Saturday, October 30, 2010
What’s behind this strange peek into the American mindset? It’s not that we’re a nation of flat-Earth believers who overall deny what science has discovered. For example, as the evidence for global warming has increased, so has our nation’s willingness to believe in that theory. Today, about 95% of the world’s scientists believe that global warming is happening and that it’s a serious issue. Something like 75% of Americans now believe the same thing. OK – so we lag behind the scientists, but we’re mostly on the same page and that 75% number keeps rising. Yet something like 99% of all serious scientists acknowledge that evolution is a reality. In other words, there are about five times as many scientists who question global warming as those who question evolution. Or to put it in legal terms, 99% certainty on the part of legitimate scientists (including many who are devout Christians) is the same as saying evolution is a fact, beyond a reasonable doubt. That's why in court case after court case, schools have been instructed to teach evolution, and have been ordered NOT to teach creationism, at least in science classes.
Of course, there are quite a few “scientists” promoting Intelligent Design (the sneaky new way to say Creationism). But those who are strict creationists, who believe that evolution played no part at all in the development of life forms, that the Earth was created by God a few thousand years ago just as it is today - they’re mostly pseudo-scientists, not really taken seriously by their peers and their “evidence” is easily discounted by those using legitimate methodology. In other words, you'd be hard pressed to find even a handful of respected scientists - people whose research and methodology is accepted by the scientific community - who don't think that plants and animals have evolved over millions of years
An example of the things you hear from strict creationists is that fossils and other ancient records that document evolution cannot be reliably dated. It’s like this: Archaeologist A dates pre-human primate bones at 2 million years old, archaeologist B dates them at 2.2 million years old, while archaeologist C dates them at 1.9 million years old, all using slightly different measuring procedures. “Aha” - says the evolution deniers! “You see how arbitrary those dating methods are? Surely, then, they could just as easily be only 6400 years old!” I'm sorry, but scientists disagree over differences of 5 or 10% in their measurements, yet the Creationists want us to believe that the scientists are off by 99% (virtually 100% wrong). Why in the world do 2/3 of Americans think this kind of reasoning makes sense?
Why should this be? Why can Americans accept global warming, space travel, the existence of sub-atomic particles that can't be seen, computers that do a billion calculations a second - but not evolution? What explains the blind spot in these people’s logic and world view? Of course it’s mostly about religion. Part of it is that folks in the U.S. are more likely to be conservative Christians than other people worldwide. "The Bible says God created man in His image, and that's that." Most European Christians, on the other hand, are perplexed and a bit embarrassed by their American cousins' rejection of evolution. In Europe, evolution is commonly seen as a fact, and most Christians there don't see why that should be a problem. But unlike most European Christians, many Christians in the U.S. basically feel that by questioning Creation you question the Bible and therefore their faith. So they won’t hear of it. Interestingly, most Jews (whose religion is based on the Old Testament) don’t seem to share this curious interpretation, but then Conservative and Reform Jews are noted for their respect of science, and for being open-minded.
What it boils down to for so many is a choice: either the Bible or scientific evidence. Refined further still, it’s either science OR religion. Choose one or choose the other; you’re either with me or you’re against me – no middle ground. And that, unfortunately, is a terrible and absolutely unnecessary choice to have to make. Perhaps the greatest scientist of all time, Albert Einstein, said that “Science without religion is lame.” He also said that “Religion without science is blind”. So – what if we really DON’T have to choose between the two?
Well, that’s the very compelling case Dr. Francis Collins makes in his 2006 book The Language of God. Collins is an interesting individual. As a devout, born-again Christian, he most definitely believes in God, Jesus Christ as humanity’s savior, and of course the Bible. Yet as the former head of the prestigious Human Genome Project, he is one of the world’s top experts in the field of genetics (so important to the understanding of evolution) and a scientist of unimpeachable reputation. The thesis of Collins’ most interesting book is that evolution may disagree with the literal reading of a small part of the Bible, but otherwise it meshes just fine with Christian religious beliefs.
It's this very literal reading of the Bible that causes so much trouble, by the way. 3000 years ago, when Genesis was written and humans understood so little of the natural world, could God really have explained how He created the universe with a Big Bang 6 billion years ago? How He caused sub-atomic particles to interact with the various cosmic forces emanating from dark holes, multiple-dimensions, and all the esoterica of astro-physics that we have trouble grasping even today? Seriously - how could the Bible have talked about this stuff 3000 years ago? So does it really lessen the value of the Bible and religion to think that the writers of Genesis used wording and analogies that the people of the time could understand - rather than only writing what was strictly, literally, verbatim true? Not really, a rational person might conclude.
But back to Collins and his book: Evolution is a fact beyond any reasonable challenges, and shouldn’t be a problem for believers, he argues. Put another way, there is no conflict between science and religion, between being a faithful Christian and a believer in the facts of evolution. Collins painstakingly addresses the most common arguments that Creationists and Intelligent Designers proffer, debunking each of them with cold, hard, convincing facts. Convincing, that is, to anyone with an open mind. In his view, incidentally, God gave humans a mind and wants us to use it to help understand the world He has created and, thus, to know Him. Collins goes on to show why God exists, and how He must have been the original source of life, which then changed over time via evolution. Whether you believe that part or not; whether you’re a fervent Christian, a firm evolutionist, an atheist, or somewhere else in between, you should at least read what Collins has to say. But the bottom line is that this fight – evolution vs. religion – is really needless.
What makes this even more needless is that in 1996 Pope John Paul II proclaimed that Evolution is “more than just a hypothesis” and that it is compatible with Christian faith! Probably no modern Pope was more loved and respected than John Paul II. And whether you're a Catholic or a Protestant (or even if you're not a Christian at all), can you think of anyone more knowledgeable about Christianity and the Bible than the Pope? The Pope, most European Christian leaders,and most Jewish leaders believe is that the Old Testament is beyond question - EXCEPT in matters involving science, which of course has broadened our understanding of things immensely over the centuries. Evolution's not just a theory; evolution (a scientific fact) doesn't conflict with Christianity. So said the Pope, traditionally the leader of the Christian world! Even if they're not Catholics, why would 2/3 of Americans think that the Pope lacks faith in the Bible, or isn't a good Christian, or any of the other claims made of those who believe that evolution is a reality?
So just what are we arguing about? Most Jews (who wrote Genesis, incidentally), most European Protestants, and the leader of the Catholic church believe in evolution, so obviously you don't have to sacrifice your religious beliefs in order to think the same. This isn't 1256 or 1803, when such an idea would have been unthinkable, just as space travel, computers, and atomic bombs would have been unthinkable - blasphemous! We've learned SO MUCH; we have endless examples of irrefutable proof. Why won't the strict creationists look at this proof with open minds? How in the world are they going to attract the agnostics of the world, those who WANT to believe in Christianity, but aren’t sure? If American Christians' position on something as clear cut as evolution is one of denial, why should people follow their beliefs on matters of (non-verifiable) faith alone? Honestly, strict Creationists: let's limit the debate to whether God created life on Earth, or whether it arose all on its own - THAT's the only part of the evolution issue where there's any reasonable doubt.
THE ETHICAL HUNTER
It is common knowledge that hunting is a cruel and barbarous relic of our less civilized past that is no longer appropriate. As Friends of Animals so accurately puts it, hunting is “an act against Nature.” (Hunting – An Act Against Nature, c. 1995) While hunting and the associated killing of animals was a necessary part of human survival for millennia, that is simply no longer the case today. We have domesticated animals that are more than sufficient to satisfy our desire for meat, animals that exist now solely for that purpose and whose death does not detract from the majesty of Nature’s wild lands. At the same time, numerous recent scientific studies have confirmed that balanced, healthy vegetarian diets can provide all of our nutritional needs without any meat whatsoever.
So why do hunters persist in their “sport”, that is all about killing defenseless animals? How would they like it if, somehow, deer and ducks were chasing them around, shooting at them? But more importantly – why do we allow these “sportsmen” to pursue their activity? Many other harmful activities that were permitted in times past are now outlawed; why isn’t hunting? And anyway – hunting as a “sport”? How much skill or physical ability is required to drive around looking for an animal to blast away at with today’s sophisticated weaponry?
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If you live in a big city or its suburbs, especially on the
The fact is that a great many Americans are woefully ignorant when it comes to ethical hunting as it is practiced in this country. It’s important to note that “ignorant” is not the same thing as stupid; there is no intent to insult those who oppose hunting. Rather, this monograph is simply an attempt to address commonly held beliefs about hunting; in particular, commonly held and erroneous beliefs about hunting big game animals, focusing on deer and elk, the two most widely hunted big game species in
THE CLAIM: Hunting is not a sport; few skills or physical abilities are required to kill a defenseless animal.
