An almost forgotten anti-Christian jibe by Golding, misquoting Richard Sisson, “Answering Christianity’s most puzzling questions”

I’m purging my shelves at the moment, and I came across a volume which I bought only because of an online argument.  I can’t help feeling that I dealt with this online long ago, but if so I cannot find it.  So let me document here what was claimed, and the facts, and then I can clear another half-inch of shelf!

Here‘s an example of the claim:

Now let’s turn to a reference on page 18 and 19 of The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy by Dennis McKinsey (quoting from Schmuel Golding’s Biblical Polemics Newsletter): …

Golding adds–“In other words, men, rather than a god, composed the Bible. Many Christians, especially Protestants, have great difficulty with any assertion to the effect that men are responsible for the Bible coming into existence. On page 8 Answering Christianity’s Most Puzzling Questions, Vol. one, apologist Richard Sisson states (On page 19)–“In fact, after the death of Jesus a whole flood of books that claimed to be inspired appeared. Disputes over which ones were true were so intense that the debate continued for centuries. Finally, in the fourth century a group of church leaders called a council and took a vote. The 66 books that comprised our cherished Bible were declared to be Scripture by a vote of 568 to 563”. (Unquote)

The same quote used to appear sometimes online, in various places, but has thankfully been forgotten.  But did this “Sisson” really say this?

Well, I acquired a copy of Sisson’s book, and I now upload a few pages containing the relevant section:

To save us all time, here’s the actual passage:


Many charge that it took our contentious church fathers 350 years to agree on which books belong in the Scriptures. The Bible was written over many centuries. Every time a new book was written there were new questions. In fact, after the death of Jesus a whole flood of books that claimed to be inspired appeared. This argument claims that the dispute over which ones were true was so intense that the debate continued for centuries. Finally, in the fourth century a group of church leaders called a great council and took a vote. The sixty-six books that comprise our cherished Bible were declared to be Scripture by a vote of 568 to 563.

It is amazing to see how many people believe that argument. Actually, what really happened was not like that at all. …

In other words, as sometimes happens in hate literature, a convenient quote has been taken out of context.  The statement by Sisson is made in order to disagree with it.  His book, in fact, is a mass of “difficulties”, with his response, grouped into sections.

Such frauds were more common when the internet was young, and “argument by (offline) book” was a favourite ploy.  I see it less today, partly because more material is online, and mainly because the forums in which such arguments took place have vanished.

But in case this canard ever appears again, well … I’ve documented it here.

Did the Catholic church oppose street lights? Some notes on the Papal States in the 1830s

A couple of days ago, I happened to see a brand new anti-Catholic slur online on Instagram. Here’s the item:

It’s not spread that far as yet, but claims to be from – a US humour site.

The poster makes three claims:

The Catholic Church opposed street lights.

In 1831, Pope Gregory XVI even banned gas lighting in papal states.

The church argued that God very clearly established the delineation between night and day, and putting lights up after sundown flew in the face of God’s law.

Well that’s pretty plain.  The Catholic Church under Gregory XVI made it offical teaching that street lights were evil, and that even (note the emphasis) gas lighting was banned in “papal states” (by which most people will understand “Catholic countries”).

It’s obvious that this poster is intended to defame, to injure and to bring contempt on the Roman Catholic Church.  But it is interesting to find that the words in the poster are very recent indeed.  In fact I can only find a single near-match anywhere.  This is in a 2015 publication by Bruce H. Joffe, “My Name Is Heretic: Reforming the Church, from Guts to Glory”.[1]  The author appears in fact to be a homosexual activist.[2] The poster is clearly derived (with a couple of word changes) from this.

The claim that “The church argued that God very clearly established the delineation between night and day, and putting lights up after sundown flew in the face of God’s law” does not appear elsewhere, and in the absence of evidence and reference we may hypothesise that Joffe simply invented it.

