Tag Archives: apologetics

Christianity superseded the ancient Mithra mystery cult through violence and rationalism

My intended audience consists of the U.S. evangelicals and fundamentalists I’ve known my entire life in various church, school, home-school, and para-ministry circles. 

I’ve previously quoted scholars on the numerous similarities between Christianity and the Mithra mystery cult—similarities uncanny and striking for people who with a conservative, evangelical/fundamentalist perspective.

I’ve also noted, in recent scholarship, the critical consensus seems to be that “Christianity was influenced by the mystery religions of the Greco-Roman world,” according to Paul Hedges.

I hadn’t been looking, but I recently found another presentation of the similarities between the Mithra mystery cult and Christianity—along with a startling analysis of why Christianity carried on while its competitor, so similar, died out.

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across Religious Platonism by James K. Feibleman, who at the time of publication taught at Tulane University.

(The time of the book’s publication is its own quick story. I had been talking to my students about the currency of sources. Feibleman’s book first was published in 1959, and the copy I found was published in 1971. Is the scholarship still current? Probably: A quick search showed a respected academic publisher had reissued Religious Platonism in 2013.)

The subtitle of the 1971 edition is The Influence of Religion on Plato and the Influence of Plato on Religion, so it includes a short section on Mithraism to which I was drawn because of my previous reading. It includes both a list of similarities and a brief history of their relationship.

“There are many features of the Mithraic mysteries which are reminiscent of the Orphic and Dionysiac cults. But the later religion of Christianity shared even more striking parallels with it. The use of the idea of brotherhood, purification by baptism, communion, a Lord’s Supper, a birth of the saviour on December 25th, a sabbath on Sunday, an asceticism of abstinence and continence, a heaven and a hell, a flood early in history, immortality of the soul, a last judgment, a resurrection of the dead, a mediating Logos which was one of a trinity, and many other resemblances which have often been noted. [This last sentence is footnoted to The Mysteries of Mithra by Franz Cumont.]

“After Constantine had proclaimed Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, Mithraism suffered persecution but returned again under Julian the Apostate (A.D. 331-353). This was its last victory. As soon as the Christians were securely in power, they invoked the same kind of violence against their enemies, chiefly in other religions, especially Mithraism, that those enemies had invoked against them. Mithraism never again achieved the position of power it held in the third century. By the fourth century Christianity was sufficiently entrenched to enable it to do unto others what had been done unto it, and ‘the Christians, in order to render places contaminated by the presence of a dead body ever afterwards unfit for worship, sometimes slew the refractory priests of Mithras and buried them in the ruins of their sanctuaries, now forever profaned’ [Cumont]. The victory of Christianity was arranged through violence and fixed by establishment, won by the sword and made permanent by philosophy. For the fourth century that saw the ruthless destruction of Mithraism by the Christians saw also the adoption of Platonism by St. Augustine.

“The doom of Mithraism and the triumph of Christianity were spelled out in advance in their relations to Platonism. Mithraism had no relations with Greek culture and so was never able to avail itself of the support of rationalism in general and of Platonism in particular. It could not meet the challenge of a rival—and strikingly similar—religion which availed itself of these supports.”

This is all fascinating and frightening. Again, “For the fourth century that saw the ruthless destruction of Mithraism by the Christians saw also the adoption of Platonism by St. Augustine.”

And, “The doom of Mithraism and the triumph of Christianity were spelled out in advance in their relations to Platonism.” Wow.


A challenge for evangelical apologists: brain scans and Bible reading

Let me start with a real-world example from regular church-going folks: two adult men, both toward the conservative-evangelical or perhaps fundamentalist end of Protestant, both of whom I’ve known personally for decades, one a full-time pastor, the other a lifelong participant in lay leadership. (Then we’ll get to the scientific study.)

When on separate occasions I pointed out to these men the discrepancies between the two accounts of creation in the Old Testament book of Genesis, they both said, essentially, “Wow, I never noticed that.”

They didn’t say, “Yes, I noticed that, and I’ve read a scholar who can make sense of it.” Nor did they say, “Yes, I noticed that, and I really wrestle with it.”

They had never noticed the discrepancies despite having read the book of Genesis many times over the years. (I’m referring to the two distinct creation stories, with different orders of events, in Genesis 1:1-2:4 and Genesis 2:5-2:25.) In fairness, I never had noticed, either, until around 20 years ago when I tried to start reading more about the Bible.

My surprise was context-dependent: I grew up in churches and schools that believed the Earth was made in six 24-hour periods, and that insisted there were no contradictions in the Bible. Now I had discovered there were two different accounts, back to back, that contradicted each other, without any explanatory connective tissue between the two.

Yes, some people within the Christian and Judaic traditions have speculated about possible purposes behind the two different accounts of creation, but that’s a different matter from not noticing the different accounts.

I think I know why we never noticed, if I may generalize a bit just at the start here: When some people read the Bible, they read with a kind of altered mentality.

Here, I’m referring to my own experience and the experience of the two men I’ve just mentioned. I’m not referring to all Christian experiences of reading the Bible.

