Skeptic » eSkeptic » April 19, 2004

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Weird Dark Dates—Coinkidink?

April 20th, 1889, Hitler’s birthday
April 19th, 1993, Conflagration of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, TX
April 19th, 1995, Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrrah Federal Building
April 20th, 1999, Columbine High massacre.

From Hitler to Waco, yeah, definitely a coincidence. FBI and ATF agents were not timing their debacle to coincide with AH’s b-day.

From Waco to Oklahoma City, probably not a coincidence. McVeigh and company had expressed contempt for what happened at Waco, and vowed revenge. But probably no connection to AH.

From OK City to Columbine, possible connection with both AH and OK, but then Klebold and Harris rambled on about all sorts of bizarre motives in their journals and home videos, so who knows?

Of course, to avoid the confirmation bias, we should recall that the assault on Ruby Ridge, supposedly the first shot against freedom fired by the government as cause celebre in libertarian circles, happened on August 22, 1992, with no known connection to any of the above events.

So, the most we can conclude is that it’s just another weird thing…


The folowing is Tim Callahan’s review of God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism, by Jonathan Kirsch (New York, Penguin, 2004)


God Against the Gods:
The Imperial Faith

a book review by Tim Callahan

While the course of history at most times seems dictated by impersonal forces beyond the control of individual human beings, there are pivotal points at which individuals can step in and alter the path of nations and even empires. There are also points at which the direction a nation takes seems to be the result of sheer happenstance.

As an example of the first consider whether Russia, a backward country whose only port, Archangel, lay north of the Arctic circle and was thus frozen over half the year, would have become a sea power and a major player in European politics at the beginning of the 18th century had it not been for the energetic and ruthless rule of Czar Peter the Great. As an example of happenstance, consider that William the Conqueror was unhorsed three times at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Since his presence alone held the mixed Norman, French and Breton cavalry together—a cavalry that initially fled in terror when its first charge broke on the Anglo-Saxon phalanx—it seems likely that, if William had broken his neck in one of his falls, the invaders would have been routed. Had that happened we would now be speaking something midway between the Scandinavian languages and German. Also, there would have been no entanglement of the English monarchy with French possessions, hence no Hundred Years War. It is Jonathan Kirsch’s thesis in God Against the Gods that a combination of the individual personal choices of two emperors of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, and the chance death in battle of one of them, may well have determined the ascendancy of Christianity over such rivals as Mithraism, and with this ascendancy the course of thought in western Europe for centuries following the demise of the Western Roman Empire in CE 476.

The two emperors in question are Constantine the Great (271-337) and Julian, who was called “the Apostate” (331-363), an epithet stemming from his rejection of Christianity in favor of an urbane form of paganism. Constantine came to power as a result of a civil war between rival claimants for the throne. The Emperor Diocletian (245-313), seeing the empire as being ungovernable by a single man, had set up a tetrarchy. Dividing the empire east and west, he had given each half a supreme emperor, called an Augustus, and a vice emperor, called a Caesar. Diocletian was the senior Augustus, first among equals in the tetrarchy. His idea was that as the senior Augustus retired or died his Caesar would also step down. The junior Augustus would now become the senior, and anew junior Augustus and junior Caesar would be appointed, ready to move into the senior positions when the time came. Thus, Diocletian sought to establish an orderly system of succession that would avoid the sordid, disruptive civil wars that periodically broke out over succession and plunged the empire into repeated episodes of anarchy.

Diocletian did step down in 305, and the appointed rotation took place. However, in the ensuing years civil war broke out between the various successors, finally culminating in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, just outside the city of Rome, in 312. In that battle Constantine’s chief rival, Maxentius, was defeated and killed. Supposedly, Constantine had a vision and either saw a sign in the sky before battle (a flaming cross), or had a dream in which he saw the Greek letter chi (ch) superimposed on a rho (r). Since these are the first two letters in the word Christos, the chi-rho is a symbol of Christ. Either he was told by Jesus in his dream, “By this sign you shall be the victor,” or he saw in flaming letters under the cross in the sky the words “In hoc signo vince,” “In this sign conquer.” From what we know of Constantine’s supremely pragmatist nature, it seems unlikely that his decision to have either the cross or the chi-rho inscribed on his men’s shields before going into battle had anything to do with a vision. More than likely he decided to back the strongest contender when looking for a religion to support his imperial claims. For all that, he put off converting to Christianity until he was on his deathbed.