The poster also gives a reference, to Desmond Bowen.[3]  But when we search for street lighting, we find only a single result:

Papal ceremonies assumed unprecedented magnificence, and audiences were conducted with more than royal protocol. The building programme of Leo XII was continued, more ancient churches and monuments were restored, new palaces were built, and the Vatican was further enriched with valuable collections of art. At the same time the people of Rome were denied street lighting, and the pope refused to allow the coming of the railway to the city. Gregory XVI was a thoroughgoing reactionary, but his policies were implemented only because of the presence of French and Austrian as well as papal troops.

The Google books preview indicates no other reference to street lighting in the book.

With every historical claim, our first step must be to discover whether the claim is in fact true, as stated.  If it is true, we must next discover whether it is a fair representation of the facts, or a distortion.

Our first source of information is none other than the great Charles Dickens, in Bentley’s Miscellany, vol. 24, 1848, p.305, where he is reviewing a book about Italy by a certain James Whiteside, of whom more in a minute.

The effete but jealous despotism of the ancient system [of Papal government before Pope Pius IX] is well illustrated by the following anecdote.

“I became acquainted with a young, handsome, fashionable Count, who mixed largely in English society in Rome. During an evening’s conversation he remarked, he had never beheld the sea, and had a great desire to do so. I observed that was very easy, the sea was but a few miles distant, and if he preferred a sea-port, Civita Vecchia was not very far off. The Count  laughed. ‘I made an effort to accomplish it, but failed,’ he then said. ‘ You English who travel over the world do not know our system. I applied lately for a passport to visit the coast; they inquired in the office my age, and with whom I lived; I said with my mother. A certificate from my mother was demanded, verifying the truth of my statement. I brought it; the passport was still refused. I was asked who was my parish priest; having answered, a certificate from him was required, as to the propriety of my being allowed to leave Rome. I got the priest’s certificate ; they then told me in the office I was very persevering, that really they saw no necessity nor reason for my roaming about the country just then, and that it was better for me to remain at home with my mother.’ He then muttered. ‘The priests, the priests, what a government is theirs !’”

This passage sufficiently explains Pope Gregory’s hostility to railroads, but the cause of his hostility to gas-lights is less generally known, and must not be suppressed. When the chairman of a company formed for lighting Rome with gas, waited on the Pope to obtain the required permission, Gregory indignantly asked how he presumed to desire a thing so utterly subversive of religion! The astonished speculator humbly stated that he could not see the most remote connection between religion and carburetted hydrogen. “Yes, but there is, sir,” shouted the Pope, “my pious subjects are in the habit of vowing candles to be burned before the shrines of saints, the glimmering candles would soon be rendered ridiculous by the contrast of the glaring gas-lights, and thus a custom so essential to everlasting salvation would fall into general contempt, if not total disuse.” No reply could be made to this edifying argument. Silenced, if not convinced, the speculator withdrew; the votive candles still flicker, though not so numerously as heretofore, and they just render visible the dirt and darkness to which Rome is consigned at night.

We need not spend too long on this anecdote, which Dickens – no friend of the church – tells us that he heard from a failed salesman.  The aged and suspicious Pope doubtless had seen a series of such salesmen, and might well have said something sarcastic and irrefutable to get rid of a particularly irksome commercial gentleman.  But sadly the veracity of salesmen cannot always be relied on, even when the sale succeeds.

Much more interesting is Whiteside’s anecdote about the Roman prince denied a passport.  This gives an interesting picture of the Papal administration in the period – positively third-world.  It’s the sort of story that might come out of Egypt today, or some African slum state, where ordinary people are knotted up in pointless and destructive bureaucracy.  In this case no doubt the official really just wanted a bribe.

This gives us our first clues about this story.  We are not, in fact, dealing with “the Catholic Church”.  We are dealing with a now long-vanished petty Italian princedom, the Papal States, and its wretched and backward administration.

