Written by Joel Guttormson
“We are, as a sex, infinitely superior to men.”-Elizabeth Cady Stanton
The bible is arguably one of the most influential, widely recognized and read books in the world. However, given its long, torturous and winding history the bible is not the whole story. There exist books, written at or around the time the canonical books were written, that were left out of the bible we read and study today. These books, known today as the “Apocrypha”, meaning hidden writings”, are some of the lesser-known books of the bible. In this analysis, the focus will be the apocryphal book known as The Acts of Paul and Thecla. This book is of great importance, or should be, to feminists (especially Christian feminists) due to the radical ideas it presents, given the period in which it was originally written. Through a feminist lens, this book could and should be a source of inspiration for Christian women. However, due to the stigma placed upon apocryphal books by the many varied authorities of the differing Christian church denominations, Christians are hesitant or even afraid to, and thus do not, read them for fear of god’s wrath, punishment or social repercussions that would accompany such questioning. Hopefully, this paper can begin the process of discovery for those who feel that way and open their minds to the fact that their religion did not start as a homogenous, cohesive movement. Nor was its main focus anything one would call ‘inclusivity”. Though it is not true that the early church’s main goal was to suppress and control women, it was a clear and direct effect of the idea that the male point of view and the status of the male was the most important in the canon and that any diversion from that was blasphemy.
“The world has never yet seen a truly great and virtuous nation because in the degradation of woman the very fountains of life are poisoned at their source.”-Lucretia Mott
We do not know, of course, who wrote the Acts of Paul and Thecla. However, what is clear is that the writer had both an affinity for Paul and, to some degree, a feminist bias. According to New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger, early church father Tertullian, who defended including into the cannon apocryphal books such as the Book of Enoch, viscerally opposed even considering the Acts of Paul and Thecla as anything but useless blasphemy.
“…Tertullian is severe in his judgment against the Asiatic presbyter who acknowledged that he had written the Acts of Paul and Thecla. The author defended himself at his trial by pleading that it was because of his love for the great Apostle that he had composed the account. His plea, however, was unavailing, and he was deposed from the ministry-and rightly so, Tertullian implies because in the book the author made Paul guilty of allowing a woman to preach and to baptize” (Metzger, 1972, p. 14) (Emphasis added).
It certainly does not help the above author’s case that the title or subtitle, it is unclear as to which, is “The Life of the Holy Martyr Thecla of Iconium, Equal to the Apostles”. However, several implications arise from this paragraph aside from the obviously “damning” evidence of feminism in the title. First, if the account can be trusted for authenticity, then this passage can aid in dating the writing of this book to sometime before the death of Tertullian around 220CE ( Encyclopædia Britannica). This means that this book was contemporary with most of the canonical books that appear in present-day bibles. Second, this shows the pervading attitude among the early church fathers that all forms of feminism and female empowerment were not to be tolerated. This is a disturbing, yet unsurprising fact given the current knowledge of the societal customs and norms of the time. Notice also that the language being used in the preceding paragraph, specifically the use of the word “guilty”. This implies that at the time (and possibly still somewhere in the world today) that it was not just frowned upon that women would “preach the word” but that it was illegal, and consequently carried with it some form of physical or mental punishment. This seems to contradict entirely the idea of “spreading the good news”. What possible difference could it make, if Christianity is true, which sex organs one had? Should not the spreading of the good news be blind to such apparently superficial and unimportant mortal matters?
It should suffice to say, before the following section overviews the book known as the Acts of Paul and Thecla that the book need be read with two separate yet equally important eyes. One eye trained and fixed on the past as if aiming at it through a scope; the other, focused through the lens of feminist thought. This is the approach taken in the proceeding sections. The goal of this approach is to be both open minded and topically focused, to give the reader new or opposing ideas to consider about the text rather than conducting it in a way that is more akin to a wandering hitchhiker.
The Seed is Sewn
“When I see the elaborate study and ingenuity displayed by women in the pursuit of trifles, I feel no doubt of their capacity for the most herculean undertakings.”-Julia Ward Howe
As previously stated, the alleged author of the Acts of Paul and Thecla was steadfast in his conviction to Paul and that he did not intend to empower women by its writing. However, this is not entirely true; which becomes clear after even the most superficial glace of the text. Here I will supply the reader with a “Cliff Notes” version of the book, highlighting obvious points, verses and stories that beg or require further analysis and criticism.
Chapters 1 through 5 are mainly focused on three important events: Thecla hears and accepts Paul’s teachings about Jesus and chastity, her disobedience with regard to an arranged marriage, and the first miracle on her behalf. Chapters 6-10, specifically through 10:13, are focused on the travels of Paul and Thecla and at least three repeats of the occurrence in Thecla’s hometown of Iconium. During these journeys, she and Paul preach a doctrine of chastity, a man or a group of men find this destructive and dangerous and condemn Thecla to be put to death, resulting in yet more miracles on her behalf culminating in Thecla baptizing herself. Chapters 10-11, beginning with 10:13, relates to when Thecla abodes in a cave, preaching the message of Jesus Christ as Paul had taught her. Let us begin by giving detail and analysis regarding the main themes of Chapters one through five.
Chapter 1 begins with Paul going to Iconium from Antioch. There, a man of Antioch, presumably, named Onesiphorus runs out to greet Paul just outside the city as he excited about his arrival. After going to Onesiphorus’ house in the city, Paul began to “(1:11) preach the word of God concerning the temperance and the resurrection” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). Helen Rhee, Assistant Professor of History of Christianity at Westmont College with a Doctorate in Church History from Fuller Theological Seminary, explains that Paul does this “[i]n a series of beatitudes in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, virginity is directly juxtaposed with a blessed life with God and is seen as a prerequisite for the future glory of resurrection and the reward of heavenly bliss: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God; blessed are the continent for God shall speak with them…Blessed are the bodies of the virgins, for they shall be well please to God and shall not lose the reward of chastity. For the word of the Father shall become to them a work of salvation in the day of the Son, and they shall have rest for ever and ever” (Rhee, 2005, p. 125). Though some of above “beatitudes” differ from those in the translation I am using for this analysis, those highlighted above differ in wording but not in intention or sentiment. Paul is exalting virginity to this status because he believes, very strongly, that Jesus Christ will usher in the Kingdom of God in his lifetime. Thus, his teachings of chastity do not seem steeped in any kind of chauvinism, as many other rules and teachings of the church and the bible seem to be, but are a logical and reasonable deduction given the belief of the eminent end of the world.
It is in Chapter 2 that Thecla hears “Paul’s sermons concerning God, concerning chastity, concerning faith in Christ, and concerning prayer sitting “(2:1) at a certain window in her house”, as described above (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). Interestingly, the author reveals that Thecla does not want to meet or see Paul until “(2:4)…she saw many women and virgins going in to Paul, she earnestly desired that she might be thought worthy to appear in his presence, and hear the word of Christ; for she had not yet seen Paul’s person, but only heard sermons, and that alone” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). Two things are noteworthy in this passage. First, the author distinguishes between women and virgins and does this simply by specifying both implying that they are different in some way. By now, it is clear how they are different. Those referred to as women in the generic sense are probably those women who have had sexual relations with a man in their lifetimes, whereas the virgins (also being of the female gender) have not. The second is what was alluded to before, that Thecla appears only to be interested in being in Paul’s presence after seeing other women flocking to him. The implication, intentional or not, is that being a woman (especially one not formally a follower of Christ) makes her inherently weak mentally and incapable of making decisions herself and may be prone to petty emotions, such as jealousy. Although the author does his best to soften the blow of this implication, it is nonetheless there and not difficult to extract from the context. The story continues with Thecla’s mother lamenting to Thecla’s betrothed husband Thamyris, that she is able to move from the window “(2:6) or the space of three days, [she] will not move from the window not so much as to eat or drink” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995) (pronoun added for readability). This is when Paul begins to be vilified for his presence; for in the same verse Thecla’s mother, Theoclia, continues saying Thecla “(2:6)…is so intent on hearing the artful and delusive discourse of a certain foreigner…will suffer herself to so prevailed upon” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). After Theoclia’s and Thamyris’ several failed attempts to draw her away from the window listening to Paul preach, the author tells us “(2:11) [t]hey wept exceedingly: Thamyris, that he had lost his spouse; Theoclia that she had lost her daughter…and there was an universal mourning in the family” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). It is strange that they are weeping that they had “lost” her, but metaphorically, they indeed had “lost” her to the preaching and the teachings of Paul. This of course spells trouble for Paul as Thecla is betrothed to Thamyris.
In Chapter 3, Thamyris, feeling quite angry gathers other people of the town that have been similarly affected and marches to Onesiphorus’ house saying “(3:8) Thou hast perverted the city of Iconium, and among the rest, Thecla, who is betrothed to me, so that now she will not marry me. Thou shalt therefore go with us to the governor Castillius. (3:9) And all the multitude cried out, Away with this imposter (magician), for he has perverted the minds of our wives, and all the people hearken to him.” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995) Thus, it appears that Paul, not Thecla, is being punished for not only “poisoning” the people of Iconium, but also for ruining the arranged marriage between her and Thamyris, as was, it seems, Thamyris’ intention.
This inexorably leads to Paul’s trial and Thecla’s act of deference to Paul in Chapters 4 and 5. Paul is brought before Thamyris and the governor and after Thamyris makes his case, the governor, in a small show of temperance, asks Paul to defend himself. However, in the classic Pauline way, only says, “As I am now called to give an account, O governor, of my doctrines, I desire your audience. (4:6) That God, who is a God of vengeance, and who stands in need of nothing but the salvation of his creatures, has sent me to reclaim them from their wickedness and corruptions, from all (sinful) pleasures, and from death; and to persuade them to sin no more. (4:7) On this account, God sent his Son Jesus Christ, whom I preach, and in whom I instruct men to place their hopes as that person who only had such compassion on the deluded world, that it might not, O governor, be condemned, but have faith, the fear of God, the knowledge of religion, and the love of truth. (4:8) So that if I only teach those things which I have received by revelation from God, where is my crime?” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). After hearing this, the governor of Iconium apparently becomes angry and has Paul arrested and thrown in prison. Thecla then, determined to be in Paul’s presence, bribes her way into the prison and to the cell where Paul is being held, bounded by chains. When Thecla finds him “(4:12)… she perceived Paul not to be afraid of suffering, but that by divine assistance he behaved himself with courage, her faith so far increased that she kissed his chains” and thus signifying to the reader that Thecla has now completely given over to the teachings of Paul and stays in the prison at his cell to listen to him preach. (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995) After Thamyris and a mob searched for her, a porter tells them that she is in Paul’s company at the prison. When this is verified, the mob lead by Thamyris goes to the governor who summons, first Paul then Thecla to be judged. The governor then questions Thecla, having already questioned Paul, who does not answer but keeps her gaze on Paul. Her mother, in a fury of rage then yells out to the governor that Thecla should be burned as an example to other women not to follow her lead. The governor abides and orders Paul be thrown out of the city. Looking at the mob, Thecla has a vision of Jesus, who is in Paul’s form, who ascends to heaven before her eyes. Interestingly, the sight of the naked Thecla “(5:13)…extorted tears from the governor, with surprise beholding the greatness of her beauty” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). It seems that the author is attempting to make the governor seem somewhat remorseful for his decision or is just making the governor seem worse in Christian eyes for only appreciating what Christians, especially Paul, call “pleasures of the flesh”. However the governor might feel now “(5:14)…the people commanded her to go upon it; which she did, first making the sign of the cross. (5:15) Then the people set fire to the pile; though the flame was exceeding large, it did not touch her, for God took compassion on her, and caused a great eruption from the earth beneath, and a cloud from above to pour down great quantities of rain and hail; (5:16) Insomuch that by the rupture of the earth, very many were in great danger, and some were killed, the fire was extinguished, and Thecla was preserved” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). The above describes the first miracle in Thecla’s favor. This shows God’s favor with Thecla and the faith she gained from Paul. Not only does this event serve to make Thecla a great figure in faith communities, but it also reinforces Paul’s stature as a great preacher and carrier of the message that Christians, even at the time this was written and widely read, recognize and exalt.
