Thursday, June 28, 2012

Putting the Devil in a Full Nelson

I have a confession to make.  I like professional wrestling.  I enjoy watching people in colorful costumes perform intricate dance-like moves.  My interest, however, is not in the athletics involved, although the participants must be agile.  Nor do I care who wins or loses.  After all, opponents know the results before they actually tie up to start a match. 

My interest in sociological:  how does professional wrestling create evil?

Big Show shows Kurt Angle what happens to "evil" wrestlers.
That’s not as easy as it sounds.  Every match features a good guy, called a “babyface,” and a bad guy or “heel.”  Anyone can be one or the other.  During the Cold War, the “heel” was obvious: a Russian.  During the war with Iraq, one of the American babyfaces, Sgt. Slaughter, turned heel and supported the Iron Sheik, who was supposedly from Iraq.  That approach was revived more recently when a wrestler dressed up like a Muslim and said incendiary things to arouse the crowd.

He caused so much uproar that his character was dropped.

However, most of the time, wrestling has to create evil by having someone act devilish.  This is hardly unique, but very unusual.  Only two other groups must generate evil: politics and religion.

In politics, successful candidates invariably paint opponents in as many dark colors as possible, imply insidious aims and dastardly behavior while contrasting themselves as the paragons of good.  It’s a good strategy, but trite.  As songwriter Johnny Mercer pointed out 50 years ago in his Broadway show Li’l Abner, the Democrats and Republicans “each hates the other one,” but “neither tells the public what the other’s gone and done.  As long as no one knows where no one stands, the country’s in the very best of hands.”
Actually, as all parties know, there may be differences in policy, but there’s no real evil.  Politicians are trying to do the best they can on behalf of the country (and, of course, themselves.)  That’s all.

Religion is a different matter.  It, too, has to create an alternative to good.  That’s true in the old Scandinavian religion where Loki perpetuated evil; or, in Egypt, where Set was a bad guy who killed and sliced up the good god, Osiris.  In the East, religions like Zoroastrian and Hindu don’t mince words.  They have evil gods who regularly battle with the good versions.  Kali is the Hindu god of destruction, but also of rebirth.  The two go hand-in-hand.  In Zoroastrian belief, evil Ahriman battles the good god Ahura Mazda for supremacy.

Western faiths had to be more subtle.  They advocate monotheism.  A devil, therefore, couldn’t be an equal to the one deity.  In Judaism, God has an adversary, which, in Hebrew, translates into Satan.  However, he really has no power.  In Muslim faith, the evil one is named Iblis, who was an angel who declined to bow down before Adam.  He’s also known as Shatan, which is obviously similar to the Hebrew Satan.

Christians also like the idea of a fallen angel and call him, among other names, Lucifer.  He started in the biblical account of Job, but grew in importance as Jesus failed to return to create a kingdom of God on Earth as his apostles promised.  Early Christians, influenced by Zoroastrian ideas of good battling evil, became convinced there was a deceiver who misled people and delayed the parousia. 

Church fathers like Tertullian and Irenaeus made that abundantly clear.  Irenaeus insisted that his opponents were “angels of the devil,” while Tertullian ordered those undergoing baptism to exclaim they were denouncing “Satan and his angels.”

The Lord’s Prayer contains the line “deliver us from evil.”  The words actually can be translated, “deliver us from the evil one,” giving a solid form to a nebulous idea.

For many Christians, the canonical book of Revelation provides a blueprint for what would happen when the devil and Jesus finally collide.  It was based on earlier apocryphal books that described the end of days when the good are rewarded and the sinners are punished. 

In time, the question of why evil exists forced Lucifer to become extremely powerful.  At time, he almost eclipsed God.  The cross was seen as the lone protection against such overwhelming evil.  That’s why it supposedly works on vampires.  Many people still wear crosses as similar shields, not just to proclaim their faith. 

Naturally, such an evil creature must have a house where misdeeds are punished.  Again, Christians looked to the Zoroastrian faith for inspiration.  Hell was borrowed and became a Christian ideal.  Greek and Roman beliefs had no such place.  Their afterlives were benign with dark shades roaming empty fields.  Jews still have no belief in an afterlife either; people merely sleep until being welcomed into God’s embrace.  That doesn’t work for Christians and Muslims, both of whom believe nonbelievers deserve eternal punishment for their stubbornness.

The Italian poet Dante gave us a complete view of Hell with nine levels populated by wicked people enduring divine judgment.  His view still animates the Christian view of the underworld.  Revivalist preachers invariably draw on such images to scare their followers.

As a result, the devil remains as strong as ever in people’s imaginations.  According to a 2010 survey, about 45 percent of Americans believe in his existence.  The devil was actually the defendant’s alibi for a murder in a Connecticut.  The jury didn’t buy it; drunkenness was seen as a more likely factor.  The devil has also been the antagonist in such famed fiction as The Devil and Daniel Webster and Damn Yankees, and, of course, an array of movies
Scene from The Exorcist movie.

Exorcisms to drive out the devil still exist, based on a biblical account that Jesus forced devils to leave a victim and inhabit pigs.  The reality that ill people don’t have devils inside them did not take root until more modern times.

The problem with insisting there is a devil is that it provides an excuse for bad behavior.  Comedian Flip Wilson’s “The devil made me do it” is not really a joke to many.  People actually believe it, ignoring the fact that we all possess a primitive brain, which, when activated, can cause us to respond to provocation in a very uncivilized manner.   However, as any politician knows, people do things for their own best interest.  They may behave in a way that is anti-society, but their behavior is not driven by a devil.

After all, what is evil?  That depends where you live and what you believe.  Sex with children is awful today, but was encouraged in ancient Greece.  Murder is definitely a bad thing, but not at one tine in India where a cult honored its god by murdering innocent travelers.  Under the circumstances, evil today may be the encouraged behavior tomorrow.

With no evil but ever-changing public ideas, perhaps it’s time to accept that the concept of the devil is completely outmoded and leave true evil where it belongs, flopping around the ring in wrestling tights.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Belief Cannot Be Confused with Fact

Leah Libresco
Recently, one of the most-prominent atheist bloggers on the internet, Leah Libresco, decided to convert to Catholicism.

Libresco, who wrote under the banner “Unequally Yoked: A geeky atheist picks fights with her Catholic boyfriend,” said her decision was based on “questions of morality and how one finds a moral compass.”
Actually, all she did was exchange one belief for another: a belief in no god to a belief in the Christian version.

That may help her sense of morality, but it won’t change reality.  It’s simply belief.

The biggest mistake religious people make is insisting that belief and truth are the same things.  They are wrong. Throughout history, belief has continually run into inconvenient truths – as Al Gore noted – and come up short.  

For example, at one time, many people believed the Earth was flat.  The Flat Earth Society still exists and continues to promulgate that absurdity.  There’s a good reason the concept won’t die.

Paul Kruger, state president of South Africa, made that clear more than 100 years ago. He was a member in the 1890s.  While sailing on state business, he learned from the captain of the vessel that navigation depended on a round Earth.  Kruger promptly went into his cabin, retrieved his Bible and tossed it overboard.

“If the Earth isn’t flat, then this book is wrong,” he said.

It isn’t flat.  Ancient Greeks knew it.  They could see the round shape of the Earth during eclipses.  Christopher Columbus knew it, too.  Astronauts proved it by taking pictures of the Earth from space.  

However, if it’s not flat, then belief must be wrong.  Some people won’t accept that.

That’s true with stories about Noah’s ark.  Geology has conclusively proved no worldwide flood as described in the Bible has ever occurred.  It couldn’t.  The water would have no place to go.  Yet, people continue to climb Mt. Ararat, the supposed landing spot of the ark, hoping to find a piece of gopher wood to prove the tale.  Their belief demands they chase a chimera.

There was no Adam and Eve (right) either.  Geneticists have proven that humans evolved, just as Charles Darwin described about 160 years ago.  There never was a time when a modern person suddenly appeared.  There was no “creation,” no Garden of Eden.  As a result, there couldn’t be any Original Sin.  So, devout Christians deny evolution.

There’s not a shred of evidence for Heaven or Hell, which were invented to reward believers and punish believers.  Yet, surveys consistently show strong belief in such nonexistent places.

True believers deny the work of astrophysicists, who have demonstrated how the universe developed.  They reject studies based on research that shows clearly how galaxies, stars and planets continually appear.    Believers have no choice.  Otherwise, there’s no need for God, and their belief systems will be shattered. 

The process works the same way outside religion. Some people still believe that humans live in a central core of the Earth even though flights over the North and South poles clearly show only ice.  They won’t accept that humans built the pyramids and insist on throwing aliens into the equation.  They insist that bumps on the head have some correlation to personality or intelligence despite contrary evidence.  They refuse to concede that stars don’t dictate human behavior and so pay millions to astrologers.  They deny global warming, which has been conclusively proven.

One friend recently accused me of being closed minded because I refused to accept his cockeyed theory that wealthy families are dictating political decisions – which I reject simply because wealthy families are not monolithic and have opinions spread the political spectrum.  However, his understanding of how the world functions apparently is based on this very shaky base, and he can’t imagine another scenario.

Some of that limitation is built into us.  Scans have demonstrated that brains faithfully encode desirable information while fail to absorb contrary news. That physiological quirk results in strong beliefs.   
Even an atheist like Leah Libresco can’t overcome that.  At least she conjured a rationalization for discarding one belief system for another, although I disagree with her logic.  Personally, I think atheists are the most moral people I know because they don’t have a threat of hell hanging over them to live ethical lives, but I don’t begrudge Libresco’s effort to make her own life better anyway she can.

However, her seemingly seismic shift has nothing to do with belief. 

Belief may move mountains, but it can’t dent a single proven fact.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  You can also follow him on Twitter.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Changing Prayers Reflect Eroding Religious Beliefs

At a recent Jewish funeral for a friend, I listened while the rabbi read some of the prayers.  They expressed ideas that seemed strange.  They also were very different from prayers I recalled from previous rituals.

They started out the same: the prayers praised God – which is what Jewish prayers all do – and credited Him with comforting the ill, providing help to the needy and so on.  I only had one thought: No, He doesn’t.

I doubt the victims of the Haitian earthquake feel that way or the poor people inundated by the Japanese tsunami or many of the those ruined by Hurricane Katrina.  In fact, I really doubt anyone caught up in such disasters really believes God takes care of them.  After all, He didn’t have to cause the problem in the first place.  If He’s only around to pick up the pieces afterwards, He isn’t doing a very good job at that considering the mental and physical problems that have beset survivors.

Damage from Japan's tsunami
That’s true on a small scale, such as after a car accident as well as after a major calamity.

I once spoke to a rabbi about the disconnect between the prayers and reality.  He agreed, but said that the prayers are traditional, so they are repeated.

Maybe then, but not now.  Apparently, from this particular service, the prayers can be changed.  Several traditional Jewish prayers contain the phrase: “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”  These prayers did that, but added, “God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachael,” the three wives of the biblical patriarchs.

As far as I could tell, in a bid to widen Judaism to include women, prayers have been revised at some point in recent years.  Since the words were in Hebrew, I don’t know if they struck a chord with the mourners.  This was a Reform Jewish congregation, the most liberal among the various Jewish denominations, and many of the worshipers probably can’t read Hebrew.  In addition, many were non-Jewish coming in respect to the deceased, who touched many lives in our community through her philanthropic efforts.

The other prayer that struck me was one that called on participants not to let knowledge lead them astray from belief in God.   That had to be very new.  

For centuries, Jews have emphasized education and learning.  That was necessary to read and understand the increasing distant sacred texts.   Knowledge also became a key to exiting the Christian-created ghettos that isolated and marginalized Jewish communities.  Moses Mendelssohn, for example, was able to break free in the 1700s because of his recognized intellect.  He became the first “court Jew,” a man who moved in the highest royal circles based totally on his intelligence, opening the door to other educated Jews.

Ivy League schools used to have quotas to limit Jewish enrollment because of young, highly educated Jewish applicants would have overflowed their classes.  

Jews today are expected to be educated.  The last figure I could find showed that 59 percent of Jews have college degrees compared to 27 percent of all Americans.  The percentage  is even higher for Reform Jews – 66 percent.

And people at this funeral were asked to pray for less education?

That has to be a direct reaction to growing scientific knowledge undermining the belief in the existence of God.  Science has shown that no supernatural power was necessary to create a universe, a planet or life.  Forgiveness of sin is a human concept: sin depends on the culture, and the idea that people sin is not universal.  That means God is out of business.  There’s nothing for Him to do.

In response, Reform Judaism is now counseling people to ignore scientific study to hold on to traditional views.  That’s not going to work.  Statistically, belief in God is declining.  In some countries, like Japan, belief in God has almost vanished.  At the same time, support for traditional faiths has eroded.  In Sweden, for example, Christianity has almost disappeared.  Even in this country, one of the most religious in the world, the percentage of Christians continues to decline.

Prayers won’t change that trend.

In many ways, this particular funeral was for far more than a single individual.  It also foreshadowed the slow but inevitable death of religious beliefs that are no longer tenable.  Knowledge will continue to expand, slowly but inexorably shoving religion aside on its march into the future.

At the cemetery, a lot more was buried than a single body.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.