John L Perkins
Atheist Society Lecture, Melbourne.
Darwin Day, 12 February 2019
Most religions evolve from earlier belief systems, usually beginning as a heretical offshoot. The evolutionary process of a religion is called syncretism. Some religions survive and grow while others diminish or die.
What are the traits that enable their survival? Could it be their ability to attract followers due to superior inducements and promises of eternal life and bliss? Or their superior coercive power to enforce conformity and through the psychological operation of guilt and fear?
Once established, there is little doubt as to their method of propagation: through the manipulation of the minds of children, through indoctrination and brainwashing, using all the available psychological means, of inducement and coercion. Since there is no genetic inheritance of religious beliefs, religions are quick to put labels on babies and young children.
Schools are used, with the connivance of governments, to indoctrinate and coerce children to adopt religious unfounded religious beliefs. This is neither in the best interests of the child, nor consistent with the rights of the child. How is it that our societies systematically ignore and violate the human rights of a child with respect to religion. Again, it is due to the entrenched power of religions and their pious presumptions of privilege.
How best to challenge these presumptions and these privileges? The most important, avenue, I think, is the one least utilised. To challenge the truth claims of religions, especially the historical truth claims, where evidence can be brought to bear to contradict them.
Endless philosophical discourse is expended on the question of whether or not gods exist. The arguments against are convincing, yet it is impossible to dispel all doubt due to the difficulty in disproving a negative.
However the historical claims on which all religions are based can be and have been refuted. The central tenets are false and without foundation. That which is built on myth cannot gain veracity merely by elaborate further construction. Even if gods existed, religions would still be false.
All societies have their creation myths. Other peoples myths are recognised as such. But each think their own myths are true. Or perhaps the myths false but the religion built on them are true.
I will consider the various myths of different religions.
Aboriginal traditional beliefs
Like many traditional societies, Australian Aboriginal societies have animist beliefs heavily reliant on a spirit world. Dreamtime myths were preserved in songlines and an oral culture. Often central to the creation myths are the totem, a tribal based ancestral animal.
It is important to preserve Aboriginal cultural heritage. As with any culture however, it is important to distinguish between what are traditional stories and what we know of the actual origins of life and the cosmos.
Due to cultural sensitivities and cultural relativism, I doubt that this is done to the extent that it should be. Dreamtime stories are culturally valuable and should be respected as such, but should be recognised for what they are: myths.
A literary aspect of Hinduism is the Bhagavad Gita, which is an epic poem of heroes and gods, containing religious philosophy. This is contained within a longer epic called the Mahabarata, detailing the story of the struggle between two families at the beginning of Indian history. This may have been composed over a period between the 8th century BCE and the 3rd century CE. After about the first century CE, attention focussed to a greater extent on three main gods, which were forms or functions of the ultimate Brahman. These were Brahma, the creator, Shiva the destroyer and Vishnu the preserver. This era saw the construction of many temples and statues in honour of these Gods.
An ancient epic poem became a sacred text. Is the epic poem taken as literal history? Post-enlightenment perhaps not. But now, the Hindu nationalist government of India is seeking to have these texts taught in all schools as the basis on Indian history, culture and religion. This is a pressing case as to where the fact versus fiction question must be raised, and the historical claims challenged.
Buddhism began in India in the 6th century BCE as another interpretation of Hinduism and became popular throughout India. It is said that its founder was a man named Siddharta, a prince of the Gautama clan. He led a privileged and sheltered childhood and was later shocked by the degree of poverty and suffering he observed. This led him to study philosophy and then to a life of austere self-denial. His meditation led him to the conclusion that lack of all desire leads to enlightenment. In his teachings he denied the relevance of gods and presented a statement of Four Noble Truths. These involved pain, the cause of pain, the cessation of pain and the way to this cessation. This way was the Eightfold path, namely, the right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
How much of this is actual history? I am not sure, but the lack supernatural content greatly assists its plausibility.
The religion received its greatest impetus when the emperor Asoka, who ruled from 268 to 232 BCE, converted to Buddhism. Forms of Buddhism survive to day in East Asia, China, Japan and Korea, but it has largely disappeared from India. The invasions from the Islamic Moguls from the west, led to a decline in Buddhism and a revival of Hinduism.
The original form of Buddhism, which persists today in Sri Lanka and South Asia, is known as Theravada Buddhism. It relied on reincarnation rather than gods. By the first century BCE there were developments that in effect transformed Buddhism into a new religion. In these developments, the Buddha himself became a god or god-like. This Mahayana Buddhism became popular in China in the first century CE and later spread to Korea and Japan.
In challenging the supernatural content of Buddhism, the historical origins of the religion must be a major point of reference.