Chapters 6-10:13 are the meat of this story. This is where we see the most action and the most material for analysis from a feminist perspective. Moreover, as we will see, Thecla is portrayed in a quite flattering and empowering light.
Chapter 6 describes the happenings shortly after her escape from the pyre at Iconium. She finds Paul “(6:1)…in a certain cave, which was in the road from Iconium to Daphne”, with Onesiphorus and his family. (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995) While one of the boys is obtaining bread, as per his instruction, he find Thecla, looking for Paul of course, and is directed to him. When she arrives Paul is praying that she not be harmed, an emotional celebration takes place with many praises to Jesus and God. Then, Thecla says, what may be the most important phrase in the story thus far, “ (6:12)…[i]f you be pleased with it, I will follow you withersoever you go”. (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995) If, at first glance, this passage does not seem to be of any importance, it is an understandable position to take. However, if this is not said, and more importantly not done, then the story does not allow the rest to take place in a way that will legitimize her, through Paul, which will be a topic for further analysis in the next section, as a saint or martyr figure that we know her as today.
Chapter 7 sees Thecla becoming the center of another controversy, similar to the one experienced in Iconium, in Antioch. While traveling with Paul, a rich and powerful man of Antioch, a Syrian named Alexander lays eyes on Thecla and immediately falls in love. Alexander, thinking that Thecla was the property of Paul in some way, “(7:2)… endeavoured by many rich presents to engage Paul in his interest”. (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995) Paul then gives a most interesting response, saying “(7:3) I know not the woman of whom you speak, nor does she belong to me” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995) Unfortunately for Thecla, this does not detour his lustful quest. He finds her and forces a kiss upon her and she, understandably becomes enraged. She tears his clothing, knocks the crown off his head making him look generally ridiculous in front of the large crowd that was present. (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995) Alexander reacts in a similar way to Thamyris and escorts her to the governor for, it seems, not letting him take advantage of her against her will. This theme will also be explored in the follow section. When the governor is presented with the story of what had recently transpired, which Thecla confesses to, “(7:6)…he condemned her to be thrown among the beasts”. (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995)
Chapter 8 is not much for story substance, but it is necessary to quickly point out some important events from it. A wealthy widow by the name of Trifina, among a crowd of the people (probably women given future context) that is unhappy with the judgment of the governor, hears the governor ask “(8:2)…[w]ho would entertain her” and immediately volunteers. A day later Thecla is brought to amphitheater to see the beasts to which she has been condemned. The “she-lion”, upon seeing Thecla, lays down and licks her feet (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). Trifina then takes Thecla home where Trifina has a vision of her dead daughter, imploring her to make Thecla her daughter and to have Thecla pray for her that she may go to heaven. The next day, Alexander comes to the house and requests that the criminal, Thecla, be brought to the amphitheatre. In a fit of rage, Trifina scares off Alexander and the governor is forced to send one of his own officers to bring her, and the officer does. (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995) When Thecla is in the amphitheatre something strange happens regarding the people of the city, starting with the women. “(8:13) But the women cried out, and said: Let the whole city suffer for such crimes; and order all of us, O governor, to the same punishment. O unjust judgment! O cruel sight! (8:14) Others said, Let the whole city be destroyed for this vile action. Kill us all, O governor. O cruel sight! O unrighteous judgment” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). We are not provided any information as to the governor’s thoughts on this occurrence, but it is reasonable to assume that he must have been either enraged or perplexed. However, these passages are here to show Thecla’s far-reaching, short term, and powerful influence on the people of the city by her faith alone. This is yet another attempt to legitimize Thecla as a great transmitter of the Christian faith, possibly equal to Paul.
Chapter 9, the most important chapter of this section, begins, quite vividly, with Thecla being forcibly taken from Trifina, stripped naked and thrown in the fighting area of the amphitheatre. Then, “(9:2)… a she-lion, which was of all the most fierce, ran to Thecla, and fell down at her feet. Upon which the multitude of women shouted aloud. (9:3) Then, a she-bear ran fiercely towards her; but the she-lion met the bear, and tore it to pieces. (9:4) Again, a he-lion, who had been wont to devour men, and which belonged to Alexander, ran towards her; but the she-lion encountered the he-lion, and they killed each other” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). This is the second major miracle, notwithstanding the she-lion earlier licking Thecla’s feet, and is the most well-known. After seeing this, the women were, understandably, concerned because the protective she-lion was dead. Now, Theca “ (9:6)… saw a pit of water, and said, Now it is a proper time for me to be baptized”. (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995) This passage damned the author of the book in the eyes of Tertullian. However, it may be the most powerful and feminist actions taken by Thecla in the story; the ramifications of which will be discussed in the next section. Thecla then goes about baptizing herself by jumping into the water and saying the verbal enchantment of the ritual. Watching the this, the governor expects the sea-calves and fish in the water to kill and devour her. However, Thecla is again spared; “(9:9) But the fish (sea-calves,) when they saw the lightning and fire, were killed, and swam dead upon the surface of the water, and a cloud of fire surrounded Thecla, so that as the beasts could not come near her, so the people could not see her nakedness” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). This is the third major miracle on her behalf, and may be the most dramatic. If ever there was a miracle to discourage further attempts on her life by the governor of Antioch, this certainly was it. Nevertheless, being stubborn, they turned more beasts on her, who fell asleep at once. Alexander then suggests they tie her to fierce bulls, which he keeps in order to finish the job, to which the governor complies. However, Thecla, still aflame, burns through the ropes and stands unharmed. Upon seeing this Trifina collapses and dies. Finally, after seeing all this Alexander pleaded with the governor to let Thecla go. The governor complies but first summons her from the floor of the amphitheatre saying “(9:17)…Who art thou? and what are thy circumstances, that not one of the beasts will touch thee?”, to which Thecla replies “(9:18)… I am a servant of the living God; and as to my state, I am a believer of Jesus Christ his Son, in whom God is well pleased; and for that reason none of the beasts could touch me. (9:19) He alone is the way to eternal salvation, and the foundation of eternal life. He is a refuge to those who are in distress; a support to the afflicted, hope and defense to those who are hopeless; and, in a word, all those who do not believe in him, shall not live, but suffer eternal death”. After listening to this, the governor orders clothing to be brought to her. After seeing this and hearing Thecla speak “(9:22)…the women cried out together with a loud voice, and with one accord gave praise unto God, and said: There is but one God, who is the God of Thecla; the one God who hath delivered Thecla. (9:23) So loud were their voices that the whole city seemed to be shaken; and Trifina herself heard the glad tidings, and arose again, and ran with the multitude to meet Thecla; and embracing her, said: Now I believe there shall be a resurrection of the dead; now I am persuaded that my daughter is alive. Come therefore home with me, my daughter Thecla, and I will make over all that I have to you” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). Here is yet another instance of Thecla’s conversion power via miracle and “God’s grace” on her behalf. In addition, it should be noted here, that the author makes note that all the women of the city are on her side, so much so that their collective uproar in favor of Thecla supposedly raises Trifina from the dead. However, given the context, it is more likely that she was overcome with emotion and fainted severely. Nonetheless, Chapter 9 serves to solidify Thecla’s power and prove her to be in “God’s graces”.
Chapter 10:1-13 relates Thecla’s return to Iconium. Only two noteworthy events appear in this section of the Chapter. First, “(10:6)…she came to the house of Onesiphorus, she fell down upon the floor where Paul had sat and preached, and mixing her tears with her prayers, she praised and glorified God…” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). This is important because this shows her and the author’s reverence for Paul. Showing that no matter how woman friendly this book has been thus far, it still is about the man, Paul and his glory. Second, Thecla goes to find her mother. When she arrives at her house, she says, “(10:8)… Theoclia, my mother, is it possible for you to be brought to a belief, that there is but one Lord God, who dwells in the heavens? If you desire great riches, God will give them to you by me; if you want your daughter again, here I am. (10:9) These and many other things she represented to her mother, [endeavouring] to persuade her [to her opinion]. But her mother Theoclia gave no credit to the things which were said by the martyr Thecla. (10:10) So that Thecla perceiving she discoursed to no purpose, signing her whole body with the sign [of the cross], left the house and went to Daphine; and when she came there, she went to the cave, where she had found Paul with Onesiphorus, and fell down on the ground; and wept before God” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). This passage is important due to fact that Thecla is there to both forgive her mother and to try to mend their relationship. Unfortunately for Thecla, her actions may have dishonored her mother Theoclia so much by disobeying her, the law of Iconium and becoming a Christian that her mother disowns her. She then leaves Iconium, never to return. She then heads to a city/state known as Seleucia to preach and spread the word of Christ as Paul had taught and instructed her to. (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995)
Chapter 10:13-Chapter 11 is a section that seems to be an afterthought or late addition, but that is speculation given the break in the story that seems to occur. She begins to engage in “non-Theclan” behavior. For instance, “(10:13) And after she had arrived at Seleucia she went to a place out of the city, about the distance of a furlong, being afraid of the inhabitants, because they were worshippers of idols. (10:14) And she was led [by the cloud] into a mountain called Calamon, or Rodeon. There she abode many years, and underwent a great many grievous temptations of the devil, which she bore in a becoming manner, by the assistance which she had from Christ” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). I call this behavior “non-Theclan”, due to the lack trouble she seems to stir up in the city and her reclusiveness given how outspoken and lively she had been in previous cities. Chapter 10 then concludes with Thecla performing miracles and curing the sick from Seleucia and the surrounding counties. She is joined with other virgin women who lead a celibate, monastic life with her in the cave. However, although I call this behavior “non-Theclan”, these acts still cause her trouble as seen in the last verse of the chapter: “(10:18) Insomuch that the physicians of Seleucia were now of no more account, and lost all the profit of their trade, because no one regarded them; upon which they were filled with envy, and began to contrive what methods to take with this servant of Christ” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). This is an attempt to emphasize her effectiveness as a healer and worker of miracles that also continues the theme of Thecla having no peace wherever she may go to preach, no matter how unassuming, quiet, and noble her approach (at least in this particular instance) may be.
