The Moral High Ground

It's common for fundamentalist Christians to think of themselves as the moral guardians of our culture, a bulwark against the rampant sex and violence in the mass media. But this self-flattering caricature runs up against inconvenient reality: there is plenty of evidence which shows that Christians as a whole are every bit as drawn to sex and violence as everyone else.

One of the best examples of this is Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ. This movie had a worldwide gross of over $600 million, of which we can safely assume most came from Christian viewers. Of the movie's two-plus hour runtime, nearly all is devoted to depicting the torture and execution of Jesus in obsessive, graphic detail, from brutal floggings to the hammering in of crucixifion nails, even adding extra tortures not mentioned in the gospels. Film critic Roger Ebert called Passion "the most violent film I have ever seen", and Slate critic David Edelstein suggested it should be renamed "The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre".

Another example is the video game Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a real-time strategy game based on the Left Behind novels. In the game, players take the role of commander of the "Tribulation Force", an army of Christian believers, converted after the rapture, who must battle the forces of the Antichrist. In essence, the player's mission is to either convert or kill all non-Christians. U.N. soldiers are represented as minions of the Antichrist, and the player characters exclaim "Praise the Lord!" each time they shoot one of them.

And then, of course, there are the violent and gory scenes from Left Behind itself, where Jesus returns to earth to slaughter his enemies by the millions:

"Tens of thousands of foot soldiers dropped their weapons, grabbed their heads or their chests, fell to their knees, and writhed as they were invisibly sliced asunder. Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor, and as those around them turned to run, they too were slain, their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ."

For deeply religious Christians, it seems that violence is acceptable as long as it's depicted in the proper religious context. When it's presented as God's righteous judgment, they find violence perfectly okay and often even praiseworthy. The Bible itself, of course, is the greatest example of this - considering the many brutal slaughters and wars of extermination it records the Israelites waging against their enemies at God's command, none of which ever seem to give fundamentalists any concern. (The sexual content of the Bible doesn't bother them either.)

Turning to the topic of sex, there's little difference to be found between Christians and non-Christians here as well - or rather, if there is, it's in the wrong direction. It's long been known that, statistically, socially conservative states and evangelical Protestants in particular have higher rates of teen pregnancy, divorce, and STD infection. The "abstinence-only" sex education programs and virginity pledges so beloved by religious conservatives have repeatedly failed to make any measurable difference in sexual behavior.

Corroborating evidence comes from another study, by sociologist Benjamin Edelman, concerning access to online pornography. It turns out that of all American states, the one with the highest rate of subscriptions to adult sites is the socially conservative, Mormon-dominated Utah. The FBI also confirms that Utah outranks most other states when it comes to web searches for explicit content. Nor is this just a Mormon thing, as Edelman adds:

"Subscriptions are slightly more prevalent in states that have enacted conservative legislation on sexuality," Edelman writes. In the 27 states where "defense of marriage" amendments have been adopted, there were 11 percent more porn subscribers than in other states, he reports. Use is higher also in states where more people agree with the statement "I never doubt the existence of God."

Clearly, there's a great deal of sexual repression lurking beneath the surface facades of piety. When it comes to sex and violence, religious teachings may instill an outward attitude of condemnation, but they evidently make little difference in people's actual desires and behaviors.

March 27, 2009, 6:40 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink20 comments
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Rapture Bonds

One of the great virtues of market forces is that they consistently reward investors who can correctly predict future events. Whenever two people disagree about the plausibility of some event, you can create a financial instrument whereby the one who's right can profit at the expense of the one who's wrong.

The Christian community in America, particularly that section of it aligned with the religious right, commands vast wealth and influence. Although atheists are beginning to make our mark, we're still routinely outspent and outlobbied by the legions of Christian conservatives and their wealthy leaders. It would be greatly beneficial if we could use the power of the market to redirect some of that wealth away from them and to us, where we can put it to better use advancing the cause of science and reason, rather than promoting regressive superstition. But what deal can we offer that they will accept?

I think the religious doctrine of the Rapture is the lever we need. Vast numbers of believers are completely convinced that this event will happen in the near future, and unlike natural catastrophes which might happen by coincidence, it is an unambiguously supernatural aspect of their end-times belief. If, as they say, they have no doubt that it will occur, we can give them a chance to put their money where their mouth is - and to take money away from us if we're the ones who are wrong. What believer could resist that opportunity?

At first glance it might seem impossible to design a financial instrument that centers around the Rapture. After all, if the Christians are right, they won't be around to collect. But I have a solution: I call it Rapture Bonds.

Here's my offer to the believer. Choose a time period - a year, five years, ten years - however long you think is needed to be sure that the Rapture will happen sometime in the chosen interval. Choose a dollar amount. I, the investor, will loan you that amount of money. During the agreed-upon time period, you can use that money in any way you see fit to advance the cause of Christian evangelism: print gospel tracts, pay missionaries' salaries, donate it to televangelists, or whatever else you like.

