Saturday, February 11, 2006

An Atheist and a Priest Go into a Courtroom...

No, it's not a joke. But it's extremely entertaining. Too bad it's tying up a courtroom and taxpayers' dollars in Italy.

An atheist is suing a Catholic priest for falsely asserting that Jesus Christ existed as a historic person:

Cascioli claimed that Righi's assertions violated two Italian laws: one barring "abuse of popular belief," or fraudulently deceiving people; and another barring "impersonation" or personal gain from attributing a false name to someone.

The case has been dismissed by the first court, with a recommendation that prosecutors examine pursuing slander charges against Cascioli. Cascioli seems to say he will press on through the court system with his case.

There is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of Christians believe in the historic truth of the existence of Jesus Christ. Just as most Buddhists believe in the historic truth of the existence of Gautama Buddha.

Speaking as a Buddhist, I profess skepticism as to the historical existence of any of the major religious traditions' founders. Robert M. Price put forward the cold, hard facts several years ago:

An earlier generation of Western scholars of Buddhism, including R. Otto Franke, did relegate Gautama Buddha to the same bin and believed Gautama Buddha to be just a collective name for earlier generations of unnamed Buddhist teachers who, being vigorous opponents of the ego, would hardly have troubled themselves to be remembered as individuals. That must be true in large measure any way you cut it, since on anyone's reading virtually none of the teaching ascribed to him in Buddhist scripture, all of it written down only some centuries after the traditional date of the Buddha, can possibly be his. What did the Buddha himself actually teach? There is even conflict in the texts as to whether he taught the now-central Buddhist tenet that there is no individual soul (atman), or whether, like all yogis, he simply refused to identify such an exalted entity with the ego-personality.

He similarly summarizes the case against the historical existence of Moses, Jesus and (dare I say it), Muhammad.

The best way to regard religions and their texts is as blueprints for personal, spiritual growth, not as historic documents. I understand that many fundamentalists from many traditions feel that if the "historical truths" of their texts are invalidated, that the spiritual truths are therefore invalidated. I say, not so. Moreover, there is great danger in trying to impose mere historic truth on their texts, because that will negate the greater spiritual truth that the texts convey. Metaphor is more powerful than true stories. That is why even true stories often need to be exaggerated, or at least oversimplified, to become compelling narrations. As long as we make sure that we know what purports to be historic is different from what purports to be spiritual metaphor, we'll be all set.



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