The Case for a Creator: Meet Jonathan Wells

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 3

Strobel's first interviewee is Jonathan Wells, author of the polemic Icons of Evolution. Icons attacks evolutionary theory by seeking to discredit what are, allegedly, its best-known supporting lines of evidence - its "icons" - such as the Miller-Urey experiment, Archaeopteryx, and the Cambrian Explosion.

We'll get to that soon, but first I have to address what, to Strobel, must have been a bit of awkwardness. Virtually unique among modern advocates of ID, Wells isn't a Christian of Strobel's preferred evangelical brand, but a Moonie - a member of Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. That would be the same Rev. Moon who's notorious for performing mass weddings (with husbands and wives chosen for each other by Moon), who's spent time in prison for tax fraud, who claims to be the Messiah and the second coming of Jesus Christ, and who held a bizarre coronation ceremony for himself in a federal office building in the presence of lawmakers.

Strobel seems to find this rather embarrassing and does his best to slide past it, as you can see:

Science classes weren't heavily steeped in Darwinism when Jonathan Wells was a high school student in the late 1950s, but when he began studying geology at Princeton University, he found that everything was viewed through evolutionary lenses. Though he had grown up in the Presbyterian church, by the time Wells was halfway through college he considered himself to be an atheist. [p.33]

...While later living a Thoreau-like existence in a remote California cabin, he became enthralled by the grandeur of creation and gained new confidence that God was behind it. His spiritual interest rejuvenated, Wells explored numerous religious alternatives, visiting gurus, preachers, and swamis. [p.34]

This passage does not go into any further detail about Wells' current beliefs, but it has a footnote at the back of the book which says this:

What Wells called his "faith journey" even brought him to the Unification Church, partly because he shared its strong anticommunist stance. For critiques of this group, whose theology I thoroughly disagree with, see... [p.309]

If you didn't know, you might get the impression from this footnote that Wells was a Moonie at one time, but no longer. In fact, he still is one. Strobel is clearly uncomfortable with this, dismissing the topic with a curt "I hadn't come... to seek spiritual wisdom from Wells" [p.34] and then moving on. But in later chapters, as we'll see, he interviews other ID advocates who are Christians like him - and he seems quite comfortable seeking "spiritual wisdom" from those people, as he questions them extensively about their Christian beliefs and gives them ample opportunity to explain why they feel their faith is supported by the evidence.

But surely, all this aside, Wells' religious beliefs have no bearing on his science. It would just be poisoning the well to try to discredit his arguments based on his personal faith, right?

Well, yes, and then again no. Wells' religious beliefs are relevant to his scientific arguments in one important way, as he himself admits:

At the end of the Washington Monument rally in September, 1976, I was admitted to the second entering class at Unification Theological Seminary. During the next two years, I took a long prayer walk every evening. I asked God what He wanted me to do with my life, and the answer came not only through my prayers, but also through Father's many talks to us, and through my studies. Father encouraged us to set our sights high and accomplish great things.

...Father's words, my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism, just as many of my fellow Unificationists had already devoted their lives to destroying Marxism. When Father chose me (along with about a dozen other seminary graduates) to enter a Ph.D. program in 1978, I welcomed the opportunity to prepare myself for battle.

The cultish title of "Father" is shorthand for Rev. Moon, if you hadn't already guessed. But more importantly, note the sequence of events: First Wells decided to "devote my life to destroying Darwinism", then he decided (or rather, was chosen by Moon) to get a Ph.D. in biology to assist him in that goal. His attendance at a graduate program was not to survey the evidence for and against evolution so he could make up his mind about it. Instead, he viewed it as a "battle" in which his role was to resist at all costs the evidence presented to him, but to learn it well enough so that he could get a degree in it and thereby seem more credible in his apologetic role.

Like many prominent creationists, Wells' life story is religion first, creationism second. He decided for religious reasons that evolution couldn't possibly be true, then set out to find validation of that preconceived belief. Small surprise that he found exactly what he expected to find.

This doesn't necessarily invalidate what Wells has to say. But it does mean that, in arguing against evolution, he has a strong and ever-present conflict of interest. We should therefore treat his arguments with a greater measure of skepticism and critical scrutiny, just as a juror in a trial would be justified in being more skeptical of a witness who stood to benefit financially from the victory of the side he's testifying for.

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June 6, 2009, 9:13 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink11 comments

Strange and Curious Sects: Koreshanity

Cyrus Reed Teed, a.k.a. the Prophet Koresh. Public-domain image from Wikipedia.

