Reading: Bart D. Ehrman (or, In Praise of the Historical Jesus programme)

I’ve lately been reading quite a few of the books by Bart D. Ehrman. Ehrman has the same story to set up most of his books, which are mostly about the same subject matter: the historicity of the Christian Bible. Like a bad Vonnegut novel, it starts off with the identical origin story. Ehrman grew up in a not particularly religious household, and then became evangelised as a teenager. Ehrman then went to religious colleges and was warned about ‘secular’ institutions which have course on bible study.


Eventually Ehrman widens his academic horizons and discovers philosophy and literature. Ehrman becomes the bible scholar but finds that his initial evangelical pretentions to the inerrance of the bible are predicated on premises such as: the book that we read today (i.e. what we can buy from bookshops, churches or online etc) has a long historical narrative as to how it came to be.


Ehrman explores the histories of early Christianity and finds a story of how certain narratives won in historical disputes and the result of that is the Christianity that we understand today. As someone reading Gibbon I can definitely recall the disputes of the likes of the Arians and the Donatists, how questions of Christology, Soteriology and Mariology (not the study of an Italian plumber) reveal deep schisms of belief between people and was hardly a dry scholarly issue at the time. The history of Late Antiquity is the story of how our Christianity of today came to be.


Let’s take a bit of a step back. I like Ehrman’s work, even though I haven’t read many of the commentators he’s referring to. I’m currently pacing through DF Strauss’s Life of Jesus Critically Examined at the moment. I find this fasincation with the Historical Jesus utterly fascinating for a few reasons. One is that it shows the success of Kant’s programme on religion. If we are to take the idea of moral religion seriously we have to then consider the historicity of the character of Jesus.


There’s a divide in the so-called apologetics of today where people try to use hokey rational arguments which don’t convince someone with a background in philosophy, and other arguments on the vein of William Lane Craig or William Alston or Malcolm Platinga which applies some pretty heavy metaphysics (which is always very attractive to me) to give arguments for the existence of God. Then there’s the other side of apologetics: claim that Jesus was an Historical figure.


Back in the turn of the 20th Century this tradition might have been called ‘Liberal Theology’ or ‘Protestant Theology’. I find it astounding that Atheist/sceptics have finally caught up with 19th Century Theology in the form of Bart D. Erhman. Many of the atheists of the 2000s had arguments which were no better than Hume in the 18th Century. When it comes to critique of religion, I always thought that the powerful arguments came from Kant, who came from within the spiritual and exegetical tradition to critique the articles of Christian faith. It is one thing to convince someone who has no background or interest in understanding a religion or any religion, but it takes another to see the logical extensions of what it means to have faith and see where it leads. Kant I take it, follows the latter route in his moral philosophy. It is often said that the liberal protestant tradition has come from Kant’s programmatic statements in the Religion within the bounds of Mere Reason work. I find the argumentative strategy in Ehrman’s book refreshing, as if atheism has their own ‘Catholics’ and ‘Protestants’ of their own. As it happens, with the controversies and immense criticisms going towards people like Sam Harris and Bill Maher (on contemporary political issues) or Richard Dawkins (on his, perhaps one should refer to them as ‘social opinions’); perhaps we need a protestant movement within atheist intellectual circles to distance ourselves from their doctrines.


Destre returns from the mists to write this post


Pluralism, the non religious and intolerance (Linkspam of the week)

I’d like to highlight a few URLs that I’ve come across this week that I’d like to frame in a single post.

My twitter subscription to Three Faiths Forum gave a neat link to an article by a C. Steadman about the case for the non-religious to be involved in interfaith work. We’ve posted before about this and I find this article a very eloquent justification, as well a neat assertion of the case that there is no incompatibility by having a commitment to the social justice component of interfaith work and having no religious affiliation.

Thinking about the ‘other side’, there is a fascinating interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson (who I have come to know from his cameo on the Big Bang Theory [that’s a tv show not a cosmological hypothesis]) who states how much of his agenda in science communication is not interested very much in the issue of religion, however, one of his most viewed videos on youtube concerns a discussion with R. Dawkins where he makes the very interesting point that it is because of Dawkins’ eloquence of writing and putting forward his case that makes him prima facie antagonised by those of faith, in essence the notion of the ‘Angry atheist’ (in Steadman’s terms) is constructed by this kind of preconception or unwillingness to deal with the arguments in hand with (inter alia) the likes of Dawkins but more the conclusions made. For anyone who found this blog post for searching terms such as “Neil deGrasse Tyson” and “religion”, I apologise for adding to this reputation that Tyson does not want to have (in my defence, he’s blamed by Sheldon Cooper for the reclassification of Pluto – how’s that for changing a reputation).

Perhaps to put the importance of tolerance in context, this week a video came out of a grassroots protest led by the an organisation within the umbrella of US tea party movement where a ‘protest’ against speakers in a Muslim fundrasing event was obscured by the thinly veiled xenophobia of the protest’s participants. Such is the consequence of a lack of engagement or dialogue.