The religion of the Aryans ("noble ones"), who were the ancient inhabitants of Persia (now Iran), contained gods of nature, including Mithra, god of light, but had one supreme god, Ahura Mazda, the "Wise Lord". This religion developed into Zoroastrianism, which was the first monotheistic religion. It is said to have been founded by Zoroaster (Zarathustra), who at the age of 30, according to belief, was visited by an angel who told him that there was only one true God, which was Ahura Mazda, or Lord Mazda, and that Zoroaster was his prophet. After many years struggle, he converted a Persian prince to his belief, after which Zoroastrianism was widely adopted.
There is no historical corroboration for any of this.
According to the Bible, the god Yahweh made a covenant with Abraham, who was promised that his descendants would be the chosen people and would form a great nation. Part of the historical tradition is that that Moses, born in Egypt, spent forty years in exile in Sinai, where he received the Ten Commandments from the god Yahweh. He returned to Egypt and after a series of plagues, led the Israelites from slavery to triumphant conquest in the land of Canaan.
However at the time of these alleged occurrences, assumed to be around the 13th century BCE, the ancestors of the Jews were quite polytheistic. They tended to have tribal gods and at a later time, Yahweh was one of these. Another was the fertility goddess Asherah. The early books of the Bible have numerous references to a plurality of gods, albeit as injunctions against them. At around one thousand years BCE, according to archaeological records, there existed temples with two columns, one for Yahweh and the other for his wife Asherah. Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem was one of these. Many of the specific references to polytheism did not appear later in the Bible when the scripture took its final shape. The name Asherah survives as an item of temple paraphernalia.
The evidence for this has been summarised by Israeli archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman in their book The Bible Unearthed. The findings do not validate the biblical Exodus narrative, but show the entire account to be mythological.
According to Finkelstein, the stories of the Patriarchs, the Passover, Exodus, and triumphal kingdoms are similar in character to that of other cultural traditions, such as Greek mythology. However such events are celebrated in Israel with national holidays and as historical facts, not as mythology.
The Prophet Abraham, on which the three "Abrahamic" religions are based, is not historical but mythological. The archaeological revelations, which thoroughly debunk the basic tenets of Judaism, are just ignored.
This should be sufficient to dispose of Christianity and Islam, as they rely on Judaic roots. Instead, myth is built upon myth, and contrary historical evidence ignored.
"In the entire first Christian century Jesus is not mentioned by a single Greek or Roman historian, religion scholar, politician, philosopher or poet. His name never occurs in a single inscription, and is never found in a single piece of private correspondence". (Dr Bart Erhman, Professor of Religious Studies)
There is statement about Jesus by the Roman historian Josephus. This a later insertion into the text. It is notably incongruous. It was not referred to until the 3rd century.
Did Jesus exist? The thesis of Paul George author of Jesus of the Books, makes sense. The Jews were traumatised and devastated by the conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 BCE. The Jewish war lasted years and was the longest war the Romans fought. A million or so people were affected. The Romans use the proceeds of the war, the loot from the temple, to build the Colosseum.
Why had their god forsaken them? According to George, a rumour was started, by Paul, that the messiah had visited Jerusalem in the years prior to the destruction. The true nature of the person had not been recognised at the time. The messiah had been crucified. The destruction was god’s punishment for this neglect, this mistreatment of the messiah. George has many corroborating references that are consistent with this theory.
There is no evidence for Jesus. Is absence of evidence, evidence of absence. Yes it is. What would be evidence of absence? A statement from the time saying Jesus was absent? It is ludicrous to expect such evidence. In the absence of any contemporary evidence, which would be apparent if the Jesus stories had actually happened, I think it is safe to assume that the Jesus on which Christianity is based is fiction.
It is certainly safe to assume that a story of a male person, born of a virgin, having miraculous powers, dying, and coming back to life, is fiction. Such a legend could only be developed at a time sufficiently subsequent to the alleged events to be safe from contradiction by those still living. Subsequent to the Roman conquest of Jerusalem, with fictitious events backdated prior to it, would seem a plausible time for the development of such a legend. This type of reinvention of history is a phenomenon common to all religions.
Had Jesus been a real person, the story would be too mundane for a religion to develop. In Judaism, a messiah was expected (and still is). If there had already been a messiah, but had been somehow unrecognised as such, then there would be endless scope for his characterisation. And so it was.
A god having a son was common in Greek and Roman religions, however it raises problems for a monotheistic religion. What was the divine nature of Jesus exactly? This is a question that has plagued Christianity ever since its invention. The "three in one" concept of the Trinity, was never sufficient to satisfy all adherents. Disputes over Christology led to numerous schisms and wars, the "Jesus wars", over the first five or six centuries of the religion, and led to the formation of Islam.
The Koran was originally a Christian text. Jesus is mentioned in the Koran, including indirectly, over 187 times. Moses is mentioned 136 times. Such reliance on mythical figures does lend it a great deal of credibility. But surely the central figure of Islam could not also be mythical, could he?