Chapter 11, the final chapter of the book, holds in store the last of Thecla’s miracles that proves she is an equal of Paul, in terms of preaching the word of Christ. The physicians of Seleucia plot to do harm to her so to take the power of her virginity away from her in an attempt to diminish her status. When they made their way to the cave where she had been residing, the conversation is had: “(11:6)… Is there any one within, whose name is Thecla? She answered, What would you have with her? They said, We have a mind to lie with her. (11:7) The blessed Thecla answered: Though I am a mean old woman, I am the servant of my Lord Jesus Christ; and though you have a vile design against me, ye shall not be able to accomplish it. They replied: It is impossible but we must be able to do with you what we have a mind” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). Here we see that her virginity is indentified as her source of power by the perpetrators who seek to destroy it. So they grabbed a hold of her and held her down. Afraid, Thecla begins to pray to God for her deliverance from the men who are attempting to do her harm. God responds and gives her instructions, saying “(11:11) Look and see the place which is opened for thee: there thy eternal abode shall be; there thou shalt receive the beatific vision” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). Thecla sees a rock open up and enters the rock which thusly closes. The men are unable to do her harm and are astonished at the sight of this miracle, the final Theclan miracle. The book ends with a strange and specific verse, one directly from the author to the readers (believers), saying, “(11:17) The day which is kept sacred to her memory, is the twenty-fourth of September…” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). This verse is strange as it gives a specific day to honor Thecla with no accompanying reason, prior to or following the verse. It also implies that the book was written after the Julian calendar was in widespread use to the point that the author could specify a date and all would understand.
Thus concludes the summary of the Acts of Paul and Thecla. It now suffices to say that Thecla may well be one of the most colorful figures in Christian lore. Now, the following section will be dedicated to analyzing key points of the book that can only be well understood with a proper summary of the entire book.
A Deeper Understanding
“We have to be careful in this era of radical feminism, not to emphasize an equality of the sexes that leads women to imitate men to prove their equality. To be equal does not mean you have to be the same.”- Eva Burrows
As has been the pattern of this work, it would be proper to begin this analysis in the same manner as we began the latter section. This will be accomplished by analyzing the issues in the order in which they appear; in order of chapter and verse. In this way, confusion will be avoided, as some issues and themes in this story repeat themselves and may have slightly differing meanings because of the given context.
First, let us examine Paul’s beatitudes, enumerated in Chapter 1. The central purpose of the beatitudes seems to be glorification of virginity and chastity. In Paul’s theology, Jesus Christ is coming back within the lifetime of the believers to whom he preaches. As a result of this premise, Paul preaches that “a requirement for future resurrection, celibacy, which is regarded as a commendable and exceptional option by the Apologists, here becomes a demand incumbent upon all Christians who believe and hope in the true God” (Rhee, 2005, p. 126). The inclusion of these beatitudes seems to foreshadow that “Thecla will ultimately overcome all the dangers and forces that threaten virginity and will also experience God’s empowerment and blessings along the way” (Rhee, 2005, p. 126). Chastity and virginity are then cast as sources of feminine power. In the case of Thecla, the power she gains from chastity appears to masculinize her by making her more authoritative and autonomous (Rhee, 2005, p. 140). The theme of virginity being powerful is ubiquitous throughout the Acts of Paul and Thecla.
The next issue is a combination of two; Thecla’s conversion to Christianity because of Paul and her rejection of the arranged marriage between her and Thamyris. Thecla comes to Christianity by Paul’s visit to Iconium. Thecla, then betrothed to Thamyris, may have ulterior motives for converting, given her behavior. She may have believed in Paul’s message, not because it was terribly inspiring (we are not told what Paul talks about specifically, we are only availed generalizations), but because she may not have wanted to marry Thamyris at all. Thus, the teachings of celibacy and redemption through a savior figure offered Thecla an escape from this unwanted marriage. From which she also accepts the divinity and power of Jesus Christ. However, another effect of her conversion is that it “transforms her relationship with in, in which she resists male dominance and increasingly gains and exerts considerable independent” (Rhee, 2005, p. 140). Another element present is her seemingly undying affection for Paul which may have led her to obtain the courage to go through with the rejection of the marriage. From Thecla’s perspective, Paul and his teachings of Jesus have saved her from a quite undesirable situation and because of this; she dedicates herself to Paul and Jesus. The rejection of this marriage has several implications. The first, and most obvious, is the social trouble in which she becomes entwined. Her actions are treated as a serious crime punishable by death. Given the culture, it appears that this treatment of the situation would only happen to a woman. A man, on the other hand, could, presumably, refuse the hand of a woman he had been betrothed to. According to Rhee, her conversion and its consequence, “masculinize” her and that this is “the most outstanding example of the ‘the liberated female ascetics’” (Rhee, 2005, p. 140). I tend to agree with Rhee on this point. However, it will not be clear until more examples are discussed.
Thecla is to be put to death for her disobedience of civil law for refusing to marry Thamyris. It is odd that, even though the society at large pays lip-service to her decision, they abide by her wish insofar as they do not force her to get married. The alternative is not better however, for she is sentenced to death (recall her own mother suggests this punishment) as to be an example to other woman not to disobey the law. However, in this instance, because Thecla has listened to Paul and heard the word of Christ and has converted, God shows mercy on Thecla and prevents the flames from touching her; the first miracle on her behalf. God must intervene on her behalf because Paul does not do anything to defend her. One may say that this is because he is thrown out of the city and is not in a position to do so. However, one must remember that Paul is present at Thecla’s sentencing and could have made some verbal defense of her at that moment. This absence and his absence when she is condemned in Antioch “shows his ‘feminine’ features by his ‘cowardly’ retreat and failure to defend Thecla” (Rhee, 2005, p. 140). Though Rhee seems to be using sexist language in casting Paul’s cowardness as being an inherently feminine trait, the reader should use caution in making this assessment. Rhee puts the respective words in quotations indicating she is speaking from a historical context in which the two traits, femininity and cowardness, encompass one another. From this point of view, Rhee is correct.
Legitimacy is the next issue that will be discussed and can be found mainly in chapters six and eight, and thus this topic must take the chapter sequence out of order to properly address it. It is an unfortunate truth, given the social contexts of the book, that Thecla can only be legitimized as a “true” martyr and promoter of the faith through a man, specifically Paul. Though Paul is the best man through which to be legitimized by, it nonetheless makes Thecla dependent on Paul, regardless of how much she should be able to stand alone on the works and wonders conveyed in the book. There exists two examples of this. The first is in chapter six. Verses 6:8-12, described on page 9, reveal a subtle intention of the author. When Thecla finds Paul praying on her behalf, attempting to show Paul was trying to help her when he really had done nothing, Thecla is overcome with joy. Immediately afterwards, she asked permission to follow Paul in his teaching travels. This request comes with a subtle metaphorical meaning, namely that Thecla must ask permission to preach and that permission is supposed to give her legitimacy. It appears that without this granted permission to follow him, Thecla’s works would not, in fact, could not be considered as anything but blasphemy as she would have been acting and pursuing male endeavors.
The next example of Thecla being legitimized, or in this case compared to Paul, appears in 8:13, wherein it says that the women of the town objected with one voice to Thecla’s treatment and sentence. What is more, they later come to convert to Christianity because of her and the miracles they witness on her behalf (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). The undertones of this account attempt to show Thecla as not only having favor with God, this point has been made transparently obvious in the previous chapters of the book, but to also show that Thecla is as great of a conversion artist and true preacher of the Word as Paul. Though there exists no direct comparison, there is no other reason to include this story of a conversion of a mass number of people, specifically women, if the author did not intend for her feats to be compared to those of Paul. It also is made clear that the author wants to draw a distinction between who each person is able or successful at converting. Paul seems able to only be effective with the men while Thecla is effective with women. This gender casting is harmful to the persona, legacy and theological significance of both figures, but since the damage is equal, this point can remain without further examination. One must conclude then, that regardless of what Thecla does and how much of an independent figure she is and what great works she does, it is still a victory for Paul. Paul is given credit for her works and deeds and is the measuring stick to which Thecla must live up to in order to be a legitimate figure in Christian theology.
In Chapter 7, there is a series of statements made by Paul and actions carried out by Thecla that require attention. After their arrival in Antioch a man named Alexander is intent on having Thecla for his wife. Thinking that she belonged to Paul, which would have been a reasonable position to take given the cultural context, Alexander goes to Paul and attempts to pay him for Thecla. Then, in 7:3, Paul denies knowing her and denies she is his property (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). This denial seems to be Paul’s poor attempt to protect Thecla, which does not at all work. Not deterred, Alexander attempts to kiss her. Not only does she refuse but makes Alexander look like a fool in front of the people of Antioch. By doing this, “Thecla not only rejects male ownership of her body but also inflicts shame on men by her rejection (whether he is her fiancé or an illegitimate suitor)” and from here on, marks herself as an independent women, to the extent she can (given the above analysis) (Rhee, 2005, p. 140). This makes Thecla a criminal, it seems, for refusing a man’s advances. This is a awfully strange concept for us living in the 21st century to truly understand due to the desperately needed progress made and seen in the feminist movement the past 100 years. However, in that society, women were thought of, not as people, but as property, something to be acquired, and had few, if any, rights. This passage serves to further masculinize Thecla by showing her independence, a supposedly masculine trait.
After this rejection of Alexander, like in Iconium, Thecla is sentenced to die. Here it will be necessary to combine the next three important events as they have similarities in terms of theme. From 8:2, we are told that she is brought to see the animals that are supposed to be her executioners. While there, a female lion licks Thecla’s feet upon seeing her (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). There is significant gender imagery here. It is not a male lion that recognizes Thecla, but a female lion. This indicates that females of all species, but more meaningful, all classes, appreciate or will appreciate Thecla’s actions and follow her. There is also the implication that even the animals know she is in God’s grace and show her proper respect by licking her feet.
This continues into Chapter 9 when she is in the amphitheater. In this account, a female lion, possibly the same indicated in Chapter 8, ran to Thecla and laid down at her feet. When a female bear attempts to kill Thecla, the female lion kills the bear, thus protecting Thecla. Then, a male lion attacks and the female lion protects Thecla again but dies doing so (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). Though the same gender imagery as that found in Chapter 8 is present in this story, there exists two more important ideas being expressed. First, the female and male lions kill each other, subtlety indicating some kind of gender equality. However, because the female lion also defeated a bear, it shows that the female is stronger than the male lion. This element serves to caste women in a light that indicates their strength as greater than or equal that of men.
