Science, Creation and the Seeking of Truth in Orthodox Christian Theology

February 25, 2011

Fr. Gregory Hallam, the pastor of St. Aidan’s Orthodox Church in Levenshulme, Manchester, in Great Britain, offers this recording of his lecture “Science, Creation and the Seeking of Truth in Orthodox Christian Theology,” given February 24, 2011 at Manchester Metropolitan University. He comments on this recording:

In this lecture at Manchester Metropolitan University I show how Religion and Science are not incompatible. I propose that the Faith of the Orthodox Church, which is so distinctive and different from all other Christian Churches, has some interesting insights to offer.

This is my first attempt at recording. The quality is average but I have learned lessons for next time!

Despite some technical issues, he gives a thought-provoking lecture on the subject. Transcript of lecture here.  Slides used, audio file, and additional media used can be found here.

Atheism and Orthodoxy in Modern Russia

January 30, 2011

By Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev

In this talk I propose to outline the history of atheism in Russia during the last hundred years. I will start by considering the kind of atheism present in Russia before the Revolution. Then I will say something about the development of atheism during the Soviet period. And finally I will conclude with some observations concerning the nature of Russian post-Soviet atheism.

I should like to begin with the following questions. How did it happen that the country known as ‘Holy Russia’, with such a long history of Orthodox Christianity, was in a very short period of time turned by the Bolsheviks into ‘the first atheist state in the world’? How was it possible that the very same people who were taught religion in secondary schools in the 1910s with their own hands destroyed churches and burned holy icons in the 1920s? What is the explanation of the fact that the Orthodox Church, which was so powerful in the Russian Empire, was almost reduced to zero by its former members?

I should say at once that I cannot interpret what happened in Russia in 1917 as an accident, the seizure of power by a small group of villains. Rather I perceive in the Russian revolution the ultimate outcome of the processes which were going on within the pre-revolutionary society and so, to a considerable extent, within the Russian Church (as there was no separation between Church and society). I would claim that the Russian revolution was the offspring of both the Russian monarchy and the Church. The roots of the post-revolutionary atheism should be looked for in pre-revolutionary Russian society and in the Church.

It has been said that Russia was baptised but not enlightened. Indeed, as far as the 19th century is concerned, it is clear that enlightenment was very often in conflict with religion: the masses of illiterate peasants kept their traditional beliefs, but more and more educated people, even from a purely religious background, rejected faith and became atheists. Chernyshevsky and Dobroliubov are classic examples: both came from clerical families, both became atheists after studying in theological seminaries. For people like Dostoyevsky religion was something that had to be rediscovered, after having been lost as a result of his education. Tolstoy, on the other hand, came to a certain type of faith in God but remained alien to the Orthodox Church. It is clear, when one looks at the pre-revolutionary period, that there was a huge gap between the Church and the world of educated people, the so-called intelligentsia, and this gap was constantly growing.

But on the eve of the revolution it became more and more clear that atheism had also invaded the mass of ordinary people. Berdyaev wrote at that time that the simple Russian baba, who was supposed to be religious, was no longer a reality but a myth: she had become a nihilist and an atheist. I would like to quote some more from what this great Russian philosopher wrote in 1917, several months before the October revolution:

“The Russian nation always considered itself to be Christian. Many Russian thinkers and artists were even inclined to regard it as a nation which is Christian par excellence. The Slavophils thought that Russian people live by the Orthodox faith, which is the only true faith containing the entire truth… Dostoevsky preached that. The Russian nation is a bearer of God… But, it was here that revolution broke out, and it…revealed a spiritual emptiness in Russian people. This emptiness is a result of a slavery that lasted too long, of a process of degeneration of the old regime that went too far, of a paralysis of the Russian Church and moral degradation of the ecclesiastical authorities that lasted too long. Since long ago the sacred has been exterminated from the people’s soul both from the left side and the right, which prepared this cynical attitude towards the sacred that is now being revealed in all its disgust.”

The Church on the Blood in Yekaterinburg, Russia, built on the spot where the last Russian Tsar and his family were executed by the Bolsheviks

Berdyaev blames the Tsarist regime and the Orthodox Church for what happened in 1917. Leaving aside the former, let us look at the role of the Church in the pre-revolutionary period. On the one hand, it was still the State Church, extremely powerful and influential, penetrating all levels of the life of society. There were still living saints within it, like John of Kronstadt, and spiritual life still flourished in at least some monasteries. On the other hand, the Church was governed by the civil authorities, or even by such odd figures as Rasputin, and it is true that it was paralyzed to a considerable extent.

I remember reading a book by Father Georgy Shavelsky, the Protopresbyter of the Russian Army and Navy under Nicholas II. Himself one of the senior members of the Holy Synod, he testified that the Synod was in fact very far from the life of people, that it did very little (if anything) to prevent atheist propaganda from spreading among ordinary people. To show how little remained of the people’s traditional devotion to God, Shavelsky cites the following example: when attendance at the Liturgy became, by a special imperial decree, no longer obligatory for Russian soldiers, only ten percent of them continued to go to church.

Another testimony of the same kind is that of Metropolitan Veniamin (Fedchenkov), who became the Bishop of the White Army after the revolution. He writes that none of the students of the St. Petersburg Theological Academy, where he had studied, ever went to see Father John of Kronstadt, and that some of the students were atheists. He describes the atmosphere of spiritual coolness inside the Orthodox Church, the lack of prophetic spirit. He claims that it was not by mere chance that there arose people like Rasputin: against the common background of indifference towards religion he appeared as a charismatic figure and was at first accepted as such by the ecclesiastical authorities, who then directed his steps to the imperial palace.

The third testimony which I would like to draw on here is of a more personal kind: it is that of Father Sergei Bulgakov. Himself the son of an Orthodox priest, after studying at a theological seminary, he became an atheist, following the steps of Chernyshevsky and Dobroliubov. In his autobiographical notes he asks himself how this happened, and answers: “It happened, somehow, almost at once and in an imperceptible manner, as something taken for granted, when the poetry of my childhood was replaced by the prose of the theological seminary… When I began to doubt, my critical thoughts were not satisfied with traditional apologetics, but rather found them scandalous… My revolt was strengthened by the compulsory devotion: these long services with akathists (and ritual devotion in general) did not give me satisfaction.” Fr Bulgakov gave up his religion easily, without a fight, and neither his clerical origins nor his theological education helped him to resist the temptation of atheism and nihilism.

The picture which one gains when reading the memoirs of those living during the pre-revolutionary period is that of a deep decline in religious belief. Though Orthodox Christianity was still maintained as the official religion of the Russian monarchy, both society and the Church were fatally contaminated by unbelief, nihilism and atheism. Even the seminarists, future priests, balanced on the edge between religion and atheism. Many ordinary Christians, if not the majority, had no faith at all, and it was they who turned against the Church as soon as membership in it stopped being encouraged. The Church at once lost the great majority of its members and remained a small flock of those prepared to die for Christ.

We know what happened with those faithful to the Church: they were either executed or severely persecuted, and only very few of them survived.

