Monday, 30 January 2012

New Ehrman vs. Evans Debate

The other day, while searching for something entirely different, I happened to stumble into a new Bart Ehrman/Craig Evans debate.  It appears this exchange took place just a week and a half ago, January 19th, 2012, to be exact.  The topic was, "Does the New Testament present a reliable portrait of the Historical Jesus?".

I won't bother taking the time to tell you who Ehrman and Evans are, in case you don't know, since both receive rather substantial introductions during the video itself.

I had previously watched this 2011 debate, between the two of them, so I was extremely curious to see the follow up.

A few thoughts...

I couldn't help but notice, generally speaking, that Evans conceded a lot more ground this time around.  A lot more.  I'm betting this was a deliberate approach, on his part, since he came right out (in his opening statement) and said things that he hadn't been willing to say during his entire debate with Ehrman last year.

Let's take it piece by piece...

Evans' Opening Statement:

I was surprised by Evans' comments that the gospel of John is more "metaphorical", in nature, since this assertion would be very controversial in evangelical circles.  He seemed fully aware of this though and, on numerous occasions, he openly challenged his more conservative colleagues to "re-think" the Gospel of John.  Wow.  Frankly, I'm a little impressed that he had the guts to do this.  The shift may be a reaction, on Evans' part, to the widespread perception that he was too timid during his 2011 debate with Ehrman.

Evans also admits, right off the bat, that the New Testament has discrepancies.  This, too, is a big change from last time.  His strategy seems to be to give as much ground as he possibly can, right from the get go, perhaps in the hopes of taking the wind out of Ehrman's sails.

Evans does a lot of name dropping in his opening speech.  He tries to make it sound as if most scholars agree with his positions, but later in the debate this technique backfires (big time) when Ehrman challenges him, rather forcefully, on this very point.

The first prong, of Evans' opening argument, is that the Greek texts we have are very close to the originals.  (I suspect Ehrman would agree totally with this.)  The second prong, is what Evans refers to as "verisimilitude".  This is a pretty big word, and I suppose it sounds impressive enough; that is, until you realize what it is that Evans actually means by it.  His contention is simply that the New Testament speaks of real people, places, and customs.  Uhhh...yeah...and your point would be?  He also seems to think that Ehrman believes we can't know what Jesus said and did.  But this is a total red herring since, as Bart points out later, he doesn't believe any such thing.  (In fact, Ehrman wrote a book about Jesus.)

Unfortunately, there is an audio problem, during Evans' opening speech, which understandably distracts him a little (I had to feel for the guy), but it eases up just after the 27 minute mark.

Ehrman's Opening Statement:

Ehrman begins with his usual thing of asking how many in the crowd are Bible believing Christians, and came to see him get "thumped".  In analyzing past debates, I've seen some Christian reviewers heavily criticize the fact that Ehrman frequently does this (I guess they think he's playing the sympathy card?).  On the contrary, I suspect that he does it for the benefit of the audience (and not for his own benefit at all).  Most people aren't consciously aware of the fact that they come into an event like this with preconceived biases and emotions.  So, when Ehrman points this out (the elephant in the room) it has a way of bringing that dynamic to the forefront of people's minds.  In other words, it gets them thinking, "yeah, you're right, I already disagree with you and I am hoping you get slaughtered tonight!".  Maybe, just maybe, if everyone were a little more honest about this than minds (and ears) would be opened to actually hear what is being said.

Anyway, Ehrman uses the birth of Jesus to make his point that the Gospels are "completely at odds" with one another.  I really liked his investigator analogy.  When an investigator comes on to a dead body, and then proceeds to focus on the "details" (the hair, the fingerprints etc.) one might be tempted to cry, "you're ignoring the dead body!".  But the key to solving the crime is in the details.  In other words, the key to understanding what Jesus actually said and did lies in the "details" of the various gospel accounts.  Instead of just ignoring the differences, or trying to harmonize them, scholars ask why there are differences in the first place.

After completely destroying the idea that Luke's census ever took place, Bart says the following, "...why does Luke have this census?  Because he has to get Jesus born in Bethlehem even though he knows that he came from Nazareth".

Ehrman goes on to talk about other types of differences, such as differences in emphasis, that are important even though they may or may not be discrepancies per se.  This further underscores the point he was making with his investigator analogy.  

He also uses a court room analogy...when four different accounts are given, of a crime, you don't assume that they're all correct; you try instead to determine which one (if any) is accurate.

Ehrman then asks the audience to imagine that several people today were asked to write biographies of Jimmy Carter, based on oral reports only.  Ehrman is later challenged on this example, during the q&a period, and he clarifies the point quite nicely (I don't think the questioner even understood it to begin with).

Evans' Rebuttal:

Evans again makes the argument that, simply because there are problems with the Gospel accounts, we don't "give up" and say that we "just don't know"...but Ehrman doesn't do this (quite the opposite, in fact) so Evans completely misses the point here.

I'm sorry to say it so bluntly, but his rebuttal was woefully inadequate.

Ehrman's Rebuttal:

Ehrman accuses Evans of using a "sleight of hand".  When Evans insists that we can know something about Jesus, from the Gospel accounts, this is not the same thing as having a historically accurate portrait (this theme was to come up again in the discussion/q&a section).

Discussion/Q&A Section:

Evans, still missing the point, asks Bart if he believes that we can derive a picture of who Jesus was using the Gospels.  

Evans once again agrees to the fact that there are discrepancies and inaccuracies in the Gospels.

Ehrman re-emphasizes the difference between getting historically accurate information out of the Gospels vs. them being historically accurate.  The Gospel of Peter, for example, has numerous things in it that are historically accurate (verisimilitude)...does this mean that Evans thinks it's a reliable account?

Evans AGAIN asks if Ehrman thinks the quest for the historical Jesus is worth pursuing?  Is he not listening??

