Saturday, 27 August 2011

Another Chip Falls

The last two posts were admittedly a brief detour, away from my personal de-conversion saga, since really they were more representative of my current thoughts (on how Christian Apologists sometimes defend the "reliability" of the Gospels).  As promised, this time around, I'd like to circle back and pick up my story right where I left it off.

I've spoken before about the first "major" Christian belief that I lost faith in, namely the Bible's supposed "inerrancy".  I also discussed some of the reasons I had, for changing my mind on that issue at the time.  Well, soon afterward, I lost faith in another "major" doctrine of the Christian faith, and this second shift in my thinking was even more significant than the first. 

I came to believe that the Virgin Birth of Jesus is, more than likely, a complete fabrication.

It felt like nearly every book I was reading touched on the Virgin Birth, arguing either pro or con, and eventually the evidence against the story's legitimacy just accumulated, inside my mind, until a tipping point was reached and I had no other choice but to let go of it completely.  Funny enough, despite some of my other nagging questions, I had never once doubted the truth of the Virgin Birth in more than 25 years as a committed Christian.  As a result it hadn't even been on my radar screen, when I started out on this investigation.

I won't take the time to go through all the evidence here but, suffice it to say, I found perhaps a couple dozen or more reasons to seriously doubt the truth of this Biblical tale.  Together, they made a pretty strong case against it.  For example, there are significant problems with the way that both Luke and Matthew make use of the supposed Old Testament "prophecies", about the Virgin Birth.  John Shelby Spong highlights just one of those problems..."Matthew quoted a text from Isaiah to prove the virgin birth tradition.  Fortunately for Matthew's integrity, he quoted that Hebrew text in Greek, where the connotation of 'virgin' is present in the Greek word parthenos.  However, if he had gone to the original Hebrew, he would have discovered that the connotation of virginity was not present in the original text of Isaiah.  The Hebrew word for 'virgin' was betulah.  The word used in Isaiah was almah, which means young woman.  It does not mean virgin in any Hebrew text in the entire Bible in which it is used." (from "Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism").

It's also worth pointing out that neither Paul or Mark (both of whom wrote before Matthew & Luke) bother to even mention that Jesus was born of a virgin.  This fact seemed to lend yet more support to my new theory that we can see signs of "legend", developing about Jesus, right there in front of our eyes inside the Gospel accounts themselves (this is something I was becoming increasingly convinced of the more that I read and thought about it).  Could it be that Paul and Mark don't mention it, because the legend about Jesus' "virgin birth" had not yet come fully to fruition?  Or, did they just not think it important enough to write about?  The latter seemed highly unlikely to me.

Matthew and Luke also contradict each other at several significant points in the story.  (I was starting to arrive at the stage where I no longer even found such Biblical discrepancies surprising)  Listen again to Spong, "Joseph and Mary either lived in Nazareth, as Luke asserted, or they lived in Bethlehem, as Matthew believed.  They either returned to their home in Nazareth, as Luke informs us, or they by chance happened upon Nazareth in fulfillment of divine prophecy, as Matthew has related.  Both Evangelists may be wrong on these facts, but both Evangelists cannot be right.  If one is right, the other is wrong.  Biblical inerrancy is once again a casualty of a mutually exclusive contradiction."

I also learned that there are several problems with the Roman census story, if analyzed as a stand alone item, and the census is supposed to be the reason (according to Luke) that Mary and Joseph even went to Bethlehem to begin with.  For example, why would they have been compelled to register in the hometown of an ancestor (David) who, according to Luke himself, lived forty-two generations earlier (or perhaps it is a mere fourteen generations, as Matthew says)?  I had always just assumed this must have been "the way things worked", when there was a census called in those days, but actually it wasn't at all.  Recorded history offers no credence to the Biblical story, of an incredibly odd census such as this one, whatsoever.  Imagine the complexities that would have resulted if millions of ancestors had indeed been travelling back to the "hometown" of their very ancient relatives, such as the Bible suggests.

History also fails to support the slaughter of all the Jewish male babies, up to two years of age, as reported in Matthew.  No official records of King Herod make a reference to this act (and no other Biblical source seems aware of it). 

Anyway, those are just a very few examples, serving merely as an illustration of the numerous challenges involved in my continuing to accept the Virgin Birth story as literal truth.  I simply could not bring myself to do so any longer. 

