This is point of inquiry for Friday, June 15th, 2007.
Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe growthy point of is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a research center interested in advancing science and reason in society. Every week on this show, we look at some of the fundamental questions of our culture through the lens of scientific naturalism. We focused mostly on pseudoscience and the paranormal, alternative medicine and secularism and religion. Before we get to this week’s guest, Joseph Hoffman, who heads up our Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion. Here’s a word from this week’s sponsor.
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I’m really pleased to be joined on this week’s point of inquiry by Dr. Joseph Hoffman, formerly at Oxford. He’s director of Caesar, the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion here at the Center for Inquiry. Joe Hoffman has appeared widely in the media and at venues across the United States, speaking on Christian origins, the historical Jesus, the role of religion and society, also the role he thinks religion should have in society and many other topics. He joins me on point of inquiry today to talk about something new here at CFI, the Jesus Project. Welcome to a point of inquiry. Joe Hoffman. Thanks, T.J.. It’s really nice to be back with you again, Joe. The Jesus project doesn’t. The Academy scholars have Christian origins and the historical Jesus. Don’t they already pretty much know all there is to know about who this man from Palestine was?
Well, I think they do and they don’t. It’s complicated because the nature of the evidence is complicated. And if you’re raised as I was raised and perhaps you were raised and many people out there who listen to this program were raised thinking that it’s a closed case and that what you’ve basically got in the story recorded in the Gospels, if not quite objective history, is pretty close to the way ancient historians might have told the story of a first century Galilee and peasant who just happened to be, among other things, the son of God. But I think that should raise the alarm immediately because you don’t find any first century Galilee and peasants who were either alleged to be or in fact were sons of God. So you have to begin by looking at the nature of the evidence and then ask questions about what these writers were really trying to say.
So you’re saying that Jesus project this sniffing that the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion is starting up. It seeks to shed new light on who Jesus was. You actually think there is new light to be shed?
There is new light to be shed. But there’s even a history to that question because some theologians and historians and others archeologists, for example, in the 19th century were were very brave about asking hard questions about the actual core historical core of the gospels. And because of all the studies that were being done, it was really amateur anthropology and much, much of that amateur anthropology in the 19th century. People don’t realize this often was done by theologians.
They were the first amateur anthropologists and the first missionaries, the first Christian missionaries were actually the first of these scientific anthropologists, which is also not widely known at later, of course, detached itself from the church and missionary movements.
But the thing that sort of came to light as a result of all of this work was that there were so many similar myths, so many similar stories, so many ideas about gods and sons of gods popular in the world, dying, rising, saving the world, which we’ve known about now for the better part of 200 years.
But putting that information, you just said, it’s not new to scholars.
It’s it’s not new at all. But you have to think of it as a constantly changing jigsaw in which pieces can fit together in multiple ways. And so what we’ve really been doing for the last 200 years in earnest is looking at that puzzle and trying out all possible configurations. Now, one possible configuration is the established one. Let’s just call it the orthodox view. The Orthodox view is the gospels are basically mythological, legendary stories with an historical core to them, which means that even though they tend to exaggerate or elaborate the role of Jesus and the historical person of Jesus.
And you’re talking about the orthodox view in the academy, not the Christian Orthodox view.
Yeah, it is certainly the Orthodox view you’re talking about in the church. I mean, almost every believing Christian would believe something like that, some variation on that. There’s some actual truth in the gospels. Absolutely. Some truth in the gospels, even if that truth is, you know, in a kind of first century kind of way elaborated beyond the purely historical.
Now, that’s one view. The other view which was suppressed in theological circles, particularly in the middle to late, late 19th century, was the view that there is no historical core became known very rapidly as the myth theory of Christian origins. And the theory propounded by supporters of that view was that, look, you don’t need an historical figure to explain the beginning of any religion. In fact, most religions don’t have historical founders.
You don’t actually need a Jesus of Nazareth to have the Christ of Christianity.
That’s that’s right. That’s the famous distinction, the Jesus of history in the Christ of faith, that sort of dichotomy or a split between the two things, one, which is believed on faith and the other is something we don’t know very much about. But enough about it to assume that it really happened, that where he really existed. Now, I have to say that the greater amount of attention and certainly this is true of the 20th century in the last century, that the historical story is basically trustworthy. So that the project in the last century was taking the evidence and configuring it in a particular way.