In the q&a section Ehrman is posed a great question about why he bothers to study the New Testament.  He rightly says that the Gospels are "the most important pieces of literature in the history of western civilization".  Why wouldn't we want to study them?  (Incidentally, this is very similar to the point that I was trying to make in my post about Dinesh D'Souza.)

Those are some really quick, off the cuff, thoughts from yours truly.  Here's the debate...

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Ancient Reasoning

In this post I'll be dissecting one of the arguments made in Richard Carrier's "Not The Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn't Need A Miracle To Succeed".  Carrier has a Ph.D. in Ancient History, from Columbia University, and for several years he served as editor-in-chief on the secular web.  His official website is here and his blog is right here.

I should begin by saying that I nearly didn't but this book; it was the product of an Internet debate, between Carrier and Christian apologist J.P. Holding, that I had pretty much zero interest in.  I decided to pick it up anyway, mainly because I had read a good deal of Carrier's online material (as well as his book "Sense And Goodness Without God"), and I especially liked his attention to detail.  Boy, am I glad I did. Carrier's arguments in this book are superb and, as I expected, thorough to a fault.  It's a heavy, perhaps even verbose, but deeply rewarding read.  To do "Not The Impossible Faith" justice I feel I would need to write 18 separate posts (one for each chapter) so, instead, I've decided to simply offer you an "example" of the sort of argumentation it contains.  I'll focus on chapter 13, "Would the Facts Be Checked?".

Carrier's talking here about the first converts to Christianity.  The "birth of the church", if you will, and his goal in this chapter is...

" examine what prospective converts actually did when faced with the amazing claims of Christians, and to see what kind of evidence actually persuaded them."  (bolding mine)

Fair enough?

He continues...

"Strangers established trust by shows of sincerity, moral propriety, knowledge of cultural lore and custom (e.g. scripture), and good deeds.  Anyone who met those criteria would be trusted--because people actually believed no one capable of all that would lie."

Hmmm.  Those don't seem like great criteria, do they?

Let's press on...

"The standards of evidence people followed back then were quite unlike those we follow today."  (Carrier demonstrates this, even more fully, in a later chapter.)

"...they mostly relied on groupthink to sell the faith.  By first appealing to a group they were already a part of, they were not seen as strangers, but was their most common and important strategy, and it greatly reduced the burden on them to prove their merit and thus win trust."  (This reminds me of Paul's comments about "becoming all things to all men")

What makes this chapter unique is the way in which Carrier analyzes the conversions in Acts (14 of them, to be exact).  The pressing question is, would prospective converts have fact checked before believing?  I won't take the time to go through all 14 cases, but let's use the Apostle Paul's conversion as an illustration.  This is what I'm calling "ancient reasoning" in action...

"Paul is converted by a vision (Acts 9:1-19)...And yet he didn't really 'see' anything objectively empirical--he did not see the body of Jesus risen from the grave, just a bright light in the sky, and a voice no one else attests to hearing.  Acts gives three different accounts of this event that are hopelessly contradictory, of course.  In Acts 9:7, Luke says Paul's unnamed traveling companions heard the voice but saw nothing, but in Acts 22:9 Paul himself says they heard nothing but saw the light.  In Acts 26:13-14 Paul doesn't say what they saw or heard, though he says they all fell down with him, but in Acts 9:7 Luke says they remained standing."

Besides the contradictions, do you notice anything missing in Paul's conversion?  Is there any indication that he checked, say, to see if Jesus' grave was empty?  Nope.  And the same holds true for every other conversion in the book of Acts (as Carrier amply demonstrates throughout the chapter).  Every last one.

I suppose it's still possible that there were some in those days who did check the facts, and as a result didn't convert, but if this is the case than Christianity fares no better.

So, if objective evidence (aka "fact checking") wasn't what convinced the early Christians, what did convince them?  Well, according to Acts, the main factors (in no particular order) were speeches, visions, subjective spiritual feelings, healings, arguments from scripture, and the exemplary moral life of the Christians themselves.

Are any of these "good" reasons to convert to Christianity (or anything else)?  No, not at all.  Let's analyze each of them very briefly...

Speeches...In modern society we know the difference, or at least we ought to, between someone being "right" and that person being (or not being) an effective public speaker.  A person may be correct about something, and yet have terrible rhetorical skills.  On the flip side, they may have excellent presentation, but be entirely wrong in what they are saying.  The difference lies in the evidence.  Another interesting thing, that Carrier makes note of, is that conversions were often won on the very same day the message was preached..."As far as Acts reports, Christian conversions never took place after days of careful research and investigation--much less weeks or months of correspondence and travel, as would have been required for most--but immediately, upon the direct witness of a missionary's words and deeds."

Visions/Subjective Spiritual Feelings...I've spoken before about "subjective spiritual feelings", both here, and here, so I won't repeat myself.  And, in terms of "visions", I think the arguments against them are actually pretty similar.  Visions are also highly "subjective", in nature, and they happened in the Bible with alarming regularity.  Would you believe someone, today, if they told you they had a "vision" of their dead grandmother?  Why not?  Sure, you may accept the fact that they had a real experience, wrongly interpreted, but you would be unlikely to buy into their dead grandmother's actual involvement in that experience.  Well, you should be even more suspicious of "visions" that occurred in the ancient superstitious past.

Healings...Some Christians may be tempted to argue that the "healings" in the Bible must have been real because, otherwise, who would believe them?  Allow me to counter that assumption with two words; Benny Hinn.  His believers pack stadiums, all over the world, yet does any truly objective person actually believe that Benny Hinn performs genuine miracles?  If you personally don't think that Benny Hinn performs miracles, than why do you believe in those mentioned in the Bible?  Carrier makes the additional point that "the miracles Christian missionaries performed were the same kinds of things pagan holy men could pull off, too.  Today, we know there are natural causes of such phenomena...Clearly these were not critical thinkers by any standard, much less a modern one."

