Friday, November 24, 2017

Scientology, Christianity, and the Persistence of Cults

Naïve Christians who believe in the historicity of the gospel narrative of Jesus’ life sometimes argue that a myth about Jesus couldn’t have arisen during or soon after his lifetime, because eyewitnesses or other insiders would still have been alive and could have refuted wild Christian claims about Jesus. For example, if Jesus hadn’t been crucified by the Romans, relatives of Jesus could have testified to that fact while Paul was creating churches in the name of the crucified messiah, thus making it impossible for Paul’s churches to have succeeded. The fact that Christianity names names and that the New Testament record began only a few decades after Jesus is supposed to have lived proves, according to this argument, that at least the elements of the Christian narrative—that Jesus lived, excelled at teaching a revolutionary version of Judaism, reportedly performed healings and miracles, and was seen to have been resurrected after he was crucified—are historical. Had the early Christians fabricated that tale, the descendants at Galilee would have been around to point that out and so Christianity would have flopped as a movement.

This argument for the historicity of Jesus is untenable. This isn’t to say that the skeptic’s disproof consists only of the usual sort of argument which allows for rational counterarguments. No, in this rare instance, the disproof annihilates the Christian counterarguments. There is no intellectually-responsible way of arguing that myths about Jesus couldn’t have arisen so soon after Jesus lived or that Christianity couldn’t have survived as a religion in spite of the foolhardiness of its claims, given this disproof. The disproof consists merely of the counterexample of Scientology. What is the Church of Scientology but a deeply shameful late-modern cult of personality that arose during the lifetime of a quack and a Trump-like madman and that persists despite an overwhelming case against its every word and deed? Scientologists believe that L. Ron Hubbard discovered a science of freeing the mind to be superpowerful, and that Hubbard himself—as naturally an expert in these techniques—became superhuman and immortal. They believe Hubbard, who published Dianetics in 1950, founded the Church of Scientology in 1953, and died in 1986, was a wise man and a miracle worker.

The Overwhelming Case against Scientology

There is, however, no more comprehensive case available against any religion or pseudoreligion than there is against the Church of Scientology. The only way to strengthen the case would be for L. Ron Hubbard himself to admit that the whole thing was a fraud (although he practically did that too by saying on several occasions that the best way to make money is to start a religion). Imagine all the ways a phony religion could be disproven. Now notice that Scientology has whistleblowers galore, who have laid out devastating, detailed, and insider cases against their former religion, Scientology. These include Hubbard’s eldest son, Ronald DeWolf, who was involved in early Scientology but broke from his father in 1959 and gave sworn testimony repudiating his father’s practices. DeWolf said more than ninety percent of what Hubbard wrote about himself is false.

Then there’s Hubbard’s second wife, Sara Hollister, whom Hubbard met in Aleister Crowlely’s occult organization, the OTO. Hollister was involved in the early Dianetics years, was Hubbard’s personal auditor and was one of the first Dianetic “clears,” according to Hubbard. Hollister filed for divorce in 1951, saying about Hubbard,
she had been subjected to “systematic torture, including loss of sleep, beatings, and strangulations and scientific experiments”. Because of his “crazy misconduct” she was in “hourly fear of both the life of herself and of her infant daughter, who she has not seen for two months”. She had consulted doctors who “concluded that said Hubbard was hopelessly insane, and, crazy, and that there was no hope for said Hubbard, or any reason for her to endure further; that competent medical advisers recommended that said Hubbard be committed to a private sanatorium for psychiatric observation and treatment of a mental ailment known as paranoid schizophrenia.”
Then there’s Hana Whitfield who was a Scientologist and a member of the Sea Organization (the fraternal religious order for elite Scientologists) for twenty years, and who “captained two of Hubbard’s ships, ran his organizations, and was Deputy Commodore under Hubbard in the United States for two years.” She broke from the Church and told harrowing stories of what life was like as an early Scientologist with Hubbard. Her account is part of the 2015 documentary against Scientology, “Going Clear,” and can also be found in interviews on YouTube, along with that documentary. The significance of her repudiation of Hubbard is such that it would be like Peter repudiating Jesus, not just by denying him three times in fear of Roman persecution, but by telling chapter and verse about what a fraud Jesus was, and by saying so in a permanent public record for the world to see.  