From here, the story “shifts from her relationship to Paul to her independence from Paul. As [she] faces her second martyrdom, she does not turn to Paul but to God and baptizes herself in the arena (Rhee, 2005, p. 140). Theologically speaking this is the most blasphemous, feminist, “masculinizing” action Thecla takes. This is the action so vilified by Tertullian, and completes her independence from Paul, at least in the story. The author furthers this apparent blasphemy but showing God’s approval and consecration of the act thus sanctifying it, at least in the eyes of God and believers, by sending lightning and fire to kill the sea creatures in the water, all of which are there to kill her. After this final miracle, she “gains a reputation as a teacher who ‘enlightened many by the word God’ and is confirmed by Paul at the end” (Rhee, 2005, p. 140). As previously stated, all of Thecla’s accomplishments, I argue, only have legitimacy in Christian theology if they are in some way attributed to Paul. Above, as Rhee said, Paul confirms Thecla, again showing that she is nothing but another “good Christian” woman, even given all that she has supposedly gone through, until it is approved of or confirmed by a man. However, the author’s intention was to do just this. Use the popularity and influence of Paul to legitimize a powerful and influential female figure, possibly in an attempt to win more converts from the surrounding pagan religions; this is speculation only, however. Though this book is incredibly more women friendly than nearly all books of the bible and most of the rest of the Apocrypha, it still is all about men, as shown above.
The overriding theme that seems to move through each chapter and growing throughout the book is Thecla’s increased masculinity. Though it has been touched upon lightly above, it deserves more than just paid lip service. Throughout the book “Thecla moves from the conventional female space of household into the public (male) space, where she challenges man’s honor and engages in male activities, including the gladiatorial games” (Rhee, 2005, p. 140). The above provides the necessary examples of this and have been examined thoroughly. However, her masculinization does not at all stop here. She goes into partial-solitude to preach the Word of Jesus Christ as Paul had taught her. Rhee points out that “her masculinization reaches a climax in her gestures of ‘shedding her femininity’: cutting off her hair, and donning man’s cloak” and it is “[w]ith these physical gestures [that she] incorporates the bodily dimension of maleness as well as the social and spatial spheres of maleness” prior to this partial-solitude (Rhee, 2005, p. 140). Rhee is using sources unavailable to me to assert that she cuts off her hair and begins wearing male clothing. However, if we may trust her, and I am inclined to, then Thecla’s asceticism takes on an entirely new dimension and has some implications that are not necessarily feminist friendly. This implies that women should aspire to be like men, as much as is possible. Thecla goes the furthest with this and shows women that to become male is, at least partially, to become righteous and holy. In some parts of the world, Thecla is regarded as a saint, furthering the importance of a woman’s religious duty to increase her maleness. However, there is a silver lining in all this misogyny. Thecla, by her actions, is an example for women insofar as her ability to break through gender barriers in the social spheres. She also is an example to women who want to become church leaders because of her prolific and successful preaching. From a theological perspective, she is a source of hope and wonder to Christian women who find Mary unappealing due to her pacifism and “vessel” role. Thecla, in contrast is a firecracker of a woman, ready to stand up not only for herself, but also for women in general.
To conclude this section, let us reflect on what has been explored. On the one hand, Thecla is a mostly forgotten figure, lost to the sands of time to all but a few believers and biblical scholars. She is a daring and colorful figure, bent on preaching the Word of Jesus Christ. The positive consequences cannot not measured but can be enumerated. She became a pioneer for feminism, taking no deeming or gender-biased law seriously and challenging concepts of gender roles and spheres. It is a shame that the early church fathers did not consult any “church mothers” in deciding the canon. For I think that if they had, this book, and those similar to it, would have been included. Their inclusion in the canon may have resulted in a very different, more egalitarian, less oppressive, less violent Christianity. This book in particular would have had a profound impact on the theology. Imagine, no childish bickering about who can and cannot be a priest/deacon/cardinal/pope/etc.., based solely on gender. It may have had the effect of allowing for the aforementioned leadership roles to being occupied by gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, queer, or handicapped individuals. With more pronounced feminine influence at work in Christian theology, it is possible that the Witch Trials, both in Europe and the USA, could have been avoided altogether. This is all extremely optimistic speculation, but it is a quaint thought. Whenever one gets a chance to read a book such as the Acts of Paul and Thecla, they should stop and ask themselves, ‘What if…?’ Doing so with an open mind, unfettered and undisturbed by bias or dogma, will allow the reader to explore deeper meaning in the text as well as the canon that they accept.
Thecla: The Christian Oracle at Calamon (Rodeon)
“The more things are forbidden, the more popular they become”-Mark Twain
This final section of analysis will examine the similarities between Thecla and Pythia (commonly known as The Oracle at Delphi). In order to investigate this similarity suitably, it is necessary to summarize the Delphic Oracle myth. Interestingly, this requires us to start with Apollo, the Greek god of Prophecy. I will assume that the reader can draw upon common knowledge of Greek mythology as it relates to Zeus and the other gods to make Apollo the starting point for this summary.
Leto, Apollo’s mother, was attempting to find a suitable place to give birth to her son. She was doing this because she feared Hera’s wrath, as did the people and thus would not allow Leto to abode there. This is until she reaches the island of Delos. After being guaranteed safety there and swearing to Styx that “Apollo will honor her and despise her because of her rocky soil, and he will build a great temple there”, does the island of Delos allow Leto to give birth there. Leto does so after enduring nine days of labor pains (Lefkowitz, 2003, p. 46). According to the myth, Zeus favors certain days, namely: the first, fourth, seventh, eighth, and ninth days. These days are what one could call holy days. Notice the two days that Zeus favors, the seventh and ninth. It is on the seventh day that the Apollo is born, after nine days of labor pains from Leto. This not only implies that Apollo’s birth should be celebrated because of his divine origins (parents, day of birth), but also implies that Leto, and the birthing that she endured, is holy and should also be celebrated. Apollo then, has some parallels to Jesus insofar as their birth origins are concerned. Knowing this and the other holy days was important to avoid “wronging the gods, judging birds of omen, and [avoiding] transgression” (Lefkowitz, 2003, p. 28). This is of course similar to what we see today in modern Christianity with the holy day of worship being the seventh day, Sunday, to praise and worship Jesus the Son of God. Extrapolating the Greek myth we have the seventh day being a holy day to, possibly, worship Apollo the Son of Zeus.
After Apollo reaches adulthood, he must seek a place to create a temple. However, in the place that he wishes to create this temple, there exists a great female snake that is guarding Typhon. Apollo defeats Typhon and “has made his shrine safe for all the visitors who will come with their sacrificial offerings” (Lefkowitz, 2003, p. 48). The place that Apollo chooses is what we now call Delphi, which has been described as a cave, upon a mountain (Lefkowitz, 2003, p. 49). From this place, Apollo is able to interact and express his will through the priests and later the oracles that occupy the temple.
The oracle in question for this is Apollo’s priestess known as the Pythia. At Delphi, she serves and coveys the will of Apollo (Lefkowitz, 2003, p. 125). However, the Pythia serves other gods at this shrine, the most notable of which is Dionysus. That Dionysus is one of the gods that the Pythia serves is important because of the myth surrounding Dionysus and the many similarities between his story and that of Jesus Christ. According to legend, Dionysus was born of a virgin, had disciples, performed miracles, was called The Way, The Truth and The Light and was crucified, was dead for 3 days and was resurrected. The similarities to the story of Jesus Christ are obvious. That the Pythia serves Apollo and Dionysus at the same time is incredibly significant. Next, I will briefly explain what similarities exist between the Pythia and Thecla stories and offer commentary on those similarities.
From 10:13-Chapter 11 of the Acts of Paul and Thecla, the setting is a cave on a mountain called Calamon (or Rodeon). While there, she is tempted by the devil, overcomes them and then begins to preach the Word, as taught to her by Paul, thus becoming a priestess (although, admittedly, this term is being applied after the fact as there was little structure in early Christianity). Virgins from the city in the shadow of the mountain flock to hear her teachings and to live with her at the cave. She is reputed to perform miracles, dispense wisdom and allow Jesus to speak through her. Possibly because of the number of women going to her and adopting her teachings of celibacy, a group of physicians (who were all men of course) plan and attempt to rape Thecla so that her power of virginity is squashed. However, God intervenes on her behalf yet again after hearing her prayers to deliver her from the men. God does this by opening a rock for Thecla to enter. After she does the rock closes and this miracle concludes the story, implying Thecla was divinely buried there (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995).
The purpose of the following is not to imply at all that the author of the Acts of Paul and Thecla, forged or was in anyway copying from the Greek myth. On the other hand, it is conceivable that the author could have been influenced by similar stories told by the Romans since they came just short of completely adopting Greek religion and mythology. When one looks at the Roman pagan religion is it nearly identical to that of the Greeks, only difference being the names of the gods and places of events. The similarities between the story of the Pythia and Thecla are superficial given the attention to summarizing the respective stories and myths. Both the Pythia and Thecla live in a mountain cave from where they serve divine entities as priestesses. The divine entities which they serve have many commonalities, a topic that is now within the scope of this work. Both gain followings, nearly of a cult nature, for those seeking truth, wisdom and, in some cases, healing. What it most interesting about the parallels is that it may show that instead of the author being influenced by Roman culture and religion, as previously stated, but by a societal need to seek wisdom and guidance from a female perspective. Given the full breadth of knowledge of the more successful ancient cultures of the world, we can see this topic manifest itself in one way or another. Finally, it is interesting to examine how each story/myth was treated by the different cultures. For the Greeks, the Oracle at Delphi (the Pythia) was as important to their religion, myths and culture as was the other myths regarding the other gods. It does not seem that beyond the Olympian god hierarchy that there is much in the way of hierarchical order in the other myths in terms of gender. On the other hand, all but a select handful of Christians either completely reject Thecla and the Acts of Paul and Thecla as utter heresy, just as Tertullian did. There were, and possibly still are, those Christians who regard Thecla as a great saint, revere and pray to her. However, most mainline denominations of Christianity have rejected her and the idea that women had or should have any sort of religious power or positions of leadership. Obviously, the ancient Greeks and Christians occupy to opposite sides of a gender equality spectrum. However, it is fascinating to see the valiant attempts to egalitarianize Christianity in the early years of its creation and organization.
“My idea of feminism is self-determination, and it’s very open-ended: every woman has the right to become herself, and do whatever she needs to do.”-Ani Difranco
In summary, it should be now clear to the reader the level of “radical” feminism in the Acts of Paul and Thecla. Although Thecla is an example of women being empowered and taking their life into their own hands, which should be very much applauded, we cannot lose sight of the fact that all of her acts are only legitimate because they can be traced to a man, Paul. In addition, it is important to notice that the source of Thecla’s power is primarily her virginity, in a similar way to Mary, and her faith seems to be a distant second. The author does not disguise this in the least as he goes out of his way to make this point clear. Celibacy is used both as an instrument of social change and as part of theology wherein Jesus is supposed to come back in Thecla’s (and presumably Paul’s) lifetime. Important too were the ideas of purity and cleanliness that were and are of the greatest focus of the Torah. It is quite a shame that this book was not included in the final Christian canon, as said above. I think that this book would have had an extremely positive effect on Christianity, ranging from its social and theological treatment of women to how it interacts with the society in which the religion is practiced. I also think this book could have led to a better appreciation of women in general as the respectful and equal treatment of women is a transcendent value that need not be the intellectual or theological property of any one religion, culture or state. This is all speculation of course, but it should be noted that it really is not too late to include this and other Apocryphal books in the Christian cannon. After all, who decides what the canon is? People do. It is precisely because of this that there is no reason to think that, possibly somewhere in the future, this book will not be included either in part or in full in the Christian bible. For the sake of progress and human decency, I, for one, hope that it is.