However, at the end of the chosen period, you must pay me back the entire principal, plus all the interest it's been accumulating during that time. This would be similar to the balloon mortgages that some homeowners take out, which also have a lump-sum payment at the end.

What happens if the Rapture comes during your time interval? Then, obviously, you can't be held liable for the debt. In fact, the bond agreement will have a clause which states that the debt is unrecoverable if the debtor is declared legally dead without there being a body. If you die in the normal fashion, however, your estate is liable for the bond repayment.

In my opinion, this is a great way for Christians - and atheists as well - to really put their respective beliefs to the test. If the Christians are right, then we atheists have given you free money you can use to promote God's kingdom at our expense. If we atheists are right, then the money flows in the opposite direction. The best part is that you can enter into it no matter what you believe. I designed this instrument because I believe it will channel money from Christians to atheists, but a Christian investor could enter into it in the equally confident belief that the opposite will happen. The facts of the world will end up determining who's right, and the money will follow.

I personally don't have the funds to offer this plan on any significant scale. But it might be something for a canny, freethinking investor to consider.

December 17, 2008, 9:43 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink40 comments
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Strange and Curious Sects: The Millerites

Today's edition of "Strange and Curious Sects" concerns a now-defunct religious group, but one which has offshoots that survive to the present day. Like the stories of John Frum and Sabbatai Zevi, it's also a lesson in the almost limitless capacity of the human mind to rationalize away disappointment.

William Miller was born in 1782 in Massachusetts. A voracious reader, he converted to deism when he was young, but his belief in an intervening god would be restored in the War of 1812. Miller served as a captain in the American army and saw his first action at the Battle of Plattsburgh, where heavily outnumbered American forces defeated the British in a seemingly miraculous victory. Miller would later write that this experience convinced him that God had a special regard for America, a belief which would figure heavily in his later theology.

After the war, Miller and his family moved to Low Hampton, a town in the "burnt-over district" of New York, so named for the repeated religious revivals that swept the area in the nineteenth century. (Dresden, another town in the burnt-over district, would give America a worthier son: the great agnostic orator Robert Ingersoll.) Following his war experience, he converted to Baptism, and began an intense study of the Bible with the aim of rebutting the criticisms of his deist friends. But Miller's biblical studies were destined to lead him in a very different direction.

In the course of his study, Miller became fascinated with the books of Daniel and Revelation. He became convinced that by piecing together various verses from scripture, it was possible to derive a chronology that encompassed creation from its beginning to its end. Most importantly, Miller's chronology foretold the date of Christ's Second Coming - which, as it happened, he believed would occur in 1843.

In 1831, Miller began to present his conclusions in public lectures and in letters to local Baptist papers. By his own account, the response was immediate: "I began to be flooded with letters of inquiry respecting my views, and visitors flocked to converse with me on the subject." As Conrad Goeringer wrote in an article for American Atheists, "...eager listeners hung on his words, spellbound for two hours at a time, and packed houses were the rule".

Miller was one of the first American expounders of what's now called premillennialism, the view that the Second Coming, which he called the Advent, would be followed by a thousand-year reign of Christ on Earth. To judge by some of his published lectures and writings, he was an impressive speaker with a flair for the dramatic, so it's no surprise that his views gained more and more popularity. By 1840, he had made a convert of the Boston pastor Joshua Vaughan Himes, who started a biweekly paper, Signs of the Times, to promote Miller's ideas. Other independent papers supporting Millerism, such as The Midnight Cry and The Philadelphia Alarm, followed. At its height, Millerism may have had as many as 50,000 followers nationwide, and millions of copies of its tracts and pamphlets in circulation.

Miller himself never set an exact date for Christ's return, though he claimed it would occur sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. When that date passed without incident, the chronology was revised to set the date to April 3, and then again to April 18. Thousands of Millerite faithful jammed the Boston Advent Temple, only to be again disappointed. Afterward, Miller wrote a letter to the faithful which read in part, "I confess my error, and acknowledge my disappointment; yet I still believe that the day of the Lord is near, even at the door."

In August 1844, Millerite follower Samuel Snow presented a final revision of the chronology, one which fixed the date of the Advent to October 22. Despite the previous disappointments, this date electrified the Millerites, who believed that at last the true date had been discovered, and the movement responded with renewed fervor. According to contemporary sources,

Fields were left unharvested, shops were closed, people quit their jobs, paid their debts, and freely gave away their possessions with no thought of repayment.

