The Rest of the Book
The remainder of this commentary will touch on a few issues in the remainder of the book. I had collected sufficient notes for a detailed review of each chapter, but these were lost when my computer died forever, before I finished with chapter 7 (though I have a few hand-scribbled notes left). This sounds like a lame excuse for being non-rigorous, doesn't it? Well, for one thing, I feel I have given a sufficiently rigorous, detailed, and honest commentary on previous chapters to give you a good idea about the intellectual value of Why I Believe; more of the same would only belabor the point. Furthermore, as I approach the end of the book I find less and less material to argue about, for it relies more and more on Biblical interpretation (and more rhetorical fallacies) than rational argument. Lastly, I am tired. This project was a formidable effort for me, albeit enjoyable (learning new things is always enjoyable).
Chapter 8 - Christ.
Dr. Kennedy spends much of this chapter on the question of the existence of Jesus. For me, this is a non-issue. I do not deny that Jesus existed. I believe he did. Even if he didn't, he might as well have, given the profound influence he has had on Western civilization!
This chapter contains some distortions of fact also. Dr. Kennedy claims that Christianity is the world's largest religion. Perhaps in 1980 when the book was published, yes. Recently I heard from a Christian professor of religion that Islam has caught up, if not surpassed, Christianity in its number of followers. This is impressive given that Islam got started centuries after Christianity. Islam is one of the world's fastest growing religions.
Dr. Kennedy also makes heavy use of the argumentum ad numerum fallacy in suggesting that the validity of a concept is related to the number of people who believe it (remember, millions of people once believed the Earth was flat), and he makes numerous appeals to authority by quoting the opinions of famous people, in effect saying "I believe this because so-and-so does." Why does he think this means anything?
Why I Believe hardly touches on the Messianic prophecies concerning Jesus. The chapter 1 Appendix dealt with Messianic prophecy. The efforts in the New Testament to demonstrate that Jesus Christ was indeed the Messiah rely on a number of Old Testament quotes, quotes that are typically out of context. For example, Matthew's quote of Isaiah 7:14-16 ignores the fact that Isaiah was referring to some would-be contemporary king. And Micah 5:2, which describes the origin of the Davidic dynasty in Bethlehem, is quoted out of context to sound like a messianic prophecy. In reference to Herod's massacre of baby boys, Matthew quotes a lament in Jeremiah as a prophecy; the original had referred to the exile of Israelites by a conquering king. And Hosea 11:1 was used to demonstrate that Jesus Christ would be taken to Egypt and back, even though it was really a complaint about worshipping other gods rather than the one who aided the Jews in their exodus from Egypt.
Finally, I must mention something about the idea that Jesus is God, an idea considered blasphemous by Muslims, who also believe in Jesus. As explained in one of the arguments in the chapter 3 commentary, Jesus never actually claims this. Our records show that he was given God-status decades after his crucifixion and the deaths of his apostles. In fact, the records were actually altered! From 325 to 381 AD, the Council of Nicea was hard at work on the Bible, tampering and filtering, partly to give the rule of Constantine (Rome's first Christian-convert emperor) the authority of divine will, but mostly to define the tenets of Christianity as we know it today. In particular, the Nicene Council defined the Trinity - the relation between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
However, the Council of Nicea probably didn't go so far as to turn Jesus into God. That was finalized in 451 AD by the Council of Chalcedon. The most significant product of this council was the formulation of the two natures of Christ; the relationship between his humanity and deity. My Last Appendix is an interesting parable on this subject of Christ's deity.
Chapter 9 - Resurrection.
This is a subject I really have no opinion about (although not counting chapter 4, it was oddly one for which I had collected the most notes - see "The Historicity of the Resurrection: The Debate Between Christians and Skeptics" by Jeff Lowder for a much more detailed treatment). However, I can, as before, make some comments about what Kennedy writes on the subject. In particular, he offers as evidence a stream of non sequiturs, such as the Easter holiday, Christian art, and hymnals, to show why he believes Christ was resurrected. Kennedy shows us a good example of argumentum ad antiquitatem; that is, arguing that something must be right because it is established by ancient tradition.
