Those Other Messiahs…

September 2, 2009

I told a friend recently about Sabbatei Zevi, the apostate messiah who I’ve written about before (in one of my favorite posts). An excerpt:

Understandably, when Sabbetai got to Istanbul, the sultan was pissed. The sultan had him arrested for rebellion and imprisoned in Gallipoli. His followers held faithfully to their hope that this all part of the plan. While he was in prison, Armstrong reports, Sabbetai began signing his letters “I am the Lord your God, Sabbetai Zevi.” No ambiguous “Son of Man” claims here.

But, fatefully, on being brought back to Istanbul for trial, Sabbetai was back in a depressive phase. One has to wonder how history would be different if he had been in a manic, prophetic phase. Forced to choose between death (which might have made him a martyr or a savior) and conversion to Islam, Sabbetai put on the turban and took a second wife as his harem. His followers were crushed.

But while most of them fell away and became disillusioned, a core of the truly dedicated (or delusional) remained:

‘The experience of redemption had been so profound that they could not believe that God had allowed them to be deluded. It is one of the most striking instances of religious experience of salvation taking precedence over mere facts and reason. Faced with the choice of abandoning their newfound hope or accepting an apostate Messiah, a surprising number of Jews of all classes refused to submit to the hard facts of history. Nathan of Gaza devoted the rest of his life to preaching the mystery of Sabbetai: by converting to Islam, he had continued his lifelong battle with the forces of evil. Yet again, he had been impelled to violate the deepest sanctities of his people.’

I find Sabbatei Zevi particularly fascinating because he’s one of only a handful of claimants to the title of messiah who still have followers today (the most notable example being Jesus of Nazareth).

This led me to wonder just how many people have claimed to be the messiah. And, like all great questions that have been asked by humanity, this one has a Wikipedia page to answer it.

This is going to be fun reading!

FaithConverter 1.1

June 29, 2007

There’s a neat software package that will convert text from one religious website to another. Here’s a sample of converting from Christianity to Falun Gong.


One of the “reviews” struck me as particularly funny:

“For all aspiring (or even candidating) UU ministers/seminarians who’ve complained about the tedious work of translating their non-UU textbooks into a workable theological language. Your prayers are answered. Now quit your whinging.”

Sorry, it’s only available for Macs.

(Via Pharyngula)

Not the Only Farmers in the Field

June 7, 2007

I’ve been delighting in the sheer breadth of information provided by Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale. It’s unfortunate that my biochemistry degree hasn’t required me to take a zoology course, but even if I had had a thorough zoological training, I think there would still be a number of species presented in The Ancestor’s Tale that would surprise me. Here’s a neat example: the leaf cutter ant.

Just as humanity did at the time of our Agricultural Revolution, ants independently invented the town. A single nest of leaf cutter ants, Atta, can exceed the population of Greater London. It is a complicated underground chamber, up to 6 meters deep and 20 meters in circumference, surmounted by a somewhat smaller dome above ground. This huge ant city, divided into hundreds or even thousands of separate chambers connected by networks of tunnels, is sustained ultimately by leaves cut into manageable pieces and carried home by workers in broad, rustling rivers of green. But the leaves are not eaten directly, either by the ants themselves (though they do suck some of the sap) or by the larvae. Instead they are painstakingly mulched as compost for underground fungus gardens. It is the small round knobs or “gongylidia’ of the fungi that the ants eat and, more particular, that they feed to the larvae…When a young queen ant flies off to found a new colony, she takes a precious cargo with her: a small culture of the fungus with which to sow the first crop in her new nest.

So, there’s complex, city-sustaining agriculture for you. Now how about keeping cows:

Several groups of ants have independently evolved the habit of keeping domestic ‘dairy’ animals in the form of aphids. Unlike other symbiotic insects that live inside ants’ nests and don’t benefit the ants, the aphids are pastured out in the open, sucking sap from plants as they normally do. As with mammalian cattle, aphids have a high throughput of food, taking only a small amount of nutriment from each morsel. The residue that emerges from the rear end of aphid is sugar-water–‘honeydew’–only slightly less nutritious than the plant sap that goes in at the front. Any honeydew not eaten by ants rains down from trees infested with aphids, and is plausibly thought to be the origin of ‘manna’ in the Book of Exodus. It should not be surprising that ants gather it up, for the same reason as the followers of Moses did. Btu some ants have gone further and corralled aphids, giving them protection in exchange for being allowed to ‘milk’ the aphids, tickling their rear ends to make them secrete honeydew which the ant eats directly from aphid’s anus.

