Steven Pinker Lecture on Free Speech
53 minutes ago
The various dogmas of institutional Christianity – like, for instance, the doctrine of the Trinity, or of the Immaculate Conception – just do not impinge; I neither believe nor disbelieve them, and feel no inclination to defend or denounce them. I find them perfectly comprehensible, perfectly harmless, and - as far as I'm concerned - totally without significance. Nor does the historicity of the Gospels' account of Christ's birth, life and death worry me at all. If, tomorrow, someone were to unearth another Dead Sea Scroll proving that, in earthly terms, the traditional Christian story just didn't happen in that way at that time, it wouldn't disturb my attitude to Christianity at all. Legends, in any case, seem to me more relevant to our human situation, and in that sense more 'factual', than history, which is really only the propaganda of the victor. Thus - by way of example - I find the Book of Genesis, considered as legend, infinitely more prescient on the subject of the origins and subsequent unfolding of our human story than, say, the theory of evolution, considered as fact.Clearly there is plenty in this to say 'hang on a minute' to, but for now I just want to emphasise Muggeridge's absolutism. Jesus's birth is absolutely the most important event in Western, or perhaps human, history, just as the Genesis origin story [stories, in fact] is infinitely more important to our understanding of the human story than Darwin's Origin of Species, which [we can be absolutely sure!] Muggeridge never opened in his life.
The essential point, as I see it, about Christ's birth is that it was so poor and so humble. The Son of God was born into the world, not as a prince, but as a pauper. So, to deck up the legendary scene of his nativity with precious hangings, pictures, glittering lamps and other ornamentation, is to destroy whatever valid symbolism it might otherwise have. Truly, we human beings have a wonderful faculty for thus snatching fantasy from the jaws of truth.Indeed, Malcolm.
Judging by our own wise men, I find difficulty in believing that any such would recognise God's son in Mary's. Let the vastly more numerous unwise go on marvelling at that stupendous moment in history when, for the first time, God was revealed to men, not in the guise of power or wealth or physical beauty, but of weakness, obscurity and humility.
All I can say for the Genesis version [of creation] is that it strikes me as more plausible than Professor Hoyle's.For Hoyle, we can of course insert the name of any cosmologist, but he seems particular disdainful of the irascible Englishman. Maybe Hoyle once give him an intellectual box on the ears? He mentions him again in his essay 'The crucifixion':
Towards any kind of scientific mumbo-jumbo we display a credulity which must be the envy of African witch-doctors. While we shy away with contumely from the account of the creation in the Book of Genesis, we are probably ready to assent to any rigmarole by a Professor Hoyle about how matter came to be, provided it is dished up in the requisite jargon and associated, however obliquely, with what we conceive to be 'facts'.This favourable comparison of Genesis with various scientific explanations is reiterated throughout the book, as if he seems well pleased with himself for coming up with it. Of course he doesn't deign to explain why Genesis is superior to all of science, it's apparently too too obvious [and Muggeridge sprinkles his text with such terms as 'obviously', 'of course', 'without any question' and so forth, often in connection with the most laughable claims. Take this doozy: 'I have no wish to luxuriate in apocalyptic prognostications, yet it would seem obvious enough that the last precarious foothold of law and order in our world is being dislodged']. In his brief article on Simone Weil, one of the few 'lights in the darkness', as he calls her, he quotes with approval her remarks about science [a subject that clearly interested her more than it did Muggeridge]:
Everything that is most retrograde in the spirit of religion has taken refuge, above all in science itself. A science like ours, essentially closed to the layman, and therefore to scientists themselves, because each of them is a layman outside his own narrow specialism, is the proper theology of an ever increasingly bureaucratic society.As a more or less regular reader of New Scientist and Cosmos, and a consumer of many popularist books on science, I see plenty of scientists and science writers happy to reach out to the general public, but a lot of science is genuinely difficult and necessarily complex and 'technical'. Any language will be mumbo jumbo to those who are convinced that even attempting to learn it is beneath contempt.
One cannot live by bread alone, [Jesus] was to say, thinking, I dare say, of the bread and circuses, the avid pursuit of wealth and luxury, the permissive morality and eroticism, which characterized Roman society at the time, as it does ours today.This description of Roman society [more accurately Graeco-Roman society] would not be agreed with by any historian that I've read - and I've read a few. Augustus was quite an abstemious ruler, and in any case the vast majority of his subjects would have known little or nothing about him. They went on with their lives regardless, lives of daily toil, wheeling and dealing, civic duties and religious observance, all depending on their place in that complex and relatively rigid society. In spite of the indulgences of a minority of Roman emperors and governors, Graeco-Roman society, though it would have had its prostitution and its homosexual haunts like every society, was not sexually permissive by and large. Certainly there was corruption and avarice, just as there was in later Christian society. But 'mere facts' shouldn't be allowed to interfere with Muggeridge's message. His interest is in making a connection between the 'darkness' of the Roman world and our current 'dark age', so that he can bring his version of Jesus, the light of the world, into sharp contrast with each of them.
The world at all times is full of shattered or distorted bodies and minds (not least now, despite all that modern medicine can do). To them Christ offered, not medicine, but forgiveness; when he relieved them of their burden of guilt, he also automatically relieved them of their infirmities.The fact is that, at the time of Jesus, and before, and for a long time afterwards, physical and mental illness were believed to be caused by the displeasure of the gods, or God, or the ancestors, or other such other-worldly entities. The fanatically other-worldly Muggeridge buys into that of course - as does the Jesus character. That there are lots of suffering people out there in spite of the wonders of modern medicine is a sign of 'spiritual malaise' rather than practical problems such as economic disadvantage, isolation, lack of proper facilities and treatments in particular areas and a host of other causative factors. We are sick - no matter what the sickness - because of individual and collective guilt. Hard to know how to respond to such fatuous claims and inferences.
If cures were found for every disease ever known or to be known (a miracle far exceeding any achieved by Christ in his random essays as a healer), everything would be the same. We should still be blind and sick and crazy as long as we allowed ourselves to be preoccupied with the hopes and desires of this world.Muggeridge reveals himself here as an other-worldly utopian absolutist, and his version of Jesus is geared toward that end. This would be a good time to examine his background, which certainly helps to explain his extremism. His father was a committed socialist, who was indefatigable in his efforts to further the cause of utopian socialism. Muggeridge often accompanied him on his mission to convert the workers, and he apparently adored his father [who was also a Christian]. As Muggeridge and so many others have pointed out, there was much evangelism and religious ritual in late nineteenth century and early twentieth century socialist proselytizing, but as a journalist in the thirties, Muggeridge came face to face with two horrific examples of worldly utopian failure, the Nazi attempt to impose an Aryan 'thousand year reich', and the bolshevist state, so degenerate under Stalin. Clearly these two horror states had a profound effect on Muggeridge, but it's also clear to me that his devotion to and loyalty to his father made it impossible to give up on the utopianism his father worked so hard to bring about. In transferring his utopianism to the other world he was able to reject socialism without entirely betraying his Christian father. This is a very sketchy piece of 'psychoanalytic mumbo-jumbo' as Muggeridge would describe it, yet I suspect even he would admit there's more than a grain of truth in it.
The oxidized surface of the planet would have provided the oceans with a greatly increased supply of sulphate, which microbes in the oxygen-free depths of the oceans would reduce into sulphides. Something similar can be seen in the poorly aerated waters of the Black Sea.The point is that this 'Canfield ocean' is distinct from the previous Archaean ocean and the later oxygen-rich Phanerozoic with its 'dissolved oxygen available even at depth'. This view of things disrupts ideas of a smooth transition to today's oxygen-rich world.