Arguments from scripture...Many scholars now recognize the fact that the New Testament's authors twisted, and re-interpreted, the Hebrew scriptures, with the specific intent of reading Jesus into the text.  The problem is they tipped their hand, in numerous places, by making a generous assortment of errors while doing so.  I've already written about just one of those mistakes, right here.  Besides, as Carrier says, "Scripture is hopelessly ambiguous, and can be used to prove anything--especially if you cherry-pick the information...".

Exemplary moral life...In a previous chapter Carrier makes the point that, in the ancient world, moral devotion was actually synonymous with divine sanction of that community and its message.  Today, we would call that a giant non sequitur.  In other words, the logic went something like this, "that guy seems really sincere, he tells a really great story, and rumor has it those Christians are very moral people...what he's saying must be true!".  No investigation, no interrogation of witnesses, no letters, no travel; y'know, none of that pesky "objective" stuff we like so much these days.

The important thing to note is that literally none of the above qualifies as "evidence" at all, according to any modern understanding of the word.

Carrier closes the chapter by discussing some of the other (non-conversion) passages, in Acts (Christianity's first hundred years), followed by an examination of the early Christian apologists (the 2nd century A.D.).  Of course, "fact checking" becomes increasingly difficult, with the passage of time, but even still we see no indication of even so much as the desire to approach things in this manner. Speaking of Justin, Athenagoras, Aristides, and Tatian, Carrier says..."all wrote lengthy treatises that survey their reasons for converting, which we still more or less have. Yet we look in vain in them for even one single example of 'fact checking' the resurrection claim in any respectable sense."

Here's my point...when we read the stories in the Bible we do so with modern eyes.  We simply can't help it.  As a result, we make unspoken, and mostly subconscious, assumptions about what would have likely happened two thousand years ago.  We simply can't imagine things being any other way.  But those assumptions aren't necessarily correct.

Much of what would verify Christianity is inaccessible to us today.  Modern day Christians need to rely on the fact that the early Christians "did their homework".  But, as Carrier demonstrates in this, as well as other chapters (e.g. ch. 7, "Was Christianity Vulnerable to Disproof?" and ch. 17, "Did Christians Encourage Critical Inquiry?"), this assumption is, at very best, a tenuous one.  As a result, Christianity rests on a shaky foundation indeed.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Heaven Is For Real

Life has been pretty busy lately, thus the paucity of new material, but I do hope to carve out a little extra time for writing in a week or two.

If you've been following along, on this blog, by now you've likely picked up on the fact that I am a fairly avid reader.  It occurred to me, the other day, that over the past few years, in particular, I have read dozens of books that are probably worth commenting on at some point or another.  So, beginning now, I'd like to mix in the occasional book review.  Really, I have no formal system in mind so I will simply write, about this book or that book, as the mood strikes me.

With that said, for this post I'd like to offer some thoughts on (the #1 New York Times Bestseller) "Heaven Is For Real"...

This book tells the story of four year old Colton Burpo, now 12, from the perspective of his father Todd (a Christian minister).  Long story short, the family claims that Colton went to heaven, during a near death experience on the operating table (his appendix burst).  According to the timeline given, at the back of the book, Colton was actually three when he had these experiences (but four by the time he began talking about them).

Let's get straight to what I think is the best of the hard "evidence"; the book claims that...

a) Colton met his great grandfather, "Pop", who had died 30 years earlier (and later supposedly recognized a picture of Pop, as a young man, since "no one is old in heaven").

b) Colton knew what his parents were doing, including where they were, while he was unconscious on the operating table.

c) Colton talked to his sister, a child that miscarried years earlier (and that he purportedly knew nothing about).

Now, as we'll see, these weren't the only things that Colton did during his short time (three minutes) in heaven.  Not by a long shot.  But, never fear, Colton had plenty of time to squeeze it all in since (as chapter fourteen reminds us) "a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day", on heaven's timetable.

Initially, Colton speaks "only" of sitting on Jesus' lap, in the hospital, while the angels were singing to him.  From the prologue...

"'Well, they sang 'Jesus Loves Me' and 'Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,'' he said earnestly.  'I asked them to sing 'We Will, We Will Rock You', but they wouldn't sing that.'"


Later on, Colton's parents begin to suspect that he had much more than an out of body experience (as if that weren't enough to process).  How exactly he got from the hospital room, with Jesus and the angels, to heaven itself is never explained.  I mean, did they fly?  Did Jesus snap his fingers, teleporting everyone instantly from one location to the other?  The reader is left to wonder.

Listen as Todd Burpo describes the very moment he realized his son had actually been to heaven...

"Just as I was processing the implications of my son's statement---that he had met John the Baptist--Colton spied a plastic horse among his toys and held it up for me to look at.  'Hey Dad, did you know Jesus has a horse?'  'A horse?'  'Yeah, a rainbow horse.  I got to pet him.  There's lots of colors.'  Lots of colors?  What was he talking about?  'Where are there lots of colors, Colton?'  'In heaven, Dad.  That's where all the rainbow colors are.'  That set my head spinning. Suddenly I realized that up until that point, I'd been toying with the idea that maybe Colton had had some sort of divine visitation.  Maybe Jesus and the angels had appeared to him in the hospital...Now it was dawning on me that not only was my son saying he had left his body; he was saying he had left the hospital!"

For a short time this creates some cognitive dissonance in Todd since, after all, Colton didn't actually die on the operating table.  So, how could he go to heaven if he didn't die?...

"Then I remembered that the Bible talks in several places about people who had seen heaven without dying.  The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth about a Christian he knew personally who was taken to heaven..."

Problem solved.

One of the more intriguing revelations comes in chapter 13...