I bet you never thought you could read a book on biology and get a lesson on ants that involve sBiblical history and graphic sex. Cheers!

The Apostate Messiah

December 27, 2006


Here’s a (relatively) little known historical episode, as related by Karen Armstrong in A History of God. In the 17th century a Jew named Sabbetai Zevi proclaimed himself to be the Messiah. Sabbetai (one of many spellings) was embraced by both rabbis and common Jews, throughout Europe and elsewhere.

Sabbetai Zevi grew up in the Jewish community in Smyrna, in what is today Turkey. Today he would probably be diagnosed as manic-depressive, as he had “periods of deep despair, when he used to withdraw from his family and live in seclusion” which were followed by “an elation that bordered on ecstasy.” During his manic days Sabbetai would “deliberately and spectacularly break the Law of Moses: he would publicly eat forbidden foods, utter the sacred Name of God and claim that he had been inspired to do so by a special revelation.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Auschwitz: God on Trial

December 23, 2006


(Merry Christmas)

While I haven’t read Elie Wiesel’s The Trial of God, I have read his Night. I found Night to be one of the most ghastly things I’ve ever read, due to its simple descriptions and basis in the reality of the Holocaust. In Night, Elie Wiesel describes the hanging of a child in Auschwitz. In A History of God, Karen Armstrong describes the episode thus:

It took the child half an hour to die, while the prisoners were forced to look him in the face. The same man asked again: “Where is God now?” And Wiesel heard a voice within him make this answer: “Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Is Sam Harris Jewish?

December 21, 2006

It seems that a significant number of people end up at my blog after asking that question (at least a few dozen a week). For some reason, when you Google that question, my blog is in the top 10. I’m not sure why someone would care if a certain famous atheist is Jewish or not (maybe it has to do with all those entertaining world conspirarcy theories), but judge for yourself:


Sorry, but I just don’t see it. However, he does look a lot like Ben Stiller:


(I think Ben Stiller simply got a nose job to cover up the fact that he’s really a raving atheist.)

On another note, I read in this piece called “The Grinch Delusion” that Sam Harris’s mother is actually Jewish, while his father is a Quaker. I guess that makes him a Quewish Jaker atheist. And since, according to Judaism 101’s “Who is a Jew?” section, a Jew is anybody whose mother was a Jew, then yes, Sam Harris is Jewish.

And (according to The Grinch Delusion, linked above) Harris actually has a Christmas tree in his house (his wife made him get it). But neither he nor Richard Dawkins are uncomfortable with saying things such as “Merry Christmas” because the holiday has become so thoroughly secularized and commercialized that it’s obviously not about Jesus anymore. Eat your heart out, Bill O’Reilly.

Abraham the Polytheist?

December 20, 2006


More interesting thoughts from Karen Armstrong’s A History of God. In discussing the origins of monotheism, she presents a more nuanced view than what I learned growing up. I always assumed that while a lot of the early figures in Genesis (like Adam and Noah) knew God, by the time of Abraham most people were polytheists, and Abraham correctly recognized that there was only one God. (All of this assumes that these figures were actual people and not legends. Adam and Noah are certainly legendary, since there was no first man, and no Flood, while Abraham’s historicity is disputable, though somewhat irrelevant.)

Read the rest of this entry »

God as Meme

December 19, 2006


While I’ve already started two or three other books simultaneously (I’ve really got to quit that), Karen Armstrong’s A History of God is the first to really catch my attention this holiday break. Armstrong is a journalist and former Catholic nun. The latter didn’t work out too well for her. Lately she’s been writing numerous books on world religions, and A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is a New York Times bestseller. I decided it was worth buying when I read an admiringly introduced quote of hers in both a book by Sam Harris and by a Christian (although I don’t recall what book or blog that was in now). Also, I just read a nice piece over at Ethical Spectacle, with an interesting Personal History of God.

So how does Armstrong introduce her grand, far-reaching survey of religious history?

This book will not be a history of ineffable reality of God itself, which is beyond time and change, but a history of the way men and women have perceived him from Abraham to the present day. The human idea of God has a history, since it has always mean something slightly different to each group of people who have used it at various points of time. The idea of God formed in one generation by one set of human beings could be meaningless in another. Indeed, the statement “I believe in God” has no objective meaning, as such, but like any other statement only means something in context, when proclaimed by a particular community. Consequently there is no one unchanging idea contained in the word “God”; instead, the word contains a whole spectrum of meanings, some of which are contradictory or even mutually exclusive. Had the notion of God not had this flexibility, it would not have survived to become one of the great human ideas.

Read the rest of this entry »