There was a certain improvement in the situation of the Church during and after the Second World War, but the Church never regained the position within the Russian society which it occupied before the Revolution.

What sort of atheism was imposed on the Russian people by the Soviet regime? It was not in fact unbelief: it was, rather, a very strong belief in the non-existence of God, in a happy future in this life, in the infallibility of the Communist party and its materialist ideology. The god-like figure of Lenin (for many years together with Stalin, then alone) was dominant everywhere, in all places, in every room of every official building, whether kindergarten or university, shop or hospital. Lenin as god, the only Party as the only church, its leaders (the Politbureau) as an assembly of saints, the works of Lenin as the Bible, etc. The Soviet people were not given atheism, but a pseudo-religion, a religion of the Antichrist. Thus Berdyayev was quite right speaking of the religious character of Russian socialism and atheism. To what extent was this atheist ideology accepted by people, or rather, how many people accepted the ideology and what percentage were able to resist? In the 20s and 30s Russian atheism lived through its most militant stage: it was very active, aggressive and involved the ‘masses’ of the people. By the late 60s, however, it had certainly lost much of its earlier enthusiasm: it was just taken for granted by the majority, but no longer followed with fanaticism and zeal. So, in terms of the quality of Russian atheism, it is the 30s that should be regarded as its climax. But in terms of the quantity of atheists, I think many more would have been found in the 60s and 70s. During the 30s there were still the babushki, who secretly kept the faith which they inherited from Tsarist times. But by the end of the 70s the pre-revolutionary babushki had mostly died out (I mean those educated before the Revolution) and were replaced by those who had grown up under the atheist regime.

I can illustrate what I have said about the quality of Russian atheism by examples from my own family. All my grandparents were born before the Revolution, but were educated after it: none of them was a believer. Even in the 80s, when almost all the younger members of my family, one after another, came to the Church and were baptised, my grandparents remained outside this process. One of my grandmothers told me at that time: ‘I feel like Robinson Crusoe on his uninhabited island: everybody around me goes to church, and I don’t..’ She was a member of the Communist Party for more than fifty years and, I presume, in the 20s she might well have been a militant atheist. But in the early 80s, when I remember her, she felt nothing against religion, though nothing for it either. Her atheism had become absolutely passive: it was taken for granted and not thought about.

My parents grew up in the atheist society of the 40s and 50s and never were militant atheists. Already in their youth they rejected Soviet ideology and searched for truth outside of it. But there was still tremendous pressure on them from the society in which they had to survive, and they were always afraid that their unbelief in ideology would be uncovered and they would be punished. My mother came to Christianity in the mid-70s, but could not practice her religion openly. To become openly religious then still meant to be expelled from atheist society and perhaps to lose one’s job. It was in some secret house, not in church, that I was baptised.

I myself grew up in the late 70s and 80s, which was certainly a period of decline for Russian atheism. Yet it was still dangerous to practice religion openly: for example, I would have been expelled from my school, an elite music school, if they had known that I went to church. During the eleven years of my studies in the school I did not see any pupils who were openly religious. It was taken for granted that everyone was an atheist. At the same time many of my classmates did not share the official ideology and had very liberal views: they were far from the Church, but many of them did not believe in Communist ideas either. It was still difficult openly to believe in God, but it was at least quite possible openly not to believe in the ideology. The atmosphere in my school was quite tolerant, even though on the official level the Communist ideology was maintained.

Thus, though I grew up under the atheist regime, I never felt enough pressure not to be able to resist: I rather remember a total absence of fear and a wonderful feeling of freedom. I am therefore not surprised that it was mostly people of my generation who went on the streets of Moscow in August 1991 to say goodbye to the Communist regime. They were not afraid because they grew up during the period of decline and decomposition of Communist ideology.

One of the main reasons for the bankruptcy of Soviet atheist ideology was simply that people did not believe in it any longer. When atheism lost its religious character, it became empty and it lost its power long before it was officially abandoned. Now what, in brief, is the situation with atheism and religion in Russia now, after the collapse of the Soviet system?

It seems to me that, though the numbers of believers has immensely increased during the last years, Russia is still far from being a Christian country. To be baptised, to be Orthodox has become a fashion. I would not be surprised if the majority of people, when asked whether they are Orthodox, would now give a positive answer. This does not mean, though, that they all go to church. It only means that most of them have assumed a new outward identity to keep up with the ongoing ‘religious revival’. I remember asking one teenager who came, together with her mother, to be baptised: ‘Do you believe in God?’ ‘No,’ was her answer. ‘Why then do you want to be baptised?’ I asked. ‘Well, everybody gets baptised nowadays,’ she said. This case, one of many, illustrates that many people take religion in a very superficial manner, sometimes without even believing in God. Remaining inwardly atheists, they become outwardly Orthodox.

The latest public opinion polls in Russia show that while there is a relatively small number of convinced atheists, practicing Christians are far from being a majority. Most people will say ‘we believe in something’. We recognise that there exists something supernatural’, but then admit that religious belief does not play an important role in their life. There is another paradox: not all people who claim to be Orthodox do believe in God. Some even take part in Orthodox organisations and movements without practising their religion.

To speak of a religious revival in contemporary Russia has become a commonplace. But people vary in their understanding of what this revival entails. Certainly there is an external revival: many churches, monasteries and theological schools are being reopened, the buildings are being restored. But it is too early to speak of the restoration of the Russian soul. There is no improvement in morality in contemporary Russia. On the contrary, one must admit that moral standards have become much lower than they used to be under the Soviets. Is this not an indication that there is no inward revival of Christian life, that people do not assume Christianity as a norm of living? Is it not striking evidence of the fact that the long-waited repentance, metanoia, as a change in mentality for the better, has not yet taken place in Russia?

Some ascribe this sudden, lowering of moral standards to Western influence: it is from the degenerate West that pornography, prostitution and all sorts of immorality come. This is our way out: to blame everybody except ourselves. But the reality is that, as Berdyaev put it in 1918, ‘however bitter it is… the Russian people is now less religious than many peoples of the West… the religious culture of the soul in it is weaker.’ This is true if religious culture is understood not as membership in some right-wing Orthodox organisation, but as first of all living according to the norms of Christian morality.

When ‘perestroika’ started, the Church was challenged by the very high expectations on the part of the society. Many believed the Church would be able to assume the leading role in the spiritual revival of the nation. One has to admit that this did not happen. The Church started to revive itself by rebuilding monastery walls (which is indeed an important and difficult task) but it did not respond adequately to the need for religious and moral enlightenment of the people. The Church’s leaders gained access to the civil authorities, but thus far they have been unable (with some exceptions) to gain direct access to ordinary people, especially to those outside the Church. The Orthodox Church is still closed in upon itself; it is still more occupied with its own internal problems than with spiritual demands of modern society. It turned out that the Western Protestant sects took up the initiative of enlightenment of former atheists, and it is not surprising that, with their direct and somewhat insistent behavior, they are gaining the sympathy of more and more ordinary people.

Russian atheism may well one day die, but this will happen when the country has not only been baptized, but has been enlightened and born again.

