opponent(s) by painting his/their beliefs as biased. Does the accusation establish anything? Certainly not in a logical sense. It is mere rhetoric designed to avoid actually answering the arguments being presented in opposition to one's views. As Nizkor notes,

The reason why an Ad Hominem (of any kind) is a fallacy is that the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not (in most cases) have a bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made (or the quality of the argument being made).

The Über-Abusive Ad Hominem Described

The Über-Abusive Ad Hominem is essentially an abusive ad hominem, but whereas the abusive ad hominem makes a personal attack, the Über-Abusive Ad Hominem pushes the boundaries both in terms of the nastiness of the accusation and the pretended outrage caused by the arguments making further conversation impossible. It is the effort to not only smear one's opponent, but to smear the opponent in such a manner that that she is afraid to speak out due to fear of condemnation. It is an extremist rhetorical tactic in that it accuses one's opponent the person not simply of being stupid or bad, but of having committed one of the sins that is not tolerable in the 21st Century. The point is to paint their viewpoint so negatively that for the other person to even suggest the viewpoint has merit warrents societal derision and scorn.

What type of charges would cause some to hide when a mere accusation flies? Generally, they are charges that in days past would make the old charges that were once considered slanderous per se seem tame. (Charges that were deemed slanderous per se consisted of charges of criminal conduct, allegations that would cause injury to another in their trade, business, or profession, imputations of loathsome disease or unchastity in a woman. All of these claims were enough to be considered actionable at common law based upon their mere recitation.) The claims that are now being made to shame one's opponent are most commonly charges of bigotry, racism, Nazism, imposers of religion or sexual criminality.

Keep in mind that the most common abusive ad hominem discounts the source of the information for some irrelevant reason. It might be, "He doesn't know what he's talking about -- he can't even spell" (when, in fact, the poor spelling may be the result of dyslexia which has nothing whatsoever to do with the strength of the argument). It might be similar to an attack on a statement from former President George W. Bush on the subject of free trade with China by saying, "We all know Bush was a liar, so why should we believe anything he says?"

Calling someone a racist used to be rare -- and rightfully so. Such a charge is so heinous in our present day multi-cultural society that most would righfully shy away when such an accusation is made. Note that I said, "Used to be rare." Not anymore.

An Example from Politics: Border Security and the Border Fence

There are plenty of examples of the growing use of the Über-Abusive Ad Hominem. Over the last few years it has been the primary weapon used to beat down those who favor stronger border security. To say that we needed to control the southern border of the United States wasn't just a policy discussion, it was "racist." For example, in this article from the L.A. Times, Congressman Tom Tancredo is labeled a "racist" for arguing in favor of the construction of the border fence.

Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, one of the architects of the border wall project between Mexico and Texas, drew boos from residents in Brownsville, Texas, at a public meeting on the subject this week.

***

Brownsville Mayor Pat Ahumada called the Congressman a bigot, and said that the border wall project was a "racist thing."

Never mind the arguments by those favoring stronger controls that the influx of low skilled workers were overwhelming the U.S. social safety net. It had to be the case that the desire to control the influx of illegal aliens to the United States was fueled by racism and bigotry. Moreover, the mere claim is enough to have sent many people scurrying to safety for fear of being labelled bigots, racists or other similar things. In addition, it serves as a means to limit converts to the position because it becomes the common knowledge that people who do such a thing are racist or whatever negative word category is used to describe them.

In saying the foregoing, I am not advocating for any particular position on the border fence. The fence may be a good idea or it may be a bad idea -- I am not supporting either side. The problem is the rhetoric being used. Calling people who support the border fence racists is designed to end the conversation. In fact, it necessarily ends the conversation because the person who makes the charge can't negotiate with the accused -- that would then be working with a racist or negotiating on a racist policy.

An Example from Academia: Intelligent Design

The same tactic is consistently used in the intelligent design debate against the proponents of ID. A person cannot raise questions about the Darwinian (or Neo-Darwinian) evolutionary scheme without being accused of seeking to impose a theocracy. For example, here's a quote from Dean Philip A. Pizzo, Dean of the Stanford Medical School, using the Über-Abusive Ad Hominem against supporters of intelligent design:

We need to move forward in our human evolution and not regress to the flawed passions of the crusades, the suppression of science by religion, or the intolerance of theocracy over freedom of the human spirit.

Yes, according to Dean Pizzo, those of us who support the honest inquiry into origins are anti-science and in favor of both a theocracy and the crusades. Few wouldn't cower from such claims. After all, no one wants to be categorized with crazies who want to impose religious law or suppress science. No one wants to be put in bed with the crimes of the crusades, do they? But is this realistic? Does anyone supporting academic freedom which would allow the teaching of intelligent design really want to suppress science or create a theocracy? Is their ultimage goal to return to the crusades? Of course not.

This is merely another example of the typical and growing use of the Über-Abusive Ad Hominem which is being played out over and over on the Internet and elsewhere.

The Charge of Bigotry in GLBT Discussions

The latest and equally egregious use of the Über-Abusive Ad Hominem comes from the pro-gay community. This community has created a sound-byte that is being echoed in newspapers all over America and the use of which has been growing since the passing of the now infamous Proposition 8 in California: if a person is opposed to homosexual marriage they are hateful, narrow-minded bigots.

Following the passage of Proposition 8, I saw several articles on the editorial page of my local newspaper where it was simply asserted that supporters of the proposition were bigots. These sentiments were merely echoes of the claims that are often made on pro-gay websites. For example, Blogcritics Magazine published an article aptly and simply named Proposition 8: The New Bigotry by Tommy Mack which includes the following:

While the California Supreme Court is considering whether Proposition 8 violates the State Constitution, it is the effort to invalidate 18,000 gay marriages that changed my mind on writing about the issue to expose it as the sheer, unadulterated bigotry it is — our new bigotry.

* * *

What I am writing about is bigotry as an ideology. The obvious form is racism characterized by hostility, a belief in inferiority and an assumption that one race is superior to another. Today that is considered a human rights violation. Another form is sexism, characterized by judgments based upon gender rather than upon individualism and an assumption that one sex is superior to another. Other forms include fascism, nationalism, ageism, classism, and pretty much anywhere narrow mindedness and stereotypes overcome logical thinking.

The rhetorical tactic is nothing more than an Über-Abusive Ad Hominem in it's rawest form. Never mind that there are legitimate issues to be raised questionsing whether such "marriages" are good for society or the marriage members. (See, e.g., the American College of Pediatrics report on various studies entitled Homosexual Parenting: Is It Time For Change?) These concerns, of course, are unanswered. After all, when the Über-Abusive Ad Hominem is used, it doesn't matter what are the facts or what are the real motivations of those opposing gay marriage. The opposition to gay marriage must be fueled by hatred of homosexuals -- or so it is reasoned.

