Skepticism, Religion Archive

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Another Similarity Between Osiris & Jesus

OsirisIn my essay, Abadoning Christianity, I briefly discuss some similarities between Osiris and Jesus. I quoted E.A. Wallis Budge, from his introduction to his translation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead (starting on page li),

This is the story of the sufferings and death of Osiris as told by Plutarch. Osiris was the god through whose suffering and death the Egyptians hoped that his body might rise again in some transformed or glorified shape, and to him who had conquered death and had become the king of the other world the Egyptian appealed in prayer for eternal life through his victory and power. In every funeral inscription known to us, from the pyramid texts down to the roughly-written prayers upon coffins of the Roman period, what is done for Osiris is done also for the deceased, the state and condition of Osiris are the state and condition of the deceased; in a word, the deceased is identified with Osiris. If Osiris liveth for ever, the deceased will live for ever; if Osiris dieth, then will the deceased perish.

Later in the XVIIIth, or early in the XIXth dynasty, we find Osiris called 'the king of eternity, the lord of everlastingness, who traverseth millions of years in the duration of his life, the firstborn son of the womb of Nut, begotten of Seb, the prince of gods and men, the god of gods, the king of kings, the lord of lords, the prince of princes, the governor of the world, from the womb of Nut, whose existence is everlasting, Unnefer of many froms and of many attributes, Tmu in Annu, the lord of Akert, the only one, the lord of the land on each side of the celestial Nile.'

In that essay, I wrote, "The first paragraph above, shows the similarity in roles of Osiris and Jesus - that through their resurrection humans can attain eternal life. The second paragraph shows the similarity in how they are addressed in literature, although it would be easy to see how these lofty praises could be addressed to any powerful figure. At any rate, seeing some of the important traits of Jesus in a mythical figure that predates him, does call into question the source of those concepts in Christianity."

Well, I'm currently re-reading The Egyptian Book of the Dead (I meant to be finished before my visit to the King Tut and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs Exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art, but it's taking me a bit longer than I'd hoped). I just noticed another similarity between Osiris and Jesus (page cxxxviii).

It is to be noticed how closely the deceased is identified with Osiris, the type of incorruptibility. Osiris takes upon himself "all that is hateful" in the dead : that is, he adopts the burden of his sins; and the dead is purified by the typical sprinkling of water.

So, it's not only through Osiris's resurrection that the Egyptians thought they could attain eternal life, but they even envisioned Osiris as performing a function very similar to forgiving them of their sins.

And now that I'm through with Budge's introduction and actually getting into the Book of the Dead itself, I found an interesting passage right in the first chapter.

Thine enemy[8] is given to the (10) fire, the evil one hath fallen; his arms are bound, and his legs hath Ra taken from him. The children of (11) impotent revolt shall never rise up again.

[8 The enemy of Ra was darkness and night, or any cloud which obscured the light of the sun. The darkness personified was Apep, Nak, etc., and his attendant fiends were the mesu betesh, or 'children of unsuccessful revolt.']

So, here's a passage that sounds suspiciously like Lucifer's unsuccesful revolt from the Bible, and a subsequent banishing into a realm of fire. Although, I have a feeling that revolts against the primary deity are pretty common in mythology.

Just as a note on this, as I wrote in that essay, be careful if you plan to research this subject further. That's probably good advice for anything you plan to research, whether the old fashioned way or on the Internet, but I've found many oversimplified lists of the similarities between Christiany and previous religions that don't seem to be entirely accurate.

For further information, Budge's translation of & introduction to the book of the dead can be found here. Another online version with pictures can be found here.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

War on Christmas

Well, let me get all my Scrooge tendencies out of the way now, because I really do enjoy Christmas and don't want to make such a negative post closer to the holiday. By the way, I was planning on making this post even before I saw Eric's recent entry over at The New Minority.

Santa in the CrosshairsEvery year around this time, you seem to get the grumpy old men types complaining about the War on Christmas, or how commercialization is ruining the true meaning of the season. Man, I wish those people could learn a bit of history and see just how silly they sound.

First, they get upset about the semantics of the whole thing, claiming that people aren't saying 'Merry Christmas' in a deliberate attempt to make the holiday more secular. Season's Greetings has been in use since the 19th century. I kind of doubt the secularists have been planning their strategy that long. I remember seeing 'Happy Holidays' on Christmas cards ever since I was a kid, back before 'the War' got started, and always just assumed it was shorter than writing 'Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year' (or you can add in Boxing Day if you're British). A few years ago, in a previous entry, I even mentioned a guy at my wife's work, who caught a bunch of flak from his coworkers for having Christmas cards that said 'Happy Holidays' instead of 'Merry Christmas,' even though the cards had Bible verses on them. Then there are the people that get upset about Xmas. Damn those 11th century monks who thought they could abbreviate 'Christ' with the Greek letter, chi. They probably thought the Chi-Ro was a good symbol for Christ, too.