Encyclopædia Britannica. (n.d.). When did Tertullian die? Retrieved 11 9, 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica: http://www.britannica.com/facts/3/6704/When-did-Tertullian-die
Acts of Paul and Thecla. (1995, September/October). (J. Jones, Trans.) Retrieved October 26, 2009, from Fordham.edu: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/thecla.html
Lefkowitz, M. (2003). Greek Gods, Human Lives. Willard, OH: R.R. Donnelley & Sons.
Metzger, B. M. (1972). Literary Forgeries and Canonical Pseudepigrapha. Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 91, No. 1 , 14.
Rhee, H. (2005). Early Christian Fiction : The Apologetics, Apocryphal Acts and Martyr Acts. New York, NY: London Taylor & Francis Routledge.
Metro State Atheists
University of Colorado Denver
I recently “deconverted” from Catholicism and Christianity. This past spring will be one year since I started living a more rational and religion-free life. During this last school year, I helped out the Metro State Atheists, which is the Auraria Campus atheists club in Denver, CO. The president of the group became my best friend, someone who has helped me through my struggles as an atheist.
Our club worked with the Center for Inquiry, which has also helped me through my transformation. When we heard about this year’s CFI Student Leadership Conference, we were all very excited and quickly submitted travel grant applications. The days leading up to the conference seemed to creep by more slowly as the conference approached. Upon arrival at the CFI Amherst building, I became anxious—I was eager to meet fellow freethinkers and secular students. At the same time, I was nervous. I felt like everyone else knew more than me, that everyone except me already had this “atheism” thing figured out. Growing up in a Catholic home and turning to Christianity as a teen, I wasn’t surrounded by people that would understand my shift to atheism. But as I started talking to the other students at the conference I realized I was meeting familiar strangers. Many of the students were struggling, or had struggled, with the same problems that I have. How do I tell my family? Will my family disown me if they find out? Will other people accept me? How do I find morals without religion? (I’m a “closet atheist” and terrified at the thought of coming out to my family.)
Students arriving early wait for the conference to begin / Matthew LaClair talks about education
The conference started in the late evening with Debbie Goddard welcoming everyone to CFI. Then, Matthew LaClair, the volunteer student president of CFI’s campus outreach initiative, spoke about his experience with his high school and other issues regarding education that he was facing. Matthew shared some words of wisdom: “You cannot depend on other people to do things for you.” I interpreted that as this: “No one else can tell your family but you, because no one else understands your family like you do.” The students, staff, and speakers made everyone feel welcome. I was in a safe place. I could be me, not just the pretend me I am around family—the pretend me I am at the church where I work on Sunday mornings.
During the next few days we heard from Eddie Tabash about debating and watched Ron Lindsay and Eddie Tabash have a mock debate (which was good entertainment!). Debbie Goddard and D.J. Grothe spoke about CFI and its affiliated organizations, Roy Natian gave groups helpful tips for online outreach, and Justin Trottier showed everyone how to manage media relations. We also heard from John Shook and Massimo Pigliucci. Joe Nickell gave everyone insight about investigating the paranormal and how sometimes being just a skeptic doesn’t help.
Massimo Pigliucci talks about reason / Ronald A. Lindsay (as Ron N. Atas) debates Eddie Tabash
Some of my favorite parts of the conference were the workshops with Dan Riley. Dan posed questions to the students, then in small groups we discussed topics such as voting for an atheist, France’s wanting to make burkas illegal, and what we, the students, see as the future of CFI and the secular movement. Many students compared the secular movement to the gay rights movement. I have many friends who are gay, lesbian, and transgender, and although I do not completely understand all the struggles they go through, I do understand what it’s like to be “in the closet” about who you really are.
Workshop session outside / Dan Riley leads a discussion on secularism
As the conference came to an end I had more confidence in myself as an atheist. I left knowing that I always have a community of people that will help me through my struggles and that the fear I had was a fear that many individuals at some time have faced.
Sara Diaz is an undergraduate at the University of Colorado Denver majoring in secondary education-English and minoring in philosophy. She served as the secretary for Metro State Atheists and is starting an atheist group at UC Denver, for which she will serve as the president.
It’s that time of year again, gearing up for the semester. However, before we can talk about all our exciting plans and happenings over the summer we need to take care of some important business and inform you of some of the recent events, both past and upcoming, for Metro State Atheists.
IF ANYONE, AT ALL, HAS ANY OF THE BOOKS ON THIS THIS LIST (http://banned-books.com/bblist.html) AND WOULD LIKE TO SEE THEM GO TO A WORTHY CAUSE PLEASE EMAIL ME AT METROATHEISTS@HOTMAIL.COM. WE WILL BE GIVING AWAY BOOKS FOUND ON THE BANNED BOOKS LIST IN EXCHANGE FOR FOOD DONATIONS. PLEASE HELP!
Joel Guttormson, President of Metro State Atheists, and Sara Diaz, future President of the new club UCD Atheists and Director of Media Relations for College Atheists of Colorado attended the 2009 CFI Student Leadership Conference at CFI Transnational headquarters in Amherst, NY June 26-28. Besides the conference being an inspiring and educational experience for us, Metro State Atheists won the 2009 Student Leadership Award for Community Impact!
Positions are open, Treasurer, Secretary and Representative. You can go to our blog for more info or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested. (You must be a Metro State student at least in your second semester and carry a 2.0 GPA)
Sara Diaz is starting UCD Atheists to represent the many UCD students we, Metro State Atheists, currently represent. They are currently in need of more officers and 20 members. For more info email Sara Diaz at email@example.com and/or go to the website at ucdatheists.wordpress.com for more info on the requirements for being an officer. There will be a more detailed explanation of this in a separate special announcement within the next week.
Metro State Atheists is proud to announce that we are now affiliated with American Atheists.
On July 11th, President of Metro State Atheists, Joel Guttormson, appeared on the radio show Rational Alchemy, which broadcasts from Fort Collins, CO. You can listen to the show here. Subscribed to the podcast while you’re there!
Metro State Atheists have been invited by The Daniels Foundation/Project to network with other groups from Colorado. We are very excited to be part of this event. It will be on Saturday July 28th at 7pm. The event will be held in the Turhalle Room inside the Tivoli Student Union on the Auraria Campus. Below the Daniels Foundation Mission Statement and the link to the website.
The Daniels Fund Mission
In the benevolent and entrepreneurial spirit of our founder, Bill Daniels, our mission is to partner with individuals, organizations, and communities to recognize inherent value, develop abilities, and provide opportunities in order to fulfill our collective potential.
A world where every individual has an equal opportunity to live a healthy, productive life.
We embrace and will adhere to the fundamental principles embodied by our founder.
We are committed to a tradition of excellence and will exemplify the highest standards of integrity, honesty and ethical conduct in all we do.
As individuals and as an organization, we believe our success depends upon our ability to listen and appropriately respond to the people and communities we serve and to remain aware of ever-changing issues and ideas. We are committed to continual learning and self-assessment in order to be the best we can be.
We acknowledge and honor the fundamental value and dignity of all individuals. We pledge ourselves to creating and maintaining an environment that respects diverse traditions, heritages, and experiences.
We believe that boundless opportunity can exist for each and every individual. We will constantly strive to act courageously and think imaginatively in order to make such opportunities available throughout our community.
One Nation Under a Spell
Christianity in America and Religion Around the World
DISCLAIMER: SAM HARRIS IS QUOTED HEAVILY IN THIS WORK BECAUSE OF CONTRAINTS PLACED UPON ITS WRITING BY THE CLASS FOR WHICH IT WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN
“Our world is fast succumbing to the activities of men and women who would stake the future of our species on beliefs that should not survive an elementary school education”
-Sam Harris, End of Faith
America, once a bastion of the Enlightenment ideas of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Thomas Paine, “is fast-growing as blinkered by religious lunacy as the wilds of Afghanistan.” (Harris, Idea City ’05) By this, Sam Harris means, that the United States of America is not just highly religious, but fundamentalist in their belief. Before continuing, what is a belief? Mr. Harris defines a belief as “representations of the world…that open the floodgate of emotion and behavior” that is appropriate for a particular belief. (Harris, Idea City ’05) Polls, both in the recent past and the present, show that Sam is not at all out of line in making these claims; for instance, “22% of the population [Americans] claims to be certain, literally certain, that Jesus is going to come down out of clouds and save the day sometime in the next 50 years.” (Harris, Idea City ’05) He adds, “Another 22% think that he probably will come back in the next 50 years. This is 44% of the electorate…this belief obviously does not exist in isolation.” (Harris, Idea City ’05) The most straightforward conclusion from this data, which he obtained from Gallup polls taken earlier in the decade, is that nearly 150 million people in the United States who, Sam points out, “not only elect Congressmen and Presidents, they get elected as Congressmen and Presidents.” (Harris, Idea City ’05) These facts should be wholly horrifying to those of all walks of life, religious or not, that are committed to a sustainable and above all, foreseeable future for the human species. Why is this so? This is so because these beliefs have severe geopolitical consequences, discussed in detail later. They also have the effect of making normally moral, rational people and making them hateful isolationists bent on bringing about the End Times. Sam Harris claims that religion, especially in the United States, is dangerous and that the moderately religious share as much blame as the fundamentalists in regards to the problems to be expounded upon in the following pages.