Constantine was now co-emperor with Licinius, upon whom he prevailed to join him in signing an imperial decree, since known as the Edict of Milan, that proclaimed Christianity as the legal religion in the Roman Empire. Licinius eventually turned against the Christians and revoked the edict, decriminalizing their faith. At this point Constantine, posing as their protector, invaded the eastern empire (Licinius’ territory), and defeated his co-emperor at Adrianople in 324. As in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine’s troops carried shields marked with a Christian symbol. In spite of giving his rival a promise to spare his life when he surrendered, Constantine had Licinius put to death by strangulation in 325. Christianity became the beneficiary of Constantine’s sole command of the empire and, having reunified the political entity, the emperor, while not yet a Christian, set about unifying Christian doctrine by convening the Council of Nicaea in the same year he had Licinius strangled.

Kirsch follows both the career of Constantine after the Council of Nicaea, which included having one of his own sons executed and having his wife boiled to death in her bath. As Constantine’s reign and those of his sons progressed, Christianity became for all intents and purposes the state religion of Rome. Pagan temples were closed and their practices outlawed. At the same time the sons of Constantine, Constantine II (316-340), Constantius II (317-361) and Constans (323-350), after slaughtering most of the potential rivals among their relatives, proceeded to conspire against and make war upon each other. Once all the blood had dried, in 350, Constantius II was the sole emperor.

One of the few relatives to survive the purges of Constantine’s sons was his nephew Julian, who eventually succeeded Constantius II as emperor. Kirsch follows his life from his and his brother Gallus’ imperiled childhood, from his studies of philosophy and his secret induction into the mysteries of Mithra to his ascendancy to Emperor. He had lived a rather harrowing life up to that point, always at risk of being summarily executed by his cousin Constantius, as his brother Gallus eventually was. Julian became emperor in 361 and issued an edict reopening the pagan temples in 362. Christianity was eclipsed and even suffered a bit of vengeful persecution at the hands of the resurgent pagans. It appeared that its ascendancy was to be short-lived and that the Roman Empire would revert to a society in which multiple faiths shared the spiritual life of the realm with a live-and-let-live philosophy. Then Julian fell in battle against the Persians in 363. The two years of pagan revival came to an abrupt end even though Julian’s successor, Jovian, who only reigned for seven months, did not work to reinstate Christianity.

From this point in history Kirsch jumps to the reign of Emperor Theodosius, who ruled from 379 to 395 and made Christianity the state religion in 390. From there Kirsch documents the increasing suppression of not only paganism but secular philosophy and learning as well, culminating in the burning of the library of Alexandria in 390 and the horrible murder of the mathematician and philosopher Hypatia by Christian monks in 415. After dragging her from her chariot and ripping off her clothes, they hacked her to death with sharpened clam shells, what the men in those times used as razors.

There are two major theses in God Against the Gods. One is that polytheistic religions tend to have a greater tolerance of opposing religious points of view than do monotheistic creeds. With belief in the “One True God” one is not likely to be tolerant of those not following the true faith. The other thesis of the book is that, had Julian lived long enough to carry out his program of pagan revitalization—he was only 32 when he fell in battle—Western civilization would have grown up with a tradition of religious tolerance, an earlier trend toward intellectual freedom and, generally, a lot less bloodshed. Extrapolating from his thesis, we could see an alternate history in which the Crusades, the Thirty Years War and even the modern strife between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, and between the Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs in Yugoslavia, never happened.

As to the first thesis, while it’s true that monotheistic faiths, particularly Christianity and Islam, tend to perpetrate most religious-based violence in the world, I feel that Kirsch goes a bit too far when he says, referring to monotheism (p. 283): “Indeed, all the excesses of religious extremism in the modern world can be seen as the latest manifestation of a dangerous tradition that began in the distant past.”

Certainly, polytheistic Hindus in Bombay and other places on the Indian subcontinent have murdered Moslems in internecine strife with an enthusiasm that matches that of their monotheistic foes. This instance notwithstanding, I would tend to agree that, had the pagan tradition of religious toleration prevailed in the later Roman Empire, our own civilization would have been richer and happier for it.

The question is: Would this policy of tolerance have prevailed had Julian lived longer? Would the rewinding of the historical tape been radically different, but for the happenstance of Julian’s premature death in battle? One problem with accepting this second thesis is that Kirsch jumps from Julian’s death in 363 and Jovian’s brief reign (364) to the accession of theodosius in 379. In the intervening years, Valentinian and his brother Valens ruled until Valentinian’s death in 375. Then Valens co-ruled the empire with his nephew Gratian until 378, when he was killed at the Battle of Adrianople, in which the Visigoths annihilated the Roman army. Unless we have a history of how Valentinian, Valens, and Gratian treated pagans and Christians, it is impossible to say just how important was Julian’s premature death. Another contingency to keep in mind is the military disaster at Adrianople, from which the Romans never recovered and after which they were forced to buy the services of barbarian armies. This battle was largely lost by Valens’ incompetence, and its outcome, as such, was hardly inevitable. Did the precarious position of the Roman Empire at this point push Theodosius toward instituting a unifying faith to help prop up the rapidly declining power of the Roman state?