Then there’s Ronald Miscavige, the father of David who took over Scientology after Hubbard died, in a sort of bloodless coup. Ronald was in the Sea Org for 27 years. He eventually left the cult and wrote an exposé, called Ruthless: Scientology, My Son David Misvavige, and Me, in which
he paints his son—the leader of the Church of Scientology and the successor to founder L. Ron Hubbard—as an abusive tyrant who has transformed a once-useful religion into a cult devoted to worshipping him, squeezing every possible cent out of church members and treating those who devote their lives to the church like sharecroppers whose measly wages will never get them out of debt at the company store—or off the church’s palatial plantation…And if they do try to leave, the elder Miscavige says, they are typically tracked down and brought back by a combination of force, coercion and psychological intimidation.
Then there’s Mike Rinder, who was a senior executive of Scientology at the international level and a Sea Org member from 1982 to 2007. He left “disillusioned with what he perceived to be the increasingly authoritarian nature of senior management under David Miscavige.” With Leah Remini, an actor, a Scientologist for 34 years since she was 9 years old, and another whistleblower, the pair produced and appeared in a series of award-winning exposés on Scientology, on A&E, called “Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath,” in which they tell the stories of numerous other whistleblowers, many of whom were likewise high-ranking in the cult. In addition, that series features all sorts of documentary evidence from the scores of official Scientology files written by Hubbard himself, proving the critics’ claims. These documents include the bizarre science fictional rewrites of ancient Sumerian and Jain theologies which count as revelations in Scientology, and the legal contract signed by each Scientologist which actually disavows everything Hubbard ever wrote or said.

In addition to those firsthand accounts which indicate that Scientology is a cult, an abusive fraud, and a business rather than a religion, the documentaries on Scientology, and in addition to the critical biographies of Hubbard such as Russell Miller’s Bare-Faced Messiah, and the personal websites of ex-Scientologists that provide their insider narratives, there’s the public record of the US government’s interaction with the organization. For example,
Operation Snow White was a criminal conspiracy by the Church of Scientology during the 1970s to purge unfavorable records about Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. This project included a series of infiltrations into and thefts from 136 government agencies, foreign embassies and consulates, as well as private organizations critical of Scientology, carried out by Church members in more than 30 countries. It was one of the largest infiltrations of the United States government in history, with up to 5,000 covert agents.
In response, in 1977 “134 agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation simultaneously stormed the Church of Scientology's offices in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, seizing nearly 50,000 documents and other evidence.” Hubbard’s wife and eight other Scientologists pled guilty to conspiracy. She served only one year of her four year sentence of prison time. The FBI’s seizure of documents brought to light the Scientologist plot, code-named Operation Freakout, which was intended to frame and have either imprisoned or sent to a psychiatric hospital Paulette Cooper, a journalist who wrote a scathing exposé against Scientology in 1971.  

In 1958, the IRS began a review of its having granted Scientology a tax-exempt status as a religion, and in 1967 that status was overturned, because of its finding that Scientology’s “activities were commercial and operated for the benefit of Hubbard, rather than for charitable or religious purposes.” That’s to say the government had concluded that Scientology was essentially a fraud. As Commodore of the Sea Org, Hubbard thus fled the United States, living for 8 years as a kind of pirate on a ship in neutral waters to avoid having to pay taxes. Scientology was set to go bankrupt in the late ‘80s because of the taxes it owed the US government, but survived by funding “a campaign which included a whistle-blower organization to publicly attack the IRS, as well as hiring of private investigators to look into the private lives of IRS officials.” The IRS thus reversed and itself again in 1993, granting the cult tax-exempt status and proclaiming it a religion rather than a business, which was manifestly a travesty of justice.

