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The Bible and the Risen Ape

Paul Monk on rethinking the religions of the Book

(AFR Dec 12 2003)

“Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth and  the truth shall make you free.
-         St John.[i]

“Grace does not abolish nature, but completes it.”
- Thomas Aquinas.[ii]

“‘Man will become better when you show him what he is like’, wrote Chekhov, and so the new sciences of human nature can help lead the way to a realistic, biologically informed humanism. They expose the psychological unity of our species beneath the superficial differences of physical appearance and parochial culture.”
- Steven Pinker.[iii]

            “The story of the creation and of original sin in Genesis is true”, wrote the great French mystic Simone Weil in 1942[iv]. She was reflecting on how religion might counter the horrors of totalitarianism and world war. She was representative of many who still seek in the Bible the mental means to cope with the formidable challenges of our time. She was committed to the good, but she was in error.

The story, which stands at the foundation of the three great Biblical religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is not true. Nor will any nostalgia for an imagined past of religious wisdom and redemptive beliefs make it so. If we are to come to terms with the realities and prospects of religion in the 21st century and truly rise to the challenges of our time, it is vital that we understand this. We need to think through its implications, also, for they are profound.

            Denying the truth of the creation and fall story in Genesis will occasion little more than a shrug on the part of many people, but resistance and even outrage on the part of others. It’s like stating candidly that the Exodus never took place[v], that Jesus did not rise from the dead[vi], or that Mohammed was a huckster.[vii] Such claims strike at the heart of deeply held and very ancient systems of belief.

            Yet the creation and fall story in Genesis is untrue. It is untrue in the literal sense, that we were not created by a Deity six thousand or so years ago in his own image and did not lapse into sin. It is untrue, also, in the more fundamental sense that we are not a ‘fallen’ species of being at all. We never were. We never needed redemption, whether by a Jewish Messiah, by Christ crucified and raised on the third day, or by adherence to the suras of Mohammed.

            On the contrary, we are a risen species - gifted, voracious, capable of fiendish cruelty, extraordinary compassion and astonishing creativity. We are Homo sapiens and there is no other creature quite like us.[viii] We arose over millions of years of biological and cognitive evolution and over the past hundred thousand years have colonized the entire biosphere. We are language animals, symbol-using, networked creatures; extraordinarily inventive, imaginative, uncanny and (armed with our inventions) a danger to all else that lives and breathes.[ix] In historic time - the past five thousand years - we have created ever more complex societies, technologies and systems for symbolic analysis.

The Bible, starting with Genesis, is a set of stories originating in the late Bronze and early Iron Ages, in which priests and sages wrestled with the enigmas of the human condition. It has served countless human beings as a means for trying to comprehend the vertiginous sweep of human affairs for more than two millennia; but we need to acknowledge that it consists of often luminous fables, not of a revealed truth.

It was put together when books were a relatively new and astonishing phenomenon and it has long been accorded unique status, among believers, as the Book. It is a classic, with a formidable history[x], but it cannot pass muster any longer as a source of knowledge about the origins, nature and destiny of our world. This begins with the creation story in Genesis, which can only be invoked responsibly now as a fable pointing to the general problem of human beings falling short of their best possibilities.

            Even many educated believers acknowledge this. Yet the Biblical religions continue to lay claim  on dogmatic grounds to the consciences and imaginations of as many as two billion people. They are in need, I suggest, of an ‘upgrade’, to a truly universal kerygma - one grounded not in ideas of fall and redemption, but in acknowledgement of our animal nature and the imperfect development of our cognitive and moral faculties.

For to repudiate the ideas of fall and redemption is not to claim that we are either perfect or perfectible. It is certainly not to endorse the conceit that - in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s famous phrase - “Man was born free, but is everywhere in chains”.[xi] We were born in darkness, not in Eden; and have slowly sought the light since our remote ancestors discovered the uses and sustenance of fire. Our religions have played their part in that search, but none of them is more than a small part of the story.[xii]

            The unparalleled ways in which we have raised ourselves over the ten millennia since the first beginnings of agriculture and the five millennia since the beginnings of writing systems, have wrought enormous material and cognitive changes to what it means to be human. They also have been tumultuous; marred by upheavals and cruelties that appall the moral consciousness we have developed along the way.

