Debate: Phillips vs Agaybi
The mission of the Alfred the Great Society is to provide resources for strengthening men and women in the ongoing struggle against paganism and unbelief. We do this through rebuilding the foundations of Christendom and fostering a culture that puts a premium on what is good, true and beautiful.
The Alfred the Great Society also seeks to fulfil this mission through direct confrontation with the world of unbelieving thought. We encourage Christians to abandon the bunker mentality and to engage in the hostile world around us, casting down arguments and bringing the truth of Christ to bear against the philosophies of paganism.
Putting this into practice, we have invited atheist David Agaybi to join us at the Alfred the Great Society for a clash of ideas.
Is the culture of Christendom something worth preserving? Is it even meaningful to speak of the good, the true and the beautiful in an objective sense? If so, is the Christian vision a necessary prerequisite? Does God even exist? These are some of the questions that Mr. Agaybi debated with Robin Phillips, director of the Alfred the Great Society. Their debate occurred in Spring 2011 and is published here for the first time.
Robin Phillips: Thank you for joining us today David. To start with, could you just tell our readers something about yourself.
David Agaybi: My pleasure. My name is David Agaybi, I am an Egyptian born Canadian. I am 34 years of age, 9 years of which I lived in Egypt and the rest here in Canada. I grew up to a Catholic mother and Orthodox father (more accurately Coptic). I have attended many types of churhces and learned about many different ways of worshipping Christ and the Christian Ideology but at the age of 24 I decided to leave it all for humanism, which in my eyes is more important and healthy way to live.
Robin Phillips: Wow, that’s quite a background!
What were some of the practical issues involved in your change from “Christian ideology”, as you call it, to Humanism, or was it purely intellectual?
David 2: Thank you and great question that I think goes to the heart of my conversion. I read the bible many times over when I was younger, and growing up in a religious environment lead me to question many things around me. I constantly struggled with my hatred for Mulsims, which was passed down to me from my parents. Its very easy to get caught in that cycle of hatred when you’re a christian growing up in Egypt. The change was very gradual and painful because it was taught to me by my parents, the people I loved the most. However when I came to Canada and literature as well as multi-culturalism became available to me I had to reconsider my own convictions to be able to live peacefully with others.
One could say that it was both intellectual as well as emotional. I didn’t understand how people could believe and practice their faiths, yet lose sight of the most important messages conveyed by it.
Robin 3: So now that you are no longer a Christian, do you feel you are able to practice the most important values of Christianity better than the Christians you’ve known?
It is indeed sad when Christians fail to practice their faith and encourage hatred of other people groups. G.K. Chesterton once remarked that the strongest argument against Christianity is Christians.
David 3: Absolutely. I think there are so many things in this world that scare people to the point that they need to create communities and dive into them, isolating themselves from other communities and judging them as unenlightened and unequal.
Although christianity produced unity in Europe which eventually gave birth to Britain and the United States, it has long since lost its practical use. I believe that deep down human morailty changes in all of us as time goes by and as we learn from past experience.
Robin 4: I do hear what you are saying about the prejudice against other groups and the tendency for Christians to judge. But the Christian position is a percarious ballance. We recognize that groups like Muslims and pagans are wrong in their fundamental ideas, and we recognize that it is sometimes even necessary to kill them, as when the Vikings were invading England or when the Muslims were invading the Bezantine Empire. Yet at the same time, our religion requires us to love the siinner while hating the sin, and to pray that the unbelieving communities will ultimately be converted to Christ (as indeed they were in England in the wake of King Alfred). It is a difficult ballance and one which it is easy to get wrong, especially when our enemies are perpetrating great evils against mankind.
Yet at the same time, it is important to keep in mind that when Christians have done terrible things in the name of God, it was because they were NOT practicing their religion, not because they were. The solution to the counterfeit is not to reject the true but to affirm the genuine. Likewise, the solution to hypocritical Christians is to affirm the religion of Christ, not to deny it. To deny the veracity of the Christian account ultimately leaves us without a standard for objectively measuring the ethical content of some of the very things you rightly object to. After all, if “human morality changes in all of us as time goes by” then by what standard can we determine whether those moral changes are for the better or for the worse?
