Tuesday, December 27, 2005

After Christmas: Where Do We Go From Here?

Since we have just celebrated Christmas, I thought it might be appropriate to return just briefly to my initial string of posts discussing some of the problems in the Bible. (I am curious to know how Ernie views this kind of problem, and why apparent deceitfulness on the part of at least one of two biblical authors should not be condemned by Christians.)

The difficulty this time is a discrepancy between Matthew and Luke, the only two gospels that contain accounts of Jesus' birth. Specifically, read Matthew 2:13-23 and Luke 2:21-40.

Briefly, Matthew says that the magi visited Mary, Joseph and Jesus in Bethlehem, and that immediately after that, Joseph takes Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod's slaughter, where they stay for some time. They eventually return to Israel, but when they hear that Archelaus is reigning over Judea, they decided to go to Galilee, ending up in Nazareth. Matthew does not say that Nazareth was the hometown of Joseph and Mary; rather it appears the choice to go there was due to the political situation and in order to fulfill a (nonexistent) prophecy.

Luke, on the other hand, has Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem where they meet Simeon. After completing whatever was necessary there, they returned to Nazareth, which Luke describes as their own city.

Even ignoring the differences in reason for ending up in Nazareth, the two accounts are plainly inconsistent regarding how and when they arrived there. Matthew, as usual, has arranged things so as to fulfill as many prophecies as he can, even prophecies that do not exist. (These false fulfillments were the subject of one of my first posts.)

In reviewing these two accounts, I noticed a couple of other oddities. For instance, in Matthew 2:19-20, an angel tells Joseph in a dream that he can take Mary and Jesus back to Israel. But when he gets there and learns of the situation there, he gets afraid and is warned, this time by God, to go somewhere else. It seems like God and his angel could have gotten by with just one dream here and saved Joseph and his family some trouble.

Matthew tells the story of the magi, who are from the east, and who say they saw Jesus' star in the east. I have to wonder how they were able to tell, from a star to the east of the east, that a baby was born in the west. Maybe there is something to astrology after all.

By the way, if you are following along with my discussion with Ernie, note that I did post my latest contribution earlier this evening, which you can read below.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Just Playing God

Wow, I can hardly believe it has been two and a half weeks since I last wrote. One reason for the delay has been the general business of the season, but another reason has been the need to ponder my response to Ernie's most recent contribution to our dialog. After one quick clarification on his summary of my last post, I will try to address his suggested possible alternative afterlife scenarios.

First, the clarification: After quoting my response to one of his previous questions, Ernie said:

I apologize, my question was perhaps misleading. My point was rather, "if God created the universe, but there were no afterlife, would you consider life itself evidence of God's injustice?"

My answer to this question is "No." It might be evidence of God's unfairness, but we have already discarded fairness from this particular line of argument, or at least, I have. Potentially, I could be convinced otherwise, but I would not at present consider that this life in the absence of an afterlife to be evidence of God's injustice. (It should go without saying, but I will say it anyway, that I have been speaking of God as if he exists only for the sake of argument, as it gets tiring making that qualification all of the time.)

In order to probe my understanding of justice, Ernie has suggested a number of possible afterlife scenarios and wonders which ones I would consider just. First, let me point out a minor incongruity in Ernie's formulation, which happens also to relate to an important asymmetry in my view of afterlife consequences. Ernie wonders "what (if any) punitive behavior by God would/could be consistent with [my] understanding of justice." But the general stress of his alternative scenarios is not on punishment (hell) but on reward (heaven). For me this is an important distinction to be made. As far as justice goes, at least insofar as it relates to my argument, the important aspect is that God cannot impose consequences worse than some limit without transgressing into injustice.

I am not particularly concerned in this argument if God chooses to provide better than what somebody deserves. In fact, a main thrust of Christian theology is that nobody deserves heaven and anybody who reaches heaven is getting better than what they deserve. I think there are people who would argue against God's justice on those grounds. While I am sympathetic to those arguments, I do not find them as compelling as the argument for God's injustice on the basis of eternal damnation.

Given this asymmetry, I am not sure that responding to each of Ernie's scenarios as stated will helpful. Still, I will try to explain further how my understanding of justice applies to several possibilities.

One possibility is that there is no afterlife (but we are still positing the existence of God). Would what we observe about life then imply that God is unjust? My short answer: I do not know. The longer version: It depends on how much choice we really have, and it may also depend on whether or not God intervenes and in what situations. Certainly there are some who claim that if God can act to prevent evil but does not, then he cannot be called "good", but that may not necessarily make him unjust. On the other hand, this scenario is not at all the one promoted by Christianity. I understand that a more definitive answer might be helpful for understanding where I am coming from, but I do not have a definitive answer.

Another possibility, which includes at least the classical Christian position as I understand it, is that one's beliefs or actions in this life completely determine whether you end up in heaven or hell for eternity. As should be clear by now, I think that eternal punishment for anything done or believed by temporal, finite and imperfect man, and especially with imperfect information, is unjust. Again, note the asymmetry: eternal punishment is unjust while eternal reward under these circumstances might be merely unfair.

A third option is that there is nothing particularly special about the transition from this life to the afterlife, that life just continues in a different venue, possibly with very different capabilities and information. God imposes punishments as necessary to keep the scales of justice balanced, but these punishments are temporary, in proportion to the evil done either in this life or the next.

Fourth, perhaps the afterlife is not eternal. We continue to exist after death for as long as necessary for the scales of justice to be balanced, being punished if our lives were "net evil", or rewarded if they were "net good". Once balanced, we cease to exist.

I rather suspect that philosophers have been over this kind of ground before (and that ground is probably a muddy mess), and I am certainly not an expert in ethics. Nobody will (or should!) expect anything particularly novel or insightful here. I am just trying to address Ernie's wondering, and I hope that Ernie will be responding soon with some more details about how he sees these issues.