As strange as it may seem to us today, virgin birth stories were actually quite common in the ancient world.  Included among those said to be born of a virgin are Julius Caesar, Augustus, Alexander the Great, Plato, Cyrus, the Buddha, Hermes, Hercules, Cybele, Vulcan, and so on and so on.  In keeping with the rampant superstition of the times, births that avoided any contact with human sexual activity were thought to be more pure and worthy.  (And this isn't even to mention the various other savior-gods, like Krishna, Osiris, Dionysus, etc.)

Is it possible, I thought, that the virgin birth story is a legend but the part about Jesus being God is not?  How could that be?  Can I still believe in some (or most?) of the Bible's other miracle stories?  Is it still reasonable to wonder if the Bible is "inspired" in some way (even though I no longer believed it was "inerrant")?  I knew this latest development, in my thinking, couldn't be dismissed as a mere quibble about purportedly "minor" contradictions in the Bible's narratives...I mean, the Virgin Birth is part of the Apostle's Creed for crying out loud!  If I don't believe that, can I even be a "Christian"?? 

Monday, 22 August 2011

Christian Apologists, Part 2

If you haven't read part 1, please do so now.  That said, we have a lot to cover, so let's jump right back into it...

The Gospel authors only disagree on "minor details"

Really?  Is the genealogy of Jesus a "minor" thing?  The Gospels even disagree on the identity of His paternal grandfather.

Some other examples of discrepancies in the Gospels...what was Jesus' prediction re: Peter's denial?  How many times did the cock crow?  What was the color of the robe placed on Jesus during His trial?  What day did Jesus die on?  What did He say on the cross?  (And are we to also assume that someone was close enough to hear what was actually said?)  What did they give Him to drink?  How long was He in the tomb?  How many people discovered the empty tomb, and what were their identities?  What time did they go to the tomb?  Whom did they see there?  Where did Jesus tell his disciples to go after his resurrection?  What were Jesus' last words?  The Gospels disagree on all of these points, and many, many more.

But even if it could be established that each of these details is "minor", I would still not find this to be an especially convincing argument.  Let's suppose that a number of people claim to have seen an alien spaceship, but they disagree as to the day they saw it, the color of the spaceship, and many other "minor details"...are we to find it remarkable that they all agree there was a spaceship?  How is this any different than saying the Gospels disagree on "minor details", but they all agree that Jesus died and rose again? 

A fantastic story is still a fantastic story, and a mere agreement on the "core" of the story is unimpressive.

Legend can't develop quickly

Where is the evidence for this assertion?  It would seem that all it should take, to debunk it, is one single example of a "legend" that has sprouted up rather quickly (say, a few decades or so).  Sam Harris likes to talk about Sathya Sai Baba.  There was a tremendous amount of legend, surrounding this man, even while he was still alive.  Elvis sightings also come to mind, since they cropped up very quickly after his death. 

But I think the best evidence, for legendary development, comes from the Gospels themselves.  Why is it that Mark (the first Gospel written) often seems to tell the simplest version of the story?  For example, in Mark the women see a man at Jesus' tomb, but in Matthew that same man becomes an angel.  Is this not an obvious legendary development?  If not, how else would you explain it?  And by the time we get to the Gospel of John (the last Gospel written) Jesus "was God" and He was "with God" at the very creation of the universe!

The resurrection story was never dis-proven (therefore it's true)

At first blush this seems like a really strong argument, or at least it felt that way to me when I first encountered it.  After all, if Jesus' body had still been in the tomb, how easy might it have been to drag it out and make complete fools of His disciples.

Upon further investigation though, there are numerous problems here.  For example, it assumes that everyone knew where Jesus was buried.  It assumes that His body wasn't moved.  It assumes that Jesus' very earliest followers believed in a bodily (rather than a spiritual) resurrection.  (And there is much evidence to suggest the latter)  It assumes there was widespread interest in debunking the story (in a culture where such crazy stories were commonplace) etc. etc.

Having said that, again, there is an even larger problem...a problem so significant that, I believe, it should suffice to put this argument to bed forever.  Ancient history records numerous wild (and supposedly supernatural) stories that were never "dis-proven", in the historical record, yet no one believes them today

Listen to this example, from Richard Carrier's essay "Why I Don't Buy the Resurrection Story"...