"This statement marked the beginning of a period that I wished we had written down.  During this conversation and for the next year or so, Colton could name a lot of the kids he said were in heaven with him.  He doesn't remember their names now, though, and neither do Sonja nor I."

How unfortunate (and convenient).

As the book continues Colton reveals a number of other juicy nuggets, about heaven, such as the fact that Jesus is the only one who doesn't have wings.  Apparently, he just goes "up and down like an elevator".  Oh, and everyone there has "a light above their head".  Colton also got to literally see Jesus shooting down power, to his Dad, during sermon time in church.  How cool is that?!

But things get even weirder as the book rolls on.  According to chapter 25, "the angels carry swords so they can keep Satan out of heaven".  Listen, as Todd comments on his son's most recent revelation...

"But how did a six year old know that?  Yes, Colton had had two more years of Sunday school by then, but I knew for a fact that our curriculum didn't include lessons on Satan's living arrangements."

Todd continues...

"'Hey Colton, I bet you asked if you could have a sword, didn't you?' I said.  At that, Colton's smile melted into a dejected frown, and his shoulders slumped toward the floor.  'Yeah, I did.  But Jesus wouldn't let me have one.  He said I'd be too dangerous.'  I chuckled a little, wondering if Jesus meant Colton would be a danger to himself or others."

And a few minutes later...

"'Hey Colton', I said. 'Did you see Satan?'  'Yeah, I did,' he said solemnly.  'What did he look like?'  At this, Colton's body went rigid, he grimaced, and his eyes narrowed to a squint."

And I highly recommend you buckle your seatbelt, because things get even more bizarre in chapter 26.  Listen, as Colton tells his Dad all about "the coming war"...

"'There's going to be a war, and it's going to destroy this world.  Jesus and the angels and the good people are going to fight against Satan and the monsters and the bad people.  I saw it.'  I thought of the battle described in the book of Revelation, and my heartbeat skipped up a notch. 'How did you see that?'  'In heaven, the women and the children got to stand back and watch.  So I stood back and watched.'  Strangely, his voice was sort of cheerful, as though he were talking about a good movie he'd seen.  'But the men, they have to fight.  And Dad, I watched you.  You have to fight too.'"

And later in the chapter...

"'Yeah, Dad but it's okay,' he said reassuringly.  'Jesus wins.  He throws Satan into hell.  I saw it.'"

Alright, I think you get the idea.  Let's re-cap...the angels sang (at least two) songs to Colton while he was sitting on Jesus' lap, still in the hospital.  At some (unspecified) point afterward, Colton and company went to heaven (instantly?), at which time Colton had more conversations with Jesus, John the Baptist, his great grandfather, his sister, and possibly others.  Then, Jesus gives Colton several super cool demonstrations, including one of him zapping down power to his Dad during church services, as well as a (movie like) preview of the final battle between good and evil. For the big finale Jesus tops it all off by showing Colton what it will be like when Satan is thrown into Hell once and for all.


Oh, and did I mention that God is "really, really big" and that Colton also saw the thrones that God, Jesus, and the angel Gabriel actually sit on?  In between all of this, Jesus also managed to relay several messages to Colton, most notably that "he had to be good" and that "Jesus really loves the little children".

I hope you'll forgive me for that (rather lengthy) summary, but, I felt it was important to set the stage, as fully as possible, before giving my personal opinions on "Heaven Is For Real".  Frankly, it's always difficult to critique books like this.  I very much want to respect people's personal stories and, really, who am I to tell the Burpo's what did or didn't happen to Colton?  I don't even know these people.  Having said that, by way of disclaimer, I'd now like to offer a few speculative thoughts on why I personally did not find this story convincing.

First off, I couldn't help but notice that neither Todd or Sonja ever question the veracity of anything that Colton says about his supernatural experiences.  Ever.  It seems they became fully convinced of the story's legitimacy, right from the get go, because of details that Colton supposedly revealed during that very first conversation about it (the one re: Jesus and the angels in his hospital room).  It's as if they give Colton a free pass, after this point, and believe literally everything he tells them over the next several years.  Everything.  This struck me as somewhat odd since, as a parent myself, I know that kids tend to mix truth and falsehood together in a way that adults typically don't.  So, frequently there are nuggets of truth to what a child is saying, but that doesn't automatically entail that every word of it is 100% accurate.  This is where parents need to step in, with discernment, to gently help the given child sort out fact from fiction.

Secondly, while Todd makes it very clear that he was careful not to plant ideas in Colton's head, it never seems to occur to him that Colton may be embellishing the story in order to please his parents.  Now, I'm not suggesting here that Colton is lying, intentionally, but kids have a way of picking up on the fact that parents are especially interested in a particular topic.  And often they continue on, with that topic, because of how the parents are reacting to it, and this tends to lead (even inadvertently) to embellishment.  In my own experience, as a parent, this is especially true prior to the age of about 7 or 8, after which time it tends to naturally ease up a bit, as the child matures.  But, by this age, Colton would have been several years into the re-telling, having received affirmation over and over again (through both verbal and non verbal cues) that his experience was real.  Any window, for self reflection and analytical thought, on Colton's part (ie. that perhaps he overheard more than he realized, and/or that he had a dream, and/or that perhaps he knew some of these things from church or Christian books etc. etc.), would long since have passed.  In other words, I think that Colton now believes that he really went to heaven.  But, remember, he was 3 years old when this happened.  How likely would you be, to completely trust your memory (much less interpretation) of most anything that happened when you were 3 years old?

Lastly, this book seemed to lose credibility as the story went on.  Many of the really rad parts, about what happened in heaven, seem to only have been revealed by Colton years after the fact. Now, Todd would likely claim that this is because he didn't want to push Colton too hard, but actually it seems, from the book, that Colton was typically very eager to talk about it whenever the subject was broached.

