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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Italian court to decide whether Jesus existed

Ah, it takes an Italian to do this! Luigi Cascioli, an Italian atheist, has sued the Catholic Church (and his former seminary friend, now a priest) on the ground that it has violated two Italian laws: the one against the "abuso di credulita` popolare" (abuse of popular credulity) and the one against "sostituzione di persona" (impersonation under false pretenses).

The plaintiff claims that the Church is taking advantage of people by constructing fables (true) and obtaining money (also true), which of course would violate the first law. Also, according to Cascioli, the figure of Jesus was "constructed" by the Church on the basis of the historical figure of John of Gamala, a 1st century Jew who fought against the Romans. This would violate the second law referred to above.

I have no idea about the substance of the second claim, but the first one certainly has merit. Then again, if that law were to be taken seriously, all astrologers and politicians in Italy would be in jail, which seems a very unlikely scenario. Indeed, Cascioli himself has jokingly admitted that "it would take a miracle" for his lawsuit to succeed. Well, who knows, perhaps a rival God might lend a hand? Praise Jupiter, ya all!


  1. Since here you can get away with collecting money from the public if you are a "non-profit" does Italy have this kind of label for the church?

  2. From a post I made in the JREF forums:

    This link seems to be the author's "case" against Christ in that article to which you linked: http://www.luigicascioli.it/dueprove_eng.php

    I especially find this bit amusing:

    "Now they had to counterfeit the names of Galilean and Nazarite, which meaning Zealot"

    Um, never mind that Galilee was, um, the northern region of Palestine and is well-attested even outside Christian texts, and that Nazarite meant a guy who took a vow to not cut his hair or drink anything intoxicating, regardless of whether he did any fighting.

    This guy's a nut.

  3. "Well, who knows, perhaps a rival God might lend a hand?"

    Even seemingly credible persons on the left have actually thought from time to time that a "rival god" might lend them a hand.

    note the following story:

    Bolivian President Morales to Seek Blessing From Andean Gods


    welcome back..

  4. Should add, the bigger issue here is that most Catholics don't know what they believe anyway. And it’s fairly easy to drag a person in any direction one pleases, when he has no idea what he believes.

    The significant difference here in reference to laws and what can actually be considered sue-worthy, is that Italian laws (like all others) will inevitably rise, fall be either displaced or literally overthrown. But “the law" that God has written on each person's heart is eternal. We can fuss or dispute this fact. But we know right from wrong whether we acknowledge a source or authority for the category of knowledge or not.

    It will be interesting to note around Easter (when the “Da Vinci Code” is released in the cinema) how thoroughly taken up some people will become with the whole notion of the “fallibility “of the Biblical account. I am often surprised at how obviously illegitimate sources for information will become credible to us when we would rather not believe or take an interest in the alternative.

    In essence, that is the way a person behaves when he/she doesn’t know what he believes and why he believes it. The only hope (in ref to things that "fool" us)is to change the world for the better, one life at a time.


  5. Curious,

    I don't know what Italy's categorization of "non-profit" is, but I'm sure they have something equivalent. The Catholic Church, however, enjoyes a special status because of a treaty with the Italian government -- originally signed by Mussolini, of all people, and recently revised by the current neo-fascist government.

  6. I think it would be nice to have a law against "abuse of popular credulity" here in the U.S. I don't know if I would use it against churches, but I would love to see self proclaimed psycics and mediums forced to take a test in order to get a license to profit from their, ahem, "abilities." Lets put James Randi in charge of the Department of Supernatural Abillities Licensing. Something tells me we will end up with alot of bored employees in that office.


  7. I think it would be nice to have a law against "abuse of popular credulity" here in the U.S.

    Hm... but then politics would have to be abolished (and that's not an exclusively american problem) :-)

    Anyway, the Jesus thing. IMHO, it does not matter much if there really was a guy called Jesus who started a sect which happened to become popular or if actually the persona was built based on one (or more?) people from the period, or even if it is completely ficticious. It's pretty much a pointless exercise. If the historical evidence was really overwhelming and beyond reasonable doubt, there would be no discussion at all. It's hard to take religious "documents" seriously, specially given how much is at stake for many people - people who can be much better off if they embelish a thing or two about their own religion and their prophets/saints/etc. But, on the other hand, much of ancient characters is more legend than history anyway by now, so scarcity of reliable records wouldn't be enough to disqualify anybody too quickly.