To sum up, there’s a library’s worth of material proving that Scientology is a fraud and a cult, that its founder was a charlatan and a lunatic, and that its current leader David Miscavige is a tyrant. These criticisms don’t derive merely from opinionated outsiders but from senior insiders, from ex-Scientologists who spent decades in the organization and even, in some cases, years with the founder himself. There’s textual evidence disproving virtually everything Scientologists say about their “Church” and about its founder. For example, Hubbard’s military records reveal that, contrary to the myths, his service was far from heroic and his medical records indicate he died from several ailments, including pancreatitis, and thus he didn’t enjoy any superhuman health. The equivalent in Christianity would require several members of Jesus’ family and inner circle coming forward to denounce him, both during his life and shortly thereafter. (In fact, the gospel narrative includes clues that may have been intended to cover-up or coopt just such early criticism, since Jesus’ family is said to have regarded him as insane (Mark 3:21) and Peter to have “denied” Jesus (Mark 14:66-72).) Recall that I invited you to imagine the strongest possible case against a false religion. How does the above summary of the case against Scientology compare with the ideal one you can imagine? It seems to me, again, that the only conceivable way to strengthen the actual case against Scientology would be for the founder himself to have confessed at length that he’s a con man. Every other sort of devastating criticism or piece of evidence you could possibly want is available to the critic of Scientology.

Christianity and the Survival of Cults

But my point is that as airtight as the case against the religious merit of Scientology is, the Church of Scientology still exists! The cult has around 2 billion dollars and perhaps tens of thousands of members worldwide—all in the midst of the avalanche of devastating criticisms that began shortly after the cult’s inception and that have only increased in power and reach as the cult grew in its 70 year history. Thus, to say that a religious movement couldn’t be based on insanity and on a pack of lies, because it would never survive the pushback from people in the know is demonstrably false. Just look at the phenomenon of Scientology! Again, people in the know have condemned Scientology, they’ve proven their case with interviews, depositions, articles, books, websites, documentaries, and television series, and yet Scientology endures. It’s perfectly conceivable that Scientology could evolve into a major religion in a few centuries, perhaps eclipsing Christianity, since Scientology incorporates scientific rhetoric into its creeds, which is attractive in a technoscientific era. In the same way, Christianity began as a cult of personality or as a small religious movement and became a major religion three centuries after its earliest myths were written down by Paul.

We know that an overwhelming case against Scientology has been made and that these criticisms have had very little impact on the cult’s survival, although they may currently be working against Scientology's attempt to grow into a mainstream religion/business. Likewise, a devastating pagan or Jewish case against early Christianity might have been made and might have prevented Christianity from becoming a national or international movement (until Constantine and Theodosius I arbitrarily ensured that the Roman Empire would be officially Christian). But whether there was such early criticism of Christianity or not, the point is that even if there were, we know from Scientology that a cult can survive that sort of onslaught. Thus, early Christians would have been free to spread all manner of wacky religious notions, including historical narratives that name names such as Jesus, Pontius Pilate, and Joseph of Arimathea, and they needn’t have feared that their religious movement would likely be shut down by decisive refutations. Scientologists trust in a mythical version of Hubbard’s life which is disproven by the public record. The same could have been true of early Christian beliefs about Jesus. So the mere fact that wild stories spread which could be disproved by insiders doesn’t entail that the stories are factual rather than mythical because myths allegedly couldn’t withstand that level of criticism.

A Christian might insist that there’s no comparison between Scientology and early Christianity, since our culture is very different from Jesus’ in ancient Judea, and indeed that’s true. But this point works to the detriment of the Christian defense. We live in an age in which information is democratized. We have widely available, permanent records such that any interested person with an internet connection could type up the above summary that features some points from the mountain of evidence against Scientology. The internet includes a public record, for example, of what Hubbard’s son said or wrote decades ago. Thus, it should be far harder for a cult to survive in the twenty-first century, in spite of this sort of unassailable case against it, than for one to have survived in the ancient world in a backwater region of the Roman Empire, because the early Christians had next to no sources. They had no mass publishing or internet or instant communication by cell phones. They couldn’t easily have checked the record about rumours circulating around a figure named Jesus, because there were no such records held in common. Instead, different communities created their own stories for different purposes. They made use of each other’s narratives, in the case of the synoptic gospels, and they forged some epistles, but they weren’t detectives searching for the cold, hard facts. Indeed, illiterate fishermen and the like at that time wouldn’t have had even the concept of such facts. If they had heard a rumour that ran contrary to their stories about Jesus, they would have been in no position to falsify it, nor would they have been interested in doing so. They lacked both the means and the motive, as it were.