It seems that every religion has at least one signature bizarre belief: whether it be that the messiah is an American soldier who will return from across the ocean bringing marvelous cargo, or that human beings are possessed by the ghosts of murdered aliens, or that God wants us to transform him into crackers and consume him each week. But for sheer extravagant, defiant wackiness in the face of obvious disproof, you can't beat the subject of today's entry.

An enduring notion in humanity's meme pool, one that's captivated obscure crackpots as well as famous sci-fi authors like Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs, is that the Earth is hollow and habitable within. But the prophet Koresh, born Cyrus Reed Teed, took this charmingly crazy idea to a previously undreamed-of level: yes, he claimed, the Earth is hollow - and we're living on the inside.

Cyrus Teed was born in rural New York in 1839. By coincidence, he was a distant cousin of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. He served in the Union army and afterward studied medicine at the Eclectic Medical College, an unorthodox institution teaching what would today be called alternative medicine, focusing mainly on homeopathy and botanical remedies. (To be fair, bloodletting was still the state of the art in conventional medicine.) The recently-discovered laws of electromagnetism were all the rage at the time, and when Teed hung out his shingle, he blended his botanicals with what he called "electro-alchemy", which employed strategic zaps of electricity, as well as liberal doses of religious mysticism and spiritual mumbo-jumbo, to cure his patients' ills. In his spare time, he also dabbled in alchemy and claimed to have discovered the long-sought Philosopher's Stone which turns any base metal to gold. David Standish's delightful book Hollow Earth calls Teed's practice a "peculiar amalgam of doctoring and cosmic revelation".

Even then, Teed held his curious belief that the world is hollow and that we all live on the inside, which he called the "cellular cosmogony". I just have to quote some of his magnum opus to give you a feel for it:

The alchemico-organic (physical) world or universe is a shell composed of seven metallic, five mineral, and five geologic strata, with an inner habitable surface of land and water. This inner surface, as the reader already understands, is concave. The seven metallic layers or laminae are the seven noble metals,—gold constituting the outermost rind of the shell. This shell or crust is a number of miles in thickness. Within this shell are three principal atmospheres, the first or outermost (the one in which we exist) being composed chiefly of oxygen and nitrogen; the one immediately above that is pure hydrogen, and the one above the hydrogen atmosphere we have denominated aboron [word invented by author —Ebonmuse]. Within this is the solar electromagnetic atmosphere, the nucleus of which is the stellar center. In and occupying these atmospheres are the sun and stars, also the reflections called the planets and the moon. The planets are mercurial disci moving by electromagnetic impulse between the metallic laminae or planes of the concave shell.

The Koreshan cosmology. Image from David Standish's Hollow Earth.

This alone wouldn't have elevated Cyrus Teed above the garden-variety kooks, but fate had greater things in store for him. As his beliefs continued to evolve, he decided he had a higher calling than quack doctoring, and began calling himself the "Prophet Koresh". Moving seamlessly from pseudoscientific medicine into pure faith healing, he established the first "Koreshan" community in Chicago. This was a combination of church and commune, presided over by Teed (or Koresh) that preached celibacy, the hollow earth, electro-alchemy, and Teed's belief in a deity who was the harmonious union of male and female. Partly due to this, the Koreshan community was surprisingly enlightened for its time regarding the equality of the sexes, and many of its earliest followers were women.

Over several years, the number of followers grew. By 1888 Teed had 126 devotees in Chicago, nearly three-quarters of whom were women. Finally, he decided it was time for them to seek more spacious quarters elsewhere, so that he might build his New Jerusalem. The spot he settled on was a place called Estero on the southwestern Florida coast. Teed's ambitious vision was to build a great city, populated by tens of millions, all laid out according to his utopian schemes for a harmonious, socialist community of art, science, advanced technology - and, of course, the hollow earth.

Needless to say, Estero never attained this stature - the Prophet Koresh's cult topped out at around a few hundred - but it was a genuinely productive, peaceful community, and aside from an unsuccessful foray into local politics, got along well with surrounding towns. Unlike many cult leaders, Teed never used his immense power over his followers for personal benefit. His primary interest continued to be writing broadsides in Koreshan publications such as the Guiding Star (later renamed to the Flaming Sword, which evidently focus-grouped better) in favor of the hollow earth and against "that dangerous fallacy, the Copernican system". As Teed explains, the cosmos had to be as it was in his vision, because God wouldn't have created a universe too great for us to understand:

If we accept the logical deduction of the fallacious Copernican system of astronomy, we conclude the universe to be illimitable and incomprehensible, and its cause equally so; therefore, not only would the universe be forever beyond the reach of the intellectual perspective of human aspiration and effort, but God himself would be beyond the pale of our conception, and therefore beyond our adoration.