This is promptly confirmed when we consult Whiteside’s volume.[4]  Unlike Dickens, who knew without saying why the Papal government had banned railways, Whiteside actually does know:

Political fears deterred the government from sanctioning railways. When Gregory understood his loving subjects of Bologna might visit him in Rome en masse, he would not hear of the innovation. I remember the remark of a man of business on the subject: “Il Papa non ama le strode ferrate.” No reasons were given for the refusal to adopt the improvement, except that his Holiness hated railways.  Gregory reasoned as did an inveterate Tory of my acquaintance, who condemned railways because they were a vile Whig invention. Any improvements in agriculture which could be effected by agricultural societies were interdicted, all such noxious institutions repressed.

In fact if we read Whiteside’s pages, we see the familiar picture of a weak government, of the kind found everywhere in Africa today, suspicious of everything and willing to ban anything unless they see pecuniary advantage in it.

Around the same time, an Irishman named Mahoney published, under the pen-name of Don Jeremy Savonarola (!), a series of letters that he wrote from Italy.[5] These throw considerable light on attitudes in Rome at the time, not only among the government.

On p.24 Mahony describes the fate of an English sculptor who sought to warm his studio in Rome with a coal-fired stove:

But concerning the development of steam-power in this capital, and the prospect for its utterly idle people of the varied branches of industry to be created through that magic medium, I can hold out none but the faintest hopes. A straw thrown up may serve for an anemometer. One of our sculptors took a fancy to import from Liverpool an Arnott stove to warm his spacious studio this winter, and laid in his stock of Sabine coal with comfortable forethought; great was his glee at the genial glow it diffused through his workshop: but short are the moments of perfect enjoyment: in a few days a general outcry arose among the neighbours: the nasal organ at Rome, guide-books describe as peculiarly sensitive : a mob of women clamoured at the gate: they were all “suffocated by the horrid carbon fossile.” Phthisis is fearfully dreaded here: with uproarious lungs they denounced him as a promoter of pulmonary disease. Police came, remonstrance was useless. The artist’s lares were ruthlessly invaded, and his “household gods shivered around him.” The Arnott Altar of Vesta now lies prostrate in his lumber yard, quenched for ever!

On p.55 the subject of gas lighting appears:

There is much of quiet amusement not untinged with a dash of melancholy supplied perpetually to strangers here by the efforts of government to arrest the progress of those modem improvements which must obviously ultimately be adopted even in Rome. The mirth which borders on sadness is stated by metaphysicians to have peculiar fascinations… Some such feelings were apt to creep o’er the mind, in reading last week the newest edict of the local authorities affixed on the walls for the guidance of all shopkeepers and others; this hatti-sheriff, which it is impossible not duly to respect, denounces the modern innovation of gas light, made of our old acquaintance, the previously denounced “carbon fossile” and all private gasworks of this nature are suppressed. Hereby many an industrious and enterprising establishment has its pipe put out all of a sudden, while those which are suffered to remain are subjected to a thousand vexatory restrictions and domiciliary visits from officials, who, as usual, must be bribed to report favourably. They are further told that their private gas generators will be all confiscated at some indetermined period when it shall please the wisdom of authority to establish government gas works: a period far remote, to be sure, but sufficiently indefinite effectively to discourage the outlay of private capitalists on their private comforts or accommodation. Milan, Florence, Leghorn, Venice, Turin, and Naples are gas-lit long since.

This really makes things clear.  There is no Papal opposition to gas as such, because government gasworks are proposed.  The concerns are about air-quality, and the proliferation of smog in the city from all these private burners and get-rich-quick companies.  These are not illegitimate concerns, as anyone who has experienced the aroma from a neighbour’s barbeque on a swelteringly hot day can testify.

Later, on p.171, we learn that the new Pope, Pius IX, dismissed the city prefect, Marini, “an implacable foe” of “every amelioration”.

The letters, in fact, are well worth the reading, for the picture which they give of a  minor Italian state, on the cusp of modern improvements in the early 19th century.  Clearly the government – the Pope, if you like – did ban gas lighting, and railways, and all sorts of other modern improvements, from the papal state.  This policy was reversed by Pius IX, this successor.  But there is no theological question here – only politics.

It would be really interesting to see the text of the Edicts in question, actually.  But I could only find one online, which was for setting up a Chamber of Commerce, here.

