An Italian judge has ordered a priest to appear in court this month to prove that Jesus Christ existed.
The case against Father Enrico Righi has been brought in the town of Viterbo, north of Rome, by Luigi Cascioli, a retired agronomist who once studied for the priesthood but later became a militant atheist.
Signor Cascioli, author of a book called The Fable of Christ, began legal proceedings against Father Righi three years ago after the priest denounced Signor Cascioli in the parish newsletter for questioning Christ’s historical existence.
I can’t claim to know much of anything about this guy’s argument, and I’m only about a third of the way through Robert Miller’s The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, but I find it interesting that anyone is asking for any proof of anything in this case, because we live in a country where evidence — for anything from beliefs about a religious figure to bombing a soveriegn nation based on perceived threats — is optional at best.
What I mean is basically what Sam Harris said in his book, The End of Faith, that faith is essentially a conversation stopper in our culture. Any assertion becomes unassailable if it’s founded on the faith of the individual making it.
So, it’s amazing — and even somewhat inspiring — that anyone anywhere is asking for evidence in terms of existence. However, if it’s already down to a question of whether Jesus existed — rather than whether he was who the gospel authors say he was or did any of the things they say he did, when and where they said he did them — then there’s’ already some significant shrinkage going on, to borrow from Miller’s title. I can’t help seeing some of that in Trey’s post about Miller’s book in my current reading.
The book questions the historicity of Jesus (did he even exist at all?), i’ve read other claims that he didn’t exist and all were really pretty poorly argued, maybe his arguments are better, but frankly, can’t you just use "Occum’s Razor" test on this? (the simpler explanation of something is usually more likely it is true than the more complex one). I mean, if you were a non-believer, isn’t easier to believe that a man Jesus existed who had a charismatic personality and profound teachings.. and then stories and myths spread around the man (we see that happen ALL the time in history) than to believe that a group of men (or one) got together and wrote a fantastic story out of nothing and very quickly got a whole movement going…
A man with a charismatic personality and profound teachings? That’s about two steps away from being an interesting guy with some good ideas, and a long way from being the son of a god, bound to return to earth someday (and soon, based on the 44% of Americans Gallup says believe the second coming is likely to happen in their lifetimes). Remember, our president launched a war because he believed there were WMDs in Iraq (even leaving out whether he made the claim "god told me to strike at Saddam"), not because of reliable evidence, and a significant number of Americans were willing to go along with a war that would inevitably cost thousands of human lives based on little more than a gut feeling.
Faith mixed with fear seems like a rather deadly combination, when you consider that a great many Americans are prepared to believe and awful lot — and base policy on it — without much in the way of evidence, and with considerable consequences for others. (Noam Chomksy noted in Imperial Ambitions, and I tend to agree, that there’s been a strong undercurrent of fear in America since it’s founding. Whether it’s savage indians lurking in the dark woods, commies hiding under the bed, or homos headed for honeymoons, Americans can be whipped up into hysterical fear relatively easily, quickly, and with devastating results for others who either aren’t us or aren’t in the majority.) In that sense many who support or supported bombing on the basis of belief aren’t that different from those who fly planes into towers based on tenets; except, that is, in name.
Those we call terrorists are said to believe that upon blowing themselves up and taking non-believers with them they will be greeted by seventy or more virgins in paradise. OK, but a great many Americans believe that the world as they know it — let alone America — will cease to exist in a generation or so, maybe less, that they will literally meet jesus in the sky, and enjoy a bird’s eye view of non-believers undergoing all manner of torment (like the 14 year old fan of the apocalyptic Left Behind series, who particularly enjoyed "the way non-christians get their guts pulled out by god." Of course, that’s if you take Relvelations literally. Apparently, lots do. Either viewpoint seems like a frightening basis for policy or certain individual acts of faith.
So what about the rest of the book? The blurb on the back of Miller’s book says that the Jesus Seminar (of which Miller is a member) could only agree on the historicity of about 18 percent of the bible. How much of that consists of "begats" I don’t know. I’m far from an expert on biblical history, but The God Who Wasn’t There had the effect of whetting my appetite for further information, and led me to buy Miller’s book and to put The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? Challenging the Existence of an Historical Jesus on order. But it would appear to leave a lot open to question.
Maybe that’s what fascinates me about the call for evidence in Italy, because I was basically brought up to believe that god leaned down from the sky with pen in hand and wrote the whole book via a few mortal mediums. That was something one didn’t dare question then, and doesn’t dare to appear to question now. Don’t think so? How, in a country where one has to a least declare oneself a christian (and born again is a bonus) in order to get elected to much more than dogcatcher, let alone president? So, it’s encouraging when anyone questions at all, let alone dares to ask for evidence. It’s a delicious bit of a role reversal, since several centuries ago Cascioli would have been hauled before a very different kind of court, made by various means to recant, and then quickly dispatched to his heavenly reward. Father Righi is getting off easy, in that sense.