Do these people even realize where many of our Christmas traditions come from, anyway? First, there's the timing. Don't they think it's a bit suspicious that the holiday falls so close to the Winter Solstice? I realize the gospels don't explicitly state when the nativity story was supposed to have taken place, but shepherds sleeping in the field at night doesn't seem like a great winter activity. And then there are all the Pagan holidays that also fall right around that time, such as Saturnalia from the 17th to to 23rd, or even Mithra's birthday (who was also known as the 'light of the world') on the 25th.

Skipping past the Romans up to the northern Europeans who started many of our Christmas traditions, even the term 'Yule Tide' comes from pagan roots. Yule was originally a late December/early January Germanic/Norse holiday honoring their gods. Odin's Wild Hunt may have even contributed to the legend of Santa Claus making his late night journey. Likewise, Christmas trees, mistletoe, and hanging evergreen clippings & wreaths also seems to be an incorporation of pagan Germanic traditions. (If you want to read what the Bible has to say about decorating a tree in your house, check out Jeremiah 10:1-5.) Many sources even claim, although I'm not sure if this is reliable or merely an urban legend, that in the 4th century, Pope Julius I officially declared Christmas to be on the 25th of December in a deliberate attempt to get pagans to start switching over to Christianity. Whatever the case, whether deliberate or not, it certainly seems that many of our Christmas traditions began as pagan winter solstice traditions.

How about the history of how Christmas has been treated on this continent? The Puritan Pilgrims, who have taken on an almost mythical aspect as the founders of our country, outlawed the celebration of Christmas from 1659 to 1681. Various Christian sects throughout our nation's history (see the same article as linked above) have also refrained from celebrating Christmas. Our founding fathers didn't see fit to declare Christmas a national holiday, and the 1st Congress worked straight through that particular day (as did many subsequent Congresses - in fact, Christmas wasn't declared a national holiday until 1870). Actually, for many of those that did celebrate Christmas, it didn't take on its warm & fuzzy family feel until the late 1800s. Prior to that, many in the U.S. followed a tradition from the Middle Ages of getting drunk and acting raucously. To quote from that article I just linked to, "In the early part of the 19th century, Christmas was, as one historian once noted, 'like a nightmarish cross between Halloween and a particularly violent, rowdy Mardi Gras.' In fact, a massive Christmas riot in 1828 led to the formation of New York City's first police force." Certainly not everyone became a drunken vandal on Christmas, just like not everyone ignored it like the Puritans or some other Protestant groups, but Christmas certainly hasn't been celebrated universally throughout our country's history in the same way it is now.

I also get tired of the persecution complex that the people who buy into the War on Christmas seem to have. Christians make up around 80% of the U.S. population. As far as representation in government, in the 109th Congress, there were 11 senators who didn't identify themselves as Christians (12 if you count Unitarians), and only 30 representatives in the House (32 if you count Unitarians). In other words, over 90% of the elected officials in the federal legislative branch are Christians. You have to go back all the way to Taft to find a president who said, "I do not believe in the divinity of Christ" (though he was still a Unitarian Christian), or all the way back to Lincoln to find a deist president, and it seems absurd to imagine a non-Christian being elected to that office anytime soon. Christians make up a very large segment of the population, and are actually over-represented in government. They are not an oppressed minority.

Okay, with all that out of my system, I just want to be sure to mention that this was not directed at Christians or Christmas in general. It was aimed at the oversensitive vocal minority who seem to think that the First Amendment only applies to people who agree with them (though perhaps that's not as small of a minority as I would like). Personally, I like Christmas. We've decorated all the rooms in the house, put up our Christmas tree, hung our lights outside, given money to the Salvation Army, donated to food drives, bought presents for friends & family, and all the other things that people like to do around this time of year. I even tell people 'Merry Christmas.' I just wish people would quit being so ignorant.

Updated 2008-12-19: In the section on pagan origins, I added everything from the Pope Julius reference to the end of the paragraph. I also made a few minor changes to the section on the history of Christmas in this country, as well as adding the final sentence to that paragraph, just to clarify things. Since I linked to so many other pages in this post, I'll make special mention here of one of those links in particular (which was also pointed out in the comments) - the Slate article was very good, and worth reading even if you don't follow any of the other links.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Tough Times, Prayer, and the Ratchet Effect

I originally wrote this several weeks ago, and have been debating whether or not to actually post it. Without going into too much personal detail, I'll say that my friend is recovering well from the stroke. He still has a long road of therapy ahead of him, but he's definitely doing well. So, since tomorrow's Thanksgiving, let me say that I am thankful for all those things that I mention below.