But what is missing? Where is the response to the concerns? They are not forthcoming. When the Über-Abusive Ad Hominem is unleashed, no effort can be made to reason between the parties. The conversation has devolved to mere name-calling -- but not simply calling someone a "fool" or "idiot" for believing the study. Rather, the person is called a bigot -- the only thing intolerable in today's ultra-tolerant society.

Whether the gay rights proponent wants to believe it or not, very few in the Christian community dislike people who are homosexuals. I know of no one in my church who hates gays. Not one. Most Christians understand that God has called on us to love all of our neighbors. Among most, there is no animus towards gays as gays. Rather, there is a heartfelt love coupled with deep sorrow over the fact that these people are living lives that are (no other word, so here goes...) sinful. Yes, they are living a life that is not in accord with the idea and design that God gave. I certainly don't hate gays, but neither do I want it taught in society that a gay marriage is morally equivalent to non-gay marriage. And I am also very concerned about the effect of gay marriage both on our society as a whole and on the individuals who would become involved in such troublesome relationships.

Oh, and for those of you who want to post that I am a bigot in the comments: just be aware that such statements without a further substantive response is only proving the point of this post.

With all due respect, I reject the Über-Abusive Ad Hominemfallacy. The tactic of squashing the opposition by use of the Über-Abusive Ad Hominem needs to be eliminated from civil conversation.

Don't worry, it's my last for now.

Atheist watch Zuckerman argues that Japan is an atheist nation. I take him to task on that.

Don't be a sucker, man part 2

I will be posting part 3 tomorrow. This second part is a lot better than the first part. Part 2 has a study that demonstrates Northern Europe is not as "atheist" as people generally think. Part 3 will show that Japan is a very religious nation and not an atheist nation.

After entering a google search, I ran across a post on Debunking Christianity on Josephus. The author -- Harry McCall -- titled his post “Why Josephus’ So-called Testimonium Flavianum Must be Rejected.” The sum total of the post, however, was a few snippets from a leading Josephan scholar, Louis Feldman, about problems with the authenticity of the Testimonium. Those familiar with my writings will know that I have a lengthy article online defending the partial authenticity of the Testimonium. (JP Holding was also nice enough to invite me to revise the article to defend both Josephan references to Jesus in his book, Shattering the Christ Myth).

In the comments of Harry McCall's DB post, John Loftus directed McCall to my online article, stating, “before you posted this I was persuaded by most of what Christopher Price wrote about Josephus' passage here. Would you care to comment?.” In response, McCall said my article was “filled with false claims and mis-statements out of context!” He also accused me of “fabricating” facts, being "deceitful," and misrepresenting the views of Profs. L. Feldman, J.D. Crossan, Robert Funk, E.P. Sanders, and Paula Fredrikson.

It is disappointing to be accused of making false statements by someone making false statements about my work. It is also humorous to be "challenged" to answer questions no one let me know were being asked. Neither McCall or Loftus or anyone from DB informed me I was being called out, challenged, or accused of deceit. What is amusing is that before I even drafted a responsive comment at DB, other posters had proven McCall wrong on almost every assertion he made against my article. Nevertheless, despite being proved wrong by others commentors and my own comment (which requested an apology), McCall has not apologized or withdrawn his attacks.

What follows are McCall’s comments (in bold) and my responses.

Price states Feldmen as saying “According to leading Josephus scholar Louis H. Feldman, the authenticity of this passage "has been almost universally acknowledged" by scholars. (Feldman, "Josephus," Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 3, pages 990-91).”

In fact, the Testimonium Flavianum is not what Feldman is talking about here! So lets quote the Anchor Bible in context: “Moreover, the fact that Josephus refers to Jesus in his reference to James the brother of “the aforementioned Christ” (Ant 20.9.1 / 200) - a passage the authenticity of which has been almost universally acknowledge- indicates that Jesus had been mention previously.”


McCall claims I am misrepresenting Prof. Feldman despite the fact that McCall and I agree that Prof. Feldman was not referring to the Testimonium here but to Josephus’ reference to James, the brother of Jesus. I have never claimed that Prof. Feldman said the Testimonium (which is the first reference in Antiquities) was universally acknowledged as authentic. I said that Feldman claimed the second reference, to James, was so acknowledged:

It is not the purpose of this article to address the arguments of the few commentators - mostly Jesus Mythologists - who doubt the authenticity of the second reference. According to leading Josephus scholar Louis H. Feldman, the authenticity of this passage "has been almost universally acknowledged" by scholars. (Feldman, "Josephus," Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 3, pages 990-91). Instead, this article focuses on arguments regarding the partial authenticity of the TF.

I was pointing out that my article was going to focus on the Testimonium rather than the second reference (to James and Jesus) because the second reference is much less disputed. It appears that McCall’s claim of deceitfulness is projection. Or sloppiness. Or ignorance. Perhaps McCall does not know that the Testimonium is the first reference to Jesus in Antiquities and that the reference to James and Jesus is the second. In any event, the claim against me is false because it rests on McCall’s misrepresentation about what I claimed in my article.

And again Price claims, “In his book Josephus and Modern Scholarship, Professor Feldman reports that between 1937 to 1980, of 52 scholars reviewing the subject, 39 found portions of the TF to be authentic.” I have this book in my personal library and if Mr. Price would provide a page number, I sure its another proof text out of context.

A common theme throughout McCall’s post and comments is his claim to have this or that book by Feldman or some other scholar, or to have attended this or that lecture by a scholar. It has become clear that he is not getting his time or money’s worth because he seems to be generally ignorant of their contents. In any event, Peter Kirby directed me to Feldman's assessment of Josephan scholarship and he reports the same numbers in his reading of Feldman here.

Because P. Kirby was an atheist at the time, I doubt that he can be accused of distorting Prof. Feldman to promote Christianity. In any event, if McCall can be bothered to actually read his shelved Feldman book, he should check out pages 704-707, where Feldman goes through his scholarly assessment of the Josephan field scholar by scholar.

Mr. Price is arguing like Louis Feldmen believes the Testimonium Flavianum is authentic and only needs to convince other of the same. This is a total perversion of what Dr. Feldman believes!

Mr. Feldman was the Solomon-Tenenbaum Lecturer in 1997 at the University of South Carolina and his topic was "Jesus in Josephus: Focus on the Testamonium Flavianum". I have the audio tape of the lecture and if anyone thinks that is what Mr. Price says is correct about Dr. Feldman, I would be happy to make a copy of the tape for you.


In fact, I do claim that Prof. Feldman believes partial authenticity is likely. And so does he, as other commentors noted in response to McCall’s post. Probably the most easy to find reference by Prof. Feldman concluding the likely partial authenticity of the Testimonium is from his Loeb Classic Library series of Josephus:

The most probable view seems to be that our text represents substantially what Josephus wrote, but that some alterations have been made by a Christian interpolator.

Louis H. Feldman: Editor, Josephus, Jewish Antiquities Books XVIII- XIX, of The Loeb Classic Library, page 49.