Papal Rome is a country which is now far away in time and space.  We forget it ever existed – but it did.  It was a country which had its own laws, its own army, and its own political factions.  Like every Italian statelet it was perpetually concerned about foreign nations, and the threat of the Austrian army, or the French army.  It is, therefore, quite a mistake to treat the political initiatives of the government of that state as if they were theological directives by a modern Pope.

Let’s return to where we started.  The poster is very misleading indeed, therefore.

The first claim is mainly false.  The Catholic Church did NOT oppose street lighting.  The elderly ruler of the papal states in 1830s opposed gas lighting as projected by a foreign company, probably reflecting the ignorance and squalid suspicions of his people and worries about air quality.  His successor ruled differently.

The second claim is mainly true, but it is entirely misleading because the reader will think of Pope Gregory as like Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict XV.  That Pope was not a modern Pope, issuing statements of faith and morals, but the autocratic ruler of a third-world state with a low-grade and corrupt administration, obstructing progress out of fear and obscurantism.

The third claim appears to be utterly unevidenced before 2015.

Thus are legends started; and, with luck, that one ends here.

All the same, I hope that you have enjoyed our visit to Papal Rome.  There are indeed guidebooks online in English for visitors, which might well repay the curious reader.  It may have been a backward place, but it had the charm that Rome has always had, whatever the faults of its rulers.

UPDATE: Please see the comments for further information from Italian on all this matter, and even an order by the prefect Marini, from March 1846, in the last months of the pontificate of Gregory XVI, laying down safety regulations for gas lighting.

  1. [1]ISBN 978-1-5144-2756-9.  Preview here: “[Jesus] healed (worked) on the Sabbath and ate food consecrated to God, demonstrating the importance and power of the Spirit over the letter of the law. Back in 1831, Pope Gregory XVI opposed street lamps and banned gas lighting in Papal States. The church argued that God very clearly had established the delineation between night and day, and putting lights up after sundown flew in the face of God’s law. Still, we search the scriptures for words that would cause God to curse instead of bless us. And vice-versa. But, when did we decide to forget about God’s grace? The Church has lost much of the idealism and faith upon which it was formed and is based, replacing them instead with creeds and beliefs.” The argument is a standard among campaigners for vice.  It is to be observed that such campaigners act without mercy to those who dare express any disagreement, once they have obtained power themselves.
  2. [2]So I learn from the Google search result from  Bruce H. Joffe, A Hint of Homosexuality?: ‘Gay’ and Homoerotic Imagery In American Print Advertising, 2007: “Author royalties from this book will benefit the Commercial Closet Association, a non-profit 501 (c) (3) organization working to influence the world of advertising to understand, respect and include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender…”
  3. [3]Desmond Bowen, Paul Cardinal Cullen and the Shaping of Modern Irish Catholicism, Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press, 1983.  Preview here.
  4. [4]James Whiteside, “Italy in the nineteenth century”, (1848) vol 2, p.288.
  5. [5]I owe my knowledge of this to Katarina Gephardt, The Idea of Europe in British Travel Narratives, 1789-1914, Routledge, 2016, p.112.

Where do you go to, my hateful?

Where have all the atheist forums (sic) gone?

I was reading Twitter earlier this evening, and did a search on “atheism”. I found some stale jeering, a few self-important or foolish tweets; and a mass of muslim propaganda.  If ever I saw an area dying for lack of participants, it was this.

This made me think of the atheist discussion groups of yesteryear.  First before all others, there was usenet.  I remember alt.atheism, where you could get a good fight, if not much common sense.  There were other usenet groups where interesting discussion might be had.  Often the baby atheists would trot out some outlandish historical claims, culled from some ignorant or mendacious source, in the belief that few would know better.  It was a real pleasure to track these claims down.  It provided stimulus.

Then there was the Internet Infidels forum, which morphed into, whose BC&H forum had quite a bit of useful historical stuff.

Dirtier, and pretty irrational, was TalkRational.  A strange US atheist called Sam Harris had his forum, with some of the dimmest followers that I ever met.  Acharya S had her forum, although you never quite knew how many of the “posters” were actually her in disguise!  Richard Dawkins had a bunch of discussion groups on his website.

