Reader writes: “How was James Brayshaw?”

November 26, 2011

My reply: Whoops. This Man having has really cut down on my blogging time. Also it’s dark in the mornings and I’ve gotten lazy in terms of getting up early to write. None of those are good reasons to forget to write about an interesting Saskatoon Freethinker’s meetup, mind you. I’m just saying.

So yeah, James Brayshaw. I don’t know how well known he is, but he’s published three books so far on the history of the idea of Satan in Christianity/Judaism and a fourth book is planned for release next year. These are incredibly detailed volumes going back to the earliest of the Biblical writings, looking at the history of Babylonia, Persia and every other place the early storytellers and writers would have put their feet up after a long desert slog. His new one, Who’s the Devil Jesus Knew, looks at the notion of Satan throughout the New Testament. I don’t think he said what the fourth would focus on.

He’s not the only one doing research into the contextual history of the Bible but he was the one easiest for us to get, being somewhat local. He mentioned a few of his sources during his talk, specifically a book called The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels and earlier writers like Celsus that she quoted. (Breaks added)

What makes the Christians’ message dangerous, Celsus writes, is not that they believe in one God, but that they deviate from monotheism by their “blasphemous” belief in the devil. For all the “impious errors” the Christians commit, Celsus says, they show their greatest ignorance in “making up a being opposed to God, and calling him ‘devil,’ or, in the Hebrew language, ‘Satan.’ ” All such ideas, Celsus declares, are nothing but human inventions, sacrilegious even to repeat: “it is blasphemy … to say that the greatest God … has an adversary who constrains his capacity to do good.”

Celsus is outraged that the Christians, who claim to worship one God, “impiously divide the kingdom of God, creating a rebellion in it, as if there were opposing factions within the divine, including one that is hostile to God!”” Celsus accuses Christians of “inventing a rebellion” (stasis meaning “sedition”) in heaven to justify rebellion here on earth. He accuses them of making a “statement of rebellion” by refusing to worship the gods-but, he says, such rebellion is to be expected “of those who have cut themselves off from the rest of civilization. For in saying this, they are really projecting their own feelings onto God.”

Brayshaw explained a bit of his own history to us, coming from a Pentecostal upbringing filled with the notion of Satan’s hand in everything horrible to the place he’s at now, believing in God but arguing that Satan as a being at cosmic odds with God is strictly a human invention brought on by misinterpreting biblical writing over thousands of years like the meaning of the term Satan/sawtawn.

The bible is full of allegory and metaphor, he further explained. Storytellers the world over have loved to embellish their tales with fanciful, flowery prose because it’s a hell of a lot more interesting to listen to than a dry report of facts. One story he talked about was of the fall of the King of Tyre. It’s written about in the bible, but couched in metaphorical descriptions of a man who thought he was a god, specifically the god Venus, the one “star” that beats the sun up in the morning. Oh Lucifer (lit: light bringer, used on account of some ancient idea that Venus caused the sun to rise?) …

“How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!”

Isaiah 14:12 KJV

He talked about Job and his adversaries; they were most likely to be men he knew, not some ethereal being sent from God to ruin his life. He also mentioned Jesus calling out to Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan” (Matthew 16:23). Based on his research, and the sources he used, he’s certain that calling Peter a satan, or sawtawn, was meant to be an insult, a derogatory word for a person opposed to what God wants. A chapter earlier in Matthew (15:19-20) it’s stated that the real adversary is ourselves and our thoughts. What is more likely, that God created an enemy for us, or we created our own problems by the way we think? Jeremiah 17:9 blames our hearts for it instead. Either way, it’s our own damn fault and nothing else’s.

(I’m bouncing around a bit but I’m stuck going by scribbles I made in a margin six days ago. Sorry.)

Brayshaw put up a great list during his talk showing just how similar God and the Devil wind up being in terms of abilities. Both can kill and cure, both answer prayers, both have tremendous power over human beings, etc etc. This winds up being part of the basis of his argument that people created Satan to be a god as well, even if they don’t tend to think of him as one. Christianity wound up with this dualism on account of the Jews going into the area that became Persia and being influenced by Zoroastrian ideology and the Magi there. They were there long enough to assimilate some of those beliefs into their own culture and take it away with them when they left. The modified belief system of those post-exile Jews is how the dualism of God vs. Satan got started.