Suppose, for example, early Christians concocted the Catholic narrative of Jesus’s life, and eyewitnesses in the first century CE protested that no such events had occurred, that Jesus never healed or taught anyone and that the Christian narrative was based on confusion, hallucinations, and creative synthesis of various pre-existing religious ideas in Judaism and pagan religions. Suppose even that those criticisms were as airtight as the ones against Scientology. How would the critical word have gotten out in the case of early Christianity? The eyewitness would had to have been a poor, illiterate labourer of some sort in the outback of Judea, so there could have been no question of this critic having produced a written insider’s case against Christianity. (Mind you, the Gnostic gospels come close to an insider’s repudiation of literalistic Christianity.) Perhaps this insider would have spread his or her message orally, but we know what happens to eyewitness testimony over time: it changes, as in the game of Broken Telephone. The more people hear the rumour, the more the rumour changes to suit the listeners’ predilections and because of other kinds of noise that disrupt the signal's transmission. The Romans would have kept some records, but even if they would have chosen to share proof of whether someone named Jesus had been crucified under Pilate, and even if those records proved there was no such crucifixion or burial of Jesus in a rich man’s tomb, early Christians could have attributed that contrary piece of evidence to a demonic conspiracy against their religion or to a mistake or loss of information resulting from the Jewish uprising and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. (Indeed, Justin Martyr attributed the pagan versions of dying and rising godmen, whose myths were around before Christianity, to a diabolical conspiracy against Christianity, of mimicking Jesus prior to his birth.)

In any case, again there’s no need to speculate, because we have the fact of Scientology’s persistence right before our eyes. In the so-called Age of Reason, long after the rise of science, when people living in technologically-advanced societies on average do at least have the concept of literal, impersonal truth, we nevertheless have two seemingly irreconcilable facts: (1) the airtight case against Scientology and (2) the persistence of the Church of Scientology. How are these facts to be reconciled? How does Scientology still exist in spite of its demonstrable falsehood? Scientology exists because it’s a cult, because its leaders control the information the followers encounter, and because the leaders exploit the human brain’s irrational tendencies. For example, the leaders prey on the members’ fears and gullibility and willingness to reinforce their delusions with dubious interpretations of contrary evidence as long as doing so protects their cherished core beliefs. This is in fact how Scientology explains away Hubbard’s mediocre military record, by attributing it to a government conspiracy, since Hubbard was supposedly involved in important covert activities that had to be protected. And Scientology is hardly the only cult in evidence. Cults of personality formed around Charles Manson, David Koresh, Jim Jones, as well as every dictator both ancient and modern. Currently there’s a cult around Donald Trump as well as a one encompassing the whole of North Korea. For a cult leader, controlling the followers’ access to information is child’s play, since often they talk their followers into committing murder or into killing themselves in the leader’s name, which requires a much greater degree of mind control.

Despite the nasty pagan rumour that early Christians were incestuous cannibals, Christianity doesn’t appear to have begun as the darkest sort of cult, one which would have enabled a charismatic sociopath to dominate his followers. Still, early Christianity did include seeds that would sprout poisonous fruit once the cult became institutionalized. For example, the New Testament’s scapegoating of the Jews as those primarily responsible for Jesus’s execution enabled the pogroms throughout Christian history, and the doctrine of everlasting punishment in hell warranted any self-interested act that could be a means of avoiding that fate in the afterlife. In any case, even if early Christianity was in no way a cult like Scientology—although it did start as a small, radical movement opposed by much larger forces both Jewish and pagan—Christianity could have persisted despite an overwhelming, well-informed campaign against it. We know this because we’re aware of Scientology’s having actually done so in our lifetime.

Early Christians wouldn’t have needed to exert totalitarian control over their information, because their opponents had no public forum to create a permanent, fact-based consensus against the budding religion, and because most early Christians wouldn’t have been interested in what we call historical facts, in the first place. They were intrigued by creative, theological interpretations of events that could resonate with them and dignify them despite their being subject to brutal Roman occupation or despite the spiritual deadness of average pagan life. The deification of a lowly Jewish carpenter would have done the trick for both Jews and gentiles, which means that even if the religion was badly mistaken about the elements of its narrative and creed, early Christians would have censored themselves even without the central control over information which the Catholic Church would later establish. Early Christian leaders could have counted on the theological and cultural utility of their message and on the irrationality of most of their followers. Thus, the facts that the message included historical details that could conceivably have been disproved and that Christianity survived to the present day don’t entail that Christianity’s narrative is likely accurate. Scientology certainly isn’t proven accurate just because of its ability to survive the devastating case against it that’s currently available to everyone around the world with access to public information. 


