Recommended Reading in Philosophy of Religion?


Free Thinker

Any ideas what a freethinking club might want to start reading in this area? I’ve been asked to suggest some titles but as far as philosophy goes, I’m a better hardware salesman… I’ve suggested David Hume’s Dialouges and B. Russel’s Why I am not a christian.


Any others?


Dr Jim’s Kittehs on I Can Haz Cheezburger!

I’ve been suffering from a terrible cold for 2 days. I was sent home yesterday and cancelled classes today. I’m still headachey and coughing up my lungs, but I needed something to cheer me up.

Well, if Robert Cargill can put Prof. Tiggens on ICHC, I can put my crew on there! They are old pictures, but what the heck?

This is Mr. Dash Molasses when he was still little (about a year ago). He was very shy and hid a lot. He does like people (except Jim West), but needs a bit of time to warm up to visitors.

Um, no, I not hided. Wuz fighin

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This Mr. Max Mischief. Chief Boss of Everything as Declared by Himself. And for only having one brain cell (he shares it with his brother) he is a genius.
I haz red ur teesis awn teh Fyre Breevin
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Dearly departed Alice Louise Kitten on the right and Molly Rose Bean on the left. Molly is the real boss of the house.

Bet she got more than me.
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Molly again.

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Can ANYONE be non-religious about anything?

This was the question blogger Rick Wadholm asked in response to a plan for a secular biblical researcher’s special interest group meeting in conjunction with the Society of Biblical Literature (which is the largest academic society in the world dedicated to research into all matters biblical).

I wrote this up a few days ago and then decided that I should just ignore these comments but darnnit… some very important points need to be made.

Wadholm, who is listed in SBL’s membership directory, followed a link on SBL’s facebook page and found his way to my blog. His comments only go to show how badly the SBL is in need of a major campaign to tell its own members what “fostering biblical scholarship” involves, beginning with what scholarship itself actually is. If some folks don’t like it, the SBL should have the guts to tell them that their subscription fees are not needed that badly.

Wadholm writes that I had advertised the formation of a “group of ‘Biblical scholars’ for reading the Bible in a “non-religious” manner.” Note the inverted commas he places around the expression “biblical scholars”. Wadholm goes on to ask ask if non-religious biblical studies is possible, adding:

Is there any way for ANYONE to be “non-religious” about anything?

I wonder how “religiously” Wadholm pulled his trousers on that morning.

One line in the original announcement was found particularly egregious by Wadholm. It said that a possible aim of the proposed group would be to act as a “counterbalance” to the Evangelical Theological Society and to engage this group in a productive discourse. The ETS is one of a number of theological associations that meets in conjunction with the SBL. In the post Wadholm read, the various aims are merely proposals, items at least worth talking about. Nothing is set in stone. The comment about the ETS might be taken as somewhat provocative, but not necessarily so. I’m not sure naming a specific group was the best way to put it (and if a formal group is organized, I will argue that such naming NOT be included in our aims). Given the amount of theologizing that goes on at the SBL, however, certainly there is room for talk about secularism. Isn’t there? Isn’t that what “counterbalance” means? Apparently not. Wadholm continues:

However, the site offers to organize a group to challenge the Evangelical Theological Society (and even the sub-heading of the blog includes the notion of “atheism”).

Now, notice how “counterbalance” becomes “challenge”. Sure I’m an atheist. Millions of people are. Big deal. I talk to a lot of religious people constructively. It doesn’t mean I’m constantly trying to get them to abandon their religion!

But Wadholm isn’t done yet. In his next sentence “challenge” is  replaced with the claim that our agenda is not the “non-religious” reading of the Bible but an “anti-Christian” reading. Notice the escalation of the perceived attacks on his faith! He then says we are using “naturalistic” terms to give the air of being “very ‘scholarly’”, and hide our true intent that would be too hard to sell straight up.

Is it possible that an ‘atheistic’ reading of the Bible will be “non-religious”? Or will it simply offer its own godless reading where man sits as the arbiter of truth and revelation? Further, what is the point? Why would ‘Biblical scholars’ (or anyone else for that matter) want to “non-religously” read the Scriptures that claim to be the words of the Lord demanding faith from humanity?

What do you think? Can there be any “non-religious” reading of the Bible? Or should there even be an attempt to do so?

