Friday, October 30, 2015

The Gospel of Lashon Hara

From the Auguts 2012 E-Block.


Recently, on Tekton's YouTube Channel, a rather amiable atheist of Jewish descent remarked that while he often enjoyed my videos, he would no longer be watching because he felt there was too much harsh language used. I replied by noting the use of harsh language in the Bible; to which he replied that in Judaism, there was a law against such things, that he called lashon hara. He then expressed regrets that in using harsh language, Jesus had apparently abandoned those principles. 

I was rather suspicious of this argument, knowing what I do of both the use of harsh language in the Old Testament and as part of the honor-shame dialectic in the NT world. So I investigated the matter, and present the results here.

Not surprisingly, the amiable atheist was engaging in some rather wishful thinking. Lashon hara was for real, to be sure, but there is no evidence of the regulations associated with it existing prior to the Rabbinic Age -- some hundreds of years after Jesus. In addition, its regulations make it quite clear that it could not have existed in the Biblical Era -- or that, if it did, no one paid any attention to it, at least in terms of how the amiable atheist was trying to apply it. Finally, I found that lashon hara was hedged about with certain exceptions and caveats that made it much less prohibitive of harsh language than my amiable atheist indicated.

Broadly speaking, lashon hara referred to slander, abuse and tale-bearing, but in specific terms, it is used to forbid saying, essentially, any bad thing about any person whatsoever, except under very strict standards… even if what is said is true. That these regulations have sometimes gone overboard is shown in that they have been used even to silence those who are victims of abuse, as this comment by Rabbi Mark Dratch indicates:

The prohibition of Lashon Hara (slander, gossip, tale-bearing) is often used as a tool to silence abuse victims and their advocates from speaking out against abusers. “You are not allowed to say negative things,” they are told. “There’s no proof!” “There are no witnesses.” “You can’t make this public.” “Keep the secret! Remain silent!” And so women, girls, boys, and men are silenced and are often unable to get the help that they need or appeal for the support that they deserve. By invoking lashon hara improperly, the community to which they turn not only revictimizes them, but enables their abusers to continue abusing them and, potentially, others as well.

Dratch offers a more nuanced view of lashon hara, but even what he offers is simply not justifiable, if we wish to observe only Biblical authority. The one Biblical basis offered is Lev. 19:16: “You shall not go up and down as a slanderer among your people; nor you shall stand by the blood of your friend; I am the Lord”. This is quite narrow in scope and prescribes only against slander, not all harsh language. Dratch notes, however, that the definitive work on the subject was written by a sage who lived from 1838 to 1933! This alone makes it clear that lashon hara, in its fully developed stage, could not be Biblically justified.
Indeed, Dratch's description makes this quite clear:

The prohibition against lashon hara does not only pertain when one’s intentions are negative, i.e., the discrediting of another’s reputation—to shame him or degrade him; they apply even when one one’s intentions are neutral or one’s statements are merely in jest.

If this is so, then it is painfully evident that lashon hara did not exist in the NT era -- for clearly, both Jesus and the Pharisees engaged in honor contests designed to shame and degrade the other, in order to discredit public reputation.

Dratch then uses an interesting exception; namely, when negative information is used for a positive purpose. He notes an example of another rabbinic commentator, appealing also to Lev. 19:16:

...if he hears that others are conspiring to harm him and have set a trap, and he does not reveal this information to him, he violates that which is said in the Torah, “You shall not stand on the blood of your neighbor.”

Other commentators appealed to by Dratch include preventing financial and personal harm as valid reasons to engage in derogatory speech. Thus, for example:

In applying this ruling, R. Ovadia Yosef, Teshuvot Yehaveh Da’at, IV, no. 7, obligates a physician to report to the Department of Motor Vehicles a patient afflicted with epilepsy in order to have that patient’s license suspended. He rules that this obligation to prevent harm not only overrides the prohibition of speaking negatively about another, but even supersedes the doctor-patient privilege of confidentiality.

Yet another analysis includes exceptions such as protecting others from harm; preventing others from learning inappropriate behavior; shaming the subject into repenting; and clearing one’s own reputation. Certainly, one can argue that when Jesus attacked the Pharisees, it was for an ultimately positive purpose -- stopping them from deceiving others. The same could be said of Elijah confronting Baal's prophets.

But, to be fair, the designated exceptions are hedged about with caveats. For example, there must be no personal bitterness when one uses harsh language, and one should verify facts before speaking. It is clear, however, that the lashon hara regulations are far from being a universal prohibition of harsh language, as my amiable atheist claimed. It is also clear from certain caveats that lashon hara was unknown or ignored in the Biblical world. One caveat reads:

One should first rebuke the transgressor, if possible, in a calm and appropriate manner in order to motivate him to change his ways. Only if one is unsuccessful, may he publicize the misbehavior.

We obviously do not see either Jesus or the Pharisees "calmly" rebuking one another to "motivate" change in each other, nor do we have any hint that Elijah "calmly" pulled aside the priests of Baal to "motivate" them to recognize Yahweh as the true God.

In the final analysis, it appears that lashon hara either 1a) did not exist in the time of Jesus or the Old Testament, or 1b) did not exist in the later forms appealed to by my Jewish viewer; or 1c) existed, but was ignored by even the most pious representatives of Judaism. Given the lateness of sources about lashon hara, and the agonistic nature of the Biblical world, 1a) seems to be the likeliest option.

However, an interesting point is raised by Dratch regarding the limits of Lev. 19:16, which says that slander shall not be repeated among "your people." Of this, Dratch writes:

Those who engage in antisocial or heretical behavior have written themselves out of the community and have no claim on its protection and should not expect its privileges as expressed in numerous interpersonal obligations. Thus, a heretic or morally corrupt human being who has removed himself from the spiritual or social community has no claim on communal charity or aid and is not protected against such violations as lashon hara. In fact, it is a mitzvah (obligation) to speak out against such a person.

If lashon hara was in full force in the Biblical era, then there can be little doubt that the Pharisees and Jesus saw each other as "out of the community," or as heretics or as morally corrupt. By the same token, this would clearly mean that my Jewish contact was in error in his application -- for by any reckoning, YouTube (and many Internet forums) are filled with such people. Further on, Dratch specifically counts persons who perform physical, emotional or spiritual abuse as exempted from the protections of lashon hara, stating: "No social obligation or protection applies to anyone who does not abide by accepted and appropriate societal norms."