The elephant in the room: Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s ‘Nomad’ (Review)

This month I have the task of doing a book review. I’ve chosen a book within the so-called ‘New Atheist’ canon, although labels aside, this is a fascinating and challenging book for all concerned. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a person of numerous identities, many of which hold awkwardly together, and this is the essence of the title of her book: Nomad.

Ali is a woman. As a woman, she faces multiple discriminations; from her father, who is interestingly the daughter of Hirsi Magan Isse, a Somali revolutionary; from her grandmother, whose distrust of modernity was interesting in spite of her own personal defiance by defying patriarchal customs of her time and from her own community who see her as betraying her heritage.

Ali is a secularist. By studying in school was a defiance enough for her family, Ali came to study political science and immersed herself and identified with the values of the European Enlightenment. Ali makes an interesting case for the universality of the enlightenment values: of freedom of expression and the erosion of religious influence on civic society. From her background not just as an Arab, but a woman from an Arabic culture, she turns the values of the 17th and 18thC Enlightenment to apply beyond Europe. For her criticism of Islam, such as the insular fear of modernity and its values to practices which involve violence against women, Ali raises something very uncomfortable and unsayalbe in this day and age. Consider for instance in the UK that Baroness Warsi recently stated that Islamophobia is rife, while many comedians are known to have a secret rule to avoid critique of the religion due to the historical repercussions of Salman Rushdie. Ali was the writer of Theo Van Gogh’s film ‘Submission’, a film for which Van Gogh was murdered.

Ali is not a ‘feminist’. So many are unwilling to critique Islam, perhaps for the fear of association with extremist right-wing politics or for the threats. This is a topic very sensitive but important. Ali refuses the title of ‘feminist’ despite raising the issue of women in the Arab world, as well as the double oppression Arab women face when emigrating to the west with the pressure to conform to old cultural standards against their pressure to distance themselves from integrating with the society. Integrating to a a country once emigrating is often an issue for minority groups and it shows the many facets of the cultural diaspora that is contemporary Islam. Ali challenges so-called identifying feminists because ‘many’ (only one I recall was named – Germaine Greer) refused to critique Muslim country customs on the basis to the effect of  ‘we cannot judge other countries by our cultural standards’. That alone raises at least two or three distinct questions internal to a feminist discussion. For Ali, these issues for the women she describes are not so much a feminist issue, but a human rights issue.

Ali is a modern woman. Perhaps the end of the book shows how sympathetic Ali is to her late grandmother, who despite her defiance, did not approve of her granddaughter’s life. Ali describes how Somalia irrevocably changed once western innovations and modernity were introduced, electricity for instance, and new ways of thinking, and new ways of killing. For better and for worse, the innovations that modernity brought could not be reversed. Ali’s grandmother was a nomad who was forcibly married off to a man who left her for another woman, despite this she maintained her personal integrity within the confines of her patriarchy of the time. Ali describes her grandmother as a more successful matriarch keeping the clan in checkcompared to the woman her grandfather replaced her with, who, while the latter provided him with boys (a favoured gender in tribal society), was poor at other domestic duties. Ali sees the strength of her grandmother and those of many other women around her in the trials of everyday life. It is Ali’s conviction, as it is for many others, such as Nussbaum, that a key feature for social development in many countries involves providing more education and social mobility to women especially in their traditional caregiver roles of their society. While recognising this, Ali fights a battle of many fronts, from the dangerous public criticisms of Islam, both from the social othodoxy and her family’s ostracism of her; to the indifference of liberal intellectuals and so-called feminists who turn a blind eye. Ali shows herself as a Nomad of many fronts.


The anti-secular

As a default position, I would say that I’d consider secularism to be a reasonable notion. That is, if we are to understand the notion of secularism as the separation of the influence of religious groups onto social and civic institutions. That said, it has come to my attention of two things that seem interesting cases.

1. Judaism has a system of ethics which is referred to as ‘law’. The significance of Jewish law that makes it really distinct is that a great many issues are considered under the Jewish framework of beliefs. Whether to turn a light on or off on the Sabbath is considered to some, a difficult issue. What kind of car should one buy, what food to eat and so on. It would be absurd to say that one should not be allowed to be informed by a religious conviction or doctrine or system of beliefs, but this seems to stand in a tension (but by no means a contradiction), with the notion that religious institutions should have no influence over social and civic affairs. There seems an important sense in which the notion of the secular is lacking in acknowledging this.

2. There is such a thing as an Islamic bank. I don’t know too much about it but I do understand that it has different problems and different benefits. In the current climate where finance and the financial system is in turmoil, it may seem an interesting and perhaps welcome difference to consider doing things differently. What makes an Islamic bank ‘Islamic’? The early bankers (so Max Weber will have us believe) were Calvinist protestants, we wouldn’t say that those early banks were ‘calvinist banks’ or ‘religious banks’, but happened to be in such and such a social background and situation that most of the banking founders were protestant calvinists afraid of going to hell*.

*Caveat: Consider the Weber thought as a counterfactual, in the sense that Weber’s actual historical evidence and account is wholly questionable.

We need more terminology about the notion of the secular.