Time and again, our experiments with complex social order have involved gross abuse of one another and of the natural world. Often they have collapsed into anarchy or barbarism. The Bible belongs very much within this long history of violence and change. It has provided an anchor for ever so many. Yet the truth is far larger and deeper than anything recorded in the Bible. Our history is, ultimately, that of life on earth; our story that of the entirety of humanity, including pre-sapient hominids. We need to share that history and that story globally.

Above all, we need to develop a common appreciation for how our thinking has made us what we are. Homo sapiens is (we are) the ape that thinks. We ponder and re-imagine reality, we spin metaphors out of our brains and share them in conversation, we think in a grammar of past and future tenses, of conditional and subjunctive possibilities, of subjects and objects. We think abstractly and invent or discover rules and laws, hypotheses and experiments.

No other animal does these things as we do. Yet this is not a disembodied spirit, fallen from grace, that thinks. It is the evolved brain of our kind and it has created the world of fabrics and machines, alloys and electronics, orchestras and ICBMs that we now inhabit.

Bringing all this to bear on the rethinking of Biblical religion is a challenge that our educational institutions have largely evaded. Our secular schools mostly avoid the subject, our religious schools dance around it. Yet surely the time has come when the dogmas of the Biblical religions must be repudiated for the same basic reasons that polytheistic beliefs have long since been repudiated by monotheists.

In the late second century, the great Christian Neo-Platonist, Clement of Alexandria, in his ‘Exhortation to the Greeks’, wrote of the death of Zeus. “Where is Zeus himself?” he asked. “He has grown old, wings and all…Search for your Zeus. Scour not heaven, but earth. Callimachus the Cretan, in whose land he lies buried, will tell you in his hymns…Yes, Zeus is dead (take it not to heart), like Leda, like the swan…”.[xiii]

‘Zeus’, of course, is the Greek equivalent to the Latin word ‘Deus’, which is to say ‘God’. Clement was declaring to the Greeks, ‘Your God is dead.’ Most educated Greeks and Romans agreed, as it happens. The critique of the old pagan gods long antedated Christianity. The key to the critique was abstract thought about the ontological and moral nature of ‘deity’ as such. The old gods made superb subjects for poetry - as they still do - but belief in their ‘existence’ was another matter, philosophers saw.

Some 1,700 years after Clement, Friedrich Nietzsche declared to the monotheists that their God was dead. More precisely - and this seems to me to be almost always overlooked - Nietzsche had a ‘madman’ declare the death of God. Not to monotheists in their churches, synagogues or mosques, but in the market place to “many of those who did not believe in God”.

His madman came to the market place with a lantern in the bright morning hours, crying “I seek God! I seek God!” He was laughed at by the unbelievers. So he rounded on them, crying, “We have killed him, you and I. All of us are his murderers…Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”[xiv]

Nietzsche was not merely repudiating monotheism, as Clement repudiated the cult of Zeus. He was pointing to its cultural significance and the possible consequences of dispensing with it.[xv] He was the son and grandson of Lutheran pastors and had great  respect for the riches of the Biblical tradition. He remarked, at one point, that reverence for the Bible “is perhaps the best piece of discipline and refinement of manners that Europe owes to Christianity.”[xvi] Yet he could not see how Bible theology could any longer be sustained. Worldwide, religion required a further refinement, and it would not come easily.

Anticipating much of the cultural ferment of the twentieth century, Nietzsche saw the Biblical worldview as doomed by the sheer accumulation of knowledge by humanity. While he foresaw this giving rise to nihilism and cataclysms, he also saw it as portending an unprecedented liberation of the human spirit - provided that human beings had the courage to take hold of the freedom that modern insights made possible.

There was scope for “the most spiritual Shrovetide laughter and wild spirits, for the transcendental heights of the most absolute nonsense and Aristophanic universal mockery…”[xvii] But there would be a need to recover and reshape what we could of our ancient traditions of ceremony and ritual from the drastic inroads of modern knowledge and worldliness. “What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us?” his madman cries out. “What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?”[xviii]

            Strip away the tribal, anthropomorphic, superstitious, hallucinatory and garbled aspects of Biblical religion - from the more arcane prohibitions in Leviticus and Deuteronomy to the conception of God as a Father and the idea of the resurrection of the body - and what is left? Nothing at all? An empty shell? No. A three millennia long testimony to spiritual striving and some of the most sublime poetry in the world. Discard the excrescences and what becomes possible? A major existential house-cleaning and spiritual reformation.