"In 520 A.D. an anonymous monk recorded the life of Saint Genevieve, who had died only ten years before that. In his account of her life, he describes how, when she ordered a cursed tree cut down, monsters sprang from it and breathed a fatal stench on many men for two hours; while she was sailing, eleven ships capsized, but at her prayers they were righted again spontaneously; she cast out demons, calmed storms, miraculously created water and oil from nothing before astonished crowds, healed the blind and lame, and several people who stole things from her actually went blind instead. No one wrote anything to contradict or challenge these claims, and they were written very near the time the events supposedly happened--by a religious man whom we suppose regarded lying to be a sin. Yet do we believe any of it? Not really. And we shouldn't.

As David Hume once said, why do such things not happen now?  Is it a coincidence that the very time when these things no longer happen is the same time that we have the means and methods to check them in the light of science and careful investigation? I've never seen monsters spring from a tree, and I don't know anyone who has, and there are no women touring the country transmuting matter or levitating ships. These events look like tall tales, sound like tall tales, and smell like tall tales. Odds are, they're tall tales.

But we should try to be more specific in our reasons, and not rely solely on common sense impressions. And there are specific reasons to disbelieve the story of Genevieve, and they are the same reasons we have to doubt the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection of Jesus. For the parallel is clear: the Gospels were written no sooner to the death of their main character--and more likely many decades later--than was the case for the account of Genevieve; and like that account, the Gospels were also originally anonymous--the names now attached to them were added by speculation and oral tradition half a century after they were actually written. Both contain fabulous miracles supposedly witnessed by numerous people. Both belong to the same genre of literature: what we call a "hagiography," a sacred account of a holy person regarded as representing a moral and divine ideal. Such a genre had as its principal aim the glorification of the religion itself and of the example set by the perfect holy person represented as its central focus. Such literature was also a tool of propaganda, used to promote certain moral or religious views, and to oppose different points of view." (The first bolding is mine, the 2nd is Carrier's)

This puts the Christian believer in an awkward position, since he or she either has to: a) acknowledge they are holding to a clear double standard, b) find some (arbitrary) reason for rejecting the miracles of Saint Genevieve (but not the miracle stories in the Gospels), or c) accept the miracles of Saint Genvieve as real and legitimate (along with all the other equivalent miracles stories from ancient times).

So, to review, my contention is that Jesus' early followers were simply mistaken in thinking that He rose from the dead (even assuming that oral tradition preserved the story with 100% accuracy, before it was written down, which is doubtful).  The Gospel authors do contradict each other on significant details but, even if they didn't, their mere agreement on the "core" of the story would not add credibility to the more fantastic elements.  Legend can and does develop rather quickly, in many cases, and the Bible itself shows clear signs of such legendary embellishments.  Further to that, we should not believe in the resurrection story since we do not believe in other comparable stories with very similar evidence

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Christian Apologists

Admittedly I will be veering a little off track, with my next two posts, so please bear with me.  My intention when I launched this blog, just last month, was to begin at the onset of my doubts and tell my de-conversion story chronologically.  My challenges, in that respect, have been: a) remembering, as precisely as possible, the order in which things happened (and what I was thinking at the time), and b) keeping my current thoughts on these issues to a strict minimum throughout (there will be time enough to write about those later, once I have "caught up" to present day).

Anyway, all that to say these next couple of posts will be more representative of my current thoughts.  After that I will get back to my de-conversion story, and pick up right where I left off (promise :)).

As a follow up to a few of my recent posts (most specifically "Assessing The Evidence" & "Liar, Lunatic, or Lord") I'd like to discuss/critique how Christian apologists tend to respond when the veracity of the Gospels is attacked.  To set things up, allow me to play the Christian apologist for a moment...

Yes, the Gospels were written decades after the resurrection, but what you need to understand is that oral tradition in those days was highly reliable.  As a result, we can trust what the Gospels tell us!  Besides, doesn't the fact that the authors disagree on "minor details", but agree completely on the rest, prove they weren't colluding together to make the story up?!  This is precisely what you would expect, if what they were saying was true (for example there is no dispute whatsoever, in the Gospel accounts, over whether or not Jesus was crucified or that He rose from the dead!).  Additionally, it's impossible for legend to even develop this quickly, so that suggestion is not viable or defensible.  If Jesus really had been alive, and still rotting in the tomb, why didn't the critics simply grab his body and drag it through the streets.  The fact that no one did this proves his body wasn't there!