Our conclusion: Our amiable atheist friend was misapplying the regulations of lashon hara.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Petrus Romanus Fraud, Part 2

From the August 2012 E-Block.
For our next installment on Petrus Romanus (“PR”), we will have a look at some of the outlandish conspiracy theory claims the authors use as secondary evidence for the corruption of the Catholic Church (which, in turn, enables them to more freely errantly argue that Petrus Romanus is the expected "false prophet" of Revelation). 

Satanic Practices

PR appeals to the works of several authors who assert that various Satanic practices have been hidden by Catholicism. The first alluded to is Luigi Marinelli, an author of Gone with the Wind in the Vatican. The reliability of this source can be immediately questioned – as the obituary linked below notes, “no names were given, and most of the stories were decades old.” None of this means, of course, that the Vatican is free from scandal, but it also means that Marinelli is not a credible source to use for such outrageous charges made light of by the authors. Professional researchers, and practicing law professionals, would never use such tenuous material as evidence.

The authors also appeal to Emmanuel Milingo, who reputedly, while at an “Our Lady of Fatima” conference, charged high ranking members of the church hierarchy with being in league with Satan. It becomes quickly apparent that Milingo is not exactly a credible witness. Milingo is famous for having taken part in a marriage ceremony under the auspices of Sun Myung Moon (link below). Any evangelical leader who pulled such a stunt would hardly be taken as a credible witness. His statement about Satan, moreover, was tied to unspecified accusations of sexual impropriety, not to any sort of conspiracy theory. Again, this is not to say that the Vatican is free of all such things, but that the use of someone like Milingo as a source is the wrong way to make a solid case.

Their chief source of the sort, however, is Malachi Martin – a rather prolific writer in his time who also produced works of fiction. In one of those works, Windswept House, there is an account of a reputed "enthronement of the fallen Archangel Lucifer" in the Roman Catholic Citadel, on June 29, 1963, with an alleged parallel ceremony in Charleston, South Carolina, the site of an important Masonic Lodge. The authors make much of this, and you can find this story repeated on many conspiracy-theory websites. Yet why take this as history when it is in a fictional novel?

That’s a Dan Brown story of sorts wherein the authors appeal to an interview of Martin by John McManus, in the New American of June 9, 1997, in which Martin said that the events described actually happened. However, there’s plenty of reason to be suspicious of these claimed “facts” based on what little Martin offers in the interview:

Q. Your book begins with a vivid description of a sacrilegious "Black Mass" held in 1963 in Charleston, South Carolina. Did this really happen?

A. Yes it did. And the participation by telephone of some high officials of the church in the Vatican is also a fact. The young female who was forced to be a part of this satanic ritual is very much alive and, happily, has been able to marry and lead a normal life. She supplied details about the event.

Any prosecutor would find a conviction difficult based on such limited hearsay. Martin’s sole source is (reputedly) one woman who was said to be part of this event – and who apparently only concluded, based on a telephone conversation at the event, that Vatican officials were on the other end of the line.

Various sources – many of them also of questionable worth – identify the woman pseudonymously as “Agnes” and say this event occurred in 1957, not 1963, and connect the event to Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (who was also accused of pedophilia by someone else later on, though those charges ended up dropped when the reputed victim, Stephen Cook, recanted – suffice to say there’s enough controversy there for another article entirely). At the time, the woman was supposed to be 11 years old, and supposedly reported these events to Martin in 1990.

Given historic hysteria surrounding claims of Satanic ritualism, and the confusion of dates, these claims will require a lot more refinement and checking to deserve the status and importance that PR gives them.

Franklin’s Hellfire

Among selected claims that follow are many offered in the service of a thesis that America was in some way founded as a Freemason’s occult paradise. We will check some of these in more detail in other contexts, but here, we will consider a claim – borrowed from their fellow conspiracy theorist Christian Pinto – that Benjamin Franklin was involved in occult sacrificial practices.

The sum of the matter is that Franklin – reputedly a Freemason of some note – was a member of a group called the Hellfire Club that mocked traditional religion, took part in orgies and also performed animal and human sacrifices. The main claim we will consider is this:

On February 11, 1998, the Sunday Times reported that ten bodies were dug up from beneath Benjamin Franklin’s home at 36 Craven Street in London. The bodies were of four adults and six children. They were discovered during a costly renovation of Franklin’s former home. The Times reported: “Initial estimates are that the bones are about two hundred years old and were buried at the time Franklin was living in the house, which was his home from 1757 to 1762 and from 1764 to 1775. Most of the bones show signs of having been dissected, sawn or cut. One skull has been drilled with several holes.”

The original Times article reported that the bones were “deeply buried, probably to hide them because grave robbing was illegal.” They said, “There could be more buried, and there probably are.” But the story doesn’t end there. Later reports from the Benjamin Franklin House reveal that not only were human remains found, but animal remains were discovered as well. This is where things get very interesting. From the published photographs, some of the bones appear to be blackened or charred, as if by fire… It is well documented that Satanists perform ritual killings of both humans and animals alike.

To begin, I think it is wise to report what the whole of this Times article said, including important parts PR (or Pinto?) left out, with the most important bolded.

WORKMEN have dug up the remains of ten bodies hidden beneath the former London home of Benjamin Franklin, the founding father of American independence.

The remains of four adults and six children were discovered during the £1.9 million restoration of Franklin's home at 36 Craven Street, close to Trafalgar Square. Researchers believe that there could be more bodies buried beneath the basement kitchens.

Initial estimates are that the bones are about 200 years old and were buried at the time Franklin was living in the house, which was his home from 1757 to 1762, and from 1764 to 1775. Most of the bones show signs of having been dissected, sawn or cut. One skull has been drilled with several holes. Paul Knapman, the Westminster Coroner, said yesterday: "I cannot totally discount the possibility of a crime. There is still a possibility that I may have to hold an inquest."

The principal suspect in the mystery is William Hewson, who, like Franklin, was a Fellow of the Royal Society, and the husband of Polly Stevenson, the daughter of Franklin's landlady, Mary Stevenson.
In the early 1770s Dr Hewson was in partnership with William Hunter, who, with his brother John, was one of the founders of British surgery. Dr Hunter and Dr Hewson ran a school of anatomy in Soho, but after an argument Dr Hewson left to live in Franklin's house, where he is believed to have established a rival school and lecture theatre. Dr Knapman added yesterday: "It is most likely that these are anatomical specimens that Dr Hewson disposed of in his own house, but we are still not certain about the bones' exact age or origin."