One final note to Ernie or anyone else who wants to link to these posts: I started giving HTML id's to each paragraph, so you should be able to link to a particular paragraph if that would be helpful. You will have to look at the page source to find the values.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

No Fair, N'est Pas?

Thoughts have been simmering in my head for a few days now on how to move forward in my discussion with Ernie. I think I know how to make a small bit of progress today, though as I look back over my last few posts, some of this will be repetitive. Hopefully the repetition will at least serve to emphasize what I am trying to convey.

Much of my pondering has covered the concept of fairness. Is the god of Christianity fair? Does it matter? And as I was doing the dishes today, I concluded that fairness is not the issue, at least not fairness in the sense of impartiality or freedom from prejudice or favoritism. If I were the only person in existence, there could be no unfairness, and yet my argument would stand.

No, the issue is one of justice, morality, and goodness. As I stated earlier, and as Ernie quoted here,

I believe that it is fundamentally unjust to punish someone eternally for choices he makes based on uncertain, incomplete and seemingly contradictory or incoherent information, while being subject to imperfect rationality, having only a finite amount of time and while lacking any methodology, process or other means to overcome these limitations

Ernie then asked if my argument was primarily ethical or epistemological, and to make my previous response clear, if it was not already, my argument is primarily ethical. The epistemological aspects are only one part of the primary argument. Now Ernie has said

I think Alan's arguments apply equally to the fact that "Life is unfair." Thus, it seems to me that this is primarily an ethics question (about God's justice) rather than a epistemic question (about evidence for the supernatural). That is, even if there was no afterlife, I believe Alan would still consider God unjust for the way He's structured the natural world (assuming a Creator God even exists, of course).

I do not agree that my arguments apply equally to the fact that life is unfair. First, as I stated earlier, fairness is not the issue, unless you are careful to use the fairness only in the sense of a (near) synonym for justice. Second, my argument rests on the disproportionate consequence of eternal (infinite) damnation for choices made by temporal (finite) men, and as I noted previously, this is in contrast to the consequences we experience in (this) life.

Now, let me return to Ernie's three "philosophical 'facts'".

a. Ethics: Choices have real consequences

b. Epistemology: Character, not facts, drive belief

c. Theology: God is just not fair

I agree that choices have consequences. And I think I see what Ernie is driving at with (b) and (c). As he later expands, "what we actually believe is also determined in large part by accidents of culture and circumstances", and since belief is apparently a critical component in determining our eternal fate, the premise that those "accidents" strongly influence our beliefs does lead to the conclusion that God is not fair. But this is unfairness in the sense of partiality, and as I have emphasized repeatedly tonight, it is not this kind of unfairness that troubles me. Rather it is the injustice, even the immorality, of God (supposedly) imposing the consequences that he does for those that do not believe.

So. The thoughts simmered, and that is where I ended up. Did I let them simmer long enough? Is what remains good and tasty? I hope so.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Fair Enough?

Ernie pointed out that I have not offered a definition of justice. He correctly inverted a statement I made about injustice ("justice only holds people accountable for what they could have reasonably known"), though I would hesitate to call that a definition of justice, but rather a description of it. Merriam-Webster defines "just" as "acting or being in conformity with what is morally upright or good", "being what is merited" and "legally correct", among others. "Fair", on the other hand, is "marked by impartiality and honesty; free from self-interest, prejudice or favoritism", "conforming with the established rules", "consonant with merit or importance" (again, among others).

Ernie did not come right out and say whether he believes God is just, only that God is not fair. I suspect that his operant definition of "fair" is closest to the first one above, the one related to impartiality, which I infer from his quoting "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy." But to say that God can be just without being fair seems to me a bit like making a distinction with no difference. Fairness and justice are not so easily separated. Take, for instance, these few verses:

Leviticus 19:15

You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly.

Colossians 4:1

Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven.

We can see that justice and fairness go hand-in-hand. We can also see God (supposedly) setting a standard for us to follow that includes fairness. Is this a case of "Do as I say, not as I do"? I am afraid I will not accept a simple assertion that God can be just without also being fair; I need some justification for that.

(Ernie said "... this highlights the crucial distinction between 'justice' and 'fairness' ..." but I fail to understand exactly what it was that highlighted the distinction and what the distinction Ernie sees.)

With regard to choice, I agree that if there is no choice, there can be no justice. I do wonder sometimes if we truly do have choice or a will, or if we just act like we do. I strongly suspect that we do not have complete freedom of choice, and that would seem to place limits on justice. But Ernie's alignment with C.S. Lewis on the issue of hell would seem to indicate that hell is not a just punishment imposed by God, but rather a mere consequence of our choices.

It has been a long time since I read The Great Divorce or anything else that addresses this concept of hell in any detail. (I did finish reading The Chronicles of Narnia to the kids in the past year, and there are hints of this same idea at the end of The Last Battle, both with regard to the dwarfs as well as the Calormene soldier.) While it has some attractive features, it seems a bit of an ad hoc answer. Is there biblical support for this view? What property of reality enforces these consequences, if not God? How does an atoning sacrifice save people from this fate? On what basis should we even believe that there is any kind of an afterlife anyway? (Sorry, there goes the epistemological question again.)

Maybe there is some kind of afterlife. Maybe there are eternal consequences to our actions. Maybe neither life nor God is fair. Maybe God is evil, maybe he is not. There are so many possibilities, and I fail to see how anyone can guarantee the choices they make will have the consequences they want (assuming of course that choices and wants are even real). I can only do what seems best to me. That brings us back to epistemology and Ernie's statement that "character, not facts, drive belief". But that will have to wait until next time, which will likely be early next week since I will be gone for the weekend.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Patience, Grasshopper

Just a quick note: I am back from vacation, and I have been reading Ernie's most recent post in our discussion and some of the other pages Ernie referenced. I have also been fighting with the plumbing in our laundry area and getting really frustrated with our computer (or actually, with Norton Internet Security, which I think is about to get the boot). I also just had to finish the book I started reading while on vacation. So, I will be putting together a response for Ernie once I clear up my backlog of other stuff.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Hell and Justice, Redux

I have time for just a few brief comments tonight. First, as our family is traveling for the next week, I may not have opportunities to post much here. Second, I wanted to answer, briefly, Ernie's questions from his most recent post.