A lot of “hunters” ride around in trucks, looking for animals to shoot at from or near the road. Others are fortunate enough to just look out their back porches and see legal game animals. A great many enjoy going to ranches where they can look over many fine animals before choosing the one they want to “harvest”. All of these are great ways to put meat on the table, but none is really hunting in the fullest sense; certainly, they are a far cry from what most serious hunters engage in when they hunt. Similarly, there is no interest here in defending “slob” hunters – those who hunt illegally or who don’t utilize the animals they kill. It is they who are responsible for a great deal of animosity towards, and misconceptions about, legitimate, ethical hunting. Rather, it is the serious, ethical hunters as described below, hunters who are an integral part of, and who abide by, the principles of what has become known as the North American Wildlife Conservation Model (http://www.huntright.org/heritage/AldrichConservationModel.aspx,) that this essay seeks to defend.
For the author and those with whom he has hunted over several decades, hunting is an intensely physical and challenging activity. They typically travel hundreds or thousands of miles to hunt in the Sierras or the
This demanding physical activity generally continues for several days during the short hunting season – as many days as one is able to hunt. That is because the majority of hunters - even the serious, experienced ones – don’t get a shot at a legal animal every year. Animals, while unarmed, are far from defenseless. Nature has gifted them with three especially keen senses: sight, hearing, and smell. Consequently, the fact is that in the woods, deer, elk and other game animals have the distinct advantage over human hunters. This is illustrated by overall success rates for hunters, which ranged from 3% to 64% for deer in the various hunting units and seasons of California in 2001, averaging about 20% overall (California Department of Fish and Game, 2002 Big Game Hunting). In Colorado, with the nation’s largest elk population, hunter success rates for those animals typically range from 5-50% (again – depending on which part of the state, the season, and the weapon used), with an overall average of about 20% as well (Colorado Division of Wildlife, Big Game Hunting Statistics, 1991-1999).
Another indication of just how hard most hunters have to work is the number of days needed for the average hunter to bag his or her animal. During the 2001 deer season in western
Yet there is reason to question these kinds of numbers as telling the whole story. Accepting that only some 20% of deer hunters are successful in bagging an animal, one still wonders how many hunters wound an animal without recovering it. Accurate statistics for that would seem very difficult to obtain, and in fact do not seem to be available. But even if only a few percent of all hunters wound an animal, that would translate into thousands of animals that might die a slow and painful death. This is indeed a troubling consideration, one that we should keep in mind as we consider all the merits of ethical hunting.
Now, assuming one is among the minority who get a shot at a legal animal, then a whole new set of skills come into play. Being a good shot with a high-power rifle is not a simple proposition. Most serious hunters have several good quality scoped rifles, typically worth about $1000 each, which they alternate under various conditions and for different animals. They go out to the local shooting range several times a year to practice at various distances and from a variety of shooting positions, with the ultimate goal of being able to quickly, reliably, and humanely kill any game animal at which they are fortunate enough to have a good shot.
Accordingly, hunters must be knowledgeable about different weapons, calibers, bullets, and riflescopes. They must know where their bullet will strike based on a wide number of variables, not the least of which are: distance, angle of the shot, wind speed and wind direction. In most cases, shooting is much more challenging than just raising up the rifle, pulling the trigger, and collecting your trophy animal – and that’s just talking about high-power rifles. Muzzleloaders and archery hunters have things even harder. Again – all of this is borne out by the low success rate of hunters and the many days they typically spend trying to take a legal animal.
While of course any hunter hopes to succeed in bringing home a good animal, the reality is that most hunters are happy to go out day after day, knowing that they probably won’t even get a shot. The excitement of preparing for each fall’s hunting trip, enjoying the camaraderie of fellow hunters, being away from civilization and in the midst of the beautiful outdoors, connecting with Nature and our own human past in a way that one can never do by looking for food in the grocery store, the exhausted but satisfied feeling of sitting around the campfire at night – these are the things that keep hunters going out into the woods year after year.
THE REALITY: Big game hunting is extremely challenging, both physically and mentally, and is a sport in all legitimate senses of the word.
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THE CLAIM: Hunting is an abomination; it is an act against Nature.
The group Friends of Animals, in Hunting – An Act Against Nature, exemplifies the feelings of many anti-hunters as they aver that humans behave unnaturally when hunting. They believe that “the hunter as predator is a lame excuse and fallacious. The fact is that hunting … serve(s) no useful purpose.” Those who have merely a passing familiarity with Nature find this emotionally appealing. Yet, that is not the same thing as saying that it is correct.
We know, for example, that humans have been hunters for hundreds of thousands of years. Humans evolved into that role after countless millennia as gatherers and scavengers in
So the history of humankind is at least partly the history of predation, because after all, hunters are predators. Predators, even animal rights folks readily admit, play a critical role in maintaining healthy animal populations. Humans, who evolved into the most successful of all predators, have been key players for many thousands of years in the never-ending and very natural process of hunter and hunted. One might wish to suggest that humans have now evolved to the point where they no longer need to be hunter/predators, but any assertion that human hunters are committing an unnatural act is made contrary to both logic and natural history.
It is noteworthy that throughout human history, skilled hunters have been recognized as among the most respected and highly esteemed members of any society. This has been the case worldwide, at least up until recent times. The man (or woman) who could regularly bring home the venison, the elk or other wild meat was honored as a great contributor to the group’s survival. Even well into the 20th century in this country, going hunting was generally seen as a normal (natural, if you will) and positive thing to do, and the successful hunter was widely admired for his skill. How ironic and sad, then, that hunters are now vilified by such a large segment of the population that, just decades ago, used to venerate them!
This vilification is largely a result, as suggested earlier, of the general population’s lack of knowledge and understanding of legitimate hunting. At the same time, it is only fair to acknowledge that not all of the anti-hunters’ views are without merit. For example, market hunters once decimated entire animal populations, nearly causing the extinction of bison and elk, and the localized wiping out of deer, bear, and other animals – no one posits this as a good thing. Nor does it seem particularly in line with the idea of man as a natural check on animal populations.
Fortunately, this kind of decimation ended nearly a hundred years ago in the
But while the decimation of animal populations is clearly an issue of past times, it is nevertheless troubling to many that hunters continue to focus on taking animals with the largest antlers, the biggest hides, and so forth. This is a problem, and goes against the idea of natural selection, because with healthy, natural predation, it is the small, weak, and/or injured animals that are culled – not the largest, strongest, healthiest ones. Taking the best of a species serves to reduce the genetic potency of that species, which can have dire consequences for its future viability.
Furthermore, some hunters don’t even care much for their animal’s meat, wasting a great deal of it and making no apologies for killing without utilizing the meat. They say that either way the animal is dead, and so what’s the difference if one hunts for meat, or for hide and horns? This may be true, but it doesn’t match well with the idea of man as an agent of natural selection, and in minimizing the value of the animal’s life, it does little to endear hunters to animal lovers.
Well the good news is that not many hunters care only for the hide and antlers, and more importantly, many hunting seasons are timed to occur after the rut. This means that by the time that big buck or bull elk is killed, he’s often already made his contribution to the gene pool. A look at Boone & Crockett Club records will quickly confirm such a belief. This organization, founded by avid conservationist and hunter Teddy Roosevelt, has kept records on the largest animals taken by hunters for the last 100 years, and provides information based on species and locality.
The club recognizes, for example, four subcategories of world’s record (largest) elk; one of them was taken in 1968, the remaining three were all from the 1990s. (http://www.boone-crockett.org/bgRecords/WorldRecordsDetail.asp?area=bgRecords&type=ELK)
In looking beyond just the world records, 12 of the 20 largest elk ever recorded for
THE REALITY: Hunting is a fact of life and death in Nature, and humans have been an integral part of that natural activity for hundreds of millennia. The data clearly shows that human hunters in the
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THE CLAIM: Eating the flesh of animals is unhealthy, immoral, and wasteful.
A great many people, for a variety of reasons, choose not to eat meat. Their motives fall into three main categories: for health reasons, because of the cruelty inherent in raising and killing animals for food, and for concern about the environment.