GraceSeveral weeks ago, my wife's cell phone rang at 3:30 in the morning. One of our friends was calling to tell us that her husband (also our friend) was having a stroke, and that she was taking him to the hospital. My wife got dressed to meet her there, while I stayed home to be with our daughter.

There was nothing I could do there at the house, so I thought I'd try to be practical and at least get some sleep. That didn't work at all. I was awake most of the night, and only slept in fits.

While I was laying there awake, I guess my Christian upbringing came out, and I was tempted to pray. After all, when I still believed in God, praying would have seemed like the natural thing to do. It's such a feeling of helplessness - not knowing what happened, or what's going to happen, and only being able to lay there and wait. Well, I have to admit that I did end up praying, but not to a god. No matter how strong the emotional temptation, the rational side of me knew that Yahweh was no more real than Zeus or Thor, and praying to any of those myths would have been equally ineffectual. I figured that if any of the mystical stuff that people believed in were true, the common thread to most religions was that we have souls*. And if souls did exist, then my grandparents would be the souls who were most likely to actually care about and want to help me, so I prayed to them. And, I prayed out loud, because I figured that ghosts probably wouldn't be able to read minds any easier than living people. I did recognize that I was praying more for my own peace of mind than actually hoping anything would come of it, but I figured that it couldn't cause any harm, so what did it matter, anyway. I know it all sounds silly, but that feeling of helplessness is just so strong.

Several hours later, after I dropped my daughter off at school, I headed over to the hospital. Now, I fully expected people to be praying. That's just what religious people do in times like this, and even a former christian turned atheist like me had given in to the temptation. For the most part, it didn't bother me much. Sure, it troubled me a bit on an intellectual level, but there are more important things than trying to be right all the time, and it would have taken a real jerk to argue about such things at a time like that.

But... There was one person that really irritated me - the hospital chaplain. He shouldn't have. He didn't seem like a bad guy, and maybe under different circumstances I would have like him just fine. I was probably irritated with him simply because he was a stranger intruding on us during a troubling time. Anyway, the comment he made that really ticked me off, and made me bite my tongue, was something to the effect of, "Well, it's all in the hands of the Big Surgeon, now." Don't call your myth a surgeon. Don't compare it to the hard working men and women who are doing real good. Don't sit there all smug, and pretend that praying is going to do one damn bit of good. If our friend recovers well from this stroke, I'll thank the fact that his wife was a nurse, recognized immediately the signs of a stroke, and rushed him to the hopsital. I'll thank the doctors and nurses, who spent years going to school to learn how to treat these conditions, and acted quickly and competently when our friend showed up in the ER. I'll thank the researchers, who developed the clot buster drugs that give people now a much better chance of surviving and recovering from strokes. I'll thank the researchers before them, who spent decades and centuries increasing our knowledge, to even know what a stroke is, to give any hope of how to treat it. I'll be thankful that we live in this day and age instead of a couple hundred years ago, when, prayer or no prayer, he wouldn't have had a chance.

This also reminded me of an effect that many people have noticed and commented on before - the ratcheting effect of religion. When good things happen, like our friend's recovery, people are supposed to be thankful to God for all he's done for them. But when bad things happen, like the stroke to begin with, it's all part of his mysterious divine plan, and they're supposed to accept that it must have happened for a good reason.

Well, if prayer's what it takes for people to get through tough times, let them pray. I won't try to stop them, but I won't join in, either. What I will do is continue to visit the hospital to offer my support, to run over meals, to help out with errands and chores in the coming months, and to offer any real help that I can.

* - I've written about souls on this blog before. In short, I really do doubt that we have souls, which is why I recognized I was praying for my own peace of mind more than anything else.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Strengths and Limitations

Strengths and Limitations

TEA LogoThe Texas State Board of Education had their first hearing on school science standards. There's a lot of hoopla over a certain phrase that's been in the standards since 1988, to teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of all scientific theories. When the draft science standards were released in September, which were, according to the Dallas Morning News, created by "review committees of teachers and academics," the wording had been removed. Now, the new Science Standards Review Panel, a six member group containing three ID supporters, one of whom is even the director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture from Washington state, have unsurprisingly put that language back into the standards, slightly reworded as "analyze and evaluate strengths and limitations" of scientific explanations, along with a recommendation for middle school students to "discuss possible alternative explanations" for scientific concepts (source).

Before I begin discussing this, since I realize that around half the population of the U.S. doesn't accept evolution, let me make it clear that evolution has, in fact, happened, and our knowledge of the history of life on this planet, although incomplete, is still pretty good. I've already posted A (Somewhat) Brief Introduction to Evolution explaining much of this, which also has links to much more in depth material on evolution. Moving on...