Sadly for Teed, neither his utopian vision nor his hollow-earth theology were ever to make a larger impact on humanity: after a lingering illness, he died in December 1908. But his followers did not lose faith, because another of Teed's preachings was what he called "theocrasis", "the incorruptible dissolution of the physical body by electro-magnetic combustion". In short, Teed claimed that, phoenix-like, he could resurrect himself. His devoted followers accordingly placed his body in state... and waited. And they kept waiting while their prophet decomposed, until local health authorities showed up, declared the Prophet Koresh to be obviously dead, and forced his body to be buried.

After Koresh's death, the community dwindled, but did not break up altogether. Amazingly, it was not until 1961 that the last few die-hard Koreshans deeded Estero to the State of Florida. It is now a state park, although Teed's mausoleum was washed out to sea in a hurricane in 1921. Only his granite headstone remains.

The cult of Koreshanity shows how shared devotion to any idea, no matter how bizarre, can serve to unite people under a common purpose. The specific nature of the belief is irrelevant, so long as it serves to give its adherents a sense that they are among the elect. If they are scorned and rejected by the wider world, so much the better, as this shared sense of persecution serves only to temper their communal bond. And the next time a proselytizer claims that belief in God is a necessary inducement to virtue, remind them of the Koreshans. By all accounts, their hollow-earth belief genuinely did produce, temporarily, a utopian community of peace, industriousness, and equality. Does that make their belief any more true?

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March 30, 2009, 9:15 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink17 comments

Do You Really Believe That? (Xenu/Thetans)

Although past installments of "Do You Really Believe That?" have skewered absurd beliefs from other sects, I doubt any religion has doctrines as laughably ridiculous as Scientology's beliefs about "space opera". Today's post will explore the most infamous of those.


According to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, Xenu was an alien overlord who, 75 million years ago, was in charge of a "Galactic Confederacy" consisting of 76 planets, including Earth (which, according to Hubbard, was then called "Teegeeack"). This planetary confederation was desperately overcrowded, and to solve this problem, Xenu devised a genocidal plan. Luring billions of citizens to government offices under the pretense of tax inspection, he dosed them with paralyzing drugs, flew them to Earth, then unloaded their bodies around the bases of volcanoes and detonated hydrogen bombs inside the volcanoes, killing them all. (It's been speculated that this story was the inspiration for the cover art of Hubbard's Dianetics.)

The dead aliens' souls, which Hubbard referred to as "thetans", were then captured using an "electronic ribbon" and taken to "implant stations", where they were forced to watch a movie containing various misleading beliefs about the existence of God, the Devil, Jesus, and so on. After this process of brainwashing, the thetans were released and took up residence inside the bodies of living beings on Earth. According to Scientology, these "body thetans" still exist in each of us, causing all the physical and mental illnesses that human beings suffer from. (You can read this story in Hubbard's own handwriting at Operation Clambake; see also this mirror.) Naturally, Scientology claims to be able to exorcise these wayward alien ghosts - for a price.

Due to Scientology's pervasive secrecy, it's difficult to be certain how widespread the knowledge of this doctrine is within the church. Outside reports agree that the story of Xenu and body thetans is only told to high-ranking Scientologists, and church spokesmen have publicly denied that Scientology believes or teaches any such thing. However, when ex-Scientologist Steven Fishman submitted this material as part of his affidavit in a 1993 lawsuit against the church, Scientology lawyers claimed that it was a trade secret and protected by copyright - impossible, of course, unless it was genuine. In a rather different line of defense, L. Ron Hubbard himself claimed that anyone who read the Xenu story without the preparation of Scientology auditing would get pneumonia or some other fatal disease. (Readers are invited to judge the truth of that claim for themselves.)

Scientology's public denial of this story potentially serves any number of different purposes. Like many ancient religions, the church depends on its possession of alleged secret knowledge to reinforce the distinction between believers and outsiders. The leak of these stories threatens to break down these barriers, and to expose for mass consumption the holy secrets that are supposed to be revealed only to trusted initiates. (Ancient Gnosticism might not have done so well if we had had an Internet back then.)

