Saturday, December 15, 2012

The End of Christianity?


You (assuming you to be a regular reader of this blog, rather than someone who has just Googled their way here for the first time) may remember that I read Chapter 5 of the book 'The End of Christianity' back in April, and blogged about it. The book is a collection of essays by various of the usual atheist suspects who write books like this, edited by John Loftus. This is the companion book to 'The Christian Delusion' which I reviewed at the tail end of last year. I've finally got around to reading the other chapters in the book...

As with my review of the earlier book, I'll give my conclusions up front, and then go through each chapter one by one. So if all you want is the quick summary, you can ignore the details.

As a couple of the chapter authors from the previous book ended up reading my review here, including the editor himself, I'll say "hello" upfront, just in case they're back.

Anyway, in conclusion:

This is a more coherent and stronger case against Christianity than 'The Christian Delusion'. The over-reliance on probability concepts in a few of the chapters and logic in the last may put off the non-mathematically-minded reader, but the arguments presented are generally strong, clear and compelling. However, this isn't a book that is likely to be read by many Christians who are open to the idea of reconsidering their faith. It comes on too strong and too forcefully and I would expect that many Christians wouldn't make it through the first few chapters if this was the first book of this kind that they had read. This is really a book for already committed 'free thinkers' to provide them with ammunition in debates with theists. I have yet to read a book like this which is actually good for getting Christians to reconsider the foundations of their faith.

While certainly a stronger book than The Christian Delusion, this book also suffers from the feeling of being a compilation of arguments which are just lumped together, but do not make a coherent whole. Having said all that, there is plenty in here that seems new and fresh, and there is an awful lot of food for thought. If you're a theist/apologist looking to hone your skills, then these are the arguments you have to defend against. If you're a skeptic who interacts with theists, there is much here to be used and cited in debates. If, like me, you're someone in the middle ground still wrestling with faith and god concepts, there is much to wrestle with here. On the whole, I haven't yet seen theist arguments as strong as some of the anti-theist arguments presented here. It leaves much to think about, which is probably the best endorsement of such a book.

And now on with the full review:

In Chapter 1, "Christianity Evolving: On the Origin of Christian Species", Dr David Eller retreads much of the same ground he trod in the opening chapter of The Christian Delusion. As I said, I found that chapter a peculiar opening to that book, whereas this chapter works better as a book opener and presents its case in a clear and compelling way. The point is this: there is no such 'thing' as Christianity - it has developed, mutated, branched and evolved through its history in a manner similar to biological evolution. Christianity today bears as much relation to Christianity in the first century as contemporary Homo Sapiens bear to the earliest mammals who cowered in burrows while dinosaurs ruled the earth. The narrative told in this chapter is compelling, plausible and coherent. It could be that Christianity developed in the ways the chapter says. The problem I found with this chapter is the lack of evidence presented. The theory is compelling, but it is not demonstrated using much evidence and seems a bit lacking in citations. I'm convinced by the reasoning presented, but maybe because I have the will to believe it, but no entrenched Christian believer will be swayed by this as the evidence presented is simply not strong enough.

Chapter 2, "Christianity's Success was not Incredible", by Dr Richard Carrier, is a much stronger case against Christian belief. This is clearly a summary of the material presented by Carrier in his book "Not the impossible faith" (which I have yet to read), and the self-citations and frequent comments to the effect of "I have proved this point elsewhere, so don't need to do it again here" are mildly irritating. But aside from that, this chapter makes a strong case for the mundane nature of the Christian religion. Christianity had an unremarkable growth rate which is similar to other religions; other religions followed dead saviour figures; Christianity became - in essence - a domesticated variant of Judaism, so pagans could convert to the Jewish religion without having to sacrifice tender body parts or adhere to any set of dietary laws; and so on. Carrier convincingly shows how the set of early Christian beliefs made for a religion which could be popular and grow at the rate it did, with no divine involvement.

The most interesting bit of the chapter for me was where Carrier showed that the emphasis Christianity puts on faith over evidence explains a lot. Conversion to Christianity is based on feelings, not facts. He says:
"every early discussion we have from Christians regarding their methodology for testing claims either omits, rejects, or even denigrates rational, empirical methods and promotes instead faith-based methods of finding secrets hidden in scripture and relying on spiritual inspirations and revelations, and then verifying all this by whether their psychosomatic "miracles" worked and their leaders were willing to suffer for the cause. Skepticism and doubt were belittled; faith without evidence was praised and rewarded. Its no surprise such an approach would be "successful" because such an approach is purely psychological - it does not depend on any actual evidence." 
Carrier ends the chapter with two of his usual arguments. Firstly he wheels out Bayes's Theorem to demonstrate, mathematically, that Christianity is improbable. He's written a whole book on the subject now, but that's something to read another time. I know enough about Bayes (it was the basis of my PhD, after all) to see that Carrier uses the theorem appropriately and his reasoning is sound. It convinces me that Christianity is unremarkable. However, I feel that this approach might actually blind the layman with science and cause most to switch off. Secondly, he makes his usual claim that if there was a God he should appear to all people at all times, individually, and has no good reason for not doing this. This argument will never work against a believer, so I have no idea why Carrier still uses it. The only people this will convince are those who are already skeptical. So what's the point? In some ways, I feel the end of the chapter may actually undermine the strong case he makes in the earlier parts of it. But anyway, I suppose a strong case is a strong case.  

In Chapter 3, "Christianity is Wildly Improbable", John Loftus goes for the Christian jugular. He sets out to show that most of the main claims by evangelical are simply so improbable that nobody who considers them objectively should believe in them. He starts by presenting a list of ten beliefs which I will summarise here:
  1. There is an eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, creator, triune God
  2. There is a devil, demons and angels
  3. The earth is only a few thousand years old
  4. There was a literal Adam and Eve and their actions brought the consequences of sin on everyone since them
  5. God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting evil and suffering in the world
  6. Jesus was born of a virgin, could walk on water, multiply food, etc.
  7. The Old Testament prophesied Jesus crucifixion, which was an atoning sacrifice.
  8. Jesus was raised bodily and ascended bodily to heaven
  9. The collection of 66 ancient writings contained in the bible are infallible
  10. There is life after death, only Christians get to go to heaven, while everyone else goes to hell.
Loftus claims that each of these statements is improbable, and so the more of these a believer assents to, the more and more wildly improbable their faith is. The implication being that the chances of all of those being true is so vanishingly small that there really is no grounds for believing the whole package. The chapter retreads some of the Bayesian stuff just presented by Carrier, but in a much more hand waving and less mathematical way. But his case boils down to this:
"I am skeptical of the extraordinary claim that Jesus resurrected because I cannot dismiss my present experience. I must judge the past from my present. I cannot do otherwise. [...] If in our world miracles do not happen, then they did not happen in first-century Palestine, either. And that should be the end of it."
The case is quite strong, but I feel it is using the probability of maths in a misleading way. Loftus takes a belief system and breaks it into bits, declaring each bit 'improbable' and then assuming that if you recombine the bits, the improbabilities are multiplicative and so as you combine them the ensemble gets more and more improbable. The problem with this line of reasoning is that the improbability of the end result is entirely dependent on how many pieces you break the original into. Put some numbers on it. Break the belief into 5 bits, declare them all only 1% probable and recombine - the ensemble has a probability of 0.015, which is 1x10-10. But if you broke the original belief into 100 bits and declared each of them 1% probable, then recombine, then the ensemble is 1x10-200, a considerably more improbable entity. Loftus is throwing probability about arbitrarily. OK, his case might be sound, but his methodology is wrong. Just because he doesn't do the numbers doesn't mean he's using the concepts correctly. But I'm nit-picking here.

Loftus then wanders through all religious belief systems using the same (flawed) reasoning to try and show that the more complex the belief system, the more improbable it is. So Christianity is more improbable than Deism, and so on. Again, this reasoning relies on assumptions of arbitrary levels of improbability at each stage of complexity, and again the more layers you split the system into, the more improbable it becomes. Probability doesn't work like that. And, of course, improbable events actually do occur all the time. The probability that the whole chain of evolutionary events since the beginning of time would give rise to John Loftus is so vanishingly small that it might as well be zero. Therefore John Loftus does not exist. Except probability doesn't work like that.

The chapter jumps track here and looks directly at the concept of the Trinity. Yes, its improbable too. Then chapter criticises three Christian philosophers and some of the claims they've made. Its OK to criticise the methods and conclusions of others, but when this comes just after you've used sloppy reasoning yourself, the case is undermined somewhat. The chapter seems to be jumping about at random going "...and another thing..." rather than having a coherent message. The points are all valid, but a bit scattershot. The chapter concludes with 15 more scattershot nuggets, each making a valid point, but the aim seems to be simply to hit the reader with as many 'facts' as possible, rather than making a coherent case. Which makes for an unsatisfying chapter, even if it makes good points.