  1. I had never read much about Hubbard (and still haven't, really), but I read a biography on Jack Whitehead Parsons (the inventor of jet fuel, basically) last year. Hubbard hung out in that same circle of sci fi writers and occultists and eventually stole Parsons' wife and money.

    Anyway, the argument against Christianity you counter here IS one that I've used to rationalize at least the existence of Jesus as an historical figure. Although the rise of Christianity so soon after Christ's death doesn't validate the Gospels, it would seem to at least provide evidence that he existed, which is really an open question so far as other evidence is concerned.

    That first generation of martyrs (outside of Paul, of course) might have been wrong about him, but at least they ought to have been right about his existence... right?

    1. Apparently, Scientology keeps Hubbard's earlier involvement in the occult a secret from its members. But yeah, that must have been where he learned about some ancient religions and how to control people by creating a cult.

      The counterexample of Scientology doesn't support Jesus mythicism, since we know Hubbard lived. But I've read a number of the Jesus mythicists (Carrier, Doherty, Price), and I tend to think it's slightly more likely than not that there was no historical Jesus. There is no knock-down argument for his historicity. For example, the best pieces of textual evidence are flawed. The Josephus passage has been obviously tampered with by Christian copyists, and Paul hardly refers at all to the historical Jesus, even when he should have done so to support his arguments. He talks about “the brother of the Lord,” but not the “brother of Jesus,” and early Christians called each other brothers and sisters, which is partly why pagans thought they were incestuous. Most New Testament scholars believe Jesus was historical, but then again most such scholars are Christian, so their judgment doesn’t tell us much. The study of history is hardly a hard science.

      As to the timing of the rise of Christianity, of course it begs the question to speak of its rise so soon after Jesus’ death if there was no such historical founder. Romans were crucifying Jewish troublemakers all the time back then, so a story about a deified Jew who was crucified could have taken off any time before the Jewish uprising in 70 CE.

      Burton Mack shows that there weren't simply "early Christians" but a patchwork of communities that were eventually woven together to become a more unified Christianity. There were Gnostics (with the Gospel of John), Jewish Christians under James (with the Gospel of Matthew), pagan Christians under Paul, perhaps the Qumran sect that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls (according to Eisenman's intriguing theory). I don't recall exactly how Mack carves up the different communities, but the point is that there were numerous independent movements at that time that were more or less Jewish or pagan or that synthesized those religions to different degrees, and some of those movements began earlier than others.

    2. As to how a Christian myth could have become literalized, Freke and Gandy have an interesting theory. Some of the details of their account may not work out, but their main idea is powerful and simple: Christianity worked as a Jewish version of the Greek Mystery rites, such as those at Eleusis. As their name implies, these Mystery religions were highly protective of their secrets, so they had Lesser and Greater teachings, depending on how spiritually advanced were the disciples. This idea makes it into the New Testament, when Jesus speaks in parables and says "He who has ears, let him ear."

      The innermost secrets weren't written down, so we still don't know exactly what they were. According to Thomas Taylor, the early English translator of Aristotle and Plato, "the dramatic shows of the Lesser Mysteries occultly signified the miseries of the soul while in subjection to the body, so those of the Greater obscurely intimated, by mystic and splendid visions, the felicity of the soul both here and hereafter, when purified from the defilements of a material nature and constantly elevated to the realities of intellectual [spiritual] vision."

      Notice that the Platonic feel of those secrets is more consistent with Gnosticism (the heavily dualistic and anti-natural heresies) than with literalistic, "Catholic" Christianity. Notice also that Jesus’ crucifixion could have conformed to the Lesser Mysteries, while the vision of his resurrected form, in the Gospel narrative, would have hinted at the Greater ones. So if Jews had the idea of incorporating that Greek model of teaching some mystical secrets, they could have used the narrative of Jesus' life as an "occult sign" of the deeper secrets, and thus as a test to determine whether the member was ready for the fuller revelation. If the disciple got hung up on the literal, materialistic plane, as it were, and only wanted to worship the character Jesus, as opposed to seeing the character as symbolic of the deeper, psychological truth, that everyone has Christlike potential, this literalistic follower wouldn't have been deemed worthy of receiving advanced study. This is in fact how the Gnostics responded to the Catholics, and they viewed Paul as more or less Gnostic precisely because he didn’t dwell on the historical Jesus, unlike the Gospel authors.

