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Intelligently Designed Laziness

by Michael Shermer

It may often seem as if the Intelligent Design creationists are so well funded that they are cranking out the books pell-mell. Well, scientists have been responding with such works as Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God and Robert Pennock’s Tower of Babel. Well, I have just received four more new titles, all of which I highly recommend. We will publish reviews later, but for now they are:

  • Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose? by Michael Ruse (Harvard University Press)
  • Unintelligent Design by Mark Perakh (Prometheus Books)
  • Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design by Barbara Forrest and paul R. Gross (Oxford University Press)
  • God, the Devil, and Darwin: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory by Niall Shanks (Oxford University Press)

As a tiny sampling, here is a snippet from the foreword to Shanks’ book by Richard Dawkins. Richard provides this wonderful hypothetical conversation. The set up is that IDers are lazy thinkers, giving up on the hard problems and simply saying “God did it.” Here is the passage:

Imagine a fictional conversation between two scientists working on a hard problem, say A. L. Hodgkin and A. F. Huxley who, in real life, won the Nobel Prize for their brilliant model of the nerve impulse. “I say, Huxley, this is a terribly difficult problem. I can’t see how the nerve impulse works, can you?” “No, Hodgkin, I can’t, and these differential equations are fiendishly hard to solve. Why don’t we just give up and say that the nerve impulse propagates by Nervous Energy?” “Excellent idea, Huxley, let’s write the Letter to Nature now, it’ll only take one line, then we can turn to something easier.” Huxley’s elder brother Julian made a similar point when, long ago, he satirized vitalism as tantamount to explaining that a railway engine was propelled by Force Locomotif.

—Brilliant!


Blood and Passion

a review of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”, by Tim Callahan

Since the substitionary atonement (the doctrine that Christ died for our sins so that we might be saved from eternal damnation) is central to Christianity, there has been an ongoing fascination among Christians with the sufferings of Jesus. Consider that early on, the cross—the instrument of his execution—superseded the fish[1] as a symbol of Christianity. Quite often this fascination has become obsessive and a bit morbid. It is graphically and unrelentingly so in Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ”.

The film opens with Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (actually a grove of olive trees; the name means, roughly, “oil press”). It is depicted as eerie and mist-shrouded, and as Jesus prays he is taunted by Satan, depicted in the film as a pallid, hollow-eyed woman with an androgynous voice. She appears again at various points during the film, usually without speaking. When Jesus is being scourged she looks on, cradling a grotesque, deformed infant, parodying the Madonna and child image. As Jesus is bearing his cross along the Via Dolorosa she walks along on one side pacing the Virgin Mary, who is following along on the other.

From the point of the arrest onward, brutality displaces creepiness as the dominant expression of the film. In a confused struggle Peter uses a sword to cut off the ear of Malchus, one member of the squad of the temple guards sent to arrest Jesus. Peter is roughly subdued, but, inexplicably, not run through by the arresting party. Jesus tells Peter to put away his sword, then reattaches Malchus’ severed ear. While this makes quite an impression on Malchus, it doesn’t seem to phase or even interest the other guards. Given the dim lighting in the misty olive grove as portrayed in the film, perhaps Gibson is implying that they didn’t see the miracle. So far, Gibson’s portrayal of the events fits the Bible, although the four gospels differ on the particulars of the arrest. The weaknesses of the storytelling, then, are in the original, which doesn’t explain either why the temple guards didn’t hack Peter to pieces, or why they didn’t respond in any way to the miraculous reattachment of the severed ear.

At this point we have the first of Gibson’s gratuitous extensions of what is, after all, a fairly brutal narrative. As the temple guards are herding Jesus to his night-time trial before Caiaphas they repeatedly thump him, at one point knocking him off a small bridge over a dry stream bed. Thus, by the time he arrives at his audience with the high priest, his is already bruised and battered, and this is but a prelude to what is to come. Caiaphas and the other priests are suitably nasty as cardboard villains. The harshness of their speech (the film is in Aramaic and Latin, with English subtitles) puts one in mind of ayatollahs and other Middle Eastern “holy” men impelled by a seemingly endless reservoir of hate. I should note that, while the priesthood and their supporting mob are depicted as the villains in the film, many Jews are depicted sympathetically, particularly Simon of Cyrene, whom the Roman soldiers dismiss contemptuously as “you Jew” when they release him from helping Jesus carry his cross. I really don’t think The Passion is going to ignite a wave of anti Semitic violence as many Jewish groups have feared. The real problem is that, like any other passion play, the pageant doesn’t go into a back story to explain motivation. As in the gospels, there is no reason given why Judas should have suddenly decided to betray Jesus. Nor is there any investigation of why the Saducees would have so vehemently wanted to see Jesus crucified. A number of reasons come to mind, as varied as not wanting to lose their privileged position to being fearful that Jesus might do something that would provoke bloody reprisals from the Romans. Since none of these are given or even explored, Caiaphas and company are presented as bad because they’re bad because they’re bad.