Now, obviously, this is my own (rather crude) re-phrasing, but I have in fact heard each of these arguments from Christian apologists many times over (although not usually crammed all together like this).  What I mean to say is I am trying my best not to set-up a strawman, but rather to represent very fairly some of the key pieces of their case for the accuracy of the Gospels (if you feel I haven't done so, please let me know and I will make the necessary corrections).  I am sure there are numerous additional arguments, that I haven't covered here, but perhaps I can write about some of those in another post.  Having said that, in so far as I can tell, there are four key claims made, in the paragraph above, a) oral tradition was reliable, b) the Gospel authors only disagree on "minor details", c) legend can't develop quickly, and d) the resurrection story was never dis-proven (therefore it's true)

Since I've taken up so much of your time already, with this setup/introduction, I will deal with only the first argument this time, and then hit on the other three in my next post ("part two")...

Oral tradition was reliable

I'll freely admit that, of the four pieces, this is the one I feel most uncomfortable writing about.  I am no expert on how "oral tradition" worked, in the days of the New Testament, and I want to show respect (and deference) to those who are more qualified than I to speak on the matter.  At the same time, I have decided to include this argument because it is also one that I have very little quarrel with.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that oral tradition was rock solid, and that everything in the New Testament was passed down as a precise record of what actually happened.  So what?  For the life of me I have never been able to figure out why Christian apologists spend so much time hammering this point (and they do).  This would only prove that the New Testament is a precise record of what some people believed about Jesus.  But most modern day critics don't dispute this point, do they?  Not many that I can find.  What most critics say, instead, is that the early disciples were simply mistaken in those beliefs.  This is also where the whole "people don't die for a lie" argument often comes in.  Setting aside, for a moment, the disputes over whether or not this claim is even accurate, it still misses the point.  Even if people won't willingly die for something they know to be false, they will certainly die for something that IS false but they believe to be true (just think 9/11 hijackers).  So, in short, I don't spend a lot of time worrying about how reliable "oral tradition" was or was not in the days of Jesus.  It just doesn't matter much to me. 

What I have come to believe is that the early followers of Jesus were probably wrong about the fact that He rose from the dead.  But I have every confidence that they believed it to be true.

OK, this post is getting kind of long, and I still have three more points to cover.  I'll wrap it up, for now, and stay tuned for "Christian Apologists, Part 2".  If you have any thoughts on oral tradition, in the interim, I'd love to hear them.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Assessing The Evidence

Slowly but surely I was beginning to feel like I had a better handle on the evidence that exists, both for and against the empirical claims of Christianity.  It was at this point that my journey took a turn; shifting from the purely investigatory, to the (primarily) analytical.  How is one to assess all of this competing evidence?  Let's say I have one piece of "evidence" for Christianity and one piece of "evidence" against, do they automatically just cancel each other out?  Or, are some types of evidence "better" than others? 

The more I thought about it I had to admit that, yes, some types of evidence are in fact superior to other types of evidence.

In this post I'd like to discuss two common types of "evidence", both of which are cited frequently, for Christianity, and tell you why I came to the conclusion that neither of them is very strong in the final analysis.  Those two types of evidence are personal experience and hearsay.  Let me explain...

1) Personal Experience

Christians will often tout their own "personal relationship with Jesus" as compelling evidence in favour of Christianity.  Listen to this (now infamous) quote from Christian apologist William Lane Craig..."should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa" (from his book Reasonable Faith).  Do you hear what he's saying here?  To state it another (more blunt) way, if hard evidence suggests that Christianity may be untrue, don't fret about it, because you still KNOW Christianity is the truth thanks to what Jesus tells you inside your heart!  Is this something a truly open minded person would say?

There are multiple problems with this line of thinking...firstly, everyone has a "personal experience", so who is to say that the personal experience of the Christian is superior to the personal experience of ALL others?  Does that sound even just a tad unreasonable to you?  (*** should)  What about the "personal experience" of those in other religions?  How about the Mormon who gets a "burning in the bosom" (yes, that's really what they call it) telling him or her that the book of Mormon is true?  Or even the atheist, who seeks God but doesn't find Him; is their "personal experience" equally legitimate?  If not, than how do you justify the double standard?  I now believe that many of the "personal experiences" Christians have with God/Jesus can be attributed strictly to the emotional life anyway.  This is something I plan to expound upon (and defend) later, but I did write a little about it already right here.