In short, my tentative conclusion is that Colton's parents are, in all likelihood, simply more credulous than they ought to be.  As one of the reviewers on Amazon has put it, they probably owe Colton an apology; for believing every word of what he has told them.  They are, after all, his parents, and it's up to them to help Colton learn to think carefully.

So my question to the Burpo's would be this...has Colton said anything, about heaven, over the past 9 years, that you don't believe?  Anything at all?  If the answer is "no", this should ring alarm bells.  Some (ok, all) of this stuff is pretty fantastic, and it would seem that the story pretty much rises and falls together, becoming increasingly more implausible as multiple new layers are added, by Colton, year after year after year.

I should mention that I've also watched numerous videos, of both Colton and his Dad, discussing this experience (just google it and you'll find plenty).  And, I don't mean this to sound like nitpicking, but, I have to say that I find Colton even less credible in person than I do in print.  It comes off to me as if he is just parroting the same answers over and over.  And he uses an awful lot of biblical phrasing and terminology when he is "remembering" things...let's just say it's quite easy to tell this kid spends a great deal of time in church.

Some will no doubt accuse the Burpo's of manufacturing the whole affair.  Let me state, plainly, that I do not believe this to be the case.  I believe that they believe it.

But one also has to wonder, if this were in fact real, than what's the point?  Is God hoping this story will convince the skeptics?  Then surely he would've revealed something to Colton (about future events, perhaps?) that might have a hope and a prayer of accomplishing these ends.  As it happens, "Heaven Is For Real" has just enough in it to be interesting (thus the bestselling status) but not nearly enough to be convincing to anyone with a sufficiently critical eye.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

The Christian Bubble

Over the past few months, I've been listening a little to Christian author & teacher Joyce Meyer (don't ask, it's a long story).  If, per chance, you don't know who she is I should mention, before I go much further, that Meyer is one of the most popular evangelical leaders alive today.  Time Magazine once named her one of the "25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America".  I knew who she was, while I was a Christian, but (ironically) I have become much more familiar with her work just recently.

The other day I heard Meyer say something that really caught my attention (although probably not for the reasons she had in mind).  Here are her exact words...

"Well, you know, the longer we complain about our problems the longer we're going to keep those problems.  The Israelites came out of Egypt, they had prayed for God to deliver them.  He sent them a deliverer, in Moses, he led them out of Egypt and they headed toward the promised land. The Bible says that they spent 40 years trying to make what was an 11 day journey.  I don't think I'll ever stop being amazed about that.  We can read about their story, and be amazed, and say well how dumb they were but I wonder how many of us do the same things.  We go around and around the same mountains, we keep dealing with the same problems, and why?  Is it just the devil, is it just our enemies?  Actually, if you study the Israelites journey it was their attitude that kept them in the wilderness.  They complained, and murmured, and grumbled, and found fault, with every little inconvenience.  And I believe with all of my heart, that if we complain, we remain, but if we praise God will deliver us."  (bolding mine)

There are several things that strike me about the above paragraph.  The first is more of a general observation about Meyer; namely that she is basically just a glorified motivational speaker (and a good one at that).  Nearly all of her talks are very similar, in tone, to the snippet that I've just shared with you.  Step 1, highlight a problem that we all struggle with from time to time (some of her favorite themes are controlling the tongue, and having a good attitude), step 2, tie it in with a Bible verse and/or Bible story, step 3, draw out a life principle that is designed to motivate better behavior in the recipient (sometimes step 1 and step 2 are reversed).


And, during each talk, she checks in periodically to be sure the audience is still engaged emotionally with what she's trying to get across; something like, "come on now, I'm preaching good tonight!" (I'm paraphrasing this part, but you get the idea.)

Another thing that really jumps out at me, from Meyer's comments above, is how "amazed" she was that the Israelites took 40 years to make (what should have been) an 11 day journey.  Really Joyce?  Does that sound credible to you??  She then goes on to strongly imply that she has "studied" the matter.  Again...really??

If Joyce Meyer had "studied" the Exodus story, than she would be fully aware of the fact that most scholars believe it didn't happen as described in the Bible.  Actually, a simple check on Wikipedia would suffice to establish this point...

"The archaeological evidence of the largely indigenous origins of Israel is 'overwhelming' and leaves no room for an Exodus from Egypt or a 40-year pilgrimage through the Sinai wilderness.'  For this reason, most archaeologists have abandoned the archaeological investigation of Moses and Exodus as a 'fruitless pursuit'."  (bolding mine)

I'm not trying to pick on Joyce Meyer here.  She seems like a nice person and, in so far as I can tell, extremely sincere in her efforts to help people.  I only bring this up because, in my opinion, it's indicative of a much deeper problem that completely pervades evangelical Christian culture. The problem I speak of is twofold; a) confirmation bias, combined with generous doses of, b) credulity.  Each of these is problematic, in its own right, but together the two are nothing short of a potent mix.

I've written a little about confirmation bias already, in discussing my father, but lately I've begun to see that it's an even bigger issue than I had previously realized or acknowledged.  When Joyce says that she "studied", for example, what precisely does she mean by that?  Well, of course, we can't be certain (because she didn't tell us).  At the risk of being presumptive though, I suspect that Meyer simply means that she has read some Christian books & commentaries on the Exodus story.  To be clear, there's nothing wrong with that.  But, has she also read literally anything that examines the story from a non-evangelical Christian perspective (ie. best selling book "The Bible Unearthed")?  Probably not.  And, if she has, than one could reasonably expect her to have at least a few qualms about the legitimacy of the story as told in the Bible (which she clearly doesn't).  That is, unless she would just reject the possibility of Biblical error out of hand anyway, in spite of the evidence (which, I'll admit, is also a distinct possibility).

As I see it, a second prong of this same problem is credulity.  Look again at her words, "the Bible says they spent 40 years trying to make what was an 11 day journey".  Wow, it really takes some serious moxie to believe that as pure fact...much less to preach it as such in front of packed stadiums (and with such confidence)!  And all of this without the tiniest shred of archaeological evidence to back up the claim.  Oh, wait, I has to be true because it's in the Bible, and the Bible is "God's perfect word".

