Religions united

A look at Dr Robert Beckford's work unifying Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, not to mention Mithraism and the worship of Osiris.

Dr Robert Beckford is a British (Christian) academic theologian and a lecturer at Oxford Brookes University (Wikipedia). On 25th December 2007 at 20:30 Channel 4 broadccast a 90minute (with advert breaks) documentary in which Beckford visited noted (and, by their respective believers, revered) leaders of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam to talk about the similarities in the stories of the births and lives, as well as in the basic teachings, of Jesus Christ, Krishna, and Siddhartha Gautama (called Buddha) and also the perception of these particularly Jesus Christ by Islam. See the Channel 4 page about the programme.

For Hinduism, it was suggested that the words Krishna and Christ are cognate. And there are indeed striking similarities of detail in the stories and in the fundamental teachings particularly of Buddha and Christ. Professor J. Duncan M. Derrett (author of a book Two Masters: Buddha and Jesus) appearing in the documentary said that in the time (six centuries between when Buddha lived and when Christ was alive according to standard Christian history) Buddhist teachers were spreading out in all directions from India and were almost certainly in Alexandria, a great centre of learning.

Now, it occurred to me about 40 years ago that, as Prof. Derrett says in this programme and the editors illustrate with alternating quotations, Buddha could easily have given the famous Sermon On The Mount (Matthew Ch.5). At one time I toyed with the idea of a "novel with a message" in which, during the time he disappeared in the years before he reappeared aged 30 and began preaching, Jesus found his way along the Silk Road to India and encountered Buddhism, then came back and on the way reformulated how it was all said for a basically old testament Jewish audience living under Roman occupation. I never bothered to attempt to realize it; to do it properly would have meant going (as Michael Palin did) along something like that route, and I have never liked hot, dusty, religion-obsessed places which everywhere along that route always has been and still is.

The next stop for Beckford is England, and the temples of Mithras, a sort of sub-deity sent by the Roman sun god to rescue the earth and humanity from some terrible fate. He says it was because the birth of Mithras was 25th December that the early Christian fathers chose that for Christmas. Not Saturnalia? Well, it doesn't surprise me.

After Mithras comes Osiris. Rites dating from 1000 or more BCE have the death and resurrection after three days of Osiris, just like Easter; and there was a blessing in the sacred river the Nile that looks like baptism, and eating of bread and drinking of beer, both made from corn that grew again because of osiris's resurrection, that is considered by the scholar Beckford speaks to in this segment as foreshadowing Christian eucharist. Beckford mentions that the Egyptian (called Coptic) Christian church got going extremely soon, within decades, of Christ's death, a fact ascribed to the ritual and doctrinal similarities. Here is another case of Christianity having "borrowed" (only that, not stolen, we are told; what's the difference?!) doctrinal and ritual detail from a now totally dead pagan religion.

And so the programme goes on. And yet Beckford doesn't get the point of his own "discoveries" from all this historical comparison: CHristianity was nothing radically new, just another cult, almost "me too" by this little group. CHristians used to argue (and some probably still do) that Christianity's success proves it is right. To me it is a mix of historical accident, good luck (from its point of view) at various points and some clever doctrinal invention (as well as theft) and political manoeuvering over the centuries plus, after the conversion of a Roman emperor, an adoption of the attitudes of the old imperial Rome which lasted till the 20th century and persist today is some ways.

To my way of looking at the whole subject, it doesn't matter whether Buddhists came to Palaestine and Jesus Christ encountered them, or whether on the contrary Jesus went to India and back during the "lost years" when we only have guesswork as to what he got up to. It doesn't matter whether (as the recent revelations about Coptic and other "unapproved" — read suppressed by the early Christian church leaders — gospels suggest) there were many more disciples who were erased from history. It doesn't matter whether there is any truth in the recently popular idea (see the renewed fuss about The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail after the Dan Brown novel and court case) that Jesus was married, or that Mary Magdalene was (far from a prostitute as Catholicism says) his wife or his chief disciple, a thought now very popular with some female theologians (as well as quite amusing for those of us who look on from outside but can enjoy the disconfiture of the Roman Catholic church with its 1600 years of not just "spin" but theocratic murder of all dissenters — though here I want to be sure it is clear that the protestant Christian breakers-away were no better, and that some, including clerics, on both sides of that divide are still now capable of being just as wicked as ever, whenever what they consider their position of omniscience or their public image is in any way threatened).