The Orthodox Church should play a key role in this spiritual rebirth. But this can happen only after it has become a truly national Church: not the Church of the State (whatever the State is), but the Church, of the nation, of the people. To become such, the Church must come out of its shell, must learn to speak the language that the people speak, must face the demands of society and answer them adequately.

At the present time our Church is struggling to find its new identity in post-Communist and post-atheist Russia. There are, it seems to me, two main dangers. The first is that of a return to the pre-revolutionary situation, when there was a State Church which became less and less the Church of the nation. If, at some stage in the development of society, such a role would be offered to the Church by the State, it would be a huge mistake to accept it. In this case the Church will be again rejected by the majority of the nation, as it was rejected in 1917. The seventy years of Soviet persecution were an experience of fiery purgatory for the Russian Church, from which it should have come out entirely renewed. The most dangerous error would be not to learn from what happened and to return to the pre-revolutionary situation, as some members of the clergy wish to do nowadays.

The second danger is that of militant Orthodoxy, which would be a post-atheist counterpart of militant atheism. I mean an Orthodoxy that fights against Jews, against masons, against democracy, against Western culture, against enlightenment. This type of Orthodoxy is being preached even by some key members of the hierarchy, and it has many supporters within the Church. This kind of Orthodoxy, especially if it gains the support of the State, may force Russian atheism to withdraw temporarily to the catacombs. But Russian atheism, will not be vanquished until the transfiguration of the soul and the need to live according to the Gospel have become the
only message of the Russian Orthodox Church.

H/T: Mystagogy

Original Source

Is Jesus Christ a Myth? Part Four

January 8, 2011

By James Hannam

Editor’s Note: The first part in this series introduced the question of whether Jesus Christ was an actual historical person or a mythological fabrication, the second part discussed the allegation that the Jesus story is assembled from bits and pieces of pagan mythology, and the third part considered what evidence can be gleaned from the letters of Paul. The present installment employs the rhetorical strategies of the Jesus Mythologists to ‘prove’ that Hannibal never existed.

In the first three parts of this series, I have discussed the evidence for Jesus in non-Christian sources, the flimsiness of alleged pagan parallels with Jesus’ life, and the evidence for the historical Jesus in the letters of Paul. In this last post, I want to consider how it would look if we used the kind of logic that Christ Mythologists employ to examine another figure in ancient history.

When I published this spoof a few years ago on the Secular Web’s discussion board it was taken seriously even though, with hindsight, it seems absurd. The comments in italics are annotations to bring out points of similarity with the various Christ Myth theses in currency. I would invite any Christ Mythologist to explain to me the substantial differences between their theory and the spurious one below.

Did Hannibal Really Exist?

To ask whether or not the great Carthaginian general Hannibal ever actually existed might seem rather pointless. It might be an exercise for a student learning about the nature of historical evidence, but not something any serious scholar would waste time on. But maybe we should not be too hasty in acquiescing with the opinion of establishment historians (in other words, there’s a plot by academics stifling debate).

In fact, although there is plenty of writing about Hannibal, none of it is contemporary and there is no archaeological evidence for him at all (not surprising given the Romans razed the city from whence he came). Furthermore he is not mentioned in any Carthaginian sources, which is incredible, given he was supposed to be their greatest leader (there are no Carthaginian sources as the Romans burnt their city down)! We find when we actually try to pin him down he tends to recede further into the mists of time. His exploits, such as leading elephants over the Alps, are clearly legendary (the skeptic pretends to be incredulous but seems happy to buy his own amazing theory) and it is not hard to find a motive for the creation of this colorful character by Roman writers (as long we can invent a motive for fabrication we can assume that fabrication exists).

Rome and Carthage were great trading rivals in the Western Mediterranean and it did not take them long to come to blows. Rome signed a peace treaty but, under the leadership of the elder Cato, desperately wanted to rid itself permanently of the competition (this is actually true and so helps to conceal the moment when we slip into fantasy). The Romans needed an excuse and the idea they developed was brilliant. Like many ancient civilizations, the Romans rewrote history as it suited them to exhibit their own prowess (a useful and exaggerated generalization). Consequently we should not be surprised to find that they invented a great enemy from Carthage to demonstrate the threat still existed and justify a further war to wipe them out.

The author of the fiction was Cato himself (we need someone to point the finger at; note also how there is no distinction made between the background material above and theorizing here), as Cato wrote the earliest Roman History (true as well, as it happens). But it was intended simply as a justification for a further war with Carthage. It contained the details of Hannibal’s alleged campaigns against the Romans, including his victories on Italian soil (Cato’s history has conveniently not survived so we can speculate freely about what it contained). Cato brilliantly combined the truth with his own anti-Carthaginian propaganda with the intention of goading Rome into another wholly unjustified war with the old enemy (give the fabricator lots of credit for his invention). Once the war was over and Carthage was razed to the ground, the Romans were able to ensure that only their version of history survived (this is important as it enables all other sources to be declared forgeries).

Therefore the myth of the great Carthaginian war leader became an accepted fact. Later Roman historians like the notoriously unreliable Livy (we have to denigrate counter sources) simply assumed Cato’s fabrications were true (because the ancients were stupid and simply could not do any research themselves).


In history there is little that is certain, but there is also a level of skepticism that makes the task of the historian impossible. With such skepticism, we could happily reject the existence of almost anyone we like, including such influential figures as Hannibal. Furthermore, the thesis that Jesus never existed requires selective skepticism about which sources are reliable and how others are interpreted. In the end, if Jesus did not exist, the rise of Christianity is even more incredible and all but impossible to explain.

Reprinted with permission of the author. Source.

James Hannam earned degrees in physics and history from Oxford and London universities, and his doctorate in the history of science from Cambridge University. He blogs at and recently published God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (London, 2009), the first history of medieval science written for the layperson. The book was recently shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize for 2010.

Is Jesus Christ a Myth? Part Three

January 4, 2011

By James Hannam

Editor’s Note: The first installment in this series introduced the question of whether Jesus Christ was an actual historical person or a mythological fabrication, and the second part discussed the allegation that the Jesus story is assembled from bits and pieces of pagan mythology. The present installment considers what the letters of the apostle Paul attest about the life of Jesus.

The Non-Silence of Paul

The theory that Jesus never existed started life in pseudo-scholarly circles with the fact that Paul does not say very much about Jesus’ life or ministry. The earliest Pauline letters are generally believed to have been written within twenty years of Jesus’ death. So, it is instructive to find out what Paul actually did say. With that in mind, here is a list of what Paul had to say about Jesus in his letters, together with the scriptural reference.