      So you’d have these two layers of teachings, but because they were aimed at the lowly masses (the sinners whom Jesus said he came to save) who weren’t intellectually prepared for the higher meanings (unlike, say, Plato, who went through all the Eleusinian Mysteries), the more mystical and metaphorical teachings would have eventually been forgotten, because the masses glommed onto the entertaining narrative, onto the outer, lesser teachings about the life of Jesus. The narrative of his life and crucifixion could have been mistaken as historical, because the masses weren’t spiritually prepared for greater wisdom; they didn’t want to recognize their potential for ethical advancement, but only wanted to worship a savior who would do all the spiritual work for them. Thus, the Lesser Jewish/Christian Mysteries could eventually have been taken to be the whole of official Christianity, and the Greater Mysteries that were preserved by the Gnostics would have been banned as heretical by the Catholic Church that was more interested in controlling the masses than in enlightening them.

    3. The number of early Christian martyrs who died for their belief in the resurrection has been exaggerated. See Carrier’s articles at the addresses below. Carrier says, ‘None of the Gospels or Epistles mention anyone dying for their belief in the "physical" resurrection of Jesus. The only martyrdoms recorded in the New Testament are, first, the stoning of Stephen in the Book of Acts. But Stephen was not a witness. He was a later convert. So if he died for anything, he died for hearsay alone…The second and only other "martyr" recorded in Acts is the execution of the Apostle James, but we are not told anything about why he was killed or whether recanting would have saved him, or what he thought he died for…Yet that is the last record of any martyrdom we have until the 2nd century. Then we start to hear about some unnamed Christians burned for arson by Nero in 64 A.D., but we do not know if any eye-witnesses were included in that group--and even if we did it would not matter, for they were killed on a false charge of arson, not for refusing to deny belief in a physical resurrection.’

      In any case, it’s certainly possible to die for a mistaken or delusional belief. Many Scientologists suffer for their faith, because they’re treated like garbage by the tyrants who run their cult, and the same is true of every cult. The Manson family killed and died for their leader. And we don’t know what went through the minds of the early Christians who suffered or died for their faith. The religious reasons for doing so could easily have combined with political ones, just as they likely do for the Islamist terrorists who currently sacrifice themselves in killing those they deem non-Muslim oppressors.

      The bottom line for me is that there aren’t compelling reasons that I can see for thinking there was a historical Jesus. If there were some historical truth underlying Christianity, it was buried by so many myths and borrowings from the Old Testament and from pagan religions that the historical Jesus doesn’t really matter, as Robert Price points out.

  2. Mormonism is another good example. We know for an absolute fact that it was a sham from the beginning. Judaism and Christianity are so old, it's difficult to prove to people that they are also a sham. Archeological evidence disproves many Old Testament claims, but people still believe.

    1. That's right: the older some event is, the more muddled the evidence for it. Only if the event happens on a huge scale, as in a war or the collapse of an empire do we have all kinds of evidence pointing in the same general direction. But at the micro level, if we're dealing with what happened to a particular individual who wasn't a king or an emperor and who didn't write anything himself and who may not even have existed, because the stories about him are fantastical, the evidence is bound to point in different directions, assuming there's any good evidence for him at all. So questions of ancient history at that level tend not to be answered with much certainty, because the evidence is likely mixed and complicated.

      Another good example would be the Cargo cult.

  3. I suspect the governments of the time crucified a lot of seditious hotheads. Some guy named Jesus might have been one of them. After all getting put to death isn't the trick, rising from the dead is. The question of whether Jesus, considered as just another carpenter/seditious hothead existed isn't all that interesting. Whether this particular crucified seditious hothead rose from the dead is. The evidence gap between seditious hothead and Son of the Living God is still as wide as it ever was.

    1. There were numerous other people who supposedly "rose from the dead" in the bible. The entire story of being "risen" is taken from ancient sun worshipers. The sun was thought to "die" and then "rise" from the dead.