The next chapter (#4) "Why Biblical studies must end" by Hector Avalos appears to be a summary of Avalos's own book "The End of Biblical Studies" (which I haven't read, but I have heard him interviewed on the subject before). His point is that the Bible is just an ancient document, no more, no less and "we should now treat the Bible as the alien document it is, with no more importance than the other works of literature we ignore every day." His point is that the Bible is not special enough to merit the special and privileged study it has received to date. Indeed he asserts that:
"the main subdisciplines of Biblical studies have succeeded in demonstrating that the Bible is the product of cultures whose values and beliefs about the origin, nature, and purpose of our world are no longer held to be relevant, even by most Christians and Jews."
He then goes on to look at each subdiscipline in turn:
  1. Translations: Here it is claimed that translators of the bible 'lie' by deliberately mistranslating the bible to make it understandable and acceptable to modern Christians. For example, the polytheistic nature of the OT is masked by translating the names of discrete gods (e.g. Elyon and Yahweh) in such a way as to suggest that these are simply different ways of referring to the same God. Other examples are given. (Although my personal favourite is not mentioned - Psalm 139v9: "If I rise on the wings of the dawn..." should really be rendered "If I fly with the wings of the dawn Goddess...", but anyway...).
  2. Textual Criticism: Here it is claimed that study of the text of the Bible has, essentially, destroyed any credible claim that the bible is inerrant or unchanging, as it is clear that the text has been changed and modified in transmission.
  3. Biblical Archaeology: This section may be summed up by the following quote from Ronald Hendel: "Archaeological research has - against the intentions of most of its practitioners - secured the nonhistory of much of the Bible before the era of kings." Avalos takes it further and shows that even much of the era of the kings is in doubt.
  4. The Unhistorical Jesus: The longest section in this chapter concerns the 'quest' for the 'historical Jesus'. Avalos declares the quest "is an abject failure. Further progress is futile because we simply don't have any preserved accounts of Jesus from his time or from any proven eyewitnesses." Thus the claim is that the (ongoing) quest for the historical Jesus is pointless and will never come to a conclusion.
  5. Literary Criticism: Here the point seems to be why set the bible apart from other ancient texts? And if there is no compelling reason to treat it differently, then we should stop now and take a good long look at other texts, because until now we have given special attention to the bible. 
  6. Biblical theology: The point here is that people and faith groups of all different varieties interpret the text to be whatever they want it to be. And this appears to be acceptable to theologians, on the whole. Thus, the bible is made to say things that the authors never intended, and thus actually studying the bible in this way is pointless.
The chapter concludes with a number of statements including these:
"Biblical scholars all agree the Bible is a product of another age and culture, whose norms, practices, and conception of the world were very different from ours. Yet these same scholars paradoxically keep the general public under the illusion that the Bible does matter or should matter."
and
"Why do we need an ancient book that endorses everything from genocide to slavery to be a prime authority on our public or private morality? 'The Bible' is mostly a construct of the last two thousand years of human history."
So the point is made, the actual Bible is irrelevant in the modern age, and the public conception of the Bible (i.e. the message that is perceived by many to be not only relevant, but essential) is a largely inaccurate interpretation only loosely based on the real thing.

I considered Chapter 5 "Can God exist if Yahweh doesn't?" back in April, so you can read my thoughts on that chapter in the older post.

Chapter 6, "God's Emotions: Why the biblical God is hopelessly human" by Valerie Tarico is fascinating. It looks at the character of God as presented in the bible, in particular his emotions, and examines the implications of the biblical claims. In the bible, God clearly has human emotions. He gets angry, he is jealous, he is occasionally surprised, he is defined by his love, and so on. The chapter looks at what emotions actually are and why they are integral to being human, and why they are, or should be, not at all integral to being divine. The core message of the chapter is summed up in this quote:
"If I asked you whether God has a nose or a penis, what would you say? Most Christians would say probably not. A nose is for breathing and smelling. A penis is for sex and peeing. God has no need of either. In the same way, I would argue that God has no need for emotions - intricate chemical reactions designed to activate and direct bodily responses to the external environment. As wonderful as emotions are, they are made of and for the fabric of this natural world."
There's a lot more in this chapter, particularly with regard to anger (God can either be angry or omnipotent, there is no point in an omnipotent being getting angry - what can he possibly get angry about?) and some more positive emotions, but if you want to know about all that, you should simply read the chapter for yourself. Its fascinating.

The third section of the book begins with Chapter 7 "The Absurdity of the Atonement" by Ken Pulliam. This asks the question 'Just what did Jesus achieve by dying on the cross?' and unpacks most of the most common Christian answers to demonstrate that they are all, at some level, completely absurd. I have to say that this chapter is aimed squarely at the beliefs of the 'Reformed' branch of the church, so other Christians might actually agree with some of the points made, but it is a strong attack on that, specific, theology. The chapter states that:
"The purpose of this chapter is to show that the dominant view of the atonement in Evangelicalism, the view that many claim is the very heart of the Christian Gospel, is illogical, immoral, incoherent, and therefore, absurd."
It is illogical in that it makes no sense for an innocent party to take the punishment of the guilty. It is immoral because it inflicts pain and suffering on an innocent party. It is incoherent in that the way it is expressed is that the actions of the son are able to propitiate the wrath of God the Father, but if the doctrine of the Trinity is assumed, then it must be that the Son and the Spirit also need propitiated, and how can Jesus' self-sacrifice achieve that? (There's a lot more to it than this, I'm summarising.)

There is an awful lot for the believer to wrestle with in this chapter, but the bit that I found the most interesting what the section concerning human sacrifice (within the 'immoral' section). Jesus' death on the cross is, essentially, a human sacrifice, is it not? The chapter quotes an evangelical, David Dilling, on the subject of human sacrifice in pagan religions, as condemned in the OT:
"The greater offense is not the sacrifice, but the idolatry involved in offering such a sacrifice to a god other than Yahweh. The first commandment is not 'Thou shalt not offer human sacrifices,' but 'Thou shalt have no other gods before me.' The Bible contains no prohibitions of human sacrifice to Yahweh. The only possible exception to this principle is the legislation regarding the redemption of the first-born sons in [Exodus] 13:1-16. This passage, however, does not condemn human sacrifice. On the contrary, it proves that Yahweh had a very definite claim on all the first born of Israel, whether man or beast."
Yikes! Dilling is also quoted as saying:
"The most frequent objection raised against the Biblical presentation of Yahweh and his relationship to sacrifice is that sacrifice, whether of human beings or of beasts, is an element of primitive religion, and that Yahweh really deserves not sacrifice at all but obedience. This view, carried to its logical conclusion, would eliminate the necessity of the sacrificial death of Christ. This in turn eliminates the atonement and thereby abnegates the whole Christian Gospel."
Bigger yikes! Of course, this is only one view within Evangelicalism, but I think it is a biblically consistent one, so should cause problems for the believer who actually thinks through the issues. As Pulliam says:
"Once again the Evangelical has a tremendous problem. His doctrine of the atonement is based on the religious rite of human sacrifice, which is recognized universally today as an immoral practice."
Chapter 8, "The Salem Witch Trials and the Evidence for the Resurrection" by Matt McCormick has a very straightforward case to make. It is basically this (my summary): The best evidence we have for the resurrection is that a bunch of mostly uneducated people two thousand years ago believed that it had happened. However, if you look at the Salem Witch Trials, we have immensely more evidence that far more people of better educational statuses firmly believed (and testified in court) that various accused people in Salem were witches. Today, despite all the evidence, we do not believe that there were any genuine (i.e. able to effect magic and spells) witches in Salem, so why, on the basis of considerably less evidence, do some people believe that a magical resurrection took place in Jesus' case? The case is a strong one and is presented very reasonably.

The only niggle I have here is that there is a certain degree of comparing apples with oranges. Nobody claims the Salem Witch Trials have any life-changing effects today, while millions will claim that their present-day experience of Jesus validates their beliefs about the past. The two cases are only equivalent to an impartial historian, not a believer.
In Chapter 9 "Explaining the resurrection without recourse to miracle", Robert M. Price advocates a case which he, himself does not actually believe in. That is OK, he states this up front and explains that he is granting the apologist more 'facts' about the resurrection than he believes to be valid, for the sake of argument. The point being that, even granting half of the ground of the debate to the believer, they are still not justified in their conclusion that a miraculous resurrection happened.