On the predicted night, thousands of Millerites across the nation gathered in churches or on hilltops, some wearing white "ascension robes" in anticipation of meeting their savior. Their frenzy reached a fever pitch. But when the sun rose on the morning of October 23, the world had not ended. This final, crushing blow became known as the "Great Disappointment". Among the Millerites there was despair, dismay and weeping. One believer, Henry Evans, later wrote:

"I waited all Tuesday [October 22] and dear Jesus did not come;– I waited all the forenoon of Wednesday, and was well in body as I ever was, but after 12 o'clock I began to feel faint, and before dark I needed someone to help me up to my chamber, as my natural strength was leaving me very fast, and I lay prostrate for 2 days without any pain – sick with disappointment." (source)

Another, Hiram Edson, wrote:

"Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before. It seemed that the loss of all earthly friends could have been no comparison. We wept, and wept, till the day dawn. I mused in my own heart, saying, My advent experience has been the richest and brightest of all my Christian experience. If this had proved a failure, what was the rest of my Christian experience worth? Has the Bible proved a failure? Is there no God, no heaven, no golden home city, no paradise? Is all this but a cunningly devised fable? Is there no reality to our fondest hope and expectation of these things?" (source)

After this failure, the Millerite movement was adrift. Dozens of theories proliferated as to why the Advent had failed to occur on schedule, including further revised dates (none of which garnered nearly as much attention). Some said that Christ had returned "invisibly", others that October 22 had marked not Christ's return but the day that "the door was shut", after which there could be no salvation for unbelievers. Hiram Edson claimed to have had a prophetic vision which showed him that Christ had come on schedule - but in heaven rather than on Earth. The Millerite movement began splintering into sects as the debate raged, and soon had all but run out of steam. Miller himself died in 1849, insisting to the end that the Second Coming was imminent.

Following such a catastrophic failure, one might expect that the Millerite movement would fade away entirely. But that is not what happened. Although the fragmented Millerites languished for some time, and though many did abandon the movement, several of the competing splinter groups would ultimately gain new life. Hiram Edson's sect, the one which claimed Jesus' return was heavenly rather than earthly, developed into a denomination that still exists - the Seventh-Day Adventists, who today number as many as 15 million members worldwide. The Adventists claim that Jesus' 1844 entry into the "heavenly sanctuary" was the beginning of a still-ongoing process of "investigative judgment" of the souls of believers. They continue to claim that the literal Second Coming is imminent, though they no longer attempt to set dates.

The Advent Christian Church, another modern denomination, arose from a different Millerite splinter group. Another former Millerite, Charles Taze Russell, would carry forward his Miller-inspired beliefs about the imminent end-times into a new sect that he founded: the Watchtower (named after their monthly magazine), known today as the Jehovah's Witnesses. And last but not least, a small splinter group of fundamentalist Adventists led by a preacher named Victor Houteff split from the main church in 1934, and relocated to Waco, Texas, where they formed a community. They would later rename themselves the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, and then the Branch Davidians... and when a charismatic preacher calling himself David Koresh gained control of the group, the rest is history.

The Millerites and their modern descendants show that human beings, when motivated by ideology, are capable of coping with nearly any disappointment without altering what they believe. Miller made one of the few fatal errors in religion - tying his faith claims to a specific, falsifiable physical test - and no doubt owes his modern obscurity to that. But the faith that he founded has survived him, in somewhat changed form, and continues to issue apocalyptic predictions without being daunted by their repeated failure. This dynamic is visible in modern sects as well. When religious membership is a marker of tribal identity, a sign of belonging to a community which gives its members hope and comfort, the nature of its specific claims is almost beside the point.

Other posts in this series:

December 10, 2008, 9:22 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink21 comments
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Left Behind and Selective Literalism

In "The Rapture and the Fig Tree", I wrote about how end-times believers are always looking to reconstruct the past, seeking to force-fit the present into a framework of scripture written to apply to events in long-gone times. Given that many of these verses apply to people and places that no longer exist, a major part of this contrived exegesis is what I call "selective literalism": interpreting one verse literally and another one metaphorically, or even interpreting different parts of the same verse as literal or metaphor, in any way needed to make the passage apply to current or future events.

The first book of the Left Behind series shows how this works. The book's opening pages tell of a massive Russian surprise attack on Israel, which is LaHaye and Jenkins' interpretation of the "Battle of Gog and Magog" in the book of Ezekiel. Here's how they describe it, as reported by the protagonist Buck Williams:

"Frustrated at their inability to profit from Israel's fortune and determined to dominate and occupy the Holy Land, the Russians had launched an attack against Israel in the middle of the night... The Russians sent intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear-equipped MiG fighter-bombers into the region. The number of aircraft and warheads made it clear their mission was annihilation."

    "[Buck] stood in stark terror and amazement as the great machines of war plummeted to the earth all over the city, crashing and burning."

    "Miraculously, not one casualty was reported in all of Israel. Otherwise Buck might have believed some mysterious malfunction had caused missile and plane to destroy each other. But witnesses reported that it had been a firestorm, along with rain and hail and an earthquake, that consumed the entire offensive effort."

    "Among the ruins, the Israelis found combustible material that would serve as fuel and preserve their natural resources for more than six years."

    "Buck was stunned when he read Ezekiel 38 and 39 about a great enemy from the north invading Israel with the help of Persia, Libya, and Ethiopia. More stark was that the Scriptures foretold of weapons of war used as fire fuel and enemy soldiers eaten by birds or buried in a common grave."