This is not contradicted by the selective parsing of McCall's opening post. Prof. Feldman routinely discusses arguments both for and against the Testimonium’s authenticity. Indeed, in my article I refer to Prof. Feldman’s arguments on both sides of the issue. McCall quoted some of Prof. Feldman’s analysis of the against arguments but none in favor of partial authenticity. In any event, I have backed up my assertion that Prof. Feldman favors partial authenticity and McCall has no counter conclusion by Prof. Feldman against. Simply quoting Prof. Feldman when he is describing one side of the argument and ignoring him when he describes the other side -- as McCall does -- is not persuasive.

Mr. Price again states: “Notably, the consensus for partial authenticity is held by scholars from diverse perspectives. Liberal commentators such as Robert Funk, J. Dominic Crossan, and A.N. Wilson, accept a substantial part of the TF as originally Josephan. So do Jewish scholars, such as Geza Vermes, Louis H. Feldman, and Paul Winter and secular scholars such as E.P. Sanders and Paula Fredrikson.”

I have personally sat in lectures with Robert Funk and John Crossan and Prices is again fabricating his facts!! Mr. Price would do well to review the late Robert Funk’s “Honest to Jesus”.


McCall disputes my claim that Profs. Crossan and Funk accept the partial authenticity of the Testimonium, citing lectures and one of Funk's books (though without any page or chapter reference). Perhaps McCall is confused, as many skeptics are, about the difference between authenticity and partial authenticity. I do not claim that Crossan and Funk accept full authenticity. I do not accept full authenticity. They favor partial authenticity and I was explicit about that in my article.

Profs. Crossan and Funk are not Jesus Myther fanatics, so I am not sure why McCall finds it so hard to believe that they would accept the likelihood of partial authenticity. Nor does McCall cite anything by Crossan or Funk that disputes my assertion. In any event, here are my supporting cites:

In J.D. Crossan's Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, he -- like J.P. Meier -- notes likely Christian interpolations in italics and accepts the rest of the Testimonium as authentic. He then states, "Without them, Josephus' account is carefully and deliberately neutral. He does not want, apparently, to be embroiled in any controversy about this Jesus. . . . So he was cautiously impartial and some later Christian editor delicately Christianized his account, but only to the extent that it was at least plausible and credible for the Jewish Josephus to have written it." Page 162.

Robert Funk writes in The Acts of Jesus, that Jesus' death at the hands of Pilate is "all but certain, because attested also by Josephus and Tacitus, two ancient historians, that: -There was a person named Jesus, who was executed by the authorities during the preference of Pontius Pilate (26-26 C.E.)." Page 133. He also cites Josephus in other parts of the book as evidence for historical events in Jesus' life.

But what about Honest to Jesus, which McCall claims disproves my representation about Funk favoring partial authenticity? In Honest to Jesus,Prof. Funk accepts most of the Testimonium as authentic, identifying the later Christian insertions in italics. Page 222 (1997 publ.). Funk then writes that "According to Josephus, Jesus was known as a sage who performed unusual deeds. he had a considerable following among both Judeans and Greeks. Those followers continued in their devotion to him after his death and formed a movement that took its name from him, a movement that was still in existence in Josephus' date late in the first century. While providing only a paucity of details, Josephus confirms the principal features otherwise attested of the historical Jesus." Ibid.

Although I do not know what McCall thinks he heard at those lectures, or thinks he read in Honest to Jesus, I am very skeptical that he heard or saw Crossan and Funk reject the Testimonium in its entirety.

I have read the autobiographical de-conversion story by Geza Vermas who retuned to Judaism from being a Roman Catholic priest and I know that the independent scholar the late Paul Winter had more in common with Judaism then Christianity.

I am not sure what to do with McCall’s references to Profs. Vermes and Winters. I said they were Jewish scholars who favored partial authenticity. Apparently McCall accepts that they accept partial authenticity and are Jewish. It looks like he wants to show that he knows something about these two scholars that I have already said.

It is odd how skeptics often do this; in effect name dropping scholars as if they are plutonium that no Christian has ever read or understood. At least when it comes to the Testimonium, this Christian was better informed about these scholars' views than the skeptic.

I would challenge Mr. Price to quote me text and page number where either E.P. Sanders or Paula Fredrikson state the Testimonium Flavianum as authentic! I have a number of their books on my book shelf.

It would have been nice, as a courtesy or to avoid looking like he is chest thumping, to have notified me of this "challenge." I might have run across the “challenge” sooner if I had been singled out in the opening post, but to bury it in the comments is a dubious way of issuing a challenge -- assuming McCall really wanted a response. In any event:

Regarding E.P. Sanders, check page 50 of The Historical Figure of Jesus: "It is highly likely that Josephus included Jesus in his account of the period. Josephus discussed John the Baptist and other prophetic figures, such as Theudas and the Egyptian. Further, the passage on Jesus is not adjacent to Josephus' account of John the Baptist, which is probably where a Christian scribe would have put it had he invented the whole paragraph. Thus, the author of the only surviving history of Palestinian Judaism in the first century thought that Jesus was important enough to merit a paragraph, no more, no less."

Regarding Paula Fredrikson, check her Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. "Scholars have debated the historical merits of this passage, some (few, now) maintaining that the whole is authentic, others (another minority), that the whole is a Christian interpolation, that is a passage written into the manuscript by a later Christian scribe. Most scholars currently incline to see the passage as basically authentic, with a few later insertions by a Christian scribe. The passage rendered below follows the editorial judgments and English translation of John Meier . . . I give the Christian insertions in italics, the Josephan substratum in roman. . . ." Page 249.

Unlike Dr. Louis Feldman, who is a life long Josephian scholar, Christopher Price has no more use for Josephus than Strabo except as a tool to prove and promote Christianity.

I show much more respect for Prof. Feldman and Josephus than McCall, who is a better choice of comparison than the scholar himself. I note that Prof. Feldman makes arguments for and against authenticity, and accurately state his conclusion that he favors the likelihood of partial authenticity. It is McCall who uses Prof. Feldman as a bludgeon to serve his own ideological interests. Again, we either have projection or sloppiness operating on Debunking Christianity here.

End the final analysis, the objectivity or Dr. Feldman and the deceitful subjectively of Mr. Price speak for themselves!

Funny how McCall judged the analysis over before getting a response to his challenges. Of course it does not appear he really expected a response. In any event, I have refuted the accusation that I was deceitful. I never questioned Prof. Feldman’s objectivity. McCall, on the other hand, has made false accusations about my article and my character that he should retract.

Perhaps the greatest lament I have about this whole affair is that the Debunking Christianity members tout what accomplished Christians they were and how they left the faith after objectively examining their faith or following the path of reason instead of faith. Too often in their disputes, on ground of their own choosing, they seem incompetent in judging the facts and hopelessly biased in their presentation of the material. How sad to throw your faith away on your own incompetent assessment of the relevant facts.