Evangeline Hunter-Jones, deputy chairman of the Friends of Benjamin Franklin House, the charity concerned with restoring the property and opening it to the public, said: "The bones were quite deeply buried, probably to hide them because grave robbing was illegal. There could be more buried, and there probably are."

Brian Owen Smith has volunteered to lead researches on behalf of the friends. He said yesterday: "The discovery represents an important insight into very exciting years of medical history. Benjamin Franklin, through his support for Polly and Dr Hewson, socially and scientifically, was very much part of that."

To the suggestion that Franklin might have been a grave robber, or an accomplice to Dr Hewson, Hilaire Dubourcq, of the Friends of Benjamin Franklin House, responded: "It is possible that he has an alibi. It seems likely that he actually let Dr Hewson have use of the whole house for his school for a time, and went up the street to live with Mary Stevenson. He did not necessarily know what was happening below stairs in the house during his absence."

Dr Hewson fell victim to his own researches at an early age. He accidentally cut himself while dissecting a putrid body, contracted septicemia and died in 1774, aged 34.

Franklin, who wrote the opening words to the Declaration of Independence, continued to support the widowed Polly, and when he returned to Philadelphia he invited her there to live as his neighbour. Both her sons became eminent medical men, as have successive generations of Hewsons in America.

If the first Dr Hewson did obtain bodies for his experiments and demonstrations by robbing local graveyards, he risked the death penalty or deportation. He might have had the help of his students in secretly burying the remains beneath the four-storey house, where the dissections may have been performed.

It is hoped to reopen the house to the public at the end of the year. Regular visitors during Franklin's residency included Pitt the Elder (the Earl of Chatham), Edmund Burke, James Boswell, Adam Smith and Thomas Paine, the author of The Rights of Man.

It is notable that PR omits all reference to Hewson – and to the house being four stories, which makes it all the more possible that someone like Franklin could miss such a thing in “his own house.” (Pinto's own website, in what appears to be a 2011 version of what is quoted, does refer to Hewson, but merely quotes authorities as being "uncertain" of the reason for the bones, and does not check any further. Unfortunately I cannot check earlier versions as the page is not archived.) The official website of the Franklin house (links below) affirms the connection, as these worthy quotes indicate:

During the conservation of 36 Craven Street, excavation of the basement uncovered over 1,200 pieces of human and animal bones in what would once have been the House’s garden. Glass slides, ceramics, mercury and other material found, as well as the marks of saws and other instruments, suggest that these were the remains of William Hewson’s anatomy school, run from the house between 1772 and Hewson’s death of septicaemia in 1774. For the first time since their discovery ten years ago, a variety of the larger bone fragments, including skull and limb bones showing instrument marks, will be on display at Benjamin Franklin House, along with contextual information and images on Hewson’s life and contributions to anatomy and surgery.
The human remains derive from over 15 people and show dissection marks from surgical instruments (animal remains were found primarily in the front of the House in the old coal depositories). For example, a femur bone has been cut cleanly probably demonstrating the process of amputation. This was a valuable skill when there was little knowledge of sterilization and much diplomacy took place on the battle field! The skull pieces have circles drilled out from a trepanning device – a sample of one is on display in the Seminar Room. Trepanning was primarily used to relieve pressure on the brain. However, relatively few surgical operations had any likelihood of success; invasive procedures were made difficult by the possibility of major blood loss and infection, and the lack of anesthetic, not used until 1846.

Key evidence linking the Craven Street bones to Hewson’s anatomy school is a portion of a turtle spine and mercury found in the bone pit. In an experiment conducted in 1770 at the Royal Society, Hewson showed the flow of mercury through a turtle to highlight the lymphatic system. With help from Franklin, Hewson was elected to the Royal Society and received their Copley Medal for his work. Other items linked to anatomical study were also found in the bone pit, including microscope slides.

In Georgian England, the practice of anatomical study became increasingly popular. Limited hospital teaching left a gap filled by private schools like Hewson’s. They also satisfied growing interest in public health and talks by the experts were financially successful. Despite this, procuring bodies for dissection was not easy. It did not become a fully legal practice until 1832. It is likely that some of Hewson’s cadavers came from the so-called ‘resurrectionists’ – bodysnatchers who shipped their wares along the Thames under cover of night.

Given the evidence related to medical practice, it seems rather outlandish to make any connection – as Pinto and PR do – to any sort of occult activity. Pinto himself, in the aforementioned article online, waves off the evidence by saying that unnamed "researchers" are "doubtful" about this explanation; from this one suspects that the "researchers" are not actual experts in the subject, but conspiracy lunatics like Pinto. Another source, the Royal College of Surgeons, notes that:

Human and animal bones and teeth were interspersed with fragments of pottery, glassware, metalwork and even free-flowing globules of mercury. Amongst the zoological remains there was material from cats, dogs, fish and even marine turtles.

One wonders what Satanic rituals Pinto has in mind that sacrificed fish and turtles?

That leaves one point, where Pinto says that from “published photographs” some of the bones “appear to be blackened or charred as if by fire...” It is hard to address this without knowing what photos Pinto has in mind, but I could find no reputable source saying the bones had been burned or charred. I did find that bones can turn black because of manganese (an element critical to bone health, which also happens to cause the black staining one often sees in the toilet!), so barring better documentation by Pinto or PR, this should be taken as the better option.

We might close with some alleged "uncomfortable questions" Pinto asks in a vain attempt to refute the evidence:

If the humans were medical cadavers, why were they disposed of like so much trash beneath the house? Why not give them some kind of proper burial? If grave robbers could sneak into a graveyard to steal a body, they could also sneak in to put one back. Furthermore, why were the human remains mingled with those of animals?

Pinto is evidently not very bright, as it fails to occur to him that sneaking remains back invokes at least twice the risk of getting caught. That they "could" sneak back is true, as true as it is that a bank robber could return to rob the same bank twice. And not make a bit of sense in doing so. As for the mingling of bones, one may as well ask why medical experiments are done on animals even for human products. The disposal was obviously a convenience regardless of the purpose. Pinto's "uncomfortable questions" merely reflect his own ignorance and wishful thinking.