David 4: They are for the better if we think objectively. For example when you talk about hating the sin rather than the sinner, you are being very general and generalizations never lead us to discovery. It only lead us to ignorance and complacency. It is much easier for a priest or a prayer to god to absolve your sins than it is for us to analyse why the sin was committed in the first place or why it is a sin to begin with. Homosexuality is considered a sin in christianity, but by who’s standards? Ancient people who did not understand the nature of our bodies and mental dispositions. Jesus never once mentioned anything about it yet its condemened. If Jesus is the focal figure of Christianity, then why should words by others contradict his teachings?
This last question begs the voracity of the existence of christ in the first place. If he really did exist then there should have been no other rules made after him.
Robin 5: I am happy to respond to the homosexuality issue, but first I must ask, are you seriously doubting the existence of Jesus?
David 5: Yes I am. There is enough evidence to prove that the tenets of christianity were borrowed from other myths in the surrounding region, especially Egyptian mythology and Mythriaism. The ten commandments were borrowed from the Egyptian book of the dead and the icon of Mary with her son Jesus is a replica of Isis and Horus, with whom Jesus shares many attributes. Mythriaism was a belief system originating in Persia, but later adopted by the Romans. Mythra was said to be born on the 25th of December as well.
But it all stems from the idea of the winter solstice and the movement of the sun in the sky, which happened to be something the ancients paid very special attention to.
Robin 6: I’m having a hard time making the connection between (A) the fact that there are similarities between Christianity and other religions and (B) Jesus may never have existed. You are going to have to explain how A helps to establish B.
David 6: Ok I will also back up and say that Jesus may have indeed existed as a man. But most likely as a man who was very humble and effective in making others listen to his message. I certainly do not believe in the miracles such as the walking on water and the feeding of thousands. I believe its all symbolic and metaphorical. Which is probably safer to assume considering metaphor is one of the most effective ways of conveying ideas. I belive the walking on water represents the idea of lightness, which also comes from Egyptian mythology. Ancient Egyptians measured the purity of a person’s soul by weighing it against a feather. If you’re heart is lighter than a feather than you had a good soul and allowed entry into the afterlife.
Robin 7: That’s an interesting theory about Jesus which I haven’t encountered before. But for it to obtain plausibility you would have to first establish that Jesus was indeed influenced by Egyptian mythology. That would be a hard proposition to defend when recent scholarship has shown (to my satisfaction, at least) that Jesus was very Jewish. In N.T. Wright’s book Jesus and the Victory of God, he shows that Jesus’ mission and message fit squarely within the canons of Second Temple Judaism and have continuity with the types of Messianic movements that were percolating at the time.
One thing can be sure, if Jesus was a chrypto-Egyptian guru, He was a poor communicator because none of His contemporaries interpreted his words or his miarcles like this. Without any direct histroical evidence, your interpretation remains speculative at best and anachronistic at worst. Moreover, it is theologically problmeatic. The Jews were not primarily concerned with their souls going to the afterlife when they died like the Egyptians were, but with the redemption of Israel (Luke 1:67-79). Though some Christians may disagree, I believe there is good reason for charting Jesus’ kingdom ministry – and a good deal of his salvation statements – within this same basic narrative. This of course excludes the type of Egyptian soteriology you are suggesting.
If you would prefer to leave this and jump back to one of the other issues you’ve already raised, feel free.
David 7: Well I think we should talk about why is it important for Christians to believe that Jesus really existed or not.
Robin 8: Why do you think it is important?
David 8: I don’t. But I think it was meant as symbol for a new way at looking at the male psyche. For example the stoning of the prostitute that Jesus prevented was a cornerstone in how women were treated back then. I honestly think that there are too many feminine qualities in his teachings which could suggest he was influenced by a woman, but that’s digressing. By allowing people to look at their own sins rather than others renders stoning and really any form of punishment futile.
Those who have committed no sin may he cast the first stone. So therefore if you reflect on your own sins you will discover that you share something in common with the person you are judging.
A prostitute may have no other way of surviving except to whore herself. The same goes for a man who steals because he is hungry and has no income. In the end we all share the same physiological needs. Hunger, lust, and sleep.