Note very carefully that LaHaye and Jenkins only summarize the supposed prophecy from Ezekiel, and do not quote the text directly. Now, compare their description to the actual text of the book:

"And I will turn thee back, and put hooks into thy jaws, and I will bring thee forth, and all thine army, horses and horsemen, all of them clothed with all sorts of armour, even a great company with bucklers and shields, all of them handling swords: Persia, Ethiopia, and Libya with them; all of them with shield and helmet."

—Ezekiel 38:4-5

"And they that dwell in the cities of Israel shall go forth, and shall set on fire and burn the weapons, both the shields and the bucklers, the bows and the arrows, and the handstaves, and the spears, and they shall burn them with fire seven years. So that they shall take no wood out of the field, neither cut down any out of the forests; for they shall burn the weapons with fire: and they shall spoil those that spoiled them, and rob those that robbed them, saith the Lord God."

—Ezekiel 39:9-10

The Book of Ezekiel does predict a battle, but it says clearly that the attackers will be horsemen wielding swords and shields - not jet fighters and ICBMs. That this is not just a metaphor is confirmed by the second passage, which says that the victorious Israelites will burn their enemies' weapons for firewood, and will not have to gather dead wood from the fields or cut down trees from the forest. There is no indication from the text that any of this is meant metaphorically. Needless to say, this is not at all the same thing as extracting oil or gasoline from wrecked war machines.

LaHaye and Jenkins, by not quoting the passage directly, are practicing the most deceitful kind of selective literalism: claiming that Ezekiel's prophecy refers to a real event in the future, yet freely changing and rewriting sections of that prophecy to make it fit with the details of what they believe will happen. By so doing, they are attempting to cover up the fact that this prophecy could only refer to past events, and that any possibility for its future fulfillment has long since disappeared.

October 3, 2008, 7:52 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink26 comments
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The Rapture and the Fig Tree

The formation of the state of Israel in 1948 was a tremendous excitement to apocalypse-cheerleading Christians. For the end times to occur as described in the Bible, Israel must exist, so it's no surprise that its establishment following World War II convinced many believers that the end times were on the way:

There is little doubt among Bible scholars that the establishment of the State of Israel, on May 14, 1948, is the fulfillment of the prophecy of the fig tree... Most agree that this says that the generation of people who witness the fig tree bearing leaves (Israel becoming a nation) will not pass away until the Son of Man returns.

In the Bible, the length of a generation is given as forty years. Thus, many prominent Christians singled out 1988 as the year it would all happen - including Hal Lindsey, who made this argument in The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon, and Edgar Whisenant, who wrote another book titled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Could Be in 1988. Paul and Jan Crouch of the Trinity Broadcast Network famously altered their programming on Rosh Hashanah 1988 to show prerecorded tapes giving advice to those who had been left behind in the rapture. Of course, 1988 came and went and the world remained steadfastly unended.

Any ordinary person would have had the decency to feel embarrassed by their advocacy of this nonsense, but fundamentalist Christians have refused to give up. Clinging to their belief that the formation of Israel was the beginning of the end, they're now revising their chronology yet again, going back to the Bible to discover "proof" that the real length of a biblical generation is 80 years. This will get them to 2028, which will no doubt see another burst of apocalyptic excitement. When that date too comes and goes, the true believers will almost certainly return to their Bibles, dredge up some more obscure passages, and use them to fuel a whole new round of date-setting.

This has been a pastime of Christians since the beginning. Doubtless, when the believers who are currently "on fire for Christ" are old and gray and still unraptured, the next generation of born-agains will take up the torch just as eagerly. Their belief is an only slightly more drawn-out version of those who repeatedly predict the end in the imminent future.

What these believers overlook is that the conditions for the end-times still are not met. For one thing, the Bible clearly requires not just the existence of Israel, but of a rebuilt Jewish Temple. This poses something of a difficulty, since the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site in Islam, currently occupies that spot. In the Left Behind series, LaHaye and Jenkins' Antichrist deals with this difficulty in the space of a paragraph:

"Our Muslim brothers have agreed to move not only the shrine but also the sacred section of the rock to New Babylon, freeing the Jews to rebuild their temple on what they believe is the original site."

This passage shows an incredible naivete about Islam - which, I grant, is not surprising coming from someone who believes that every non-Christian on the planet will give up their religion and join a syncretistic one-world faith just because the Antichrist tells them to. To Muslims, it's not the mosque itself that's sacred but the location it's built on, this supposedly being the place from which Mohammed ascended to Heaven. Believing that Muslims would consent to move it is like believing that Christians would agree to move the Church of the Nativity.