HEALTH: Several different types of cancer have been linked to diets that are high in meat, not the least of which is breast cancer, which the National Cancer Institute found is four times more common among women who eat significant amounts of meat and dairy products (http://www.nci.nih.gov/). It is said that meat contains some 14 times the level of pesticides found in plant products, and the elimination of all meat and dairy products reduces the risk of heart attacks by 90%. Additionally, most bacterial infections, such as E. coli and Salmonella, are contracted from eating meat and animal by-products. http://www.angelfire.com/biz5/SoulFood2/nutrition/vegetarian/reasonsveg1.html)
CRUELTY: The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) graphically states the case against killing animals for food this way, “Turkeys are tormented on factory farms and then watch in horror as their companions are killed before them and struggle in terror as their throats are slit before being scaled—often while still conscious.” (http://www.peta.org/feat/turk-terr/1.html). Yet the animals’ final moments of terror only culminate the mistreatment they’ve experience throughout their lives. “New-born calves are locked in crates, not allowed to move, and underfed until they are slaughtered and served as veal. Chickens are packed so tightly into cages that they can barely move. Excrement falls through the stacked cages onto chickens below.” (http://veggietable.allinfo-about.com/articles/whybeavegetarian.html) How can this be acceptable, they rightly ask?
ENVIRONMENT: The environmental case for not eating meat is equally compelling. It has been said that “An acre of prime land can produce 40,000 lbs. of potatoes, 30,000 lbs. of carrots, 50,000 lbs. of tomatoes, or 250 lbs. of beef.” We can easily see, then, that much less land would need to be fertilized and farmed if we were all vegetarians. Furthermore, “the amount of animal manure produced in the
So it's not so hard to see why many people choose to avoid meat and animal products. Yet some of their arguments are flawed, and interestingly enough, several of them are better offered by hunters as justification for using wild game as a source of food.
HEALTH: Opinions on the healthiness of eating meat have fluctuated with the times. Until the 1960s, the great majority of American thought that red meat was synonymous with health and vitality. This began to change by the 1960s, a change that accelerated throughout the succeeding decades. Today it is estimated that more than 12 million Americans practice vegetarianism in some form or another, although a great many of these still eat red meat, poultry and/or fish on occasion. (http://www.sdearthtimes.com/et0494/et0494s8.html) However, medical research in recent years has started to cast doubt on the assertion that eating meat is unhealthy.
The gist of this new thinking, backed by powerful medical and anthropological studies, is that humans evolved over hundreds of thousands of years on a diet that was high in meat, as well as nuts, berries, and fruits. Our bodies, not surprisingly, are designed to function best on such a diet. Human bodies are not, by contrast, at their healthiest on a diet that is high in carbohydrates provided by such "healthy" foods as bread and pasta, and the sugars found in so many foods today. (http://www.mercola.com/article/Diet/carbohydrates/paleolithic_diet.htm) In fact, there is evidence that as humans shifted to a heavier reliance on starchy foods with the rise of agriculture, beginning some 10,000 years ago, tooth decay, malnutrition, and rates of infectious disease increased dramatically. (http://www.beyondveg.com/nicholson-w/hb/hb-interview1c.shtml)
Contrary to the conventional thinking of recent decades, researchers are finding that just as our ancestors craved animal fat in their diets, high fat foods may not be as bad for modern humans as we've been led to believe. For some 30 years, Dr. Robert C. Atkins advocated a diet that is high in animal protein and fat, and was ridiculed by the medical community for doing so. Over the years he has steadfastly and convincingly defended his ideas, and has recently gained impressive support from some most unlikely sources. In November 2002, the American Heart Association (AHA) summarized the results of a study they oversaw; a study, by the way, that they expected to show Dr. Atkins theories as fatally flawed, once and for all. Surprisingly, what their study found was that Dr. Atkins' diet was more effective than their own low-fat diet for weight loss (an average of 31 pounds lost on Atkins, vs. 20 pounds on AHA). Furthermore, his diet yielded little change in "bad" cholesterol, but higher levels of "good" cholesterol in the study's subjects (up 6 mg/dl with Atkins vs. down 2 mg/dl on the AHA diet)! (http://www.nealhendrickson.com/mcdougall/021100puatkins.htm) Subsequent studies, by other independent groups, continue to show similar results. Yet Dr. Atkins detractors continue to dispute these findings and to maliciously (and incorrectly!) claim that his death, while grossly overweight, was a result of eating a high fat diet. http://www.usatoday.com/life/people/2004-02-10-atkins_x.htm But the fact is that it is now far from clear that eating meat is unhealthy.
Although many nutritionists suggest that one can have a healthy diet that does not include meat, there are numerous challenges to such a belief, as Dr. Stephen Byrnes, of the International Organization of Nutritional Consultants points out in a lengthy article on vegetarianism. He describes, among other things, how sufficient amounts of essential vitamins A, D, and B12 are unlikely to be found in a non-meat diet. (http://www.westonaprice.org/myths_truths/myths_truths_vegetarianism.html)
The prestigious New England Journal of Medicine (
While not particularly germane to the question of whether modern humans should or should not eat meat, it is nevertheless interesting to note that anthropologists now believe that the inclusion of meat (especially cooked meat) in early humans' diets was a significant factor in developing advanced levels of human intelligence. (http://pup.princeton.edu/titles/6549.html) Since meat is a richer source of nutrients than plants, increased meat consumption aided the physical growth of the human species (and its predecessor hominoids). This growth shows up in gradually increased cranium size, which implies larger brains and, thus, greater intelligence. (http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/99legacy/6-14-1999a.html)
The trend accelerated once humans tamed the use of fire and began cooking meat. Cooked meat is much easier for the body to digest than raw meat, thus permitting it to divert even more nutrients to other parts of the body including, most notably, the brain. (http://www.drmirkin.com/nutrition/1147.html) This is not to imply that vegetarianism will ultimately result in lower IQs, but it does seem to further support the idea that eating meat is both a healthy, natural, and inherently "human" thing to do.
As for the question of pesticides, hormones, bacteria and other unhealthy elements found in meat, this is where hunters point out the benefits of eating wild game. Venison and other wild meats are free of virtually all pesticides, herbicides, hormones, and other additives. And while contamination from E. coli and other bacteria is possible, one can also ensure that this does not happen. Since the hunter is in control of the animal from the time it is killed until it is on the table, he or she has the ability to make sure that it is kept clean, cool, and free of contaminants, unlike domestic animals that are processed in bulk.
Finally, wild meats such as venison are famously low in fat. If one wants, in fact, to pursue a low-fat diet, wild game is one way to do it. A 3-ounce serving of venison contains less than 3 grams of fat, compared to an average of over 6 grams of fat in chicken and about 10 grams of fat in various cuts of beef. (http://ag.arizona.edu/nsc/new/news/news1-00.htm#6) Even grains can be higher in fat, as oats contain about 5% fat, vs. 3-4% for venison. (http://www.grainstore.com/Oats.cfm)
CRUELTY: The cruelty to animals that permeates the domestic animal industry is troubling to say the least, and presents the meat-eater with a quandary, as he or she must weigh the perceived advantages of eating meat against the cruelty imposed on the animals that provide it. There is, of course, the old Biblical spin on this issue: God placed animals on Earth for the good of Man, and it is their destiny to serve as our food. But that rationale only goes so far in relieving a thinking person's remorse over the mistreatment of animals destined for the table.
No mentally healthy person likes seeing animals suffer, and that certainly includes most hunters. It may seem paradoxical to some, but hunters truly love and respect their quarry in ways that non-hunters perhaps cannot completely fathom, and typically kneel beside the animal after a successful hunt to thank it for giving its life and flesh to the hunter and his/her family. Ethical hunters strive for the shot that kills in a matter of seconds, with the animal experiencing as little pain as possible. Of course, this is not always the case, as many game animals don't expire for several minutes or even hours after they're shot; this is something that torments thoughtful hunters. And unfortunately, there are more than a few hunters who too willingly take shots that are marginal, wounding animals who then escape only to suffer, and often die a slow, painful death, as first considered on page 3. Yet compared to the way that the animals would otherwise die (a topic discussed at some length in a later section), and compared to the cruelty imposed on domestic animals, one must conclude that game animals' overall pain and suffering are relatively modest in most cases, at least as we consider the subject of this essay: the ethical hunter who chooses his/her shot carefully and is proficient enough to usually hit the mark. Thus, the hunter feels that if one is to use animals for food, then perhaps the least cruel way to do it is by using legitimate, conscientious hunting methods.
ENVIRONMENT: There is no interest here in challenging the statistics regarding the inefficient use of natural resources in raising animals for human consumption. Let us just concede, for argument's sake, that vegetarians place much less strain on the environment than do meat-eaters, based on the kinds of statistics cited earlier.