Did I mention she had "studied" the matter?

Remember, Meyer is a wildly popular speaker.  So, if even she fails to examine her beliefs critically, how can we expect her followers to do the same??  (After all, they don't need to, because she has "studied" it on their behalf!)

The final thing that bothers me, about Meyer's brief statement above, stems from the very last line, "and I believe with all of my heart, that if we complain, we remain, but if we praise God will deliver us".  This ties in with my whole point about credulity.  Let's really think about that statement for a moment.  Is Meyer saying that people who suffer only need to praise, and their suffering will end?  How about the starving children in Africa?  Do they "remain" because they "complain"?  Where is the proof of this contention?  I'm sure it's a comment that appropriately challenges her audience, and hey I'm all in favor of helping people improve their attitude...but I'm noticing, more and more these days, that Christians make some pretty wild statements without simultaneously feeling the need to provide even the slightest hint of evidence to back them up (and they do it with alarming regularity).  It's not Christians who have changed; it's me.  Funny how I just never picked up on such statements while I was still a Christian myself.

And notice that Meyer also says she believes it with all of her heart.  O.k., sure, but does that make the claim any more or less true?  Too often Christians confuse the feeling of certainty with actual proof that would count in favor of whatever it is they're so certain about.  Modern science clearly demonstrates otherwise.

Now, liberal Christians will want to protest, at this point, perhaps claiming that the Exodus story is some sort of metaphor.  After all, surely modern day people can still learn a thing or two about grumbling from it.  This is true enough, in so far as it goes, but keep in mind that Meyer and her ilk believe every word of the story to be literally true.  They believe the same about Adam & Eve, the Flood, and any other number of wild tales that have all been soundly debunked.

The truth is, we could use pretty much any book in essentially the same way that Meyer is using the Bible here.  She might as well be up there extracting bits of wisdom from works of Shakespeare or "Pilgrim's Progress" from week to week.

The Bible is either "God's word" or it isn't.  My contention is that an objective look at the evidence points strongly to the latter conclusion.

The only catch is you have to actually step outside of the Christian bubble to see it for what it is.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

And A Child Shall Lead Them

The folks over at GodTube recently released their list of the "most watched and most shared" videos of 2011.  (GodTube is, naturally, a Christian knockoff of YouTube.)

I couldn't help but notice that the top two videos had a very specific element in common; both featured children, doing something or other, from the stage during a church service.  Number one came from an 11 year old (click this if you're curious) and here is number two...

I sincerely hope that I'm not just turning into a cranky atheist here (if so, please forgive me) but, I've got to say, this video really bothers me.  Actually, it's not so much the video, per se, but what it represents in the broader scheme of things.  Let me see if I can explain...

On one level, I totally get why kid centered Christian videos are so popular.  I mean, children are cute, there's no doubt about it.  And lest you think I'm some sort of heartless curmudgeon, let me voluntarily cop to the fact that I've laughed myself silly to videos like "Baby Laughing Hysterically at Ripping Paper" from time to time.  (Full disclosure...I may have just taken a break from blogging to watch it again).

Having said that, what bugs me is the underlying fact that Christians are totally o.k., generally speaking, with the ultra heavy indoctrination of children into religion (if you have any lingering doubts about this, just listen again to the robust applause at the end of the video).  I mean, this kid is clearly mimicking what he has seen and heard from the adults in his life.  I don't think any of us, regardless of our other differences, would even attempt to dispute such a plain and obvious fact.  

So, before I tell you what's getting my goat, let me outline the two primary reasons (I believe) Christians take this (indoctrination oriented) approach to the instruction of children to begin with...

Firstly, Christian parents know full well that most people accept Christ at a young age; statistically speaking.  In the comments section of a previous post, Dave drew my attention to this page, which outlines the "missions strategy" of the popular Awana kids program:

"There is a marvelous window of opportunity in the lifetime of most people to reach them with the Gospel and the Word of God.  And that window is while they are young, moldable, and teachable.  Statistics show across the world that the majority of people who will ever come to Christ do so between the ages of 4 and 14.  With every year after age 14, people become less receptive to spiritual things and less receptive to the Gospel."  (bolding mine)

Enough said on that point, for now, but I'll return to it in a moment.

Secondly, Christians believe that the Bible effectively tells them to raise kids in this manner.  In Proverbs 22:6 it says, "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it".  This verse could be applied to any number of parenting issues (some of which I would be totally fine with) but, more often than not, believers simply take it as God's way of directing them to teach their kids Christianity.  Full stop.  

I think there's also a third reason, but it's not one that many church going parents will readily admit to; fear.  According to most evangelicals, people who fail to accept Christ before they die will live on in unspeakable torment for trillions upon trillions upon trillions of years.  It doesn't take a genius to put the pieces together: a) people are radically more likely to accept Christ as children, plus b) anyone who dies without Christ will go to hell, equals c) it is imperative that I convince my kids to accept Christ, before it's too late!

That said, my views on this issue have radically changed since losing my faith.  First off, let me state plainly that I do not intend to indoctrinate my kids into atheism.  In fact, I now think it would be irresponsible of me to do so.  Why?  Well, for precisely the same reasons I have such a problem with the video above (only in the reverse)...namely, children are gullible.  There, I said it.  And you know it's true.  Kids will believe nearly anything adults tell them (especially their parents) so it's morally questionable, at best, to insist that all of our own conclusions are the "correct" ones and that those who disagree are simply "wrong" (even if we think they are).  This last statement will no doubt be somewhat controversial, even among my fellow skeptics, but I stand by it.  As parents, we need to strive for a certain measure of humility.  (Having said that I do plan to teach my kids critical thinking skills.  I would argue that we should all do the same, but that's for another post.)