Price examines the 'Swoon theory' (that Jesus didn't die, but fainted on the cross and recovered in the cool of the tomb), the wrong tomb theory (Mary and the others didn't know which tomb Jesus was in and went to the wrong one, which was empty) and the mistaken identity theory (the post-crucifixion sightings all involved people other than Jesus, and the disciples, after the meetings all concluded "that must have been Jesus, even though we didn't recognise him..."; see Emmaus road story for example) and shows that there is good evidence for each of these in the text of the new testament. Furthermore, he shows how he believes each of these are more likely than that a miracle actually occurred.

He then treads some of the same ground as Carrier by showing (again) that the growth of Christianity was mundane, not miraculous. Having had this already in this book, this felt a bit unnecessary and it added little to the argument of the earlier part of the chapter.

Next we come to Chapter 10, "Hell: Christianity's most damnable doctrine" by Keith Parsons. This chapter contains very little that is new and, indeed, treads much the same ground as Rob Bell's controversial book 'Love Wins' from last year - and that was written by a Christian minister. The main points of the chapter are basically that the very concept of hell is immoral and incoherent and yet that the doctrine of hell probably explains why there are so many Christians - generations of people were scared into following the teachings of the church, because they were scared of the prospect of hell otherwise. Of course, hell is not a uniquely Christian belief, but this fact is not considered here. The chapter presents some Christian beliefs about hell (generally quoting long dead preachers and church leaders), then dissects some apologetics arguments on the subject, including those of CS Lewis. The point is well made, but as I said it is nothing new and has been made many times before. But I liked this quote from Eddie Tabash:
"...the very doctrine of hell is so horrific that it probably deters many from believing, and so condemns them to hell..." Indeed.
Chapter 11, by David Eller, starts the fourth section of the book on science vs. Christianity by asking "Is religion compatible with science?" You can probably guess the answer. The chapter first breaks down what we mean by 'religion' and what we mean by 'science'. I like the Carl Sagan quote cited here:
"Science requires the most vigorous and uncompromising skepticism because the vast majority of ideas are simply wrong, and the only way to winnow the wheat from the chaff is by critical experiment and analysis."
Strong stuff. The chapter goes on to show the occasions where Christianity has given in to science, such as the earth going around the sun, evolution (OK, that debate is still ongoing for some), and so on, and it is clear that there are not equivalent instances the other way around; science advances and Christianity modifies its beliefs. Eller sums this up by saying "beliefs are changeable, but facts are not", a statement that may not be entirely accurate as 'facts' are generally interpretations of data, and as new data emerge, occasionally 'facts' change. But the point remains, generally science changes Christianity, not the other way around. Christianity is fighting a losing battle.

Eller presents a couple of quotes that more or less prove his case, first this from Tertullian:
"After Jesus Christ we have no need for speculation, after the gospel no need of research. When we come to believe, we have no desire to believe anything else; for we begin by believing that there is nothing else which we have to believe."
This mindset has been part of the Church pretty much since the very start and still endures in parts of Christianity today. If we believe this, then science is not merely incompatible with Christianity, but irrelevant. The second quote comes from Luther:
"reason must be deluded, blinded and destroyed" and "faith must trample under foot all reason, sense and understanding"
That certainly is an anti-science mindset.

But it goes both ways. Science cannot accept the fundamental assumptions of supernaturalism. Science, essentially makes claims like Force = Mass x Acceleration. Religion must modify even the most basic scientific claims to allow for supernatural agency. So Force = (Mass x Acceleration) + (Supernatural Force). If this were the case then all of science would fall apart. But it doesn't. Science works, therefore Supernatural Force must = zero. Therefore there is no supernatural.

The next target, in Chapter 12, is 'Intelligent Design'. Richard Carrier again uses Bayes theorem / probability to show that the evidence of the world around us increasingly supports the hypothesis that the universe is the product of random processes and increasingly undermines and refutes the hypothesis that the universe was designed and created by an intelligent being. The case is strong and well presented, but again, the non-mathematically minded reader will switch off early into the discussion. Carrier's focus here is not merely 'evolution', although of course that is covered, but apparent design on all scales from the cosmological down to the inner workings of the brain.

One observation that is made, which I am sure is not original here, but I had never thought about before, concerns the 'bacterial flagellum' that Michael Behe and other ID proponents present as being 'irreducibly complex'. I hadn't really thought about the fact that this 'biological motor' is actually part of the E.Coli bacterium. As Carrier says:
"Since the flagellum Behe says must have been intelligently designed is what gives the bacteria the ability to move around, it actually greatly magnifies its lethality to humans. In fact, that's pretty much all it does - which means that's what its for. In other words, Behe is essentially saying that someone genetically engineered bacteria specifically to kill us."
Hmmm. The odd thing I thought about the way Carrier handled the probabilities in this chapter was to fix the Bayesian prior probability for there being an intelligent designer as being low at the outset. Not very low, but somewhere like 25%. Why does he do this? If a (not very mathematically literate) Christian were reading this, it would look like the argument works only if you assume a low prior probability. I think the case would be stronger if you started from a high probability prior - something like a belief that is 95% or even 99% sure that there is an intelligent designer. And then a cumulative case could be presented that would show that even from a starting point of almost certainty in God, the logical conclusion would have to be that the intelligent designer is extremely unlikely. By starting with a low prior and ending up with a lower, but not that much lower posterior, the case doesn't actually look as strong as it is.

Chapter 13 is "Life after death: Examining the evidence" by Victor Stenger. This chapter is basically a response to a paper written by Dinesh D'Souza called "Life after death: the evidence?" which I haven't read. While there is a lot of good reasoning in there, this is clearly one side of a debate and is lacking as a consequence. Stenger considers the evidence carefully and makes a good many valid points. My favourite of these is:
"If we have disembodied souls that, as most religions teach, are responsible for our thoughts, dreams personalities,  and emotions, then these should not be affected by drugs. But they are. They should not be affected by disease. But they are. They should not be affected by brain injuries. But they are."
Also the line "the plural of anecdote is not data" made me chuckle. Suffice it to say that this is a fairly robust attack on the flimsy evidence that there is for life after death or the existence of a soul which could exist outside of the body.

Richard Carrier is back again in Chapter 14, "Moral facts naturally exist (and science could find them)". I have to admit that this chapter bored me and now, some weeks after actually reading the chapter, I can't really remember much about it. Logic is a very precise way of tacking a subject and proving something or other about it, but it rarely makes for an entertaining read. I have no idea whether there are objective moral facts or not, this chapter doesn't really answer that question either, but merely makes the claim (in a thorough and logical manner) that if there are logical facts then science is a better way of getting to them than religion. Along the way I highlighted a few lines of text including this, which is a point well made:
"We must conform our beliefs to what we discover, not reject all discoveries that fail to conform to our beliefs"
This chapter comes with an appendix which bored me with even more formal logic than the main body of the chapter.

And that is that. 14 chapters of ammunition to be used in the theist vs. atheist debate. All that remains is a brief afterword:

In "Changing Morals and the fate of Evangelicalism" Robert M. Price makes a simple but very valid point. The point is this - Evangelical Christianity is dying - within a generation or two it will be gone. his main evidence for this is the observation that nothing now distinguishes Evangelical Christian youth from their non-Christian counterparts. In generations gone by Christian sub-culture banned certain things, like dancing, going to the movies, drinking alcohol, wearing certain types of clothes, having pre-marital sex, etc. For the most part, these distinctives have all gone. The last remaining one of sexual behaviour is slowly crumbling in our own day, and recent studies show that older high school and college age Christians (in the USA, I guess) are having about as much 'recreational' sex as their peers. Once Christianity ceases to be different, once it loses its 'moral high ground' it will be gone.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Twelve Apostles

Twelve is a special number in Biblical thinking. The twelve tribes of Israel, for example [*]. Twelve is also an important number in astrological thinking, twelve months in the year, twelve signs of the zodiac, etc. A number of ancient groups, religions, etc., have special mention of twelve figureheads, and Christianity is no exception.

The problem is that the gospel and other New Testament stories don't really add up. Sure, there are plenty of references to 'The Twelve' in there, but this seems more symbolic, rather than referring to a group of twelve actual people.

So let's have a look at these twelve characters.

Matthew 10v2-4 (and Mark 3v16-19) lists them as: Simon (Peter), Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James (son of Alpheus), Thaddeus, Simon (the Zealot) and Judas Iscariot.