The Name of America

Common knowledge says America’s name came from an Italian explorer named Amerigo Vespucci. PR has a conspiracy theory with what they think is a better explanation which “mainstream academia has yet been willing to accept.” I can’t imagine why not!

According to PR, America was named after “Amaru” – a Peruvian deity to be equated with Quetzalcoatl. Thus, it is said, “Amaruca” literally means, “land of the plumed serpent.”

Their source for this claim is already a red flag the size of Rhode Island; namely, a non-serious historian named Manly P. Hall, a Freemason. A number of difficulties attend this thesis, not the least being one that escapes PR even as they have it in their own book: “America” is first listed as such on a map in 1507 by a German cartographer, while Hall traces the origins of “Amaruca” to the activities of Spanish priests in the early 1700s. It never occurs to PR’s authors to ask about the missing 200 years and where the German cartographer got the name.

There are a few other problems as well. “Amaru” associated with South American history is the name of an Inca monarch who lived in the mid-1500s (link below). Listings of Inca deities from various sources are conspicuously void of any “Amaru,” although there was apparently a tribe by that name, and the word did mean “serpent.” At best, it seems Hall confused an abstract term for a proper name.

One would like to see some comment on this sort of thing from a linguist specializing in the Incan language, but alas, Manly P. Hall is somehow good enough for PR. In the meantime, what do the real scholars say? There are other options on the table (link below, including a note that the –“ica” suffix would mean something like “great” or “high,” as applied to mountains – which belies Hall’s reading of “Land of the serpent”). An older one is that the name came from a gold-rich district and tribal name in Nicaragua, Amerrique. Another theory has the name coming from a Welshman named Richard Ameryk. And so on, as reflected in the conclusion to the article:

No definitive conclusions can be reached. Too many claims are, for lack of hard evidence, based on speculation. Theories about the true origin of the name are ultimately historical fictions. Yet behind these fictions lie compelling views of the New World. Taken together, they form a multicultural vision of its distinctive character. To hear Americus in the name; to hear the Amerrique Mountains and their perpetual wind; to hear the African in the Mayan iq' amaq'el; to hear the Scandinavian Ommerike, as well as Amteric, and the Algonquin Em-erika; to hear Saint Emeric of Hungary; to hear Amalrich, the Gothic lord of the work ethic, and the English official, Amerike — to hear such echoes in the name of our hemisphere is to hear the wishful projections of their proponents, as well as ourselves.

That is probably the best way to describe how PR manages to see “Amaru” involved.

Read more:
On Marinelli
On Milingo
Forum post preserving Times item on Franklin (WARNING: Forum user uses profanity)
Items from official Ben Franklin house website here and here
Items on Amaru here and here
On America's name here

Friday, October 16, 2015

Near Death Checks, Part 1

From the July 2012 E-Block.


Not long ago I wrote a review of the book Heaven is for Real, which is the story of an alleged near-death experience (“NDE”) by a small child by the name of Colton Burpo. I evaluated this account as false, based on the inconsistency of the reports with known facts, particularly: The placement of Jesus' crucifixion nails, and Burpo reporting Jesus to be a white Anglo-Saxon (see link below).
Since that time, a reader has initiated a correspondence indicating their own interest in NDEs, citing them as one of the lines of evidence that convinced them that Christianity was true. They noted that there were certainly many levels of credibility to be assigned to NDE accounts, although Burpo's was of the sort the reader found least credible. After some discussion, I decided it would be a good project to investigate to evaluate what were considered the most credible NDE accounts and to see if they could be tested for historical verisimilitude the way Burpo's was.

I chose Michael Sabom's Light and Death (“LD”), written in 1998, for the first part of this series. I am familiar with Sabom as one who, like I, writes for the Christian Research Journal publication, which is why I chose his book as a place to begin.

The result: Sabom offers less than a dozen accounts in LD, and none provide evidence that is unequivocal in terms of my specific target of interest. This does not mean that I have judged the accounts false, merely that they offer little if anything to which I can direct my attention:
  • The NDE account of Pam Reynolds, which Sabom says is regarded as one of the most reliable, consisted of Reynolds perceiving herself as floating above her own body on the operating table. An NDE like this, with no involvement by any reputed divine being (which, in effect, doesn't "leave Earth!") can obviously provide nothing for me to evaluate. Several other examples offered by Sabom were of this nature.
  • Likewise, NDE patients who encounter deceased relatives can offer no basis for the sort of evaluation we are engaging in here.
  • Some basis for evaluation might be found when a person claims to see God or Jesus. If this happens, we may be able to evaluate the experience of someone like Sabom's subject "Darrell." Darrell claims that he was out of his body and that Jesus stood next to him while he was, so-called, "out." Darrell, however, describes Jesus as having "reddish-brown hair" and a "blue T-shirt." [21] The former by itself makes it highly unlikely that the being was Jesus, for as a Semite, Jesus would have had black hair. However, this does not disqualify Darrell's experience in and of itself, because as Sabom points out, many people who have NDEs identify certain beings as "God" or "Jesus," even though the beings themselves make no such declaration and do not identify themselves. Rather, Jesus is only "intuitively identified" [214] by most subjects. Sabom reports only one instance of a subject actually asking such a figure if they were Jesus, and interestingly, though this figure was described in exactly the same terms as others who said such a figure was Jesus (dazzling white, in a robe, a kind, loving look), the being answered this one person by saying they were not Jesus.
    This ends up being the most "detailed" of Sabom's reports where we are concerned. A second experience by Margaret describes Jesus as having "long hair and white robes." This is not specific enough to evaluate. Nor is a person named Bobby Jean who says she met a Jesus with "white clothing" and a "kind, loving look." [94]
In closer looking, we found nothing in Sabom upon which to offer an evaluation, so we shall try again next time. However, I would like to close with an observation that may resolve some aspects of NDEs that have been found puzzling by Christian commentators on NDEs who express concern that even non-Christians have "seen the light" in arguably authentic NDEs.