To make matters worse, the brain of a child works differently than that of an adult.  By way of example, it's now known that the region of the brain which inhibits risky behavior does not fully form until age 25.

For these reasons, among others, some atheists have even suggested that religious indoctrination is a form of mental child abuse.  While I'm not prepared to go this far, personally, I do think they have a very strong point (and not one that most Christians will have pondered before).  Let's re-visit that quote from Awana, changing as few of the words as possible...

"There is a marvelous window of opportunity, for indoctrination, in the lifetime of most people. And that window is while children are still young, impressionable, and gullible.  Statistics show across the world that the majority of people, who will ever accept their parents religious views, do so between the ages of 4 and 14.  With every year after age 14, kids become smarter, and less likely to simply believe whatever adults tell them without question or independent investigation."

Christian, would you be alright with the above statement if Awana (or your church) were to actually word it in this way?  Now take another look at Awana's real phrasing, and ask yourself, what's the difference?

If it's truly imperative to reach kids for Christ, before the age of 14, what does that suggest about the evidence for Christianity?  Is it strong enough to convince any fair minded adult, or isn't it? And, if it's not, than what right does your God have to punish unbelievers eternally?  Were it not for the indoctrination of children, would religions even survive long term?  (Any of them?)

Allow me to close on a more personal note...whatever it is that my own kids come to believe about religion, in the end analysis, I just want them to know that I respect their right to think for themselves.  I'll be here to help them however I can. 

Everyone deserves that much.  Don't you think?

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Does Yahweh Exist?

I'm finally getting around to reading John Loftus' "The End Of Christianity".  I don't plan to do a full chapter by chapter review, but below I will discuss, in some detail, one of my favorites in the book (chapter 5, by Dr. Jaco Gericke, "Can God Exist If Yahweh Doesn't?"). In it, Dr. Gericke makes an argument that is a little different than any that I've heard before, and his case is a convincing one.

Dr. Gericke's basic contention is that most Christians today believe in the more sophisticated "God of the philosophers", and not at all "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob", namely Yahweh, as depicted in the Bible...

"What the Western world means when it refers fuzzily to 'God' is not some untouchable, ineffable ultimate reality beyond the grasp of human rational faculties that will one day catch up with unbelievers, making them realize their cognitive blindness.  Rather, the entity most readers refer to when they speak of 'God' is actually an upgraded, mysteriously anonymous version of what used to be a relatively young, quite particular, and oddly hybrid Middle Eastern tribal deity called Yahweh."  (Side note: for more on the history of Yahweh I recommend checking out this interesting documentary.)

I've noticed that many of the best arguments against Christianity come straight from the Bible text itself, and Jaco's argument is no exception.  In fact, most of those which led directly to my own de-conversion were argued in just such a fashion.  Jaco "takes the Bible seriously" allowing Yahweh, in effect, to "fend for himself".

With that said let's examine, in more detail, the characteristics of Yahweh...

Yahweh's Body

What does the Bible mean when it speaks of man as being created "in the image of God" (Gen. 1:26-27)?  Sophisticated apologists will no doubt want to insist that the reference is simply metaphorical, but actually the Old Testament seems to be saying that God was believed to look like a male human.  For example, we find references to Yahweh's sexual organs (Ezek. 1:27-38), feet (Exod. 24:10-11), backside (Exod. 33:23), hands and fingers (Exod. 31:18), and face (Exod. 33:20).  Yahweh also has a nose, supposedly, with which to smell the pleasing aroma of sacrifices.  Jaco continues...

"When Christian scholars try to tone down the problem with the concept of anthropomorphism (ie. speaking as if Yahweh appeared only in human form but does not look like a human), it's because they, too, realize the absurdity in such a belief.  One justification for taking seriously the Old Testament's religious language can be found in the recognition that nonmetaphorical elements tend to spill over into those depictions of Yahweh that make sense only if the limitations of embodiment are assumed to be of constraining effect on him.  Thus we find him needing to rest in order to be refreshed (Gen. 2:1; Exod. 31:17); having to travel to obtain information and to verify reports (Gen. 3:8-11; 11:5-7; 18:17); needing to test people to discern their beliefs, intentions, and motives (Gen. 22; Deut. 8:2; 2 Chron. 32:31; etc.); being forced to act based on a fear of human potential (Gen. 3:22; 11:5-7); being of insufficient power so that his people could not defeat the enemy because it had iron chariots during the battle (Judg. 1:21); and desiring assistance in some matters (Judg. 5:23; 1 Kings 22:20-23; Isa. 63:3-5); etc." (bolding mine)

Yahweh's Mind

If it's troubling for believers to admit the Bible contains factually incorrect information, and so it does, it ought to be doubly so to point out that some of this very misinformation is believed and propagated by Yahweh himself.  (Would somebody please remind me, again, how it is that these two facts alone don't completely demolish the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy?)

"Yahweh himself believes that the universe was literally created over a period of six days (Exod. 31:17) and that there is an ocean above the stars behind a firmament from where rainwater falls to the earth (Gen. 1:6; Job 38:34).  He also believes that the landmass of the earth floats on water (Deut. 5:8; Ps. 24:2) and that there is literally a place underground where the dead live as shades according to their nationalities (Num. 16:23-33; Deut. 32:22; Job 38:16-17; Isa. 7:11; Ezek. 26:19-20; 32:18-32; Amos 9:2).  Yahweh also believes in mythical creatures like the Leviathan, Rahab, Behemoth, sea monsters, flying dragons, demons of the field, malevolent spirits of the night, etc. (cf. Job 40:41; Isa. 30:6; Lev. 17:7; Isa. 34:14; Amos 9:3; etc.).  He even assumes that thought issues from the heart and emotions from the kidneys (Jer. 17:10; etc.).  Yahweh also believes in the historicity of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, all as depicted in the biblical traditions, at least according to the texts in which he speaks to them and in subsequent stories in which his character refers back to them as though they were real people (see, for example, Ezek. 14).  But if these people as they are depicted are fictions (as scholars have established), how can Yahweh--speaking to fictions and referring to them as reality--not himself be fictitious?"