Luke 6v14-16 has basically the same list, although it is missing Thaddeus and has gained Judas (son of James). Most commentators on the internet and elsewhere seem to assume that these are two names for the same person.

John gives no list of disciples but does have a prominent disciple called Nathanael, who is absent from the other gospels. Lots of people on the internet seem to think he is the same person as Bartholomew, who isn't mentioned in John. Some point out that Bartholomew is really a surname.

So lets have a look at what these characters do in the Bible stories:
  1. Simon (Peter). We know about him, so I'll not detail anything here.
  2. Andrew. Brother of Peter. He is mostly just a name on a list, except in John where he has a few lines of dialogue.
  3. James. James is mentioned in conjunction with John in all the gospel stories. They do things together, they say things together. They have a few lines of shared dialogue. They appear to be members of Jesus's 'inner circle' along with Peter and sometimes Andrew. The only time James is recorded as doing anything without John is when he is put to death in Acts chapter 12. Then, confusingly, he seems to be instantly replaced by another James, the brother of Jesus.
  4. John. See James. John also has a line of dialogue of his own in Luke 9v49 and is sent with Peter to arrange the Passover meal in Luke 22v9. In Acts 3, 4 and 8, Peter and John are together and do everything in tandem; perform a miracle healing, preach, etc. Later in acts there is another John, who is also called Mark.
  5. Philip. Philip is just a name on a list in the synoptics, but has a few significant lines of dialogue in John. A second character called Philip is introduced in Acts 6v5. Philip does a lot in Acts chapter 8, but it has never been clear to me which Philip this is, the disciple or the guy from Acts 6v5?
  6. Bartholomew / Nathanael. Bartholomew is merely a name in a list in three gospels and Acts. He does not feature in John. Nathanael has an elaborate calling story and two lines of dialogue in John 1v43-49. He is also named as going fishing with Peter in chapter 21.
  7. Thomas. Thomas is a significant character in John's gospel, having several important lines of dialogue. But he does not feature at all in any of the other gospels or epistles, except as a name on a list.
  8. Matthew. In the gospel that bears his name, Matthew is a tax collector who is called by Jesus and leaves his job. In the other gospels, Matthew is merely a name in a list, and his occupation is not given.
  9. James (of Alphaeus). This James features only in lists of names and has no other role in the story. Interestingly enough, Mark's character Levi (whose name has been switched to Matthew in Matthew's gospel) is named as being 'son of Alphaeus' as well.
  10. Thaddaeus / Judas (of James). Thaddaeus is only a name in a list, he does not appear to feature beyond this. In John's gospel (14v22) Judas (not Iscariot) has a single line of dialogue, but does not feature otherwise. There are some mentions of a character called Judas (Barsabbas) in Acts, but it is not clear if this is the same character.
  11. Simon (the Zealot). Just a name on a list. There are quite a few other Simons in the stories, as we'll discuss below.
  12. Judas Iscariot. We know about him, so I'll not detail anything here.
So it seems that as far as Mark and Luke are concerned, there are only really three disciples who are characters: Simon Peter, the James-John pair, and Judas Iscariot.

Matthew has specific action concerning the character called Matthew, but for the most part has only the same 'three' disciple characters as Mark and Luke.

It seems that the majority of stories Matt, Mark and Luke present are based on the assumption that Jesus had a retinue of only three disciples. But these writers also believed that Jesus actually had twelve disciples, so they have put in the lists and brief mentions of the other nine to convey this. The other nine really have no role to play. There is no real history about any of those nine in any of the synoptic gospels.

But John attempts to flesh out some of the characters. Andrew, Philip, Nathanael, Judas (not Iscariot) and, particularly, Thomas all feature in his story as characters, although none except Thomas have any discernible character traits.

One thing all this suggests is that none of the synoptic writers were eye-witnesses to any of the events. Someone who was really there would surely have been able to put at least a little flesh on the characters. Beyond that, if we take the traditional view that John's gospel was the last to be written, this pattern suggests that the earliest stories of Jesus really only did feature three (or possibly four) disciples, and the dialogue attributed to the minor disciples in the fourth gospel is there intentionally to beef up the stories such that there appear to be more than just three.

From a quick look at the list of disciples, it seems like whoever created the original list of twelve didn't have much imagination:

Starting with Simon, James-John and Judas, the author gives Simon a brother, so he can be more like James and John; then adds four characters who I guess must have featured in some early Christian traditions - Matthew, Philip, Bartholomew and Thomas. As we see in Acts, there is a Philip 'the Evangelist' who features in the story, could he be included in the list of original disciples on the assumption that he was so important he must have been a disciple? The same possibly goes for Thomas, he was certainly a prominent figure in the early church, the most significant (and possibly earliest) non-canonical gospel is attributed to him. Is his inclusion here again based on a 'must have been' type assumption? I'm guessing Matthew and Bartholomew must also have been significant.

Having added all these, the writer of the original gospel seems to have lost imagination and simply doubled up the big three, creating another Simon, another James and another Judas. These serve only to boost the numbers up to twelve.

Richard Bauckham, in his book 'Jesus and the Eyewitnesses' (which I reviewed last year), goes into great detail about how common certain names were in 1st century Judea. The top male names of the time were:
  1. Simon
  2. Joseph
  3. Lazarus
  4. Judas
  5. John
  6. Jesus
  7. Annanias
  8. Jonathan
  9. Matthew
  10. Manaen
  11. James
Apparently over 40% of men at the time, as far as we can tell, had one of the top 9 names. Its really no surprise then that we should find a Simon, a Judas, a John and a Matthew among a 'random' selection of 12 men. That we should find two instances of one of those names in the selection is quite probable. But finding three doublings in a group as small as 12 is reasonably improbable. This suggests (although does not prove) that some of the names could be fictional.

The names of Jesus' brothers in Matt 13v55 (and Mark 6v3) are James, Joseph, Simon and Judas. Isn't it a whopping coincidence that three of those names correspond exactly with the three main disciples (and the three that were doubled up)? I've even heard it suggested (admittedly by Robert M. Price, who is pretty radical in his beliefs about the editing of the bible) that the 'original' list of Jesus's brothers in the first gospel didn't contain Joseph. Instead of saying:
"Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?" 
the 'original' may have said:
"Isn’t this Joseph the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Simon and Judas?"
If that's the case, then we have an exact correspondence between this list of Jesus's brothers and the three main disciple characters.

Doesn't that strike you as being a bit odd?

Could it be that there were two rival beliefs from the early church which are both condensed in the words of the Gospels? James (with or without John), Simon and Judas were known to have been important figures in the early life of the church, but some believed that they had been brothers of Jesus, while others believed they had been disciples.

In fact, given the stories of Judas that survive, I wonder if John was drafted in as an afterthought to maintain the balance of three disciples or brothers after Judas left the story following his betrayal.

The important thing to notice here is that the stories of Jesus, in their 'original' form, only featured Jesus with three (or four) disciples, but that there was also a belief in a symbolic 'twelve' disciples which appears to have been overlaid on the 'originals'. This observation itself suggests either (a) that the gospels must have all been written a significant time after the events which they describe, such that nobody really remembered the details of any of the stories accurately, or (b) that there were rival (and incompatible) streams of stories about how many disciples Jesus had and the author of the original gospel tried to harmonise these when he wrote the story down. This second option, of course, throws a big question mark over the 'real' historical Jesus. If he had twelve disciples then the source of most of the stories was basically wrong in his important facts. However, if he only had three disciples, then it is clear that most of the stories have been changed before they got to the form in which we have them. Of course, there is also the possibility that none of these stories go back to a historical character.

Sigh. As ever, I find that the harder you scrutinise an issue in the bible, the larger the holes become. This one is pretty much all hole.



Footnote:
[*] The twelve tribes: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Ephraim and Manasseh. Erm, that's thirteen tribes, not twelve. Sure, Ephraim and Manasseh are supposed to both be descended from Joseph, but they are never collectively referred to as 'The Tribe of Joseph'.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Moral facts?

A recent Unbelievable radio show was addressing the question of whether it is possible to be 'Good without God'? Not whether atheists can be moral, but rather whether or not a non-theistic worldview can actually explain the origin of morality.

In other words, it was addressing the moral argument for God again.

The argument goes something like this:
  1. Objective moral facts exist
  2. If there is a God then the origin of such facts is explicable
  3. If there is no God then there is no good explanation for such facts
  4. Therefore there is a God. QED.
The two things that most annoy me about debates on the moral argument for God are:
  • That the conversation almost always stays talking in abstract terms without actually detailing what the moral facts are, or how many moral facts there are, and
  • That the Christian participant in such debates always refuses to discuss the issues around the apparent immoral actions of God in the bible.
I suspect that it is only because of these two factors that theists are generally able to claim victory in debates on this subject, because they simply do not permit the discussion to go onto those grounds where their argument falls apart.