  • Jesus was born in human fashion, as a Jew, and had a ministry to the Jews. (Galatians 4:4)
  • Jesus was referred to as “Son of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:9)
  • Jesus was a direct descendant of King David. (Romans 1:3)
  • Jesus prayed to God using the term “Abba.” (Galatians 4:6)
  • Jesus expressly forbade divorce. (1 Corinthians 7:10)
  • Jesus taught that “preachers” should be paid for their preaching. (1 Corinthians 9:14)
  • Jesus taught about the end-time. (1 Thessalonians 4:15)
  • Paul refers to Peter by the name Cephas (rock), which was the name Jesus gave to him. (1 Corinthians 3:22)
  • Jesus had a brother named James. (Galatians 1:19)
  • Jesus initiated the Lord’s Supper and referred to the bread and the cup. (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)
  • Jesus was betrayed on the night of the Lord’s Supper. (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)
  • Jesus’ death was related to the Passover Celebration. (1 Corinthians 5:7)
  • The death of Jesus was at the hands of earthly rulers. (1 Corinthians 2:8)
  • Jesus underwent abuse and humiliation. (Romans 15:3)
  • Jewish authorities were involved with Jesus’ death. (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16)
  • Jesus died by crucifixion. (2 Corinthians 13:4, et. al.)
  • Jesus was physically buried. (1 Corinthians 15:4)

It turns out that careful analysis of his letters shows that Paul was not actually all that silent about the historical Jesus at all. The first reaction to all this from the Christ Mythologist is to dispute that Paul wrote very many of these letters. But seven of the Pauline letters are completely undisputed, and all of the facts about Jesus’ life listed above come from these seven. It is ironic that the pastoral epistles of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, which many scholars insist are late (and date from after the synoptic Gospels), contain practically no details about the life of Jesus at all.

As there are still rather a lot of details about the historical Jesus in the undisputed letters, the Christ Mythologist will use special pleading to try and explain them away, as though Paul himself were constructing the Jesus myth. But as we can see, Paul is not attempting to tell Jesus’ life story, he is just using the odd snippet about Jesus where it is helpful to illustrate his point. He knows that his readers are aware of what happened because all of his letters are addressed to people who are already Christians. He is not trying to convert them and he is not engaged in apologetics.

If we look at the letters of the early Christian fathers, they rarely have details about the life of Jesus except in passing because they know their readers are familiar with the Gospels. What we today call the Gospels had not, of course, been written down at the time that Paul was preaching. However, oral communication was considered to be more reliable than the written word at the time. The people to whom Paul wrote had heard about Jesus already. They did not need a revision primer but specific advice about problems and controversies. Of course, none of this will convince the Christ Mythologist who just cannot understand why Paul does not just repeat verbatim to his correspondents what he has already told them in person.

In short, the silence of Paul about Jesus is something of a myth in itself.

The fourth part in this series, which uses the methods of the Jesus Mythologists to ‘prove’ that Hannibal never existed, will be published soon.  Reprinted with permission of the author. Source.

James Hannam earned degrees in physics and history from Oxford and London universities, and his doctorate in the history of science from Cambridge University. He blogs at and recently published God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (London, 2009), the first history of medieval science written for the layperson. The book was recently shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize for 2010.

Is Jesus Christ a Myth? Part Two

January 2, 2011

By James Hannam

Editor’s Note: The first installment in this series introduced the question of whether Jesus Christ was an actual historical person or a mythological fabrication, and discussed the allegation that there is no independent (non-Christian) verification of the existence of Jesus. The second part examines the claim—an increasingly common claim amongst atheists today—that the Jesus story is actually a pastiche composed of bits and pieces of ancient pagan myths.

Pagan similarities
Allegations that Christianity is an adaptation of a pagan cult date from the 19th century. In 1875, Kersey Graves wrote The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviours, a book so poor that even the Internet Infidels admit (in rather more diplomatic language) that it is a load of old cobblers. The idea that myths can be fitted into an overall pattern was given rather more credibility by Sir James Frazer in the early 20th century, but his work is now also disregarded by anthropologists. In 1936, Lord Raglan published The Hero: A Study in Myth, Tradition and Dreams, which included a list of attributes that heroic figures of legend are supposed to share. The list often turns up on the internet with claims that Jesus fits the pattern very well. The only problem is that he does not fit the pattern at all, and the case of Raglan’s list has been thoroughly debunked.

More recently, the tradition was carried on in The Jesus Mysteries (1999) by Peter Gandy and Timothy Freke, and Tom Harpur in The Pagan Christ (2004). These amateur historians play fast and loose with the facts, using carefully pruned quotations, mistranslation, and anachronism to produce a woefully inaccurate picture. But only by doing this can they maintain their thesis that Jesus is based on pagan antecedents.

The usual method of writers such as these is to read (or, more accurately, misread) some fragment of ancient mythology and claim that there are parallels to be found with the life of Jesus. With this in mind I present James Hannam’s Guide to the Production of a Bestseller that Undermines the Roots of Christianity. With this guide, I guarantee that you will be able to find all the parallels you like between paganism and Christianity—or indeed, properly adapted, between any other two unrelated subjects that you care to name.

1)   The first thing to do is ensure you that you cast your net as widely as possible. So, within Christianity you should include every cult, heresy, and sect you can get your hands on. Gnosticism will be particularly helpful as gnostics did indeed borrow large chunks of pagan thought, which is partly why they were considered heretics in the first place. As for paganism, this can include just about everything. Freke and Gandy comb not only Greek cults (Oedipus) but also Egyptian (Horus and Osiris), Roman (Bacchus), and Persian (Mithras). Elsewhere you will find Celtic deities, Norse berserkers, and Indian mystics pulled into the fray. Tom Harpur is a particular fan of Egyptian myth. Now, with this vast body of writing, provided you are willing to wade through it all, finding parallels will not prove too challenging.

2)   Don’t restrict yourselves to pagan religions from before the time of Christ. Remember, you can claim that Christians copied pagans, and not the other way around, even when the Christian writing is more ancient than the pagan. This is useful because you can now point to similarities between paganism and Christianity after the latter was already widespread. For instance, there is a poem with a line about the Norse god Odin being attached to the world tree (“I know that I hung on a windy tree, nine long nights, wounded with a spear”). Sounds like Jesus being nailed to the cross? Well, not really, and in any case the Norse myth was written down well after the Vikings converted to Christianity. Don’t let that stop you.

3)   Language is important. Christian terms such as ‘salvation’, ‘Eucharist’, ‘word made flesh,’ and ‘lamb of god’ are common currency today. Therefore, when translating or paraphrasing pagan sources, always use familiar Christian language. Never mind that the ancient pagans would not have known what you were going on about; you are not talking to them. In this way, you can call a woman being raped by various kinds of wildlife a ‘virgin birth’ (such as Europa being raped by Zeus in the form of a bull); you can call the reassembly of body parts a ‘resurrection’ (such as Osiris being pieced back together by Isis); and you can call just about every Greek hero a ‘son of god’ (because, let’s face it, the Greek gods were a lecherous bunch and so had a good few kids). Also, it is helpful to use King James Bible phrases and style when quoting pagan texts. It gives them some more gravitas.

4)   Do try to confuse liturgy and cult practice with history. For instance, the mystery religions and Christianity were both underground movements, so they had to operate in similar sorts of ways. This doesn’t make them similar in other ways, but pretend that it does. Sacred meals and ritual washing are as old as religion itself so the fact that Christianity employed them as well as pagans (not to mention Jews) is not surprising at all. Make it sound like a complete revelation. For instance, if Mithraists shared a ritual meal with bread and wine (and meat too, but never mind that), make it sound astronomically unlikely that Christians should have done the same unless they were borrowing from Mithraism.