Christianity in America: Effect on Science and Public Health
“The time for respecting religious beliefs of this sort is long past”
-Sam Harris, Idea City 2005
It has been shown that at the time the United States was founded in writing, less people went to church less often. (Wills, p. 8) This fact flies directly in the face of those that claim we were founded as a Christian nation. Certainly, some famous settlements and early towns were very religious and chiefly comprised of Christians, all of whom believed the same as their neighbors of course. In fact, the legend of the Pilgrims leaving England to escape religious persecution is not entirely accurate; some parts are left out. For instance, it is not common knowledge that the King of England at the time of the earliest of the settlements, King Charles II, had to send a letter of instruction to the colony of Massachusetts ordering them to “stop executing his subjects for their religious opinions.” (Wills, p. 18) Though today we need not such declarations from our President, the myth of Christian tolerance persists. There have been, in the history of the U.S., a sheer myriad of Supreme Court cases dealing with, as one of its main issues, religious intrusion into the government or public services funded by taxes. Those cases worthy of mention are: McCollum v. Board of Education (Ruled that religious studies classes violated the 1st Amendment, 1948), Engel v. Vitale (Ruled that state lead prayer in schools to be a violation of the 1st Amendment, 1962), Abington v. Schempp/Murry v. Curlett (Ruled that bible reading in schools was unconstitutional, 1963), Epperson v. Arkansas (Struck down a law prohibiting the teaching of Evolution), Lemon v. Kurtzman (Ruled that the PA state’s subsidizing of religious school was unconstitutional, added third prong to what has become known as the Lemon Test, 1971), Edwards v. Aguillard (Ruled that the teaching of creationism to be a violation of the 1st Amendment), City of Boerne v. Flores (Ruled the Religious Freedoms Restoration Act to be unconstitutional, 1997), Sante Fe School District v. Doe (Ruled that believers cannot be favored over nonbelievers), and Kitzmiller et al v. Dover Area School District et al (Ruled that the requirement for students to be taught Intelligent Design was unconstitutional, 2005) . This list is a short enumeration of the victories for those on the side of secularism, be they religious or not. However, the list is not exhaustive and leaves out some defeats, such as the Scopes Trial. There exists currently a yet uncontested law in the state of Louisiana called “Louisiana Science Education Act.” This act encourages students to learn about Intelligent Design/Creationism without using the words. (Forrest, 2009) However, Section D of the law provides a glimpse into the motives of the authors, sponsors, and lobbyists (Discovery Institute and Louisiana Family Forum) of the law. Section D reads, “This Section shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.” It begs the question as to why this section exists in the law if in fact it could not be construed to promote religion, specifically Intelligent Design/Creationism. Although this is a setback, it is in a minority of court cases in which we see overwhelming victory for the Constitution and freedom from religious establishment.
In spite of the utterly overwhelming evidence supporting the evidence of the Theory of Evolution, Americans seem wishfully against its acceptance. In 2005, a survey was conducted among 34 countries to determine the level of acceptance of the Theory of Evolution among adults. The results were less than flattering, as Harris points out that “the United States ranked 33rd, just above Turkey. Meanwhile, high school students in the United States test below those of every European and Asian nation in their understating of science and math.” (Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, p. 70) Given the efforts of Christians in this country in the courts, attempting to promote creationism and intelligent design; in so doing they are misrepresenting science and confusing the public about Evolution and consequently all of science. Harris is in a sense arguing that Christianity, specifically Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christianity, is causing great harm to the education of our children. Whether or not Sam’s general claim is true, it is obvious that the religiosity of this country is having a significant and detrimental impact on a consensual and basic understanding of what is arguably one of the greatest, if not the greatest, scientific accomplishments in history; the Theory of Evolution.
Though a public understanding of science (or lack thereof) is an important issue. A far more pressing and disturbing issue is that of public health. Regarding this issue, Sam again points to the overwhelming dangers of religious ideals and convictions interfering with the private lives and health of individuals, who is behind this movement to do so and why. The Center for Disease Control (CDC), thought by many to be very scientific and apolitical institution in the United States, is very much the opposite in terms of its upper management. It is evident that religious views are clouding the judgment of those that we are entrusting our health. Reginald Finger, a member of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, “announced that he would consider opposing an HIV vaccine…because such a vaccine would encourage premarital sex by making it less risky.” (Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, p. 28) I agree with Sam Harris when he says, “this is one of the many points on which [Christian] beliefs become genuinely lethal.” (Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, p. 28) Until recently, stem-cell research was put on the veritable back burner. However, with the election of Barack Obama this backward, religious motivated agenda to stymie what Sam Harris calls “one of the most promising lines of research in biology”, is now being federally funded after being denied such funding by a religiously motivated Bush administration. (Harris, Idea City ’05)
Although these are not the only issues facing America in which the religious, mostly Christian, population in this country has found it necessary to thrust their narrow-minded and unfounded beliefs, they are, in the estimation of Sam Harris, a good representation of the general direction they are pushing public policy. Christian crusaders such as the late Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and pastor/author Joel Osteen are the leaders in a movement that is increasingly trying to control the public policy and even the personal matters of the citizens of the United States. However, such a narrow focus on the United States does not even begin to properly articulate the problems the marriage of religion and policy has on not only the liberty of Americans, but also their safety and, ultimately, the survival of the human species.
Geopolitics and Religion: Rights, Terrorism, and Armageddon
“O You who believe! take not for friends and protectors those who take your religion for a mockery or sport”
Islam has recently become the religion most associated with terrorism. Although there is some basis for this hasty and broad generalization and Islamic leaders have not done a good job distancing themselves from such violent actions, Christianity and Judaism have had their share of violence and terrorism. Though both Christianity and Judaism have done a good job covering it up, the fact they have had enough time to do this shows that they happened long ago, however, they are still relevant and will be discussed later. For now, we shall focus on the problem Islam creates on the geopolitical stage.
Islam, claimed to be founded by the “prophet” Mohammed in the 7th century C.E., is declared by many of its followers to be a religion of peace. Islam, they say means peace and thus, tell us that the terrorists that commit their acts in the name of their religion have no theological justification from the Quran (Koran), the holy book of Islam, and that they are committed for other reasons. They, and religious moderates of all stripes, say that their acts are committed because socioeconomics, lack of education and/or educational opportunity and politics. However, in the case of 9/11, Sam Harris remarks, “I don’t know how many more engineers and architects have to hit the wall at 400 miles-an-hour for us to realize that this is not simply a matter of education. The truth of our circumstance is quite a bit more sinister than that.” (Harris, Idea City ’05, 2005) What does he mean by this? He means that it is actually possible, and likely, that religion is the cause of this terrorism. This is frightening, because religion is based solely on beliefs that, in the case of fundamentalists, are immune to evidence or change of any kind. This also means that if the reasons for these despicable acts are religious there is no stopping them the way they would be if they really were the result of education or economics. Harris says, “It is actually possible to be so well educated that you can build a nuclear bomb and still believe that you’re going to get the 72 virgins.” (Harris, Idea City ’05) For Muslim terrorists their actions are in fact, contrary to what moderates believe, not only condoned by the Koran but also endorsed by it saying: “O Prophet! strive hard against the Unbelievers and the Hypocrites, and be firm against them, their abode is Hell, -an evil refuge indeed.” (Qur’an: 9:73) Some verses later it reiterates this sentiment: “O you who believe! Fight the Unbeleivers who gird you about, and let them find firmness in you: and know that Allah is with those who fear Him.” (Qur’an 9:123) According to the research of Sam Harris, the Had’ith is also quite clear about how to deal with the so-called “Unbelievers”: “ Jihad is your duty under any ruler, be he godly or wicked;  A single endevor (of fighting) in Allah’s Cause in the forenoon or in the afternoon is better than the world and whatever is in it;  A day and night fighting on the frontier is better than a month of fasting and prayer;  Nobody who dies and finds good from Allah (in the Hereafter) would wish to come back to this world even if he were given the whole world and whatever is in it, except the martyr who, on seeing the superiority of martyrdom, would like to come back to the world and get killed again (in Allah’s Cause);  He who dies without having taken part in a campaign dies in a kind of unbelief” (Harris, The End of Faith, p. 112). The Koran, taken literally along with the teachings of the Had’ith, lead Muslims to be extreme in their faith to the point that they commit such atrocities. One may say to themselves at this point, “yes, but these views and verses are used and condoned only by the extremists”. This is wrong, as evidenced by a 2002 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in which the following question was asked only to Muslims: “Some people think that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets are justified in order to defend Islam from its enemies. Other people believe that, no matter what the reason, this kind of violence is never justified. Do you personally feel that this kind of violence is often justified to defend Islam, sometimes justified, rarely justified or never justified?” (Harris, The End of Faith, p. 124) The results should be shocking even the most moderate of moderates as this survey was given to 38,000 people. So it’s unikely that they just happened to ask 38,000 extremists. For breivity, only the top five will be taken into consideration: 1. Lebanon- 73% Yes, 21% No, 6% DK/Refused; 2. Ivory Coast- 56% Yes, 44% No; 3. Nigeria- 47% Yes, 45% No, 8% DK/Refused; 4. Bangladesh- 44% Yes, 37%, No, 19% DK/Refused; 5. Jordan- 43% Yes, 48% No, 8% DK/Refused. (Harris, The End of Faith, p. 125) If these numbers seem distrubing Harris asks us to “consider that places like Saudia Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Iran, Sudan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories were not included in the survery.” (Harris, The End of Faith, p. 125) However, the “Muslim tolerence for terrorism” picture become ever more frightening when we only consider those respondants who “could not find it in their hearts to say ‘never justified’.” (Harris, The End of Faith, p. 126) The question then is, is it ever justifiable?. Again, only the top five are considered: 1. Lebanon- 82% Yes, 12% No, 6% DK/Refused; 2. Ivory Coast- 73% Yes, 27% No; 3. Nigeria- 66% Yes, 26% No, 8% DK/Refused; 4. Jordan- 65% Yes, 26% No, 8% DK/Refused; 5. Bangladesh- 58% Yes, 23% No, 19% DK/Refused. (Harris, The End of Faith, p. 126) An astonishing finding from this is that Pakistan, thought of to be a safe haven and manufactuer of terrorist not only isn’t in the top five, but in the second list is second from the bottom, right above Turkey. What do these numbers tell us about Islam and terrorism? They tell us that the problem of dogmatism, no matter how seemingly moderate, is far greater than previously thought and acts like the subway bombing in Madrin, Spain, the bus attacks in the UK or the events of September 11th, 2001 seem to be justifiable to these people so long as it is in denfese of Islam.
Though it may seem given the above that Islam is the sole perpetrator of terrorism, it most asuredly is not. Christians tend to pride themselves, and their religion (especially in the United States), on being caring, loving, compasionate, pacifist and, above all, true beyond a shadow of a doubt. However, Christianity has some skeletons in its closet; skeletons that even moderate Christians would be hard-pressed to explain away. Before examining specific examples, let us consider the Bible, particularly the New Testament, to see if moderate Christianity or fundamentalist Christianity is on the stronger theological ground. When it comes to the treatment of the non-believers, or unbelievers as the holy books refer to us, Jesus Christ does not differ much from the attitude of the Koran, saying: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.”(The Bible: John 3:36) Though this does not seem quite as bad as the Koran telling believers to fight the unbelievers, Jesus makes sure his message is not mistaken: “But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.”(The Bible: Luke 19:27) It was not just Jesus that scolded non-believers and thought they should be killed, Peter wrote: “By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.”(The Bible: 2 Peter 3:7) It is now sufficiently obvious that Christians, too, can square actions such as the nondescript and wholesale slaughter and/or torture of non-Christians with the Bible and the teaching of Jesus. If that wasn’t enough, “the great lights of the church, people like St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine…in Aquinas’ case he thought heretics should be killed outright, in Augustine’s case he thought they should be tortured; Augustine’s argument for the use or torture actually laid the foundations for the Inquisition.” (Harris, Idea City ’05) It should now be immediately obvious that Christians could and did start religious wars and cold-blooded, calculated campaigns of mass death and torture, with other Christians and non-Christians; such as the French Wars or Religion, the 30 Years War, the Crusades, and, the Spanish Inquisition. However, the despicable behavior does not stop there. The Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch trials, considered by many to be well-organized terrorism campaigns, though with very different and separate goals, have their justification in the Bible, and nowhere else. Christian terrorism is still alive in modern times. Two examples come to mind. The first is an example of psychological terrorism. The Westboro Baptist Church, founded and run by pastor Fred Phelps has made a name for themselves protesting United States’ soldiers funerals and with their “God Hates Fags” campaign. Probably the most appalling aspects of this campaign is, their use of small children, holding signs and wearing t-shirts bearing these hateful and ignorant slogans. The next example of Christian terrorism, I am happy to say was a failed effort. Nonetheless, it is a story that one is grateful never came to fruition and shows the extent of their fundamentalist and apocalyptic goals. Due to a lack of knowledge about the Julian calendar, 1999 was thought to be the year before the millennium. Beyond the “Y2K” hysteria, there was also a fervor of millennialism, especially from fundamentalist Christians.
