On Martyrs and the Religious Impulse

Stoning of StephenThe great mistake is to assume that the early followers of Jesus had a reasonable basis for their faith, and that they would not have put themselves at hazard over a mistaken or dubious belief. We reflexively take too flattering a view of our shared human nature.

The broader history of religion offers manifold instances of martyrs sipping the bitter cup over complete falsehoods. One might even conclude that the presence of a martyrdom tradition was actually a mark against the validity of Christianity, placing it squarely in the company of myriad cults, equally bereft of truth but ever eager to slaughter animals, to self-castrate, to sacrifice children, and to die in the service of the non-existent and the false. Fervent religious zeal and false beliefs make strange but steady bedfellows in the history of faith.

One might even conclude that the presence of a martyrdom tradition was actually a mark against the validity of Christianity…

We resist admitting the fact that we are but semi-rational creatures where religion is concerned, and that people invent the oddest beliefs imaginable for themselves and for one another without recognizing that they have done so. Our wishing minds have proven reliably willing to perish over a rumor believed. In this lies an answer to all the riddles, for there stands a yawning gap between the miraculous events contained within the gospel accounts – resurrections and earthquakes and darkness and the dead emptying their tombs – and the complete silence of the pagan and Jewish records of the time. So it is for the miraculous events in Islam or Mormonism. These gulfs mirror the chasm between our reasoning faculties and our religious impulses. Reconciling the disparity requires a humbler view of our own nature, but it is an explanation which leaves no remainder.

Martyrdom is evidence only of belief, and belief is not an evidence of anything.

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