5)   Assert that totally different things are in fact closely related. For instance, Mithras was sometimes represented by a bull. Say this is the same as Jesus being called the Lamb of God (one is a symbol of sexuality and strength, the other of innocence and humility, but never let facts get in the way of a good theory). Compare the Mithraic ritual of taking a shower in the warm blood of the aforementioned bull with Christian baptism with water. Mithras was born as a fully-grown man from solid rock; call this a “virgin birth.” Claim that the thieves crucified with Jesus are the same as a pair of torchbearers that appear on some illustrations of Bacchus.

6)   For goodness sake, do not mention the things that really made the pagan mysteries interesting. After all, in your work of showing that Jesus and Bacchus are one and the same, you will lose everything if you let on that Bacchus was the god of drunkenness and his worship involved getting plastered and having sex with anything in sight (goats being a particular favourite). In fact, keep sex out of it altogether. Yes, sex was the central feature of an awful lot of these pagan rituals but that is not the point you are trying to make.

7)   Avoid up-to-date scholarship that will probably pour cold water over your vaunted theories. One particular problem to ignore is that the Persian Mithras was much earlier and had almost nothing to do with the Roman god of the same name. Worse still, the Roman god only became widely worshiped after the birth of Christ, so cannot have been a model for Jesus at all. Also, take Sir James Frazer and Francis Cumont seriously, even if today’s scholars do not. You will find plenty of other 19th-century and early-20th-century writers with a bone to pick who can support your wildest speculations. Finally, don’t worry if some of the evidence, like the picture of a crucified Bacchus on the cover of your book The Jesus Mysteries, turns out to be fake. It is not your problem, even if you knew about it in advance.

8)   Do not worry if not everyone agrees with you; you can always dismiss the dissenters as Christian apologists or as those unable to cope with your earth-shattering ideas. And don’t panic if someone turns up arguing about primary sources, dating evidence, footnotes, and boring stuff like that. They are probably in the pay of the pope. Using this guide, you should be able to produce as many parallels as you require in order to convince even the most blinkered of readers that Jesus was actually a pagan god-man.

As you can tell, I am not impressed by the pagan myth hypothesis. It is telling that in spite of their vast amount of learning, their hostility to orthodox Christianity, and their willingness to allege that much of the New Testament is fictional, not even John Dominic Crossan or Bart Ehrman have any time for the idea that Jesus was made up of pagan motifs. Nor indeed do the vast majority of liberal scholars. The pagan myth hypothesis is firmly outside the pale of modern scholarship. That’s also the reason why refuting authors like Tom Harpur tends to be left to Christian writers. Academic historians just don’t think it is worth wasting time on anything so obviously wrong.

Editor’s Note: For other online sources of information on the pagan parallels theories, see this detailed examination of various pagan deities and whether their stories coincide with that of Jesus, this note from William Lane Craig, or (as a more specific example) this response to the Jesus-as-Mithras claim, or this article from Ronald Nash. For book-length responses, consult R. T. France’s The Evidence for Jesus or Nash’s The Gospel and the Greeks.

The third part of this series will turn to the claim that Jesus is probably mythological because there is very little about him in the writings of Paul.

Reprinted with permission of the author. Source.

James Hannam earned degrees in physics and history from Oxford and London universities, and his doctorate in the history of science from Cambridge University. He blogs at and recently published God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (London, 2009), the first history of medieval science written for the layperson. The book was recently shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize for 2010.

Is Jesus Christ a Myth? Part One

January 2, 2011

By James Hannam


Picture of Christ from Roman Catacomb (4th century)

The thesis that Jesus never existed has hovered around the fringes of research into the New Testament for at least a century but it has never been accepted as a mainstream theory. This is for good reason. It is simply a bad hypothesis based on arguments from silence, special pleading, and an awful lot of wishful thinking. It is ironic that certain atheists will buy into this idea and leave all their pretensions of critical thinking behind.

A huge amount has been written on the internet and elsewhere about the “Christ Myth.” The only in-depth refutation in print is Shattering the Christ Myth (2008), which goes into great detail. However, some academic historians have taken the time to rubbish the idea that Jesus never existed and a few other books on the subject have appeared over the years.

In this four-part series, it is not my intention to study the minutiae of the various arguments. Instead, I will focus on three central contentions often advanced in discussions about Jesus. These are 1) the lack of secular references, which I cover in this installment; 2) the alleged similarities to paganism, which I deal with next; and 3) the silence of St. Paul. Finally, in the fourth part, I will bring all these arguments together to show how ideas similar to those that deny Jesus’ existence can be used on practically any ancient historical figure. With this in mind I set out to “prove” that Hannibal never existed.

Secular Historians

People ask why there is no record of Jesus in Roman records. The answer is that there are no surviving Roman records. All we have are highly parochial Roman historians who had little interest in the comings and goings of minor cults and were far more concerned about emperors and kings. Jesus made a very small splash while he was alive and there was no reason for Roman historians to notice him.

Christianity is mentioned by the historian Tacitus in the early 2nd century. But he talks about the religion only because Christians were unfortunate enough to be made scapegoats by the Emperor Nero for the great fire of Rome. Tacitus is interested in the Emperor, not his victims. He only gives us very limited information about Christians and Christ. Still, he does tell us that Jesus existed and was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Christ Mythologists counter the evidence of Tacitus by claiming that he could have got his information from Christians and so is not an independent source. This puts the Christ Mythologists, who seek a non-partisan source, in a very convenient situation. Until Christianity had spread widely, no one except Christians would have taken interest in Jesus. But all later records are ruled out of court insofar as they might have been influenced by Christians. This sort of special pleading is one of the reasons that modern historians have no time for the theory that Jesus was not a real person: the Christ Myth is set up to be impossible to disprove.

In fact, Christian evidence for a human Jesus who was crucified is trustworthy because it runs counter to the myths of the time and suggests that he had suffered a humiliating death. If they had fabricated the mythology, and then suppressed the truth with clinical efficiency, why did they come up with a story that even the Christian apologist Tertullian admitted was absurd? It seems far more likely that they had a large number of historical facts that they had to harmonize into a religion, rather than creating all these difficulties for themselves.

Sometimes Christ Mythologists will produce long lists of writers who make no mention of Jesus—yet none of whom would have had the slightest reason to mention an obscure Jewish miracle worker—and somehow believe this strengthens their point. In fact, it has all the relevance of picking fifty books off your local library shelf and finding that none of them mention Carl Sagan. Does that mean he did not exist? Jesus was not even a failed military leader of the kind that Romans might have noticed, especially if he had been defeated by someone famous.


The only historian whom we might expect to mention Jesus is Josephus, a Jew who wrote a history of his people up to 66 A.D., which is called Jewish Antiquities. In fact, Josephus does mention Jesus twice, and so Christ Mythologists have to devote a lot of attention to attacking the relevant passages. Their job is made easier because Josephus, a Pharisee, probably felt nothing but contempt for Jesus. This meant later Christians tried to “correct” his negative phrasing.