Ernie asks:

I have one (hopefully) simple question for Alan. Do you believe:

a. the natural world is similarly unfair, in that it also impose irreversible consequences on people despite imperfect information; or

b. the natural world is fair, because the relevant information is in fact discoverable

In other words, is this primarily:

a. an ethical argument about the absence of justice; or

b. an epistemological argument about the absence of information?

I would agree that there are irreversible natural consequences for our actions. We certainly have imperfect information, and sometimes we must make decisions based on that information, and those decisions have (sometimes irreversible) consequences. But to say that nature imposes consequences is a bit too anthropomorphic for me. Consequences happen, but they are not imposed. I do not ascribe a personality or will to nature, and neither are natural consequences eternal in character, so to call the natural world "similarly unfair" to a god that imposes eternal punishment is not quite right.

Regarding answer (b) to the first question, I guess I would say that the natural world is not fair, and that not all information is discoverable, but there is not necessarily a logical or causal connection between those two. That is, the source of natural unfairness is not primarily in lack of information.

With regard to the second formulation of the question, I am not entirely sure how to categorize this argument. It is an ethical argument about the absence of justice that rests on an epistemological argument about absence of information. And it is not that I demand that "reality" must be just; in fact, I think it is often unjust. Rather, I think injustice is incompatible with the supposed character of God. I suppose another approximation of the argument would be:

a. God is unjust if he imposes eternal punishment for the actions/beliefs of limited people operating on limited information in limited time. God is also unjust if he imposes punishment for someone's innate nature.

b. People are limited, and have limited information and limited time

c. God is just.

d. God imposes eternal punishment on people for their innate (sinful) nature and/or their actions/beliefs.

These four statements are together contradictory. I think (b) is obviously true. For me, (a) follows almost directly from how I define the word "just". That leaves either (c) or (d) to be false, so either way, Christianity is wrong about something. If (c) is false, we may very well be in trouble. Maybe God is evil and he tortures people for fun. If so, I have no intention of worshipping or following such a god. The final alternative is that (d) is false. This relates directly to some of the questions for which I am awaiting answers.

I do not know if you would consider that an ethical argument or an epistemological one, or something else. Does my elaboration help clarify my approach?

Beyond this argument, I have other reasons for distrusting the Bible and much of what orthodox Christianity holds to be true. But this argument, in the context of a number of other things going on at the time, was an important factor in my decision to abandon Christianity, and I have not yet found a satisfactory resolution offered for this problem. (I have found a number of unsatisfactory ones. We may get to those sometime.) So I am curious about how Ernie will answer.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Bringing Back the Draft

I think Ernie has done a wonderful job of helping us make progress toward a common understanding. One of my secondary reasons for blogging is to work on my writing skills, which I honestly have not practiced as much as I should. Ernie's "brickman" device is, I think, a useful tool for this kind of situation, and he has used it cleverly by writing a letter from "me" to himself. And while not a perfect representation of my position, he has gotten very close, and written it well. Now I get my turn to practice, and hopefully help move things along still further.

(I ended up making more edits to this than I originally expected. I started out trying to mark my changes to make them obvious, but in the end, this "draft" diverged from Ernie's draft too much for that to work. You may still want to compare the two versions.)

Draft 2, 11/16/2005

Dear Ernie,

While I appreciate your sincere efforts to explain your viewpoint, I fear you are making things needlessly complex and missing the essential points. In particular, I don't think you've really confronted the core issues underlying my objections to Christianity. As far as I can tell, every strain of fundamentalist, evangelical, or orthodox Christianity makes the same hard claim: each individual must accept Jesus Christ in order to get to heaven. Do you believe that is true, or don't you? If you don't, then I would argue you really don't have anything in common with traditional Christianity, and this whole discussion is moot.

Conversely, and more importantly, do you also believe that everyone who does not choose to accept Christ is going to hell for eternity? Or, is there no eternal existence of any kind for non-believers? Or, are there other ways to heaven? Again, traditional Christianity is clear on the answer to these questions.

This brings me to the crux of my argument. I believe that it is fundamentally unjust to punish someone eternally for choices he makes based on uncertain, incomplete and seemingly contradictory or incoherent information, while being subject to imperfect rationality, having only a finite amount of time and while lacking any methodology, process or other means to overcome these limitations. With regard to believing that Jesus is God and the means of salvation, I claim that:

a. it is not manifestly obvious that this is true

b. nature does not provide complete and certain evidence that this is true

c. while the Bible purports to provide the needed information, it is not itself manifestly true nor proven by nature, and evidence both within and outside the Bible makes its claims to authoritative truth suspect and therefore uncertain

d. men are not perfectly rational

e. men have a limited amount of time available to them prior to death

Four of these are clear: (a), (b), (d) and (e). Some people would dispute all or parts of (c), but you indicated that you only find the Bible to be "generally useful in an illustrative way." So, if you accept all of the minor premises I listed, but yet not my conclusion, then you must either dispute my major premise (that God cannot justly condemn someone to hell for eternity given his stated limitations) or else the structure of my argument.

This is not yet a perfectly formed argument. It assumes, for instance, that we are concerned whether God is acting justly or not. If God is capricious or evil or in any case not just, this line of reasoning fails (but we have bigger problems than that). Again, I do not think we would be discussing Christianity any more in that case. I can think of a few other possibilities that I would likewise consider to be out of scope, but you may disagree. For that matter, we have not yet established that you believe that people are sent to hell at all.