Yet even if domestic animals create a great deal of environmental problems, then it would still be true that hunters place fewer demands on the environment than vegetarians. No wild lands at all are deforested to create croplands for hunters. No fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides are used by hunters at all. No natural waterways at all are drained to irrigate hunters' lands. Those who produce non-meat food items - even organic farmers - cannot make the same claim. While farmers must and do clear lands of their native plants and animals to provide food for the masses, hunters are “among the most fervent Americans when it comes to protecting the unspoiled lands that hold their game” – this according to the preeminent (and generally anti-hunting) conservationist organization, the Sierra Club. (http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/199605/ways.asp) Further, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says that “By paying the Federal excise tax on hunting equipment, hunters are contributing hundreds of millions of dollars for conservation programs that benefit many wildlife species, both hunted and non-hunted.” (http://hunting.fws.gov/whatdo.html)
THE REALITY: While vegetarians make some valid points, wild meat is one of the healthiest of foods for humans. Hunters provide a less cruel and more environmentally benign way for humans to get meat, compared to the alternatives.
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THE CLAIM: Meat is murder; hunters kill beautiful animals. “Ethical hunter” is an oxymoron.
This is what it mostly comes down to for many opponents of hunting: hunters kill, and that's just wrong, plain and simple. Well, this “simple truth” is neither simple nor true. Surely, the hunter's ultimate objective is to kill an animal and eat it. But the question is: how wrong is this? The answer is both multi-faceted and complex.
WILD ANIMALS DIE IN GRUESOME WAYS: The answer to the common rhetorical question: “how would hunters like it if animals were hunting them?” is that, of course they wouldn’t like it at all! But that is the wrong question. We’re all going to die, and generally speaking, nobody is happy about it. Yet we will indeed die, and the animals that are the targets of big game hunters will surely die as well. So the more relevant question is: how will they die? In reality, few animals die peacefully in their sleep of old age, as many anti-hunters must believe they do. According to a study of elk in
Research on elk introduced into
Starvation (severe malnutrition) is a related cause of mortality, as it can result from too many animals being pushed onto increasingly smaller habitable areas. It can also be the result of overpopulation caused by a number of other factors, such as mild winters and a lack of adequate predation. Such overpopulation leads to unsustainable pressure on the natural food sources, wherein virtually all forage is eventually wiped out by the starving animals. Alternatively, animal starvation inevitably increases during times of extended drought and severe winters when, once again, there is insufficient food and/or water for all. Starving to death and/or dying of thirst, one imagines, must be neither a quick nor painless way to die.
Winter typically prompts the greatest die-off, as several factors converge at that time of year to the animals’ detriment. Adult male deer and elk, for example, are in a weakened physical state after “the rut”, a period when virtually all of their energies are spent on mating and fighting their rivals. For several weeks in the fall, when other animals are loading up on calories to see them through the winter, male elk and deer hardly eat at all, and instead expend a great deal of energy on their rutting activities. This reality was evident in the
Author and satellite bull, 2002
Winter, with all of its stresses, is also the time when animals are most susceptible to death by diseases or injury. It must be remembered, however, that “malnutrition is often the
fundamental cause of mortality actually brought about by other agents.” Diseases such as necrotic stomatitis, and parasites such as lungworm and tapeworms, cause the deaths of many very young, old, and otherwise weaker animals. Broken legs and other injuries caused by fighting or just by living in a harsh environment similarly make it less likely that animals will survive the harsh winter.
(http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/fauna4/fauna6b.htm) Who would suggest that dying of the combined effects of cold, and lack of food, perhaps while injured or sick, would be a pleasant way to depart this Earth?
Predators are always present, except to the degree that humans have removed them from the environment. Besides Man, mountain lions, coyotes, bears, and wolves are the major natural predators for North American deer and elk. A study by the state of
Could being attacked by a pack of coyotes, or brought down by a lion or bear, be anything but a horrible death? While death would usually come rather swiftly after a period of sheer terror, countless cases of extended and painful battles between predator and prey have been documented. Even worse, it is not unknown for some predators to begin feeding while their prey is still alive. Take the case of
The bottom line is that life in the wild is not like a Disney movie. Wild animals lead brutish lives that more often than not end violently and/or painfully. While it would be disingenuous to say that hunters are doing animals a favor by putting them out of their misery, the fact is that non-hunted animals suffer more from most non-human causes of death. And the specious argument that: “well, at least they’re not dying prematurely, and they’re dying the way Nature intended” ignores the reality of humans’ ingrained role as natural predators across the millennia.
At the risk of anthropomorphizing, one cannot help but think that, given a choice between living freely in the wild and then suddenly – BAM! – feeling a sharp pain, and collapsing a few minutes later, versus a slow, painful death by starvation, disease, injury, cold or a quick, violent death by predators, animals would prefer the former option. Similarly, returning to the way domesticated animals live and die, which would you prefer: an essentially lobotomized existence your entire life with hundreds or thousands of your species, confined in filthy pens, cages, and feedlots – a purposeless existence other than to serve as a food source for humans, OR roaming the majestic wilderness for years and then one day – BOOM – you’re gone? Of course, we can’t know what animals would choose, if they could choose, but still, it’s hard to see death by human hunters as the worst way to go…
DEATH MEANS LIFE: The argument against killing game animals betrays a modern, Western naïveté: that death is ever and always a bad thing to be avoided at all costs. In reality, life and death are inexorably connected: there is no life without death and, just as importantly, death always results in life. Every animal WILL die; that’s the “price” of living. Yet the animal killed by whatever cause brings forth life in one way or another. Maybe the animal’s death allows coyotes or lions or humans to survive. Birds and other scavengers will benefit from the animal’s deaths. Whatever those animals don’t eat returns to Earth with the help of insects, worms, fungi, bacteria, and other living organisms, creating nutrition for the plants that make our wild lands beautiful and ultimately providing the essential nourishment for future generations of animals. Another way to say this is that without death, there would be no life: no deer, no coyotes, no birds, no trees, and surely no humans to gnash their teeth over the cruelty of hunters.
Life and death form a never-ending circle, with “death” actually somewhat of a misnomer. A more correct term would be “transformation”, as one form of life is transformed into other forms of life. The American Indians understood this, as did our own (Western) ancestors before they became so “advanced”; eastern religions and philosophies understand this even today. The death of a beautiful animal is a sad thing, no doubt. But it is just the way things work, and a cause for celebration as well as lamentation.
HYPOCRICY: A great deal of hypocrisy, usually unintended and unrecognized, is associated with those who chastise hunters for killing Nature’s beautiful animals. For example, one might ask: WHY
- is it terrible for hunters to kill those beautiful animals in the wild, but it’s OK for us to confine domestic animals under miserable conditions? Is it just their destiny?
- it’s terrible for hunters to cut up and eat the animals they’ve “harvested”, but fine to go down to the supermarket to buy meat for dinner? Is that because supermarket meat doesn’t really represent an animal, it’s just hamburger or steak or bacon, all neatly wrapped up in plastic by someone else?
- it’s wrong to abuse Nature by taking game animals, but acceptable to destroy the habitat that supports wildlife as we continually extend our suburbs? Is it acceptable to kill wild animals, as long as we do it indirectly?
- is it wrong to kill beautiful doe-eyed animals, but OK to eat goofy-looking chicken or cold, scaly fish? Is “cuteness” a legitimate factor for deciding what we may kill?
- hunting is barbaric, but fishing is a noble sport? Could it be that fish feel no pain? Then there’s the related hypocrisy: why is it bad to eat the fish we catch, but catch and release fishing is a good thing? Is it OK to cause fish pain just for fun, but not for something as base as putting food on the table?
- American Indian lifestyles were a model of harmony with Nature, and their hunting activities were righteous, but this doesn’t apply to whites who try to emulate their philosophy and actions today?
- since vegans don’t kill animals, they’re superior to those who do? Why is it OK to exploit Nature’s plants, but not her animals?
Let’s look a little closer at this last one, because after all, plants are living things too, and exhibit of a number of behaviors that most people would attribute only to animals. Scientists know from recent research, for example, that plants regularly communicate with one another to warn of imminent danger from a variety of sources. Plants also communicate with insects, both warning away those that would eat them, and calling for help from insects that feed on their enemies. (“Talking Plants”, Discover Magazine, April 2002) Plants also have a “stress response” to actions such as cutting one of their leaves. They respond to this by releasing a chemical called ethylene, and “the researchers who studied this response had a rather bizarre way of measuring the presence of ethylene – by listening for it. To be precise, they captured the gas in a bell jar and fired lasers at it, which resonated with the molecules and emitted sound at a particular frequency. Upon seeing this, it wasn’t long before scientists and journalists alike were calling these sounds ‘screams’, and suddenly this response seemed a lot more like pain as we know it!” (http://www.sciencenet.org.uk/database/Biology/0211/b01052d.html) Other researchers reported in The Journal of Biological Chemistry that plants “cry in pain” in response to attacks by herbivores, and that their “pain” can be alleviated by the use of aspirin and similar drugs. (http://clasdean.la.asu.edu/news/aspirin.htm)
Well all right – let us admit that any “pain” plants may feel upon being harvested, cooked or eaten is likely to be on a lower level than pain felt by a deer that is shot by a hunter, and in fact may be no more than a chemical reaction that isn’t quite equivalent to the pain animals feel.. And so it comes down to a matter of degree, which prompts the following question: just where do we draw the line?