What 'moral facts' are there? Usually the only ones that feature in these debates are variations on the theme of 'torturing children for fun' or coming back to the classic case of the Holocaust. And as everyone knows, it is almost impossible to trump the Nazi card whenever it is pulled in a debate.

These debates usually appear to be won by the Christian because he is generally defending the necessity of the 'God of the philosophers' as the source of morality. The fact that the God of the bible does not appear to be such a God is never discussed in such debates. But why?

If God is the source of morality, is that because he chose to establish the moral facts from a range of options (for example, could he have chosen to make rape permissible?), or are the moral facts simply a reflection of his character? And is God bound by those moral facts?

If it is wrong for a man to kill a child, is it also wrong for God to kill a child? If not, why not? A moral fact cannot be absolute unless it is absolute. If it is wrong to kill a child then it must be wrong for anyone - including God - to kill a child. And yet it is clear from certain passages in the Bible that God has killed children (for example, the first baby of David and Bathsheba) and has commanded others to kill children (various stories during the Joshua era).

If it is wrong for a man to kill a child, but is not wrong for God to kill a child, maybe its because God is on a different 'level' from us. But surely if it is wrong for a man to kill a child then it would still remain wrong for a God to kill his own Son? And yet it is claimed he did just that.

If moral facts do exist, and there is a moral law giver, then it is clear that it is not the God of the Old Testament, and it's fairly clear that its not the Father God of the New Testament either.

The more I think through apologetics arguments, the more I see that the moral argument is probably the strongest argument in the apologist's arsenal. It is not easily refuted. And yet I think that the moral argument for God really should be a stumbling block for Christian apologists, as it should reveal the huge chasm between the moral law giver and the God of the bible. Even if the apologist can prove that there must be a moral law giver (he can't, but even if he could), his opponent should be able to demonstrate that Yahweh is not this God. So which God is the moral law giver?

Coming back to the apologists' favourite moral fact, that 'torturing children for fun' is objectively morally wrong, why should this be? (I'm not saying that its not wrong, I'm just asking why...)

This example is a compound scenario, made of several elements:

Is torture, by itself, morally wrong?
Or is torture only morally wrong when it is inflicted on an innocent?
Or is taking pleasure in the pain of another a vital component here?
Is there any distinction between torture and inflicting pain?

A dentist could derive pleasure from doing a good job of fitting a filling in the decayed tooth of a child. Yet the process could be painful for the child. But nobody says this would be morally wrong. But perform exactly the same procedure on a perfectly healthy tooth and this becomes morally wrong? So the thing that is morally wrong is not the action, it is purely the motive.

Hmmm. Morality is never easy... which makes me wonder if there actually is a set of objective moral facts.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The evolution of Christian morality?

I just listened to a debate on the Unbelievable podcast between Peter Hitchens (Christian brother of the late Christopher) and Alex Gabriel (former president of Oxford Atheists). The debate was nominally addressing the question "Will Britain be better off once it stops being a Christian country?"

The main points raised by the Christian representative were along the lines of: moral standards are in decline, broadly in parallel with diminishing Christian belief; Russia abandoned Christian belief ages ago and now morality there is worse than it is here, and so on.

The main points raised by the Atheist representative were mostly pointing out the apparent immoral actions of God as presented in the bible. And he had quite a few obnoxious and unnecessary ad hominem attacks on Hitchens himself, which didn't do his case any favours.

What struck me during Hitchens's statements was that his whole argument was based on the unstated and unquestioned assumption that good old fashioned British values were a product of Christianity. He never attempted to prove that this was the case, he never attempted to show any cause and effect relationship between the two. To him it was utterly self-evident and quite possibly axiomatic. Then again, his opponent never questioned this assumption either.

Listening to the debate made me wonder - are the traditional 'Christian' values of Western society derived from Christianity, or has Christianity evolved in step with an evolving morality?

Certainly, if you go back a few centuries, Christianity was not generally against slavery. Now it is. Morality changed and Christianity changed, but it is very hard to show that one was the cause and the other the effect, they both changed in parallel with each other. Of course, many apologists will argue that it was Christians who drove the process on, but actually it wasn't - a great many non-Christians were also instrumental in bringing about the official end of slavery in the West, and a great many Christian slave owners opposed it!

I wonder if we will see the same shift with sexual morality - in the past few decades society's sexual morals have shifted considerably, I suspect (but can't yet demonstrate) that the same shifts will happen within Christianity. What I could demonstrate (although I don't have the statistics to hand, but I have heard them recently) is that the proportion of student 'Christian Union' members in the UK who are sexually active is considerably higher than it was when I was an undergraduate 20 years ago. I believe the numbers were something like less than 10% back then and the numbers are closer to 30% nowadays. Like it or not, these people are the future leadership of the Church, it is only a matter of time before the Church as a whole (certainly in the UK) shifts its stance(s) on sexual morality.

Christian morality is shifting, in this case lagging behind the zeitgeist, but still following it nevertheless.

I wonder if we can also see evidence of a shifting morality in the God concepts revealed in the Bible itself. In the Old Testament God is frequently portrayed as being angry, vindictive, xenophobic, and so on, which more or less mirrored the morality of the time - people protected their own tribes, but didn't seem to think twice about slaughtering members of other tribes, including children and infants. The God concept very much mirrored the contemporary morality. But then the morality shifted, God became much more of a God of love than one of wrath - the God concept shifted along with the morals, it is very hard to see a cause and effect relationship. By the time of the New Testament things had shifted so much that the Father God of Jesus and Paul seems almost nothing like the warrior God of the OT. Indeed, one of the more popular 'heresies' in the 2nd century was Marcionism - which claimed that these were actually two different gods. OK, so this 'heresy' got stamped out by 'orthodoxy' but it is possible to argue that the majority of contemporary Christians are functional Marcionites, in that they effectively distance themselves from the warrior God of the OT and only hold to the Loving Father concept of God.

So to address the question of the debate, would Britain be a better place if Christianity were removed? I'm not sure. I'm getting less and less convinced that our values and morals are derived from the Bible or originate from the character of Yahweh, but I do think that a general belief in a higher power and a higher moral standard is a good thing, even if the higher power does not exist. Such a belief does keep some people in line with the conventions and morals of society and without that belief I do think that some elements in society would decline. But that doesn't mean I think this is evidence for the existence of the higher power. If God belief were to be removed from society I think there would be an unpleasant and anarchic time before order could be restored. But I do believe that order and morals could be restored in the end.

But given that belief isn't going anywhere for now (yes, its declining, no, its not vanishing), I guess this is a mostly hypothetical question anyway.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Revelations...

This is a mirror posting of an article from my other blog. But it is more than relevant on this blog too... I read this book after hearing the author on the Unbelievable Radio Show some months ago.

The RevelationsThe Revelations by Alex Preston
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If you think that all Christians are hypocrites and the Alpha Course is a cult, then this is the book for you. However, if you are more realistic in your outlook then the shortcomings of this book will probably annoy you as much as they annoyed me.

The book follows the lives of four young (late 20s) Christians who are helping run 'The Course' for the first time. They are all musicians and the band they play in (at The Course) is known as 'The Revelations', hence the title of the book. The Course itself is clearly a fictionalised and exaggerated version of the Alpha Course, a popular introduction to Christianity course run by many churches in the UK and beyond. However, in the book, 'The Course' is clearly much more of a cult-like entity rather than being merely an entry point into mainstream evangelical Christianity. Indeed, one of the characters in the book refers to The Course as being a cult.

The book is clearly written by someone who is not a Christian and has issues with Christianity. I've been through an Alpha Course, and been involved with leadership in other similar courses, and as a consequence, the behind-the-scenes bits in this book simply do not ring true at all. Course leaders do not behave like this, talk like that, pray like that or sing worship songs like that. Basically, the Course in the book is so much of a caricature that it is unreal.

I know that not all Christians are perfect and honourable, but I can't believe in the scenario given here where all four characters leading the Course are hypocrites, liars, sexually promiscuous (with course attendees) and get drunk (again with course attendees) all the time. While you do get people like that in Churches, generally they are not invited to lead worship or evangelism groups.

The book is split into three sections, the first relates to the 'normal' weekly workings of the Course, the second relates to the weekend retreat, which anyone familiar with Alpha will be familiar with, and the third relates to the unraveling of the lives of the characters following the events of the retreat weekend. I'll not give spoilers.