Plus, Christians got into the habit of considering every other cultures’ gods to be demonic interlopers on the strength of scripture. He listed many places in the bible where verses “prove” the existence of only one God (thus acting as “proof” that Satan couldn’t be one). It was an important distinction in an era where neighbours and enemies had all manner of gods in their own pantheons. It was necessary to insist the Jews had the best and only one. (Heaven forbid if they were wrong about that.) Everyone wants to feel special and it was important for the Jews to believe they were specially chosen by their God. It helped justify all the shit they had to go through. Tests from God…until the Jews left Persia, anyway. Then every evil thing that happened had to be the fault of Satan instead, apparently. Unless I misunderstood the history lesson.

He said a lot of interesting things and I wish I could remember more of them. I have a notation on my paper here about him thinking that the New Testament never should have been considered holy writ. The bulk of it is a series of letters written by various people including Paul (and those who forged letters under his and other names) and he made the point that none of them men writing letters then would have been thinking of them as potential doctrine or scripture. It’s just correspondence that happened to get saved long enough to make it into the collection of works. It’s stories and letters intended for a different audience than the one today.

Speaking of audience, I quote from the email I received this week:

I’m so curious because on Gormley on Tuesday he mentioned that he met with CFI, to which Gormley unaffectionately replied, Oh those are the Atheists!” It wasn’t nice. Much to Gormley’s relief, Brayshaw confirmed that he is still a Christian and believes in the personal God of the Bible. Did Brayshaw discuss this discrepancy at the meeting – how, for God he suspends the critical thinking that he so aptly applies to support the non-existence of Satan?

It’s so good to see the courage of Brayshaw to discount Satan in such a scholarly way and that is a big chunk of the delusion, but I wish that he would take the next inevitable step.

The Freethinkers were very polite and didn’t grill him on that critical thinking disconnect, unless it happened after I left. He’s certainly come a long way and maybe he will reach a point where he realizes that since people made up Satan then it’s entirely possible they made up all the gods as well. Then he’d have to conclude that he invented the personal one he believes in, the one that fits what he needs his God to be right now, perhaps a different god than his wife invented, or his pastor, or his friends. It’s nothing I had to go through, being atheist all my life, but I know that’s a hard step to take and one that tests all who are faced with it.

Satan wants you to read my shirt

November 20, 2011

And presumably check out my boobs as well. This is the shirt I’m wearing to my Saskatoon Freethinkers meet today. It’s all about Satan and Christianity, as explained by James R. Brayshaw, a local author who’s something of an expert after writing several books on the topic. I skimmed through the first one (it was lengthy) and found it very interesting. I’m sure Mr. Brayshaw will entertain and educate us all today. I’ll try to post about it later this week.

In other Satanish news, a Georgia factory worker was fired because he refused to wear a badge with 666 on it. It referred to the number of days his company had been accident free and, fearing for his mortal Christian soul, he didn’t dare lure Satan’s eye upon himself with such a display. Billy E. Hyatt

had worked for the north Georgia plastics company since June 2007 and like other employees wore stickers each day that proclaimed how long the factory had gone without an accident.

But he grew nervous in early 2009 as the number of accident-free days crept into the 600s. As the company’s safety calendar approached day 666, Hyatt said he approached a manager and explained that wearing it would force him “to accept the mark of the beast and to be condemned to hell.” He said the manager assured him he wouldn’t have to wear the number.

When the day came on March 12, 2009, Hyatt sought a manager to discuss his request. He said he was told that his beliefs were “ridiculous” and that he should wear the sticker or serve a three-day suspension.

He took the suspension, and later got the sack. He’s suing Barry Plastics Corp. now because he feels he was being forced to abandon his religious beliefs in order to comply with a company rule and his unwillingness to yield cost him his job.

I recall from my Wal-mart days that we were lucky to get to an “X Days Accident Free!” pizza party. I can’t recall if we’d be rewarded at the 30 or 60 day mark or if it had to be higher. Sometimes we couldn’t go a week without someone doing something stupid or careless. 666 days is a hell of a milestone. Hehe. Hell…

I think his beliefs and superstitions about the number are a bit ridiculous but I don’t think he needed to lose his job over it. If he’s that sure the Devil’s gonna get him if he wears the 666, let him skip the sticker and have him wear 667 the next day. Problem surely solved. Or he could have just called in sick, or timed things so the big day would hit while he’s on holiday. Wouldn’t that have worked just as well?

What happens with staff who are mortally afraid of Friday the 13th or some other arbitrary perceived unluckiness? Is there any compassion for their plight, or are they told to merely suck it up when the calendar’s against them? I’m kind of curious.

I feel sorry for the guy, myself, a slave to a truly meaningless number. I think that whate3ver John thought he was revealing in Revelation has certainly caused people much more existential grief than anything else ever written. Fear of a number. Fear of things that don’t exist and will never ride the earth to torment unbelievers. Fear over a future that will never come to pass.