As bad as this is, there is yet another major problem with using the personal experience of Christians as "evidence" for Christianity...every Christian has a different "personal experience"!  Think about it.  We have literally thousands of Christian denominations (tens of thousands, in fact), most of which are divided because of theological differences.  If Jesus really were speaking within the heart of each Christian believer, as millions of people sincerely believe Him to be doing, than why can't Christians come to an agreement on these matters?  Does God not care about the unity of His "body"?  Actually, if the Bible is "God's word", than he cares a great deal..."I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." (John 17: 20-24, NIV)

Here's my tough as this may be to admit to yourself, your personal experience (of anything) is not good "evidence" for the truth of...well, anything!  If others can be fooled, even deluded or brainwashed, than you can too.  Or, do you think you're just smarter than everyone else?  We can all relate to having that strong feeling of inner certainty (just "knowing" that a particular belief or opinion is real and true)...but the problem is it's just that, a feeling, and nothing more.

2) Hearsay

A quick online google search produces these two definitions for the word hearsay...

a) Unverified information heard or received from another; rumor.
b) Law evidence based on the reports of others rather than the personal knowledge of a witness and therefore generally not admissible as testimony.

I can almost hear you asking, what in the world does hearsay have to do with the truth or falsehood of Christianity??  Well, as we have already discovered, the Bible's Gospel accounts were written decades after Jesus' supposed resurrection (and it was only later that the names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were attached to these writings).  So, how did the Gospel writers, whoever they were, know so much about Jesus' life and his alleged miracles?  They knew it because of "oral tradition"...the stories, about Jesus, that were passing from person to person to person to person to person.  (These stories were also growing in the telling, as I discussed last time

Here's the problem, we have an English word for this sort of knowledge...we call it hearsay.  Does anyone, today, consider hearsay to be "good" evidence?  Not at all.  In fact the exact opposite is the case.  Hearsay is so widely recognized as "bad" evidence, we won't even allow it to be used in our criminal courts (generally speaking).  Even eyewitness testimony itself is quite flawed, in fact. Numerous scientific studies have shown that eyewitnesses disagree, even on very important parts of the story, and many innocent prisoners (convicted, in part, based on eyewitness testimony) have later been released thanks to the hard science of DNA (DNA, now there's an example of "good" evidence!).

Let me re-iterate, the evidence we have for Jesus, in the New Testament, falls formally into the category of hearsay.  If you don't believe me, just look again at the two definitions for hearsay, above.

Remember, the Gospels are also our best evidence for Jesus.  How can you be confident in what they say, about Him, if they are based on hearsay (and were written in an age of wildly superstitious people)?

Christian apologists have a particular way of responding to this sort of argumentation (and I am eager to dig into it) but, in the interests of keeping this post from getting any longer than it already is, I'll have to do so next time around.

How do you feel about these two lines of "evidence"...are they "good", "bad", or something else?

Monday, 15 August 2011

Liar, Lunatic, or Lord

Christian apologist C.S. Lewis is remembered for a great many things, one of those being a clever argument he gave for Jesus' divinity.  Lewis suggested that, when it comes to Christ, there are only three logical possibilities...either he was a liar, he was a lunatic, or he was indeed the Lord.

My father, a Christian minister, used to give a sermon based on this outline.  (I've spoken before about my father, here)  At the time, I found this line of reasoning very convincing.  After all, these really are your only three options, right? 


Bart Ehrman suggests a fourth possibility, legend, and, as I was beginning to see, the Bible contains a lot of it.  Now, to be clear, Bart is not suggesting that Jesus' existence is legend (in fact, he argues quite forcefully for Jesus as a real historical figure) but, rather, that much of what we believe about him today is legend. 

After I got over the shock of discovering the Bible was not perfect, I turned my attention to the why questions.  For example, if Matthew and Luke were in fact copying from Mark, as most scholars believe, than why do they contradict and/or add to him in key places?  The conclusion I came to, in short, is that some of these stories were actually altered on purpose, often so that the given author could make a theological point (more on this in a later post)In other words, the legend about Jesus was developing.  This is why the resurrection story, for example, is so much simpler in the Gospel of Mark...layers were being added as time went on.  The legend was growing.  Also, I had never previously considered the fact that the Gospel writers were not neutral sources.  These authors weren't simply trying to record a historical account, as I had always assumed, they were instead trying very hard to convince their audience that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah!  Watch below, as Bart Ehrman puts many of these pieces together...