The first mention of Jesus is in book 18 of Jewish Antiquities. Historians are largely agreed that the passage in question has been tampered with by a later Christian scribe. However, at least part of the passage is widely believed to be authentic. The words in bold below are thought to be the additions of a Christian scribe trying to make Jesus appear in a better light than Josephus would have wished.

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18, 3, 3)

To support the idea that the passage is partly authentic and partly interpolated, we can look at the works of a 3rd-century Christian father called Origen. He lived while Christianity was still a minor cult with no power or influence. Its adherents were generally ignored by the authorities as long as they kept their heads down. Therefore, there is no way that Christians this early could have secured every copy of Josephus so that no undoctored copies remained, or could have gotten away with quoting something from Josephus that was not there. So we can be sure that the copy of Josephus that Origen read and quoted from had not been amended by earlier Christians. We can be doubly sure of this because Origen flatly contradicts the modern version of Josephus where the Jewish historian is made to say Jesus was the Messiah. Origen makes clear he said no such thing.

What use would the early fathers have had for a passage in Josephus saying Jesus was not the Messiah? An educated Jew stating this would not be helpful, as it would demonstrate that the prophecies in the Old Testament were not nearly as clear-cut as early Christians would have liked to believe. And because no early skeptics or opponents of Christianity ever challenged Jesus’ existence, early Christians never had any reason to point to a critical Jewish source to prove that he was real. Hence Josephus was not quoted by earlier Christian writers.

So what exactly did Origen write? Here are two passages from his works. Both of them basically say the same thing and reinforce each other:

And to so great a reputation among the people for righteousness did this James rise, that Flavius Josephus, who wrote the Antiquities of the Jews in twenty books, when wishing to exhibit the cause why the people suffered such great misfortunes that even the temple was razed to the ground, said that these things happened to them in accordance with the wrath of God in consequence of the things which they had dared to do against James the brother of Jesus who is called Christ. And the wonderful thing is that, although he did not accept Jesus as Christ, he yet gave testimony that the righteousness of James was so great; and he says that the people thought that they had suffered these things because of James. (Origen, Commentary on Matthew X, XVII)

For in the 18th book of his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus bears witness to John as having been a Baptist, and as promising purification to those who underwent the rite. Now this writer, although not believing in Jesus as the Christ, in seeking after the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, whereas he ought to have said that the conspiracy against Jesus was the cause of these calamities befalling the people, since they put to death Christ, who was a prophet, says nevertheless—being, although against his will, not far from the truth—that these disasters happened to the Jews as a punishment for the death of James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus (called Christ)—the Jews having put him to death, although he was a man most distinguished for his justice. (Origen, Against Celsus I, XLVII)

The second mention of Jesus by Josephus is a much briefer reference to “James, brother of Jesus called Christ.” We also know about James from the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul. He was indeed Jesus’ brother and one of the early leaders of the Church. This second mention of Jesus certainly existed in Origen’s copy of Josephus because Origen uses the phrase “called Christ” twice. It cannot be a Christian interpolation into Josephus because Christian texts called James either “James the Just” or “James the Brother of the Lord.”

The reference to “James, brother of Jesus called Christ” is still found in book 20 of Jewish Antiquities, and this by itself torpedoes the idea that Jesus never existed. The idea that Christians were going around doctoring copies of Josephus while they were still a persecuted minority is ludicrous. Origen also says that Josephus did not believe Jesus was the Messiah, so our present day passage on Jesus in Jewish Antiquities 18 cannot have existed in its current form. However, the authentic passing reference to Jesus in Jewish Antiquities 20 is good evidence that he had been mentioned previously by Josephus.

It should be pointed out that Origen himself reads too much into Josephus. Josephus does indeed say the people of Jerusalem thought the killing of James was wrong, but he does not go quite so far as to blame the entire Jewish War on the event.

It is clear that the existence of Jesus and the fact of his crucifixion are adequately attested by Josephus, even leaving aside the New Testament and other early Christian sources. To claim Jesus did not exist, in the face of the evidence from Josephus, is to indulge in special pleading. Historians should not ask for a higher standard of proof for the existence of Jesus than they do for any other ancient figure.

In the second part of this series, I will consider the alleged similarities between the story of Christ and the mythological stories of various pagan religions.

Part Two here.  Part Three here. Part Four here.

Reprinted with permission of the author. Source.

James Hannam earned degrees in physics and history from Oxford and London universities, and his doctorate in the history of science from Cambridge University. He blogs at and recently published God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (London, 2009), the first history of medieval science written for the layperson. The book was recently shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize for 2010.

Some Recent Lectures from You Tube

November 18, 2010

Fr. Hans Jacobse discusses some questions with a student audience after a recent debate with an atheist spokesman:

On the Intrinsic Value of a Human Being:

On the Essence of Christianity and Philosophical Materialism:

On Old Testament Violence and Orthodox Interpretation of Scripture:

Fr. George Dragas on the Incarnation of Christ.

This was a retreat given Nov. 13, 2010 and is in 7 parts. Protopresbyter George Dion Dragas (1944 – ) is a prominent 20th and 21st century Orthodox Christian priest, theologian, and writer. He is currently professor of patristics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts.

On the Incarnation — Part One. This begins with some preliminary remarks and the lecture on the Incarnation begins about 3:20:

On the Incarnation — Part Two:

The rest of the series can be listened to here.

Book Review: Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman

June 30, 2010
H/T: Pious Fabrications:
Review by David Withun

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman; ISBN: 0-06-073817-0

To be completely honest, reading this book was a waste of my time. I generally enjoy Ehrman’s work, in spite of his sensationalist style, but I was very disappointed with this one. Misquoting Jesus was filled with page after page of Ehrman’s typical version of “shock and awe,” none of which is very often shocking or awing, but with none of the redeeming information and interesting facts that his other books usually contain.

Rather than a scholarly and engaging look at the manuscript traditions of the New Testament and ensuing errors and alterations thereof which I assumed would be the content of this book, Ehrman spends the majority of the book speaking in the first person as a young, naive “‘born again’ Christian” being exposed for the first time to (what he believes are) the shocking facts that the King James Version isn’t the inerrant Word of God and that the Scriptures didn’t fall out of heaven one day. This reveals much less about the history and textual traditions of the New Testament than it does about Ehrman himself, who seems to live perpetually in that juvenile state and seems to honestly believe that every other self-professed Christian lives in the same state. This latter apparent view of Ehrman was revealed especially by the variety of inane statements throughout the book which seem to indicate his unfamiliarity with any form of Christianity outside of the evangelical “born again” version of his childhood (see below for an example of this). 

What scanty little real facts and information there were in this book were not only overshadowed by the above aspects of the book but were also basic enough that they could easily be gleaned by reading Wikipedia articles on the relevant topics (trust me, that’s an insult). I’ve done a little reading in the area, but I’m no expert to be sure, and yet aside from a few minor dates and interesting stories, I was familiar with almost everything covered in this book. 