So that you could know more about the historical figure who underlay the gospels and that work, you’re talking about the scholarly work that seeks to piece together the historical record of this man named Jesus. That work was really organized by a very important. Some would say precursor to the Jesus project, the Jesus seminar, the very historically important Jesus seminar. Didn’t they already kind of do what you were setting out to do with these scholars and the Jesus project?
They they looked at the puzzle in a particular way, using the work of scholars ranging from Cult Hoffe and Cayla and Vice and Schweitzer at the beginning of the 20th century, all of whom had slightly different views about what Jesus was after, what Jesus was looking for, what Jesus might have been if you locate him in his appropriate historical context. Now, the fact that you get different Jesus or multiple Jesus’s from what we’re called the quests, didn’t really matter too much because any for people looking at the same body of evidence are likely to come to a number of different conclusions.
And some of those conclusions are going to be contradictory. So was he an eschatological teacher? That is to say, is he somebody who basically taught about the end of the world an apocalyptic profile of the prophet? Was he an ethical teacher? Did he perform miracles or is that something that was added later just to enhance his significance? Mean all of those questions were actually being asked early, early on in the 20th century. And it’s surprising how many of those questions were answered to the satisfaction of both theologians and philosophers and historians who were looking at this evidence.
Is the Jesus project asking those same questions? In other words, is the Jesus project just doing again what the Jesus seminar already did?
That’s a question I really want to answer, because it’s something that is coming at us in two direction. What happened after the multiple quests culminated, if I could sort of use that word in the Jesus seminar, was to create a minimalist Jesus based on the assumption that if you could boil it all down the story, down the sayings, down the deeds, down to what looked historically reliable, using the best methods of selection which are available in hermeneutical circles, I know that’s an awkward word, but the word simply means and transportation in hermeneutical circles today, you might then be able to take that skeleton and build a plausible Jesus on those bones. What happened, of course, and this wasn’t a surprise to a lot of people, but what happened is the longer the Jesus seminar, which was founded in 1985 under the auspices of two terrific scholars, Robert Funk, the University of Montana, and John Dominant Crosson, who recently retired from DePaul University in Chicago, went on long enough so that almost with every passing year, another layer of sayings was stripped away or found to be less than convincing.
And it was like peeling an onion. You were left with a not very robust Jesus.
You ended up with a kind of anemic Jesus. I mean, I wrote an article back and of all I mean, a long time ago, 1984 now, when when they had decided that only about 15 to 18 percent, 18 was the final percentage of the things that had been attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are things that Jesus reliably said. But that means that 82 percent of the things that are attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are things said by the church and put onto his lips. So then what you would want to do in the Jesus seminar did ask this question pretty bravely. When you look at those 18 percent, do you get remarkable sayings or do you get the kinds of sayings that almost anybody could have said? That is to say that any rabbi of the day would be pronounce any rabbi, any any Galilee and preacher might have said some of it is what’s called Targ Gromek. It’s a sort of explanation of sayings of the rabbis. Some of it consisted parables like the parable of the sower, the seed, or part of that parable. Some of it has to do with with things as simple as greetings. You go out, you see somebody in the morning and you say, blessed are you. You’re a poor man. You know, I want to hear that myself. But that’s that’s the kind of thing you get. So the sayings which were finally selected and attributed to Jesus were pretty unremarkable.
Biocon by the Jesus summoned by the Jesus Sended Jesus project is not setting out to figure out exactly what Jesus actually said. If there was actually Jesus. Seems to me that you’re implying. Your mission is different than the Jesus seminar, despite what your detractors are saying.
Yeah. And we do have detractors. We even have. I’m sad to say we have a couple of detractors in the Jesus seminar, but we have many, many more people who’ve actually come to us from the Jesus seminar because they felt that at the end of the day, around 2005, with the death of Robert Funk, the founder, the work wasn’t done. And with Funk’s death, the seminar actually changed course pretty abruptly. Saying that their work on Jesus himself was at an end and that they wanted now to turn their attention to the question of Christian origins. Well, I have a little trouble with that because it’s not quite a copout. But it does raise questions about at what point you can say that your work is at an end. And is that point precisely at the point where you’re down to sort of 18 percent of the same thing is attributed to Jesus?