Oh my godless! Does one have to believe in Baal to study Ugaritic mythology? If we are to study the Book of Mormon, do we have to believe that Joseph Smith really did find the golden tablet? Did L. Ron Hubbard really talk to a bunch of aliens? How else to understand Dianetics and the other scientology stuff? How does Wadholm learn anything about other people and other cultures?

All secular biblical scholarship is is the study of the Bible and its historical and cultural contexts in the same non-confessional fashion that the scriptures and religious thought of other religions are studied. Why should one set of religious documents be treated by researchers according to fundamentally different rules from others?

Here are a few things for Mr. Waldholm to ponder.

It matters not in the least that the Bible, or perhaps better, religious traditions that employ a bible,  make claims on people’s loyalty. Every religion makes claims. Why do you suppose those made by your religion should be treated in any way different from the claims made by other traditions? And remember, there are more than one bible that religious societies have made for themselves.

And should non-religious folk not study religion? Religion has been an important part of people’s lives probably since people evolved on this planet scores of thousands of years ago, and people are just intrinsically interesting. People are interested in people; their past, their thoughts, their art, their societies, politics, wars, foibles, moments of genius and their failings. Anybody can study these things and intelligent, well educated have developed academic methods to do just that.  Why not study people’s religions with the same intellectual tools? Religion is no really so special a phenomenon. It is a complex one, but not a special one. IT is intrinsically wrapped up in politics, personal and group identity, totemism, symbolic projection, social control and a host of other things, including humans’ innate tendency to anthropomorphize things.

There are probably a large number of agnostics and outright atheists in the Society of Biblical Literature who know a hell of a lot more about Christianity, its mythology, history of doctrines and theological thought than Wadholm does. They’ve been studying it for years.

Groups like the SBL have been an intellectual home for considerable amounts of serious, secular scholars for many decades. Many of the people doing this good work are, if fact, Christians and Jews, but it would be hard, if not impossible, to tell what their religious views are based on the nature of their academic work. They let the data and reason speak for itself; and so even though they may be quite devout their, work is, in fact, secular. Certainly agnostics and atheists can join them in this and, for very many years, have done so.

What the proposed group can afford all of these secular scholars is a voice in defense of shared academic values, something Wadholm does not understand and seeks to undermine. The study of religion is not the practice of religion. Why is this concept so hard for people to understand?

Mr Wadholm, if you have problems with real scholarship, perhaps you should find a different kind of society to join.

Vote For Professor Tiggens! Lolcat baseball fan!

Biblioblogger and Pseudo-scholar-swatter Bob Cargill’s kitteh, Professor Tiggen,s is on I Can has Cheezburger!
Here is the picture the good doc made of the good prof!

i luvs da playofs
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Click the pic and vote for it so it will end up on the ICHC homepage!

It was such a neat picture I just couldn’t resist!

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Categories: Cats & Lolcats, Fun


Updates on Secular Biblical Studies Page

Just a quick note to say that there have been a few updates on the Secular Biblical Studies Page. All this stuff is not in a regular post. Just look for the big yellow and blue box for the link.


Now, there has been some uproar on the biblioblogging sphere (or is it more of a pancake?) about all this secularism of late. It all started when I made a Secular Bible Blog Badge:


Jim West corrupted this in his usual dilettantesque way to get the following which he duly posted on his “blog“.


To which I responded thusly:

believersbibleblog2At which point Dr. West got his knickers in a twist, and produced this idol, claiming that us non-believin’ folk can’t understand the Bible.


Ah, but we are clever little ducks, aren’t we?

KeybadgeYes we are!

Ghosts of Halloweens Past

I was sorting out some old photos as I load them into my my new iMac and I found some memories from Halloween parties past.

My house is the official faculty club for the department, and I’ve been hosting a Halloween party every year for the past 5 or six years. The rules are pretty simple. Grown ups (or at least the legally grown up) have to wear a religiously themed costume. They can get really inventive at times. Kids can wear any kind of costume they like.

Not a lot of photos have survived, but here are a few.

All Sorts 048This is from 2004. If you look closely, you can see Wendel and Deirdre the frog couple hiding in Noah’s hair. I had to quit shaving for a week to get my beard like that.

All Sorts 051An uncarved pumpkin has just about had enough…

Party 2005Picture says 2005, but on reflection I think it is not so old. Tommy Gun Annie (far left) from CKXU Radio is not a zombie, but someone 3/4 resurrected by miracle worker and “Extreme Prophetic” person Patricia King. We had just watched her “you can raise the dead, but practice first on dead houseplants and roadkill” sermon on the Miracle Channel a few weeks earlier. Note the roadkill racoon. The twins remain very healthy and lively. And I still can’t tell them apart.