[This will be a multiple part theme, and the Zuckerman connection I'll divide into at least two posts. Part 1 is already up on Atheistwatch.]

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Phil Zuckerman

Over the last few years many amateur sociologists from the atheist camp have tried to produce would-be social science studies to demonstrate their ideological contention that atheism is the product of rational thought and religion is the product of superstition and stupidity.

One of the major contributors is a sociologist named Zuckerman. The "study" he contributes is badly done and makes a lot of bad assumptions. His study is not well thought of in the academy, but atheists on the net cling to it as though it proves all.

I've seen over half a dozen attempts to do sociological studies that supposedly prove that religion is bad for society. The two major one's are the so-called studies by Zuckerman and Paul. These two studies are linked as Zuckerman acknowledges Paul's "study" as foundational for his own.

The Edge Foundation describes Zuckerman's study this way:

A sociologist at Pitzer, Phil Zuckerman is the author of Invitation to the Sociology of Religion, Du Bois on Religion, Sex and Religion, and Society Without God. His Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006) verifies the inability of popular religiosity to thrive in modern, egalitarian democracies.

But this is nothing more than a lie and Zuckerman's superficial data confirms nothing of the sort.

Zukerman has a Skeptical Enquirer article that someone has tried to use against me and my religious experience studies, but it didn't apply. This trend is making me very angry because it has spawned many of the lies and half truths that are fueling the new Atheism.

This is Part 2 of my A Distinguished Birth series. Part 1 is here. As stated therein, the series argues three basic points: 1) there are substantial differences between the narratives of Jesus’ birth and those of pagan births involving pagan deities that include but go beyond the virgin conception, 2) the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were aware of the pagan birth stories involving deities and sought to distinguish Jesus’ birth from them, and 3) the efforts of Matthew and Luke to distinguish Jesus’ birth from rival pagan accounts help explain why some early Christians did not highlight the virgin birth of Jesus in their preaching and writing.

This part focuses on the ways in which the authors of Luke and Matthew wrote their respective accounts of the conception and birth of Jesus so as to distinguish them from the pagan birth accounts involving deities and avoid offense to Jewish readers and misunderstanding by Greek readers. It also discusses the implication of the author's efforts to distinguish.

Distinguishing Jesus’ Birth

It is very likely that the authors of Matthew and Luke knew that their virgin birth narratives would invite comparisons -- and resulting misunderstandings -- with the previously discussed stories about births resulting from sex with pagan deities. They were, after all, Greek writers themselves with Hellenistic audiences. Moreover, the authors of Matthew and Luke were familiar with Greek literary genres such as biography and historical monographs, suggesting broad contact with Greek culture. It follows, therefore, that the authors sought -- in the recounting of traditions available to them -- to distinguish Jesus’ birth from the miraculous birth stories of pagan deities and legends. There are multiple features of their narratives of Mary's conception and the birth of Jesus which the authors use to serve this purpose.

1. A Virgin Conceives

Although virgins were involved in some of the pagan birth narratives, in the New Testament we have a truly “virgin” birth. Mary conceived Jesus without any sort of sexual act and remained chaste throughout her pregnancy. The women in the pagan narratives, however, conceived as a result of sexual acts and were, therefore, no longer virgins. For example, although the mother of Romulus and Remus was a “vestal virgin” she ceased being one once Mars raped her. The sex act produced the conception. This is not the case with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Her conception was accomplished by the power of God, not by any form of intercourse or the result of lustful thoughts or actions.

Matthew records that Mary was “pregnant by the Holy Spirit” (1:18) and that the angel told Joseph that “what has been conceived in her is by the Holy Spirit” (1:20). Additional confirmation is provided by Matthew where he states, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son” (1:23) and emphasizes that even after marrying Joseph “kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son.” (1:25). In Luke, the conversation between the angel Gabriel and Mary serves the same purpose. When told she will conceive, Mary asks “How can this be, since I have not been intimate with a man?” Gabriel answers that she will conceive not by her husband but by the “Holy Spirit.” (1:34-35).

Mary's response to Gabriel can be usefully contrasted with the story of Samson's birth. Samson's mother -- who is unnamed -- had been married but was "sterile and remained childless" -- suggesting many unproductive efforts with her husband. Then, an angel appeared to her and said "You are sterile and childless, but you are going to conceive and have a son...." Note the difference in the address. The angel emphasized that the barren wife had been trying to conceive but could not. This is a classic "closed womb" healing story being set up. Equally notable is that she does not respond as Mary -- "How can this be?" -- because she is not a virgin but a married women who has a sexual relationship with her husband. Finally, there is no mention of the Holy Spirit's miraculous power producing the conception. It is clear that the conception will come about in the usual way -- sex with her husband -- now that God has opened her womb. Judges 13:1-24. Given the similarities of the story, it appears that here Luke is distinguishing Jesus' birth not only from pagan stories, but even from OT stories involving God's miraculous power. The purpose of doing so is to emphasize that Mary was and remained a virgin until after Jesus' birth and that the conception resulted directly from God's miraculous intervention.

Furthermore, it is interesting that both gospels stress that the conception will be accomplished by the “Holy Spirit.” This identification of God was perhaps chosen in part to emphasize that it is no man, earthly entity, or God in some other material form that caused the conception. It was effected by the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit’s power, not physical interaction. This is unique. As Justin Martyr wrote, "[n]ow it is evident to all, that in the race of Abraham according to the flesh no one has been born of a virgin, or is said to have been born of a virgin, save this our Christ." Dialogue With Trypho, 66.

Finally, nothing about the accounts in Matthew or Luke, “suggest sexual activity, but [they] do connote divine agency. The Holy Spirit is identified with God’s power in a way that anticipates Acts 1:8. The verb ‘to come upon’ also anticipates Acts 1:8, and, then, the Pentecost event. The text may call to mind Isah. 32:15, which anticipates the Spirit’s being poured out upon God’s people as a mark of the age of peace.” Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, page 90. A helpful resource on the text here is Glenn Miller’s discussion of the issue. He goes through the language of the birth narrative and its focus on the Holy Spirit's intervention and notes that the language "is a stock, generic phrase from OT literature” that “means empowerment, being set apart for a special task.” It was not used to suggest sexual intercourse and would not communicate that to the gospel audiences (assuming some background familiarity with Jewish-Christian thought).

Accordingly, the authors distinguish Jesus’ birth by emphasizing that Mary was a virgin during and after conception and that the conception was a miracle of God’s power, not physical presence.

2. A Jewish Child and the Jewish God

Both Matthew and Luke include lengthy genealogies, emphasizing that Jesus is a Jew descended from Jews. The conception is likewise the result of the intervention of the Jewish God. Jesus is not the son of just any deity, but of the One True God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This not only distinguishes Jesus' birth from the pagan stories with their pagan gods but is unique in Judaism itself. Although there are examples of miraculous conceptions in Judaism -- such as Sarah conceiving in her 90s and other previously barren wives such as Samson's mother, Hannah, and Elizabeth -- these conception were brought about in the usual way via a human father. God made conception possible by opening a closed womb but did not cause it. Although this may be an obvious point, it most likely was comforting to Jewish and Jewish-Christian readers with concerns about mixing Judaism up with paganism.