Or is that point when the founder of the seminar dies and you need more work to do?
That’s right. I mean, it’s it’s it’s what Bob Price, I think, says it was at his most pessimistic point and one of his best books, he became the incredible shrinking son of man. And there is a point at which the son of man vaporizes who got nothing left, and that nothing is actually substantiated by a majority opinion of the scholarly commute community. And that can be worrying. So perhaps it’s time to change gears.
So the Jesus project seems to be changing gears. You’re letting no questions be off limits. No issues are taboo when it comes to figuring out these questions about Jesus. You’re not starting with any assumptions. Some accuse you of starting with an agenda to disprove Jesus. I mean, if for gosh sakes, Joe, you’re at a secularist kind of pro science think tank that is known for being critical and skeptical of religion, and you’re starting a project zero weighing in on Jesus.
Yeah. All of those points are significant points. It’s almost impossible to know where to begin. We worried about this at the beginning because there are those out there, observers, friends and enemies, because we do have our enemies. I’m sure we’ll make more as time goes on. Some people think it’s an MP or some blasphemous project from the get go. There’s just no way to.
Yeah. But you’re not talking to them. I mean, this is your idea. Your scholarship is not engaging with them from the get go. You’re you’re part of the larger academic community who are really interested in this question.
I think that’s right. I mean, I think it’s a coalition of people who are basically saying, look, the Jesus seminar may have begun at the wrong point because it began with the presumption of the existence of an historical person. And you’re not even beginning with that. We cannot begin with that, because if you begin with that, then, of course, the question is, what did he really say? Where was he really from? What is his appropriate historical context? Was he a revolutionary? A rabbi abounded. Some semi divine figure.
But you’re allowing that Jesus didn’t actually even exist.
We are allowing that as part of the hypothesis. We want to look at. And the reason for that.
Just just to clarify my my point a little bit is that if you look at analogous religions in the ancient world within Hellenistic Judaism and outside the context of 1st century Jerusalem, Hellenistic culture, you don’t get historical figures. You get people like Asclepius, you get healing grad’s. You get you get the Egyptian magical mystery religions. You get syncretic stic cults like Scibelli and Mithras and the Great Mother. They are much, much more familiar, these savior cults of the ancient world, than cults.
We can attribute to historical figures found to Yei, founder of Aid to the challenger of a religion.
If you ask the average Roman or Persian, for example, well, what do you know about the historical Mithras? They would laugh at you because that’s not the significance or relevance of the figure. This is a this is a divine man who may have lived on Earth and and revealed a few things about the way to truth and the way to eternal life or the way to salvation and then sort of disappears into the spheres again. If you look at the story of Jesus, Nigar spoils, it much more closely resembles that kind of geography and that kind of story than it does. If you look at it strictly from the standpoint of a guy who came, preached, healed, died, rose and ascended. That is to say, the mythological story or template is very clear from these other religions. The anomaly is that we have this particular story occurring within Palestinian Judaism in the first century. What’s unique about it is that it’s Palestinian and Jewish. What’s familiar about it is that it’s Greek and Roman, an end and part of the mystery template. So you pays your money, you takes your chairs. But we think we can do better than that. We think that if we if we bring certain kinds of people into look at the evidence who are not pre committed to a particular conclusion, we can come up with plausible answers which don’t begin with what we think is the secondary question. Who was he really and what did he really say and what was he really after the Jesus seminar asked those questions.
Who was he really? What did he began? They did begin with those questions. But you’re saying those are the secondary. The second should begin with the question. Did he even exist? Absolutely.
And the first plan to do that, you have to do something that I’ve been arguing for and many not me, but many of our colleagues in this project. And D.J., you’ve got the training and religious studies.
You know all about this already a viable college and not some well, training. But you. Thank you.
We’ll continue company after the show. Reject.