3weirdosThree Weirdos.

WeirdosMore weirdos. Green Tara on the left. Poncho Pilot on the right (I told you they get inventive).

I can’t remember who Hillary in the middle is supposed to be, but this was the year that Religious Studies was promoted to being a full Department at the U. of Lethbridge. Hillary had told us, in excruciating detail, how a boring neighbour fancied himself an “artist” and craftsman and tried selling him a walking stick made of a sunflower stem. Since Hillary was named Dept Chair, I made our new Chief of Staff the Chief of Staffs from one of my home-grown sunflower stalks. Darn plant was 9’high. You can’t see it well, but a bright gold (and perfectly authentic) Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch is dangling from the contraption. The Staff is firmly mounted in a giant white winter boot. Hillary still keeps the thing in his office.

TommygunTommy Gun Annie again, this time with a Monty Python’s Holy Grail Ale. I wrote to the Brewer to tell them that it was named “The Official Beer of the Department of Religious Studies”. I was expecting a truckload of beer for free. They must have forgotten to send it. Bastards.

GiraffeHomer Simpson explains to one of the giraffes Noah left behind why Ganesh is not in favour of Apu’s marriage.

Happy FamilyA Happy Family (2008)

So, what about this year? You will just have to wait a week or so!

A Lolcat for Stephanie!

In the comments to this post, Stephanie said the only shortcoming to my other wise sane discussion was that it lacked a custom made lolcat. Now, I’m willing to forgive her for that “sane” comment if she forgives me for writing so much without providing a suitable midrashic-moggie. So here it is:

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And one more, just for the heck of it.

U hoomins eet froot
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There, my debt is paid.

There’s probably no…


Personally, I do not believe in Joel Watts, and believe that his blog is part myth, legend, and ANE (American Neo-Electronic) folklore, redacted daily for hit-count and Alexa-ratings agendas.


What’s so bad about the Conservative Bible Project?

It’s been around the blogosphere ten times already, but what the hell, being late for the party is better than staying home.

The Conservative Bible Project is an attempt to produce a Bible for Conservative (i.e., very far right wing) American Christians. It is championed by Andrew Schafly, the bright light behind Conservapedia.

The idea is to rid the Christian scriptures of foreign “liberal bias” according to ten Conservative guidelines:

  1. Framework against Liberal Bias: providing a strong framework that enables a thought-for-thought translation without corruption by liberal bias
  2. Not Emasculated: avoiding unisex, “gender inclusive” language, and other modern emasculation of Christianity
  3. Not Dumbed Down: not dumbing down the reading level, or diluting the intellectual force and logic of Christianity; the NIV is written at only the 7th grade level.
  4. Utilize Powerful Conservative Terms: using powerful new conservative terms to capture better the original intent; Defective translations use the word “comrade” three times as often as “volunteer”; similarly, updating words that have a change in meaning, such as “word”, “peace”, and “miracle”.
  5. Combat Harmful Addiction: combating addiction by using modern terms for it, such as “gamble” rather than “cast lots”; using modern political terms, such as “register” rather than “enroll” for the census
  6. Accept the Logic of Hell: applying logic with its full force and effect, as in not denying or downplaying the very real existence of Hell or the Devil.
  7. Express Free Market Parables; explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning
  8. Exclude Later-Inserted Inauthentic Passages: excluding the interpolated passages that liberals commonly put their own spin on, such as the adulteress story
  9. Credit Open-Mindedness of Disciples: crediting open-mindedness, often found in youngsters like the eyewitnesses Mark and John, the authors of two of the Gospels
  10. Prefer Conciseness over Liberal Wordiness: preferring conciseness to the liberal style of high word-to-substance ratio; avoid compound negatives and unnecessary ambiguities; prefer concise, consistent use of the word “Lord” rather than “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” or “Lord God.”

Needless to say, professional biblical scholars, translators, committed Christians, bloggers and many more think the whole project is, well, stupid. Or evil. Or both.

For example, Jim West writes on “Bastardizing the Bible: Dilettantism at its Worst”  Steve Wiggins says “We Don’ Need another Bible”.

Wiggins has a podcast about it and you can listen in to see how good his Tina Turner impression is.