But another reason, perhaps equally important, is that Scientology higher-ups are aware of how sheerly ridiculous these stories sound to a person not thoroughly enmeshed in the church's teachings. It's difficult, I would imagine, to maintain an aura of imposing mystery when everyone on the street knows you believe that the Earth was once called Teegeeack and was inhabited by hundreds of billions of alien beings who dressed exactly like humans in the 1950s. The similarity of this doctrine to laughably bad D-grade science fiction is just too apparent. Perhaps only a person who's already heavily invested in Scientology, who's spent too much and has too much to lose by walking away, can be trusted to hear these secrets without reacting in amusement and ridicule. But that makes it all the more important that lay Scientologists hear the story of Xenu, and that's why I ask: Do you really believe that?

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December 31, 2008, 9:34 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink31 comments

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.

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December 10, 2008, 9:22 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink21 comments

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.

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July 23, 2008, 8:40 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink10 comments

The Gospel of Elvis

In the book God?: A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist, William Lane Craig (debating Walter Sinnott-Armstrong) makes the following argument for why God chooses to remain hidden:

"Could God reveal himself more clearly?" Of course, He could: He could have inscribed the label "Made by God" on every atom or planted a neon cross in the heavens with the message "Jesus Saves." But why would He want to do such a thing?

...[T]here is no reason at all to think that if God were to make His existence more manifest, more people would come into a saving relationship with Him.

...In the Old Testament God is described as revealing Himself to His people in manifest wonders: the plagues upon Egypt, the pillar of fire and smoke, the parting of the Red Sea. But did such wonders produce lasting heart-change in the people? No, Israel fell into apostasy with tiresome repetitiveness. If God were to inscribe His name on every atom or place a neon cross in the sky, people might believe that He exists, all right, but what confidence could we have that after time they would not begin to chafe under the brazen advertisements of their Creator and even come to resent such effrontery? (p.109)

This argument, like many made by Christian apologists, displays a bizarre ignorance of human psychology. If God were to clearly show his existence, it would not cause more people to worship him? Really?

If anything, human beings are too willing to worship and to follow. The great number of cults and sects that have sprung up in every era testifies to this; most of them have followed leaders who made only the flimsiest, most easily debunked pretense of having supernatural powers. (Sathya Sai Baba and Uri Geller, for example, have attracted significant followings despite performing only "miracles" that could easily be duplicated by sleight of hand.) To claim that an actual god which manifested itself and displayed real supernatural powers would not attract a vast following is to speak in total contradiction to everything that history and psychology teaches about humans' gullibility and eagerness to be led.

Fanatically devoted followings sometimes spring up even around figures that make no explicit effort to attract them. I can give no better example than the cult of Elvis Presley, which among his most devoted fans has taken on many of the trappings of a latter-day religion. His Graceland estate is a major destination for pilgrimage to this day. Every year, his fans still hold a candlelight vigil on the anniversary of his death. The most hardcore fans, the ones who knew Elvis while he was alive, were called the "gate people" for their habit of sitting outside the gates of his mansion, every day, simply waiting for a chance to see him. The ones who met him, who saw him in person or got gifts or letters from him, treasure them to this day as if they were holy relics. (A lock of Elvis' hair once sold at auction for over $100,000.) And, to this day, there are people who pattern their entire lives around imitating him.

In fact, during his lifetime Elvis claimed to have paranormal - even miraculous - powers:

His stepbrother and bodyguard, David Stanley, wrote a chapter 'My Brother the Mystic' in his book Life with Elvis, in which he alleges that Elvis could heal by touch and move clouds in the sky. When threatened with a violent thunderstorm during a car journey 'Elvis stuck his right hand out of the sunroof and started talking to the clouds. "I order you to let us pass through"... and the amazing thing was that the clouds did exactly as he asked them to. They split right down the middle.

And, of course, to this day there's widespread speculation that he didn't really die. I can readily imagine that if Elvis during his lifetime had ever said, "I am the Son of God," by now he'd have a following that would easily equal some of the established churches, and people would be busily inventing posthumous miracles to attribute to him. (Similar stories have already begun to pop up around the late Pope John Paul II.) In time, as these stories became diffused and exaggerated, Elvis worship could well blossom into a bona fide religion.

If a mere singer could attract this kind of devotion - and still does, decades after his death - then it surpasses belief to claim, as Craig does, that an actual appearance of God in the flesh would not attract a far larger following and worship. People do not become jaded and disenchanted by being able to see and touch their idols; it only inspires them to greater heights of devotion. Craig's assertions to the contrary are in total conflict with reality.

Of course, the real reason he must maintain such risible assertions is that there are no manifestations. Thus, Craig must find a post-hoc means of rationalizing this to be consistent with his preexisting belief in God. Given those constraints, the solution he comes up with seems like the only feasible one. But it still fails to accord with well-known facts about reality and human nature.