If killers of deer are wrong, then aren’t killers of beef cattle? If killing cattle is wrong, then how is killing a chicken any different? Can we kill fish because, unlike cows and chickens, they aren’t warm-blooded? And if we can’t eat fish, then what about grubs and other insects that historically made up a large portion of primitive people’s diets? Do those lowly animals feel pain; are they far enough down in the animal kingdom not to have to worry about? How about sponges? They’re animals, but primitive and sedentary – may we use them? If we cannot, then why may we cut down a living plant to eat or otherwise utilize? If we shouldn’t do that, then can it be right to uproot vegetables and eat them raw, or boil them when they’re still alive? May we at least eat the fruits and nuts that fall from living plants, or does that interfere too much with their species’ chances to reproduce?
Just how much does eating nuts differ from eating vegetables, or eating insects or fish or deer? Where, precisely, is the line drawn between right and wrong, and why is it drawn there instead of at another point?
Of course any “line” is arbitrary. Where you draw the line is much more about you and the particular way you think than it is about immutable ethics. All living things are sacred, yet we may ethically utilize them as a food source, since that is the way of Nature. Venison, salmon, bugs, or carrots? It’s all the same – Nature doesn’t care what we eat or don’t eat; she will see to it that the world carries on and that any given species will flourish, as long as we don’t over-exploit it.
THE REALITY: Death is all around us, and that’s not an entirely bad thing. We are all killers in one way or another. Ethical hunters are simply honest about it, and they take pride in being able to put healthy food on the table as a result of their own hard efforts.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
It sort of boils down to this: serious hunters take a lot of abuse for their sport, when in reality they engage in a healthy, natural and ethical pursuit. One may choose not to hunt because he or she thinks deer are just too pretty to kill, or simply does not like thinking about death or being around blood and guts. But considering that those things are facts of life, then being a passive, third-party food gatherer hardly makes one morally superior to someone who personally takes responsibility for getting his or her own food. Or one may not wish to hunt, feeling that Man has evolved to such a point that killing other animals is beneath him or her. But such an assertion is clearly an individual opinion that is far from indisputable, and in any event does nothing to show that hunting is unnatural. One may decide that a non-meat diet suits them better than the alternative, or wish to draw the line by eating plants but not animals. Yet this is not to say that meat – especially wild game – is unhealthy, nor that there is any inherent legitimacy attached to the belief in eating only foods that come directly from plants.
The fact is that opposition to hunting is mostly based on false assumptions, incomplete understanding, tortured logic, and sentiment rather than points of real substance. Non-hunters are free to live according to their beliefs, and legitimate, ethical hunters should have the same freedom. Hunters should also be free from the need to explain, justify, or apologize for their sport in response to the ignorance of non-hunters.
Jon S. StreblerFebruary, 2004 (revised September, 2007)
Baghdad: the capital of Iraq and the resting place of its wicked dictator, Saddam Hussein. As U.S. and allied troops were pushing towards Baghdad to finally wipe out Hussein's elite Republican Guard and get rid of Hussein himself, people started urging restraint. Iraq's military was out of Kuwait, clearly defeated, and unlikely to form any kind of threat to anyone again, they said. Meanwhile, continuing the push into Baghdad would kill thousands more unwilling Iraqi participants and, once in the city itself, result in murderous street-to-street fighting, causing the deaths of countless thousands of innocent civilians. To what end? Hussein and his army were finished! Let's be civilized and merciful, and not rub it in unnecessarily while further risking the lives of our own military boys and girls.
So said American leaders in editorials and newscasts. So said people across the globe, both our allies and enemies. Political leaders, religious leaders, people on the street - in the U.S., in Europe, in Asia, in South America, in Africa. Actually, the tone was that of pleading on humanitarian grounds: "PLEASE stop the needless slaughter! PLEASE don't subject our troops and Iraqi civilians to the horrific warfare of invading Baghdad." Few voiced the opposite opinion: let's go in and finish it, even if it means many thousands of more deaths.
Yet a few years later, Hussein was back in business. He had killed thousands of his own people (the ones who opposed him) using chemical weapons earlier; now his scientists were developing even more heinous "weapons of mass destruction", or WMDs, according to his own admission after being captured in 2004, and was seen as a huge threat to overall Middle Eastern peace. Additionally, he was firing missiles at US and allied planes that tried to enforce the UN sanctions against Iraq, and was even suspected of plotting attacks on U.S. citizens. Why, the vast majority of Americans wanted to know, hadn't our incompetent President George H.W. Bush taken him out back when we had the chance in 1991? What an idiot!
I guess the majority that thought Bush blew it in Iraq weren't the same people who begged Bush not to take Hussein out a few years earlier. Where were these second guessers in 1991? Where were the mercy pleaders a few years later? Or did everyone simply forget the situation as it actually was in 1991?
Fast forwarding a few more years, another George Bush was the U.S. President. The nation, and the world, was nervous about the possibilities of devastating terrorist attacks in the wake of 9/11. It was feared that Saddam Hussein, furious at the west for his defeat in 1991, might allow some of his chemical/biological weapons to be used against the US and its allies. And so the U.S., under Bush's leadership, launched an ugly, costly (lives and money) war that was opposed by most of the world and which, after all, turned up no significant signs of extant WMD. Bush was declared a lying war-mongerer, out only for Iraq's oil, and an idiot to boot.
I guess people forgot that Saddam Hussein was a brutal, murderous dictator of a Muslim country who openly admired Adolf Hitler and who intentionally killed at least tens, but probably hundreds, of thousands of his own people. No serious sources deny these facts, even today, by the way.
I imagine that people forgot that the U.S., with the consent and presumably the support of many other nations and the majority of Iraq’s people, had tried for years to find a way to remove Hussein from power, using less than peaceful means. And that Hussein had, and had used, WMD (against Iran and against dissident Iraqis) and had been trying to expand his WMD arsenal, including the attempted development of nuclear weapons.
Perhaps people forgot that Hussein had employed a number of deceptive, bullying, and outright illegal maneuvers to prevent U.N. inspectors from determining his WMD capabilities throughout the 1990s. These were widely reported in the media over the years, and were the basis for the U.N. passing increasingly critical and threatening measures against Hussein, up to and including authorizing the use of military force against him.
Apparently, people don't remember that virtually every knowledgeable source believed in early 2003 that Iraq possessed significant quantities of WMD – including those who opposed the war against Iraq. Among those who firmly believed that Iraq had WMD were all key players of the Clinton administration, and the leaders of Germany and France (Schroeder and Chirac - opponents of a U.S. attack on Iraq). President Chirac of France, one of the strongest opponents of a U.S. attack on Iraq said, shortly before the war began: “What is at stake is how to answer the potential threat Iraq represents with the risk of proliferation of WMD. Baghdad's regime did use such weapons in the past. Today, a number of evidences may lead to think that, over the past four years, in the absence of international inspectors, this country has continued armament programs.” Even today, President Clinton, Bush's arch-enemy, has refused to say that the attack on Iraq was a mistake, given the situation at the time.
Yet today most people think Bush lied about the whole thing, there was no reason at all to take out Hussein, and we went into Iraq "just for the oil." You know, being against an attack on Iraq is one thing, and I understand that. But how stupefyingly cynical it is to say the President went in ONLY FOR THE OIL, ONLY to benefit his Texas oil buddies! How unfairly and ignorantly dismissive of all the other issues involved! It's almost as if these people never knew about all the other stuff, or perhaps conveniently decided not to remember it....
Lastly, let's consider President Obama and the nation's current economic problems. Blame for the mess we're in lands squarely on the shoulders of his predecessor, George Bush, with healthy chunks of responsibility also for Congress, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, uber-greedy Wall Streeters, mortgage lenders, asleep-at-the-wheel regulators, spendaholic Americans, and others. But little if any of it is Obama's fault, in reality.