James McGrath gets it right (except for a wee little bit, but that can wait for a few paragraphs).

Don’t get me wrong: “rewriting” the Bible has a long and illustrious heritage. Chronicles retelling the story in the Former Prophets (or Deuteronomistic History, if you prefer). One Gospel retelling the story found in another. Midrashes and commentaries and Diatessarons and Targums and all sorts of other things. The only thing that bothers me is when people set about to rewrite the Bible but call it translation, or deny that rewriting the Bible is what they are really doing.

Beyond McGrath’s point about translation, I don’t have a quibble with the CBP. Not even ateensy little quibble. And even then, I’m not sure it is a quibble at all. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

On the one hand, as a liberal secularist who would hate to live under a CBP theocracy, one might think I would be worried about this project. But I’m not. I don’t really care one way or the other if the Conservapeople actually manage to pull this “translation” scheme off or not. Despite the huge Left-Right polarization in America (and increasingly in Canada), I don’t thing the CBP will be able to capture and retain a huge segment of the Christian Bible market.

Maybe I’m a bit of a naive optimist, but I think too many Christians across most of the theological spectrum of Christendom would not want to lose their church’s teachings on social justice that would be among the first things the CBP tries to excise. It’s not that all of the meek and the downtrodden will finally inherit the earth or find lasting comfort, but the message that people should work towards that ideal is not likely to die. And I’m happy about that. It’s a good ideal, regardless of where it comes from. In the end the CPB will fizzle although a relatively small group might canonize their Bible. And that is the interesting thing and brings us to the other hand.

Let me just say here that I think the Conservative Bible Project is wonderful from a purely academic standpoint. It is a great object lesson in how flexible a fixed canon actually can be to some people, and how revisionist programs are understood by their proponents as restorative actions. I assume the heroes of the “Conservative Reformation” actually believe in what they are doing, just as Martin Luther did when he wanted some slight emendations to the canon list of the church he “restored” to its original pristine purity. He apparently wanted Esther removed from the Old Testament and the Epistle of James from the New. He didn’t get his way but he tried.

As someone very interested in the hows and whys behind writings that become sacred, the CBP is a fascinating example of tendentious redaction (or is it “reduction”?). If my area of expertise was the history of modern biblical interoperation or modern religious/political discourses, I would be in the market for a new anthropologist’s hat and sending letters to the Project’s managers asking if I could sit in on their board meetings, just to see the process in action.

For as much as people want to discount and discredit the project (and on purely academic grounds as a scholarly “translation” it can be critiqued any which way you like), as an exercise in religious thought and action it stands above academic judgments of professional translators and scholars.

I think for Schafly and his people “translate” is as much a symbolic, mystified, religious concept as it is a purely linguistic one. Outsiders should not take its use in this context quite so literally, and this is my little wee quibble with McGrath. “Translation” for the CBP is the cargo-cultish production of an effigy bible intended to provide legitimacy for a religious viewpoint on the defensive by attempting to “fight fire with fire”. For the true believers, the end result will be regarded as faithful English rendition of what this group thinks are the authentic biblical texts. In that sense, it will be a translation to them, and not an emended KJV.

The project’s planners have a right to their religion, and scholars seeking to understand the religions that exist in the world have no right to tell these people what their religion should be.

“Sacred” texts have human origins, just like any other text. “Sacred” is a quality given by a person or a community to a book or other item. It is not a quality intrinsic to and inseparable from those objects. For thousands of years people have been inventing and reinventing religions, gods, myths and “sacred” writings. This is no different, except it is happening before our eyes. Cool.

What is going through Schafly’s head? Well, what was going through Joseph Smith’s head when he was “translating” the Book of Mormon? Can a secular scholar think anything other than Smith’s efforts bear a striking resemblance to “composition”? So how aware was Smith of the deceptions he was weaving as to the book’s purported miraculous origins? Did he come to believe his own story? I don’t know, but I suspect Schafly truly believes that he is restoring and not rewriting. And that is how scholars should approach the project. How much do political agendas influence religious belief? Apparently quite a lot in some cases.

Is religion really a phenomenon separate from politics? Many people would say that ideally it should be. But historically, it has not been and that, I think, is not likely to change any time soon.

It is easy to denounce the deliberate production of purportedly sacred or inspired documents, but let’s face it, the ancient literature now contained the various bibles of Christendom and Judaism  probably had as mundane of origins. People just writing what they believed or what they wanted others to believe. Some were great poet, some were boring hacks and some may well have been total jerks.