3. The Significance of the Miraculous Birth

An often overlooked difference between the pagan miraculous birth accounts and Jesus’ birth narratives is the consequence of divine intervention. Hercules was strong, for example, because he was the son of Zeus. He had divine blood in him. The greatness of Alexander the Great could similarly be attributed to divine parentage and blood. Jesus, on the other hand, is not a divine man infused with divine power because he is a son of a deity. The virgin birth is helpful in identifying that Jesus is anointed and chosen by God for a special task but the authors do not tell their audiences that it is the source of Jesus’ powers or miracles.

4. A Willing and Grateful Mother

Contrary to the stories of deception and rape so common to pagan divine birth stories the Gospel of Luke emphasizes that Mary is a blessed, willing participant in God’s plan. Mary welcomes and celebrates her role as the mother of God’s son. When told she would conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit -- which would clearly result in hardships --, Mary replies, “I am the Lord's servant . . . May it be to me as you have said.” Luke also records that Mary sang a song of celebration about her situation, which begins, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior because He has looked with favor on the humble condition of his slave. . . .” (1:46-55). Although not as explicit, in Matthew the angel’s first appearance to Joseph sets up a context in which Mary is a willing participant in God’s plan.

There is no deception. There is no rape. There is no coercion. This is a stark contrast to the deception and coercion employed by pagan deities to impregnate unwilling and unaware victims. Because the authors of Matthew and Luke had to know the dichotomy they were creating between the pagan world and the Jewish-Christian one, the contrast cannot be attributed to mere coincidence. It was an intentional contrast showing that the Christian message was different, its God was loving and superior to pagan gods, and that Jesus’ birth should not be confused with the miraculous pagan births of legend and myth.

5. Jesus’ Birth a Part of God’s Plan to Benefit Humanity

The authors of Matthew and Luke are clear that Mary’s pregnancy is part of the plan of the God of Israel to fulfill Israel’s messianic hopes and bring salvation to the world. It is not merely the whim of a god or a matter ordained by fate (a very different concept). As Matthew states, “Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet.” 1:22. Luke is less direct in mentioning fulfilled prophecy, but he also narrates divine messengers proclaiming that Mary’s conception is God’s will and pursuant to His plans. Luke also emphasizes the place it has in God’s plan through Mary’s Song (1:46-55) and Zechariah’s Prophecy (1:67-79).

The conceptions in the pagan stories, on the other hand, were the result of the whims of the gods, indulging their fleshly appetites. Even where there is some sense of foretelling, as with Perseus, it is fate -- not providence -- that is at work. The difference is significant and highlighted by both authors. In pagan lore, even the gods are subject to fate whereas in Jewish-Christian belief, God is sovereign and can control world events. God’s plan, moreover, is to benefit mankind, not the deity’s own lusts or fleshly appetites. In Luke, Mary sings that “His mercy is from generation to generation” and Zechariah proclaims that “He has visited and provided redemption for His people.” The angels on the night of Jesus’ birth proclaimed “good news of great joy for all the people: today a saviour, who is Messiah, was born for you in the city of David.” (2:11). In Matthew, Jesus will be born to “save his people from their sins” and his name means, “God with us.” (1:21, 23). Further, the presence of the Magi in Matthew communicates the inclusion of the Gentile world in God’s plan of salvation.

Again, the contrast with the pagan stories is stark. Any beneficial result of the pagan deity’s intervention was typically a matter of happenstance; an unintended consequence of the deity’s self-serving acts of rape, seduction, and deception.

6. The Righteousness of the Protagonists

Another key distinction between the pagan birth stories and Jesus’ birth is the role righteousness and character play in the birth narratives. The gospel authors are careful to highlight the righteousness of the important characters in their birth narratives. Zacharias and Abia, the parents of Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist, were “righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” (Luke 1:6). Matthew makes a point of emphasizing that Joseph is a “righteous man.” (Matt. 1:19). In fact, “Joseph . . . is depicted as the model disciple and follower of God’s will, for he gives up a Jewish father’s greatest privilege (siring his firstborn son) in order to obey God’s will.” B. Witherington, Matthew, page 46. Mary is depicted as a righteous woman as well. She is properly betrothed to a righteous man and has been chaste pursuant to the law. She is honored to be God’s chosen and sings a song of joy and thanksgiving to God. In the pagan birth stories, the usual characteristic highlighted in the character is either the woman’s beauty or the deity’s craving. Their character is typically not mentioned or relevant to the miraculous events at hand.

7. Differences Between Matthew and Luke

At points in the discussion it appears that Matthew or Luke may have emphasized some of the distinguishing features more than the other. For example, Luke spends more time focusing on Mary's consent and gratefulness and Matthew spends more time focusing on Josephes' righteousness. Matthew is also much more explicit in establishing that Jesus' birth fulfills Jewish prophecy, whereas Luke spends more time emphasizing the virginity of Mary.

These distinctions in emphasis may be the result of the audience of the respective gospels. Matthew is often noted as being the most Jewish of the canonical gospels, whereas Luke is the most Hellenized and likely the only one written by a gentile. Emphasizing fulfilled Jewish prophecy and Joseph's awareness and approval of the Holy Spirit empowered conception of Mary may be more directed at Jewish concerns about a story involving a deity causing the conception of a virgin. Luke on the other hand, may be doing more to avoid misunderstanding among his more gentile audience by explaining in greater detail that Mary was a virgin and willing. The distinctions between the two, therefore, may in part be due to addressing possible concerns or misunderstandings that could arise to a less specific narrative of the virgin conception and birth.

*A final note on Luke. Luke writes more pursuant to the genre of Greco-Roman historiography, whereas Matthew writes more pursuant to the genre of biography. This makes Luke's unequivocal presentation of the virgin birth all the more remarkable because, as noted above, Greek and Roman historians such as Livy and Herodotus expressed skepticism of the mythical and legendary birth stories prevalent in pagan poetry and plays. Luke distinguishes Jesus' miraculous birth by declaring as a historian who has investigated these accounts that it is a fact. It is real history, not a fable or myth that should be ignored and glossed over. Moreover, Luke writes as a second generation Christian much closer to the time frame of the miraculous birth about which he writes than any pagan historian ever could. Luke must have been familiar with the more skeptical pagan historians' attitudes about miraculous births, and he distinguishes -- once again -- the virgin birth of Jesus by declaring it to be a proper subject of history because it is true and has important consequences.