April 16, 2008, 7:12 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink26 comments

Strange and Curious Sects: Jesus Malverde

Malverde's shrine stands near the railroad tracks on the west side of Culiacan, well-known to just about everybody in town. Nearby are Malverde Clutch & Breaks, Malverde Lumber and two Denny's-like cafeterias: Coco's Malverde and Chic's Malverde. Outside the shrine people sell trinkets, candles, and pictures. Inside the shrine are two concrete busts of the man. Malverde, supposedly a poor man from the hills, turns out to look a lot like a matinee idol -- dark eyes, sleek mustache, jet-black hair, resolute jaw. Near the main busts are stands of pendants, baseball hats, tapes with corridos to the bandit, countless picture cases with photographs of the bandit and a prayer to him in thanks, and rows of plaster busts wrapped in plastic.

English society has the legend of Robin Hood, a heroic outlaw who fought back against unjust rulers on behalf of the poor and the dispossessed. That story could be a template for today's entry in "Strange and Curious Sects", for Jesus Malverde, like Robin Hood, is a semi-mythical figure who fights against repressive authorities. But whereas Robin Hood stole from the greedy rich, Jesus Malverde grants his followers prosperity in a somewhat different way. Malverde is the folk saint of Mexican drug smugglers, and the "miracles" he performs for them tend to involve keeping them safe from the police on their cross-border runs.

Mexican drug smuggling began in Sinaloa. Here smugglers are folk heroes and a "narcoculture" has existed for some time. Faith in Malverde was always strongest among Sinaloa's poor and highland residents, the classes from which Mexico's drug traffickers emerged. As the narcos went from the hills to the front pages, they took Malverde with them. He is now the religious side to that narcoculture. Smugglers come ask Malverde for protection before sending a load north. If the trip goes well, they return to pay the shrine's house band to serenade the bandit, or place a plaque thanking Malverde for "lighting the way"; increasingly plaques include the code words "From Sinaloa to California."

As with John Frum, it's uncertain whether Malverde ever was a real person, even though the origin of his cult is in the recent past. He's alleged to have lived in the early twentieth century, around the time of the Mexican Revolution. Like the conflicting gospels of early Christianity, there are a variety of stories about his early life. All agree, however, that he ended up turning to an outlaw life to protect the poor against corrupt rulers. Most agree that he was eventually betrayed by a friend, captured and executed by the government, which hung his body from a tree in May 1909. Local historians believe Malverde may have been a composite figure created from several historical bandits. Today, almost a hundred years after his alleged death, he is still a major center of worship and devotion for the impoverished people of the Sinaloa region, and miracles are attributed to him on a regular basis. Here are some:

The summer when Florentino was 23, he was working as an oyster diver in Mazatlan. One day he became tangled in his rope underwater. He wrestled with the cord and began to drown. Then suddenly the face of the bandit Jesus Malverde appeared to him. Florentino finally freed himself. He rose to the surface and came immediately to Malverde's shrine to give thanks.

They leave behind photos and plaques with grateful inscriptions: "Thank you Malverde for saving me from drugs," writes Isaias Valencia Miranda, from Agua Zarca Sinaloa; "Thank you Malverde for not having to lose my arm and leg," reads the dedication on a photo of a man in sunglasses identifying himself as Lorenzo Salazar, from Guadalajara.

To one side sits Dona Tere, rocking the day away. She is a cheerful, plump woman, made up with bright red lipstick. She, too, has her tale of faith. Eight years ago, doctors diagnosed Dona Tere with cancer. She decided not to take medicine. "I said, ´Malverde, they say you do miracles. I'm going to ask you for a miracle. I don't believe in you. I know I'm going to die.'" Dona Tere's still around. "I have four Malverdes in my house," she says. "One in the kitchen. One in the dining room. One going up the stairs and one in the bedroom. I bless myself every time I'm at the foot of the stairs." Last time they operated on her, Dona Tere paid for two hours of music to be played to Malverde.

Even after death, Malverde's grave was reputed to possess miraculous power:

They say all of Culiacan turned out for the demolition of the pile of stones and pebbles. They say, too, that stones began to jump like popcorn and that the bulldozer operator had to get drunk to have the guts to roll over it; they say the machine broke down when it touched the grave.