This tendency of end-times believers to always be looking to the past, always getting excited by the recreation of ancient nations and the rebuilding of old temples, illuminates the basis of their theology. The book of Revelation and other apocalyptic literature was written for people alive at that time, and was founded on the belief that the end would arrive within the lifetime of the author and the first generation of readers. But in every case, the apocalypse failed to come, and the world changed and moved on. To see these events once again looming in the present day literally requires believing that the past will come again - that the world will reconstitute itself as it once was, so that the signs and portents of former days will be present once again. When believers claim to see the apocalypse in the near future, they are in reality gazing into the past, spellbound by the imaginings of a long-gone era. Whether Israel exists another hundred years or a thousand, the rapture will never happen, the end of days will never come. The deadlines have long since lapsed, and they should face up to reality and accept that fact.

September 8, 2008, 7:59 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink22 comments
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This World Is My Home

A famous Christian gospel hymn titled "This World Is Not My Home" sums up how religious views of an afterlife shape believers' views of this life:

This world is not my home,
    I'm just a passing through,
My treasures are laid up
    somewhere beyond the blue;
The angels beckon me
    from heaven's open door,
And I can't feel at home
    in this world anymore.

For millions of people, this verse is more than a metaphor. Huge numbers of religious people sincerely and fervently believe that this life is just a proving ground, a temporary way station on the road to a far more important destination. And when a person truly believes that, their actions cannot help but follow suit - treating this life as if it was unimportant, feeling detached and disconnected from this world, and missing out on all the richness and wonder it has to offer.

For instance, C.S. Lewis espouses this view in The Problem of Pain. In it, he writes of how God deliberately withholds lasting happiness from his followers, granting them at most brief and occasional flashes of merriment, so that they do not become too fixated on this world:

The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world...

I've written elsewhere about the most pernicious manifestation of this belief, namely theists who eagerly anticipate the apocalypse. But even in more mundane ways, this belief drains the brightness and color from life. Believing that this world is just an imperfect reflection of what is to come inevitably engenders the desire to get it over with, to get on to the real thing. And those who perpetually look forward to another life, those who think of themselves as "just passing through," are far less likely to seek or value happiness for themselves here and now.

This world is our home. Our species evolved here; we grew up here. We are all inextricably part of the fabric of nature. This life is the only one we know for certain that we have, and those who reject or downplay it are throwing away a certainty for a mere possibility. This world has more than enough intricacy and beauty to fill our lives with richness and meaning. Why dismiss it all for the mere unfounded hope of something even better?

Kendall Hobbs writes in "Why I Am No Longer a Christian":

But, much to my surprise, I have found life, the universe, everything to be much more wondrous and beautiful without God. When I was a Christian, I considered this world to be just a sign of the next world, the really real world. The beauty of this world was merely a reflection of some other world. The beauty I experienced in this world was derivative. Now, however, I see that this is the real world, this is the source of all the beauty, as well as all the misery, the joy and the sorrow, the fulfillment and the frustration. It is not derivative. It is all here. That allows me to appreciate this world in ways I could not as a Christian.

Brenda Peterson sums it up in an editorial from 2005, "I'll gladly stay behind":

My neighbor looked at me, startled, then fell very quiet as we watched a harlequin float past, his bright beak dripping a tiny fish. Happy, so happy in this moment. The Great Blue cawed hoarsely and stood on one leg in a fishing meditation. Wave after bright wave lapped our beach and the spring sunshine warmed our open faces.

I put my arm around my neighbor, the driftwood creaking slightly under our weight.

"Listen," I said softly, "I want to be left behind."

Left Behind to figure out a way to fit more humbly into this abiding Earth, this living and breathing planet we happily call home, we call holy.

Slowly my neighbor took my hand and we sat in silence, listening to waves more ancient than our young, hasty species, more forgiving than our religions, more enduring. Rapture.

September 2, 2008, 8:51 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink9 comments
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Strange and Curious Sects: Sabbatai Zevi

Past editions of Strange and Curious Sects have explored religious splinter groups that came into existence relatively recently. Today's edition will focus on an older cult that still has lessons to teach us: the bizarre story of the would-be Jewish messiah, Sabbatai Zevi.

Sabbatai Zevi was born in 1626, supposedly on the anniversary of the Roman destruction of the Temple, to a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family in Smyrna, modern-day Turkey. In his youth, he studied the Talmud and especially the Kabbalah, and was later ordained as a rabbi. He was drawn to mysticism and asceticism; according to tradition, he was married twice, but both marriages ended in divorce because he refused to have sex with either of his wives.

By the age of 20, Zevi began displaying the behaviors that sowed the seeds of his messianic following. He would experience periods of deep depression and despair, withdrawing from his family to live in isolation and silence. Interspersed with these were periods of religious ecstasy during which he would deliberately and flagrantly violate Jewish law: eating non-kosher food, publicly uttering the forbidden name of God, and committing other "holy sins". He claimed that he had been inspired to do these things by divine revelation. From our modern vantage point, it's not difficult to recognize the symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Zevi also began to announce himself as the long-awaited Messiah, the legendary figure who would reunite the Jews in the Holy Land and rule over them in peace and security. He was not the only one doing so: in the first half of the 17th century, apocalyptic fervor was spreading among both Christians and Jews, perhaps linked to the significant year of 1666. Eventually, in 1656, the rabbis of Smyrna expelled Zevi, and he became a wanderer among the Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire. (Troublemakers were popping up all over; Baruch Spinoza was exiled by the rabbis of Amsterdam that same year.)