One of the recurring themes in NDEs reported by Sabom is that a person "seeing the light" (presumed to be God) will reach a certain point and find their way barred or being told to turn back. [68] The assumption is that this is because they are turned back to live longer on earth, which may indeed be the case. But under the rubric of heaven and hell , as either conditions or states of honor or shame, and access to God, these experiences can also be interpreted in terms of even an unsaved person having a view of God, but not being permitted the sort of honor-access a saved person might receive. Theoretically, such a person might also feel the sort of peace and tranquility associated with an NDE, for, if nothing else, the presence of God might reflect that even to an unbeliever -- especially when compared to what is currently experienced on earth, where God's presence (in the Old Testament, "manifestation" sense) is minimal. Interestingly, and a confirmation of this, is that Sabom reports that some "hellish" NDEs have the subject reporting a sense of "eternal nothingness" or emptiness, and "an experience of being mocked." [109]

We will see whether this too bears out with further investigation.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Slavery and Secularism

For this week, guest poster Cameron English offers us something he wrote in 2011, but remains applicable today,.


I take a generally negative view of newspaper opinion pieces. My complaint holds for almost any popular publication, but a 700-word op-ed provides just enough space to make an argument and a convenient excuse to ignore serious criticisms of your viewpoint. To the informed reader, this just annoying, an unfortunate side effect of how we consume news in the modern world. But the larger problem lies in the fact that most readers probably aren't in a position to analyze the claims being put forward.

That leads us to a piece by Hector Avalos published in the Ames Tribune last week [November 2011], exonerating secularism of its crimes and heaping all kinds of scorn on religious belief for the violence it has caused, and with very shoddy evidence.

Citing the Civil War, World Wars I and II as examples, a reader wrote to the editor arguing that "secular ideologies have caused more harm to humanity than religious ideologies." And Avalos, the skeptic and defender of truth that he is, couldn't let that stand.

There's an argument to be made that the letter writer was being a little overzealous in his accusations against secularism for the harm it's done, but Avalos didn't go that route. He decided to return the favor and ignore inconvenient facts in order to keep his disdain for religion intact.

"The American Civil War was fought, in part, on the basis of biblical interpretation about slavery." Perhaps. But there's more to the story. The arguments fished out of the Bible to justify slavery were gross misinterpretations of the text; they were concocted because the southern states needed to vindicate slavery, not because the practice is sanctioned anywhere in the Bible. It's long been pointed out by Christian apologists that slavery as it was practiced during the Civil War is not the same as that mentioned in the Old Testament. The latter could more accurately be called indentured servitude, which was voluntary.

Furthermore, there were Christian abolitionists writing during and after the Civil War who attacked the supposedly biblical basis for slavery. It's difficult to argue that the Bible condones slavery when some of its most vociferous critics were believers. How curious that Avalos left this out his article.

"In the case of World War II, José M. Sanchez, a Catholic historian, tells us that regardless of Pope Pius XII’s alleged complicity in the Nazi holocaust: 'There is little question that the Holocaust had its origin in the centuries-long hostility felt by Christians against Jews' (“Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy,” The Catholic University of America Press, 2002, p. 70)."

If you pick up any scholarly history of Nazi Germany, it will be immediately obvious how foolish an argument this is. The truth is that as a matter of policy, the Nazis hated Christianity. They saw religion as an obstacle to overcome, because religion requires its adherents to dedicate themselves to something greater than a government. And that's trouble if you're a totalitarian regime.

In reality, the churches in Germany offered some of the first resistance after the Nazis took control of the country. Historian Joachim Fest reports in his book Plotting Hitler's Death that the Nazis openly attacked the churches too soon, and left the churches a degree of freedom after realizing that they wouldn't roll over. As Fest explains, "...the churches provided a forum in which individuals could distance themselves from the regime" and the resistance was so intense that "...Hitler decided to postpone a showdown until after the war." (p 32)

But if Avalos is correct, I'd love to know why the Nazis persecuted Christians so heavily, attempting to nationalize the Protestant church and make its doctrines more congenial with Nazism. As historian Richard J Evans reports in The Third Reich in Power, "Hitler seems to have had the ambition of converting [the church] into a new kind of national church, purveying the new racial and nationalist doctrines of the regime..." (p 223)

The result of this effort was a split in the Protestant church; The German Christians fell in line behind the Nazis and the Confessing Church held out its resistance, though in the face of much persecution. Evans says that their pastors were banned from preaching and denied  their salaries; Protestant publishing houses were seized, theology students were forced to join Nazi organizations, and by 1937, 700 pastors were imprisoned, some eventually murdered. (p 230)

My point, as with slavery, is not that Christians were perfectly innocent in all these affairs, but that the history is far more complex. It simply is not acceptable to lay Nazism at the feet of Christianity the way Avalos suggests we should.

"Similarly, Emperor Hirohito, who ruled Japan at the time of World War II, was seen as a god. The surrender of Japan came when president Harry S. Truman, a Baptist Christian, targeted and killed hundreds of thousands of men, women and children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki."
Apparently you can fault religion for the atomic bomb with anecdotes about two individuals. "The emperor was seen as a god! All religious people believe in god! See, World War II was religion's fault!" Be serious. The point about Truman is even more ridiculous. Avalos is taking a few facts in isolation, stripped of any historical context, and stringing them together to make his argument. To say that Truman's religious beliefs were the primary factor in the decision to drop the bomb on Japan is a crude oversimplification of a very complicated historical question.

But if you really want to see just how vapid this argument is, try blaming the admittedly atheistic dictators of the last century on secular humanism, then watch its apologists, people like Avalos, bark incessantly about how unfair a tactic that is. When it's applied to their own beliefs, atheists are very good at picking apart this fallacious argument.

"The main ethical criticism of religious wars is that they always trade real human lives for resources or entities (e.g., paradise, “holy land,” God’s will) that can never be verified to exist. On the other hand, secular wars, even if not always justified, often are fought over scarcities and threats (e.g., oil, water, a physical personal attack) that can at least be verified to exist."

A miserable ending to a miserable screed. What are often labeled religious conflicts actually fit comfortably into what Avalos calls "secular wars." It's true that enemies in a war are often divided along religious lines, but, as Dinesh D' Souza points out in What's So Great About Christianity?, equally important is what they're fighting over - usually, land, self-government, oil, or something else very non-religious, a point backed up by serious scholarship should you doubt D'Souza's reliability.

Unsurprisingly, then, Avalos' argument is painfully unconvincing. A little common sense and a brief survey of the relevant research are all we need to defuse this popular but ultimately unconvincing counter-apologetic.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Petrus Romanus Fraud

With Jonathan Cahn licking his wounds, and John Hagee with his tail between his legs, this July 2012 E-Block item seems...prophetic in its placement.