But you know all about what these Gnostics were like and and you know that these Mr religions were out there. So the question really is, how important is it to have a can and how it how important it is that have to have a spine on a book? Or do you begin by breaking that spine open and saying, well, look, these are four stories selected by bishops who are basically looking for a coherent story outside the margins of this literature. You have multiple Jesus. How many other stories, many other stories that didn’t make the cut. So we have to be careful about saying, well, the reason we believe in the historical Jesus is there’s a very famous book by the title, I believe in the historical Jesus, whatever that means. But if you believe that there was an historical Jesus, part of that conclusion has to be based on only crediting this very narrow range of documents because you won’t believe in a historical Jesus if your only source is the gospel of Thomas or the gospel of Peter or the apocryphal of John, because that is not an historical Jesus. And the same thing is true with many of the apocryphal that is not the Gnostic gospels, but the apocryphal works. Don’t give you an historical Jesus either. You know, I sort of grew up and went to school during a time and we were arguing the case for the canon always to be reformed. I never quite knew what that means. But now I realize what my teachers were saying is that the stuff outside needs to be taken as seriously in creating the whole picture puzzle.
All of the narratives merit critical attention, not just it’s not just the canon. So we have scholars in the field today, Elaine Pagels and many others now affiliated with the Jesus Project, to have looked at those other gospels, those other story and who are demanding a fair hearing rythm.
So, Joe, I want to get back to kind of the thing we were talking about just a minute ago, which is while I was implying an agenda. Yeah. People affiliated with Caesar. People involved with the Jesus project. You’re not a bunch of devout people looking to strengthen your faith through historical research. Is the opposite true that you’re a bunch of kind of sourpuss atheists looking to disprove the central belief of billion of the world’s people belief in Jesus Christ?
Well, that’s a that’s a very hard question. But let me just answer it with a with a side analogy.
If you remember a few months ago when the Discovery Channel uproar over the Talpiot Tombs was sort of all the rage, James Tabors stuff, James Tabors stuff. And he’s actually one of our one of our members, a fellow has a very a very clear agenda. And what he wants to prove and certainly is committed until they can be proved wrong or convinced otherwise. He believes in the historical Jesus. There’s no doubt about that. I don’t think there are many people, whether it’s Jim Tabor or April Taconic or James Robinson or or John Crosson. And I could go on and on and on because all of these people have connection to the project who would consider themselves sourpusses atheists. Some of them actually consider themselves believers is no doubt about that. We have our believers. We have atheists who I think of myself as an atheist. But I don’t think Athie ism or religious belief should guide us in the determination of what counts as evidence. And that’s something that John Cross and you were there. John Crosson cautioned us about that for God, talking about the conference in China. Sorry. Yeah. So the conference back. University of California, Davis, where we had many of these people who’d been associated. Some of them as co-founders as Crossing was with the Jesus Seminar on Board and Crossing’s Advisors is very important to us. For God’s sake, he said, get the methodology straight, because if you don’t write everything, you’re open to all this criticism that you set out with an agenda.
Absolutely. And you’re absolutely right about something else. The very fact that it’s associated with Caesar, which is associated with CFI, is going to say you’ve got your conclusion that you guys have an ax to grind in your head. That’s right. And so there is no objective outcome possible. You’ve made up your minds already. So let’s talk about the methodology. How are you protecting against your own skeptical biases? Well, we all wear rings.
No, the the the the trick is, I think that somebody like James Robinson, who knows a great deal more than I know about the Gnostic gospels, but still thinks, you know, James Robinson, it should be said he’s the one who organized the research, the translating of the Nag Hammadi, the Coptic gospels. Yes, that’s the one. OK. If somebody like James Robinson, who knows, as I said, much more about the Gnostic gospels. And the stuff outside the cannon than I do can read all of this and still say that the canonical gospels deserve priority and argue his case convincingly. I want to listen to that right now.
At this point, I don’t happen to believe it, but you need people like James Robinson on board and people like Berger, Pearson and other very famous Coptic scholar at the University of California at Santa Barbara on board.