    2. Certainly, the basic idea of a Jewish healer and revolutionary who was executed for political reasons by the Roman Empire is plausible. Jesus could have existed to that extent. His followers then would have searched their scriptures to find meaning in his tragic death. So they might have found Isaiah's passage on the suffering servant, and interpreted his death as sacrificial and as a further sign he was the messiah. The details of his career as a miracle worker could have been taken from the stories of Elisha, as Robert Price points out.

      It's also plausible to think the story of the life of such a person could have been invented for the purpose of teaching spiritual lessons, especially since we know the gospels weren't eyewitness reports and only two of them were independent of each other (Mark and John, John being likely late and based on hearsay, and Matthew and Luke likely depending on Mark). Jesus' life corresponds to the essence of the Gnostic Hymn of the Pearl: a transcendent, spiritually elevated soul is born into the prison of a lower world, symbolized by the Roman Empire and by spiritually blind Jews (Pharisees), and by the Egyptian Empire in the Gnostic hymn; this hero needs to recognize he doesn't belong there and must learn how to escape and return to his true home (a dove or the spirit of God tells Jesus when he’s baptized that he’s actually the Son of God); Jesus is executed by the archons or rulers of the lower realm (as Paul even says), but his true form and stature are revealed as he's resurrected and he ascends to heaven. So the essence of the historical narrative is also suspicious for how well it serves as an allegory and as a vehicle for the Platonic sort of teaching taught by the Greek Mysteries and by Gnostics.

      Certainly the question of whether miracles actually occurred in the ancient world, including Jesus' resurrection is interesting. But I also think it's worthwhile to wonder whether Christianity is founded on a monumental error and whether this is all tremendously ironic for the reasons I lay out in my above response to Harry Hamid's comment. If most Christians have only gotten as far as the Lesser Mysteries, because Christianity as a whole forgot about its true purpose, which is to teach the Greater, psychological and mystical secrets, to reveal the deeper meaning of its metaphor in the character Jesus, that is first and foremost hilarious. But it’s also a tragic lesson that applies to many other fields. This is why I talk a lot on my blog about this split between esoteric and exoteric, insider and outsider, enlightenment and ignorance.

    3. Anon, from what I understand, the ancient Jews were divided on whether they believed in physical resurrection of the dead. The Pharisees and the Essenes believed the body would rise, while the Sadducees didn't. The idea of dying and rising gods does go back to the importance of the changing seasons and cycles of vegetation and of stellar motions.

      Hippolytus, the 2nd century theologian, says about the Essenes, '"Particularly firm is their doctrine of Resurrection; they believe that the flesh will rise again and then be immortal like the soul, which, they say, when separated from the body, enters a place of fragrant air and radiant light, there to enjoy rest—a place called by the Greeks who heard [of this doctrine] the 'Isles of the Blest.' But," continues the writer, in a passage characteristically omitted by Josephus, "there are other doctrines besides, which many Greeks have appropriated and given out as their own opinions. For their disciplinary life [ἄσκησις] in connection with the things divine is of greater antiquity than that of any other nation, so that it can be shown that all those who made assertions concerning God and Creation derived their principles from no other source than the Jewish legislation.'

      Judaism isn't as old or as original as this pro-Jewish writer seems to think, but perhaps Paul got his ideas about resurrection from Judaism. In fact, the strictness of Jesus's ethics likely also derives from the Essenes.

  4. You might like this book Ben.

  5. People want to believe. The fact that we yearn for but can't receive answers to The Big Questions in this life means that most people can be swayed by magical thinking and charismatic personalities. Or; if you've seen one body thetan, you've seen 'em all.

    1. Of course, we can receive plenty of answers, but I think you mean we can't confirm which if any is true. I suspect that the yearning for big answers is part of the irrationality that makes us fall for cons and easy answers. In "Reason, Attitude, and Ultimate Answers" I suggest that there's incoherence in the very notion of a perfectly complete explanation. I've also argued that the correspondence notion of truth that would be involved in these big answers is likewise suspect.

      Still, I've attempted to work out some big answers on this blog, which many won't find appealing if they deem them plausible. My aesthetic, cosmicist pantheism as an interpretation of philosophical naturalism follows up on pragmatic science and is based more on misanthropic faith than on any objective or factual demonstration. But that's what I think we're left with at the tail end of the Age of Reason.

  6. The bigger question: Is conservative, traditional Christianity itself a cult?