It was becoming quite clear to me, at this stage of my de-conversion, that disagreements over the truth of Christianity ultimately come down to how one assesses the available evidence.  Barring any sort of new archaeological discovery, we have what we have and we don't have what we don't have.  One side (the Christian apologists) say the existing evidence is plentiful, and should be sufficient to convince any rational person.  Others, such as Ehrman, came to precisely the opposite conclusion after in depth study.  How is one to know? 

Perhaps not all evidence is equal, I reasoned, maybe some types of "evidence" should be given more weight than other types of "evidence"?  It is to that question I will turn in my next post...

Saturday, 13 August 2011

A Superstitious People

In my last post I made a passing reference to "superstition" in the Bible but, before I go any further along in my story, I want to underscore this point a little.  As an unintended by-product of copious amounts of reading, I was developing a much deeper understanding re: the culture(s) of those living in "Bible times".  Oddly enough, I had never before associated those two words inside my head..."superstition" and "Bible".  (I realize the term "Bible times" is very broad but it will suffice to make my point here)

As my appreciation for ancient cultures increased, a funny thing happened; it caused me to begin reading the Bible through entirely new eyes...these were the eyes of a modern (scientifically literate) person, peering back into a world filled with wildly superstitious people.  Why hadn't I noticed this anachronism before?  It's as if I had always just assumed the Bible characters were essentially "like us", in this respect, but were they actually?

Just a few thousand years ago people believed all manner of things we wouldn't even dream of believing today, and they did so based on "evidence" that we would never accept by today's standards.  In this world the Gods lived above the clouds, and they controlled every detail of daily life...from throwing down the rain and lightning to causing sickness in those who displeased them.  Your life as an ancient person revolved around the sacrifices/rituals/prayers needed to keep these Gods happy with you.  (Sidebar...on the subject of polytheism in the Hebrew Bible, aka the Christian "Old Testament", check out this interesting documentary)

Bible stories that I had long believed to be historical in nature were suddenly feeling like just that...y'know...stories..

Did Lot's wife really turn into a pillar of salt?  Did a donkey actually talk?  Was Jonah truly swallowed by a giant fish?  Why did God feel the need to stop the tower of Babel?  Surely He knew they would never succeed in reaching heaven...even if they thought otherwise!  Why does the Bible speak of mythical creatures, such as unicorns?  Did the hem of Jesus' garment really possess magical healing powers?  Did the graves open up, after Jesus' death and resurrection, with a bunch of dead people walking around on the streets?  (Look it up for yourself, Matthew 27:51-53)  And, re: the latter story, why does no other ancient historian see fit to mention this?  On and on and on it goes, I could literally give hundreds of such examples from within the pages of the Bible. 

Does this necessarily mean all the Bible stories are false?  No, of course not.  Do some of these stories contain kernels of historical truth?  Absolutely.  Does it mean that ancient people were dumb?  Wrong again.  They were just superstitious, that's all.  But would you believe these stories if they weren't in the Bible?  Why not??

It seems to me that we only have two options here: a) God was super active, in "Bible times", and crazy supernatural stuff was happening constantly, or b) ancient people were really superstitious.  These are not, by definition, mutually exclusive (both could be true simultaneously) but is that the most likely scenario?  Why would God send Jesus down into this sort of world?  And would he really make our eternal destiny hang on believing in what these superstitious people told us, in some book that is additionally riddled with problems (as I discussed last time)?

Maybe there really is a conflict between science and religion, I thought...maybe a belief in God(s) really was humanity's first stab in the dark, like those "new atheists" were saying.  Christopher Hitchens puts it this way, "Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody had the smallest idea what was going on". 

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Is The Bible Inerrant?

Shortly after finishing "Why I Became An Atheist" I stumbled into the work of another man, who was to have a large influence on my thinking, namely Bible scholar Bart D. Ehrman.  The first book I read, of Professor Ehrman's, was "Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why", but later I would also read this one, this one, this one, this one, and my personal favorite, this one (although not in that order). 

It was Ehrman's work that was primarily, but not solely, responsible for changing my mind on a "major" theological issue...unbeknownst to me, it was only the first of many such changes to come.  You know an issue is considered "major" btw, among evangelical Christians (this is the world that I come from), if dissenters are branded as "heretics", or some such scary thing, by a significant portion of the community.  Rob Bell, for example, has recently crossed the line that divides "minor" (we're allowed to disagree on this and still be friends) and "major" (if you question this I'll say you're not a real Christian and are "leading others astray") evangelical Christian theology, with his recent book "Love Wins". 