It doesn't matter whether in fact the Christians stole ideas — their mythology, rituals, symbology — from Mithraism, or Hinduism, from Buddhism, or the Egyptian cult of Osiris; it doesn't matter exactly how much of Christian theology was invented out of his own head by the fanatical saleman for them who is called Paul of Tarsus, and how much he stole from other cults he came across on his travels (for example one story I saw told years ago is that the cult of Diana was big when he got to Ephesus, one of the places he wrote epistles to after he left).

No, all the confused historical evidence is still consistent with the view which I take, that here was a new religious movement, a bunch of people possibly led by a historical figure with the name Jesus (apparently a graecized form of Joshua already seen in the Jewish books) but just possibly not, Jesus being a composite or an alias of some kind. According to this view, the cult developed some ideas about peaceful coexistence, egalitarianism and so on which appealed to a lot of ordinary people more than the top-down state religions; it is just ironical that it became exactly the same as them before very long. The Buddhist version of that egalitarianism, by the way, was for equal women's rights and against the already powerful, cruel, stultifying caste system against which democrats are still struggling in India even today — Douglas Adams put it like this: a man got nailed to a tree for saying how nice it would be if everybody was nicer to everybody else.

The fundamental point to hold onto in the course of all this historical meandering is that, apart from the construction which the people in this first-century-AD movement put on some of what was said — that is, how they construed, or interpreted within their own primitive mind-sets — what the leaders were telling them, we have nothing from any of this that is inconsistent with the hypothesis to which I stick, as the empirical outcome (by Occam's Razor): there is no invisible, omnipotent creator as believed in by the Hindus and Jews, and thereafter the Christians and Muslims, any more than there is Zeus sitting on top of Mount Olympus in Greece eating ambrosia, drinking nectar, hurling thunderbolts and seducing women while disguised as a bull, a swan, a dirty old man or a golden shower of rain; there is no Jehovah or Allah any more than there is Osiris, or Odin (aka Wotan), or indeed Shiva, Vishnu (aka Krishna) or Shakti or the thousand names of God in Hinduism. In other words, although they may actually all share the same delusion, rather than living by many different and conflicting delusions, it is still a delusion, based on primitive pre-scientific attempts to explain existence. And to the extent that these different cultures over time and round the world share the same elements of mythology, dogma and ritual, this is because those who came later got the idea from those who came before, not because they all independently came upon any supposed underlying universal truth in it; wherever there are similarities, it can be seen that they merely copied ideas, of all kinds, one group from another.

Before we saw the new documentary by Dr Beckford, we skeptics held that the best approach to religion is that the idea of an omnipotent living being as creator of the universe (as we know it, from the astronoimers-cosmologists and from fundamental physics) is preposterous. We still take this view; Beckford's revelations are of the nature of ethnological detail with no significant implications for our view of the universe. The only new puzzle before us is this: since Beckford has noticed that many points of detail that Christian children have been taught for centuries are unique to Christianity are in fact not unique to Christianity at all, but in fact plot details plagiarized — stolen, in other words — by the early Christians from the mysthologies of a variety of other religions in Europe, Asia and Africa, why in tarnation is Beckford still a Christian? It seems not to occur to him that this is all ample intellectual justification for standing back from the whole Christian mythology and recognizing that, just like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, Christianity is, like every other religion, a collection of tales told to the naive to conceal ignorance about prehistory, palaeontology, cosmology and to keep the naive and ignorant masses under control. From his demeanour and references to Sunday school as a child, I imagine that Beckford is indeed under the control of the Santa effect, that is, emotionally unable to let go of the comfort brought to the uncritical minds of ordinary people by religion, their uncritical outlook that of all those who have problems grasping (let alone accepting) the truths of fundamental physics. This comfort is brought to the undemanding mind by any of the varying collections of mythology, ritual (that is, liturgical mumbo-jumbo plus fake sympathetic magic) and collective cultural habits that are the major world religions, and I don't expect most of the human population of the planet ever to be able to grasp how the universe really is; it is just a little dismaying that so many academics, and people with high IQs (whether or not they have any academic training or activity), are still in the emotional thrall of one form or other of this childish kind of mythology.

In short, what would you make of a normally developed adult who nevertheless still sincerely believed in the Tooth Fairy?