Those are our two senior advisors, by the way, with a project to tell the rest of us exactly why they think that, apart from the consideration that they cannot exist as a closed book. These gospels contain nuggets of historical information that we ought to pay more attention to. And the beauty of this conversation is that all of us actually I don’t want to use the phrase ax to grind it. All of us certainly have a kind of agenda. All of us have a commitment to a certain view. I happen to I’m just gonna say this for what it’s worth. I happen to believe that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist. I happen to believe that. But I’m completely persuadable. You just have to sort of sit me down and show me the historical elements in the gospels, which point me in the direction of a plausible historical figure who is more plausible than the alternative explanation for the origins of Christianity. But the one thing that I’m not committed to doing is to making my own agenda and my own conclusion, the outcome of the project. That’s the most important thing, that you don’t have 50 people, which is the number we’ve agreed to limit the project membership to. You don’t have 50 people around the table agreeing with each other. You have 50 people asking each other what counts as evidence and that discussion. I know this from my colleagues who were members, the Jesus seminar. That actual discussion never took place. Did Jesus in the Jesus seminar? The question what counts as evidence was much less important than taking as saying a logi and as it’s called in Greek. Looking at the logi and saying, okay, let’s apply method ABC D and they voted with MARBLE’S whether or not that was Jesus. That’s right. Taken out of context, those discussions make very little sense to me. Having people who, if they want to violently disagree with me on board is very important to me because it creates the kind of attention that you need to keep historical scholarship honest. That’s the point.
You’re admitting an agenda to find out the truth. Yes. You’re also admitting your own personal view that that you’re skeptical whether or not Jesus of Nazareth even existed. But you’re not connecting the dots between the two. You’re not saying your personal belief about the historicity of Jesus pollutes the process or the investigation of the Jesus?
That’s right. As long as people come, even if they’re people of religious faith, as long as they come with an open mind, I think that’s the most important, the most important criterion for membership. And look what the non historicity of Jesus, that is to say, the conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist. Would that mean an end to the Catholic Church? We know so little about the Buddha. We know nothing about the gods of Hinduism to speak of in a historical context. We know very, very little about the historicity of the main figures in Islam because they tend to be biblical figures. Of course, these conclusions will matter to people who care about history, but to people who are guided only by faith.
Are you telling me you don’t think that historical evidence that Jesus did not exist would not have implications for religious belief? I mean, this is a question about the big picture point of the Jesus project. You don’t you kind of want to diminish the role of religion in society. Don’t you want to stick it to believers whom you think have no good reason to believe what they’re believing?
I as as a as a skeptic, as somebody who cares about the importance of doubt in leading life, whether we’re talking about moral questions or historical questions, it’s all the same to me. I think to deprive people of naive beliefs in favor of ones that can be grounded on fact and history and the concrete rather than the abstract, I think that’s always a valuable, valuable lesson to learn. And there are people out there of religious faith who also need to know what other people think. So for those kinds of people, I think our message will be important for people who lead their lives according to a kind of faith which doesn’t brook any contradiction. I don’t think they can anymore than with a Talpiot terms. I don’t think what we do will be of ultimate significance to them. This is not about bringing down religion or bringing down the church. On the other hand, I don’t think the conclusions of the project can be ignored. If we do our work properly, if we do it with integrity. I think the kinds of things we’re asking are gonna be very, very difficult simply to overlook. Mm hmm.
Sort of finish up. Joe, how long are you planning on doing this project? Seems to me that, you know, from Schweitzer and even beforehand, you people have been asking. About the historical Jesus. Are you going to be doing this? You know, from here on out, is there a time limit on the research?
There is a time limit. What are the difficulties of the Jesus project? According to its members, was it went on for a very long time, 15 years, and it’s still going. Although it’s changed its focus, it’s still happening. It’s not over yet. In fact, I was reminded recently by the new chair of the Jesus seminar that they’re not quite dead. And I use the awful at egregious pun. It hasn’t been quite defunct, even though his Nora Hurley health bunker with.
But the the the fact is we’re limited to five years.
And I think we can come to you.
Thank you. You’ll answer the questions in five years or you’re just giving yourselves the time limit for kind of organizing of resources purposes.
Well, I think it’s like locking a jury in a room and asking to come to a verdict and not feeding them until they do. I think it’s very important to look at what there is to look at and assess the evidence as it exists, much of which is not new, and invite our scholars who will meet two times a year to do their work efficiently, but also quickly, because this is not the kind of project that needs 15 years or 20 years to this because the research is out there.