During his travels, Zevi continued his earlier "holy sins", announcing, as did Jesus, that Yahweh had abrogated the laws of the Torah and permitted much that had formerly been forbidden. He also continued to proclaim himself the Messiah, and began to attract a following among mystically inclined Jews. One of them, Abraham ha-Yakini, wrote a pseudonymous epistle titled The Great Wisdom of Solomon, which presented itself as a prophetic book written by the biblical patriarch Abraham predicting Zevi's coming and messiahship. Another was the wealthy, influential Raphael Joseph Halabi of Cairo.

But Zevi's most influential follower found him in 1662, when he traveled to Palestine. In the grip of a depressive episode, he believed he was demon-possessed and sought out a famous exorcist named Nathan of Gaza. Nathan was greatly taken with Sabbatai Zevi and encouraged him in his delusions, explaining to him that his dark periods were signs that his soul was descending to the underworld to do battle with devilish powers. Sabbatai Zevi was won over by this flattery, and in 1665, at the height of a manic episode, he announced that the regathering of the Jews was imminent and the messianic age would begin in the next year.

Zevi's followers had grown quite numerous by this time, and waves of excitement spread through Europe at the announcement. Palestinian Jews flocked to Zevi's banner (he chose twelve of them to judge the soon-to-be-reassembled tribes of Israel), and Jewish communities as far abroad as Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands swelled with anticipation. As Karen Armstrong writes in A History of God:

His supporters came from all classes of Jewish society: rich and poor, learned and uneducated. Pamphlets and broadsheets spread the glad tidings in English, Dutch, German and Italian. In Poland and Lithuania there were public processions in his honor. In the Ottoman empire, prophets wandered through the streets describing visions in which they had seen Shabbetai seated upon a throne.

But there was a snag in the messianic plan. At the beginning of 1666, Zevi traveled to Istanbul, where he was arrested and imprisoned by the Ottoman authorities. At first, he was treated leniently and continued to lead his movement from prison. But after several months, the sultan grew fed up and issued him an ultimatum: either convert to Islam, or prove his messiahship in a trial by ordeal, where archers would fire arrows at him and the court would observe whether God protected him.

No doubt wisely, Sabbatai Zevi chose Islam. Pleased, the sultan released him and gave him a pension; Zevi remained a faithful Muslim until his death in 1676.

Zevi's apostasy was devastating to his followers, who had been driven to desperation by a series of brutal pogroms and were feverish with anticipation for the coming of the Messiah. Many of them abandoned his movement, and humiliated followers across Europe destroyed much of the material that had been written about him. But incredibly, a substantial number - including Nathan of Gaza - hung on. In a final attempt to salvage something from the ruin of Sabbateanism, they concocted a mythology which claimed that Zevi's apostasy was actually the crowning act of his messianic mission. As one of them, Abraham Cardozo, put it:

...because of their sins all Jews had been destined to become apostates. This was to have been their punishment. But God had saved his people from this terrible fate by allowing the Messiah to make the supreme sacrifice on their behalf.

Like Jesus on the cross, Zevi was viewed as having symbolically humbled himself for the redemption of all of Judaism.

Remarkably, although Zevi's following dwindled after his death, it did not completely die out. Even today, some of his adherents live on and call themselves the Donmeh - supposedly, they are Muslims who continue practicing Jewish religious rituals in secret. Their existence seems semi-mythical, like the Illuminati, but then again there are those who openly profess allegiance to Sabbateanism.

The story of Sabbatai Zevi, more than anything else, demonstrates the limitless human capacity for self-delusion. Though explicitly denounced by their own messiah, Zevi's followers continued to believe in him and to craft a mythology that explained his acts within the framework of their beliefs. Like many others who have invested their lives in cult leaders, their belief in him had become a deeply rooted part of their own identity, one that they clung to even in the face of all external evidence.

Other posts in this series:

July 23, 2008, 8:40 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink10 comments
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Thank God for Pre-trib Rapture

Among Christian groups who hold to belief in a literal apocalypse, the most common view today is "pretribulationist" - the belief that God will remove his faithful from the world in the Rapture, following which there will be seven years of suffering and bloodshed as unsaved humanity is tortured by God and ruled by the Antichrist. ("Pretribulation" refers to the timing of the Rapture, in this belief system preceding the seven years of tribulation.) There are differing views in Christian theology - midtribulationists, posttribulationists - but the pretribulation view has the most currency today. The bestselling Left Behind books teach this view, as do prominent current or past preachers such as Hal Lindsey, Jack Van Impe, John Hagee, Jerry Falwell and others.

And all I can say - and I say it with full irony - is, thank God for that.