During the election, it was clear that the country was on the precipice, in danger of falling into a genuine and catastrophic depression that might make the 1930s look kind by comparison. Nobody had any illusions that we'd turn things around anytime soon, that it wouldn't take many hundreds of billions (if not trillions) of federal spending to avoid a disaster, and many months, if not years, to turn things around. Few, if any, respected economists, business leaders, or politicians were arguing that the government just let the big financial firms collapse, taking the rest of us with them. Do you remember anybody suggesting that as a prudent policy? Similarly, most every expert thought it was obvious that the unemployment rate was headed into double digits: 10%, maybe 12% - even 15% if we weren't lucky. Sure, lots of people hoped the government's plans might cause the unemployment rate to top out around 8%, but nobody was seriously betting on it.
But now, a year or so later, unemployment's at 10% and the deficit is over $1 trillion, and Obama's a) a reckless spender, destroying our nation (if you're a conservative Republican), or b) hasn't done nearly enough because unemployment's above 8%! (if you're a liberal). I guess the Republicans forget that Bush was the original ridiculous deficit spender, that he pushed through his own $700 billion economic rescue package just before Obama's election, and that he, not Obama, appointed Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner (whom the Republicans love to hate today) to the Fed. Meanwhile, I guess the Democrats forgot what a huge mess Obama inherited, and forgot that it's not the kind of thing you turn around in a year. Is it Obama and his policies that have changed since the election, or the public's short attention span attitude that's changed? Hint: this is what's called a rhetorical question.
It's frustrating to live in a world of short memories. What everybody clearly understands one day, the next day they don't even seem to remember. And so politicians are always corrupt bums, idiots, and sell-outs because - wait for it..... - the answers are always just so simple, to everyone who's not in a position of power.
This view, this possibility, can resolve a lot of conflict between believers and skeptics. It would allow Christians to remain faithful to their faith without having to fight the realities of science and logic, while giving many agnostics the rationale to finally accept Christianity. Yet it would still allow atheists to deny the existence of God, and would surely infuriate conservative Christians who insist that every word of the Bible and the church Fathers is literally true. And so it is: many people are too set in their beliefs to consider new ways of looking at things based on new evidence and new theories. If you’re one of those people, then this essay isn’t for you and you can stop reading now.
If, on the other hand, you are interested in how one might reconcile the beliefs of Christianity with the knowledge we’ve gained in the 2000 years since Jesus’ life – you may find some answers in the following essay. Before going on, let me just say that I don’t pretend to be an expert on the Bible or Christianity. I’ve studied them a fair amount over the years, but as a casual and curious observer rather than a devoted scholar. So I fully expect that serious students of Christianity will take exception to some of my readings of the Bible, and offer up alternative views of their own. This leads me to my second disclaimer. I offer the ideas and theories here that seem to me to be interesting, rational, and believable alternatives to certain conventional, traditional Christian beliefs. Just as I don’t insist to be an expert on the subject, I don’t insist that these ideas are right – just something to think about, something that you also might think is worth pondering.
The Testimony of Simon
“…The man Jesus spent many years spreading his message throughout the lands of Judea and Galilee. I was the first of his followers, but our number grew since many believed his words possessed great meaning. We traveled with him, watching as he eased suffering, brought hope, and stirred salvation.
Jesus taught me to pray. He talked of God, the final judgment, and the end of time. I came to think that he could even control the wind and waves since he stood so afar above us. The religious elders taught that pain, sickness, and tragedy were God’s judgment and we should accept that wrath with the sorrow of a penitent. Jesus said that was wrong and offered the sick the courage to become well, the weak the ability to grow a strong spirit, and nonbelievers the chance to believe. Jesus possessed a purpose, he lived his life to fulfill that purpose, and that purpose was clear to those of us who followed him.
…. In Jerusalem the man Jesus and six others were taken to a place on the hill and bound by thongs to the cross. Later in the day, the legs of three of the men were broken and they succumbed by nightfall. Two more died the next day. The man Jesus was allowed to linger until the third, when his legs were finally broken. After he died, Jesus was left on his cross for six more days while birds picked his flesh. He was finally taken from the cross and dropped into a hole dug from the ground. I watched that happen, then fled Jerusalem by way of the desert, stopping in Bethany at the home of Mary called Magdalene and her sister, Martha. They had known Jesus and were saddened by his death. They were angry at me for not defending him, for not acknowledging him, for fleeing when he was suffering. I asked them what they would have had me do and their answer was clear. ‘Join him.’ I left their home, returning days later to Galilee and the comfort of that which I knew.
Those who had traveled with the man Jesus - James and John - also returned to Galilee. Together we shared our grief over the loss of Jesus and resumed our life as fishermen. As we fished on the Sea of Galilee we talked of Jesus and all that he did and all that we witnessed. His memory seemed everywhere upon the waters, which made our grief even harder to escape. One night, as a storm swirled across the lake and we sat on shore eating bread and fish, I thought I saw the man Jesus upon the mist. But when I waded out I knew that the vision was only in my mind. Every morning we broke bread and ate fish. Remembering what Jesus once did, one of us would bless the bread and offer it up in praise of God. This act made us all feel better. One day John commented that the broken bread was so like the broken body of Jesus. After that, we all started to associate the bread with the body.
Summer ended and the feat of the Tabernacle came, which was a time to celebrate the joy of the harvest. We thought it safe to travel to Jerusalem and take part. Once there, during the procession to the altar, it was read from the Psalms that the Messiah shall not die. But he shall live and recount the deeds of the Lord. One of the elders proclaimed that though the Lord has chastened the Messiah sorely, He has not given him over unto death. In the Temple we listened to readings from Zechariah, which told that one day the Lord would become king over all the earth.
Listening, I thought of Jesus and what happened to him. The reader seemed to speak directly to me when he spoke of God’s plan to strike the shepherd so that the sheep may scatter. At that moment a love took hold of me that would not let go. That night I journeyed outside Jerusalem to the spot where the Romans had buried Jesus. I knelt above his mortal remains and wondered how a simple fisherman could be the source of all truth. The high priest and scribes had judged Jesus a fraud. But I knew they were wrong. God did not require obedience to ancient laws in order to achieve salvation. God’s love was boundless. Jesus had many times said that, and in accepting his death with great courage and dignity, Jesus had given one final lesson to us all. In ending life we find life. Loving is to be loved.
All doubt left me. Grief vanished. Confusion became clarity. The man Jesus was not dead. He was alive. Resurrected within me was the risen Lord. I felt his presence as clearly as when he once stood beside me. I recalled what he said to me many times. ‘Simon, if you love me you will find my sheep.’ I finally knew that loving as he loved will allow anyone to know the Lord. Doing as he did will allow us all to know the Lord. Living as he lived is the way to salvation. God had come from heaven to dwell within Jesus and through his deeds and words the Lord became known. The message was clear. Care for the needy, comfort the distressed, befriend the rejected. DO those things and the Lord will be pleased. God took Jesus’ life so that we could see. I was merely the first to accept that truth. The task became clear. The message must live through me and others who likewise believe.
When I told John and James of my vision they saw, too. Before we left Jerusalem, we returned to the place of my vision and dug from the earth the remains of the man Jesus. We took him with us and laid him in a cave. Then I wrote this account which I placed with Jesus, for together they are the Word.”
The preceding testimony by Simon, later called Peter, one of Jesus’ 12 apostles and a founder of the Christian religion, is fictional. In sometimes paraphrased form, it comes from an interesting novel, The Templar Legacy, by Steve Berry. To reiterate: St. Peter wrote nothing of the sort, to our knowledge. But might he have written something like this? What evidence is there that these words are untrue and therefore something Peter would not say? On the other hand, what evidence exists that such an account might be closer to the truth than the traditional story of Jesus’ life and death, and the founding of the Church? As suggested earlier, there are in fact a number of reasons to suspect the latter, as even some prominent Christian leaders argue. This brings up an absolutely critical point: this essay is NOT an argument against Christianity or an attack on its followers. It is, instead, an attempt to make Christianity a more viable option than it otherwise would be to those of a questioning nature.
Devout Christians defend their beliefs by saying that those beliefs come from the Bible, and the Bible is the Word of God. Anything that disagrees with the Bible is, therefore, wrong by definition since God cannot be wrong. This automatically ends, in their minds, any argument about Christianity, the will of God, etc. There are two serious problems with this line of reasoning, however. First, all accounts in the Bible on the life and death of Jesus do not agree with one another. In fact, there are serious discrepancies amongst the four Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John). If the Gospels are truly “the gospel”- the Word of God - then why would they say different things about events at the heart of Christian belief?