You’re consolidating it, debating it. You’re coming to kind of a Jesus project conclusion. If these scholars, the scholars we think they are when they have no reason to begin their undergraduate careers over a reread, everything should be said that these are really the leading lights of the day when it comes to Christian origins, late antiquity, ancient languages. Yet you’ve drawn from many disciplines and you’ve assembled really a who’s who.
I think that’s absolutely true to say. And without dropping names just to generalize about this. I really think that unlike the Jesus seminar, we had been astonished at the number of people who came to us. I mean, after Davis, there were lots and lots of queries. And as we sort of began to blog each other, people like Bruce Chilton and Hal Tausig, Berger, Pearson himself, loads of others have have come on board your friend, I think you’ve interviewed here every Jeleva in the room. Gary Ludeman is an old friend of the center. The corps has now expanded to include of the 50, we intend to appoint 39. So we’re almost there and we’re really we haven’t I need to mention we haven’t had our first meeting at the Davis conference was the announcement, but the first meeting isn’t until December seven in Chicago.
And so five years from December 7th, you’re going to have your answer to the Jesus question. The Jesus question perhaps should have called it the best. For me, the Jesus question was always, is it is it time yet? As I joked in Bible College, I hope he doesn’t come back early in the morning because I’ll oversleep. Last question, Joe. Again, about agenda, because I you know, I look in the blogosphere and how people rail against what you’re doing. And it’s not only evangelicals, but secular scholars as well. Aren’t you really just aiming to turn a bunch of well-meaning, sincere believers in Jesus of Nazareth, who’s also the Christ of their faith into skeptics by using the brute force of all these great scholars you just mentioned you’ve assembled. You’re not getting together for any other reason than to shed light on this. This whole belief system that you think people believe for no good reason.
Yeah, well, it’s not a quilting party, that’s for sure. I mean, you have quilting parties to make quilts. We have Jesus projects to find out something about Jesus. Right. We’re trying to find out is whether he he actually existed. But it isn’t quite that simple in the sense that I don’t think we’re doing this because we’re a sort of organized around a dogfight. We have no dog in this fight. And I like to say this to the people I get interesting mail from and I get interesting mail from people on this every day now. We really don’t have a dog in this fight. It is just as plausible to us that Jesus did not exist as that he existed. And for a look for an atheist, for a very humanist, for anybody who considers himself or herself to be an unbeliever makes a lot of sense to want to come down on the side of an historical individual who happened not to be the son of God and did not rise from the dead. I mean, that would be the happiest conclusion of all for an atheist. He was just a guy just like a just just like Andrew Lloyd Webber says, just a man.
Well, you’re denying an agenda. But why not? The Buddha project or the Muhammad project or, you know, the founder of Sikhism? I can’t think of his name, but you’re giving all kinds of ideas. It seems to me still you’re all about Jesus because our culture is all about Jesus. And you think there’s no good reason to be all about Jesus.
Well, that may be true, too. I mean, there may there may be implications here for the Jesus culture. Stephen Protheroe was right. First, he has written brilliantly. Is in America recently and raised questions of incredible political and sociological significance about why we are Jesus culture. For people who see Jesus as our contemporary and are also open to the conclusions of this project, I hope they will get something out of it. And I bet. But but just to go back to what I was saying, if what they get out of it is that there was a historical Jesus who is very much a man of his time, lived in his time, didon his time will not come again, which is not a surprising conclusion, was not a surprising conclusion in 1911 when Schweitzer first enunciated it. That’s something we used to say, that the hard work of New Testament scholarship or biblical scholarship in general has to be done a new in every generation. I’d put it in that context that we’re just doing it again because because it always needs to be done. It needs to be reasserted. There’s something about the nature of Christianity, which in more ways than one is the resurrection faith.
It’s about the comeback kid, after all. And it keeps coming back and coming back to the questions had to be raised in new and interesting ways and answered in new ways. That’s one of the things we’re trying to do. Thanks for joining me on point of inquiry again, Joe. Pleasure, T.J.. Nice to be with you.
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