Yet today all of these are gone.  Usenet was first to go, as people stopped using usenet clients and relied on DejaNews website, which was replaced by Google Groups, and then discreetly rendered useless.  I suspect that some of the Google hierarchs prefer that the antics of their younger days are no longer accessible, in these intolerant days.

Internet Infidels spun off their forums, which were eventually taken over by some strange woman who picked fights with the regulars and then closed the whole thing down, for no apparent reason.  Acharya S is dead.  Dawkins closed down his forums.  TalkRational has gone.  And, as I found today, the atheists don’t really use Twitter that much any more.

I never found Theology Web that interesting, but I wandered over and it was still there.  But I could find nothing of interest.  In fact it has been so long since I visited that they have deleted my user account.

So where do they go to, the people, as Peter Sarstedt might have sung?  The cranks, the atheists, and so on?

Truly I do not know.   But something has passed from the web, that was interesting and useful, and a valuable stimulus for work.

Writing your own “Atheist manual and cookbook”

Via the eChurch blog I learn that secularist scholar R. J. Hoffmann is getting a little fed up with some of his atheist co-religionists.  In this post he outlines the tactics the latter employ.

The Sure-Fire Atheist Rapid Response Manual

When I wrote Atheism’s Little Idea I said atheists were small. But (and this is embarrassing to confess) I had no idea how clever.

There’s a species of ant in Papua New Guinea that is so small you need a magnifying glass to see that they’re insects and not swirling grains of sand.  But drop a crumb of cheese on the ground and an army of ten zillion will appear out of nowhere, through the floor cracks where they live invisibly, and devour the cheese before you can retrieve and pop it subtly into your mouth.  …

When the atheists had grown tired of my “endless harangues against atheism” last year they swarmed at me, Jacques Berlinerblau, and Michael Ruse all at once. We said, in different tones, that they were playing too rough, were turning people off (including fellow unbelievers) with their flatfooted tactics, and needed to behave like adults with real arguments and day jobs.

The atheist swarm may actually have eaten the other two because I haven’t heard from them in a long time.

But it was then I learned their strange language and breeding habits:  Like all small things, their safety is in numbers. One atheist alone is hardly a match for his (or her) natural enemies, the Christian Nation, the low-wattage Dims and flabby franks like me who send mixed signals about what they really believe. But one thousand atheists on a single mission can take down a faitheist, an accommodationist and a Associate Reformed Presbyterian pre-Millennialist going through a divorce in about a minute. I’ll tell you this: if Osama bin Laden had ranted about atheists and not “the West” (where is that exactly?) he would have been cheese crumbs in October 2001.

I have come to be a huge admirer of how the atheists organize for their own protection and what they are able to accomplish on a low budget.  I have wondered how this is possible ever since I was almost eaten last spring.

Most of us have been the victims of the group lynching tactic described here.

But Hoffmann goes further.  He has observed that these people behave as if they were following instructions.  And he has devised a “manual” of tactics.

Now  this made me smile indeed!  You see, I have often thought of doing the same!  Once you have observed a few atheist fora, and seen the kinds of arguments made, and the dishonest tactics deployed to beat up opposition, such a manual almost writes itself.

Hoffmann’s work is a first draft, but so often it hits the nail on the head.  A few extracts will give you a flavour of what he says.  And it’s all true! — every last word of it.

(5)  If you don’t understand the Straw Man Defense, resort immediately to one of the following:

(a) Call the enemy arrogant.  Our enemies are all arrogant or they wouldn’t be blogging against us so this is bound to work.  Words like “pompous,” “misguided,”  ”pathetically out of touch,” “incredibly uninformed” and similar expressions will work just as well.  Try to avoid “full of shit” and if you use the word “erroneous”: remember there are two r’s.  (see also spelling tips under accommodation/accomodation/akomodation).