Of course, it would be far better if no religious groups believed in the apocalypse at all. Belief in the imminent end of the world has led to a multitude of harms: instilling pointless terror and dread in innocent lay believers, encouraging powerful churches to advocate environmental decimation and war in the belief that there's no sense trying to preserve the world if God is soon coming to destroy it. But since apocalyptic belief is widespread, this is the best variant we could have hoped for. To be blunt, pretribulationism keeps the nuts and fanatics in check, because they believe the show won't start until after they're gone. We don't realize how fortunate we've been in that respect. If a different eschatology had become prominent, it's very likely that, by now, some religious group would have tried to start Armageddon themselves in order to hurry their deliverance along.

Even with things as they are, we hear power-crazed lunatics like John Hagee and Rod Parsley ranting about how it is Christianity's (or America's - the distinction is not a clear one to them) God-given destiny to destroy Islam in a final apocalyptic battle. We are very fortunate indeed that they believe the cosmic showdown won't happen until after they've been raptured away. If they believed that it would happen prior to their salvation, they might already have had our armies marching into the Middle East to take on the whole Islamic world, expecting that Jesus would appear at the climax.

It's tempting to speculate on why the pretribulationist view has become dominant, and I have a hypothesis of my own. The Bible's teaching on this subject is confused, to say the least. The Rapture as a doctrine is nowhere explicitly stated, and has been inferred from a pastiche of vague verses from different biblical books mashed together with little regard for context. Ludicrously complex theories have been drawn up based on these verses, and defenders of the different eschatologies argue endlessly, each citing their own preferred interpretations. Out of the confusion, the pre-trib view has risen to dominance not because it's the best supported scripturally, but because it makes for the best story.

In much the same way that alien abduction stories have converged on a consensus description of the aliens based on popularity, Christian rapture belief has been shaped by which interpretations give the most dramatic details for an evangelist to announce. And the pre-trib view certainly has that going for it: a world suddenly missing millions of people, airplanes crashing, lawnmowers left running in empty yards, crumpled clothes in heaps on street corners... and the confusion and panic among those left, slowly coalescing into a creeping dread as they realize that it was true all along and they've missed their chance. It makes for a great horror story, no doubt about it. And we shouldn't be surprised that the value of a good story has shaped the evolution of religions, considering their often explicit teaching that we should believe whatever we most want to be true.

June 10, 2008, 8:26 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink40 comments
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On One-World Government

One of the recurring fantasies of Christian end-times believers is that, after the Rapture, the world will be united into a single government which will be presided over by the Antichrist. As such, these believers view any sign of increased global peace or cooperation as an ominous sign of growing Satanic influence. (Oddly, increased war is also taken to be a sign of the approaching Rapture - go figure.) Hence, Rapture Ready's Rapture Index tracks "Globalism" as one component of its prophetic stock market. The European Union was initially thought to be the first bellwether of one-world government (a different page explains, "Many prophecy students see the European Union as the prophesied kingdom of the Antichrist"), but most paranoid speculation has now shifted to the United Nations.

End-times Christians typically believe that this global hegemony, when it arrives, will be enthusiastically accepted by everyone except the believers who recognize its danger. Slacktivist, in one installment of his ongoing deconstruction of the Left Behind series, quotes how the characters in that book respond to this event:

"There is no guarantee, of course, that even member nations will unanimously go along with the move to destroy 90 percent of their military strength and turn over the remaining 10 percent to the U.N. But several ambassadors expressed their confidence 'in equipping and arming an international peacekeeping body with a thoroughgoing pacifist and committed disarmament activist as its head.'"

Another added, "...We're supposed to be objective and cynical, but how can you not like this? It'll take years to effect all this stuff, but someday, somewhere down the line, we're going to see world peace. No more weapons, no more wars, no more border disputes or bigotry based on language or religion. Whew! Who'd have believed it would come to this?"

As Slacktivist notes, the characters in LB are "Imaginary Liberals", downright eager to surrender their sovereignty at the first sign of a global dictatorship. End-times believers seem to think all us non-Christians are just itching for this to happen.

I'd like to disabuse them of this notion. To all theists who believe this, I say: Are you insane? A one-world government would be a horrible idea.

Until it was abolished in 2005, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights included such well-known violators of human rights as Sudan and Saudi Arabia. Its replacement, the United Nations Human Rights Council, still counts as members rogue states and repressive dictatorships such as Cuba and Saudi Arabia (again), and still has refused to take even symbolic action against many brutal regimes worldwide.

This deplorable situation showcases a basic problem: there are still far too many places around the world that lack fundamental protection for human rights, and far too many people willing to accede to such. As long as situations like this persist, a global government would be a horrendous idea - it would simply allow devotees of tyranny and autocracy to outvote and overrule the defenders of liberty.

Granted, democracy is spreading. Between the Americas, Europe and India, we citizens of democracies certainly constitute a plurality, if not a majority, of the world's population. This bodes well for global cooperation in the future. But democracy alone is not a guarantee of human rights. Unless democracy is backed by strong legal protections for the rights of minorities - and more importantly, widespread understanding by the majority of why such protections are needed - then it can simply become tyranny of another form.

