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Monday, December 06, 2004

There's more at stake than just the Creation

Education in general is a threat to fundamentalists. This week's story about the virgin birth in Newsweek really draws attention to this.

King Acrisius of Argos was warned by an oracle that he would be killed in time by a son born to his daughter Danae. So he promptly locked Danae up in a tower and threw away the key. But the god Zeus got in, disguised as a shower of gold, with the result that Perseus was born.

Oops. My bad. That's another virgin birth from the Greeks, whose religion the authors of the New Testament would have been extremely familiar with. In the Christian version, it's not a shower of gold but the Holy Spirit filling up Mary.

The article is pretty good, considering that the writer has to put on a big show of pretending that the facts of Jesus' birth are actually controversial. They're not really--whether Mary conceived as a virgin is a matter of faith and there's not really much else you can say to that. The only historical evidence worth considering is exactly what kind of knowledge the authors of the New Testament had of the dominant religion of the government they lived under, and it's pretty difficult to deny that they would have drawn on the well-worn stories of the many virgins that Jupiter/Zeus impregnated.

This is a prime example of how education is a threat to fundamentalism, though not necessarily to religion. The mere knowledge that stories of virgin births were common to the various religions of the time and probably influenced the authors of the Bible is enough to cast doubt on the technical truth of the rest of the New Testament if you believe each and every word is infalliable. This possibility is probably why there was the brief banning of teaching Greek mythology in English classes when I was in high school. It's not just history. There's probably not a branch of education that doesn't have landmines that threaten a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible.

Religion itself isn't under threat from education, I don't think. I have my Catholic education to thank for this. One does not have to believe in a literal virgin birth to treat Christ as a blessing, follow his teachings, or believe in God. I myself am not moved to believe in these things, but I have had relationships enough with people of faith to know that belief in these things is genuine and beneficial to those who find that as their path. As a warning to us all, though, remember that it's not just science that will be a threat to those who want us to stick to their narrow views as closely as possible.

7 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The way that all religions have these common elements (virgin births, etc) might lead some to believe that there is an "intrinsic" "ur-religion" that's the one we really should be following, and all the real religions are partial views of the real one. I *think* that's the idea that inspired the founder of Baha'i about 150 years ago.

That remind me, I read a recent article in the Chicago Criterion (their website's terribly out of date, but oh well), an amusing, erudite, and totally moonbattish conservative campus paper. Anyway, they recently had an article on William James and religion. One of the things that was pointed out was that discoveries in neuroscience nerve groupings that are allegedly associated with religious experiences is that atheists respond to this with "see? Religion was just a few weird neurochemical developmental features in the human brain after all!" and religious types say, "see? An evolutionarily useless part of the brain that allows us to experience religion! God really does love us, doesn't He?"

Julian Elson

12/06/2004

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would have to grab my concordance (different location from current computer) to be sure, but almah, the Hebrew word for "virgin" (from second-Isaiah prophesy: Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and he shall be called Emmanuel) means young woman, state of hymen not specified. NT use of parthenos to translate almah might be more specific, but clearly this was use of a quote of OT prophesy.

Anyway, it rather misses the main point, doesn't it?

12/06/2004

 
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