Many biblical scholars maintain that the book of Jeremiah was once edited by people with an pronounced ideological affection for the ideas and terminology found in the book of Deuteronomy. If this so-called “deuteronomistic redaction” occurred it changed the overall character of the book of Jeremiah which would be, in a number of sections, rather different if those allegedly “dtr” passages are excised. If Schafly is a crackpot, then why not the “deuteronomists”?

How do human made books (the only kind there is) get canonized? There is often no evidence. But will Schafly manage to get his Bible canonized (in some sense) in some churches? Perhaps. But will it be because of intrinsic qualities of the product or the sales job its producers undertake? Were there dtr spin doctors and pitch men?

Religions are always innovating, changing and evolving (I just had to get that word in!). Humans create them, consume then and then fiddle with them to make them better suited to their changing needs. Yet, religions are often portrayed as timeless. A novelty quickly becomes the way one has always done things. Innovate like hell and do it conservatively. Nothing unusual there, Mr. Schafly. Carry on.

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Lolcat Book Review Awards, October 20th

New reviews have been added to the Review of Biblical Literature and listed on the RBL blog ( That means its time for the Lolcat book awards, in which I award a custom made lolcat to the three books I most want our library to buy!

Here are the winners:

Göran Eidevall
Prophecy and Propaganda: Images of Enemies in the Book of Isaiah

Reviewed by Maire Byrne

Isaiah contains a rich variety of enemy images from a time span covering at least four centuries. Eidevall’s textual analysis in Prophecy and Propaganda focuses on the characterization of the enemy, the rhetorical strategy adopted, the text’s function in its historical context(s), and the ideology of the author(s) and/or editor(s). The main part of the study begins with textual analyses of passages dealing with the hostile empires of Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt. It then turns to Judah’s northern neighbors, Ephraim/Israel and Aram, formed another hostile alliance against Judah, and how oracles directed against Samaria took on new significance in the postexilic era, due to the emerging schism between Samaritans and other Jews. The portrait of Moab is intriguingly ambiguous, but the picture of Edom is uncompromisingly negative. Finally, the study investigates anonymous enemies of various kinds, who are often characterized as rebels deserving severe punishment. The final editors of Isaiah wanted to discourage a wide range of actions and attitudes that, according to their standards, amounted to opposition to YHWH by YHWH worshipers themselves.

Hagith Sivan

Palestine in Late Antiquity
Reviewed by Steven Fine

Hagith Sivan offers an unconventional study of one corner of the Roman Empire in late antiquity, weaving around the theme of conflict strands of distinct histories, and of peoples and places, highlighting Palestine’s polyethnicity, and cultural, topographical, architectural, and religious diversity. During the period 300-650 CE the fortunes of the ‘east’ and the ‘west’ were intimately linked. Thousands of westerners in the guise of pilgrims, pious monks, soldiers, and civilians flocked to what became a Christian holy land. This is the era that witnessed the transformation of Jerusalem from a sleepy Roman town built on the ruins of spectacular Herodian Jerusalem into an international centre of Christianity and ultimately into a centre of Islamic worship. It was also a period of unparalleled prosperity for the frontier zones, and a time when religious experts were actively engaged in guiding their communities while contesting each other’s rights to the Bible and its interpretation.

Guy G. Stroumsa

The End of Sacrifice: Religious Transformations in Late Antiquity
Reviewed by Joshua Schwartz

The religious transformations that marked late antiquity represent an enigma that has challenged some of the West’s greatest thinkers. But, according to Guy G. Stroumsa, the oppositions between paganism and Christianity that characterize prevailing theories have endured for too long. Instead of describing this epochal change as an evolution within the Greco-Roman world from polytheism to monotheism, he argues that the cause for this shift can be found not so much around the Mediterranean as in the Near East. “The End of Sacrifice” points to the role of Judaism, particularly its inventions of new religious life following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. The end of animal sacrifice gave rise to new forms of worship, with a concern for personal salvation, scriptural study, rituals like praying and fasting, and the rise of religious communities and monasticism. It is what Christianity learned from Judaism about texts, death, and, above all, sacrifice that allowed it to supersede Greco-Roman religions and, Stroumsa argues, transform religion itself. A concise and original approach to a much-studied moment in religious history, “The End of Sacrifice” will be heralded by all scholars of late antiquity.