If there’s one thing we can say about Michael Sherlock, it’s that he is quotable–and he loves to make “meme” images with his quotes, which others enjoy sharing. His book The Gospel of Atheism and Free Thought According to Sherlock is no less quotable. When I first heard the title, I thought, “Great minds think alike,” because I composed a book called The Gospel According to Acharya S about 20 years ago. In the same tongue-in-cheek manner, Sherlock proceeds with his own Gospel, which, like mine, has little to do with the New Testament gospel story, except as irony to expand the theological use of the term “gospel,” which in the original Greek, εὐαγγέλιον euaggelion, simply means “good news.”
As is expected, bite-sized quotes pepper the pages of GAF. Many of these are common sensical, and I agree with them wholeheartedly; some I would word differently, but freethinkers are just that: We don’t all agree on everything. On some issues, however, Sherlock and I think remarkably alike, so much so that I wondered why I once banned him from my Facebook page. Years later, when he asked me to be the co-chair on his organization Human Rights for Atheists and Agnostics, I asked him amusedly what transgression he could have committed to cause me to ban him. Neither of us remembered, and I think overall he was glad I agreed to join him, because I got him to add “Secularists” to his organization so that many millions more human beings could relate to our efforts at banning barbaric blasphemy laws globally.
In general, Sherlock’s presentation of “wisdom bites” or, in this electronic age, “wisdom bytes,” is a good one, since few people are willing to take the time to slog through masses of detailed and difficult scholarship. I know, because I write books like that, such as my latest Did Moses Exist? The Myth of the Israelite Lawgiver. Of course, I like to think of my books as eminently readable, despite their high scholarly content. That’s not to say that Sherlock doesn’t include some scholarship and historical facts in his Book of Atheist and Freethought Memes, as it could be styled.
Differences Between Atheism and Freethought
One difficulty in Sherlock’s effort is how to differentiate between atheism and freethought. To be honest, I did not see much of a difference between the “wisdom bytes” in the “Book of Atheism” and those in the “Book of Freethought.” Sherlock could have made it simply one book, without the attempt to distinguish. Perhaps his thinking was that “freethought” was more oblique and less definitive; hence, the “verses” incorporated there were more of this sort. Or, he’s emulating the New Testament with its various gospels, providing two different titles of the same basic thought process?
Although I am a nonbeliever in supernatural religion, I myself do not like to abide by the moniker “atheist” and prefer “freethinker,” because I enjoy contemplating freely whatever comes my way. Having thoughts of your own fancy is the mark of freedom, and I’m happy to think freely, not to force my mind into either a theistic or atheistic stance on each and every conceivable issue.
I also find freethought more palatable in bridging the gap between the world’s 90% who consider themselves theists of some sort and the relatively miniscule 10% of nonbelievers or agnostic secularists. As I like to say, I personally do not care what someone does within the privacy of her or his own brain. It’s simply none of my or anyone else’s business, unless it spills out deleteriously onto others, as is the case, for example, with religiously fanatical child abuse, sexism and terrorism. Then it becomes all of our problem.
In any event, I’m not quite as “hard-nosed” as many atheists when it comes to religious beliefs, since I find the world’s great religious tree dating back thousands of years to be fascinating and full of wise observations, albeit not as literal beliefs.
But, I do see that there simply could not be a single, giant and anthropomorphized “good God” omnipotently in charge of everything, as the state of the world betrays such a notion, even if the God-besting Satan is tossed simplistically and childishly into the mix.
Need for Atheistic Thinking
In a world bombarded relentlessly with theistic thinking of all manner—including some quite barbaric and Stone Agey, as opposed to “New Agey”—I also recognize the need to have atheistic thought available in writing and given consideration. Let the marketplace decide! Do you like any or all of the musings Michael’s put together in the “Book of Atheism?” Fine. If you don’t, that’s fine too, but at least these thoughts/memes are available to you, rather than being swatted down by a murderous Inquisition, blasphemy tribunal or vigilante mob.
And that’s the beauty of our modern world with free speech and the internet providing freedom of information. You can read this book—or not. But I would recommend it, if you want to know about atheistic thinking and freethought, even if you just want to try to rebut it or rip it apart. Indeed, Sherlock’s tome is suitable also for those religionists interested in the most popular arguments against their belief systems. Let the dialogue begin!
On Jesus Mythicism
One of this book’s major merits is you can just open a page and grab out a paragraph succinctly standing on its own. And unlike the Bible, those atheist and freethought verses are not full of violent hate speech; nor will anyone accuse you of ripping them “out of context.” As an example right up my alley, Sherlock includes a lengthy chapter called “The Book of Heresy,” where he dissects the Christ myth, among other things:
“The mythical Christ was not constructed from a single ancient source, but many. He was the healing god Aesclepius; the solar hero Hercules, who ascended to heaven amidst a number of witnesses. He was the man transformed by an apotheosis death, like Romulus of ancient Rome, the dying and rising Osiris, king of kings, whose treacherous brother betrayed him at his last supper. He was the dangerous child who posed a threat to the local tyrant and was hastened to safety, as was also the case with the more ancient Krishna of India, Moses of Israel and Sargon of Babylonia. He was the twice-born giver of wine and life, Dionysus. He was the child whose imminent birth was announced by divine dreams, oracles and angels, as was the case with Pythagoras, Buddha and Alexander the Great, to name just a few more ancient examples. He was a composite of all the literature available to the first century ex-pagan Christian mythographers. Yet and still, beyond these shallow and superficial edifices, he was the sun personified in myth. One thing we can say with near certainty is that he was not an historical son of a god.”