I hope you can see why I might want to address this argument before wrangling over epistemology, because this might help us to set a standard against which an epistemological system might be measured. If you agree with my argument, any epistemology that does not provide certainty is insufficient. If you disagree with my argument, then I would much rather discuss that than have a discussion about epistemology that may prove irrelevent.

Yours truly,

Friday, November 11, 2005

No Hell? He'll Know!

I promised to respond to Ernie's epistemology post.

While Ernie wrote about epistemology in response to this post, he did not address or even mention what I described as "my most important problem with Christianity": eternal damnation for disbelievers. Trying to agree on what we can and cannot know is fine as far as it goes, but I am concerned about getting mired down in philosophical hair-splitting and that we will lose sight of this simple yet powerful issue.

So I would really like to hear Ernie's point of view here. Does he believe in hell? Does God send people to hell, and if so, based on what criteria? Is eternal torture ever justifiable? If so, how?

Is rational disbelief in God possible, even if rational belief is also possible?

I apologize for the title. Pretend that it was a valiant attempt at wordplay involving damnation, epistemology, and (near) homophones.

Physical Plant

(That was an inside joke: Ernie was always fond of puns, and he wrote a skit for IVCF where the characters were different kinds of vegetation. Guess which one I was?)

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Deaf and Dumb

Somehow I missed Ernie's last post until today.

For tonight, I am going to leave the epistemology part alone; that will have to wait for a night where I have more time. Instead, I want to address Ernie's closing question: "by what moral standard do you judge Christianity?" He could just as easily asked by what moral standard we can judge any action. There are a few ways I would like to examine the question.

While reading a book about ancient Mesopotamia, I came across this quote, written roughly 4000 years ago by an anonymous scribe:

Mankind is deaf and knows nothing. What knowledge has anyone at all? He knows not whether he has done a good or a bad deed.
Morality is tied into both the intent and effect of our actions. If I intend good (according to my definition of "good") and good results (according to the definition of "good" held by those affected by my action), then my action was moral. If I intend evil and evil results, again according to the definitions of those involved, then my action was immoral. But those are the easy cases. What if I intend good and evil results, according to my definitions? What if I intend "my" good, but it is "your" evil? When the actor and those affected do not agree on what is good and what is bad, I am not sure how to speak sensibly about morality.

If I had to pick a standard, the Golden Rule would come pretty close: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or perhaps, as Confucius wrote: do not do to others what you would not want done to you. This captures the intent and effect criteria fairly concisely.

Richard Carrier, whom I referenced earlier, has written an essay titled What an Atheist Ought to Stand For. The section titled "The Ethics of Ethics" covers this topic better than I can. (The whole essay is well worth reading.)

I also want to mention a book I recently read that beautifully illustrates the problem of differing standards. The book is Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card. It is one of several sequels to his most famous book Ender's Game, which he wrote specifically to lead into Speaker for the Dead, and the message he has to share is very much in line with what we are talking about here.

(Warning: spoilers ahead.)

The main character of both of these books is Ender Wiggins, who starts in the first book as a child genius, recruited by the military to lead Earth's forces against the "buggers", an alien race that had previously attacked and nearly defeated Earth. In the first book, Ender leads Earth's forces to victory and the complete extermination of the buggers, but Ender was deceived into doing this; in fact, he did not know what he was truly doing. (Was Ender acting morally?) Ender is overcome with guilt at his unwitting role in the deaths of so many, and eventually becomes the first "Speaker for the Dead", a title he gives himself to describe his role in trying to explain things from the buggers' point of view, for they were not really so terrible after all, just terribly different, and when they realized too late that humans were not mere animals, they themselves grieved for what they had done to man, and could not blame men for counter-attacking, even to the point of extermination.

In the second book, titled Speaker for the Dead, another alien race, the "piggies", has been discovered. The piggies are still rather primitive, and over the course of many years, some of the piggies and then several of the human scientists studying them are found tortured to death by the piggies. Men generally write this off to their primitive nature, but in the end, Ender uncovers the true explanation: that for the piggies, the torture was a necessary step to the next phase of their own existence, and it was in fact a great honor among them. In the cases where the humans were tortured and killed, the humans had volunteered to be thus treated, in order that one of the piggies that they loved would not be, not understanding that this was considered an honor among the piggies. So the men acted according to the noblest moral standard in their own eyes, but in the piggies' eyes, the men acted selfishly, and it was the piggies that acted most nobly by allowing the men that they loved to receive the honor. Who was right? Who acted morally? I think they both did. And yet pain and suffering resulted.

It's late. That will have to be all for tonight. I will try to get back to the epistemological bits this weekend.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Truth and Consequences

Ernie's response to my last post is here.

I think, perhaps, we need to back up a bit. As I thought about how to respond to Ernie's answers to his summaries of my questions, I had this persistent feeling that, while Ernie has made a good faith effort to respond as best he knew how, we are lacking some kind of "meta-agreement". I do not know quite how to explain that, except to say that I feel like I need to back up and speak more generally, rather than respond point-by-point.

The single most important problem I have with Christianity is this: so long as eternal damnation is the claimed consequence for disbelief, Christianity (or God) would be unjust to impose such consequences so long as rational grounds for disbelief exist. The burden of proof, then, is very much on the side of Christians. I may be wrong in what I believe, but if you do not agree with me, I do not claim there will be eternal, personal consequences to you. (There will be natural consequences to you while you live, as well as consequences to others, in the normal ways that one person can affect others.)

One of my biggest questions, then, is, what is at stake here? Ernie has talked about Christianity being "the most effective value-creating, community-forming, character-developing, reality-changing humility-enforcing ideological movement in the history of humankind". He has not (in these couple of posts) said anything about eternal consequences, either good or bad. Statements like the one I just quoted are about as close to describing any consequences as he has come. That may be due simply to the structure of his argument, but I guess I need to know what we are talking about. Are we simply discussing a religion that (in Ernie's view) has been the most successful at bringing about social good? (I dispute that, by the way.) If so, my responses to Ernie will be much different than if there are eternal consequences in play.