Conclusion

The virgin birth of Jesus is unparalleled in the pagan stories of births involving pagan gods as fathers. Nevertheless, then -- as now -- there was the danger that the stories would be be seen as related and the virgin birth of Jesus would be misunderstood, and become a barrier to the spread of the gospel rather than its facilitator. The authors of Matthew and Luke were aware of this problem and crafted their narratives accordingly. To distinguish Jesus’ birth, they emphasized that Mary was a virgin when she conceived and gave birth, that she was a willing and grateful participant, that the conception was not sexual but accomplished through the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit, that it was part of the God of Israel’s plan to benefit all of humanity, and that the people involved were righteous and good.

No doubt some of these themes served other purposes or were unavoidable, but their concentration, the manner in which they were crafted and emphasized strongly suggests the authors of Matthew and Luke intentionally distinguished Jesus’ birth in order to avoid misunderstandings that might give them a distorted understanding of God and his nature. This is no small concern. Jewish audiences were reassured that this is the God of Israel acting in a fashion consistent with their understanding of His nature. Pagan audiences would learn that the God of Jesus and Israel was not driven by human weakness or fleshly desires, as the pagan gods of legend and myth. Rather, He is a God who acts to benefit humanity out of love and concern.

That the authors of Matthew and Luke engaged in such literary efforts adds weight to the theory that early Christians did face challenges in sharing accounts of the virgin birth with both Jewish and Pagan audiences. The silence of some authors may be due to their care to avoid misunderstanding and inhibit the gospel message.

Now that Christmas is weeks past, I have a post on the birth of Jesus. It argues three basic points: 1) there are substantial differences between the narratives of Jesus’ birth and those of pagan births involving pagan deities that include but go beyond the virgin conception, 2) the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were aware of the pagan birth stories involving deities and sought to distinguish Jesus’ birth from them, and 3) the efforts of Matthew and Luke to distinguish Jesus’ birth from rival pagan accounts help explain why some early Christians did not highlight the virgin birth of Jesus in their preaching and writing.

The Absence of the Virgin Birth in Other Christian Writings

Half of the canonical gospels do not mention Jesus’ virgin birth. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke both narrate Jesus’ birth and the virgin conception, with some points of contact but divergent events and focus. As for the Gospel of John -- likely written decades after Matthew and Luke -- it is not surprising that it does not mention the virgin birth. As Darrell Bock notes, “John’s omission is the result of his presenting an even higher Christology at the start of his Gospel: the incarnation of the preexistent Word.” Luke (Baker), page 104. Jesus is not just the Son of God, he is the pre-existent Word of God who created the universe.


Bock also points out that Mark “ignores Jesus’ childhood entirely, so his omission may be explained simply as literary choice.” Ibid. This may also explain why Paul never mentions it explicitly in his letters and why it is not found in the early preaching recounted in Acts. Although I do not discount the viability of this point, there are other possible explanations. The virgin birth account may have created obstacles to successfully spreading the Christian message by inviting claims that Jesus was illegitimate or that the story was an imitation of miraculous birth stories involving pagan deities. The latter could be especially problematic among Jewish audiences; even those of a more Hellenist background.

How attractive or acceptable would these pagan legends have been to Greek-speaking Jewish Christians? Would they have wanted to fashion the conception of Jesus after them? Many of the legends involved gross or amoral sexual conduct on the part of the deity who was thought to have begotten the child; and Wisdom 14:24,26 and Rom 1:24 show how Greek-speaking Jews and Jewish Christians would react to such conduct.

Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, page 523.

Even with Hellenistic audiences the virgin birth account ran the risk of promoting misunderstanding. If they interpreted the birth of Jesus through the lens of the pagan stories about births involving deities, their impression of God would be greatly distorted. As discussed below, such stories depict vain gods driven by fleshly, weak human appetites who rape and deceive. If you start talking about a god who gets a virgin pregnant, you play into the worst stereotypes of pagan culture. This helps explains why the virgin birth, though obviously known to the early Christian fathers, was not as prominent as it is now. E. Earle Ellis explains the likely reason for the the absence of teachings on the virgin birth among other early Christian writers:

The teaching is absent in the earliest writers of the hellenistic Church (e.g., Paul and Mark) and seems to have no place in most of the earlier post-apostolic writings. This suggests that the virgin birth was much less important for the earliest Christians than for the later Church. It also suggests that it was not a tradition created by hellenistic Christianity to popularize Jesus as a new ‘god.’ It looks more like a tradition of the early Palestinian Church which was publicly avoided to prevent Jewish offence and ‘Greek’ misunderstanding of Jesus and his messiahship. It became important to publicize the tradition as a counter to tendencies that, in time, denied Jesus’ humanity (Docetists’) or his divine origin (‘Adoptionists’) or his legitimacy (Jewish polemic).

The Gospel of Luke, page 73.

In addition to the above downside, the upside of including stories of Mary’s miraculous conception may not have been as high as it initially appears. Although modern Christians tend to associate the idea of the virgin birth with Jesus’ status as messiah, it is unlikely that the earliest audience to the Christian message would have had the same expectation. As Raymond Brown concluded in his extensive work in this area, “we remain without real proof of the existence in Judaism of the idea of a virginal conception.” The Birth of the Messiah, page 524. Indeed, “it is doubtful that the idea of a virginal conception was part of Jewish messianic expectations in or before the era when the Gospels were written. . . ." B. Witherington, “The Birth of Jesus,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, page 70. As a result, “[t]hey expected messiah to be fully and only human.” Ben Witherington, Matthew, page 52. Accordingly, the virgin birth was not a necessary element to the Christian claims that Jesus was messiah (as the Gospel of Mark and Paul’s letters prove) but it could cause great offense or misunderstanding in the gospel's intended audience.

Pagan Births Caused by Pagan Gods

A long running dispute about Jesus’ miraculous birth is how it relates to pagan stories about the births of prominent mythical and historical figures with divine fathers. Sometimes these pagan myths are -- erroneously -- referred to as “virgin” births like that of Jesus. Prominent examples of these stories include Perseus, Hercules, Romulus & Remus, and Alexander the Great.

Perseus’ mother was locked away in a tower by her father to prevent her from bearing any children -- her offspring was fated to slay her father --, but Zeus was taken by her great beauty and infiltrated the tower as what the Roman poet Ovid described as “a shower of gold” into her lap and impregnated her. Metamorphoses, Bk. IV:604-662. According to Sophocles, the conception was the result of “a deposit of the seed of Zeus that had fallen in a golden rain.” Antigone, 944. Notably, the Greek historian Herodotus is aware of the account, but does not consider it historical, alluding to Perseus' parnetage but “leaving the god out of account.” The Histories, Bk. VI.53.

Zeus struck again with Hercules’ mother. Princess Alcmene was described as a woman of great beauty. She caught Zeus’ eye and he posed as her betrothed and impregnated her. Next on Zeus’ hit list was the beautiful and formidable Olympia, the mother of Alexander the Great. Zeus came to her in the form of a thunderbolt or a snake shortly before her marriage to King Philip.