            Such is the prevalence of dogmatic and folk religion, even now, that many would despair of this being possible. Many others, of a secular and materialist cast of mind, are likely to regard such a project as quixotic or cranky. Yet it is surely possible, in principle. The old religions would clearly outlast such a reformation, just as the pagan gods have long outlasted belief in their existence or cults dedicated to them.[xix] What would become possible, however, is a common, authentic language of existential and ontological orientation, transcending the dogmatic claims of the old religions.

            It seems clear that we are in need of such a language. There are all manner of dangers in the revival of fiercely dogmatic religion around the world, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu. There are cultural disorders entailed in the longstanding schism between arcane religious doctrines and scientific knowledge of life and the cosmos. Yet there are abiding human needs that religion seems to provide more fully than anything secular society has created.

I am thinking of needs for meaningful ceremonies to mark and dignify births, comings of age, marriages and deaths; and also for an historically resonant poetics of existence, community and moral life. The Bible has been a profoundly rich source of these things for a very long time in much of the world. Not only would it be philistine to deny this; it would be straightforwardly erroneous.

Yet so much of it no longer works and it no longer works because the cognitive dissonance between our secular lives and our ceremonial ones has deepened relentlessly in recent decades. Preachers who engage in superficial, half-hearted apologetics find their congregations melting away. Those who try to shore up the old religions by suppressing cognitive dissonance are winning far more adherents. At the margins of such suppression, deluded and murderous fanatics look for an apocalyptic overthrow of secular civilization.

In a book called The Future of Christianity, published just a year ago, Alister McGrath, Professor of Historical Theology and Principal of Wycliffe Hall, at Oxford University, asserted that “science and progress” have been toppled from their “thrones” by a new, non-intellectual “spirituality” in recent decades, especially in America. In language worthy more of a mountebank than of an Oxford scholar, he wrote approvingly: “Post-modern culture seems fed up with the rather boring platitudes of scientific progress and longs for something rather more interesting and exciting.”[xx] In madrasas across the Muslim world, similar doctrines are being taught, with incendiary effect.

            In a more responsible and scholarly piece of work, also published last year, James Carroll wrestled with his Catholic heritage and ended by urging that the cross, a symbol of torture and death, be repudiated by the Catholic Church and replaced by images of the face of Jesus[xxi]. Again and again, I found myself writing in the margins of Carroll’s book, “You are surely correct on this point (and this and this), so remind me, why are you a Catholic?”[xxii] What, after all, is the face of Jesus? Surely, Carroll was reaching for something of which such a face would be symbolic - compassion and human transfiguration?

            I think that we need to go much further than Carroll. The problem is not one of Catholicism, it is one of Bible-centred religion. Islam is in travail for fundamentally similar reasons and in need of at least as radical an upheaval of thought. The Koran is every bit as problematic as the Bible and 21st century religion must convert it from a fountainhead of obscurantism and dogma into one resource among others of existential perspective and reflection.[xxiii]

            There are many, many paths into the project I am proposing, but I want to offer just one, provocative one here: the Apostles’ Creed, dating back as far as 100 CE. It antedates the Nicene Creed by at least two centuries and is rooted in the earliest Christian communities.[xxiv] I appreciate its roots and its beauties[xxv], but I want to juxtapose it with what might be called a World Creed, as a thought experiment.

            The Apostles’ Creed reads as follows:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,

Creator of Heaven and Earth;

And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.

Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,

Born of the Virgin Mary,

Suffered under Pontius Pilate,

Was crucified, died and was buried.

He descended into Hell.

On the third day, he rose again from the dead.

He ascended into Heaven

And is seated at the right hand of God,

The Father Almighty.

From there, he shall come

To judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

The Holy Catholic Church,

The communion of saints,

The forgiveness of sins,

The resurrection of the body

And life everlasting. Amen.