For example, when I read

The statements I made are those I believe *I* can demonstrate are "relatively true" using readily-available objective evidence -- at least given enough time and effort, and appropriate interpretation.
these thoughts went through my head: I already expressed surprise at how little Ernie claimed as empirically knowable, and this further description of them does nothing to strengthen those statements. In fact, the standard Ernie is asking us to apply ("relatively true"), while stronger than "possibly true", is far short of "almost certainly true". And these statements are intended to be framework that "enables other types of knowledge -gathering [which] expands the sphere of useful information." I guess I don't see a framework that is only "relatively true" as being sufficient for supporting other knowledge-gathering activities, at least if the knowledge so gathered is held to be any more than "possibly true", and where the farther we get from the foundation, the less certain the knowledge becomes.

I mentioned earlier that I dispute Christianity's position as being such a superlative influence on humankind. This bears further examination. First, it seems to me that most of the descriptors that Ernie applied (like "value-creating") are intrinsically subjective measures, so I do not understand how such statements can be empirically supported, contrary to Ernie's belief that "any reasonable set of empirical criteria ... would bear out my claim." (Ernie follows that by admitting that it was a subjective assessment. I have been using "empirical" more or less as a synonym for "objective", so I wonder if Ernie means something a different. Ernie?)

The second difficulty here is in attribution. In my experience, Christians want to claim the good done by Christians while disowning the evil done by Christians. You may claim that those who did evil were not "true" Christians, or were not acting as Christians should, but as soon as you build that distinction into the definition, using the amount of good done by Christianity to support its value or truthfulness seems a bit shaky. To compare Christianity with other ideologies, you would at the very least need to offer the same distinction to them. Personally, I do not find an approach based on social good very compelling.

Ernie did end with three statements he thought I might agree to, based on empirical grounds. They were:
  • there was a historic figure named Jesus
  • he made claims regarding his divinity that were unusually strong for Judaic culture
  • his presence launched the worldwide Christian movement that claims descent from him
  • Of these, the first seems likely to me. There are people who dispute that Jesus actually existed, but I do not have any good reason to believe that. The only quibble I have with the third statement is with the word "launched": while his presence was a generally necessary condition, I think you could make the case that Paul especially and the other apostles were critical in "launching" Christianity. But I do not dispute that there is a "worldwide Christian movement that claims descent from him".

    The second statement is the most questionable of the three. I mentioned in a previous post that some people question whether Jesus actually made the claims of divinity attributed to him. In addition, I am not sure that his claims were "unusually strong" for Judaic culture. There were other people who made similar claims, from centuries before Jesus until much later. If I recall correctly, a Jew from the 16th century accumulated quite a following, claiming to be the messiah. I would also recommend this essay by Richard Carrier, in which he briefly reviews a number of other people that were at least in the same class as Jesus, in terms of claims of divinity, miracle-working, and so on. Not all of them were Jews, but some were, and some collected substantial followings before violent ends at the hands of Roman troops. (Richard Carrier has written quite a bit that I think would make good reading: you can find an index of his writing here).

    Does that help explain where I am coming from?

    Tuesday, November 01, 2005

    A Response to Ernie's Post Modern Faith in Jesus

    Ernie pointed us to his recent post here. He was some thought-provoking things to say, and you will want to take a look at it before continuing here.

    First, Ernie is pretty accurate in saying that I am rejecting a fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity on empirical grounds, that what I used to believe has (in my view) been proven false. I do recognize that I cannot on those grounds rule out every possible version of God, and I do recognize that there are alternative sets of beliefs, still based at least roughly on the Bible and still called Christian by their adherents, that are less susceptible to those disproofs. I alluded to that here, about half way down, when I stated that disproving conservative, fundamentalist Christianity was easier due to its stronger claims.

    Second, I will admit to being a little surprised at how little Ernie is claiming as empirically knowable. It raises the question in my mind how much difference there is between what he lists there and what (or how much) he believes is true beyond that. This does not have anything to do with the testability of what he has proposed; I am simply curious because what he stated represents a much more liberal position than I expected from him. Similarly, I think Ernie does well to point out the pitfalls that accompany ascribing omnipotence and omniscience to God. And as with other statements of liberal Christianity, once we have stripped it down so far, I wonder if there is enough left to be worth believing, as opposed simply to studying.

    But the main point, I guess, was to look at a set of propositions that Ernie believes can be supported emperically:

    a. There is a God -- that is, a source of information, power, and will external to the physical universe

    b. That this God has revealed Himself in numerous ways to numerous people (not necessarily just Judeo-Christians), providing insights, leadership, and occasionally miracles beyond those accessible to mortal men

    c. That communities which respond to these revelations by 'worship' (submission) live healthier, happier, and holier lives that those who denigrate or deny such revelations -- in proportion to the character of the God they worship

    d. That the revelation of truth contained in the person and actions of Jesus Christ is vastly superior to anything claimed by any individual before or since; and that to create a Jesus myth would require wisdom equal to (or greater) than that ascribed to Jesus himself

    e. That Jesus himself, whatever may have been added by legend, explicitly characterized himself as a representative of the above-mentioned external God

    f. That *someone* and *something* -very unusual- happened in the first century AD that gave birth to the Christian movement, in a way that allows enormous diversity yet amazing continuity across both space and time.
    I have some of questions and concerns about these as potentially falsifiable statements.

    With regard to (a), this seems to imply a non-physical reality to which we are (somehow) connected. Do we have any empirical evidence that such a non-physical reality exists? What tests can we perform that could prove that it does not exist? If we have no possibility of disproving its existence, then we cannot know it to be true in even the scientific sense (which is a tentative kind of knowledge anyway). Also, how can we show that there is only one god? Why not more than one?

    Similarly, for (b), I do not understand how we are going to establish that the god proposed in (a) has revealed himself in numerous ways to numerous people. How can we distinguish insights and leadership from this God from purely natural insights and leadership? The subject of miracles is a bit bigger. I will have to come back to that.