It is fitting that our next example involves not Zeus, but Mars, the god of war. According to the Roman historian Livy, the mother of Romulus and Remus -- Rhea Silvia -- reportedly conceived after she was “raped” by Mars. Her uncle had forced her to become a “vestal virgin” to avoid retribution from any possible descendants for displacing her father. Hers was no virgin conception, however, because it resulted from sex with Mars. In a twist similar to Perseus, the twin offspring went on to found Rome and overthrow their uncle who had conspired to kill the mother and her children. Livy attributes these events to “fate” but -- like Herodotus -- expresses skepticism towards the story, noting alternative explanations, such as that Silvia made the story up. He also refers to aspects of the story as a “fable.” Livy, The Early History of Rome (Penguin), trn. by Aubrey de Selincourt, 1.6, pages 37-38.

All of these accounts include gods driven by lust to have sex with beautiful mortal women, usually against the woman’s will or by using deception. But there are more. Many more. A helpful summary of such incidents is provided by Ovid, as told by one of his characters -- Atachne -- as she depicts various rapes perpetrated by disguised pagan gods:

The Maeonian girl depicts Europa deceived by the form of the bull: you would have thought it a real bull and real waves. She is seen looking back to the shore she has left, and calling to her companions, displaying fear at the touch of the surging water, and drawing up her shrinking feet. Also Arachne showed Asterie, held by the eagle, struggling, and Leda lying beneath the swan’s wings. She added Jupiter who, hidden in the form of a satyr, filled Antiope, daughter of Nycteus with twin offspring; who, as Amphitryon, was charmed by you, Alcmena, of Tiryns; by Danaë, as a golden shower; by Aegina, daughter of Asopus, as a flame; by Mnemosyne, as a shepherd; by Proserpine, Ceres’s daughter, as a spotted snake.

She wove you, Neptune, also, changed to a fierce bull for Canace, Aeolus’s daughter. In Enipeus’s form you begot the Aloidae, and deceived Theophane as a ram. The golden-haired, gentlest, mother of the cornfields, knew you as a horse. The snake-haired mother of the winged horse, knew you as a winged bird. Melantho knew you as a dolphin. She gave all these their own aspects, and the aspects of the place. Here is Phoebus like a countryman, and she shows him now with the wings of a hawk, and now in a lion’s skin, and how as a shepherd he tricked Isse, Macareus’s daughter. She showed how Bacchus ensnared Erigone with delusive grapes, and how Saturn as the double of a horse begot Chiron. The outer edge of the web, surrounded by a narrow border, had flowers interwoven with entangled ivy.

Metamorphoses, Bk. VI:103-128.

In Part 2, I continue this topic with sections exploring in detail the ways in which the authors of Luke and Matthew wrote their respective accounts of the conception and birth of Jesus so as to distinguish it from the pagan birth accounts involving deities and avoid offense to Jewish readers and misunderstanding by Greek readers.

UPDATE: Part 2 is now available.

I have never read a book quite like Edward Feser's The Last Superstition. It is presented as a response to the 'New Atheists' (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, et al) and one expects something along the lines of the recent manifestos by Keith Ward, John Haught, Alister McGrath, David Myers, Chris Hedges and others. But it is so much more than a retort to the new self-appointed high priests of unbelief. Because while the above writers more or less take for granted the modern framework of thought we inherited from the likes of Descartes, Hobbes, Hume, Locke and Kant and try to rebut the New Atheists on their own terms, Feser argues that modern thought itself is the disease of which their arguments are a symptom. His aim in The Last Superstition is nothing less than to rehabilitate the classical philosophical project that began with Plato and Aristotle and was refined and advanced by Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics.

According to Feser, abandoning Aristotelianism broadly construed was the biggest philosophical mistake in the history of Western thought. Contrary to the standard account we heard in high school and in Philosophy 101 (for those of us who went to college), Aristotle's synthesis was not irrational and metaphysically overweight, which had to be overthrown before science, reason and ethics could advance. Even though some of the specific empirical views held by Aristotle and his followers (on the nature of motion, for example) turned out to be incorrect, the metaphysical categories and concepts he introduced-such as the distinction between material, efficient, formal and final causes, the view of matter as form-plus-essence and the distinction between potentiality and actuality-turn out to be Goldilocks just right for making sense of the world: "The structure of the world just happens to be as complex as he describes it, no more (perhaps) but no less either" (p.72). What's more (again according to Feser), something like an Aristotelian view of causality, matter and mind is indispensable to science itself, if we assume that it is in the business of delivering true knowledge of the empirical world (which is not the sum total of reality, however).

The truly astonishing implications of this view, however, are in the realm of morality and religion. In an Aristotelian framework the existence of God-the personal, transcendent source of being and value-is not just probabilistically likely, but demonstrably certain, the inevitable outcome of certain facts about causality and motion inherent in the framework. As it turns out Aquinas' five ways are much more cogent than skeptics give them credit for (most of whom, as Feser points out, haven't bothered to read past the brief summary in the Summa Contra Gentiles). To take just one example (grossly oversimplified), it is inevitable that the universe have a First Cause that is itself uncaused because of the distinction between essence and existence: we can know what the essence of a rational animal is in terms of the capacity to speak, imagine, etc. without knowing whether any rational animals actually exist. As it turns out all objects we have experience of in the material world are only contingently existent, which is obvious from the fact that things like trees, rocks and even planets and stars are constantly popping in and out of existence. Thus there must be some necessarily existing being to make all these potentially existent beings actually existent. Note that this is not William Lane Craig's cosmological argument that whatever begins to exist must have a cause, which relies on the Big Bang to establish a beginning for the Universe. The cosmos could have existed eternally, it could be a multiverse, it could be a continual cycle of Big Bangs and Big Crunches and this argument would still be valid.

Not only is the existence of God demonstrably certain from an Aristotelian point of view, but this God must necessarily have the characteristics attributed to him by the great monotheistic traditions: omnipotence, omniscience, perfect goodness, etc. Also entailed by Aristotelianism (at least by way of Augustine and Aquinas) are the immortality of the soul and a concept of morality based on natural law. Final causality entails certain ends for every creature which hold true regardless of subjective preference or whim. For example, it is the natural end of a rational animal to seek the truth and when we consider that God is the final cause of everything that exists we realize that it is the natural end of human beings to obtain knowledge of Him and conform to His image. As for the problem of evil, Feser contends that this really has no bearing one way or another on the existence of God because as he sees it the prospect of enjoying the Beatific Vision completely overshadows any finite suffering we experience in this lifetime. Faith, he argues, is not a matter of holding to one's beliefs in the teeth of reason and evidence, but precisely of holding onto the deliverances of reason even in the face of emotional turbulence caused by witnessing apparently undeserved suffering (see for example Paul Manata's musings on the emotional problem of evil).