It's remarkable how similar Malverde's miracles are to those of mainstream religions - miraculous visions, rescues, healings, transformed lives. Of course, there are also the aforementioned protections of drug smugglers, which has earned Malverde descriptions like "The Narcosaint" and "The Generous Bandit". In a region where brutal anti-narcotics crackdowns are all too frequent, it's not surprising that the government is no friend of most of Malverde's worshippers. And, like nearly all new religions, his cult started among the poor and the voiceless - the people most likely to seek supernatural assistance, and to console themselves with the thought that God is on their side and against the corrupt rich.

If Malverde's cult survives much longer, it will doubtless soon spread to the middle-class and the wealthy and acquire a veneer of respectability; the article gives several indications that this process has already begun. With further time, his stories could be collected into a canonical form and polished to remove theologically troubling elements. For all we know, in some distant future age, there may be Malverdian apologists claiming that his life, miracles and resurrection are historically established facts, and only hard-hearted atheists would say otherwise.

Other posts in this series:

April 4, 2008, 6:55 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink10 comments

Strange and Curious Sects: John Frum

Today I'm inaugurating a new series on Daylight Atheism, Strange and Curious Sects. The follies and fallacies of larger, mainstream religions are well known; this series will examine some of the smaller and lesser-known splinter groups, cults, and sects, both past and present, that are part of the vast diversity of religions imagined by human beings. By examining these frequently unique and bizarre belief systems, I find, we stand to gain a clearer perspective on various aspects of the larger and more influential faiths.

This installment will focus on the strange sect of John Frum. This religion, indigenous to the remote South Pacific island of Tanna, is one of the "cargo cults". Cargo cult religions sprang up across the Pacific during World War II, when thousands of American troops set up bases and airstrips on remote islands that previously had little or no external contact. The indigenous people of these islands, who lived in simple subsistence cultures, were amazed by the strange visitors and the technologies and gifts they brought: steel tools, canned food and chocolate bars, cigarettes, radios, motorcycles, airplanes, firearms, and many more novelties unlike anything in their experience. But when the war ended and the troops left, they took their cargo with them. The islanders, in many societies, responded by forming religions that mimic the American installations - down to carving "airstrips" out of the jungle, complete with bamboo control towers and mock planes made of straw - hoping to summon the strange visitors and their wonderful cargo back by sympathetic magic. It sounds almost too strange to be true, but the cargo cults have been widely studied and reported on. With time, many of them have faded; but on Tanna, the cult of John Frum survives to this day.

In the morning heat on a tropical island halfway across the world from the United States, several dark-skinned men — clad in what look to be U.S. Army uniforms — appear on a mound overlooking a bamboo-hut village. One reverently carries Old Glory, precisely folded to reveal only the stars. On the command of a bearded "drill sergeant," the flag is raised on a pole hacked from a tall tree trunk. As the huge banner billows in the wind, hundreds of watching villagers clap and cheer.

...Some 40 barefoot "G.I.'s" suddenly emerge from behind the huts to more cheering, marching in perfect step and ranks of two past Chief Isaac. They tote bamboo "rifles" on their shoulders, the scarlet tips sharpened to represent bloody bayonets, and sport the letters "USA," painted in red on their bare chests and backs.

..."John promised he'll bring planeloads and shiploads of cargo to us from America if we pray to him," a village elder tells me as he salutes the Stars and Stripes. "Radios, TVs, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola and many other wonderful things."

John Frum's cult is a recognizable microcosm of larger religions, right down to the miracles:

...Jessel tells me that he is the brother-in-law of one of the cult's most important leaders, Prophet Fred — who, he adds proudly, "raised his wife from the dead two weeks ago."

as well as the revelatory visions and belief in answered prayer:

"Have you ever seen him?"

"Yes, John comes very often from Yasur [the local volcano] to advise me, or I go there to speak with John."

"What does he look like?"

"An American!"

and even the dissension and factioning into sects:

When I mention Prophet Fred, anger flares in Chief Isaac's eyes. "He's a devil," he snarls. "I won't talk about him."

...two years ago, Prophet Fred's rivalry with Chief Isaac exploded. More than 400 young men from the competing camps clashed with axes, bows and arrows and slingshots, burning down a thatched church and several houses. Twenty-five men were seriously injured.

When the reporter raises the obvious point that, several decades after the war, John Frum and his cargo have not made their promised return, the chief has an unanswerable reply:

"John promised you much cargo more than 60 years ago, and none has come," I point out. "So why do you keep faith with him? Why do you still believe in him?"

Chief Isaac shoots me an amused look. "You Christians have been waiting 2,000 years for Jesus to return to earth," he says, "and you haven't given up hope."

So who is this mysterious American, John Frum? Why did he, out of all the soldiers, inspire the natives' reverence? Was he a commander of some renown who particularly impressed them? The answer, it turns out, may be more complicated.