Given what I've said above, I found section 1 to be unrealistic. I didn't like the characters, I didn't believe the scenarios, I didn't care what happened. But I'd paid for the book so I kept reading...

Section 2 was more interesting, and you do start to care a little for some of the characters. Particularly Lee, who is clearly a fragile character with various complicated needs, which obviously is going to start things spiraling out of control in the third section. But the prevalent sexual promiscuity and drunken debauchery through the weekend retreat is so far from believable for anyone who's ever been on one, that the thing is simply unrealistic. Half of it I could relate to, half of it would never happen like that. This is a book written by an external viewer imagining what might happen on such courses, not someone who's actually been there.

But. By the third section I was caring for the characters and genuinely wanted to find out how all this was going to resolve. There are a couple of twists that send the story heading off in directions you don't expect and it is a fun ride. Then the story ends, but there is still 10% of the book left... The final bit drags as a few final 'revelations' come out, some which are expected, some less so, and you realise that all that has gone before is not exactly as you thought. And at the end you realise that none of the characters are honorable, even the ones you thought were basically good people. Its all about money, sex and power. None of the characters has any other driving motivation. Which is a crap way to end the book.

I'm disappointed. The author could have filled his book with a variety of characters with different wants and desires, but actually no. As far as he is concerned, all Christians are drunken, promiscuous, hypocrites.

Given how far from reality that belief is, the ending is a huge let down.

Oh, and by the way, there is quite a lot of unnecessary sex in this book. With quite a few scenes with details which we really didn't need to know, and only serve to underline the hypocrisy of the characters further. We got the message, OK?

Bottom line is that I know a lot of Christians and I don't know any people like these. Sure, I know Christians who have had affairs, sure I know Christians who drink too much occasionally, sure I know Christians who are motivated by greed, sure I know Christians who lie and cheat. But on the whole, the vast majority of Christians I know are not like this all the time. So in the end, I simply don't believe this story.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Jesus wept?

I've been slowly working my way through (the Librivox audio recording of) "The Life of Jesus Critically Examined" by D.F. Strauss. Its a classic work of biblical criticism from the 19th Century. There's been much to think about so far, and plenty of scope for future blog posts. But anyway, I've just made it through the bit where he discusses the raising of Lazarus.

Seen through Strauss's take on the events, the story of Lazarus simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny whichever way you slice it. The events as described in John 11, are basically these:
  1. Lazarus is sick and word is sent to Jesus to tell him this.
  2. Jesus waits two days before setting out.
  3. Jesus says that Lazarus is sleeping but he is going to wake him up.
  4. The dumb discilpes don't get the inference.
  5. Jesus says that Lazarus is dead and that he was glad he was not there when Lazarus died for the sake of the disciples.
  6. Jesus arrives in Bethany, by which time Lazarus has been dead for four days.
  7. Jesus has a conversation with Martha about resurrection.
  8. Jesus meets Mary and they talk briefly (she says the same as Martha did).
  9. Jesus wept.
  10. Jesus commands that the tomb be opened. It is.
  11. Jesus commands Lazarus to come out. He does.
  12. Lazarus vanishes from the story.
The two oddest details in there are the two days delay and Jesus crying. Why are either of them there?

The story presents Jesus as having supernatural knowledge. He knows that Lazarus has died even though he is many miles away. It is unclear whether he knew anything before the word came that Lazarus was ill, but somehow he knew that this was not merely an illness, it was fatal.

Knowing this, Jesus does nothing for two days. Then sets out for Bethany, presumably a few days journey. When he gets there Lazarus has been dead for four days. I guess if he set out straight away, Lazarus would only have been dead for two days when he got there. Although, armed with supernatural knowledge, we can only assume that he could have known when to set out in time to get there and stop Lazarus from dying, or at the very least raise him instantly.

So it is clear that it was Jesus's own choice to let Lazarus be dead for four days before he raised him. Presumably he could have raised him earlier or later if he had wished. I've heard it said that there was some belief about the soul departing the body after three days, or some such, but that's largely irrelevant to my point here.

So Jesus allowed a man to die and allowed his sisters to go through four days of grieving so he could use them as an object lesson for his disciples. The text makes this plain (verse 15).

Hang on, let me state that again in a blunt manner. Here Jesus is depicted as manipulating the lives and feelings of people as an object lesson for his disciples. 

Is there any other way to read this passage? He basically says 'if I'd have been there I'd have healed him, but I'm glad I wasn't, so that you (the disciples) can see my power more clearly.' This is not the 'Son of Man' speaking, this is the voice of a God who plays with the destinies of people, much like the Greek gods were often portrayed as doing.

So it is clear from the story that Jesus goes to Bethany with the intention of restoring Lazarus to life, and is confident of his ability to do it. Yet when he gets there he cries. Why? It is entirely his inaction which has caused the death, and his actions are about to bring joy, so why does he cry? Out of sympathy for Mary? He could have prevented her pain. Because Lazarus is dead? Why is that a reason to cry if you are certain that the deceased is about to come back to life? Death is only a cause for mourning because we fundamentally do not know if we will ever see the deceased again, we may have hope, we may have belief, but we do not know. If you knew, with absolute certainty, that you would see the deceased in a few minutes time, alive and well, then there is no reason to cry.

It seems to me that the only reason Jesus is described as crying here is that the author (or a later redactor) of the story wants Jesus to appear to be at least partially human. For the rest of the story he walks as a God among men, and this appears to be an attempt to ground him and make him one of us.

The final odd thing about the story is that once Lazarus has been raised, Jesus does not interact with him at all. Doesn't touch him, doesn't talk to him, only instructs others to do things for him.

However, the problems with this story don't actually end there, there are at least two others.

One is the conversation between Jesus and Martha. Reading the implications in what Martha says, the conversation really seems to go like this:

M: If you had been here he wouldn't have died, but even now I believe you can restore his life.
J: He will be resurrected.
M: I know he will be resurrected at the end of time like everyone else, but he's dead now.
J: Silly woman, I mean I can do anything, I can resurrect him now.
M: Yes, I know that. You are the Son of God, Messiah.

The odd thing about this interchange is how Martha's second statement contradicts the first and third ones. The second statement is implicitly skeptical, while the other two seem to imply she believes Jesus can do anything, literally anything, including raising the dead to life. Real conversations don't work like this. This comes across as being fictional. Especially as Jesus starts having the exact same conversation with Mary just a couple of verses later.

The final issue I want to raise with this story is the prayer Jesus says in verses 41 and 42. This is a non-prayer. Jesus basically says 'I don't need to pray to God, but I am doing it only because people are listening and they do need to pray to God, so I'm setting a good example.'

Nobody prays like that. You can be sure that Jesus never uttered such a prayer. These are words put fictively into his mouth.

So it seems that a critical look at this story shows its fictional nature. These events could not have happened as described. Not because we presuppose that supernatural healings or resurrections can't happen, but because the characters in the story don't behave in any realistic ways. The story appears to have started out as a simple story of a demi-God walking amongst men and playing with their destinies, but it also appears to have been softened and humanised by a rewrite.

The final questions are these, if Jesus could raise the dead, why did he hardly ever do it? And if this story is true, why do the other gospel writers know nothing of it? (Except possibly a parable about a dead man called Lazarus whom someone requests to be resurrected...)


Monday, November 05, 2012

The God of Christian experience vs. the God of the Bible

A recurring struggle I have faced over the past few years as I wrestle with (my) faith is the apparent discrepancy between the claims the bible makes about God and the reality I have experienced and observed as a Christian for over twenty years. 

You see, the God of Christian experience (GCE) seems considerably different from the God described in the bible (GTB). So much so that I have to wonder if the God of the bible is an amplified and exaggerated version of the 'real God' as distorted through the rose tinted lens of faith. Of course it is equally possible that the characteristics of the 'real God' are distorted by experience too. Taking a skeptical position, we might also have to consider the possibility that GCE is purely an illusion based on misunderstood experience.

But anyway, here are a few of the characteristics of the God of Christian experience, based on my experiences and observations of others:
  • GCE seems to be a source of comfort for many.
  • GCE seems to provide some form of guidance sometimes, though this is often ambiguous.
  • GCE seems to answer certain prayer requests, sometimes.
  • GCE seems able to perform a range of mostly minor healings, sometimes.
  • GCE seems to be able to strengthen and embolden people, sometimes.
  • GCE seems to be a source of joy, even in otherwise joyless circumstances.
Most, if not all, of these characteristics appear to be sporadic; sometimes being in evidence while at other times being seemingly absent. The characteristics which most commonly appear active are also those in which it is hardest to be sure that there is any real external influence, such as the comfort, joy and emboldenings. The skeptic could write all of these off as being 'purely psychological' and having no supernatural source. It could be that God provides genuine comfort to the believer, or it could be that believing in God - in itself - is the source of comfort.