It is clear from Feser's account that Aristotelian Thomism (Aristotelianism by way of Aquinas and the Scholastics) was a rich, vibrant interpretation of reality with enormous scope and sophistication. What led to its abandonment? As it turns out here too the standard story is misleading. The early modern philosophers did not reject Thomism because it was too traditional or stifling for scientific research (as anyone familiar with the works of Jean Buridan, Nicole D'Oresme and other Scholastic natural philosophers can attest): as a result of the religious wars of the 16th Century and a newly resurgent worldliness there arose among early modern thinkers a desire to overthrow the traditional authority of the Church and rethink the European political project. These thinkers did not give any good arguments for abandoning Aristotelian categories. They did so because it was necessary in order to undermine the theologico-political complex of the Church. In fact, "When one seriously comes to understand the classical philosophical tradition...and not merely the potted caricatures of it that even many professional philosophers, to their shame, tend to rely on-one learns just how contingent and open to question are the various modern, and typically 'naturalistic', philosophical assumptions that most contemporary thinkers (and certainly most secularists) simply take for granted without rational argument." (p.5) The litany of evils brought about in modern philosophy by rejecting Aristotle is long and severe: skepticism about the external world, unsolvable problems of induction and mind-body interaction, free will and personal identity rendered mysterious or even incoherent, the undermining of any justification for morality and natural rights, etc. Most of these problems can be traced not just to the abandonment of Aristotelianism in general, but of final causality in particular and the embrace of a mechanistic conception of matter according to which the only things that are truly real are particles (or fields, or whatever) in constant motion, interacting blindly according to blind, non-teleological principles (as William Hasker described it in The Emergent Self). Abandon final causality, and reason and morality become incoherent.

As is apparent from the above all too brief summary, The Last Superstition is much more than just a response to the New Atheists, and it is certainly not the same kind of response that we have seen from others. It is a brief history of Western philosophy and an exposition of the key ideas and concepts that have informed our understanding of the world since the beginning of civilization. It is also a lucid argument for the existence and nature of God and a primer on the philosophy of mind and science. Feser has a great gift for explaining big ideas in simple, concise language which all philosophers could benefit from. To skeptics he will prove a very frustrating opponent, because he knows the skeptical arguments inside and out and embraces all of modern science, including undiluted evolutionary theory. He has no truck with intelligent design (Paley deserves to be the atheists' whipping boy, in his opinion, because he conceded all the mechanistic assumptions of his opponents and thus lacked the metaphysical grounds for a truly compelling design argument; see pp.110-119) and does not require the Big Bang to be true in order to demonstrate the existence of God, as we saw above. Indeed, his discussion is so comprehensive and enlightening and so consistently tough-minded that 'almost he persuadeth me to become a Thomist'.

Almost, but not quite. I do have a few objections to the book, some minor and some major. For one thing the tone of Feser's book is very, very abrasive. Words like 'stupid', 'evil', 'insane' and 'monstrous' come up frequently to describe his opponents as well as practices he disapproves of, such as homosexuality. To be fair, he does base his abhorrence for the latter on his understanding of natural law morality, but I associate this kind of rhetoric with a person who is very unsure of the validity of his positions. Despite the fact that atheists too use abrasive rhetoric in their manifestos, I definitely prefer on the Christian side to let arguments speak for themselves.

On to the arguments. The one striking, elephant-size absence from Feser's book is any discussion of how all these philosophical arguments line up with the Scriptural understanding of God, human nature and morality. Though he explicitly limits his discussion to 'natural' as opposed to 'revealed' theology, it is hard to see his project as distinctively Christian without paying attention to these issues. Though the project of Western theology can be summarized as the marriage of Greek philosophy with Hebrew theology, more than one great theologian has doubted whether the Unmoved Mover of Aristotle and God the Father of Abraham, Isaac and Jesus can be equated. What's more, though he would probably see it as yet another symptom of the modern malaise, higher biblical criticism has had just as much of an influence on contemporary theology and philosophy as the rejection of Aristotelianism. No doubt the two are related, but the objections of the higher critics to the historicity and integrity of the Bible did not all stem from their abandonment of supernaturalism. There are genuine textual difficulties which cast doubt on the exact scope and unfolding of the Exodus, for example and which have genuine theological consequences.

Natural law morality is certainly a rich, sophisticated tradition deserving careful attention. It may turn out, as Feser says, to be the only one which guarantees the objectivity and non-arbitrariness of morality. But I am consistently skeptical of natural law arguments because of the way they have been used throughout history to legitimize degrading, exploitative conditions for certain classes of people, such as slaves and women. In the face of abolitionism, for example, pro-slavery advocates turned to the 'science' of phrenology to establish the fact of the natural inferiority of blacks and hence the naturalness of their subjugation. Many slave-owners were almost paternalistic in this respect, sincerely believing that because of their constitution blacks could not survive or thrive without a master shouting orders at them, backed up by the whip and deprivation. And women throughout history have been discounted from playing active roles in politics, the economy and academics (it is noteworthy that all of the great philosophers Feser refers to are men) because of perceived deficiencies in intellect and temperament. So at the very least great care is required in employing natural law arguments, to make sure that they do not simply reinforce or legitimize an unjust or corrupt status quo.

My third and final major objection has to do with obstacles to truth and the possibility of skepticism. Feser is remarkably confident about the reliability of certain 'common-sense' philosophical intuitions about everyday objects and concepts that lie behind Aristotelianism. This leads him to reject representationism in the philosophy of mind (i.e. the idea that mental states are contingent representations of states in the external world which may or may not actually correspond to those states) and to use the words 'stupid' and 'insane' to describe people who do not share his intuitions about the world. Empirical research, however, has demonstrated that many of our intuitions about how things work are seriously misleading. What's more, people with damage to certain parts of their brain suffer from strange perceptual anomalies which seem to confirm the representationist view of the mind: phantom limbs (when a limb has been amputated but the person retains an awareness of it, as if it were still attached to the body), for example, can best be explained as the persistence of a representation of the limb within the brain even if the limb itself is no longer attached to the body. Despite his careful distinction between metaphysics and science, most neuroscientists today model human cognition as the construction (a word Feser really doesn't like when it comes to knowledge) of a representation of the inner and outer world in the brain (it should be noted, though, that I have not read his book Philosophy of Mind yet so it may be that he deals with these difficulties there). Feser also doesn't discuss the problem of widely varying philosophical intuitions between Occidental and Oriental traditions of thought. I would like to see an argument why an interpretation of the world in terms of Atman, Brahman, Dharma and Samsara is inferior to the Aristotelian synthesis, and if so how Oriental peoples came to have such different philosophical intuitions.

These caveats, however, are an inevitable result of the magnitude of the subjects Feser is dealing with and should not be seen as diminishing his positive achievement in making Aristotelianism seem an attractive and compelling philosophical project. Feser is a brilliant, erudite thinker and The Last Superstition is simply required reading for anyone remotely interested in the question of whether religious belief is rational and whether perhaps atheism is not the great superstition after all. I for one look forward to digging into those footnotes and learning from Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas for myself. I suggest skeptics do the same.

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