Who is anyone to judge anyone else unless they feel they have been so wronged or psychotic as to hurt or even kill another person.
Robin 9: That’s an interesting interpretation of John 8, and while Jesus may certainly be a symbol for a new way of looking at the male psyche (or the female psyche for that matter), if we are going to boil Christ’s ministry down to its essence, wouldn’t you agree that it is important to interpret it through the lens of His own self-assessment?
My other question (and you can take your pick on which one you want to roll with) is how your humanist worldview provides sufficient grounding for the types of moral judgments you are making (such as that it is wrong for someone to judge anyone they feel they have been wronged)?
David 9: I agree with you that through the lens of his own self-assessment the intrepretation is very important. However I see nothing special about him except for what he conveyed to humanity. The proclamation of him being God himself was the first step in the empowerment of the human race. Jesus proclaiming he was god was meant to empower all others to do the same. And I think this is what christians mean when they say they have a closer relationship with god. In the old testament God is a very distant persona. Jesus brought him down to earth.
Robin 10: If you agree that it is important to interpret Jesus’ ministry and miracles through the lens of His own self-assessment, then the burden is on you to establish that the interpretations you are putting forth are consistent with Jesus’ own description of His ministry given in the gospel narratives.
When you say that Jesus brought God “down to earth”, do you mean that he brought down to earth a real God who really exists, or do you mean that He merely brought our concept of God down to earth even though the concept itself has no correspondence to external reality? If you mean the first, then welcome to theism. If you mean the second, then could you explain how Jesus’ perpetuation of a falsehood could entail “the empowerment of the human race”?
David 10: Jesus bringing God down to earth is just a transformation in the human Psyche. Meaning the Jews and many other religions believed that god/gods were in the heavens looking down at them and controlling their destiny. This idea needed transformation to give will power to the people themselves. After centuries of worshipping a god you cannot see, I think its safe to assume they needed something more tangible. Jesus sermons and teachings were about enhancing human compassion, in a time of archaic laws like the ten commandments. He enlightened people to break with ancient and stagnant laws by allowing them to think more critically instead of blindly relying on these rules.
However this is not by any means special. Throughout history laws and rules have been amended to adjust to a new understanding of how humans can live peacefully together and prosper. I am denying the existence of Jesus simply because there is enough historical evidence to suggest that the entire bible was voted on by councils and figures of power. It really had nothing to do with the truth of what really happened.
Many manuscripts have been discovered around the time of Jesus that tell completely different stories. Unfortunately we can’t really verify any of these things, but we can deduce how they came to be. I suggest you read Misquoting Jesus. The bible itself is the first book ever printed on large scale, therefore it secures a special place in the history of human literature. All of the different rules and laws and religious practices around the world culminate towards one common goal and direction, the evolution of the human psyche.
Robin 11: Those are some really interesting ideas, David, and I completely agree with you about Jesus’ teaching enhancing human compassion. Christianity is indeed a religion of compassion, with the death of Christ as the central symbol of God’s compassion towards us (Ephesians 4:32). It is unfortunate that many Christians fail to live up to this, which is what you found being raised in a Christian household that trained you to hate Muslims.
At the same time, I am having trouble tracking with quite a lot of what you are saying and some clarifications would definitely be helpful. For example, you have just said, “I am denying the existence of Jesus”, which echoes your earlier comment, “Yes I am [doubting the existence of Christ]” yet you also have just alleged that the Bible misquotes Jesus. But how is it possible to misquote someone who never existed and therefore never spoke anything?
Or again, you have just said that Jesus’s ministry and teaching “is not by any means special” yet you also maintain that He “was a cornerstone in how women were treated”, that He issued in “a transformation in the human Psyche”, that He brought about “the first step in the empowerment of the human race”, and many other things which sound pretty special! How can Jesus do all those things if you are (A) “denying the existence of Jesus” (see quotes above) and (B) claiming He is not special?
Moreover, even if this could be explained, I am still puzzled how the “transformation in the human Psyche” relates to “bringing God down to earth” (concepts you have just argued are equivalent) if you think God doesn’t exist (which presumably you do, since you described yourself as an atheist to me in private correspondence proceeding this debate).