But what of the others? Answered prayers are common, but rarely does a believer calculate the probabilities of the things they ask for happening 'by chance'. Indeed, for many believers there is no such thing as chance, so if what they prayed for actually happened, then it must have been God at work. And if the thing prayed for does not happen, then it must have been against the will of God, so he didn't do it. I've commented before about the positive feedback loop here - if the prayed-for thing happens, the believer's faith is boosted, if it doesn't happen, their faith is not lessened, so as long as prayed-for things happen occasionally, the net effect is a boost of faith. If the believer prays for lots of possible things on a regular basis, they will see answered prayers fairly frequently, whether or not there is a God involved.

Surely if there is a real God then it should be possible to observe his actions consistently? The GTB is frequently portrayed as consistent, unchanging, and so on, yet GCE seems to act with no consistency, except perhaps in influencing the feelings of his followers.

Before I started taking a properly critical look at (my own) faith, I would have made the claim (had I thought to express it this way) that the real God was broadly the same as GTB and the reasons that GCE appears to be smaller and less powerful than GTB were that something (either the devil, my puny faith, or some unrepented sin in my life) was blocking the full experience of God from breaking through. I guess this is pretty standard Evangelical belief. Its certainly consistent with the picture of reality expressed by most of the evangelism programmes that I've seen or been part of. The problem is sin, our sin gets in the way. In other words, most of the time, the reason GCE appears so small is my fault. The picture would be something like this:
But when you look at the holiest people you know (and, having been in some good churches for many years, I have known a good many truly godly people) you will see that they have exactly the same experiences as you. Something seems to block God from getting through, so GCE is so much smaller than GTB, even for those spiritual giants. Of course, they would never say it in those terms, but this is my observation.

I eventually, through observations like the above, and through a critical reading of certain bible passages, came to view things a bit differently. While still convinced that the real God was there, I considered that GTB was an exaggeration. The real God, while still powerful, wasn't omni-anything. But I never really reconsidered the presupposition that something in me was also blocking the full reality of the real God, so for many years I guess I believed that the real god was somewhere in between GTB and GCE. Like so:
But then I came to wonder whether there was any actual evidence that the real God was any more powerful than GCE. The claims in the bible are simply that, claims. The more I looked into the evidence for things claimed in the bible, the more I found that the bible itself is the only evidence for all the miracles up to and including the resurrection of Jesus. I've recently posted several thoughts on the so called 'evidence' for God [see here, or here] and it all eventually boils down to assuming that the reporting of events as presented in the bible is fundamentally accurate and true. Without that assumption, all arguments defending biblical miracles, including the resurrection, fall apart.

For several years two things kept me believing that the real God was greater in power than GCE (though less than GTB). These were the firm belief that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead, and the belief/observation that 'miraculous' healings continue to happen today. Let's look at both of these:

Firstly, contemporary miraculous healings. I've been through this issue recently on the blog. The issues here for me remain that while healings undoubtedly and indisputably happen in the world today, these don't appear (as far as I can tell) to happen more in a Christian context than in contexts associated with any other religion or belief system. The other issue is that almost all of the healing claims I have heard of are well within the realms of possible natural occurrences. That is, if someone experiences a remission from cancer, how do we know if this was due to God's healing power or was 'just one of those things' that happen? What we observe is that healings happen, and that the claimed power of these healings comes from some supernatural source, for which there is usually little or no other evidence. What if there is some other explanation other than the involvement of a God? Which is more likely - that some people have some inherent 'magical' healing ability, or that some God chooses to channel his 'magical' healing ability through some people? Given that we don't know the mechanism in either case, Occam's razor would tend to prefer the former option; invoking a God is not required as a source of the unknown ability, that only multiplies the entities involved.

Of course, if this is true, then we are attributing 'natural' healing ability to God which doesn't come from him. Thus actually CGE is greater in power than the real God:

That's an uncomfortable thought, but one we must face if we're really serious about examining the validity of (our) faith. Even if there is a God, if we attribute things to him which he has no part of, then our picture of God ends up positively skewed and we imagine him to be bigger than he actually is.

And so, all that remains is the resurrection of Jesus. If this happened then it would fundamentally endorse the things he taught and go much of the way to proving the existence of God, and not merely any god, but specifically the Christian God. For me, this was the last remaining support holding up my faith. But, like all the other things, I found that this belief didn't really stand up to scrutiny. The evidence for the resurrection is simply not strong enough. All that we can really be sure of is that there were folk who came to be known as Christians who believed that Jesus died and rose again. We can be sure these people believed this a couple of generations after the time of the alleged events. What we can't do is bridge the gap between the beliefs in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries and the supposed events of about 30AD. Nobody wrote anything for at least a generation, and the things written by the first generation of writers were rewritten by subsequent generations.

You can see where I'm going with this. Eventually, I have come to the conclusion that as we can't be sure if the resurrection actually happened, we can't use this as anything remotely like evidence for the existence of God, whether we're talking about GTB, GCE or the real God.

I'm still open to the possibility that there is a 'real' God. But the more I consider the evidence of Christian experience, the smaller he appears to become. Is this really a God worth believing in? Or, more crucially, is this really a God worth trusting, following, or committing your life to? All the truly important aspects of God, which would make him worthy of praise and commitment, are those aspects which are claimed in the bible, but are not evident in Christian experience. These evaporate as we look critically at God.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The atoning death of the 2nd person of the Trinity...

Christianity (or at least most branches of it) claims that God is three persons in one being, the Trinity. And it (or at least most branches of it) also teaches that Jesus Christ, the second person of this Trinity, died on the cross as an atoning sacrifice on our behalf, and was resurrected to life three days later. Christianity (or at least...) also teaches that there is a part of a person which survives death, that is, the soul. Now some (but by no means most) versions of Christianity claim that Jesus went to hell during his three days dead, while some (but...) claim that hell, by definition, is a place where God is not.

So put all that together. The result is incoherent.

Who or what really died on the cross? The one being of the Godhead? No, merely one of the three persons. But if that person is inexplicably and inseparably linked to the other two persons, then how could he die without them also dying? Or did the Trinity get reduced to a Binity for three days? Surely nobody who holds to the idea of the Trinity could accept that? But if the second person of the Trinity didn't separate from the life of the other two, then what was it that died?

And what was actually sacrificed? Jesus was apparently without a physical body for somewhere less than 36 hours, and then got a better body. That doesn't actually seem like a sacrifice, more like an inconvenience. An exceptionally painful inconvenience, I'll give you that, but not actually a sacrifice. The whole point of sacrifice is to give up something that you don't get back again. Ever. So the resurrection completely undoes the sacrifice. Its like me putting a tenner in the offering plate on a Sunday and then coming back on Wednesday to reclaim the tenner, and actually getting fifteen pounds back. No significant sacrifice, certainly not when viewed on the eternal timescale.

And what about the 'harrowing of hell' thing? If God went to hell, then surely hell ceased to be hell. By definition. Maybe Rob Bell is right and

everyone

gets

to

go

to

heaven?

I've got no major point to make here other than that when you scrutinise some of the doctrines of Christianity, they don't actually work. And especially, when you try and harmonise them, they don't always work together.

For what its worth, having wrestled with both issues over the past few years, I no longer find either the doctrine of the atonement or the doctrine of the Trinity actually makes sense. It may be that someone died on a cross two thousand years ago, but I can no longer accept that that person was inseparably part of God or that there could be any transaction in that death which took my place in some death that I should actually have died myself. There would be no justice in such a deal.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Corrective contradictions #1

Mark 13v26-33:
26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.
This is one of those passages where Jesus is recorded as saying something and then immediately seems to retract it and say something contrary. There are a number of these in the gospels and I'll comment on a few others in different posts, if I can find the time.