Saskatoon Freethinkers thanks James Randi for an amazing evening of fun and learning

September 27, 2011

A magician by trade and debunker of woo-woo by reputation, the Amazing James Randi provided last night’s audience with plenty of laughs and thoughtful moments as he explained why critical thinking and skepticism are so crucial to getting to the truth of a thing and why it’s so easy to fool everyone, whether they claim they think critically or not.

Some examples he provided that I still remember well enough to paraphrase:

You’re a stranger sitting on a park bench in a small town you’ve never been in before and spot a sign advertising a riding academy with an arrow pointing in the direction it lies. A local’s seated on the bench as well and after a little while you hear the “clippity clop” of hoof beats coming from somewhere behind you. “Must be someone riding their horse to the Academy.” The local laughs at you and says, “That might not be a horse. It could be a zebra!” I forget exactly what the terminology was, but Randi pointed out that there are varying levels of deception. Another person may have believed the hoofbeats were evidence of unicorns, for example. It’s simple enough to debunk the zebra claim: there’s no zoo around for them to break out of, no circus in town, and the town isn’t smack dab in the middle of typical zebra country. While it’s certainly possible, the probability of the hooves belonging to a zebra is ridiculously minute. (And a walk in the direction of the sound would provide visual confirmation of either theory soon enough anyway.) Unicorns, though — Randi reminded people that we can’t prove negatives. You can scour South Africa for proof of unicorns. If you don’t find any, it’s not proof of non-existence. They just don’t appear to exist in South Africa…

He receives hundreds of queries every day from people who’d like to pick his brain and use his expertise. He also promotes the James Randi Educational Foundation and their million dollar “prove it” challenge where he encourages anyone who claims to be psychic or capable of other supernatural tricks to put their reputation where their mouth is. A reputable educational facility jam-packed with intelligent degree-owners contacted him once offering up some guy from Israel who could do this amazing thing with his mind that baffled everyone in the building. He’d asked these scientists to provide him with a random matchbox (hilariously described by Randi as being rigorously and ridiculously over-tested by said scientists beforehand to make sure “no trick” was going on with it) and he could make it rise and fall on the back of his hand without physically touching it. Randi sent them a fax of a copy of page of an old magic trick book he had on hand that outlined just how simple the gag was to perform. Those clever people had been completely fleeced by a foreign charlatan. They also hung up the phone in a hurry.

He played a couple of videos from his days on the Johnny Carson show. In one, he performed the psychic operation trick that thousands of people have spent serious money on because they believe it to be a real cure for what ails them. In another, he had absolute proof a faith healer named Peter Popoff was scamming his audiences. He’d hired a private detective with a decent radio receiver of some sort who recorded clear evidence that Popoff’s wife was feeding the man information about audience members through an ear piece: names, home towns and what ailed them. With this secret stash of facts, he’d claim (and still does claim) that God himself gives him the clues for who’ll be cured next. With just a few minutes of research, anyone can easily find out he’s a huckster, yet the man continues to get rich off this scam ministry. Randi said he’s making more now than he did when he was revealed on television as a fraud.

Randi pointed out the difference between himself as a magician and these other guys. Randi tells you flat out that he’s going to deceive you and then does just what he said he’d do. These other folks tell you flat out that they can cure you, or read your mind, or sell your house or whatever the hell their ruse might be and then go through with their deceptions and rip you off. Randi is honest about his intent to trick you. The rest are not.

So, all in all, that was a very fun evening. The questions at the end got a little less fun, unfortunately, when a local author tried to shill his kooky tripe and hoped to denounce what he thought were Randi’s claims that the supernatural doesn’t exist. It was a bit of a challenge to get the man to relinquish the microphone so someone with an actual question could have a turn. Randi handled the situation with aplomb; no doubt it’s a common type of audience member, the one who thinks he can prove Randi wrong. Randi admitted that he’d love to have someone approach him with that one thing he can’t explain… but it doesn’t happen. He knows the tricks. He’s done the research. He’s immune to the typical tomfoolery that tends to throw people, be they doofuses or geniuses. He even sounded kind of bummed about that, poor guy.

The key point he wanted to drive home with all this was the need to be aware of just how easy it is to be tricked — but also how easy (relatively speaking) it can be to protect ourselves from the worst of it. We all need to educate and train ourselves to look for the real truth, not just the (possibly dubious) truth someone else claims is there.