Later in the chapter, Jaco goes on to make the following point...

"Many people take this need of God for granted but never bother to ask why God wants--no, demands--to be worshipped.  It is one thing if creatures, in awe of their creator, erupt spontaneously in praise.  It is quite another if the creator should be thought of as having premeditated the formation of creatures who exist solely for the purpose of perpetually reminding him how exalted and powerful and benign he is (Isa. 6).  I mean, is it really credible to believe that the ultimate reality is a person who is so narcissistic and egotistic that he has to prescribe in minute detail exactly how he wants to be worshipped?  Why do we take for granted the idea of a god so self-absorbed that he even threatens to destroy anyone diverging in any way from his instructions?  Look at the details in Exodus 25-40 with regard to the furnishings and construction of the tabernacle and the niceties of the rituals.  Such controlling obsessiveness can only be accounted for if we postulate behind it all a projection of human desire for control and order." (bolding mine)

This Sunday, millions of Christians the world over will gather together and sing, "how great is our god, sing with me, how great is our god, sing with me how great, how great, is our god...".  Will any of them pause to wonder why Yahweh desires this in the first place?

Yahweh's World

Yet more evidence, for Yahweh as a cultural construct, comes from the Biblical paradigm which claims...

"...the entire cosmos is a monarchy and that Yahweh's eternal divine abode in the skies operates like a kingdom (Deut. 32:8-9; 1 Sam 8:7; Dan. 6:27; etc.).  Yahweh's own abode is believed to be a palace in which the deity himself sits on a throne (Ps. 11:4 etc.).  A favorite form of transportation for the god is horse-drawn chariots (2 Kings 2:11-12; 16-17; Zech. 6:1-8; etc.). Yahweh also needs an army whose weapon of choice is the sword (Gen. 3:22; 32:1-2; Josh. 5:13-15; 2 Sam. 24:16, 27; etc.).  Yahweh is wise but not omniscient and makes use of councilors (1 Kings 22:20-23; Isa. 6:3; Jer. 23:18; Ps. 82:1; 89:5; Job 1:6; etc.) and intelligence services that spy on the subjects in order to ascertain their loyalty (Job. 1-2; Zech. 3; 1 Chron. 21; etc.).  The ram's horn was a popular musical instrument in Yahweh's abode (Exod. 19:16), and the inhabitants of heaven eat bread and dress in pure white linen (Ps. 78:25; Ezek. 9:2; Dan. 10:5; etc.).  Yahweh even engages in writing on scrolls (see the "book" [of life] in Exod. 32:32; Pss. 69:29; 139:16; Dan. 7:10; 10:21; etc.).  To appreciate the impossibility of this state of affairs, the reader should take the time to reflect on the historically temporary and culturally relative nature of objects like scrolls, horse-drawn chariots, swords, dresses of linen, and shofars.  These are all-too-human, time-period artifacts.  There was once a time in the past when they did not exist.  Before such things were used by humans, people wrote on stone and clay; fought with clubs, bows, and spears; and ran on foot.  Then humans themselves designed or invented these objects Yahweh uses, and then the objects themselves evolved through time.  Some cultures never used these objects and have never even heard of them.  Eventually, due to cultural and technological development and change, both the political institution of monarchy and many of these artifacts Yahweh makes use of fell into disuse and today are only kept for interest's sake as antiquities. Few people today write on scrolls, fight battles against enemies with swords, dress in linen, blow on rams' horns, or ride in horse-drawn chariots to reach a destination.  Yet if the Old Testament texts are to be believed, ultimate reality is the god of Israel who forever uses Iron-Age artifacts. In Yahweh's sky-palace, things like shofars, swords, scrolls, and chariots have been around forever and will be so ever more."  (bolding mine)

Nonsense On Stilts

In the last section of the chapter Dr. Gericke tackles Christian philosophy of religion (he calls it "nonsense on stilts").  As pointed out previously, since Christians no longer really believe in the biblical God Yahweh, they engage in "reconstructive only seems to work because people forget that God used to be Yahweh.  They might as well try to rehabilitate any old tribal god under the universal umbrella nowadays covered by the concept of divinity...conceptions of Yahweh by most Christian philosophers of religion tend to be radically anachronistic and conform more to the proverbial 'God of the philosophers' (Thomas Aquinas in particular) than to any version of Yahweh as depicted in ancient Israelite religion."

Jaco makes a great point here.  Is there any legitimate reason for us to believe that Yahweh is more likely to exist than other tribal Gods from the ancient superstitious past?  If so, what is that reason?

Some Christians today attempt to casually dismiss all of the Old Testament difficulties with the sweeping claim that God spoke in a language (and using symbols/terminology) that ancient people could understand.  (The implication being that we shouldn't expect him to say anything which might rise to the level of supernatural knowledge; ie. beyond that of the people living at the time. Ironically, these same Christians still believe that the Bible is a supernaturally inspired book.  On what evidence do they believe this exactly??)  Besides, how is this argument not simply a clear cut case of special pleading on their part?

Even if this view were correct (and I don't buy it for a second), how would it account for all of the information presented above?  Why would the Bible claim, for example, that Yahweh was in deep trouble, simply because the enemy had iron chariots?  And for what reason would the Bible depict Yahweh as believing in mythical creatures?  The problems only deepen from there.

No, what such believers fail to consider is that there is in fact a much better explanation...Yahweh is a mythical figure.  Will they be willing to honestly consider this possibility?

And if Yahweh doesn't exist, Christianity is necessarily false.

There's simply no way around it.