According to the Islamic version of events, Mecca in the 6th century was a centre of trade and pilgrimage. From there, an Arab Prophet arose called Muhammad. He attracted a band of followers, who in 622 moved from Mecca to Medina (the Hijra, the start of Islamic calendar). In 623 he began an insurgency against Mecca. After a five-year campaign, including the battles of Badr, Uhud, and the Trench, in 628 the Treaty of Hudaibiya was signed. However in 630 Mecca was conquered, and thereafter the rest of Arabia.
Figure 1. Fictive Islamic view of events of 620-630
Following this, according to Islamic history, this vast swathes of the Roman (Byzantine) and Persian empires fell to the all-conquering Arabs from the desert. Within a hundred years they had advanced across North Africa to Spain.
Figure 2. Fictive Islamic view of events of to 750
None of this is historically attested.
In fact, around the year 600, in the northern part of Arabia there were two Arab Christian kingdoms, the Ghassanids and Lakhmids. These were originally traders from Arabia and had converted to Christianity. The Ghassanids acted as border guards, (qurays in Arabic), for the Romans, and the Lakhmids acted as mercenaries for the Persians. As a result of the "Jesus Wars" many followers of Christianity who rejected the Byzantine orthodoxy, such a Monophysites and Nestorians, sought sanctuary in the east. As well as these exiles, many Persian slaves were Christian. The Silk Road also carried Christianity eastward. The Christianisation was such that Persian emperor Khosrow II, was married to a Christian, and had Christian courtiers.
Figure 3. Actual events of 600-630
The actual history that followed was this. In 602, the Persian emperor Khosrow II launched an offensive against the Romans. Damascus and Jerusalem were conquered in 614 and Egypt in 618. Constantinople was then threatened. In 622 Byzantine emperor Heraclius led his troops to a decisive victory in 622. He compared himself to Alexander the Great. A truce was made in 628. The Sassanian dynasty collapsed soon after. Note the correspondence of dates here compared with the fictive Islamic version above.
Following this, the Byzantines withdrew and ceded rule to the Christian Arabs, who had retained their own military strength. They declared their own independent kingdom in 622. This is clear from Muawiya’s bathhouse inscription at Gadera. Muawiya was clearly a Christian king, not and Islamic caliph.
Figure 4. Bathhouse inscription at Gadera
The inscription is in Greek and starts with a cross. The translation is as follows:
Following the death of Heraclius in 641 the Arabs began minting their own coins. This was an expression of their independence. They continued in a Roman style but with additional Arabic inscriptions. These coins are reasonably common and some can be purchased at coin auction houses. This is an example, from Homs in Syria (a place now devastated by war).
Figure 5. Christian Arab coin from the time of Abd al-Malik
This is a Christian Arab coin minted in the Roman style. In the auction house description, AE means bronze, and Fals is the denomination of the coin (=40 numis). On the obverse is a crowned figure. The crown has as cross on it. It is described as an "imitation of Constans II". That is, it follows the style of the Roman coins, which figured the then leader Constans II. It is not clear if the figure here represents the Arab leader Abd al-Malik, (likely) or Jesus (less likely). The coin features a globe cross (globus cruciger). This is an item of Christian paraphernalia, which also featured on European Christian coins, centuries later.
Expert interpretation of the inscriptions on the coin is as follows. As the coins minted by the Arabs were new, the population needed convincing that they were valid and could be trusted. The Greek letters KAL on the coin mean "good" and were put there for this reason, to validate its acceptance. The Arabic (Kufic) script to the right of the figure is "bi-hims", meaning Hims (now Homs), the Arab name of the town. (This script looks a bit like the Arab word "muhammad", which did also appear on coins, but it is not, in this case).
On the reverse of the coin is a large M meaning 40 numina. This bronze coin was worth 40 copper coins. There is a star above the M between scroll ornaments (annulets). The letters EMI-CHC, denote Emesa, the mint location, Greek name of town. The Kufic script below (the exergue) says tayyib meaning "good". Thus the mint is named on each side, in different languages, and the word "good" is on each side in different languages.
There is no date on the coin and the dating is reckoned in relation to similar dated coins. We do not know the provenance of this coin i.e. where it was first discovered. After purchasing it at auction, the coin is now in my possession.
Coins are important because they indicate who was in power. Only leaders can mint coins. What is written on the coins indicates the ideological and religious message that the state wishes to promote. What is apparent from the coins is a continuity of administration under Arab rule. There is no evidence in the coins, or elsewhere, of any Islamic conquest from Arabia, or of any destruction that would be entailed by such an invasion and conquest.
The same was true in Persia, where the administration continued under
new leaders, and new coins were minted in the Sassanian style, but with
new Christian symbols. Christian Arab coins, and Persian coins, of the
period did bear the word "muhammad".