Examples abound. In countries like Canada and many European nations, free speech is still a conditional right, often contingent on the speaker's not offending any powerful identity group. Even the progressive, First World democracy of Australia has recently announced plans to censor the Internet. The U.S., too, has gotten in on the act. Even in these "advanced" nations, we have a long way to go.

I grant that it does seem irrational for human beings to be forever divided by artificial political boundaries. They correspond to nothing intrinsic about us, and perhaps in the far future we'll be able to safely remove them. But for the moment, they are necessary. While people's attitudes still exhibit such disturbing variation on basic issues of human rights and morality, we need separate nations to ensure that freedom thrives in at least some places. Trying to persuade the whole world at once to adopt a rational ethics would be an impossible task. By splitting the world up into distinct societies, we have the easier task of establishing human rights in some places to begin with, so that they can serve as examples for - and, where need be, redoubts against - the rest.

Once all human societies are brought up to a comparable level of stability, prosperity, and most importantly moral development and outlook, then it may be time to start thinking about dissolving political boundaries. But until that day, the question is scarcely worth contemplating. Are we ready for a one-world government now? Absolutely not! Will we ever be? It depends - ask me again in a few hundred years...

April 13, 2008, 9:08 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink33 comments
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On Torture and "Tribulation Saints"

"What if she doesn't flip? How long do you give it?"
"If you can't get to 'em somehow in the first forty-eight hours, more of the same isn't going to be any more effective."
"Starvation isn't a motivator?"
"Would be for me, but I guess they've proved it with prisoners of war. The ones who can survive that first round of psychological and physical torture aren't likely to ever break, no matter how long you keep it up."

—from Armageddon, book 11 of the Left Behind series, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins

One of the tenets of faith of Christian end-times believers is that, in the tribulation period after the rapture, the world will be taken over by a planetary government ultimately run by the Antichrist. True Christians will be a tiny, hounded minority in this totalitarian vision, forced to live underground and always on the run from the forces of evil, and those who are captured can expect torture and execution.

If you happen to be reading this site in an apocalyptic, post-rapture world, there's one piece of advice you should probably keep in mind, as given in this list of 14 things to do for those who miss the rapture:

Endure to the end, Saint. Don't give up no matter what happens to you. Do not denounce Jesus. Give your life if you have to, but do not denounce Jesus in any way!

No doubt, this warning stems from Jesus' words in Matthew 10:33:

But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.

Given that rapture-believing Christians tend to interpret every verse of the Bible with blunt literalism, this warning must be terrifying. If believers give in, even under torture, and deny Jesus, they will lose their eternal salvation. To protect themselves against this disturbing possibility, many of them imagine that people who truly wish to can withstand torture no matter how bad it is. The excerpt quoted above from the Left Behind series makes this claim.

But this statement, like much else in the LB series, displays a total ignorance of human psychology. In reality, no person can withstand torture indefinitely, and it is quite possible to use it to force people to say or do anything.

Consider the torture technique called waterboarding. In this technique, the prisoner is strapped to an inclined board, head downwards. Plastic or cloth is wrapped over his face, and buckets of water are then poured over his nose and mouth. This treatment triggers choking and the gag reflex and gives the victim the terrifying sensation of drowning. This technique was used by the Spanish Inquisition against suspected heretics and by Japanese soldiers against prisoners of war in World War II. It is also now being used by the American government against known or suspected members of Al Qaeda.

Waterboarding is a far more terrifying and effective method of torture than it might at first appear. Consider what happened when CIA agents, to rehearse the tactic for use on detainees, first tried it on each other to see how it felt. Keep in mind that these were the CIA agents chosen for field interrogation, the toughest of the tough. They knew they were in no danger and that they could stop what was happening at any time. Bearing all this in mind, how long did they last?

According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in.

Fourteen seconds. And when the technique was tried on the actual detainees, similar results were obtained:

They said al Qaeda's toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two-and-a-half minutes before begging to confess.

(If you have any remaining doubts about the effectiveness of waterboarding as a torture technique, consider this post from the Straight Dope Message Board, where a poster tried it on himself to see what it felt like. Not recommended for the faint of heart.)

As an interrogation technique, waterboarding and other forms of torture are worse than useless; they will soon produce a prisoner eager to say anything he thinks his questioners want to hear. But in the end-times scenario, this is precisely the outcome desired. A Satanic one-world government, with no compunction about using these or other torture methods on prisoners, could easily coerce any Christians it captured to deny Jesus in public and seal their eternal fate.

The only other explanation rapture-believing Christians could give is that their faith will give believers some magical, supernatural power to withstand torture. This belief, like rapture belief in general, is an example of how many end-times believers fantasize that their faith makes them special and exempts them from the rules and principles that apply to everyone else.

January 3, 2008, 8:34 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink14 comments
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