 Just maybe, after the failures of teachers like Edgar Whisenant and Harold Camping, the church has finally had enough. We can only hope so!

For the next few issues we'll be counting down to the "expiration" of the equally new and outlandish latest fad in eschatology; namely, the work of Thomas Horn, joined also lately by putative apologist Cris Putnam. Their recent book together, Petrus Romanus [PR], consists of nearly 500 pages of conspiracy theory that would be equally at home at a showing of the Zeitgeist movie. An earlier book by Horn, Apollyon Rising 2012 [AR2], offered some of the same at an earlier date, and as you may guess , both of these authors are on the "2012 end of the world" gravy train. We were here in 1988 and it didn't work out well. Thankfully, so far, it’s getting far less attention this time around.

But, as an object lesson for those still not healed by observing the fates of Whisenant and Camping, we'll do our own "countdown" in which we check out the major claims of these two books. We'll start with the central claim of PR, which is that there is a hint of an end to come in an obscure little "prophecy" attributed to an 1100s century bishop known as St. Malachy, which gives us the hint that once the current Pope, Benedict XVI, takes his last breath as pope, the one after that will be the last of the papal line -- and perhaps even (gasp) the false prophet who will usher in the age of the Antichrist.

Malachy allegedly experienced a vision revealing to him what became a document known as "The Prophecy of the Popes" (POP). Beginning with Celestine II (d. 1144), Malachy purportedly offered a series of pithy Latin phrases that are (supposedly) somehow prophecies of each successive pope. In all, that's about 140 "predictions" (though as we'll see, they hardly deserve to be called that).

You may already suppose that there would be problems, and there are -- even ones the authors acknowledge. For one, they agree to disregard about half of Malachy's prophecies because they believe the Catholic Church may have tampered with them, and we have no earlier manuscript than the 1550s. So, about 70 of the 140 are dispensed with before PR reaches page 20 out of 500. They also admit that many credible scholars have argued the whole thing is a forgery, though for the sake of argument, we will assume it is not, at least from the 1500s on, as the authors allow.

The authors then allow that in some cases, the Catholic Church -- apparently convinced this thing had some validity -- may have purposely rigged papal votes so that someone suitable to the "prediction" was elected. Or, they suppose, a Pope may have in some way seized on his assigned "prediction" in order to fulfill it. In the end, they don't seem to regard this as enough of a possibility to be worried that it makes their case a sham, although they should have.
I put "predictions" in quotes because these aren't "predictions" at all -- they're just very short Latin phrases, usually 2-3 words each, and with that length there is as much hard content as a bowl of Jello. [I won't even get into the whole problem of why they bother to use a prophecy from a source like the Catholic Church that they identify with waywardness. The rationalizations (e.g., "God often uses the most unlikely people") speak for themselves as circular reasoning and/or a desire to see only what they want to see.] The authors also note another author's assessment that past 1590, Malachy's mottos have an 80 percent accuracy. The bad news is that by Deut 13, that would get Malachy 100% stoned.

The authors, at least, have the sense to admit that critics say the phrases are vague enough to be twisted to be seen as fulfilled in anything. [42-3] They even allow that this is a "major weakness" and that only a few of the prophecies are precise enough to pass the test. The bad news for them is that their best examples are far worse than they realize, and we shall spend the balance of this article examining what they apparently take to be their "best case" fulfillments.

Leo XIII, 1878-1903 - Phrase: "lumen in caelo," "light in the sky."

"Light in the sky" could mean just about anything, and that should really be enough to dismiss this one as worthless. But the authors excite themselves with the observation that Leo's coat of arms "features a shooting star." Since Leo had this coat of arms long before being pope, they believe this is particularly impressive and a "compelling fulfillment."

No such luck here! The vagueness of the motto is shown in that other sources, like the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, read it rather as fulfilled in calling Leo a "veritable luminary of the papacy" and specifically states that we don't need to bother with things like a coat of arms. Another Catholic site sees a fulfillment this way:

Leo XIII wrote encyclicals on Catholic social teaching that were still being digested 100 years later. He added considerably to theology.

Obviously, if the motto is vague enough to accommodate such diverse readings, it is worthless as a “prophecy.” And of course, many popes could be vaguely described as "a veritable luminary" (for whatever reason) rendering such a description equally worthless.

The authors’ rendition of a shooting star is likewise unhelpful. What escaped them on this point is that stars -- or, as they are sometimes called, estioles -- are standard symbols for a coat of arms, just as they are standard symbols for national flags. Leo has one. John Paul I (1978) had three stars of five points each. Pius X, the predecessor of Leo XIII, had one star, as did Gregory XVI (1831-46) -- and so did several other popes. Some others had more than one star; some had none.

But, also of interest is that Leo's coat had more to it; namely, a tree and two fleur-de-lis (keep this in mind). That triples the chance to make some sort of connection, especially with a vague phrase like "light in the sky." One could readily connect this to one of several comets discovered during Leo's reign -- even those not visible in his area (as we shall see, this won't stop the authors in another case, so it need not stop us here), such as the "Comet Wells" in 1882.
Thus, this "fulfillment," far from being "compelling," is useless.

Pius X (1903-1914) - Phrase: "ignis ardens" (burning faith).

As with the above, and for the same reasons , this one is easily deemed useless. The authors unwittingly admit as much when they point out that some apply this to a star on Pius' coat of arms (while failing to see how this affects their explanation concerning Leo XIII!), but choose instead to apply it to a vision Pius had of Rome burning. One may as well apply it to Pius having a liking for good barbeque, or having a tendency to get rashes or sunburn, or (more seriously) to some ardency of spirit on some issue. The aforementioned Catholic site adds its own variation as follows:

The Pope had great personal piety and achieved a number of important reforms in the devotional and liturgical life of priests and laypeople.
At least the authors have the decency to call this one "debatable." Actually, it is worse than that. It is worthless.