            I was taught this as a child. I am steeped in the tradition that is based on it - the eschatological vision of human transformation and the purging of evil from the world. Yet I cannot utter these words in a church as a creed. I simply do not believe them. It is not a matter of agnosticism, or doubt or confusion. I simply believe that the Apostles’ Creed is a cultural heirloom, like the far more ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. It is not something that expresses what I believe to be true about the world.

            Here is a credo, written to correspond in both length and ontological scope with the Apostles’ Creed, which I could proclaim with integrity:

I believe that all deities are idols of the mind,

That blood sacrifices to them are an abomination,

That dogmas are an obstacle to enlightenment.

I believe in the plurality of worlds,

But know of none that can compare with ours

In its abundance of life.

Of a kind that has arisen,

Through countless changes and catastrophes,

Out of the primal waters of the Earth,

I acknowledge that I am of this world,

Though a brief sojourner in it.

I spring from it and pass back into it.

I recognise that my existence,

Both sentient body and sapient mind,

 Is possible only as being-in-the-world.

Capable of mimesis, metaphor and music,

Of reason and responsibility,

I believe that I am neither fated nor predestined,

But am able to live for possibilities

And move intentionally toward a horizon that is open.

            Less poetic than the Apostles’ Creed? Less dramatic? Perhaps. The point is that it is true both to biological realities and to human phenomenological experience - globally.[xxvi]  I think it is time we filled our religious structures, which Nietzsche’s madman called “the tombs and sepulchres of God”, with proclamations of a creed along these lines. We should consign Biblical eschatology to the museum of history, along with blood sacrifices - whether of lambs, or sons of God.[xxvii] 

            “Ah!” you might well exclaim, “this is just not going to happen.” Your reasons for thinking so will vary from the presumption that it cannot, because Christian revelation, as expressed in the Apostles’ Creed, is simply true; to the equally dubious presumption that religions are inherently irrational and cannot be reformed in such a manner. I cordially disagree.

Call it, if you like - as medieval mystics already did - the Third Age, the Age of the Spirit, but I imagine a future in which such a transformation has occurred.[xxviii] I wander in it, in my mind, as Goethe wandered Rome, in 1786, filled with wonder that “all the dreams of my youth have come to life”[xxix]. Am I alone in imagining such things? I don’t think I am. So, what would it take? That’s the real thought experiment.

[i] The Holy Bible: King James Version, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1979, p. 1341, The Gospel According to St John, viii: 31-32.

[ii] Summa Theologica I: i. 8; quoted in Richard E. Rubinstein Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Dark Ages, Harcourt, 2003, p. 198. Rubinstein remarks: “The great theme that runs through Aquinas’s epochal work is that ‘grace does not abolish nature, but completes it.’ There can be no conflict between religion and natural science, between the loving Creator and understanding his creation, so long as one correctly defines and demarcates both realms of thought.” However, the synthesis proved unsustainable and within a century of St Thomas’s great Aristotelian labor, the great Franciscan Aristotelians Duns Scotus and William of Ockham had argued powerfully that science and theology were twain and could not finally be reconciled.

[iii] Steven Pinker The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 2002, p. xi. Pinker’s principal target was not old time religion so much as modern romanticism and post modernist nonsense.

[iv] Simone Weil Letter to a Priest, Routledge Classics, London 2002, p. 42. Weil was highly intelligent and passionately reflective. She did not claim that the Genesis story was literally true or exclusively true. It is worth noting here the full paragraph in which she makes the remark about the creation and fall story. Immediately after the sentence quoted, she adds: “But other stories about the creation and original sin in other traditions are also true and also contain incomparably precious truths. They are different reflections of a unique truth untranslatable into human words. One can divine this truth through one of these reflections. One can divine it still better through several of them. (Folklore, especially when properly interpreted, is found to contain a wealth of spirituality).”