In the end, I wouldn’t recommend this book at all. There’s too much great reading in early Christian history and even specifically in the manuscript traditions of the New Testament (such as Jaroslav Pelikan’s Whose Bible Is It? A Short History of the Scriptures, for instance) to waste your time reading such worthless trite. Rather than scholarship, you will receive a thinly-veiled attack on Ehrman’s own straw-man of Christianity (he does, after all, begin the book with the story of his own conversion from “‘born-again’ Christianity” to atheism), made all the more pitiful for not only being possibly the weakest criticism ever leveled at Christianity but for Ehrman’s halfhearted attempt to make his attack look like real scholarship.

For your reading pleasure, a few outstanding examples of Ehrman’s inanity in this book:

  1. “This is the account of 1 John 5:7-8, which scholars have called the Johannine Comma, found in the manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate but not in the vast majority of Greek manuscripts, a passage that had long been a favorite among Christian theologians, since it is the only passage in the entire Bible that explicitly delineates the doctrine of the Trinity, that there are three persons in the godhead, but that the three constitute just one God.”
  2. Really? A purported New Testament scholar who is unfamiliar with Matthew 28:19? How about Titus 3:4-6? Still nothing? Oh well, I give up… Just out of curiosity, though: who are these “Christian theologians” amongst whom the Johannine Comma “[has] long been a favorite”? You’d think things like this would need more than vague assertions and non-arguments; not in Ehrmanworld, I guess.

  3. “… or consider all the different Christian denominations, filled with intelligent and well-meaning people who base their views of how the church should be organized and function on the Bible, yet all of them coming to radically different conclusions (Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Appalachian snake-handlers, Greek Orthodox, and on and on).”
  4. You’d think it would be a good idea for somebody who “chairs the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill” (as the author bio on the back flap of the book says) to know enough about the two largest groups of Christians in the world, Roman Catholics and Orthodox, that he would not make the ignorant statement that these two groups “base their views of how the church should be organized and function on the Bible.” Really? When did the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox pick up Sola Scriptura? And all this time I thought Tradition was the basis of our system of Church governance. In addition, there can’t be much reason aside from sheer ignorance why he insists on saying “Greek Orthodox” specifically (he says it twice in this book and I’ve noticed it in others as well, where he gives a list similar to this one for a similar reason) is beyond me, given that there are 26 other Orthodox jurisdictions in addition to the Greek and that the Greek jurisdiction is not even the largest of them. I can only hope that somebody in a position of power at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is reading this and thinking about hiring a chair for their Department of Religious Studies(!) who is actually familiar with … well … religious studies.

  5. And, of course, saving the best for last: “Put it this way: There are more variances among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”
  6. Thanks to True Free Thinker for saving me the work on this one:

    Considering that [Bart Ehrman’s] book Misquoting Jesus explored the issue of variant readings in New Testament manuscripts it may be surprising to some that Bart Ehrman’s book itself contains millions and millions of variants.

    Following are some examples of the variants:

    On p. 13 reference is made to “Timothy LeHaye and Philip Jenkins” as the authors of the Left Behind series of novels. However, the authors of the series are Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Thus, error 1. Tim has never published as “Timothy,” error 2. his last name is not LeHaye but LaHaye and error 3. Jenkins’s first name is not Philip but Jerry.

    On p. 110 error 4. “Timothy” is used as LaHaye’s last name.

    In the index Timothy’s name is error 5. again spelled as “LeHaye.”

    On p. 110 Hal Lindsey’s name is error 6. misspelled as “Hal Lindsay.”

    On p. 70 Desiderius Erasmus is error 7. misspelled as “Desiderus Erasmus.”


    Now, if you are paying attention—or are you like me and simply cannot afford to pay attention? :o)—you may be thinking 1) that is only 16 errors, 2) they are mostly merely misspellings, 3) they do not affect the contents of the text and certainly do not affect any major point which the book seeks to make.

    As for 2) and 3); thank you for noticing as this is precisely, word for word, how many of us feel about Bart Ehrman’s criticisms of the New Testament manuscripts.

    As for 1) how do 16 equal my assertion of there being millions and millions of variants? Well, let us learn some methodology, the sort that allows Ehrman claim, “Put it this way: There are more variances among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”

    I do not know how many copies Misquoting Jesus has sold but it is reported that “Within the first three months, more than 100,000 copies were sold.”

    The way it works is as simple as it is deceptive: you multiply the 16 variants by how many times they have been reproduced. As the 16 have been reproduced 100,000 (in three months alone) you multiply these and so the total of variants in Misquoting Jesus equals: 1,600,000.

    And that, boys and girls, is how Bart Ehrman manages to make sensational claims that gain him notoriety and quite a few shekels.

    I highly recommend giving the whole post a read. It’s a better than mine, I promise!

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Please leave any comments at source. Thanks!

Book Review: Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart

January 19, 2010


This book by David Bentley Hart looks like a powerful read. I’ve got my copy on order.

Book Review: Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies

George C Michalopulos

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies
David Bentley Hart
Yale University Press
New Haven & London, 2009
253 pages, $28.00

Several years ago when I was young and impressionable, I happened upon the Charles Laughton version of The Mutiny on the Bounty. What struck me – as near as I can recollect—was the climax of Lieutenant Bligh’s trial. Though acquitted of the charges against him, the president of the tribunal condemned Bligh’s character by saying that the Royal Navy had erred in commissioning him as he was “no Christian gentleman.” I remember how devastated I was by the indictment of Laughton/Bligh, delivered as it was in the crisp, no-nonsense, upper-class English accent. It became immediately apparent that the poor wretch would be hounded out of decent society for the rest of his life.

The reader may ask at this point: what would incite a reviewer of a book which is a vigorous apologia of the Christian religion to cite a little-remembered version of movie describing an event barely remembered today? Only this: that at one time, there was such a thing as a “Christian gentleman,” a man of culture and erudition who lived comfortably in the world but was resolute in his religious convictions. More importantly, this type of Christian gentleman lived in a society that was Christian and unapologetically so.

Now of course, the opposite is the case: obloquy is heaped upon Western Civilization and the Church. Christendom is castigated as the great engine of colonialism, imperialism, patriarchy, and the heartbreak of psoriasis. No doubt, we will soon find out that we would be much better off if our ancestors had never read McGuffy’s Reader as children or the Confessions of St Augustine as adults. Instead, we would all be better off if we read Heather has Two Mommies or I, Rigoberta Menchu. In this abyss of ignorance in which we find ourselves. It seems to be the case that we have only two choices: the tyranny of tolerance or the horrors of Christianism.

Into this vacuum come the strident New Atheists, the Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harrises of the world. Though their books are vastly more intelligent than the bovine waste that comprise the feminist, homosexualist, or secularist “canon” of the typical Western university, they are not without their logical and philosophical problems. A few enterprising souls have risen to the fore to engage them on their own terms. Dinesh D’Souza for example, has done yeoman’s work in this regard, easily besting them, often in open debate as well as in print. However, the problem is not the New Atheists but the broader society, which has internalized a very ignorant, Christophobic dynamic. It is modern society and its “smelly little orthodoxies” (in Chesterton’s apt phrase), that has made the careers of the New Atheists viable. To decimate these pretensions, one could do no better than look to David Bentley Hart’s new book Atheist Delusions.