    In (c) we have some possibilities. For instance, many kinds of health can be measured more or less objectively. Happiness is a bit more subjective, and I think we will have trouble establishing a measure of that for communities throughout history. As for "holier", I am a bit worried on this one, because I think you could say that anybody that was not holy was not responding to the revelations, so that it is a bit circular.

    I have another criticism of (c). People's beliefs can and usually do affect their lives, even when the belief itself is false. So when you say that "communities that respond to these revelations" have certain characteristics, you need to recognize and account for the effects of the beliefs. I would not find it particularly surprising if communities that generally hold to various religious beliefs would treat each other better or worse according to what they believe. I am concerned about how much we can infer about the truth of their beliefs on that basis.

    (I suppose some people might say that if the beliefs produce social good, maybe we shouldn't worry so much about whether what they believe is true. Unfortunately, religion has also been the vehicle for a tremendous amount of evil in the world, even when the religion supposedly advocates better things. Also, beliefs only produce those good effects when they are actually believed. I, at least, cannot pretend to believe simply in order to get the benefits of belief, such as they are. Finally, I think it very likely that there are better results possible based on things that are true, when that can be known.)

    In (d), Ernie refers to the "revelation of truth contained in the person and actions of Jesus Christ" and claims that this revelation is superior to anything claimed before or since by anyone else. I am unsure whether Ernie intends this to be superiority in quality (so that the revelation most closely matches some ultimate truth) or superiority in quantity (there were more true things revealed through Jesus than anybody else) or superiority in importance (there were more important true things revealed through Jesus), or perhaps something else entirely. For any of the possibilities I have listed, I wonder how we will determine this superiority without knowing "the truth" that is to be the standard for measurement.

    With regard to (e), I do not expect to much controversy about whether Jesus characterized himself as some kind of representative of God. I know there are many people who would argue that divinity was not something that he claimed for himself. (Note that we do not have anything written by Jesus himself. We have only words that others claim were said by Jesus. I do not want to get into all of that here, but just wanted to point out why people might argue that Jesus did not claim divinity for himself even though it might seem that way from the gospels.) I would note that many other people have characterized themselves as various kinds of representatives of God, and some of them were not very nice people. So I do not really understand how this proposition gets us anywhere.

    Finally (and I apologize for the length of all of this, but Ernie started it :-), in (f) we are looking at the emergence of Christianity itself, something that was "very unusual". Some unusual things do happen. Many do not. We cannot place too much emphasis on the one unusual event that did happen. I could just as easily characterize the birth and growth of Mormonism as very unusual. The implication seems to be (but maybe I am misunderstanding Ernie's point) that the emergence of Christianity was so unusual that one could not reasonably explain it without appealing to a supernatural cause. But I do not find anything that unusual about it. Many religions have "lived" and "died", some bigger, some smaller, some lasting longer, some less so.

    (I confess I do not understand what Ernie meant when he said "in a way that allows enormous diversity yet amazing continuity across both time and space". Can you help me out on that one, Ernie?)

    Overall, I wonder if I am missing Ernie's point a bit, because I do not see most of his propositions as very testable, and the others have (to me) questionable significance. I also dispute Ernie's statement that
    ... each of these propositions is more consistent with the available evidence than its contradiction, i.e. at least "relatively true.", and that they all support each other. In other words, if you can at least believe either "f" or "a", you ought to be able to infer the rest without difficulty.
    I especially fail to see that there is a logical chain of inference in either direction, let alone both directions. To me, saying that you can infer the rest from either (a) or (f) means that once you have established the truth of one of those, that the other must necessarily be true. Put another way, (a) would be a sufficient cause for (b), and (b) would be sufficient for (c), and so on. The way it looks to me, (a) is necessary but not sufficient for (b), (b) is necessary but not sufficient for (c), and (b) is also necessary but not sufficient for (d). (d), (e) and (f) and perhaps others seem to be leading to some other as-yet unstated conclusion.

    What am I missing or misunderstanding?

    An Editorial Aside

    Just a quick note: I was talking to my wife about what I have written so far, and she said my writing sounded sarcastic. I think that was occasionally true. I just edited the posts I already made to remove the most offensive parts. There are some things left that could be improved, but that would take more time than I have right now. I apologize for that, and I'll try to keep that tone from creeping in in the future.

    I also fixed some typos.

    Monday, October 31, 2005

    Testable Propositions

    My old friend Ernie was kind enough to weigh in with some comments on my last post, and I would like to respond in a little more detail to something he said:

    "While I find the Bible generally useful in an 'illustrative' way, I've become more concerned about finding 'testable propositions' that I can validate empirically, vs. attacking (or defending) historical accuracy."
    I definitely appreciate the importance of testable propositions. As I struggled to figure out whether I believed what Christianity teaches, one issue that came up is really the whole question of how we know anything, or why we should believe something. The scientific method, with its demand that explanations must be falsifiable (testable), has been the foundation for remarkable progress in science. There seems to be very little comparable to that in Judeo-Christian theology; I offer the vast (and increasing) diversity of Christian theologies as evidence that Christians do not generally have a method of deciding what is false.

    At one point I concluded that there are truths about the world that cannot be proven, and further that this was the place for faith. It struck me as a significant insight at the time, and it protected my faith for a time. But I think now that there are at least two problems with that, or rather one problem and one limitation.The problem is that there are any number of unprovable truths that one could choose to believe. How do you decide among them? What are the consequences of the beliefs? That depends on what is true; the consequences are no more knowable than the truth of the beliefs themselves. We see this diversity of beliefs throughout history and it continues today.

    The limitation is that, while there may be true things that cannot be proven, not everything can be true. There are some things that can be proven false. So when we examine our beliefs, while we may not be able to prove them right, we can seek to prove them wrong.