On January 3, 1999, the Israeli General Security Force known as Shin Bet raided two houses outside Jerusalem. Soon after the interrogation of three male occupants it was determined that the 14 total residents, including six children were to leave Israel immediately. These 14 people were members of a “Doomsday cult” known as Concerned Christians, based out of Denver, Colorado. Their mission in Israel was, to destroy the mosques on Temple Mount, the most well-known and holiest of which is the Dome of the Rock, in the hope of instigating war between Jews and Muslims. This, they believe, would have brought on Armageddon and the return of Christ as spelled out in the Book of Revelation. (New, pp. 1,9) At a glance the people of this group, with a most misleading name, may seem crazy or unhinged. This is not the case, given what they believe. Putting yourself in their shoes, if you came to believe that the most important event that could happen was about to happen and that you personally could have something to do with it coming to immediate and glorious fruition, would you commit or attempt to commit these actions? It is obvious that the problem is the beliefs themselves, not the people.
The obvious question then is, how do we stop people like this from injuring and killing others in this way? Sam Harris offers a distinctly simple, yet blunt answer that many could agree with. He says, “I’m talking about religious faith, and specifically a style of thinking that takes the sting out of death…in geopolitical terms we want the sting in death. You know, we don’t want groups of people well-armed who are not afraid to die.” (Harris, The God Who Wasn’t There) There it is, we stop these people by putting the sting back in death. What is the “sting” in death? Fear of dying; or to be more positive, the willingness to live. It is hard for many religious moderates and even some secularists to grasp the astounding notion that these people really do believe in what they say they do. As alluded to earlier, “if you really believe this stuff it is quite rational” to fly planes into buildings, attempt to blow up the Dome of the Rock, or convince 900 hundred people, included 300 children, to follow you to Guyana where they will die because you believe that it is what the creator of the universe wants you to do. (Harris, The God Who Wasn’t There)
It should be obvious to the most casual observer that I am talking about beliefs. Beliefs, which, are separate from the people, that believe them; in other words, the beliefs exist apart from the believers. Therefore, it is necessary to challenge these beliefs, quit equating such challenges as attacks or affronts to the people who believe them. The remedy for this is unbridled conversation in a way that updates, revises, and maybe totally reforms religious ideas in a way that makes them more compatible with the continuation of our species.
Deadly Beliefs: End of Days, Rapture and Christian Zionism
“Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter. He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.”
As briefly mentioned at the end of the previous section, there is a growing Millennialism movement within Christianity. However, that movement is not modern and has its roots in the 19th Century. John Nelson Darby (1800-1887), wasn’t the originator of the Millennialism movement but he did contribute arguably of the most significant, popular and controversial ideas to the Movement, that of Dispensationalism. (Wills, pp. 358-359) The idea of Dispensationalism is fairly straightforward for a religious idea. It is an idea that states that “the two Testaments, Old and New, are separate and discontinuous such that they were “ruled by different prophetical systems-one of them past, Israel, under the law, with all past prophecies applying only to it; and one of them future, the church, with its prophecies not to move toward fulfillment until the church was taken up by God before the End of Time.” (Wills, p. 359) This idea divided the future into dispensations which Darby named. The most important aspect of the End of Days of course are: the Tribulation (the final catastrophe) and the Millennium (the resolution, Christ’s victory over Satan, which includes the Second-Coming and the Rapture). (Wills, p. 359) The Rapture though has become very popular recently, so popular in fact that popular fictional book series called “Left Behind”, has been written on the idea and a website, http://www.raptureletters.com, was created for believers so that they could leave letters to their loved ones behind after they are taken up by Jesus Christ. The Rapture is the belief that those who are “saved” by Jesus Christ will be taken up into heaven prior to the Tribulation and the rule of the Anti-Christ. (Wills, p. 365) Those left behind, namely, unbelievers comprised of all non-Christians will be subject to the horror and agony that is to be until those unbelievers accept Christ as their savor. While this may seem to be a fringe belief, it is not. As mentioned earlier, 44% of Americans believe that this, the Rapture and the subsequent return of Jesus Christ, will happen sometime in the next 50 years. (Harris, Idea City ’05) This belief has some significant geopolitical consequences.
The United States’ support for Israel is as strong as ever. However, it is not hard to determine why our country would support a state like Israel in the first place. Christian Millennialism, as described above, gave rise to the support for Israel; a movement called Christian Zionism. This effect on foreign policy is due to in part by Jewish Zionist, those who actually had a significant stake in issue and by Christian Millennialists. Christian Millennialists “believe that the final consolidation of Jewish power in the Holy Land—specifically, the rebuilding of Solomon’s temple—will usher in both the Second Coming of Christ and the final destruction of the Jews.” (Harris, The End of Faith, p. 153) Though the creation of Israel falls more in the hands of the British than the U.S., it is clear that the decision was nonetheless influenced by Christian Millennialists/apocalypticists, like British preacher John Cummings author of the book The End, had great political and social influence at the time. (New, p. 33) Thus, it is, to quote Sam Harris, “transparently obvious” that the beliefs of Christian Millennialists/apocalypticists are having a significant and dangerous influence on public policy. What makes their influence dangerous is not the simple support for Israel but their motives for doing so. Therefore, it is necessary to stymie this movement whenever possible as it may add to the longevity of the human species.
Free speech is also becoming a victim of religious zealotry. Recently, Muslim nations of the United Nations have gotten a resolution passed saying “that defamation of religions is a serious affront to human dignity leading to restriction on the freedom of religion of their adherents and incitement to religious hatred and violence, Noting with concern that defamation of religions, and incitement to religious hatred in general, could lead to social disharmony and violations of human rights, and alarmed at the inaction of some States to combat this burgeoning trend and the resulting discriminatory practices against adherents of certain religions and in this context stressing the need to effectively combat defamation of all religions and incitement to religious hatred in general and against Islam and Muslims in particular.” (Council, p. 2) This is a direct infringement of free speech that even moderates of all stripes are having a hard time supporting or even defending. This is encouraging, but the most vocal opposition in the United States to this resolution has been the secular/atheist movement. Notable activists have spoken out against this sort of restriction of free speech both before, Sam Harris, and after, Christopher Hitchens, its passing in the United Nations. What should be obvious is that religion, specifically Islam, is behind this deplorable attempt to restrict free speech. Given the principles and documents the United States of America is founded upon, we as a nation of free people should stand up against this encroachment of our liberty, reject the resolution, and resist its adoption.
Maintenance of Civilization
“I happen to think that how we deal with belief; how we criticize or fail the criticize the beliefs of other human beings, at this moment, has more to do with the maintenance of civilization than anything else that is in our power to influence”
-Sam Harris, Idea City 2005
Though I have touched on it somewhat in the preceding sections, I would now like to make explicit and emphasize the true and disturbing consequences of religion getting their way, both domestically and geopolitically. The fact of nuclear proliferation is undisputed and well known. The technology to carry such lethal violence to all parts of the world, regardless of location, has existed for decades and is now making its way to black markets and well-organized criminal undergrounds. Specifically and more frighteningly, in those places where people believe that if they kill themselves while taking many infidels with them, they will go to paradise and enjoy an eternity of cosmic splendor. We are, in reality, facing, as Bill Maher puts it in his movie Relgulous, a “religion-inspired nuclear terrorism”. That is, of course, unless we quit lying to ourselves about the cause of this lunacy and put an end to unquestioned dogma.
With any problem however, there are generally two extreme outcomes: the worse and best case scenarios. Not trying to be a pessimist, Harris says, “How many years do we have to wait before we learn that Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or Iran or any other society, that still has its 7th century world-view intact, now has nukes that can reach any spot on the globe, maybe at best it will be 100 years. But it will take nowhere near that long. It would be magic if it took 100 years.” (Harris, The God Who Wasn’t There) Although he’s not too specific, he’s right. We know already that Pakistan has nukes, but lacks the delivery technology. However, it doesn’t take that much of an imagination to figure out a way for people who long to die to deliver the nukes in a way that still kill untold millions without the need for such technology. This is the worst-case scenario. The best-case scenario is just as optimistic as the worst-case is pessimistic. We could have a world where all ideas, not only religious ideas, are free to be challenged, revised and updated. Where theocracies do not rule a single country and where our moral identities are not dependent on what we have learned to call god or not believe in a god. I am not advocating the complete destruction of religion here. I am merely advocating for the rational and respecting exchange of ideas so that we can live together in a world free of terrorism of any kind, be it nuclear or not. Since neither of these is likely to occur, we would obviously hope for something towards the middle of the two, but closer to the best-case scenario. With all this talk of the consequences, it seems that I am hard-pressed to offer solutions.
The solutions, alluded to and peppered throughout this work, are simple yet require long-term commitment.
- Eliminating taboos on public and private criticism of religion.
- Push for reforms in all major religions.
- Advance science and reason as the main modes of thought and discourse.
- Complete separation of church and state.
- Promote and advocate freedom of religion everywhere.
- Finally, learn to appreciate the value of lives of every human being.
Though this list is obviously not exhaustive and quite vague, I think it offers a road map to the future in which humanity survives its religious adolescence.
“The hour is getting very late to be able to indulge having in key decisions made by religious people. By irrationalists. By those who would steer the ship of state not by a compass, but by the equivalent of reading the entrails of a chicken.”