 It is, of course, somewhat difficult to know what the “truth” was that Weil thought “untranslatable into human words”. What other sort of words did she have in mind? God’s perhaps? But isn’t the Bible itself meant to be “God’s word”? In any case, she would appear to have been arguing that human beings in various parts of the world had developed core insights into the nature of the human condition, independently of the Bible, and all these insights should be drawn upon as we sought to overcome the terrible forces of totalitarianism and total war. It is easy enough to agree with this suggestion. But why settle for trying to “divine” hidden and untranslatable, though “incomparably precious” truths from folklore, Biblical or otherwise, when rigorous inquiry can throw direct light on where we have come from and why we act as we do? The answer must be, in part, because, in 1942, almost nothing was known of the remote palaeo-anthropological past and even archaeologically the millennia before classical Greece were only beginning to emerge into the clear light of day. For a more sustained reflection on this theme, see my essay ‘Christianity as Antiquity and the Cathedral of the Mind’, Quadrant December 1998, pp. 35-41.

[v] For a fascinating exploration of this, see Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and Its Sacred Texts, Touchstone, New York, 2002. Daniel Lazare wrote an excellent review of this book and its context, ‘False Testament: Archaeology Refutes the Bible’s Claim to History’, Harper’s Magazine, March 2002, pp. 39-47. As Lazare remarks, “Beginning in the 1950s, doubts concerning the Book of Exodus multiplied, just as they had about Genesis. The most obvious concerned the complete silence in contemporary Egyptian records concerning the mass escape of what the Bible says were no fewer than 603,550 Hebrew slaves…Not only was there a dearth of physical evidence concerning the escape itself, as archaeologists pointed out, but the slate was blank concerning the nearly five centuries that the Israelites had supposedly lived in Egypt prior to the Exodus, as well as the forty years that they supposedly spent wandering in the Sinai. Not so much as a skeleton, camp site or cooking pot had turned up…” loc. cit., p. 44.

[vi] The single most famous invocation of the resurrection of Jesus is surely that by St Paul, in the fifteenth chapter of his first epistle to the Corinthians, especially verse 14: “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” St Paul, in the immediately succeeding verses made it reasonably clear that he linked the resurrection of Jesus (Christ) to the hope of a general resurrection of the dead, that unless everyone could be raised from the dead then God cannot have raised Jesus (verse 16 “For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised.”), that Jesus would come apocalyptically to “put down all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all enemies under his feet” (verses 24-25), and that the general resurrection would then ensue.

There is a quite illuminating discussion of all this by Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed, in Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts, Harper Collins, 2001, pp. 254-270. They argue that the idea of an immortal soul and the resurrection of the body was not a part of classical Judaism before 160 BCE and that both ideas arose by way of apocalyptic response to the unprecedented religious persecution of the Jews by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, as related in the second book of Maccabees. Both were linked to the insistence that God was just and therefore could not allow believers to perish by horrific torture, unless he was going to vindicate them later by bringing them back to life and bringing the perpetrators to justice. For this reason, the authors claim, St Paul saw the resurrection of Jesus as the beginning of the apocalyptic transformation of humanity and the coming of divine justice.

They conclude that St Paul’s reasoning cuts both ways. This is theologically controversial, but surely an interesting angle on the Christian millennia. “If Christian faith has been in vain, that is has not acted to transform itself and this world toward the justice of God, and if Christian proclamation has been in vain, that is, has not insisted that such is the church’s vocation, then Christ was not raised.” (emphasis added). But how is this to be played out? There is abundant evidence that the Church has both acted and not acted to transform itself and this world “toward the justice of God”. Therefore, Christ both was and was not raised. Or he can be considered “raised” just to the extent that self-appointed Christian communities act to transform the world to “the justice of God”. This could lead to a plethora of zealous groups, espousing apocalyptic beliefs, rather as self-appointed mahdis and sheiks have been seeking to transform the world to the justice of God under Islamic auspices.

Surely, we are better off judging that Jesus did not rise from the dead in any recognizable sense. If, having acknowledged this simple reality, followers of Jesus still wish to live simple lives and seek the transformation of the world to one in which there is more justice and compassion, who would argue with their choice? What is dubious is the apocalyptic vision, what is dangerous is the fanaticism that belief in such visions can generate - and often has generated. What is vital is that the means adopted to seek the transformation of the human world be themselves consistent with justice in ways that non-believers can deal with.