The evidence is based on myth. People want to believe some amazing things. For example, I recall an experiment where a magician performed in front of a classroom of college students. The performance was designed to give the magician the appearance of a person with occult abilities, who could talk to spirits and demons and read minds. Most of the class, when surveyed, fearfully believed his occult abilities were legitimate. Another class was shown the same performance, and then shown how each trick was done, and still most of the students reported in their questionnaires that they believed the performer had occult abilities, in spite of being shown that the performance was nothing more than simple tricks! Many people will believe what they want to believe, and their convictions will not be changed by facts. Similarly, I suspect that nothing could possibly sway Dr. Kennedy from his preconceptions.
Similar to C. S. Lewis's "trifurcation" argument described in the chapter 3 commentary, Dr. Kennedy gives us another one concerning the resurrection. He says there are only three alternatives to choose from: the apostles lied, they were deceived, or Jesus did rise from the dead. I have already described a fourth likely possibility: that reports of the resurrection were after-the-fact changes to Scripture. Add to that the fact that all four gospels contain contradictions of the events of the resurrection (see the contradictions in the chapter 1 commentary), and one finds that Dr. Kennedy's belief rests on quite a shaky foundation indeed.
Chapter 10 - Christianity.
This is the book's second weakest chapter, next to the one on creationism. I say this because, while the chapter contains some truth, Dr. Kennedy has to lie to support his thesis. Specifically, he asserts that Christianity has had only positive influences throughout history, and is responsible for women's rights, the end of slavery, and scientific progress! He also lies about the religions of Islam and Buddhism. Let's examine these issues.
Kennedy dismisses the Inquisition by claiming that the perpetrators were "not true Christians." I think he's probably right, although this is known as the "no true Scotsmen" fallacy. Using it makes one's argument totally unassailable (and uninteresting). For centuries, people claiming to be true Christians have been using their religion to justify all manner of atrocities. As mentioned in the chapter 3 commentary, Hitler had similar justifications to those employed by perpetrators of the Inquisition: "Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord." (from Mein Kampf). And he certainly believed he was a Christian! Pulitzer Prize winner John Toland wrote in Adolf Hitler:
The Fuhrer made it known to those entrusted with the Final Solution that the killings should be done as humanely as possible. This was in line with his conviction that he was observing God's injunction to cleanse the world of vermin. Still a member in good standing of the Church of Rome despite detestation of its hierarchy ("I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so" [quoting Hitler]), he carried within him its teaching that the Jew was the killer of God. The extermination, therefore, could be done without a twinge of conscience since he was merely acting as the avenging hand of God - so long as it was done impersonally, without cruelty.
Even today, people who consider themselves true Christians continue to use their beliefs to rationalize any act, for God's will must be moral and right! Examples today are given by religious fundamentalists wanting to pass laws proscribing private consensual behavior, or murder doctors who perform abortions. An outsider like myself looks at all this, and, seeing both the Good and the Evil affects of Christianity, observes that anything can be justified within the bounds of its ethical system, and I must conclude that Christianity cannot possibly be the wonderful entity that Dr. Kennedy claims it is.
Kennedy credits Christianity with the abolition of slavery. In the Bible, God found slavery acceptable, and indeed, the whole Bible takes slavery for granted as part of human civilization. Dr. Kennedy forgets that the same Civil-War-era Southern Christianity, in which Kennedy's own denomination has its roots, was the glue that bound together the whole culture of the South, in which slavery was an integral part. It's a good thing our country grew out of it, although the religion from that dark time still persists in the various forms of fundamentalism.
Incredibly, Kennedy also claims "Christianity has brought to the world liberty and freedom." Does he know nothing of history? Let's take a brief look at the freedom of men and women from the beginnings of Western civilization onward:
Maximum| m = men Freedom| w = women | | mm | mmm wm | mmmmm mm w w +mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm m m ww w |wwwwwwwwwwwwwww wwww m m w w | w w w mm mmmm m w | wwwwwwwww w m m m m w | ww m m wwww mm w Maximum| w mmmmmmmmmm w w w Oppression| wwwwwwwwwwww ww -+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+ | | | | | | | | 1300 1000 500 0 500 1000 1500 2000 BC --d-- AD Periods: -------a------- ----b---- ---c--- -----e------ --f-- -g- -h- ijklmn
Description of each period:
Kennedy believes, correctly I think, that the Inquisition consisted of persecution of true Christians by others who followed a perverted form of Christianity. The efforts of Martin Luther, resulting in Protestantism, accomplished much in the way of assisting Western civilization's escape from the clutches of an organized religion that had grown too powerful. However, as you can see from history, the Inquisition was but a small black mark in a much longer history of oppression.