I’m not trying to be a stick in the mud, David, but I do need to know the answers to these questions before I can adequately do business with the content of your proposals.
David 11: Ok so there seems to be a disconnect in the ideas I am trying to convey. I suspect it all has to do with how you picture god in your mind. Bringing god down to earth means bringing the concept of god down to earth. That’s all god is to me, a concept. After all no-one can prove the existence of any diety. You asked how could Jesus have not existed if speak about the bible misquoting him. You also asked how could his teachings not be special. The answer is, given the fact that not many people were scribes or even literate in that time, its expected that many stories will be duplicated incorrectly or suffer from contradictions. As I stated earlier the bible itself was compiled based on majority rule in a council style chamber. The people who decided what is included and excluded were priests, bishops and popes who happened to have very powerful and influential positions.
The most important point that should be understood about the rise of christianity was how it was decided once and for all what the relationship of Jesus to god was. Many mythologies and accepted philosophies contemporary to that era contributed heavily to christian myth. I mentioned a few earlier; The cult of mythra, the movement of the sun, Egyptian mythology and others. It is possible that Jesus may have existed, but it is also equally possible that he was the central fictional character in a new philosophy created by Paul. Because this philosophy borrowed from other older and contemporary myths it was easily accepted. The turning point came when Emperor Constantine converted to christianity and made it the official religion of the roman empire. Without that it would have never developed into a world religion. There is no doubt in my mind that most christians, if not all, will retort by saying that the reason for the rise of christianity was due to the divinity of jesus and his relationship to god. But they are simply missing the mechanics of the propogation of stories throughout human history.
It is very important that you read Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman. It describes in detail the process of scriptures and how they are produced. How limited and rare the vocation of writing was, as well as how many mistakes were made copying these writings so they are preserved. Today we have the printing press and computers which eliminate many, if not all, copying errors. Christianity was the new way of thinking because the concept of god sacrificing himself removes the distance between the divine in heaven and the wretched and sinful on earth. The idea of a divine benefactor (emphasis on that word), so disconnected from the reality of the living, coming down and living and dying like the living would have had a tremendous affect on the people back then. People who knew nothing of science and the universe. People who thought that sacrificing animals would change harvest results to their benefit. Its all about patterns and how the human mind works.
As for Jesus’ teachings not being special, here’s the answer: I mentioned earlier that christianity borrowed from many other contemporary myths. By that fact alone it should be clear that the teachings of Jesus merely evolved from other ways of thinking.
However, if you are not convinced or happy with that theory, I shall introduce you to Jainism. Jainism is an Indian based religion dating back to the 6th and 7th century BCE. Its tenets are very simple, do no harm or do violence to any living being. These tenets are so pure and practiced to the point where a Jain is not allowed to eat any roots (onions, potatoes, beets, carrots etc.) because taking life by its roots prevents the species from reproducing and propagating itself. Now that is the essence of morality, but its still a belief system.
Robin 12: If “bringing god down to earth means bringing the concept of god down to earth”, then this raises the same question that I asked at the end of Robin 10, which I am still waiting for you to address.
The question I would ask of Jainism is whether it provides an adequate framework for making the sorts of ethical statements that it does. The assumption that it is wrong to do harm to other living beings (leaving aside the question of whether onions and potatoes qualify as living beings) assumes an objective moral framework. Yet it is far from certain that Jainism can provide this. The issues this raises are similar to the questions I asked at the end of Robin 9 which I am still waiting for you to address.
Although you didn’t mention it, Jainism holds that the universe was never created but is eternal and that this eternal existence unfolds cyclically. Because Jainism holds that time is cyclical, it holds that the universe will have no end just as it had no beginning. But this is problematic. An infinite regress of time cycles means that we could never have reached the present moment. Since the present is dependent on the past series of events having elapsed, if that past series is infinite then, by definition, it could never be complete. Moreover, if the past series of events does recede infinitely, then each new moment would be adding to an infinitely completed series; but by definition you cannot add to an infinite series. From this it necessarily follows that the past series of events cannot recede infinitely and the past series of cause and effects must be finite. Therefore, the universe must have had a beginning and Jainism must be false. Would you agree with my reasoning here?