Likewise, given no reason why one of the trusted disciples should suddenly betray Jesus, the gospels can only say that Satan entered Judas. Even this isn’t much of an explanation, since Satan isn’t supposed to be able to possess people against their will. In any case, Judas is such a study in guilt and anguish, particularly in this film, that it’s hard to see him as demon-possessed. However, he is demon haunted. After being treated contemptuously by the temple authorities, he is set upon by mocking children who seem to turn into devils. Finally, after being hounded by them, he finds himself next to a dead donkey that is beginning to rot. Maggots are squirming in its decaying flesh, and the sound of the malevolent buzzing of flies serves as a backdrop for Judas’ suicide. The rope he hangs himself with is taken from around the neck of the putrefying beast. This is more of the gratuitous depiction of suffering on Gibson’s part. Not content to merely have Judas kill himself, he has him do it amidst a background of physical corruption.

Jesus, meanwhile, is brought before a weak, vacillating, but basically decent Pilate, who seems powerless to control the Jewish mob confronting him. This is in accord with the gospels, particularly those of Matthew and John. However, it is probably at odds with history. Pontius Pilate, protege of the infamous Lucius Aelius Sejanus [2] was a thoroughly pragmatic Roman political appointee, who likely didn’t have enough conscience to be bothered in the least by the possibility of shedding innocent blood. In The Annals of Imperial Rome, Book 1, chapter 15, the Roman historian Tacitus (ca. 55-ca. 120 CE) says of the Christians and Pilate’s judgment:

Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilatus. But in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judea (where the mischief had started), but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capitol.

Here Tacitus says that the “mischief” of the “deadly superstition” called Christianity was temporarily checked by Pontius Pilate. Tacitus obviously thought Pilate was doing the right thing, and, the gospels not withstanding, Pilate probably thought so too. In any case, no Roman governor would have allowed a mob to dictate to him. Historically, particularly in Judea, the Roman response to challenges to their authority tended to be swift, lethal and gratuitously violent.

In the film, under pressure from the mob, Pilate (after asking his famous unanswered question, “What is truth?”) tries to dodge the issue by sending Jesus, as a Galilean, to King Herod Antipas (puppet ruler of Galilee) to be judged. Herod and his court are depicted as bizarre, decadent and exotic, replete with men wearing makeup and a leopard on a chain. For all that, he dismisses Jesus as a madman and sends him back to Pilate. Reluctantly, and with the hope that a lesser, but still severe, punishment will mollify the crowd, Pilate orders Jesus to be whipped. The audience is then treated to not one brutal and seemingly interminable beating, but two. The first one is with a cane, the second with a cat-o-nine- tails. By the time the beatings are done Jesus looks like so much raw meat. Some reviewers have said that the area where Jesus is scourged is covered by more blood than the human body could hold. It didn’t look that way to me. However, the time spent on the sequence was excessive and amounted to wallowing in the blood- letting. I might also note that, while the Jewish mob is depicted as hateful, the Roman soldiers, starting with this sequence, are shown as brutes who seem to have stepped out of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.

One oddity about this sequence is that Pilate’s wife, overcome by what Jesus is going through, tearfully hands the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene a bundle of folded cloths. Presumably these would be for washing the blood off Jesus to give him some comfort, but instead the two women use them to sop up Jesus’ spilled blood from the floor of the punishment area. Why they want to clean up after the Romans is inexplicable.

Pilate shows the raw, lacerated Jesus to the Jewish mob, saying, “Ecce homo” (“Behold the man”). This is all to no avail, of course, and Pilate finally tells his second in command, “Do as they wish.” To his credit Gibson at least refrains at this point from quoting Matthew 27:25, where the Jews say of Jesus, “”His blood be on us, and on our children.” While Pilate, at least, is dragooned into doing this, the brutes in his garrison, having exulted in scourging Jesus, set on him again in another protracted round of gratuitous brutality along the Via Dolorosa and at through at least some of the Stations of the Cross. This culminates in the nailing. Here, once again, Gibson revels in the excess of suffering. Many commentators on the Crucifixion believe that the nails were driven between the radius and ulna, the two bones of the fore arm, just above the point they connect at the wrist. They point out that the weight of the body would likely have pulled the flesh apart, and the victim would have fallen from the cross, had the nails been driven through the palms of the hands. This doesn’t deter Gibson, however. Not only does he show the nails being driven through the palms, he shows them coming out through the other side of the beam with blood dripping off them.

One would think that a graphically depicted Crucifixion scene, ending with the Romans using huge hammers to break the legs of the thieves sharing Jesus’ fate, and a fine spray of blood spurting out on the Roman soldier who lances Jesus in the side, would be enough to convey the violence and brutality of the death scene. Yet, once again, Gibson adds a gratuitous extra. When Jesus tells the good thief, “This day you will be with me in Paradise,” the bad thief laughs derisively, whereupon a raven alights on his head and proceeds to pluck out his eyes. This isn’t in the Bible. It is Gibson’s invention, pure and simple.