Benedict XV (1914-1922) - Phrase: "religio depopulata" (religion depopulated)

For this one, the authors figure they have an ace in the hole with the fact that during Benedict's reign, the following happened:
  • "World War I was devastating to the Catholic Church", though how this is so is not explained, nor is it explained how the war was any more or less "devastating" to the Catholic Church than to any other body or group. Put another way, the prediction means very little unless "religion" was specially and uniquely "depopulated."
  • 200 million people left the Russian Orthodox Church, having either left to join the Bolshevik revolution or been killed or persecuted by Communists. The authors cite figures of 43 million killed by Stalin, and 61 million killed by the Soviet Union. Their conclusion: Religion was "heavily depopulated during this period" and the prophecy offers "breathtaking accuracy."
Hold your breath. Once again, the vagueness of the terms causes a problem. The authors have allowed "religion" to be so vague as to encompass more than one religious tradition, which means all one would have to do is to find, during any papal reign, some instance of some religion, somewhere, suffering "depopulation" -- such as 7 million Jews in the WW2 era, or perhaps a million in Rwanda; or one might even appeal to Muslim deaths in the Iran-Iraq war.
Then, there's a real slipperiness, also, with "this period", where the 200 million figure doesn’t add up. It was hard to get accurate figures in this turbulent time when there was little means to conduct a rigorous census, but sources I have consulted place the population of Russia in 1914-1917 in the lower 100 millions. Furthermore, Stalin ruled and did his deathly work well after the reign of Benedict.

As such, it seems patently dishonest to use deaths from outside Benedict’s reign to fulfill this one. The Catholic site, by the way, also uses the Bolshevik revolution as a fulfillment, but only because it established Communism, not because of deaths, while another conspiracy theorist connects the motto also to millions of Christians being killed by the Spanish flu!

Pius XI (1922-1939) - Phrase: "fides intrepida" (intrepid faith).

"Faith" is so vague as to be of no use.; all popes ought to have that. Beyond this, the authors seem to have a hard time finding a way to make Pius X "intrepid." They note that the dictionary definition is: "calm, brave and undisturbed." Noting an instance where Pius X made a deal with Mussolini to restore power to the Vatican, the authors ask plaintively, "Perhaps 'cold and calculating' fulfills this one?"

Sorry! No it doesn't. This prophecy is a fail.

The Catholic site proves the vagueness of this phrase by applying it entirely differently:

This Pope stood up to Fascist and Communist forces lining up against him in the lead up to World War II.

Pius XII (1939-1958) - Phrase: "pastor angelicus" (angelic shepherd).

There is tremendous irony in this one. The authors uncritically accept the badly debunked findings of John Cornwell that Pius XII was too chummy with the Nazis, and so end up suggesting, rather lamely, that since Pius claimed the title for himself, it must be an "ironic sort of fulfillment." So, now they have made it so that even a complete 180 of the phrase can be a "fulfillment"?

In that light, Pius' real record as a benefactor to persecuted Jews actually does make a better fit for "angelic shepherd" -- not that it matters, since any pope with a decent heart could have fit this as well, and many of them would qualify. However, we may be thankful that the authors did foul up so badly by using Cornwell, since it helps expose their poor research skills, and their ability to strain and stretch the Malachy mottos to the breaking point in order to force a "fulfillment." (For the refutation of this see Dalin’s The Myth of Hitler’s Pope, and see the link below: Cornwell’s deception begins on the front cover with the picture!)

Adding to the proof of the vagueness of this motto, the Catholic site ignores all of that and sees the fulfillment this way:

This Pope was very mystical, and is believed to have received visions. People would kneel when they received telephone calls from him. His encyclicals add enormously to the understanding of Catholic beliefs (even if they are now overlooked because of focus on the Second Vatican Council, which occurred so soon after his reign).

John XXIII (1958-1963) - Phrase: "pastor & nauta" (sailor and shepherd).

Half of this prophecy , at once, dies a painful death since every pope could be called a "shepherd" in their very role as pope. So, can we find that John was ever in the navy somewhere? Or, maybe the merchant marines? Maybe he had a rubber ducky as a child?

Not even close. The authors strain for a match by noting that John was the "patriarch of Venice," where there are a lot of gondolas and a "nautical street system" (apparently meaning the canals). If that's the way they want to play it, then any port city overseen by the papal candidate at some time in his career would make them qualify, and they don't even have to get on the water for a split second to make this work. John wasn't a sailor, and if being "patriarch of Venice" fulfills this prophecy, then I too fulfilled it by having North Miami Beach as my hometown. Or, it could be fulfilled by getting a nice anchor tattoo that says MOTHER, or even eating a lot of spinach to funny music.

The authors underline their own foolishness by telling an uncertain story of how one papal candidate allegedly hired a boat, stuck some sheep on it, and rode up and down the Tiber River on it as a way to demonstrate a fulfillment to the papal conclave. This ought to be a warning to the authors (but it isn't) that a living pope, with only rare exceptions, has more than enough time to figure out a way to make himself an "intrepid fire" or a "light in the sky", or to fulfill any number of other conditions. Of all the mottos we will see here only "religion depopulated" seems like one that could possibly be beyond their control as popes. However, even then, it would not be hard to force some fulfillment by finding a religious massacre, or else making some statement about how Protestants, et al, are simply outside the fold of the true Catholic Church, which is declared to be "THE" religion. Effectively then, we just "depopulated religion" by merely defining it more closely. It also does not occur to the authors that the papal conclave (for whatever reason thinking these mottos meant anything) purposely chose a man from a port city to strain a fulfillment.

Finally, regarding John XXIII, it is worth nothing that he was only patriarch of Venice for 5 years, from 1953 to 1958. He was born in a mountain city of Italy. He spent a lot of time in that area and also spent some time in Bulgaria. If this “prophecy” can be fulfilled by spending any amount of time in a port city, it is just that much more worthless.

Paul VI (1963-1978) - Phrase: "fios florum" (flower of flowers).

The authors here return again to heraldry, and their effort is no more successful. They point out that Paul had on his coat of arms a fleur-de-lis, which means "flower of lily." As before, though, this fails inasmuch as the fleur-de-lis is a fairly commonplace symbol. It is not even, as the authors claim, "unique to (Paul) among the papists," for as we have seen, it was part of Leo XIII's coat, and is also found in the coat of arms of John XXIII, Innocent X, Leo XI, Pius IV, Paul III, Clement VII and even Leo X of the famous fake “Christ a fable” quote. You can also find the fleur-de-lis in not a few famous places, ranging from the flag of Quebec to the helmets of the New Orleans Saints football team.
The authors claim that "flower of lily" matches "flower of a flower" "quite well" but it doesn't match it "well" -- it only matches it 50%. And, since it would hardly be any chore to somehow intentionally fulfill this, especially with a 15 year reign, this motto also fails miserably in terms of authentic and meaningful fulfillment.