The second problem has to do with how the Bible was compiled. The assertion is that even though it was written by men, their writings were inspired and directed by God. Yet we know that, aside from discrepancies among its writers as mentioned above and to be detailed later, and aside from very obvious factual errors in the Bible (e.g. the Earth is the center of the universe, the world was created in six days, etc.), there is also the issue of how writings were selected for inclusion in the Bible. We know that the Bible didn’t just appear at once as a completed tome; rather, it was pieced together over time, by men who very often disagreed over what should and should not be included. Here’s what I mean.
For the first few hundred years after the life and death of Jesus, the Christian church as such was not very formalized. A large part of organizing it into an effective body was the establishment of a unified Bible. Two major councils in North Africa, in Hippo in 393 and in Carthage in 397, established the canons of the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha. Since then there have been changes in the Old Testament, and the Apocrypha was dropped from the Protestant Bible at the Council of Trent in the 16th century. (Lost Books of the Bible, p. 9)
The two great authorities at Hippo and Carthage were Augustine and Jerome, but since it took about 200 years to finally decide on the biblical canon, other men, such as Tertullian, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus had major voices in the decision through their writings. The greatest difficulty was in choosing the Gospels, and after much controversy, four were chosen. The number four for the Gospels was apparently very important. Irenaeus, for example, says in his Adversus haereses that, “just as there are four winds, there must be four Gospels, for the Holy Spirit, the inspiration for all divine writing, is embodied in the wind.” (ibid) So we have four gospels instead of three or five or six, then, because of the four winds: this seems more like ancient pagan reasoning than the wisdom and guidance of a divine God. What wonderful words and important insights were in the Gospels not selected? Most people have no idea!
Peter’s Gospel, which was once held as highly as those of Matthew and Mark, and more highly than those of Luke and John, was ultimately rejected because it differs too much in its details from the three chosen synopses. The Gospel of Thomas was rejected because it opens by saying that he who understands the words of Jesus will be saved. This, of course, is in direct contradiction to the chosen Gospels and Paul’s Epistles, which say that it is he who believes that will be saved. (ibid) What if Thomas’ interpretation was closer to the truth than Paul’s? Were those who decided really guided entirely by God and his divine inspiration, or could they have been influenced by personal beliefs, politics, ambition, and other factors? How can we really know?
To recap, God didn’t burn the Bible’s words onto stone tablets as He is said to have done with the Ten Commandments. Instead, men – fallible, imperfect men created it over hundreds of years, choosing what should be included, what left out and, doubtless, changing the writings here and there as they thought appropriate. So I don’t know about you, but, I find it hard to see the Bible as 100% God’s direct, divine words, untouched by man.
What exactly is the source of this belief that the Bible is God’s unadulterated Word? He did not appear to you or your parents and tell you so. Did Jesus himself write the New Testament? Did the books of the Bible miraculously appear from heaven in view of thousands of witnesses? Of course not. So then who said they were God’s Word? Men did. Religious leaders. Guided by the Holy Spirit – they say. So let’s see if I’ve got this right: Certain men decided what should be in the Bible, and then they told us that the Bible was the Word of God. Does anybody see a problem with this? How exactly is it different from a cult leader like Jim Jones, or an Islamic fanatic, or a person on the street telling us to follow them because God is talking to them?
I’m often amazed by what the Bible actually means. I’ll read a passage and think it says one thing, but then on hearing what the Pope or prominent ministers or my Christian friends say about it, well I’m often surprised how little I understood it. For example, we read in Joshua 10:12-13 “Then spoke Joshua to the Lord in the day when the Lord gave the Amorites over to the men of Israel; and he said in the sight of Israel, "Sun, stand thou still at Gibeon, and thou Moon in the valley of Aijalon." And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. The sun stayed in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day.” It’s not clear at all to me that this explains the overall relationship between the Sun, the Earth and the Universe. But according to the Catholic Church in the time of Galileo “"The proposition that the sun is in the center of the world and immovable from its place is absurd, philosophically false, and formally heretical; because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scriptures". Martin Luther and John Calvin, representing the Protestant world, both agreed that the Bible tell us that the Earth is the center of the Universe. So I guess that’s what it means in Joshua, and boy don’t I feel stupid for not realizing it! (The Crime of Galileo: Indictment and Abjuration of 1633". Modern History Sourcebook. Retrieved on 2007-07-24)
Yet, one church leader tells us the Bible says one thing while another leader says it means another. Meanwhile, leaders from the same church change what they say the Bible says over time. For example, witches, Jews, and others were burned by the thousands during the Inquisition, based partly on this verse from John 15:6 “If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” But I can’t think of any church leader today who thinks we ought to burn Jews and other non-believers….
So what changed? Was it the Bible? No – obviously it was Man’s (men’s) interpretation of the Bible that changed. And if the interpretation of church leaders was Divinely guided a few hundred years ago, then does that mean that these new leaders with new interpretations are not? Or that God was mistaken then, and changed His mind? Yeah – probably that’s not what’s going on. Clearly, even if the Bible was divinely inspired – and that’s a big IF – then it is still true that Christian beliefs aren’t so much based on the Bible as on what selected people at different times say it means. So you know what? This idea that the conventional church wisdom is based strictly on the Bible, which is in turn always the Word of God, simply doesn’t match up to the facts, and saying so doesn’t make me a heretic, a “non-believer”, or any of the other derogatory terms that describe those who question the church(es).
But the fact is that the Bible has been accepted as the Word, and as time went by, with every priest and every parent telling children this is the way it is century after century, people couldn’t even conceive of questioning the Bible’s words. And that’s too bad, because the Bible is a great book, containing much wisdom, inspiration, and beauty. But it’s pretty clearly not all the Word of God. Not every word, not literally.
“What does the Bible mean when it is freed from debilitating literalism?”
Bishop John Shelby Spong
Midrash. It’s the ancient Jewish practice of interpreting holy writings and tweaking them to fit new times or new situations. The Jewish Encyclopedia says that among other things, midrash “illustrate(s) the future by appealing to the past.” In a way then, it’s story-telling in order to get a point across. Which takes us to the other big problem with the Bible, as it relates to the story of Jesus himself. According to Jeffrey John, who is a New Testament scholar and dean at Oxford’s prestigious Magdalen College in England, “The birth narratives (of Jesus) are quite obviously Haggadic midrash.” John Shelby Spong, who is a Bishop in the Episcopal church and a devout Christian, claims that “Christian scriptures and traditions “have borrowed freely, if not always consciously, from the mythology of the ages.” Furthermore, Spong agrees that “The Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John are products of the tradition of midrash far more than most Christians have ever imagined.” In simple words, they (the stories of Jesus in the New Testament) are built upon myths and earlier Bible stories, and are not all literally true. For example, the story of the young Jesus in the temple was patterned after Samuel and his experience in the temple. The “wise men” came out of the 60th chapter of Isaiah. The “guiding star” had appeared earlier in the birth of Abraham, Isaac, and even Moses. Many more examples of this kind of thing can be found in 1 Kings, Numbers, and elsewhere. Remember: a devout, highly-educated theologian and Christian bishop says this, not an enemy of Christ and the church. (Resurrection: Myth or Reality, by John Shelby Spong, p. 15)
“Most people have no difficulty seeing the mythological elements in a religious system other than their own. The problem comes when looking at one’s own traditions. Most of us are too close to our own faith to see clearly…” So said Joseph Campbell, the great American student of mythology. The story (myth?) of Jesus’ virgin birth has been repeated countless times in almost every religious system, from Zoroaster to Romulus and Remus, for example. His return to God in a cosmic ascension is another theme that is quite popular in many religious traditions, such as Buddha and Osiris. (ibid, p. 40)
Spong says of the Christian Scriptures that “… none of them has either the quality or advantage of being an eyewitness account. There are serious conflicts about dates, names, places, and events.” So just what are some of these inconsistencies and other problems of accuracy in the Gospels? Well, first of all it’s important to acknowledge that none of the authors were in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth, yet they’re able to tell us (with different details, depending on the author) just what happened. The temptation in the wilderness happened while Jesus was alone, according to Matthew 4 and Luke 4, yet they can tell us all about it. Similarly, the content of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethesamane, which he uttered after leaving Peter, James, and John (Luke 22:41) was something that Jesus himself must have told his disciples. However, upon Jesus’ return he found his disciples asleep and he was immediately thereafter betrayed, arrested, tried, convicted, and crucified. When and how could he have told them? The Gospels tell us that all of the disciples forsook Jesus and fled when he was arrested, yet we are given in the accounts of the crucifixion intimate details as to what Jesus said, what the crowd said, what the penitent thief said, what the non-penitent thief said, and what the centurion said. (ibid pp. 7,8)
Still not addressing the most vexing inconsistencies, we should acknowledge that the Gospels make claims to contain the words Jesus spoke. However, none were written in the language he spoke. They were all written in Greek, while Jesus seems to have spoken Aramaic, a version of Hebrew. The narratives entered the Mediterranean world, and were then translated into the Greek language. Still later, they passed into Latin, and then later still into the languages that emerged in the Western world, e.g. English, French, German. Now, were God guiding all of these translations, we might guess that no word meanings were changed and today’s Bible is a 100% accurate portrayal of what was originally written (by people who didn’t witness the events, I may remind you). But am I really going out on a limb by guessing that some of the original intentions of Jesus’ Aramaic words and the Apostle’s Greek writings might have been changed somewhat through all these translations over the years?
