Monday, April 6, 2015

Dawkins screws up Ishtar

The picture to your left is of Ishtar, or Istar, the ancient Akkadian and Babylonian goddess of fertility, love, sex, and (oddly enough) war. Her name is pronounced as it's spelled — Ish-tar — not "Easter".

There may have been a Germanic deity named Eoster, or Osterne, who may have been a fertility goddess like Ishtar; there's still some debate about her. However, only a handful of Germanic languages, including English, have a name for Resurrection Sunday derivative of that name; Eoster may be related to Ishtar, but little is known about her mythology. Connections with dyed eggs and rabbits have been suggested, but can't be confirmed by the scant evidence available.

Most European languages call the day by a derivative of the Greek Pascha, which itself is a derivative of the Hebrew Pesach — Passover. Passover is not an ancient fertility rite. Neither is the Christian Easter.

In case you're wondering what I'm talking about: there's a meme floating around, with Richard Dawkins' name attached to it, which asserts that the Christian Easter is really a celebration of ancient fertility rites, Easter eggs and all. I honestly don't know how many atheists believe it; unfortunately, I have this bad feeling that many will accept it without checking the facts, simply because "Dawkins is a scientist, and scientists are really smart people inherently incapable of f**king up the facts."

There's a variant of Gresham's Law which states, "Bad data drives out good data." Nowhere is this more true than on the Internet, where people who pride themselves on their skepticism and cleverness regularly parrot lies, half-truths, and tropes back and forth in the form of memes. Believers are just as bad about it as are unbelievers; conservatives as bad as liberals; doctorate holders as bad as high-school dropouts. And because confirmation bias is a human fault that neither has nor respects cultural boundaries, people are more likely to accept BS that bolsters their convictions rather than accept hard fact from an opposing source.

Then again, it's sometimes a case of duelling bulls**t.

For over a century, various people have tried to tie the resurrection story of Jesus to those of various gods and goddesses, such as Ishtar, Osiris, and Demeter. However, while the other resurrection mythoi have their points of interest, they stumble on the problem of historicity.

For example, it's dubious whether any Greek really believed in the story of Demeter, Persephone, and Hades, or even would have cared whether it was true or not. There was certainly never any attempt to date when it took place. The story may have given some meaning to the annual crop cycles; but it wasn't intrinsic to the worship of Demeter as a fertility goddess. Moreover, the resurrection of the "corn king" (or, more often, "corn queen") had no implications for the afterlives of their adherents; if there were an afterlife, it was as a shade or spirit in an underworld (Sheol or Hades).

By contrast, from the very beginning, Christians insisted on Jesus' resurrection as a historical fact — indeed, a central tenet of the religion. Moreover, they made little attempt to tie the resurrection to the agricultural cycle; rather, it was tied to the Jewish Passover, a commemoration of the Hebrews' release from slavery in Egypt. (For further information, read Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper, by Brant Pitre and Scott Hahn.) In one of those trenchant remarks that stay with a person, C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, noted Jesus' failure to refer to the agricultural symbolism of the bread and wine, and commented: "It is as if you had met the sea serpent and found it disbelieved in sea serpents, as if you had met a man who had done all the things attributed to Sir Lancelot but who had himself apparently never heard of chivalry."

At least, this is the case in the synoptics. John does bring in agricultural imagery, but as metaphors referring back to Jesus, not the other way around. For instance, Jesus uses the metaphor of a grain of wheat to illustrate that his own death is necessary for the new life for all. He also uses the metaphor of a grapevine to illustrate the relationship of his disciples to him. I can't stress this enough: Other mythoi use stories to give meaning to natural processes; Jesus (through John) uses natural processes as parables for his own teaching. The dynamics are exactly opposite.

The Jews were unique among the nations of classical antiquity for the degree to which their God was active in their history. They weren't merely dice in a game between the gods; Yahweh was constantly interfering, alternately rewarding and punishing, commanding and pleading, praising and condemning. This point is sharpened in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, which happened within dates we can estimate fairly well, among personages of secular Roman and Jewish history. And the early Christians were definite upone this point:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. (2 Peter 1:16-18)

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to [Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. ... Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:3-7,12-19)

These two passages illustrate the points: 1) The first Christians asserted the resurrection as a fact of recent history, not as a parable to explain the agricultural cycle. 2) Resurrection was essential to Christians in a way that it was not essential to followers of agricultural deities. I should finally point out that, irrespective of our current cultural battles over gonadal issues, fertility is hardly anywhere near the center of Christian doctrine; we consider it a good thing ... but it's not what Christianity is about.

The meme is the bumper sticker of the Internet: to paraphrase H. L. Mencken, it reduces complex issues to simple, easy-to-understand statements that are usually wrong. I find it ironic that Dawkins is the one who coined the term meme to stand for "a unit of cultural information", yet often enough proves to be the fount of so much misinformation himself.

The Christian Easter is not a fertility rite. But if you'd like to have sex with your spouse on Easter Sunday, by all means, go ahead. Just don't do it in the middle of the church, especially while the rest of us are celebrating the resurrection of the Christ.