John Paul I (1978) - Phrase: "de medietate lunae" (from the midst of the moon).

Here the authors think they have a whopper of a match, since John Paul was: 1) ”born in the diocese of Belluno" (and "luno" is Latin for moon); 2) John Paul ascended the papacy "on the precise day of a half-moon in its waning phase."
A "compelling match", as they say? Hardly! Again, the papal conclave would have little difficulty saying, "Hey, here's a guy who was born in Belluno. Ding. Forced match." (Not that this works anyway; the name of the city came from a Celtic phrase “belo dunums,” meaning “splendid hill”) And, if they hadn't had a guy from a place with a name like that, no problem because by just making sure his first day of service was on the half-moon day wouldn't be terribly hard (i.e., just dawdle in the conclave as long as needed so that it all works out). The authors' own records showed that it could take as long as 15-20 days to pick a new pope, and since there are two half moons, there were 2 chances each month to pin the tail on the donkey.

If all that failed, any papal candidate could have easily anticipated time to work out some fulfillment. John Paul ended up without that, since he died only a month into his reign, but he could hardly have known that would happen. As it is, a dawdling conclave makes for the quickest and easiest fulfillment.
We'll close by adding that the authors also uncritically accept the conspiracy theory that John Paul was poisoned. As with their acceptance of Cornwell's nonsense, this again reflects poorly on their research skills.

John Paul II (1978-2005) - Phrase: "de labore solis" (from the labor of the sun).

Yet another "light source" motto would make this an easy fulfillment in any event, but the authors, and Malachy, seemingly, got very lucky with this one. It is pointed out that John Paul was born during a solar eclipse, albeit one over the Indian Ocean, far away from Rome! And, he was also buried during one, albeit again, far away from Rome (over South America and the Pacific). Since it doesn't seem to matter to the authors (or maybe Rome) where a "fulfillment" occurs, even without the eclipse, it would not be hard to find something that would work like: sunspot activity, exceptional heat over some location, or even cloudy conditions where the sun "labors" to peek through the clouds. Also, it would not have been hard to delay John Paul's funeral to accommodate an eclipse. As it is, it took place 6 days after his death, but since he was born during one, this was just obvious "icing on the cake". And, of course, the papal conclave could easily select John Paul on that basis of having been born during a known eclipse. But, if they did not have such a candidate, there is, as noted, plenty of time to figure something out, especially with such a vague "prophecy."

As further proof of how useless this is, the Catholic site acknowledges the eclipse, but also suggests John Paul might have fulfilled it because he “comes from behind the former Iron Curtain (the East, where the Sun rises)” or “might also be seen to be the fruit of the intercession of the Woman Clothed with the Sun laboring in Revelation 12 (because of his devotion to the Virgin Mary).” Another conspiracy theorist connects it to John Paul’s origins in Poland, the “star of communism” or “sun of the workers.” Only Acharya S could do a semantic sashay to beat this one.

Pope Benedict XVI - Phrase: "gloria olivae" (glory of the olive).

The authors, by their reckoning, make this one a self-fulfiller, and it is an easy one. All Cardinal Ratizinger had to do, by their notion, is to pick the name "Benedict," for the olive branch is the symbol of the Benedictine monks. With typical “Left Behind” fervor, the authors also suppose this might connect to the soon fulfillment of the "Olivet Discourse", offering a series of potential future connections to Antichrist-like actions, which are little different than what we have heard from past failures like Hal Lindsey.

In contrast, the Catholic site rejects the connection to the Benedictines and goes for the idea that maybe Benedict XVI will be a peacemaker, a bearer of the “olive branch.” Given that it would not be hard for a pope, as a respected world figure, to find a way to do this somewhere during his reign, I don’t expect that will be hard to fulfill. It should be noted that before Ratzinger was elected, some speculated that it would be fulfilled by the election of a pope with “olive” skin (e.g., someone from Latin or Central America, or maybe someone of Jewish descent, relating to the olive tree as a Jewish symbol). Just more proof of how useless these “prophecies” are!)

We have thus seen that the ten most recent Malachy "fulfillments" are either gross failures or are so vague that they could be easily and readily "fulfilled" in any number of ways -- especially given that Popes had their entire reign to work something out, and papal conclaves had every ability to make the process easier. We might add that past mottoes were no more difficult to fulfill, such as:
  • Pius VIII -- "religious man" (gee, how many popes has this one missed on?).
  • Innocent XIII -- "from good religion" (that's a hard one to match when you select from a conclave of bishops who are already considered to be part of a "good religion"!).
  • Alexander VIII -- "glorious penitence" (not hard -- either find a guy who did a lot of penitence; or have him do a lot of penitence during his reign; or have him issue some papal statement about the subject – one conspiracy-monger claimed it was fulfilled because Alexander’s surname was “Peter,” who denied Christ and then repented!).
Other mottoes may have been harder to fit -- such as Innocent XII, "rake in the door" (?! … supposedly fulfilled because his surname was the Italian word for “rake”), but given all the available options for intentional fulfillment, and the vagueness of the mottoes, Horn and Putnam are doing no more than engaging in eschatological con artistry. For whatever reason, the Catholic Church is apparently wanting to match on these mottoes, but that in turn makes it worthless as real prophecy (a point that escapes Horn and Putnam completely).

According to the list, up next is the authors' title character -- Petrus Romanus, or Peter the Roman. Horn and Putnam think this will be the false prophet. The Catholic Church, of course, does not see it that way, and I suspect they are thinking, "well, thank goodness, we'll be done with this list after this guy" and fully expects to continue the papal line without having to worry about making some sort of match to Malachy's list.

I imagine Horn and Putnam would be little impressed, no more so than Whisenant or Camping were when elements of their case were debunked. They would say we are missing the forest for the trees, and that their case was more complex (though we'll take on more aspects as we proceed with this series), or come up with some other sort of holier-than-thou threats of the wait-and-see variety.

Well, we will wait and see … and when Horn and Putnam find themselves on the ash heap of history, along with Whisenant and Camping, I'm sure we'll also see the same sort of skilled rationalization we got from those characters.