On the face of it, teaching strengths and weaknesses of any theory sounds like a great thing. After all, there are weaknesses in our current understanding of evolution: which is more accurate - gradualism or punctuated equilibrium; what is the relative importance of natural selection versus genetic drift versus sexual selection versus other forms of genetic change; what are the relative importances of allopatric, peripatric, parapatric, and sympatric speciation; how do epigenetics contribute to evolution; etc. But, understanding the larger debate, and recognizing that organizations like the Discovery Institute try to use this language to inject pseudoscience into students' education is what makes it worrying. I mean, just take a look at what the inappropriately named organization, Texans for Better Science Education, considers weaknesses of evolutionary theory (most of these are covered in Talk Origins' Index to Creationist Claims). If the language in the science standards opens the door to drivel like that, we're definitely doing our children a disservice.

There's also the question of what is the proper role of a pre-college education. You only get the students for 12 years, and there're a lot of knowledge and skills that they need to be taught in that time. There's one school of thought that says that it's more important to teach students how to think than what to think. I agree with this to an extent - critical thinking skills are essential to evaluating all the information the students will receive outside school. It's not as if school can cover everything, or as if our body of knowledge as a civilization is static. There will always be new challenges and new information that these students will face once they become adults, and they need to know how to approach those. However, evaluating claims about the world also relies on a strong foundation of knowledge. It's hard to evaluate someone claiming the Earth is flat without a working knowledge of at least geography, and maybe a little bit of astronomy and physics. So, it is up to schools to find the proper balance of teaching that foundation along with critical thinking skills.

And this is where the "strengths and weaknesses" or "strengths and limitations" requirement as part of the science curriculum comes into question. How much can actually be covered in a high school biology class? Can we really give students the good strong foundation they need in evolutionary theory before addressing some of those weaknesses I listed above? Should it just be a token paragraph as part of the lesson plan about future research opportunies? Think about another high school science topic - physics (since this requirement is about all science topics, not just biology). There's so much to teach students as is (universal gravitation, forces, vectors, friction, etc.). How much time do you think teachers should be devoting to describing the weaknesses in the classical (Newtonian) model, other than maybe a brief, single day lesson about Einsteinian relativity?

Out of all the controversies about teaching evolution in the various states of this country, this current one in Texas, other than generating some heat in the blogosphere and among a few interested parties, is probably pretty mild. After all, it's only a short phrase that's already been in place for the past 10 years, and not even one that explicitly requires teaching of creationism or Intelligent Design. With competent teachers, evolution will still be taught well. And with the creationist teachers, I don't know that the phrase would make much of a difference, anyway. The place where I see this having the biggest impact, and which will probably turn into a bigger battle, is when it comes time to choose the new textbooks. I'd hate to see our state waste taxpayer money on a book like Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Creationists Still on Texas Board of Education

TEA LogoNot too long ago, I blogged about how the Texas Board of Education had nomianted three creationists to the six member Texas Science Standards Review Panel. What's more, two of those creationists aren't even from Texas, and have published a textbook that could potentially be adopted by the school system (no conflict of interest there).

Well, the way the panel was chosen was that they had to each be nominated by two BoE members. The six members who nominated the creationists to the panel were Cynthia Dunbar and David Bradley (nominated Meyer), Barbara Cargill and Ken Mercer (nominated Seelke), and Gail Lowe and Terri Leo (nominated Garner). (more info at Texas Citizens for Science)

Creationist BoE members up for relection included David Bradley and Gail Lowe (both running against Democratic challengers), and Terri Leo, Barbara Cargill, and Patricia Hardy (running against third party challengers). The results are in, and all five were re-elected.

On the plus side, two rational board members, Mary Helen Berlanga and Mavis Knight, both up against Republican challengers, were also re-elected. So, at least the creationists didn't gain any power.

I know I probably shouldn't be surprised by this, but it's still disappointing.

Added 2008-11-05 Cynthia Dunbar wasn't up for re-election this time around, but this gives a good idea of just what type of people we have on our BoE down here. She posted the following comment to the Christian Worldview website a few days before the election.

So we can imagine the blatant disregard for our Constitution, but what other threats does an Obama administration pose? We have been clearly warned by his running mate, Joe Biden, that America will suffer some form of attack within the first 6 months of Obama’s administration. However, unlike Joe, I do not believe this “attack” will be a test of Obama’s mettle. Rather, I perceive it will be a planned effort by those with whom Obama truly sympathizes to take down the America that is threat to tyranny.

Argh. I can't believe these people have control over the curriculum for my daughter's education.


Selling Out