The New Atheism has found fertile clay indeed in which to sink its growing roots. The modern world has been softened up for some time now by the plows of materialism, Darwinism, and Freudianism. It is into this arena that Hart (an Orthodox Christian), has boldly advanced to do battle. He is certainly up to the task: like a confident gladiator he knows where his enemy’s weak spots are. His weapons are impressive indeed; besides the facts, he has a keen analytical mind and is able to spot fallacies and errors in logic. He sees what is there and often what is not there, the so-called dog that didn’t bark, and for this we can be grateful. Indeed, his prose is lively and entertaining, that alone is worth the price of admission. Moreover, he does not hesitate to pore through the evidence and footnotes (a tedious process if there ever was one), and is perfectly willing to call out eminent scholars (such as Ramsay MacMullen) for purposely distorting the evidence which they themselves used, in order to propagate a deliberate anti-Christian argument.

Hart dispatches the secularist critiques of (among other things) the Inquisition, the trial of Galileo, and the Christian burning of the famous Library at Alexandria. In the interest of brevity, I will only say that the Inquisition was set up by the Roman Catholic Church to stop the promiscuous torture and execution of people condemned of heresy and witchcraft by the state. In this respect, the Church largely succeeded. As for Galileo, Hart plumbs the historical record and proves that he was a prickly character who needlessly and with malice often provoked his many academic enemies. More to the point, his own astrophysical theories were not in themselves correct as his inquest pointed out. Indeed, the Church had no problems with his theories as they were essentially the same as Copernicus’, who some eighty years earlier, had received the imprimatur of the Church. And almost always left out of the modern secularist critique of the Church was the fact that he was a devout Christian, indeed more so than his great friend, Pope Urban VIII, who lavished upon him great accolades, pensions, and awards (thus further inflaming Galileo’s many enemies). More damningly, Galileo himself was not intellectually honest. He castigated competing astronomers such as Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, more out of spite than conviction. Indeed, it is Kepler’s system of celestial mechanics which we use today.

As to the famous burning of the Alexandrian Library by supposedly superstitious and bigoted Christian mobs in A.D. 390, Hart destroys this myth with an alacrity that enlightens as well as educates us about the intricacies of the early Christian age. It is little known that the Library had in fact been burned down many centuries earlier, most probably – and inadvertently—by Julius Caesar’s legions, during the dictator’s war against Pompey in the year 48 B.C. This is a stunning revelation, as Caesar died in 44 B.C., a good forty years or so before Christ had even been born (and almost a good century before the creation of the Church). So how did this myth take hold? The answer lies in the internecine conflicts that took place between Greeks and Jews, and later between pagans and Christians in Alexandria, quite possibly the most cosmopolitan and most violent city in the Roman Empire.

The facts are discernable to anyone who wishes to pore over the earliest extant documents. On the grounds of the earlier Library stood a temple dedicated to Serapis, constructed a century after the first Library. The confusion arises because the Serapeum contained many scrolls scattered about its environs. The twelfth century Byzantine historian John Tzetzes for instance “claimed that Callimachus of Cyrene (c.305-240 B.C.) catalogued forty-two thousand scrolls in the library…but whether this is to be trusted…cannot be determined.” It is important to note that Tzetzes received this information second-hand; at any rate neither historians’ sources are extant. At any rate, the destruction of the Serapeum was one incident in the long, internecine conflicts between Christians and pagans. In this particular instance, some pagan gangs had kidnapped Christians, taken them to the temple, tortured and killed them, dumping their bodies in the adjacent pits where the offal of sacrificial animals was thrown. In the ensuing melee, the enraged Christians burned the temple and all its contents. Although a regrettably violent act, it is unknown at this time if there were indeed books and scrolls there. Regardless, the myth of the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria by intolerant Christian mobs arose out of the ashes of this great catastrophe.

It is because of Hart’s great historical knowledge that this book is well worth a leisurely read. His historical episodes are written in a lively manner, entertaining and often with a hint of sarcasm. However, the real jewel of this book lies in its middle section, when Hart beautifully describes the rite of Christian initiation, contrasting it with the benighted, and hopeless paganism that permeated the entire non-Christian world. The remorselessness that Hart catalogues –from the pagans’ own sources at that—describe nothing less than a severe existential crisis for Hellenistic civilization. Even the vaunted erudition and science of Greek philosophy had long degenerated into superstition and magic by the time the Galilean “had cast the world gray with His breath.” The Renaissance myth, that Greek learning was snuffed bout by an intolerant Church takes a well-deserved beating in these pages. Indeed, it was Christianity, with its insistence that Reason (logos) had permeated the world –indeed created it—which gave rise to the scientific method. True science did not begin with Aristotle, who disdained the laboratory as the denizen of slaves, but with the Franciscans of the High Middle Ages, who had no compunction about getting their hands dirty. The operating principle of modern science –reductionism—was the revealed to the world by William of Ockham, a Franciscan monk.

So where are we now? Clearly not in a Christian – or even post-Christian age — but more probably an anti-Christian one. It is equally apparent to some that this age cannot last. There comes a time when old paradigms must be cast away. Sometimes a good idol-smashing does this, or better yet, a nice book-burning. Hart describes one such book-burning which gave rise to the modern age. It was on June 24, 1443, when Paracelsus took copies of all the medical books written by Galen and Avicenna in his possession, and publicly burned them, thereby destroying the stranglehold of Aristoteleian pseudo-science on the Christian and Islamic worlds. Hart makes a convincing case that it was only by such an audacious act that the modern age of scientific inquiry could begin. At any rate, it was not the Church which burned pagan texts (indeed, quite the opposite), but it was the Church which created a new paradigm that allowed such a brave soul to take such action, thereby birthing the modern age. One could only look wistfully upon such cheekiness and wonder if the modern Academy would be better off if 90 percent of its “canonical” literature received a similar fate.

Be that as it may, the Christian society of the ages past is probably extinct. However if it were to ever arise again, it would need an informed intellectual vanguard. There is no doubt in mind that Atheist Delusions would be a welcome and necessary addition to a new, more confident Christian canon, one appealing to Christians of all stripes. If nothing else, for those who desire the appellation of Christian gentleman, Atheist Delusions is a necessary addition to one’s library.

George C Michalopulos, is a layman in the Orthodox Church in America. He was born in Tulsa, OK where he resides and works. George is active in Church affairs, having served as parish council president at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church and as Senior Warden at Holy Apostles Orthodox Christian Church. Together with Deacon Ezra Ham, he wrote ‘American Orthodox Church: A History of Its Beginnings” (Regina Orthodox Press: 2003). He is married to Margaret and has two sons, Constantine and Michael.

Are Science and Faith in Conflict?

January 18, 2010

Two interesting videos just posted on YouTube by the BioLogos Foundation: