The Jesus Project

"The Jesus Project may be the single most important commitment that the Center for Inquiry and its affiliated organizations — among them the Council for Secular Humanism — will ever make"
Council for Secular Humanism, March 22, 2007

The Council for Secular Humanism is North America's leading organization for non-religious people. A not-for-profit association, the Council supports a wide range of activities to meet the needs of people who find meaning and value in life without looking to a god.

The Council seems concerned that Christianity appears to be thriving and has decided to devote the next five years to a major investigation into the historical Jesus. Their magazine, Free Inquiry, describes the process and goals of The Jesus Project as follows:

"The Jesus Project will empanel fifty carefully chosen academics from a wide range of disciplines: theologians, archeologists, social historians, classicists, experts in historical linguistics, and others. Their mission will be to apply the most current scholarship and methodologies to the the questions the Jesus Seminar never confronted: Did the historical Jesus even exist? The Jesus Project will meet twice a year and publish its findings annually.

What might result from this initiative? If cutting-edge research should yield incontrovertible proof that the founder of Christianity is a mythic construct, don’t expect the world to change overnight. For one thing, millions of Christians will simply reject its findings. We should not expect The Jesus Project’s conclusions to sound the death knell for Christianity. Through most of the twentieth century, historically sophisticated Christian clergy and theologians made the choice to maintain their faith commitments despite their new understandings that, by and large, their religion’s self-proclaimed founding events never actually occurred. That’s the option many sophisticated liberals exercise."

According to Alister McGrath, (The Twilight of Atheism), atheism is now in its dwindling phase. He states that for the last two hundred years atheism seemed to be on the verge of eliminating religion as an outmoded and dangerous superstition but that the golden age of atheism, which began with the French Revolution, ended with the collapse of communism and the fall of the Berlin wall. McGrath examines what went wrong with the atheist dream and explains why religion and faith are destined to play a central role in the twenty-first century.

McGrath, a former atheist, who is now one of Christianity's foremost scholars, argues that the renewal of faith is a natural, inevitable, and necessary response to its failures.

Is McGrath correct?

Is 'The Jesus Project' a sign of panic in the Secular Humanist community?

Posted March 22, 2007

27 comments:

Avid Reader said...

When I saw this thread on "The Jesus Project" I thought it was a joke! But I see that they are really serious about this study.

Quite amazing! Where are they going to look for the 'historical Jesus'. I think they should be pointed to Bart Ehrman's college textbook entitled 'The New Testament - a Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings' where they will learn from chapter 13 that the first non-Christian references to Jesus as an actual person in history were made by Pliny the Younger in 112 CE and the Roman historian Tacitus around 115 CE - more than 80 years after his death.

Of all the pagan writers living in the time of Jesus not one mentions him!

The apostle Paul provides some minimal details about his life which means the only sources left are the Canonical Gospels and the Gnostic Gospels discovered in 1945, all of which were written years after his death.

So where does the secular humanist council think it is going to get further information to advance our knowledge in this area?

I haven't read 'The Twilight of Atheism' yet but have it on order - it sounds interesting - and I will comment in a day or two.

Just as an aside can anyone figure out why secular humanists and their high priests, Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris are so bent out of shape about religion? I don't see the reverse concern from the other side. Dawkins lives in England and that country, apart from France, is as far in the secular humanist camp as it can get.

Ever, DM

PRD said...

DM, I suspect that the humanists may have been reading "The Jesus Mysteries" By Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. Freke and Gandy's thesis is that Jesus the man never actually existed, but was a mythological figure created from the Osiris/Dionysus character of pagan lore. Their theory goes on to state that the Gnostics sect was the original form of Christianity, and that orthodox Christianity was a second-rate religion that understood only the superficial elements of Jesus' teachings.

There is quite a lot of modern historical research on the Gnostic gospels and many scholars agree that there is a lot of the pagan stories current in the time of Jesus included in the canonical gospels acknowledge that Christianity has borrowed heavily from pagan mythology. For example, December 25 was the birthday of the god Mithras, who was also reported to be born of a virgin.

But would it really be that surprising if part of the oral tradition that was passed down about Jesus contained some elements from the pagan culture that came to them from the Greeks and the Romans? Maybe the gospel writers, in including some of these elements, made Christianity more acceptable to the gentiles? Maybe that was just a good ancient marketing technique!

I agree with you that I can't see why the secular humanists (or as they prefer to call themselves, the "brights") are so interested in debunking the Jesus story. It is usually true that when one gives something more publicity it becomes more interesting to the public. So this investigation may actually have a result that is the opposite to what they expect

;-) prd

Pianoman said...

Surely there exists a long tradition of historical Jesus research. John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Bart Ehrman, N.T. Wright come to my mind. They don't agree and if you add in Freke and Gandy you have covered the whole spectrum!

Brenda Moorhead said...

Pianoman ... Is there a book or something that could give me a quick overview of the research that you mention?

Pianoman said...

Brenda

A good site with a summary of various studies is:

http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/theories.html

Brenda Moorhead said...

Thanks, Pianoman. If the group of writers listed on this link were all participating in this Jesus Project plan then that would be something very interesting to follow. But there is little hope there could be agreement given that the ground seems to have be gone over in minute detail.

Again thanks - Brenda

James Carnaghan said...

This is my first post so I apologize if some of my comments are off topic. I see some of your readers live in Ireland so I expect I may be in the minority here as an Irish atheist. I don't see many points of view on my side of the fence!

I got the book by McGrath that you mention thinking he would trot out some fundamentalist protestant rant against atheism that I would respond to but I was pleasantly surprised. I confess (sorry if that is a bad term) that I found his history of the development of atheism quite interesting. He certainly has a great grasp of history and I especially loved Chapter 5 where he discussed the romantic poets, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge and some of the novelists of that era, such as Mary Evans (George Eliot)and how they viewed religions and atheism. I loved poetry in grammar school and I had quite forgotten this aspect of their poetry. He even covered one of my favourite poems Hymn to Intellectual Beauty so in my book he can't be that bad!

I'll chime in later with some support on secular humanism (if I can be forgiven ;-0 for doing so).

Congratulations on a very interesting series of threads! I see you are not a Dawkins fan - oh well we can keep trying!

Jim

Avid Reader said...

I think there is going to be a wave of historical research about the historical Jesus. I saw today that another book is out on this topic - The Jesus Mystery by Lena Einhorn.

The cover of the book says

"Swedish documentary producer Einhorn draws heavily on scholarship to pursue her personal fascination with the mysteries surrounding the life of Jesus of Nazareth. She provides general readers with a clear survey of Jesus's birth and childhood, his relationship to John the Baptist, whether he died on the cross, and what really happened to Paul on the road to Damascus. And she generally stays within the consensus of other researchers who have sought the "historical Jesus," i.e., a Jesus who existed but who was not necessarily divine. But having grappled with many of the well-known New Testament inconsistencies concerning Jesus's life and death, Einhorn diverges from the general thinking in suggesting that several of these inconsistencies could be resolved by shifting Jesus's public life and death from the early 30s C.E. to the early 50s C.E. and correcting the names of several Roman and Jewish participants. Even more startling, she hypothesizes that Jesus and Paul were, in fact, the same person."

Take it away!

Ever, DM

Avid Reader said...

Hi Jim

Welcome to the blog! I've just finished the McGrath book today.

What is your thought on McGrath's position that scientists operate using "faith" whether they are Christian or atheist? I am referring in particular to McGrath's point that there was a problem with Einstein's theory of relativity (the third prediction that the gravity of the sun would have an impact on the light it emitted couldn't be proved back in 1915 because the effect was so small) yet scientists had 'faith' in the theory and it was eventually confirmed in the 1960s.

I think he makes a very strong point that it is not true scientists believe theories because they have been proved true but they believe and have "faith" in their theories because they represent the best explanation of what may be observed.

I see that you have read Dawkins' stuff. Isn't this what he rails about in The God Delusion, putting faith in something without proof as a criticism of what he says is wrong with religion?

Ever, DM

James Carnaghan said...

DM

I think he makes a fair point about scientists and faith. Also his point is well taken that there are just as many scientists who are religious as those who are agnostic or atheistic and both practice this type of faith in their scientific work. If we think about it we all believe some things that we don't know are true and act on those beliefs every day of our lives.

As to Dawkins I must say I think he is going downhill in his old age. His book "The Selfish Gene" stuck to science and he made it very understandable to a non scientist like me. But with each book in his later years he has become more strident about attacking religion with bad humor and bad examples. So frankly I think The God Delusion is a bit of an embarrassment and I don't recommend it in support of my own views.

Jim

Elizabeth Murray said...

I have a subscription to Free Enquiry and have read the article by R. Joseph Hoffmann. I am in agreement with the overall position of the magazine but I don’t quite see the need or purpose of the proposed study from my point of view.

One of the things that needs to be understood is that the Gospels are best seen as ancient biographies, and biographies in the Greco-Roman world were not understood the way they are today. Today a biography is full of factual details about a person’s life and hearsay about the person is kept to a minimum unless it is verifiable in some way.

That is not how ancient biographies were written. Writers then were more concerned about the character of a person than on the factual details of his/her life. This is a critical difference to be understood. Plutarch’s “Lives” is a good example of something written to reveal character and not give an accounting of the factual events in a person’s life.

As a teacher of history I can assure you that the only evidence of the factual existence of Jesus is in a couple of historical documents at most and the rest is what can be classified as Gospel or ancient biography.

Reason rules!
Liz

Michael N. Hull said...

I’m surprised that no one has commented on McGrath’s suggestion that the rise of atheism in the last two centuries has been due to Protestanism!

His thesis is that Protestanism in removing the visual images from worship took the ‘imagination’ out of worship and replaced it with a form of ‘intellectualism’ based on preaching from the pulpit and interpretating the bible.

He writes: ”Protestantism was the means by which a society that originally possessed a strong sense of the sacred became ‘desacralized’ eventually leading to a culture which, to all intents and purposes, had no sense of God’s presence in its midst. The inevitable result of this was secularization. Protestantism impoverished the Christian imagination and by doing so made atheism appear imaginatively attractive .... thus it was a small step from declaring that God cannot be pictured to suggesting that he cannot be conceived at all as a living reality in the rich imaginative life of humanity”

McGrath feels that the main line protestant churches are destined to continue this decline but that atheism will no longer benefit because of the rapid rise of Pentecostalism. As traditional Protestantism continues to become more wary of allowing direct experiential worship of God, Pentecostalism celebrates it and makes it a hallmark of Christian living.

Thus McGrath sees that atheism has peaked and is in its twilight period in an unsuccessful competition with Pentecostalism throughout the world. The main line churches, where the mind is engaged but the emotions and the imagination remain untouched, are also in a twilight period.

Are both Atheism and mainline Protestantism in a state of panic about their individual problems of imaginative unattractiveness? The secular humanists are addressing their ‘problem’ with ‘The Jesus Project’ while the mainline protestants are frozen in a perpetual study of their problem?

Regards,
Michael

Avid Reader said...

Michael:

I thought that was an interesting angle. I'm not sure it is provable but it certainly made me think.

I would agree that the mainline protestant churches are diminishing because they lack spirit (for lack of a better word). I think they are more like social clubs with a slight leaning towards doing good works associated in some way with a minor interest in religion.

I think the bit about Pentecostalism is right on and he is right that the churches that are growing have that format.

Ever, DM

Peter said...

In Ireland we have no problem with church attendance and I think atheism is not a significant factor here.

As to imagination in worship my former church is all fire and brimstone. At least that was the way it was when I left for one that had a more modern service, younger minister, and a message of hope preached with a smile on his face!

Take care,
Peter

Vinny Hall said...

The comment McGrath brought up by Dr. Reginald Le Sueur on the National Secular Society's website is a good example of why the secularists need to stop attacking religion and drop their 'Jesus Project'.

Le Sueur said "The problem with Humanism is that although rational, secular and 'true' it is in comparison with some religions wishy-washy and just unexciting. It has no great myths and legends or good sermonising and no eschatology of its own, just a denial and criticism of religion. Its attraction is in what it denies rather that in what it articulates as an alternative. A Pentecostal worship experience is going to trump anything atheism can offer in the way of a secular equivalent of worship."

Sincerely, Vinny

Avid Reader said...

Actually atheism does have some legends, Madalyn O'Hair, is a good example. Unfortunately she is such an embarrassment to American secularism that they are still trying to bury her!

Ever, DM

Elizabeth Murray said...

The main critique of religion (more specificaly Christianity) from the atheist side is that Christianity has no satisfactory answer to the existence of suffering and evil in the world. It's good at saying how to handle the problem but not in explaining why it exists in the first place. Job is a case in point. From what I can gather from that story God said basically "I caused it, get over it!"

McGrath pointed out how Descartes got himself into a mess trying to tackle these questions.

Several years ago I read Why Bad Things Happen to Good People by a Jewish writer, Harold Kushner, which I can't say answered the questions any better.

Buddhism has a better approach ... if someone has an arrow in their chest it doesn't worry who fired the arrow but how to heal the wound!

Atheism has an answer which I can understand that the physical world has no heart or mind it just is what it is.

Reason rules,
Liz

James Carnaghan said...

Interesting that although we are discussing the 'twilight' of atheism McGrath wonders if it is a twilight just before a long cold night or is it a twilight just before a new sunny day.

Now there's the question!

Jim

Brenda Moorhead said...

elizabeth i agree! can anyone recommend something that gives the christian position on suffering? i just don't get job at all! why does anyone even read it? it doesn't make any sense.

Vinny Hall said...

Michael, I see you have added a 'coming soon' section to the blog. Do you have dates when you are going to do those topics?

Sincerely, Vinny

Michael N. Hull said...

Vinny:

It depends on the activity in current threads. I'll put up each new topic as I see that discussion on older threads is becoming exhausted.

At the moment I have to reject a lot of posts from people who basically have nothing useful to say other than to give their 'opinion' on other people's comments. Those types of comments lead to nothing useful. The purpose of the blog is to learn from others while examining current topics, trends, books, articles etc in the general area of philosophy, religion and social politics.

I have offered several people and organizations an opportunity to partcipate. Once a sufficient amount of time has passed for me to determine the level of interest I may take the blog totally private with the most active individuals. That way only approved individuals will be able to participate and I will no longer need to approve comments before they are published - they would appear on the blog instantly.

Regards,
Michael

Brenda Moorhead said...

i just read the bit in the "amazing grace" thread on "slavery in the bible". who wrote that?

Michael N. Hull said...

Brenda:

I think it was written by the owner of the BBC blog, William Crawley, but the piece was written pseudonymously so I can't be sure.

Regards,
Michael

Pianoman said...

Is it a twilight just before a long cold night or is it a twilight just before a new sunny day?

Jim, probably neither - atheism will just drift along at about its present level. Religious groups form communities, they have rituals, they meet every week. That maintains a certain degree of vitality. Throw in some 'spirit' and 'enthusiasm' and you can see what evangelism and Pentecostalism can do.

Atheists do none of these things. No central organization, no outreach, no positive worldview, and their "high priests" Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris preach nothing that isn't related to the sale of their own books.

Vinny Hall said...

Pianoman;

They can organize and develop rituals! Isn't this what the Soviet Union was all about and the French revolution before that? Unfortunately when they organize it leads to the Gulags and the Reigns of Terror. But then in its primitive era Christianity had the Inquisition.

What if atheism has now gone through its inquisition period and will now enter a more progressive phase? That could mean a new dawn.

Sincerely, Vinny

Michael N. Hull said...

You might be interested in this from the Times Online:

Speaking for the motion, "We'd be better off without religion", at a debate held in Westminster on March 27; Professor Richard Dawkins, Professor A.C. Grayling and Christopher Hitchens. Speaking against: Rabbi Julia Neuberger, Professor Roger Scruton and Nigel Spivey. The debate was chaired by Joan Bakewell

A podcast of the debate can be downloaded here

http://timescolumns.typepad.com/gledhill/2007/03/wed_be_better_o.html

Regards,
Michael

James Carnaghan said...

I don't know why they bother having these debates in England anymore when the country is 90% secularist.

The growing faith community is Islam - Dawkins and his colleagues might as well whistle in the wind as try to persuade these folks of his views.

Why don't they hold debates on what secularism is/isn't doing about world poverty or the situation in Dafur. Then I'll be interested.

Jim