In general, I am inclined to disagree with the view that Julian could have returned the empire to a religiously polyglot state. Christianity, in the form it took once the Roman state had co-opted it, was too useful for the maintenance of centralized power for it to be abandoned. This is well illustrated in the religious controversy between Pelagius and Augustine in the opening decades of the fifth century. Pelagius, while still maintaining that human beings required God’s help to be saved, rejected the concept of original sin and asserted that people could obtain salvation through their own efforts. Augustine asserted that humans are all depraved from birth, inheriting the sin of Adam and Eve through sexual procreation, and that only God’s grace could save them. The latter view also implies that, as born sinners and criminals, people need to be kept in line with an iron fist. This idea was much more attractive to the Roman state, particularly in its fragile situation following the collapse of Roman military power, than was a theology asserting the human capacity for free will. Thus, for making the latter assertion Pelagius was branded a heretic, and for asserting human worthlessness Augustine was made a saint. The imperial bias toward internal control in the declining years of the empire militated against religious tolerance, hence the utility of the Christianity of that day, with its rigorous unity of doctrine. As Kirsch himself points out, the word “heresy” derives from a word meaning “choice” (Gr. hairesis).

Whether or not one agrees with Kirsch that Julian might have reversed the Roman adoption of Christianity as the state religion, the book deals with a fascinating time and reads well. Jonathan Kirsch is a natural-born storyteller, and God Against the Gods moves easily and dramatically from Constantius Chlorus’s dalliance with an innkeepers daughter (Helena, Constantine’s mother), to Julian’s death in battle. As we have come to expect from this author, the book is good read.


Creationist is Target of IRS

For those of you who know Kent Hovind, one of the last of a dying breed of Young Earth Creationists (Earth 10,000 years old, dinos had their own deck on Noah’s Ark, the Grand Canyon was carved in two weeks during the Flood, etc.), and the single most loquacious speaker I have ever seen (he could do the voice over for those medical commericals where they rattle off the hundred different possible side effects in the final six seconds of the commercial), the following story will be of some interest. We may live in a Christian nation, but no one is exempt from the IRS (well, almost no one—Scientology has had a pretty good go of it against them). By the way, I’m scheduled to debate Hovind at the University of California, Irvine, on Thursday evening, April 29th. The story follows…


IRS Raids Business, Home of Creationist

by Brett Norman

Internal Revenue Service agents are investigating a Pensacola man who operates a creationist theme park and museum off Old Palafox Road and who they say is evading taxes on more than $1 million in income.

This week, federal IRS agents raided the home and businesses of Kent Hovind, 51, in the first block of Cummings Road, confiscating all computer and paper records of financial activity since January 1997.

The creation-science evangelist argues against evolution around the world. He also sells literature and videos supporting his views and charges admission to his Pensacola theme park and museum through a number of entities.

But in a sworn statement made to obtain the search warrant served Wednesday, IRS agent Scott Schneider said none of Hovind’s enterprises has a business license in Escambia County or has tax-exempt status as a nonprofit enterprise.

“Since 1997, Hovind has engaged in financial transactions indicating sources of income and has made deposits to bank accounts well in excess of $1 million per year during some of these years, which would require the filing of federal income taxes,” wrote Schneider.

The statement is based on financial records plucked from Hovind’s garbage from July 2002 through March 2004, statements from a former employee, Internet research and public records.

Hovind, who has not been charged, suspects he is being targeted because of his religious beliefs. He adamantly denies wrongdoing.

He questioned the timing of the search—one day before federal income tax returns were due.

“They’ve got to flex their muscle this time of year,” he said. “I guess they chose me. It will be somebody else next year.”

He referred questions about business practices to Glen Stoll, director of Remedies at Law, a firm based in Edmonds, Wash., that represents him.

“This is based on misperceptions,” Stoll said. “They don’t understand how the church is created and registered, how it operates under church law, which is entirely separate from secular authorities.”

Friday afternoon, Stoll sent a letter to Schneider, demanding the return of the property. Attached to the letter was documentation that Hovind’s operations — including Dino Adventure Land, Faith Baptist Church, Creation Science Evangelism and CSE Enterprises—operate under an umbrella organization recognized by the State of Washington.

Alycyn Culbertson, special agent and spokeswoman for the IRS, said Friday she had not received the letter and could not respond to it. She denied that the timing of the search was relevant.

“I assure you that we don’t go to inordinate lengths to make sure something happens around April 15,” she said. “But if the investigation is at that point around that time, we don’t hold it up either.”

Hovind has a May 18 court date to face three misdemeanor charges arising from his refusal to obtain a permit to construct a metal building on his property. Hovind said the building meets or exceeds building codes, and he objects to the permitting process as an undue expense on the church.

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