    But my main concern really is with "rocking the boat" here. Sure, it would be nice and intellectually honest to try getting the historical truth and all that, but it is counterproductive, given the ongoing cultural war in some places. Questioning the existence of the main character of a religion is a sure way to alienate possible moderate religious people who would otherwise be good allies in many issues during these times.

    For example, we recently had an educator speak at one of our meetings (RRNA: Richmond Reason and Naturalism Association). She trains future science teachers, and she was talking about the challenges science teaching is facing nowadays from religous fundamentalists, and their dirty tactics in trying to mess up the science curriculum. Detail: we all agreed in every respect of the issue. We are atheists and the like. She's a practicing Catholic. But we were on the same side on that one nonetheless. Now if we started to attack religion or question the existence of Jesus, I don't think she would want to work with us for much longer...

    Sometimes we gotta "sell our souls" (pardon the French) temporarily for a greater pragmatic good, I guess... Just call that diplomacy. :-)


  8. j: "If the historical evidence was really overwhelming and beyond reasonable doubt, there would be no discussion at all."

    That objection rings hollow. The evidence for evolution is "really overwhelming and beyond reasonable doubt," yet it's contested anyway. If anything, the whole Jesus-myth stuff has a lot of commonalities with the creation-evolution debate. On the one side, there is an ideologically committed minority with weak, fallacious arguments that plays games with the facts. On the other side, there is a consensus of scholars of various theological convictions, including atheism. The biggest difference between the creation-evolution debate and the Jesus-myth debate is that the Jesus-mythers are a minor annoyance to the actual scholars, unlike creationists, who get in the way of scientists doing the real work.

  9. "That objection rings hollow. The evidence for evolution is "really overwhelming and beyond reasonable doubt," yet it's contested anyway."

    Overwhelming backwards. And it's contested plainly because the chain of reasoning is essentially credulous.

    The material world and universe itself would irrefutably go on as it is without the adaptation of species. I promise you that. Species however, would never even experience mild adaptations without the laws that are, as always, profoundly more central to reality than what happens to those species.

    If such insignificant details dictate to you what is true about the rest of reality, and the laws that form our reality, then there is no hope whatsoever of explaining to you why some people contest such theories.

    It seems rather odd that persons would contest the existence of Christ and His claims, when the little details that matter so much to evolution (and evolutionists) , and appear to shape some people’s whole reality can be molded and changed at every new turn of the page..

    That is plainly an unverifiable thing to put one’s faith in, I’d say.


  10. J.J. Ramsey,

    Of course you're right. Overwhelming evidence does not necessarily help much, as your example proves. Ideology will bulldozer facts anytime. And we should also always remember that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as Carl Sagan was fond of saying.

    Now, I have to first give a little "disclaimer" (as if it was needed anyway): I am pretty much ignorant of the subject of the historicity of Jesus - or of most other historical (or not) figures from far antiquity. I've never read into the subject since I couldn't care less if a legend was based on an actually once living person. There are lots of more important things in life to care about - unless you're an historian, whose life goal is to pursue such things, that is. So, I don't really have much reason to either doubt or be certain of Jesus' existence. Either way is fine with me, the end result is the same anyway.

    That said, I'd like to know how strong really are the independent records of Jesus existance. Are there any? Many? None? (I kind of remember having heard once that they are scarce, but I don't know if it was a reputable source or not)

    My impression is that there shouldn't be many independent detailed historical records of Christ, since he supposedly was just a regular guy, a carpenter. And nobody, specially at those times, would leave official and contemporary monuments, coins, texts, etc. about people unless they come to become kings, administrators, stuff like that, right? Of course the followers of his sect would do this kind of thing, and that's why we have all those evangels, some having been picked to compose the new testament part of the Bible and all that.

    But you know, it's pretty hard to take religious texts seriously as historical documents. They can, of course, contain some historically accurate descriptions in them, but it's so mingled with fantasy that I'd be uncomfortable trying to choose which parts are which without some external references. Then again, I don't know much what I'm talking about here, asnd real historians might see it differently. Maybe it's just the scientific way of thinking in me...

    Any good (and preferably short) reference on the subject, anyone?


  11. j: "That said, I'd like to know how strong really are the independent records of Jesus existance."

    I already wrote a SkepticWiki article on it, so I might as well link to it:


    j: "Any good (and preferably short) reference on the subject, anyone?"

    This reference is certainly short, but again, I wrote it, so me calling it good doesn't say much:


  12. Thanks a lot, J.J., I'll check it out later.


  13. Well may the religious say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but since when is absence of evidence, evidence of existence.
    It would appear that there is agreement that there is an absence of evidence.


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