[vii] Ibn Warraq Why I Am Not A Muslim, Prometheus Books, New York, 1995,pp. 86-103 provides an excellent introduction to this subject. He remarks, “Either we conclude with Cook, Crone, Wansbrough and others that we do not know a great deal about the man we call Muhammed, or we make do with the traditional sources. Muslims would, perhaps, be better off accepting the former alternative, since the picture that emerges of the Prophet in these traditional accounts is not at all flattering. Furthermore, Muslims cannot complain that this is a portrait drawn by an enemy.” For a highly sanitized account of Muhammed’s life, see Karen Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History, Phoenix Press, London, 2001, pp. 3-20. Her chief claim on behalf of the Prophet is that he brought peace (albeit by means of the sword) to the barbarism and anarchy of pagan Arabia. This claim is endorsed by Ira Lapidus, in A History of Islamic Societies, Cambridge University Press, 1988, Ch 2 ‘The Life of the Prophet’, pp. 21-36. Neither of them so much as addresses the long established claims about his corruption and opportunism that lie behind Ibn Warraq’s remarks.

It was the judgment of Sir William Muir, in his monumental four volume study of Muhammed (1856-61) that “The sword of Mahomet and the Koran are the most stubborn enemies of civilization, liberty and truth which the world has yet known.” In the wake of the totalitarian cataclysms of the twentieth century, that judgment may seem somewhat excessive, even after the terrorist epic of 11 September 2001. But the 1905 assessment by D. S. Margoliouth, that Mohammed was a character like Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, surely stands up well. Both, like various mediums, he observed, engaged in subterfuges and chicanery to convince their early followers that they had received and continued to receive “divine revelations”. However, Muhammed was guilty not merely of trickery, but of sexual libertinism, torture, assassinations, massacres and plunder. What is the source for such claims? There are many, but they begin with the earliest Islamic biography of Muhammed, by Ibn Ishaq.

[viii] For a fine survey of the latest scientific views regarding the emergence of hominids over the past six to seven million years, see the Special Edition of Scientific American, August 2003, New Look At Human Evolution. Those who remain confused about the very idea of evolution itself, or who believe that the Biblical creation myth should somehow be accorded equal credibility, should read Ernst Mayr’s magisterial What Evolution Is, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 2002, 318 pp., not least his two Appendixes, A ‘What Criticisms have Been Made of Evolutionary Theory’ and B ‘Short Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About Evolution’.

[ix] Derek Bickerton Language and Species, University of Chicago Press, 1990, 297 pp., is a classic study of the rise and significance of language. If you just dip into his book, I recommend you go straight to pp. 200-201 and read his remarks under the heading ‘Mind and Machine’. On the cognitive networking of human beings as language animals, see Merlin Donald’s Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition, Harvard University Press, 1991. His key claim is at p. 274: “…whereas the first two transitions were dependent upon new biological hardware, specifically upon changes in the nervous system, the third transition was dependent upon an equivalent change in technological hardware, specifically on external memory devices…”.

[x] For a good overview of this history, see Christopher De Hamel The Book: A History of the Bible, Phaidon, 2001, 352 pp.  De Hamel’s book is beautifully illustrated and scrupulous in its scholarship, but it is not, as he remarks, “a theological book”. For something closer to the latter, which is nonetheless accessible to believer and unbeliever alike, see Dennis Nineham The Use and Abuse of the Bible: A Study of the Bible in an Age of Rapid Cultural Change, SPCK, London, 1978, 295 pp.

[xi] Jean-Jacques Rousseau The Social Contract, Book I, Chapter 1, (translated and edited by Maurice Cranston) Penguin, 1974, p. 49.

[xii] On the early history of human civilization, in the fifteen millennia between the end of the last Ice Age and the beginnings of urban settlement in the great river valleys, see Steven Mithen’s marvelous new book After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000 - 5,000 BC, Weidenfeld and Nicoloson, London, 2003, 622 pp.

[xiii] G. W. Butterworth (trans) Clement of Alexandria: Exhortation to the Greeks, The Rich Man’s Salvation, To the Newly Baptised, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 79.

[xiv] Friedrich Nietzsche The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, translated by Walter Kaufmann, Vintage Books, New York, 1974, p. 181.