In the early 20th century, Scotch Presbyterian missionaries came to Tanna and took over by force, establishing their own government and banning traditional cultural practices such as dancing and the drinking of the intoxicant kava. They also forbade work or play on Sundays and began the forcible conversion of the natives to Christianity. For several decades the islanders struggled under the burden of colonial rule.

Then, in the 1930s, John Frum first appeared. According to the islanders' traditions, he told them he had come to liberate them from their oppressive foreign rulers. Fired to devotion by their strange messiah, the people of Tanna joined the new religion en masse, revolting against the colonialists and throwing their missionary-provided clothing and goods into the sea. The following year, 1941, saw the arrival of American troops in the Pacific theater. Their presence provided a measure of stability, as well as the aforementioned cargo, and it seems to be then that John Frum began to be specifically identified as an American.

It's uncertain whether John Frum was a real person, or even whether he was based on a real person. No American soldier by that name is known, and while the islanders call him an American and a white man, they also speak of him as a "spirit" or use other mystical terms. One intriguing theory is that "frum" is the pronunciation of "broom" in the local pidgin, making "John Broom" the one who would "sweep" the hated colonial rulers off the island. An alternative theory holds that his name is a mispronunciation of "John from (America)". But whether he was person or myth, the islanders still fervently believe in him. Every year they celebrate February 15 as John Frum Day, which they believe will be the date of his promised return.

Each Friday afternoon, hundreds of believers stream across the ash plain below Yasur, coming to Lamaraka from villages all over Tanna. After the sun goes down and the men have drunk kava, the congregation gathers in and around an open hut on the ceremonial ground. As light from kerosene lamps flickers across their faces, they strum guitars and homemade ukuleles, singing hymns of John Frum's prophecies and the struggles of the cult's martyrs. Many carry the same plea: "We're waiting in our village for you, John. When are you coming with all the cargo you promised us?"

In many respects, John Frum's cult bears a striking similarity to mythicist theories about what the origin of Christianity would have looked like: a supernatural messiah, invented to serve the needs of an oppressed group of humans, who gradually acquired the characteristics of a recently living human being. The messiah is given a symbolic name (Jesus, or Yeshua, is Aramaic for "Yahweh saves"), works miracles among the people, then disappears after promising to return in the near future to establish an earthly kingdom.

And, in contradiction to those Christian apologists who claim that historians of the time would have investigated and refuted the cult's claims if they were not true: in 1943, the U.S. government sent the USS Echo and its commander, Maj. Samuel Patten, back to the island to tell the people that John Frum had no connection to them. This apparently had no effect on the growth of the cult. The obvious ridiculousness of the cargo-cult belief gives us confidence that this particular faith is not true, but aside from the intrusion of a far more technologically advanced culture which altered things somewhat, the cult of John Frum is an insight into how some major modern religions might have gotten a similar start.

Other posts in this series:

February 13, 2008, 8:38 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink24 comments

The Pretense of Superiority

Religion has always been used to sanctify inequality here on Earth, in the present no less than in the past. By teaching their followers that they are God's chosen rulers, religious authorities can accustom the flock to obedience and ascend to positions of power without the consent of the majority. The fundamentally oligarchic and anti-democratic nature of most established religions, in which the church leaders choose their own successors, testifies to this.

These anti-democratic beliefs are all too readily exploited to justify the most horrendous abuses of power. One of the most obnoxious and sickening tendencies of fundamentalist religion is the way in which its leaders use their supposedly God-given status to claim the pretense of moral superiority over their followers, even when they are the ones in the wrong. Two recent criminal cases bear witness to this phenomenon.

First, take Warren Jeffs, the fugitive Mormon cult leader who was captured last year and whose trial has now begun. Jeffs was the patriarch of a polygamist Mormon enclave in the deserts of Utah, and from all accounts ruled with an iron fist. Women in this community live like prisoners, indoctrinated into absolute obedience from a very early age, and are usually "given" in marriage to far older men who already have many wives before they are old enough to give consent. It is this practice that has led Jeffs to be charged as an accomplice to rape. A witness for the prosecution, a former member of Jeffs' cult who, at the age of 14, was married to an older male cousin without her consent and then raped, gave horrifying testimony of the ordeal she endured:

"I can't do this, please don't," she said she told her husband. "I was sobbing. My whole entire body was shaking I was so scared. He didn't stop. He just laid me onto the bed and had sex."