Here, regarding "the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory", he says:
  • "this generation will certainly not pass away until these things have happened", and
  • "about that day or hour no one knows, not even [...] the Son, but only the Father"
How do we reconcile these two statements? Here's all the possibilities I can see:
  1. Assuming Jesus actually said both things, he wouldn't have said the former if he really had no idea about when the events would take place. So the only way I can see to reconcile these is to actually take the latter statement at face value - Jesus didn't know the day or hour, but he did know the month, year or decade. He knew the 'Son of Man coming' event was coming soon (within a generation) but just didn't know the precise details. This leaves us with two possibilities, either:
    • Jesus incorrectly predicted the 'Son of Man coming' event. It didn't happen. The world has gone on as before for nearly two thousand years since the time Jesus predicted. That is to say, Jesus was wrong and uttered a false prophecy. Or
    • Jesus used allegorical language to talk about an event which did happen within a generation. That event can only have been the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70AD. That being the case we should interpret all other '2nd coming' discussion in a like manner and give up all belief in the future return of Christ. The 2nd coming has already happened.
  2. Assuming only one of the two statements is original to Jesus, there are other ways we can interpret the passage:
    • Assuming the former statement to be original, the latter statement must have been added by the compiler of the book to mitigate the former saying. This would make sense if the compiler was writing at a sufficiently late date that he could see that the former prophecy had failed, that is, the generation had passed away before the time of writing and the 2nd coming had not occurred. The addition of the latter statement was putting words (fictitiously) into the mouth of Jesus to try and salvage his reputation as a prophet.
    • Of course, we could rather assume the latter statement to be original to Jesus, but if that was the case then the entire, much longer, preceding passage would have to be the fiction. Why would anyone invent a definite, testable, prophecy and put it side by side with a statement that contradicts it? The only think I can think of is if someone in the days after the destruction of the temple thought that Jesus must have predicted such a cataclysmic event, and so invented the story and put it in the narrative at around the same point Jesus was talking about not how he didn't know the dates of future events.
  3. Of course there is also the possibility that both statements are not original to Jesus, but then we may simply be sealing with the situation of the compiler working with two distinct (and contradictory) traditions, and trying to reconcile them. Considering this doesn't really help us much in trying to determine the truth.
The one doctrine that doesn't come out of this study unscathed is the 2nd coming as it is commonly understood by contemporary evangelicals. No evangelical reading of the text as inerrant, authoritative or 'God breathed' lets us assume that either one of the statements is fictitious or that Jesus uttered false prophecy. The only way you can take this passage seriously as an evangelical is therefore to realise that the 'Son of Man coming' event Jesus was talking about must have been the destruction of the temple in the 1st Century and that there is therefore no other 2nd coming to look forward to.

I know there are a minority of evangelicals who do view this passage in this way, most notably N.T. Wright, but I have to say that, in my experience, most evangelicals are still looking forward to the 2nd coming, and they've been expecting it to be 'soon' for nearly two millennia so far.

But what if we approach this as a non-evangelical? Viewed from this perspective it seems clear to me that the narrative was compiled at least a generation after the events allegedly took place. The former prophecy (whether original to Jesus or not) has been shown to be false, and somebody (may or may not have been the compiler) has devised a corrective saying to mitigate the effects of the earlier saying being shown to be false.

I find the whole passage to be very hard to unravel. Jesus appears at certain points in the story to be talking clearly about the destruction of the temple, but at other points he is clearly talking about the 2nd coming and the end of all things, the escahton. From our point in history it is clear that the eschaton did not happen with the destruction of the temple. The only thing that makes sense to me is that the 'little apocalypse' was composed by someone (not Jesus) shortly after the destruction of the temple, but still during the period of the Jewish war - the author assumed that the destruction was the beginning of the process and the 2nd coming wasn't far off. However, some time after this, the compiler of the gospel is able to see that the eschaton didn't happen as predicted, and so added the corrective saying to mitigate the failed prophecy.

So what I deduce is that the gospel we call Mark was compiled some decades after 70AD, and not prior to 70AD as most evangelicals (who have an opinion) think.

Of course, if Mark wasn't written until decades after 70AD, and Matthew and Luke (and maybe John) are both dependent on Mark, then we have a real problem in terms of dating the gospels. Another possibility, of course, is that the little apocalypse was inserted into an already existing gospel, dating from an earlier decade, but I haven't heard that theory proposed before.

As to whether there is anything original to Jesus in here, I think if there is, then it is only some vague (and not time limited) prophecy about the coming of the Son of Man, and was nothing (originally) to do with the destruction of the temple. However, it makes just as much sense if none of this goes back to a historical Jesus.  

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The fine tuning argument revisited

I just listened to last week's Unbelievable podcast on the subject of 'Atheism's New Clothes', featuring a discussion between (academic scientist and Christian) David Glass and (academic philosopher and atheist) James Croft. The discussion was loosely based around the issues raised by Glass in his recent book 'Atheism's new clothes' (sadly not on Kindle yet) which is a response to the books and arguments of the 'new atheists' such as Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and others (Dennett is usually mentioned in that list, but I don't think he was mentioned in the programme, so I don't know if he is addressed in the book either).

The discussion was supposed to cover all the issues raised in the book, but got bogged down on the issue of the 'fine tuning' of the universe. While Croft did a remarkably good job of shooting down Glass's fine tuning argument and discrediting his flawed use of probabilistic reasoning, he never managed to convince Glass that his take on the fine tuning argument was anything less than water-tight.

The fine tuning argument is summarised in this way on Wikipedia:
"The fine-tuned Universe is the proposition that the conditions that allow life in the Universe can only occur when certain universal fundamental physical constants lie within a very narrow range, so that if any of several fundamental constants were only slightly different, the Universe would be unlikely to be conducive to the establishment and development of matter, astronomical structures, elemental diversity, or life as it is presently understood. The existence and extent of fine-tuning in the Universe is a matter of dispute in the scientific community."
The point is that certain universal constants are built-in to the universe, and without these constants the universe could not sustain life (or, at least, life as we know it), yet there is (so it is claimed) no scientific explanation for why the constants should have those values, and not other values, which would have resulted in a universe incapable of producing life.

The main theistic argument here goes like this: the probability that the constants could have just happened upon the 'correct' values 'by chance' is so vanishingly small that it didn't happen. Those constants must have been selected by an intelligent designer, so therefore there must be a God.

Atheistic counter arguments usually go two ways:

The first is to propose a multiverse type arrangement where there are an infinite number of possible universes, each with a different set of universal constants. These universes may either be in series in infinite time, or in parallel in infinite dimensions. Given enough coordinates in probability space, then it becomes highly likely that somewhere in all this probability there will be a universe with the 'correct' set of universal constants. This way of thinking is favoured by a great many scientists. Of course, this raises the issue of the unseen infinite which I have blogged about before - you can demonstrate that anything can be achieved if you can invoke the explanatory power of an unseen but infinite factor.

The other way is to show that the issue is being looked at the wrong way around. It is not that the universe was fine tuned for our kind of life to emerge, but rather that our kind of life is a product of the kind of universe in which we are. Universes with different sets of constants, should any exist, would produce different emergent types of life, but in every instance it would appear (to the emergent life) that the universe was fine tuned for them to exist.

The show set me considering whether the theist actually has a valid argument. I actually found myself wondering this way:

Suppose the universe was created by a supernatural being who preset the fundamental constants, how did that being decide what the constants should be? Did he (lets stick to convention here and refer to the deity as masculine) try out any other sets of constants in other universes only to discover that they didn't work? How many times did he do this? Even if he only did a 'thought experiment', this is still working through all the possible alternatives until a solution is found. Following this line of reasoning you very quickly end up with the multiverse type arrangement (again with the inherent unseen infinite problem) and God is reduced to the mere mechanism by which the various universes choose their parameters.

Of course, no theist really thinks like this. It is obvious to them that God would just know what the 'correct' parameters should be. But why? For the theist it is not that God had to work out the right parameters, he just knows them. I suppose you could say that the correct parameters for the universe are just there in the mind of God. But how is this thinking any different from the non-theist explanation which thinks that the correct parameters are just built in to the universe and couldn't be otherwise?

In order to demonstrate that the parameters are 'fine tuned' you actually need to be able to demonstrate that the parameters could have been otherwise. As far as I know, no theist has ever done this. As far as we can tell, those parameters are necessary features of our universe and not variables.

Fundamentally, the fine tuning argument for God does not and cannot explain how God came up with the set of fundamental constants that appear to be built into our universe. In other words, it has no explanatory power.

It boils down, basically, to these two options:

  1. The universe has a set of physical constants built into it at the outset. We do not know how these constants were fixed. Or
  2. The universe has a set of physical constants built into it at the outset. They were put there by God. We do not know how these constants were fixed in the mind of God. We do not know how God came to be there.
It looks to me that God doesn't really play a part in the argument. He actually complicates the origin model rather than simplifying it. With God in the picture there are more questions and more unknowns.

Should we use Occam's razor here?