Tickets still available for James Randi in Saskatoon

September 17, 2011

September 26th at the Roxy Theatre (320 20th St West). Tickets can be bought on-line here. There might be some available at the door the night of but it’s cheaper to buy ahead of time. $20 or $10 if you’re a student/Friend of the Centre for Inquiry (you can get your membership at the same site if you want one).

The talk is being put on by CFI-Saskatoon (aka Saskatoon Freethinkers) and should be fascinating. He’s had an interesting life and will give us his perspectives on critical thinking and how necessary it is to promote reality over supernatural silliness. Woo might be soothing and comfortable compared to hard truths, but truths should still be preferred over cozy lies.

Come even if you’re skeptical of James Randi and all he stands for. I’m sure that would make for some great Q&A after the talk.

I’ve updated my pages

September 1, 2011

Those who actually read my blog at my site will notice the page that was once called “Freethinker Alert” is now called “CFI-Saskatoon News” and is finally up to date. I really fell behind on that one. The “Lit List” has also been updated, but there wasn’t a hell of a lot to add. I borrow six times as many books as I actually wind up reading — the curse of a library employee, I’m sure. Especially when I borrow just as many films…

I’m looking forward to starting a couple books this weekend, though: The Three Christs of Ypsilanti by Milton Rokeach (which I will definitely write about upon finishing) and etre the cow by Sean Kenniff, which is a book about a “simple, yet sentient farm cow” and her experiences. I may wind up writing something about that, too. Time will tell. It’s very short but looks intriguing.

Reminder: learn how to be a pain in the ass in Saskatoon tonight

August 26, 2011

Chris DiCarlo’s in town to promote his new book: How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to asking the Right Questions.

If you are in the city and can be at Rusty MacDonald Library (225 Primrose Drive) at 6pm this evening (pack a sandwich if have to), stop in and be both educated and entertained.

A really good pain in the ass is someone who is empowered with the ability to spot faulty reasoning and, by asking the right sorts of questions, hold people accountable not only for what they believe but how they behave.

This book revolves around asking and answering five very important questions. They are so important, they are called the Big Five:

1. What can I know?
2. Why am I here?
3. What am I?
4. How should I behave?
5. What is to come of me?

I look forward to hearing the answers.


James Randi in Saskatoon update

August 10, 2011

Tickets are available online now:

He’ll be here Monday, September 26, 2011 from 7:00 PM – 9:00 PM at the Roxy Theatre.

James Randi is coming to Saskatoon Sept. 26th

August 8, 2011

CFI Saskatoon has invited him to speak and it should be a very interesting night. He’ll be speaking at the Roxy Theatre and any and all are welcome to attend. I quote from the event information as listed on Facebook.

Randi is the founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF, with a mission is to promote critical thinking by reaching out to the public and media with reliable information about paranormal and supernatural ideas so widespread in our society today. The JREF offers a still-unclaimed million-dollar reward for anyone who can produce evidence of paranormal abilities under controlled conditions. Through scholarships, workshops, and innovative resources for educators, the JREF works to inspire this investigative spirit in a new generation of critical thinkers.


7:00 pm Welcome and presentation
9:00 pm Social (Location TBD)
Advanced Tickets (We expect all prices to increase by $5 at the door)

General Admission: $20
CFI Friends of the Centre: $10
Students: $10

The tickets will be available through Eventbrite (I’ll update this when I have a link) or in person at one of our other events (for example Chris DiCarlo’s talk at the end of August.)

Consider attending. Yeah, it costs a bit but you might come out of it a little wiser. Surely that possibility is worth a few dollars.

Chris DiCarlo is coming to Saskatoon to promote his new book!

August 4, 2011

And CFI Saskatoon (aka Saskatoon Freethinkers) is pleased to be hosting another one of his talks. Last August he was in the city as part of his “We Are All Africans” tour. Here are the details as posted on the CFI Saskatoon blog:

Chris DiCarlo will be reading from and speaking on his new book, How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to asking the Right Questions .

A really good pain in the ass is someone who is empowered with the ability to spot faulty reasoning and, by asking the right sorts of questions, hold people accountable not only for what they believe but how they behave.

This book revolves around asking and answering five very important questions. They are so important, they are called the Big Five:

What can I know?
Why am I here?
What am I?
How should I behave?
What is to come of me?

This event is scheduled for August 26th, Rusty McDonald Library Auditorium (225 Primrose Drive, Saskatoon, SK) and doors open at 6:00. Have an early supper that Friday and come on out. He’s a fantastic speaker, very engaging, and worth hearing. I guarantee you won’t be sorry.