    Additionally, when we do choose to believe something, we need to reserve some skepticism, and the amount of skepticism should correspond with how little evidence we have for those beliefs. Christianity, on the other hand, specifically encourages belief in the absence of evidence: "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." (Hebrews 11:1) Talk about confirmation bias! This is a recipe for believing untruth.

    I do need to get back to Ernie's statement. He contrasted empirically testable propositions with attacking (and defending) historical accuracy. I am a bit confused by this because I think that historical accuracy is a testable proposition. Surely there is uncertainty, and history is not repeatedly testable in the same way that many science experiments can be replicated. But historians do consider not only what was recorded earlier, but also the biases of those reporting the events, the physical evidence that corroborates or conflicts with those reports, later better-understood events that would depend on earlier events, and so on. We can conclude, in some cases, that some particular account is very likely ahistorical.

    It's getting late, and I am losing focus a bit. Did any of that help? And Ernie (or anybody else), I would be curious what kind of empirically verifiable, testable propositions you have in mind.

    Sunday, October 30, 2005

    Solomon's Temple

    Let us consider the building of Solomon's temple. This is described both in I Kings and in I and II Chronicles. Both state the dimensions of the temple as 60 cubits long, 20 cubits wide and 30 cubits high. A cubit is 17.5 inches, or about 0.45 meter. So, all told, the temple occupied 36,000 cubic cubits (say that three times fast) or 3280 cubic meters. I Chronicles 22:14 says that David prepared a hundred thousand talents of gold and a million talents of silver, plus so much bronze and iron that it could not be weighed, plus timber and stone. A talent is about 75 lbs, or 34.5 kg, so we have 3,450,000 kg of gold and 34,500,000 kg of silver.

    That is quite a bit of gold and silver. Let's get a better idea of how much that is. Gold has a density of 19.3 g/cc and silver has a density of 10.5 g/cc. To convert to kilograms per cubic meter, we have to multiple by 1000 (since there are 1,000,000 cc per cubic meter, and 1000 g per kg). So, we have 19,300 kg/m3 for gold and 10,500 kg/m3 for silver. So if we divide the weights by the densities, we get volumes of gold and silver, specifically 179 m3 of gold and 3286 m3 of silver. That's a total of 3465 cubic meters of gold and silver. The whole temple was only 3280 cubic meters. And remember that there was bronze and iron beyond measure. If 34,500,000 kg of silver was not beyond measure, the amount of bronze and iron must have been at least that much again. Iron is less dense even then silver, at 7874 kg/m3 and bronze is only slightly denser at 8300 kg/m3, so we can at least double the volume required for the metals.

    But Solomon didn't stop there. There was also stone and wood. I Kings 5:14 says that Solomon rotated three groups of 10,000 people, one group per month, to bring wood back from Lebanon. If each person brought back only 100 lbs of wood per month, that would be one million pounds (455,000 kg) of wood coming every month. I cannot find a place where it says how long this went on, although I Kings 5:11 does say that Solomon gave wheat and oil as payment "year by year." Wood is (of course) less dense even than water. The value I found for Western Red Cedar is 0.35 g/cc, or 350 kg/m3, about one thirtieth the density of silver. So, as a very rough first approximation, we have half as much volume of wood coming in every month as there was silver in total, so that fills in another temple's worth of volume every two months. Even with the inevitable waste during the construction process, that is a lot of wood!

    And then there were the 80,000 stone hewers and the 70,000 transporters bringing in rock. Stone is probably harder to quarry than trees are to cut, but there fifteen times as many people working on that.

    One possible way to escape this dilemma is to note that Solomon was also building a palace for himself. But I Kings 7:2 says his palace was only 100 cubits by 50 cubits by 30 cubits, or 150,000 cubic cubits, about four times the volume of the temple itself. With the precious metals we filled one temple, with bronze and iron at least one more, with wood a minimum of 1.5 more (three months of wood at two months per temple equivalent), plus the stone. And all of the gold and silver was explicitly set aside for the temple, not the palace.

    But perhaps there is another explanation. Maybe the Bible is not an accurate record of what really happened. Maybe somebody wanted people to think that Israel had been something more than it was.

    What do you think?

    Matthew, Part III

    This is the last of a three-part look at the Book of Matthew. Here I will look at some curious features of Matthew's account of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. The four gospels each include versions of these events, and the versions are not entirely consistent. But of particular interest here are a number of events that are included only by Matthew.

    Matthew includes in his account, not one but two earthquakes, one when Jesus died and one on Sunday morning when the angel rolled the stone away from the tomb. Earthquakes and eclipses and other such natural phenomena were widely regarded as signs or portents in those days, and it is unusual that none of the other gospel writers thought to mention such significant events. In fact, there were Roman scholars of that time period (e.g., Pliny the Elder and Seneca the Younger) that collected reports of such events. No earthquakes at all, let alone two so close together or associated with an unnatural three hour darkness were reported by anybody else in any of years that Jesus is thought to have died.

    Matthew states as well that as a result of the first earthquake tombs were opened in Jerusalem and the bodies of dead saints were raised, entering the city and appearing to many people. This is another magnificent event that somehow escaped the notice of everybody but Matthew. None of the other gospel writers mention it. No contemporary or near contemporary historians like Josephus mention it. This would be a tremendous sign, but nobody else even hints of its occurrence. Like the supposed fulfillments of prophecy, it appears instead to be a fabrication.

    The next curious set of events relate to the chief priests. Again it is only Matthew who records the meeting of priests and Pharisees with Pilate, who authorizes them to place a guard at the tomb. Some people, notably Josh McDowell, make a big deal about how the Roman soldiers were such disciplined, quality soldiers that would not have fallen asleep, and so on, but note that in Matthew 27:65 Pilate says "You have a guard, go and make it as secure as you know how." The guard, if there was one at all, was a temple guard, not soldiers from the Roman legions.