The film closes with the stone being ponderously rolled away from Jesus’ sepulcher by unseen hands, a view of the shroud rolled up on the stone slab and then Jesus, his hands marred by the nail holes, standing up and starting to walk out of the tomb. The audience at the packed opening night showing I attended applauded soberly. In spite of its excessive gore, the film is such a tour de force of sustained suffering that it commands a certain respect. For all that, if a film with this much violence in it did not have a religious theme far more people would be condemning it for its brutality than are now. In fairness though, that the film is deeply religious may have provoked more controversy than if it had been a comparably bloody splatter flick.

As I said earlier, I doubt “The Passion of the Christ” will raise up a new generation of fanatics who view the Jews as “Christ-killers [3].” Rather, the film is disturbing in its graphic, sustained, morbid and perverse focusing on brutality, bloodshed and suffering.

End Notes
  1. The reason the fish became a Christian symbol is that the Greek word for “fish,” ichthys, is an acronym for Iasos (Jesus) Christos (Christ) Theos (god’s) ylos (son) soter (savior).
  2. Sejanus, captain of the Praetorian Guard, plotted to take over the Roman Empire while Tiberius was ruling. Tiberius had largely abdicated running the state at that time, leaving Sejanus free to consolidate his hold on the government through a reign of terror. Some readers may remember that he was portrayed by Patrick Stewart in the series “I, Claudius” with a genially urbane malice.
  3. Michael Shermer has noted that if Jesus really had to die on the cross for the rest of us to be saved, then the Jews, including Judas, Caiaphas and all the others, were doing God’s work and ought to be thanked. Interestingly, it’s something my wife, Bonnie, has been saying for years. Coming independently from two separate, albeit skeptical, sources, I suspect the idea has merit as a tactic to use should one meet anybody espousing the benighted view of Jews as “Christkillers.”

Psychic John Edwards Challenged by Magician
Down Under

Australian magician Mark Mayer Lodges Formal Complaint with Consumer Affairs Victoria. $2 million box office under threat.

Melbourne-based ‘mind illusionist’ Mark Mayer has lodged a formal complaint with Consumer Affairs Victoria against high-profile TV psychic John Edward. Edward starts his sold out national tour in Perth this Saturday and will travel to Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney.

Mayer’s complaint challenges Edward to “substantiate his claim” under section 106A of the Victorian Fair Trading Act. This could mean Edward has to prove his claim that he talks to dead people—a legal first. Mayer will be lodging similar complaints throughout the country.

Mayer has launched a website www.mindillusionist.com.au that lists some tough questions for Edward and his promoters.

Jesus Had a Really Bad Weekend for Your Sins

Here’s a different take on the Jesus theology from an eSkeptic reader:

The whole question of who killed Jesus is absurd, because Jesus isn’t dead. Jesus is sitting on God’s right hand among the clouds. Jesus didn’t die for our sins; Jesus had a really bad weekend for our sins. Seriously, if one could be crucified and die for just a weekend, people would do it all the time, just on a lark. University fraternities would use crucifixion as a hazing ritual. What’s scary about death isn’t so much the event itself, but the existential idea of ceasing to exist. OK, so crucifixion is unpleasant — “big deal” — it’s nothing compared to death, real death that lasts forever.

I really want to print a bumper sticker that says, “Jesus had a really bad weekend for your sins.”

Mark Gilbert, Saint Paul, Minnesota

Catholic Priest on Jesus Theology

by Lathe E. Snyder, M.Div.

In my pre-humanist days, I was a Roman Catholic priest. I have two degrees in theology, one of which is at the graduate level. It is with this background that I would like to make two comments about this. Michael Shermer’s description of the death of Christ as a non-contingent event pre- ordained by God for which humans can acccept no logical responsibility is a bit of a caricature of the orthodox Christian view, especially of a non- Calvinist view. The passion of Jesus was necessary as a contingent event to the reality of human sin. If people had never fallen, there would have been on need for it. Christian theology would agree that God knew it would happen, but caution that foreknowing is not quite the same as foreordaining. Furthermore, the passion was necessary only because God, for mysterious reasons those outside the Trinity can only guess at, decided that this was the way human salvation was to be accomplished. Being God, he could have done it some other way if that had suited him.

In response to Tim Callahan’s excellent relections, I would like to add a wrinkle to the his question, “Whence the anti-semitism?” that is often overlooked. The Gospel of John, which is usually regarded as the most problemmatic of the four canonical gospels in this regard, was written soon after the rabbinical council of Yavneh expelled all Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah from the synagogue. By rendering them non-Jews by excommunicating them, formerly Jewish Christians no longer had the religious exemption granted by the Romans relieving Jews of the obligation to sacrifice to the emperor. Christians were no more willing to do this than were Jews, but without their status as a protected class could be persecuted and killed for this refusal. Of course, none of this justifies the appeal made to these texts by later generations of Christians to justify hatred of Jews, but it does, I think, shed some light on the vitriolic tone of John.

1 Comment »

One Comment

  1. Ben Baxter says:

    From my understanding, all of the gospels were written soon or some time after the “Council of Yavne”. Also, I understand that for the last 50+ years the council in question has been widely disputed as a historical event by mainstream scholars.

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