I knew this was a big deal but, despite my best efforts to fight it, I had completely lost my belief in Biblical inerrancy. 

For a while, I tried to hang on to some sort of vague notion of the Bible being "inspired", instead of "inerrant", but eventually I just let go of that as well.  What does it really mean for a book to be "inspired" anyway?  I find all kinds of books "inspiring", but I don't think that God wrote them!

I'd like to simply list a few of the things that I was discovering about the Bible, at this point in my de-conversion journey.  If you click on the last word, of each point (below), it will take you to an example (or numerous) of each problem mentioned.  In the case of number's 7 and 8, I have linked to videos that feature Bart Ehrman himself, both of which are lengthy but well worth watching in their entirety...
  1. The Bible was altered
  2. The Bible contains lots and lots and lots of contradictions.
  3. The Bible tells many tall tales.
  4. The Bible's authors borrowed & adapted mythical stories from their surrounding cultures.
  5. The Bible contains mythical stories that literally millions of Christians (wrongly) believe to be true
  6. The Bible contains known historical inaccuracies.
  7. The Bible contains books that are forged.
  8. The Bible is, generally speaking, unreliable.
There are many, many other things I could have mentioned, such as the Bible's clear signs of legendary development (ie. in the resurrection accounts) and rampant superstition.  Later on, I hope to write at greater length on a few of these points, individually, especially as it pertains to their larger implications for Christianity.

What was most surprising to me, about all of this, was that I hadn't known any of it before.  I had spent my entire life in the church and never once, to my knowledge, had these difficulties even been mentioned, let alone addressed or challenged.  Any one of them should suffice, by itself, to demonstrate that the Bible is not inerrant.  Would God really allow so many mistakes in a book that He wrote (or even "inspired"!)?  Where was the evidence that the Bible is "the word of God"?  I was frantic to find it.

Besides, why would God not also see to it that the original manuscripts were preserved?  Even if the originals were "inspired", in some mysterious way, we don't have them.  What we have have, instead, are copies of copies of copies of copies...and if we know that some of these copies were changed, which we do (see point 1), than what about the changes scholars haven't yet discovered (or never will)?

All of these questions, and so many others, were racing through my head.  I could feel the earth shifting underneath my feet, and I knew that my faith was beginning to crumble.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

You Can't Handle The Truth!

Before I go any further with my personal story I just want to pause, and reflect a little, on a few of the emotional dynamics that are involved in a de-conversion experience.  It would have been all too convenient for me to turn my back on further investigation, especially after reading John Loftus' book, since my whole world was (and is!) inexorably tied to Christianity.  Sure, I was starting to supsect that Christianity might be untrue, in terms of its factual claims, but what would this mean if it were so?  Could I really just walk away from being a Christian??  How?!?

For one, every member of my family, on both sides, is a "born again" Christian...even up to and including my aunts/uncles, & first cousins etc.  I mean everybody.  And this isn't to mention my work situation, plus nearly all of my friends and acquaintances (also Christian).

I decided, rightly or wrongly, that these issues (of life, death, the meaning of life...) were just too important to leave alone.  I HAD to know, come what may, if Christianity was true or if it wasn't.  Mind you, I'm keenly aware of the fact that not everyone feels this way, at least initially.

My wife, who stunned me recently by annoucing that she too is no longer a Christian, took a de-conversion path that was dramatically different from my own.  I remember asking her one time, while she was still a believer, "If Christianity were indeed false (hypothetically speaking, of course!), would you want to know?".  Her answer was an unflinching "no", absolutely not, she would not want to know.  This took me back a little, at first, but it did help me to better understand why she didn't seem interested in discussing the various issues (pro/con Christianity) that were so enveloping my world.  She most emphatically didn't want to read any books about them either! 

By her own admission one of the reasons, for this reticence, lay in the fact that she wasn't prepared to even entertain the possibility of not one day seeing her grandmother again, in heaven.  If there really is no afterlife, you see, she just didn't want any part of the "arguments" or "evidence" that might convince her of that fact.  We later came to jokingly refer to this as taking the "ostrich approach" (just stick your head in the sand so you don't have to face the arguments) also helps if you put your fingers in your ears, and say "la la la la, I can't hear you, I can't hear you...". 