Let’s finally look at some of the specific contradictions found in the Gospels. Matthew says Jesus was an aristocrat, descended from David. Luke agrees with the David connection, but points to a lesser class. Mark went in a different direction and spawned the image of a poor carpenter. Jesus’ birth is also told differently. Luke says shepherds visited. Matthew called them wise men. Luke said the holy family lived in Nazareth and journeyed to Bethlehem for a birth in a manger. Matthew says the family was well off and lived in Bethlehem, where Jesus was born in a house. (Berry, p. 323)
All of them say that the disciples fled at Jesus’ arrest some 30 years later, so none were there. Yet detailed accounts of the crucifixion are recorded in all four Gospels! Faithful Christians say the information came from God’s inspiration. But the four Gospels, the so-called Words of God, conflict with each other more than they agree in this regard. Does God get confused? Concerning the crucifixion, John says the day before Passover, the other three say the day after. Even the Savior’s final words varied. Matthew and Mark say is was “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In Luke he says “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” In John it is even simpler: “It is finished.” (Berry, pp. 323-4)
In Paul there is no sense at all of a physical resurrection of Jesus back into the life of this world. Instead, Paul claims that God raised Jesus from death into His presence; from the grave to God’s right hand. (Spong, p. 50) Similarly, Mark’s story of the resurrection significantly challenges the common wisdom of traditional Christians who “are trapped inside the literal physical images of a premodern world.” A careful reading of Mark will simply not support those literal assumptions. (ibid, p. 60) Meanwhile, we see the narrative of Easter take big leaps in Matthew. (ibid, p. 72) And finally, Luke was the first author to write from a gentile perspective. “The images that rise out of Jewish mythology, anthropology, and apocalyptic visions in Paul and Mark and, to a lesser degree, Matthew, have been replaced in Luke by what Edward Schillebeeckx called the ‘rapture model’ image or the ‘divine man’ image.” This was an image that gentiles would understand, because it was popular in Roman mythology. Stories about Romulus, the founder of Rome, employed this “divine man” model when Romulus revealed to the people of Rome that Caesar was “lord of the world”. (ibid, pp. 76-77)
According to the literal texts of the Gospels, which we are told were divinely inspired by all-knowing God, who went to the tomb at dawn on the first day of the week? Mark’s was the first Gospel, written around 70 AD. Only 8 of 665 verses deal with the Resurrection, the key event in Christianity! It does not mention that the disciples believed Jesus had been raised from the dead. Instead, it tells us that the disciples fled. Only women appear in Mark’s version of what happened; Mark named Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome as his Easter Day tomb visitors. They flee, telling no one what they saw. There are no angels, only a young man dressed in white who calmly announces that “He has risen.” No guards, no burial clothes, and no risen Lord.
Matthew’s testimony came a decade later. Matthew named only Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” at the tomb. Mark’s Gospel had left many unanswered questions, so Matthew changed the story to suit his troubled time after the Romans destroyed the Temple and Jews fled into the Greek-speaking world. In Matthew, an angel descends in an earthquake and announces the resurrection. Guards are struck down. The stone has been removed from the tomb, and an angel perches upon it. Contrary to Mark, the women rush out to tell the disciples what’s happened and actually see the risen Christ.
By the time of Luke, written around 90 AD, the Jewish Christians had moved further away from Judaism and Luke modified the resurrection story to fit this. Luke said that Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, Joanna, and “some other women” went to the tomb; they find it empty and go to tell the disciples. Luke then tells a story that appears nowhere else in the Gospels: Jesus travels in disguise, encounters some disciples, shares a meal, then vanishes when he’s recognized. There is another encounter later with all of the disciples where He eats with them and then vanishes again. And only in Luke do we find the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven.
Then there’s John, written the furthest away from Jesus’ life – around 100 AD. There are again many changes, almost as if John is describing a different Christ. No Bethlehem birth – Jesus is born in Nazareth instead. Rather than the 3 year ministry of the other Gospels, John says it was only one year. The Last Supper occurred on the day before the Passover, the crucifixion on the day the Passover lamb was slaughtered; this is also different from the other three Gospels. John also moved the cleansing of the Temple from the day after Palm Sunday to a time early in Christ’s ministry. In John, Mary Magdalene alone goes to the tomb and finds it empty. She never even considers a resurrection, but instead thinks the body has been stolen. Only when she returns with Peter and the other disciple does she see two angels. Then the angels are transformed into Jesus Himself, according to John.
All of these preceding details come from Spong’s book, p. 101, and Berry’s book, pp. 334-336. Even though Berry’s book is fiction, I believe that the points mentioned above are in fact Biblically accurate. And so it appears among other things, through the years the record grew from Mark’s young man dressed in white, to Matthew’s dazzling angel of the Lord, to Luke’s two angels, to John’s two angels who fade into being Jesus himself. “One wonders where objectivity is in this migratory narrative that picks up legendary details as it wanders through time.” (Spong, p. 102) Some of this contradictory data is not terribly significant, while some of it is rather troubling. But in all cases, the contradictions reveal a lack of reliability in the accounts that describe critical moments in the story of Christ. They also neutralize any claim that the Bible is always and in its every word, infallible.
“The myth of Christ has served us well" – Pope Leo X (1513-1521)
I don’t know if we can go along with this quote. There’s a lot of controversy over whether the Pope actually said this, let alone in what context. (See a priest’s comments on this here: http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20070710113830AAR8BlS) I am greatly disinclined to think that the Catholic church intentionally created an entire myth about the man Jesus in order to control people, amass great wealth, etc.
On the other hand, there seems to be ample reason to question whether the true story of Jesus and his death is exactly as the church says. It is a fact that the Bible isn’t always completely accurate (the Earth is not the center of the universe and was not created in six days), it is a fact that it often contains contradictory statements (there were guards, burial clothes, and 2 angels at Jesus’ tomb; no, there were no guards, burial clothes, or angels at his tomb!), and it is a fact that our church leaders change their minds radically on what the Bible means (we must burn witches and Jews; no, we shouldn’t burn anybody!). A great deal of evidence supports the idea that the Bible was written by men, not by God. There are valid reasons to think that a number of Bible passages were based on myths from previous cultures, or updated versions of earlier Bible stories.
Dr. Frank Crane, an influential Presbyterian minister and columnist some one hundred years ago said: “It must be remembered also that such a thing as historical accuracy is a comparatively novel product. The older writers never dreamed of it. They wrote in order to be interesting, not to tell the truth.” (Lost Books of the Bible, p. 14) Rather clearly, the Gospel discrepancies have shown that we don’t know the whole truth about Jesus, his death, and his possible resurrection. Almost certainly, the story changed over the years; almost certainly the whole truth is not the sanitized, standardized version that all of us were taught.
And so we come back to the fictitious Testimony of Simon, and to Bishop Spong’s theories. It makes sense that they may actually be closer to the truth than is traditional church canon. While most Christians simply cannot conceive of such a possibility it would, as mentioned in this essay’s beginning, answer a lot of questions and resolve a lot of conflict. Devout Christians can still revere Jesus as the greatest teacher, strive to emulate his life and actions, and see him “at the hand of God” and the key to everlasting (spiritual) life.
This point of view – that Jesus Christ and the Bible have much knowledge and good to offer humanity, even if the stories are not always literally true – resolves all sorts of other problems as well. (See my earlier essay: Evolution vs. Creation for more on this) Folks who believe in a Higher Power, but who have been turned off by Christianity’s rejection of science and logic when those things disagree with literal interpretations of the Bible, would tend to embrace a church that allows as how some parts of the Bible were more parable or past lore updated to fit the times, than literal truth.
Unfortunately, such a change in church doctrine is unlikely, and I expect few if any conservative Christians to be receptive to the idea. That would require considering that what you’ve been taught all your life is not exactly correct, and most people simply won’t do that. They see this kind of stuff as an attack on who they are, and just can’t open their minds to evidence, logic, and other possibilities. What a shame….