As an expert on comparative religion and mythology, as well as the fields of “mythicism” and “astrotheology,” I have to say that the above summary is well put. As someone who thus has spent countless hours engaged in Jesus mythicism, however, I would have liked to have seen more acknowledgment of where the ideas in this section came from. Michael did cite one of my books, but he and others in this field are reinventing the wheels when they do not avail themselves of the massive amount of data I have worked so hard to bring to light.
For example, when introducing the subject of the Egyptian god Osiris, Sherlock could have turned to my book Christ in Egypt: The Horus-Jesus Connection for data drawn from thousands of relevant primary sources. Deferring instead to popular but flawed scholars like Bart Ehrman, who libeled me and several other mythicists, is to my mind an unfortunate oversight. I also would not have given any dignity and credibility to the Christian fanatics at the dreadful Tektonics website with their despicable defamation and desperate excuses for why Jesus finds no place in the historical record.
That being said, Sherlock does bring insights to the table, so the more the merrier, although the discussion in GAF may be a bit tedious for some laypersons.
On the Old Testament
Also of interest and relevance to my own work is Michael pointing out pertinent flaws in the history of how the Old Testament was composed, such as the purported Mosaic authorship of the first five books or Pentateuch. The biggest problems are that there is no evidence for the existence of a historical Moses, that the biblical books themselves depict his death, and that Hebrew was not even in existence when the Israelite lawgiver was purportedly writing in it. Sherlock also records several anachronisms that demonstrate these biblical texts were composed at a much later date than the 13th century, when Moses is believed popularly to have lived. (For more information, see my book Did Moses Exist?)
On Women and Religion
Elsewhere, Sherlock addresses the sexism and misogyny of male-dominant religion such as the Abrahamic cultus of Judaism, Christianity and Islam:
“Women are to be seen and not heard. They are not as important as men. Women are an inferior gender, made for the sole purpose of serving their superior male captors. This is the message underscoring not only the Old Testament and the New, but the Qur’an too. I think it is well time we put these misogynistic religions to bed.”
Since I’ve said many of the same things in this book, yet have been on the receiving end of tremendous vitriol among not only the believing but also the unbelieving/atheist community, it would seem that sexism and misogyny are not confined to religionists—something to keep in mind…
While it is has become almost de rigeur among skeptics, atheists, agnostics and freethinkers to go after the Bible, Islam remains taboo in certain (cowardly?) circles, so I’m always glad to see a fellow nonbeliever take a hammer to that archaic religiously fanatical edifice as well.
For example, Sherlock states:
“Islam did not become a major religion by the quality of its truth, but by the quantity of its violence and the same can also be said of Christianity.”
Of course, in this “meme,” which is indeed one of Sherlock’s infamous images posted on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere, he felt the need for balance that many liberals engage in, by including Christianity as a seeming afterthought.
Here, however, Michael does not feel the need to tack on any clarifications for “balance”:
“If your religion permits men to marry children and encourages husbands to beat their wives, as does Islam, your religion is both unnatural and immoral.”
Sherlock also dares to tackle the “pedophilia” of Mohammed, as depicted in the sahih or authorized hadiths portraying “the prophet” as having “married” a six-year-old girl and having sex with her beginning when she was nine.
At one point, Michael concludes: “The most humane Christians and Muslims I have met have been the worst Christians and Muslims. This seems to indicate that their scriptures, if adhered to correctly, are contrary to humanity.” Amen.
As a book editor and publisher, I was pleased not to find many typos, misspellings and so on, but the lower case “bce” and “ce” did escape Sherlock’s notice in the PDF version he circulated to me. I also don’t see the need for italicizing “Bible” and “Quran,” but these are minor quibbles. Also, American readers will need to get used to English/Australian spellings such as “favour” and “sceptic.” Some of the Hebrew unfortunately got jumbled as well, as happens with word processors.
One criticism of the title page set-up is that Michael uses the word “freethought,” with no space or hyphen, throughout the book, so it should be “Freethought” in the title as well. Otherwise, it’s a bit confusing—are we discussing a “free thought” or the movement of “freethought?”
Hyphenated words generally are not used in printed books these days, either. Some sloppy grammar, punctuation and citations here and there, but overall the text is readable enough and the points well made. The organization could have been better as well, as Sherlock jumps around from subject to subject without subheadings or distinct groups of thoughts.
Overall, Michael Sherlock has made an important contribution to the field of atheism and freethought. As I say, even those religionists wishing to know what many who call themselves “atheists” really think will benefit from this book, as will novices and old hands alike in this arena. With the endless religious strife based on archaic and barbaric beliefs, the whole world could use a big dose of skeptical and nonbelieving thought, and this book is a good place to start.