(b)  Call the enemy ignorant. This is basic because anyone who disagrees with atheism is ignorant.  You can also use some of the same words: incredibly ignorant, unbelievably ignorant; I don’t know how you’re able to tie your shoes-ignorant.

The next one brought a wry smile to my face.  Not only atheists try this ploy, as I found out last week when I was on the receiving end of a (futile) attempt to lynch me on my own blog:

(6)  If you find that a website is “moderated” say that it violates the fundamental right of Free Speech guaranteed to atheism in the Constitution. …

How often have I heard that tired old attempt to manipulate me into allowing people to lynch me on my own personal blog?

Dr Hoffmann’s post is sane and civilised.  Indeed it has reminded me that, long ago, I had quite a bit of respect for atheists.  My own ideas about the shape of Roman paganism I owe to an atheist author whom I read from a library shelf long ago.  Likewise I was impressed with the precision thinking that I found in J. S. Mill.

But when I came online, I found something else.  I found atheism that was dishonest, abusive, and hateful.  Almost all the online atheist writing is beneath contempt.

This is not a question of disagreement about religion, but simply about honesty.  An intelligent atheist must find his co-religionists painfully embarassing.

Writing these words recalls an early online experience.  I have never forgotten encountering a post, back in 1998 or so, in some now vanished or decrepit usenet forum, by an atheist named Steven Carr, who seemed to be a student in Edinburgh or something of the kind.  It was about the apocryphal gospels, and he was trying to wear down someone talking about the bible by hitting them with factoids.  In those days I knew much less about Christian history than I do now, but even then I knew enough to see that the post was not honest, even from an atheist point of view.  It was clear to me that he was engaged in deliberate deception of someone that he believed wouldn’t know much about the apocrypha, attempting to bully with pseudo-scholarship.  I remember reading that post, and thinking to myself: “If you know enough about the history of the bible to write that lot, you know enough to know that your argument is neither fair nor an accurate representation of the facts.”

I have seen so much dishonest argument since.

I happened to see a post in a forum the other day, in response to some post of my own.  It was the same Steven Carr.  He was looking rather the worse for the 14 years that he had spent labouring for atheism.  Hate does funny things to those who indulge it.  Any pretence at reason or logic had long departed.  All he could manage was abuse.  He spat a mindless jeer in my direction, utterly irrelevant to my post.  That was all that was left of him.  He had become just a barking, rabid dog.

It is possible to be indifferent to truth, and interested only in convenience, in winning rather than being in the right.  But those who despise the right use of the intellect need not expect to enjoy the use of it for very long.

Hoffmann, it seems, has enough sanity to realise that atheists are destroying themselves.   We may commend him for this brave stand.  A principled atheism is not always a bad thing.  Superstition and priestcraft are not good things, and any student of modern Anglican affairs can find ample examples of the latter.  Christians will remember that Christ was crucified, not by atheists, but by a plot hatched by the religious authorities of the day.

Let us hope that Dr Hoffmann can achieve a revolution in atheism.

UPDATE: I have just deleted the first attempt in the comments to use this blog to attack Dr. Hoffmann for “censorship”.

The anonymous atheist

Curious Presbyterian signals an article here in Christianity today about an atheist who converted to Christianity after seeing how appalling the atheists were online.  It’s well worth reading, and any sensible person must have had the same experience.  An excerpt:

As time went on, he began to see more and more the brutality and harshness of the chats, recalling one shocking post where the site administrator had published an article about an extremist Russian prophet who tried to commit suicide when his prediction for the date of the end of the world failed to come true.

A couple of posters in response to the story regretted that the fallen prophet had failed in his attempt to put an end to his life. Stunned by the level of inhumanity, Morgan wondered how any civilized person could say they wanted to see anybody die. Writing a protestation to some form of humanity in the forums about his shock and disappointment in the members, one respected member on the site simply replied to his post with an LOL– laugh out loud.

It was then that Morgan realized he did not want to be a part of these people. “I’m not condemning all atheists,” he clarified in the interview. “I’m talking about anonymous atheists on internet discussion boards and the messages they express which are extremely negative, puerile, [and] full of hate…”