It is a popular myth that the council of Nicaea decided on canon formation (which I assume is what you’re referring to when you say “the bible itself was compiled based on majority rule in a council style chamber.”) The Canon did become fixed sometime in the 4th century (not by a council though), as leaders like Saint Athanasius recognized what the orthodox church had generally always affirmed. In the early church everyone knew there was a difference between the Christians who were reading the synoptic gospels and the Gnostics who were circulating their spurious alternative accounts. The church recognized and solidified this organic tradition that went back to the apostles but the church did not create the canon.
I haven’t read Misquoting Jesus although I am familiar with Bart Eerman’s views and am currently watching a series of talks he gave on the New Testament manuscripts. If you’d still like me to read his book I would be happy to do so after my earlier questions have been addressed (otherwise, too many cans of worms will be simultaneously open). The basic problem I have with Eerman’s views is that the gospel narratives do not bear the marks of what we would expect if they were tampered with by a later tradition. The preoccupations of the early church, or even of Paul, are conspicuously absent from the gospel accounts, while the Jesus that the gospels describe do fit within the template of what we would expect from a Second Temple Messianic movement at the same time as having enough discontinuities with Judaism to explain the formation of the church. N.T. Wright does a good job of establishing this in his work Jesus and the Victory of God.
Your argument about the many mythologies that Jesus allegedly drew upon and which apparently contributed to the Christian narrative is really irrelevant to the question of whether Christianity is true. It is called the “genetic fallacy” to assume that by exposing the origins of an idea that you have therefore refuted the truth content of that idea. Because man is made in the image of God, there have been hints and anticipations of Jesus’ message throughout the various traditions of paganism. The burden of proof is on you to show how this renders Christianity implausible.
David 12: I asked you earlier if you have ever approached your own faith from outside biblical confines. After thinking a little more about the question, I have decided to amend it. First have you ever explored what motivates you to continue to be a Christian? Is it the anticipation for the return of Christ or union with him and why? Or has it become separate from all biblical accounts and changed into a way of treating others? Also would you agree that how you think and eventually feel are simply physiological events that are happening in the brain and then the heart?
When you pray or decide to think of Jesus, what do you feel? Do you recognize the chain reaction of the thought patterns in your mind that eventually cause you to act a certain way? Or do you simply stick to a formulaic relationship with Jesus, meaning your own personal approach towards a conversation with god? The way I look at it is that these thoughts Christians have are based on the evolving story of Christianity and what each of its symbols and icons do for each individual. For example in Catholcism and Orthodox sects icons and saints are central to the dogma, and statistically prayed to more than Jesus and god himself. Of course this happens because we humans cannot simply have a superficial relationship with a higher power without expressing our own wants and needs in the real world. No matter how many times god comes down from heaven, humans will always need something that nourishes their basic need for survival? Meaning Jesus needs to stay and not leave. We need continuous providence.
However this need for continuous providence is tended to by the belief in heaven and the reunion with the divine. Yet the promise of heaven could mean stagnation for hardcore believers who become impatient and go astray. The engine of survival does not allow stagnation to continue for long, and something eventually gives. People who believe in heaven are told to wait and be patient for you never know when Jesus will return. This is a psychological mechanism that allows the dogma to propagate itself without holding to any promises. It is the perfect tool by a religious institution for creating a need in people who in turn ensure its survival.
The point I am trying to make here is when you dissect the methods of religious dogma to its simplest logical form, you will always come to the conclusion that it is man made because there is a clear path of cause and effect. These methods were the necessary steps in our evolution as a race and should be appreciated from a historical perspective. To use these methods today, however, would be preposterous and self-defeating. If the Romans had a better and more acute/sensitive justice system, the innocent death of a man could have been prevented. Vice versa, Jesus would never be punished by capital punishment if he were alive today.
Robin 13: Thank you David. You ask a lot of really good questions which I would be happy to answer after you have responded to at least two of the six points I made in Robin 12.
After this David Abaybi chose to offer no further replies.