Figure 6. Christian coins, from time of Adb al-Malik, bearing word muhammad in Arabic
The word "muhammad", or MHMD, written right to left as DMHM,
appear in Arabic as:
Figure 7. The word muhammad in Arabic
How should we interpret the fist use of the word "muhammad" on coins and in inscriptions? As many scholars now testify, we cannot rely on the Islamic tradition to answer this question. The first non-coin inscription of the word appears on the Dome of the Rock built by the Christian king Abd al-Malik. The word does not refer to the legendary Arab leader from Mecca. Why would Christians use it?
The word "muhammad" is an honorific title meaning "praised one". Its first use predates any reference to an Arab Prophet. It first appears in Persia, not Arabia. It refers to Jesus.
There are many other reasons to reject the traditional Islamic narrative.
Figure 8. Coins dated in the era of the Arabs, showing east to west progression.
How did the myth of the Prophet Muhammad arise? The Arabs needed a prophet
of their own, to go with their new religion and empire. The original meaning
of the word muhammad was lost, but still persisted on coins and
inscriptions. The Arab military detachment in Syria, foederati,
in Arabic qurays, became Quraysh, the tribe of Muhammad. The term
al-muminin, on coins, originally "Leader of the Protectors", became
"Commander of the Faithful". The Arab military protectors, now maintaining
order in the new empire, could have later given rise to an impression that
an invasion from Arabia had occurred. The Koran itself speaks of many Prophets.
It was rendered into Arabic. It was not difficult to read the concept of
an Arab Prophet into it. The myth could only be constructed long after
any living memory from the times had disappeared.
Final words on the legend of the Prophet can be left to Volker Popp:
That which is based on myth cannot be rendered true simply by endless elaboration and repetition. The central tenets of our major religions, the legendary figures on which they are based are myths and fallacies. Religions are historical fabrications on the grandest of scales. They are mass delusions based on mass deception. Yet the falsehoods go largely unchallenged.
The cost is enormous. Religions are a complete waste of people's time and resources. Taxpayer's money is pointlessly misdirected and misused. Instead, these funds could be used productively and beneficially.
Religious conflicts have ravaged humanity throughout history and still do. Many countries have been destroyed, rendered failed states, millions displaced from their homes. Many if not most causes of violence, terrorism, oppression, persecution, and female mutilation can be traded to religious causes. While global poverty and mortality has been greatly alleviated, religion remains the greatest avoidable cause of human suffering.
Why do we not care? Why are we so blind?
Even in "secular" societies, religions remain firmly entrenched in our education, our politics, our legal systems, our customs and in our popular media. The truth is valued, to a degree, but not in relation to religion. Acceptance of a post-truth, post-fact, postmodernist world is a growing threat to our future.
It ought to be that truth survives and falsity dies. But with religion, falsity survives and thrives. How have religions avoided this evolutionary reality for so long?
The primary reason must be the most primal of instincts: fear. Children are instilled with fear. Fear of death, fear of ostracism, fear of tribal rivals. What about out intellectual leaders?
Western historians are generally ambivalent, disingenuous and negligent in their deliberations. Regarding Islam, apart from a dedicated group of German scholars, few are prepared to offer a truly evidence-based narrative. The reticence of most western historians has an underlying motive: fear. Fear of criticism, fear of causing offence, fear of censure, fear of loss of tenure, fear of physical danger.
Species survive if a sufficient number of individuals survive long enough to reproduce. This mechanism is short-circuited in the propagation of religion. Only the meme need be transmitted, not the gene. Children need only survive long enough for institutionalised religion to implant the religious meme in their minds. Society then reinforces the implantation.
It is incongruous that this propagation method, via children, is allowed to persist. Indoctrination and coercion of children in this way is neither in the best interests of the child, nor consistent with the rights of the child. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including children. This is especially so in schools, where children are in the care of the state. This is particularly the case in societies that purport to uphold human rights and which purport to regard the interests of the child as paramount.
The best interests of children, psychologically and educationally, are served by developing their ability to develop critical and creative thinking, not by misrepresenting a particular brand of religious fiction as factual. Due to the entrenched power of religions and their pious presumptions of privilege, the best interests of the child are widely overlooked in this regard.
Ethics are best defined in terms of universal principles such as compassion, honesty truth and justice. No religion is required. If religions are exposed to the light of truth, they will not survive. Without them, the world will be a better place.
Religions of the World. Sixth edition. Lewis M. Hopfe, 1994, Macmillan.
The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel, and the Origin of its Sacred Texts, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, Touchstone, 2001.
Jesus of the Books: A pragmatic history of the early church, Paul George, Vivid Publishing, 2018.
Jesus in the Koran: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_in_Islam
Early Islam: a Critical Reconstruction Based on Contemporary Sources,
Karl-Heinz Ohlig (ed.), Prometheus Books, 2013.