There are two points I'd like to make here...firstly, how frequently are atheists arguing with Christians (both on the internet and in person) who are not even prepared to genuinely consider the possibility that Christianity might be false?  I think this is much more common than we realize.  The factors that hold someone to Christianity are both conscious and subconscious, and these factors are HUGE in their scope, complexity, impact etc.

Secondly, for any Christians who might happen to stumble onto this blog, I simply want to ask you the same question I asked my wife, "If Christianity were indeed false, would you want to know?".  Be careful, please don't answer too quickly here.  You need to permit yourself to imagine that you've become completely convinced of this, and then think through the implications step by step.  For example, would you tell your parents?  Right away, or later on?  Your friends?  Would you stop going to church (right away, or later on)?  How might this impact other areas of your life?  Remember, you might be able to fool other people (into thinking you're an honest seeker after truth) but you and you alone are the one who loses if it's not really the case.
Should your answer to this question be "no", than you need to walk away unless/until that changes, but if your answer is "yes", than you owe it to yourself to read some of the best skeptical material on the market today.  (The stuff recommended by atheists, not your fellow Christians)  If you have never done this, than how can you be confident in the truth of Christianity?

Monday, 1 August 2011

What If I'm Wrong?

By far the single biggest challenge to my Christian faith, during this early part of my de-conversion process, came in the form of a book, by John W. Loftus, "Why I Became An Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity".  I'm pretty embarrassed to admit that, previously, I had only been aware of one preacher turned atheist, namely, Billy Graham's former preaching partner, Charles Templeton.  My (devout Christian) mother and I once had a brief conversation about him, but quickly came to the conclusion that Templeton was "never a real Christian".  He must have had "head knowledge", about Christianity, but without the all important "heart knowledge", we reasoned.  (Much later, I would also read Templeton's de-conversion story, "Farewell To God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith", in addition to other similar books such as this one, this one, and this one. These last 3, in particular, are excellent.)

My purpose here is not to provide a review of John Loftus' book, in terms of its contents, but rather to try and capture in words the incredible impact it had on me at the time.  Loftus has said on his blog that his purpose, in writing WIBA, was to overwhelm the believer, and indeed this is precisely what happened in my case.  I believe that most Christians have little difficulty maintaining their faith, even when challenged, since it is propped up by dozens, if not hundreds, of individual pieces (& thought patterns) they deem to be solid on their own (and even stronger together)...if one of those pieces takes a hit, hey, no big deal, there are still plenty of reasons to continue believing!  These reasons are constantly re-inforced through conversations with Christian friends, weekly church attendance, and an extremely limited exposure to skeptical arguments (the internet is changing the latter, as Christian apologist Josh McDowell has noted recently).  But what happens when a sizable number of those pieces, propping up your worldview, are attacked simultaneously?  Well, this can cause one to question their entire paradigm, and in my case, that paradigm was the truth of Christianity.

As difficult as this may be for some people to believe, I was a man in my 30's who had never seriously considered the fact that Christianity might be completely false, in even its most basic claims.  I was just SO sure it was true, to even bother investigating it too deeply would literally have felt like a complete waste of my time. I believe this is why most Christians don't bother reading skeptical books, such as those written by the so called "new atheists".  Contrary to what many think, Christians are not (generally) afraid of these books, they just deem them completely irrelevant.  The real believers KNOW Christianity is true and, besides, if ever they need to brush up on the intellectual arguments, in favour of the Christian faith, a Lee Strobel book is never far away.  (Irony intended)

The night that I finished this book is forever seared into my memory.  After reading the last sentence I just sat there, in bed, my head spinning as I tried (in vain) to process everything I had just read. It was in that very moment I reached a watermark in my de-conversion journey.  Had John Loftus convinced me that Christianity was false? No, not fully. But he had convniced me this was a distinct possibility.  That watermark came in the form of a question, "What if I'm wrong?".  I made a commitment to myself, right then and there, to continue my investigation regardless of where it might lead. It was a scary, and yet somehow strangely exhilarating feeling.

I'd like to close this post with a quote, from James F. Sennett, that captures well how I was feeling at the time (also reflected on page 13 of WIBA), "Once I had no doubt that God was there but I resented him for it; now I desparately want him to be there, and am terrified that he might not be."