Afterward, the woman said she felt dirty and took two bottles of painkillers. "I just wanted to die. I didn't want to deal with (my husband) anymore. I didn't want to deal with Warren, or the prophet, or my mother... I was so hurt by them," she said.

When she sought out Jeffs, the only authority she knew, and pleaded for help, he harshly rebuked her and sent her back to her abusive marriage:

"I told him (Jeffs) I was sorry I had failed so severely... He told me that I needed to repent, that I was not living up to my vows, I was not being obedient, I was not being submissive and that was what my problem was," she recounted.

Jeffs told her to go home "and give myself mind, body, and soul" to her husband.

Thankfully, this woman later escaped Jeffs' cult, but there are doubtless many young women who still suffer in its clutches. Criminal considerations aside, Jeffs' awful reaction to this woman's cry for help - telling her to go back and submit to her rapist husband, and blaming her for not being submissive to his wishes, rather than giving her shelter and seeking legal help as a good person would have done - shows clearly that he totally lacks empathy and human feeling. Religious authorities, who see human beings as pawns to be moved around at whim, too often take such a stance.

On another note, there are further developments in the story of Thomas Weeks, the megachurch leader accused of savagely beating his estranged wife in a parking lot. In his first statement since his arrest, Weeks asked his fellow believers not to pass judgment and then, in an act of supreme arrogance, announced that he forgave his wife. For what? He should be begging her forgiveness, not acting as if she did something wrong and he was graciously choosing to pardon her!

Fortunately, we live in a society that has separation of church and state, and a civil justice system that does not recognize any accused person's delusions about being the anointed servant of God's will. Still, even when facing lengthy prison terms, it's incredible that these religious leaders continue to act as if their alleged victims, not they, are the ones who have done something wrong. As both these stories show, women especially suffer the results of this, since they are most often on the receiving end of theological justifications for inequality.

LATE-BREAKING UPDATE (9/25): Warren Jeffs has been convicted and faces up to life in prison.

September 18, 2007, 7:40 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink81 comments

Scientology to Stand Trial?

Some welcome news out of Brussels:

A Belgian prosecutor on Tuesday recommended that the U.S.-based Church of Scientology stand trial for fraud and extortion, following a 10-year investigation that concluded the group should be labeled a criminal organization.

Although I take a dim view of the principle, held by many European countries, that speech and belief can be censored in the name of promoting societal harmony, this is one instance where the United States' more expansive view of religious freedom has led to the wrong conclusion. The U.S. decision to officially recognize Scientology as a religion and grant it tax-exempt status was the wrong one, and should be reversed. (Granted, I believe that all churches should be taxed, but if we're going to start repairing that error, there's no better place to start than with Scientology.)

Scientology is well-known for being a litigious cult with a history of trying to silence its critics. It's also been tied to criminal activities in the past, including a well-known case from the 1970s in which eleven highly-ranked Scientologists, including L. Ron Hubbard's wife, pled guilty or were convicted of charges that included attempts to wiretap and burglarize U.S. government offices. Scientology is also widely known for having perhaps the most ludicrous backstory of any current faith, including the belief that an alien space overlord named Xenu attempted to solve a galactic overpopulation problem by bringing billions of alien beings to Earth to kill them, and that the ghosts of these dead aliens (called "thetans") cling invisibly to human beings and cause every physical or mental problem which people suffer from. Lay Scientologists are not told this story until they have donated a considerable sum of money to the church.

Ridiculous beliefs are one thing, but Scientology's aggressive, hostile attitude toward its detractors is what has earned it the most notoriety. L. Ron Hubbard famously declared that the church's critics were "fair game" who could be "deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist without any discipline of the Scientologist. May be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed." The most prominent victim of this policy was Paulette Cooper, who wrote an anti-Scientology book (The Scandal of Scientology) to which the church responded by, among other things, trying to frame her for bomb threats.

The church claims it discontinued the "fair game" policy in 1968, though as recently as 1999, it agreed to pay libel damages for publishing a pamphlet attacking a former member as a "hate campaigner". The new recommendations by Belgian prosecutor Jean-Claude Van Espen cast further doubt on that claim, since they include allegations of "intimidation and extortion" against ex-members.

Unfortunately, it's unlikely that these allegations, even if they lead to charges being filed, will be aired in court for some time. But as far as I'm concerned, the sooner that day comes, the better. All of society will benefit if this pernicious sect is exposed for what it is:

The German government considers Scientology a commercial enterprise that takes advantage of vulnerable people.

...and if these charges lead the U.S. government to reconsider Scientology's tax-exempt status, so much the better.

September 6, 2007, 7:27 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink14 comments

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