[xv] This has been an issue in the case of Biblical monotheism since at least the eighteenth century, when Voltaire made the famous remark “If God did not exist, we would have had to invent Him.” Long before the rise of Christianity, Polybius, an educated Greek working as an historian in the Roman world, made a similar observation about Greek skepticism and the old religion of the people. “The sphere in which the Roman commonwealth seems to me to show its superiority most decisively is that of religious belief. Here we find that the very phenomenon which among [the Greeks] is regarded as a subject of reproach, namely superstition, is actually the element which holds the Roman state together. These matters are treated with such solemnity and introduced so frequently both into public and into private life that nothing could exceed them in importance. Many people find this astonishing, but my own view is that the Romans have adopted these practices for the sake of the common people. This might not have been necessary had it ever been possible to form a state composed entirely of wise men. But as the masses are always fickle, filled with lawless desires, unreasoning anger and violent passions, they can only be restrained by mysterious terrors or other dramatizations of the subject. For this reason, I believe that the ancients were by no means acting foolishly or haphazardly when they introduced to the people various notions concerning the gods and belief in the punishments of Hades, but rather that the moderns are foolish and take great risks in rejecting them.” The Rise of the Roman Empire, Penguin, 1979, Book VI #56, p. 349.

[xvi] Friedrich Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, Penguin, 1981, p. 183. He went on to remark: “such books of profundity and ultimate significance require for their protection an external tyranny of authority, in order that they may achieve those millennia of continued existence which are needed if they are to be exhausted and unriddled. Much has been gained when the feeling has at last been instilled into the masses (into the shallow-pates and greedy guts of every sort) that there are things they must not touch; that there are holy experiences before which they have to take off their shoes and keep their unclean hands away - it is almost their highest advance towards humanity.”

[xvii] Ibid. p. 133.

[xviii] Op. cit. p. 181.

[xix] Jean Seznec The Survival of the Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art, Bollingen Series XXXVIII, Princeton University Press, 1972, is one outstanding reflection on this theme.

[xx] Alister McGrath The Future of Christianity, Blackwell Manifestos, Oxford, 2002, pp. vii-viii.

[xxi] James Carroll Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin, 2002, 756 pp.

[xxii] The first such occasion was at p. 23, where Carroll asks, “What kind of God shows favor to a beloved Son by requiring him to be nailed to a cross in the first place?” I wrote in the margin “Indeed! So why are you a Catholic at all? Why not a fellow whose heroes are, say, Pythagoras, Spinoza and Leonard Cohen?”

[xxiii] For an outstanding scholarly introduction, see Ibn Warraq (ed) What the Koran Really Says: Language, Text and Translation, Prometheus Books, New York, 2002, 782 pp.

[xxiv] On the earliest Christian communities and their relationship to the classical Judaic and Greco-Roman world, see Wayne A. Meeks The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, Yale University Press, 1983, 299 pp.

[xxv] John Henry Newman’s classic An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Penguin, 1974, 448 pp. is a wonderfully lucid statement of the sense of coherence that has had orthodox Catholics adhere to Rome over many centuries. It is still worth reading and reflecting on. On Newman himself, see Ian Ker’s outstanding biography John Henry Newman, Oxford University Press, 1988, 764 pp.

[xxvi] On the biological side, see Melvin Konner The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit , (revised edition) Henry Holt & Co., New York, 2002, 540 pp.  David Sloan Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society, University of Chicago Press, 2002, 268 pp. is an interesting attempt to explain the history of religion in ‘Darwinian’ terms.

[xxvii] This is not, of course, an entirely novel suggestion. A good deal of thought was given to it during the eighteenth century European Enlightenment. See J. G. A. Pocock Barbarism and Religion, Cambridge University Press, 1999, Volume 1 The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon 1737-1764, Volume 2 Narratives of Civil Government. The matter was also given close attention by G. W. F Hegel, whose reflections on the significance of religion, in his master work The Phenomenology of Mind, are still worth reading.

[xxviii] I am not, of course, advocating the suppression of the existing monotheistic religions. There is a history to this which is unfortunate. See Simon Schama on the French Revolution, Citizens, Viking, 1989, especially pp. 830 -36; and Daniel Peris on the Russian Revolution, Storming the Heavens: The Soviet League of The Militant Godless, Cornell University Press, 1998, 234 pp.

[xxix] Goethe Italian Journey, Penguin, 1982, p. 129.