-Bill Maher, Religious
Since the dawn of man, men have looked to the stars for guidance. When the stars were silent, they invented gods, thought wishfully, and believed in magic. This is completely rational given their lack of knowledge about the world around them and who are we to judge from our lofty perch on the precipice of the 21st century? But now that we have past that age, it still has not occurred to a great many of us that there is a third option apart from asking the stars or inventing gods. That option is to talk to each other. Conversation about our ideas, hopes, dreams, beliefs and aspirations. We need to begin a journey through the ages as one species and not identify ourselves merely as Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, Hindus or Buddhists. Nor should we identify ourselves by the imaginary lines we draw in the sand to separate ourselves from one another. The hour is late to indulge in such things, all of which now threaten our very existence more than any celestial body or virus. I will end how I began this conclusion, with a quote from Bill Maher:
“The irony of religion is that because of its power to divert man to destructive courses, the world could actually come to an end… Plain fact is, religion must die for mankind to live. The hour is getting very late to be able to indulge in having key decisions made by religious people. By irrationalists. By those who would steer the ship of state not by a compass, but by the equivalent of reading the entrails of a chicken…Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. It’s nothing to brag about. And those who preach faith and enable and elevate it are intellectual slaveholders keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction. Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don’t have all the answers to think that they do. Most people would think it’s wonderful when someone says, “I’m willing, Lord! I’ll do whatever you want me to do!” Except that since there are no gods actually talking to us, that void is filled in by people with their own corruptions and limitations and agendas… The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion, but doubt. Doubt is humble, and that’s what man needs to be, considering that human history is just a litany of getting shit dead wrong…This is why rational people, anti-religionists, must end their timidity and come out of the closet and assert themselves. And those who consider themselves only moderately religious really need to look in the mirror and realize that the solace and comfort that religion brings you comes at a horrible price…If you belonged to a political party or a social club that was tied to as much bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, violence, and sheer ignorance as religion is, you’d resign in protest. To do otherwise is to be an enabler, a mafia wife, for the true devils of extremism that draw their legitimacy from the billions of their fellow travelers. If the world does come to an end here, or wherever, or if it limps into the future, decimated by the effects of religion-inspired nuclear terrorism, let’s remember what the real problem was. We learned how to precipitate mass death before we got past the neurological disorder of wishing for it.-Bill Maher, Religulous (Emphasis added).
The Qur’an. (2005). (A. Y. Ali, Trans.) New York: Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an Inc.
Council, T. H. (2009, March 12). U.N. Human Rights Council Resolution Combating Defamation of Religions. United Nations.
Forrest, B. (2009). Louisiana Coalition for Science. Retrieved April 14, 2009, from http://lasciencecoalition.org/
N/A (Director). (2005). Idea City ’05 [Motion Picture]. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3YOIImOoYM.
Harris, S. (2006, 2008). Letter to a Christian Nation. New York: Random House.
Harris, S. (2005). The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Harris, S. (2005). The God Who Wasn’t There. (B. Flemming, Interviewer)
International Bible Society. (2008, April 27). Bible Gateway. Retrieved April 27, 2008, from Bible Gateway: http://www.biblegateway.com/
New, D. S. (2002). Holy War: The Rise of Militant Christian, Jewish and Islamic Fundamentalism. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.
Wills, G. (2007). Head and Heart: A History of Christianity in America. New York: Penquin Group Inc.
 The full text of this act can be accessed at http://www.legis.state.la.us/billdata/streamdocument.asp?did=503483
 In Sam Harris’ book, Letter to a Christian Nation his intended audience is Christians of a particular ilk. Thus, the word Christian was used to replace the phrase “your religious” since the quote would not make sense in the second person.
 Not all percentages sum to 100.
 Ironically, this comes only 20 verses after the famous John 3:16, touted by Christians as evidence of God’s/Jesus’ love for us.
Abortion is one of the most controversial issues of our time. Like most controversies, there exist two main sides that seem diametrically opposed to each other. However, I believe that in this conflict there is a way for both sides to work together towards a common goal that will benefit both human life and society for the long term. Before continuing it is important to clarify where each side stands. Those on the “pro-life” side assert that abortion is morally wrong. This is usually, but not always, based on the assertion that God (usually the Christian god) has a purpose for all human beings and that the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception. If one holds these assertions as truth it isn’t difficult to feel some sympathy to for their position. For those who stand on the side of being “pro-choice”, abortion is seen as primarily a medical procedure. Further, most “pro-choicers” would say that it should be a last resort only after all other options and factors such as personal socioeconomic situation and health have been carefully considered. This is because abortion, by its very nature, is intrusive, can lead to irreparable damage to the reproductive abilities of the woman and can have severe emotional side-effects (similar to those of women who have miscarried, ie. natural abortion). Therefore, they see abortion as a choice but one that should be used sparingly.
One side feels it is absolutely wrong while the other sees it as treatment and thus not completely wrong. Most of the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” individuals I have known through the years would generally agree with this summary of their general views on the subject. However, there are extremists on both sides. Carl Sagan[i] said of them, “doubtful arguments are trotted out as certitudes”. Thus, it would appear that there is little possibility of reconciliation between the sides. One side feels it is absolutely wrong while the other sees it as treatment and thus not completely wrong. How then could they be convinced to work together? To what common goal could they possibly work towards? To begin, I point out that both sides can agree that abortion is at minimum, undesirable. With this minor agreement as a foundation let us consider other procedures past and present that have either been eradicated from medical practice or are presently being phased out due to current medical therapies/treatments/advances.
For simplicity, let us consider another undesirable medical practice that is less controversial, at least ethically; amputation. Surgical amputations “date back at least to the time of Hippocrates (c.460-375 B.C.), amputating limbs to save lives did not become widespread until the sixteenth century.”(Source) Obviously, amputations “were performed mainly to remove tissue that was already dead. The reason for this limitation is that early surgical techniques could not control the blood loss.” (Source) Advances were made in surgical practices to prevent this hemorrhaging such as tying off the arteries. (Source) Amputation is an extreme medical practice which, over time given medical advances, decreases in use relative to the population. In a 1998 article in the journal “Diabetes Care”, Andrew D. Morris, MD et.al. found that “rates in the U.S. Amputation rates appear to have decreased significantly since 1980–1982.”(Source) The reason given for the decrease was education about diabetes and advances in care. Another study found that “[t]he frequency of major amputations in the country in 1986-87 of 40.9 per 100,000 per year declined by 25% to 30.9 per 100,000 per year in 1989-90.”(Source), stating further that “vascular surgery reduces the number of major lower limb amputations.”(Source) Given these and many other examples, it is clear that medical advances both in practice and education are responsible for a great deal of the reduction in the use of such an invasive, life-altering, and extreme medical procedure.
How does this relate to abortion? Not only is abortion undesirable, it is also invasive, life-altering and extreme. Thus, just as with the case of amputation; where instead of targeting the practice itself the causes were targeted, we should strive to eliminate the causes of abortions as much as possible. Abortion is obviously necessary in certain cases such as fallopian-tube babies, that if left to go to term, would kill the mother. Furthermore, just as education about diabetes helped in the reduction of amputations, so too can better sex education and the elimination of “abstinence-only” education reduce the need for abortions among ignorant or accident-prone young people. The following quote from Carl Sagani drives this point home: “Shouldn’t opponents of abortion be handing out contraceptives and teaching school children how to use them? That would be an effective way to reduce the number of abortions.” Though it is true that you can’t prevent or solve all amputations, so too will we not be able to end all abortions. That is where technology and research is vital. However, we can, if we work together instead of fighting about who believes what, we can end most abortions by using sound judgment and trusted preventative practices to treat the causes rather than the treatment.
At this point I anticipate some resistance from those extreme pro-lifers who view contraception as evil and won’t have anything to do with it citing that it is God’s will that we end abortion. This argument seems fraught with logical problems. 1) If God chooses when we are born and when we die, then why couldn’t abortion be a tool of God? 2) If it’s God’s will that abortions end then shouldn’t he be offering a solution to us without us asking? 3) If it’s God’s will that we end abortion, could it be that his will includes research as described above and through His divine grace provide us an answer via data collected in such studies? In any case, it would seem to be in the best interest of even the most hardcore pro-lifer to work together with pro-choicers and to utilize sound and moral science to reduce the number of abortions. Instead of killing abortion doctors why not try putting them out of business in a more constructive and less violent way, and donate to an organization or research project that is attacking one of the many causes of abortions. That will accomplish far more than squabbling amongst each other about who’s right and who’s wrong. The truth is, neither group is right by themselves, they are only right together.
In summary, my hope is that I’ve made it clear to pro-choicers that pro-lifers are not all a bunch of scripture-spouting nut-bars that are out to turn the country into a theocracy. Also, pro-lifers are truly concerned about human life, just as much as any pro-choicer. The problem lies in the question of when “human” life begins. This question is not as clear-cut as both sides would like it to be, therefore the concerns of the pro-lifers about ending human life is a painful decision that is not completely baseless from a scientific point of view. Also, I’ve hope I’ve made it clear to pro-lifers that not all pro-choicers are malicious baby killers that care only for the reproductive rights of women and care nothing of potential human beings. There isn’t a single person that is truly for abortion, but one way to rid ourselves of it as much as possible is embracing science and giving medical research a chance to find the cure for the causes of abortion in an effort to greatly reduce the practice.
 ANDREW D. MORRIS, MD; RITCHIE MCALPINE, BSC; DOUGLAS STEINKE, BSC; DOUGLAS I.R. BOYLE, BSC; ABDUL-RAHIM EBRAHIM; NAVEEN VASUDEV; COLIN P.U. STEWART, MD; ROLAND T. JUNG, MD; GRAHAM P. LEESE, MD; THOMAS M. MACDONALD, MD ; RAY W. NEWTON, FRCP.
[i] In an article that first appeared in Parade magazine on April 22, 1990 entitled “The Question of Abortion: A Search for Answers”, quoted here from his book Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death the Brink of the Millennium (1997). The article appears as Chapter 15 entitled “Abortion: Is it Possible to be both Pro-Life and Pro-Choice?”
This question has been answered many times over by a great many people; most more scholarly than I. However, it is my goal to show that one need not be a scholar in the subjects of common sense, reason and basic history to know that The United State of America is not a Christian nation. This is of course in the sense of our foundation, not the population. If going by population, we might as well call America a white nation as well, which we most certainly; to the dismay of the bigoted. There are those that assert that say we are a Christian nation because of some recent inclinations of our supposedly secular government to thrust god into the faces and the ears of the public by alluding to “him” on our money and in our Pledge of Allegiance, respectively. This should concern atheist and Christian alike. But I digress; why are these recent occurrences cited as evidence for something that long predates there happening? Simply put, it is because these poor misguided and self-diluted people have absolutely no evidence to go on other than that. Any sufficiently competent individual who knows even the most elementary workings of the Internet and Google searching can find the evidence necessary to thoroughly disprove nearly every claim dealt by these wish-thinkers. One need only point to the Treaty of Tripoli- “Authored by American diplomat Joel Barlow in 1796, the following treaty was sent to the floor of the Senate, June 7, 1797, where it was read aloud in its entirety and unanimously approved. John Adams, having seen the treaty, signed it and proudly proclaimed it to the Nation.…Art. 11. As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”(Source, Emphasis added) Furthermore, evidence shows that religion forced its way into the places it is now, it wasn’t inherent to the founding of the country. For instance, “In God We Trust” wasn’t put on the money nor did it become the nation motto until the 1950s; 180 years after the founding of the country. (Source) There isn’t much more to say on this. It is clear that we are not a Christian nation by founding, only by population.