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Center of the World

As regular readers realize by now, I’m a fan of the Great Lectures series, whichever name it goes by. Only the Egyptian history lectures have disappointed so far—but I have to say, the lectures on religion in the classical Mediterranean world come close. On the whole, the lectures are enjoyable, informative, and well narrated. But I, for one, found the lecturer’s apparent favoritism for his own religion occasionally annoying.

The effect is subtle; pointing to a particular statement and shouting “There! That’s religious bias and/or historically inaccurate!” is impossible. But the lectures contain a palpable if implicit tendency to frame religious traditions more sympathetically according to how closely they resemble the speaker’s own beliefs, and to treat the history of religion as an ongoing advance towards the pinnacle of modern religious sophistication, a process akin to technological progress. Once noticed, the tendency is impossible to ignore.

For example, I noticed that Professor and Bishop Glenn S. Holland describes shortcomings of several ancient religions as a problem with the religions: Egyptian religion is unsatisfactory because it provides no comprehensive ethical guidance, Mesopotamian religion is unsatisfactory because it offers no hope of a better life to come, Greek religion is unsatisfactory because the gods can be openly cruel. Shortcomings of Christianity, however, including those it shares with its Judaic parent, are described as problems for the religion: Holland addresses the Problem of Pain—how an omnipotent and loving god could permit human suffering, much less knowingly create a world with suffering—in introducing Judaism, but does so as a question to be resolved, and goes on to “resolve” it by anticipating the answers of the much later Catholic church. Whether those answers resolve anything is open to considerable question.

Similarly, practices that might seem unpalatable to 20th century Americans are treated as shortcomings of the religion, unless those practices are Christian, in which case, they are shortcomings of the practitioners, who aren’t doing it right. Holland eagerly explains that the earliest years of the Christian church—the “Jesus movement,” as he calls it—was egalitarian in nature, notably including women in prominent roles, in contrast to the exclusively male priesthoods of other religions of the region. This struck me immediately as a false contrast; whatever its roots, Christian leadership rapidly became exclusively male, so it hardly deserves distinction from other religions that had already had centuries and devolve into sexism. After five to ten minutes of praising Christian gender equality, Holland spends twenty seconds admitting that, within a generation, that equality broke down, shaking his head sadly at the appearance of a doctrine not inherent to the church.

Admissions like that are what make the bias of the lectures subtle, and forestall accusations of bias by dipping briefly into other perspectives. The recognition of Christian failings is there, but the attention, mind you, was lavished on that virtuous first generation, and not the millennia of bigotry to follow. The recognition of the Problem of Pain is there, though rapidly written off with promises of an afterlife that doesn’t really explain why pain should exist at all. The tone of perpetual improvement in religious thought made me curious whether Islam would be treated as yet a further improvement on Christianity. At the very least, its early, reform-minded days would highlight a cycle common to religions of early virtue hardening into authoritarian doctrine. But, alas, Islam is not mentioned at all. Perhaps it was ignored as not truly Mediterranean, but that raises the question of why Scythian mystery cults made the list; perhaps it was ignored as not truly belonging to the classical era, but that raises the question of why paleolithic religions made the list.

As an atheist regularly frustrated by religious bias, perhaps I am hypersensitive to the favoritism shown here. However sensitive I am, however, the bias is indeed there. At one point, Holland warns his students that few speakers on religion are free of bias, and openly counts himself among religious historians with a definite preference for one over another. Well, all right…but realizing that, part of a religious historian’s job is policing himself and seeking to correct, or at least compensate for, that bias. Admission of sin is not a license to practice that sin, as I’m sure His Excellency understands.

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