At best, we might have been reading with our hearts, which I will leave mostly undefined here because most of my audience will know more or less what I mean (although I will briefly point to the enduring influence of pietism in evangelical churches). Or, at best, consider how humans approach any number of not-strictly-informational experiences of the written word or artistic expressions. Or, again at best, an individual’s encounter with a text co-creates the meaning.

At worst, some people could be reading in a kind of situation-induced trance state. At worst, they could, for reasons we’ll consider with the scientific study below, approach the Bible with a state of mind that is less than analytical or properly critical.

Either way, these Bible readers, like the men I mentioned earlier and my younger self, don’t scrutinize what they read; rather, they sort of listen to it in a completely different way than if they were reading something technical or dryly informational (more about this shortly).

And, if I can make an association between religious reading and religious listening, there might be a scientific measurement for reading-in-an-altered-state, according to a Feb. 16, 2017, article in Nautilus, which read in part:

In 2011, a team of Danish researchers led by Uffe Schjødt, a neuroscientist at Aarhus University, examined the brains of individuals experiencing one of the most extreme demonstrations of charismatic influence—charismatic healing. To do so, the team recruited 18 devoted, young Christians from faiths with a tradition of intercessory prayer (mainly from the Pentecostal Movement), all of whom reported a strong belief in people with special healing powers. They also recruited 18 secular participants, who did not believe in God and were skeptical that prayer could cause healing.

Both groups of participants were instructed to listen to 18 different prayers performed by three different speakers—and told the speakers were either non-Christian, Christian, or Christians known for having healing powers. The speakers were all unremarkable churchgoers randomly assigned six prayers apiece.

The researchers found profound differences in brain activity based on assumptions made about the speaker. In the Christian subjects, activity spiked in analytical areas of the brain in response to the non-Christian speakers, but plummeted when they listened to the speaker they believed was known for healing powers. These changes were not present in the secular group. The researchers drew parallels to similar experiments done on subjects on hypnosis, noting that hypnotism, when it works, was usually preceded by the massive frontal deactivation—in effect, a “handing over” of executive function to the hypnotist. Further, they found that “the more the Christian participants deactivate their executive and social cognitive networks, the higher they rate the speaker’s charisma post-scan.”

We’ll connect that to Bible-reading in a moment. First, the only problem, in my view, with this study is its focus only on Pentecostal Christians and a vaguely defined (at least in Nautilus‘s telling) “secular group.”

Sure, I find the results of the study very easy to believe, having grown up in so-called neo-Pentecostal or charismatic churches—some types of worship shut down analytical faculties, or at least get the analytical part of the to temporarily step aside. Once that state of less-mind is achieved, the congregants can accept an awful lot from a sermon, and become more open to suggestion.

However, many times over the years, in a mainstream newsroom and later in a state university, I’ve noticed how critical thinking skills soften to accept claims from left-leaning politicians. We’re all human here, and we probably experience “massive frontal deactivation” around anything we love, and when we are thinking about anything or anyone we love. Maybe “love is blind” really means “love massively deactivates your frontal lobe.”

For example, I couldn’t believe my ears during the last election: I could easily agree with critiques of Trump, but when it came time to discuss Clinton, well, sometimes, around some people, it was like I was watching a group of Sunday School children imagine Hillary walking on water and multiplying bread and fish for the masses. Why couldn’t critical faculties be applied in all directions? Just because one party was already hated? Yes. Just because one party was already hated. And because one party was already loved, perhaps leading to the massive frontal deactivation discussed in the study above. (At the end, I’ll link to another study that makes a similar suggestion.)

Yes, of course, I’ve noticed the same thing among advocates for right-leaning politicians, too. Cultists come in all political persuasions, as Michael Shermer has noted regarding followers of Ayn Rand.

People hand over “executive function” to many different kinds of influencers, not just those among faith and politics, but those among market brands and trendy ideas, too.

What’s interesting about Bible-reading in this respect is people might alter their mentality when they prepare and settle down to open the Scriptures. They may transition into a different mode. Their expectations of the text have nothing to do with mind as commonly conceived and everything to do with the heart as commonly understood. The “heart versus mind” concept isn’t well-defined in our culture, but it is everywhere, like cultural furniture. I mean, “heart versus mind” or “head versus heart” is not well-defined among everyday people, but a lot of people use it . (Like Wittgenstein said, “Don’t think, but look!”—at how language is being used.)

Of course, we can’t blame the Biblical texts themselves for this. And the way contemporary middle-class people approach church and Scripture is not a verdict on any of the numerous historical, ethical, moral, and metaphysical claims in institutions and books. (If not a verdict, though, sometimes I wonder if it is a reflection of church and Scripture.)

After all, if you are a nonbeliever and you were to go to hear some non-religious person speak, someone you think very highly of, in a place where you were surrounded by people with similar enthusiasm, would your brain scan be pretty much the same as those of the Pentecostal youths who thought they were listening to a minister with healing powers? My money is on yes.

On a related note, see Tali Sharot in this Big Think video (here linked to the 2:26 mark) on research into how people respond to others with whom they agree and with whom they disagree. The research used brain scans to notice what is happening during agreement and disagreement—and it seems similar to the outcome of the Danish research mentioned above.