Sandra Beardsall, feminism and the church: Freethinker meeting part 4

June 20, 2011

On Sunday morning, the Saskatoon Freethinkers had a terrific meeting and this is my fourth post describing what Pastor Sandra Beardsall had to say about the history of the church and women within it. Parts one, two and three are probably worth reading first but if you’re starting here, it’s no big deal.

To reiterate from earlier posts, Sandra is a professor of Church History and Ecumenics at St. Andrew’s College at the U of Saskatchewan. She participates in research related to Christian history and the development of interfaith/interchurch dialogue. We were glad she was willing to come and chat with us on this topic. We kept our claws in when it came to discussion time, which is what this final part looks at. To restate this as well, if anyone who reads this was in attendance and wants to add some notes in the comments, go ahead. I don’t guarantee I paraphrased everything accurately and others might remember differently, or recall things I failed to mention.

Sandra started at the history of the Enlightenment, the creation of Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism, Orthodoxy and others. Then she explained the differences in roles given to women between those factions, the Roman Catholics and the United Church, which is where she’d be preaching if she weren’t teaching. I like how that rhymes.

I’m actually going to skip her reasons for why she can be both feminist and active like she is in her church. Basically it comes down to her thoughts about the necessity of her faith even if the parts of the bible deserve to be questioned and what membership in the church brings to her life, and thus improves what she can bring to others.

Case in point: dialogue, which is which is where our Q and A comes into play, as it happens. The willingness to talk to others, get their input and witness their points of view is truly a strength and one more people should be trying to develop. Yeah, there’s a risk that what you learn will impact and even change what you believe, but it’s still worth doing. We asked a lot of interesting questions, some for clarity and additional information about things she already said, and other things we wanted her opinion on. I won’t include every one, but I did write them all down. This is more than long enough as is, really. You’ll be glad when I go back to my rinkydinky posts tomorrow.

Did the United Church open more doors to women because they as a church decided it needed doing, or was it more a reflection or reaction to the strides women were making in the secular arena? Sandra admitted it was likely a touch of both. There had been instances of early American slave women gaining power within the realm of their churches, unlike their luck in other areas of the society they were stuck in. The induction of women was hardly an overnight thing, but secular influences certainly helped to hasten it and created a bandwagon of support for women’s rights in all kinds of ways.

She reminded us that the first wave of feminist thinkers were incredibly religious women and that “secularism is a child of Christianity” so it’s an illusion to think they’re entirely separate, independent entities. Each affects the other all the time. Parents always know where the buttons are, after all.

Someone asked her opinion on whether religions really promote togetherness or do more to separate people. It depends on where everyone sits in terms of social issues, is what her answer boiled down to. She brought up missionary work here (expanding on an earlier question) and she used the LGBT movement as another example, some churches being very open to gay ministers and the like and others still fiercely loyal to the scripture that condemns it all. There’s worry that those who believe they hold “moral authority” are going to make enough inroads into politics to affect the gay right laws in place now.

She talked a bit about oppression in Islam here, too, but apologized for not having a good handle on the religion and didn’t want to misrepresent herself in any way. She did suggest to us a likelihood that increased western influence is what’s made those fundamentalists worse than they might have been otherwise. Our ideologies threaten what they’ve built, just like the Enlightenment felt so threatening for churches at the time.

Related to this, at one point Sandra brought up the fact that she shows Monty Python’s Life of Brian to her class every year. They did such a good job of showing how divides crop up between believers and how the schisms relate to each other and the power struggle it can become. I guess I’ll have to watch the movie myself again now.

In terms of Paul’s views on women and the United Church’s position, again she notes the likelihood that the original texts were altered at some point so what the United Church tends to follow is a “Canon within a Canon” – that being, accepting the fact that some of the bible is better off ignored. They’re willing to concede that it’s been tampered with by earlier writers with an agenda to push beyond what the book was intended for. She also notes that “Red Letter Jesus” stuff (finding the exact words he used) is not necessarily important. The “truth” will still be evident without knowing for sure if any verses are direct quotes. There was a related question, wondering if the drive to interpret scripture is part of the problem. She agreed to a point. Why do people have to pick at it? They can’t really fix the mess that it is, but even so, the book is still going to be necessary to believers just like fixing a mess in society might be hard to do but dealing with conflicting people is just as necessary in order to attempt it.

I think I’ll quit there. Word count at this moment for this post is a bit over 900 and across all four it’s over 3500. Considering it’s all my words and not me quoting the work of other writers, it’s kind of shocking. I forgot I had it in me, I guess. Hope you got through to the end and enjoyed the reading of it.


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