How can a non-Christian know who is, or who is not, a true Christian? Dr. Kennedy obviously believes he is, but in his book Why I Believe, he is not only passes judgments on both honest Christians and non-Christians (see chapter 4), but he employs many dishonest tactics throughout the book to support his convictions. Is this the work of a true Christian? And if not, why should we trust anything he says about Christianity?
Kennedy writes, "Freedom is one of the gifts of Christianity." History shows this to be mostly false. Even though the prevalence of Christianity has been highly correlated in history with human misery, Kennedy is correct in saying that Christianity has been greatly beneficial to many people and cultures. Indeed, many people need it. I recall a survey in a Christian discussion group on the internet, in which participants were asked how they would react if they lost their religion. By a 2 to 1 margin, respondents said they would abandon all pretense of morality. Christianity, and religion in general, does serve a useful function in instructing people how to get along with one another. Not all of us need a religion for this purpose, however.
Dr. Kennedy's most outrageous lies concern other religions. He claims that science could not have originated in the Muslim culture because of its belief in fatalism. This is ridiculous on two counts. First, Islam is no more based in fatalism than Christianity; Muslims believe in free will. Second, much of our science has roots in Muslim culture, especially medicine and astronomy. We use an Arabic number system, and many terms (like algebra) have Arabic roots. Furthermore, in chapter 1, Dr. Kennedy lies about the Qu'ran not containing specific examples of fulfilled prophecy. Muslims will tell you that the Qu'ran is not a book of prophecy (they have other books for that), but nevertheless they can point out specific examples, just as Kennedy can with the Bible. I was appalled to read his lies about Islam. To cure his inexcusable ignorance, all he had to do was ask a Muslim! It's so simple. He didn't have to invent falsehoods.
He also lies about Buddhists and Hindus in stating that they believe that "the physical world is not real, that nothing exists but God and all this is merely imagination." Buddhist teachings and philosophy contain no instructions to worship any gods - Buddhism is essentially an atheist religion! And the Hindu concept of God is obviously beyond Kennedy's capacity to contemplate. To learn the truth, all he had to do was ask a follower of any of these religions. Dr. Kennedy, however, has no choice but to lie if he wants to make Christianity look like the sole source of scientific achievement.
Finally, he lies in saying that only through Christianity could education come to the world. This is true in some countries, but false in others, such as Asian countries like Japan, where Christianity has little, if any, influence, where the level of education is among the highest in the world. It is interesting that in the absence of Christianity, Japan also does not have many of the civil problems that plague Christian countries in Europe, North America, and South America.
Chapters 11 - 13: Second Birth, Holy Spirit, Return of Christ.
These chapters describe more "what" than "why," so I will not comment at length.
I find myself in agreement with Kennedy's exhortation to be born again, but not in the sense he means. I have met several born-again atheists, who became happier people by shedding the chains of religion from their lives. If becoming a born-again Christian brings a person happiness and fulfillment, I am all for it. Likewise for being born again into Buddhism, Islam, Shinto, Taoism, New Age thought, or anything else that brings fulfillment and growth. Anything that brings spiritual and intellectual stagnation, however, must be rejected. Unfortunately, it seems that many Christians succumb to this stagnation after being born again. Why I Believe, which does more to demonstrate Kennedy's ignorance than to provide a rationale for a belief system, is evidence of that.
The chapter on the Holy Spirit was, to me, one of the most interesting, because it dealt with a concept difficult for Christians and non-Christians alike. This chapter is more of a theological discussion than an answer to challenges from nonbelievers.
The only thing I can say about the chapter on the return of Christ is "we shall see." Ever since Revelations declared that the events described would happen "shortly," Christians throughout history have been trying to fit the situations of their day to Biblical prophecy in an effort to convince others that the Apocalypse is at hand, and Dr. Kennedy is no exception.
Information on the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon came from handwritten notes taken from a book about Christianity and its origins, which, I am embarrassed to say, I cannot definitely identify. Possibly it was Volume 1 of The Gifford Lectures, edited by Ian G. Barbour (Harper Collins, 1991).
The description of historical human/women oppression vis-a-vis Christianity was summarized from different sections of The Neo-Tech Discovery by Frank R. Wallace (I & O Publishing, 1986).
Facts about Islam and other faiths came from conversations with followers of those faiths.
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