The big question of our time, of course, is whether neuroscience says or can reveal all that there is to say about being human, or about the essence of humanness.

Philosopher Roger Scruton takes a kind of both-and view that acknowledges both an historically older sense of the self and the contemporary insights offered by neuroscience. If you’re a believer over-troubled by the studies referenced above, it’s worth listening to this interview with Scruton just for a sense of what might be ultimately relevant to tradition religious worldviews.

But maybe the biggest takeaway from all this is an exhortation to sharpen how we read and listen — to anything, to anyone, for any reason.

‘Postmodernism’ has jumped the shark: We are now post-postmodern

Click on the image for a better view:
Google Books NGram Postmodern Modernism Modernity

Kierkegaard versus the Christian apologists: faith and reason in genuine tension

“Religious apologists today might mumble about the power of faith and the limits of reason, yet they are the first to protest when it is suggested that faith and reason might be in tension. Far from seeing religious faith as a special, bold kind of trust, religious apologists are now more likely to see atheism as requiring as much faith as religion. Kierkegaard saw clearly that that faith is not a kind of epistemic Polyfilla that closes the small cracks left by reason, but a mad leap across a chasm devoid of all reason.

“That is not because Kierkegaard was guilty of an anarchic irrationalism or relativistic subjectivism. It is only because he was so rigorous with his application of reason that he was able to push it to its limits. He went beyond reason only when reason could go no further, leaving logic behind only when logic refused to go on.”

— Julian Baggini, in “I Still Love Kierkegaard

Persuasion cannot happen without a supporting culture

This is a little dense, but read closely. The underlying point should intrigue anyone who tries to persuade others of unseen realities.

“Metaphysical questions and beliefs are technologically barren and are therefore neither part of the analytical effort nor an element of science. As an organ of culture they are an extension of the mythical core….

“Metaphyiscal questions and beliefs reveal an aspect of human existence not revealed by scientific questions and beliefs… The idea of proof, introduced into metaphysics, arises from a confusion of two different sources of energy active in man’s conscious relation to the world: the technological and the mythical….

“Myth cannot be reached by persuasion; persuasion belongs to a different area of interpersonal communication, that is, to an area in which the criteria of technological resilience of judgments have their force….

“The sense of continuity in relation to tradition may, but need not, help mythical consciousness. There is always a reason which needs to be revealed in the permanence of myths and the inertia of conservatism. Values are transmitted only through social inheritance, that is, thanks to a radiation of authoritative tradition. The inheritance of myths is the inheritance of values which myths impose….”

— Leszek Kolakowski, in The Presence of Myth

The limits of knowledge

A healthy understanding of the limits of knowledge should not be a license to ignore or degrade knowledge.

When Blaise Pascal said, “Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it,” he said so with strong, well-demonstrated successes in his appropriation of reason. In other words, he successfully used and synthesized knowledge.

Bait and switch: The New Testament in the semi-public square

I appreciate Tim Keller’s exhortation (in his blog comments) to read Bruce Metzger. I’ll also point out the availability of Ben Witherington’s critique of Jesus, Interrupted by Bart Ehrman and the Evangelical Textual Criticism forum so I won’t be accused of an unqualified endorsement of Ehrman.

I know I’m not trained in exegesis, theology, or textual criticism, but I am a guy who has been in a variety of churches and Christian schools during my 42 years, and I know Christianity goes wrong in numerous ways. When something I love is going wrong, I want to say something about it. Historically, few of the people who implimented real change were the scholars and experts, but rather those who stood up and screamed.

I understand some personal pleas to leave the past behind, but I don’t understand the naive beliefs that institutions — and indeed books — cause each mistake only once. A great way to avoid making a mistake a second or third or tenth or hundredth time is to analyze what went wrong. You remember the quotation: Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it (Santayana).

Meanwhile, as a brief follow up to my last post, I dislike this contrast between evangelical apologetics and evangelical teaching:

Evangelical apologetics tends to say textual criticism, history, and reason are adequate to endorse the central message of the New Testament. As historical documents, the New Testament books testify, reliably, about Jesus. This is not an endorsement of historical-grammatical exegesis, nor is it a statement about the inspiration of each word in the family Bible. In apologetics, the historical reliability of the New Testament manuscripts is put forward, not the doctrine of inerrancy.

Evangelical teaching, however, doesn’t stop there. It takes the further step of claiming “inerrancy,” a word with too many operating definitions amongst U.S. believers, and a word that suggests a kind of accuracy that close scrutiny of some biblical texts renders impossible.

I understand why some people will say that apologetics must offer broader brushstrokes than exegetical teaching, but I don’t necessarily agree with their perspective. The problems conceded in apologetics ought to be part of the believer’s sober-minded approach to the texts. On these matters, we have an enormous number of irresponsible pastors and ministers in the U.S. Not many of them are as smart — or wise — as someone like Keller! And that’s an ongoing problem — to be a good Christian, it seems like you must not only be redeemed, but you also must be smart enough.