    But I don't think there really was a guard. I think that fragment of the story is there to prepare for a later fragment, found in Matthew 28:11-15. There, Matthew claims that the guards return to the chief priests to tell them what happened, and the chief priests bribe them to say that the disciples came in the night and stole Jesus' body while the guards were sleeping. And Matthew concludes this little scene with the comment: "... and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day."

    So there were stories going around that the disciples stole the body. You can imagine the dialog going something like this:

    "Jesus rose from the dead."

    "No he didn't - the disciples stole his body."

    "They couldn't steal his body. See, the priests expected the disciples would steal the body, so they posted a guard."

    "Well, yeah, I've heard that, but the guards could have fallen asleep. In fact, some people say the guards told people later they did fall asleep."

    "Yeah, but what you don't know was that there was this secret meeting between the chief priests and the guards where the priests bribed the guards to say that."

    How was it exactly that Matthew knew about this secret meeting? I hardly think the priests invited him. No, Matthew's purpose here is to try and defuse some of the rumors then in circulation by inventing an explanation.

    Is it possible that there really were two earthquakes, and a supernatural darkness, and zombies, and bribed guards, and that nobody else mentioned them (except for the darkness mentioned by other gospel writers), and that Matthew (or whoever it was that wrote the Book of Matthew) learned of a secret meeting? Yes, it is possible. But the more likely answer is that these things were not reported by anybody else because they never happened. Matthew has already demonstrated a willingness to exaggerate and fabricate, and these are just more of the same.

    Let me return to my thesis: If God is going to punish people eternally for unbelief, then reasonable disbelief should not be possible. While I don't pretend to have absolutely proven the falsehood of significant elements of Matthew, I do claim that the weight of evidence is against Matthew, and that disbelief is therefore entirely reasonable.

    Matthew, Part II

    The fulfillment of messianic prophecy in Jesus is sometimes advanced as strong evidence of his divinity. People have "calculated" the odds that a single man would fulfill all of these prophecies by chance alone, and of course their calculations show that it it ridiculously improbable, so Jesus must be God, etc. I am not going to critique those calculations today. I am going to examine some of the so-called prophecies that are included in Matthew. (And I'll speak of the author of the book of Matthew as Matthew, for simplicity, even though I don't think he wrote it.)

    The first fulfillment of prophecy found in Matthew can be found in chapter 1, verses 22-23. These verses reference Isaiah 7:14: "Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel". Take a look at the original passage. Start at the beginning of chapter 7 and read through 8:4. Pay special attention starting at 7:10. The nation of Judah is in trouble, and God tells Ahaz, the king, that everything will turn out fine. He tells Ahaz to ask for a sign that this is true. Ahaz refuses to ask, but God does it anyway: he says in verse 14 the words quoted above. Note that the context for this prophecy are intended for a specific place and time, and that they have nothing to do with a messiah. The son that is born is not in any way a savior, be it political, spiritual, military or anything else; he is merely the sign. And this prophecy is fulfilled in 8:3, though hardly miraculously, since Isaiah himself "approached" the prophetess so that she conceived and gave birth to a son. I should also say here that the word has been translated "virgin" does not really mean anything more than young woman. Certainly in the case of the prophetess that Isaiah "approached" it did not mean "virgin". To claim that Jesus fulfills a prophecy that was clearly not a messianic prophecy is dishonest.

    In Matthew 2:5-6, the Matthew misquotes Micah 5:2. Matthew say "And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, ... out of you shall come forth a ruler...". The original text in Micah says "But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah... from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel." The difference being that the original text references a clan. Bethlehem was an Old Testament character, a descendent of a woman named Ephrathah, the second wife of Caleb. While not a certainty, it seems more likely that the town of Bethlehem was not intended here.

    In Matthew 2:16, Matthew claims that Herod had all the male children two years and younger slain in and around Bethlehem. In verses 17-18 he references Jeremiah 31:15: "A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more. But again, look at the context in Jeremiah 31. Jeremiah is talking about Jews being taken into captivity. In verse 16 (immediately following the quoted "prophecy") it says "... and they [the children] shall return from the land of the enemy". This is not a prophecy about the messiah, and it does not describe the slaughter of children. The "fulfillment" found in Matthew is non-sensical: the event it describes does not fulfill the prophecy at all.

    There are a couple of additional reasons to find this fulfillment suspect. This is the only reference to such an event ever occurring. Nowhere else is it mentioned in the Bible, and neither do any contemporary secular writers describe it, despite describing less atrocious acts by Herod. So it appears that Matthew made up the event in order to have a fulfillment to a prophecy that did not apply anyway. Why would he make up a story like that? That kind of story was, in fact, associated with many other mythological figures. Farrell Till writes

    To say that history is silent about Herod's massacre of the innocents is not to say that the story is at all unusual. Parallel versions of it are so common in the folklore of ancient societies that mythologists have even assigned a name to the story and call it the dangerous-child myth. Space won't allow a review of all these myths, but the Hindu version is worth looking at, because it is strikingly parallel to Matthew's story. According to Hindu literature, Krishna, the eighth incarnation of the god Vishnu, was born to the virgin Devaki in fulfillment of prophecy and was visited by wise men who had been guided to him by a star. Angels also announced the birth to herdsmen in the nearby countryside. When King Kansa heard about the miraculous birth of this child, he sent men to "kill all the infants in the neighboring places," but a "heavenly voice" whispered to the foster father of Krishna (who, incidentally, was a carpenter) and warned him to take the child and flee across the Jumna river.
    Matthew 2:23 says that Jesus came with his familty to live in Nazareth, and that this was to fulfill the prophecy which stated "He shall be called a Nazarene." Now the interesting thing is that there is no prophecy stating that he would be called a Nazarene. There is Judges 13:5 which describes Samson being a Nazarite, but a Nazarite is not somebody from Nazareth, which did not even exist at the time of Samson. The words Nazareth or Nazarene don't occur in the Old Testament. (Archeologic evidence suggests that even at the time of Christ it was only a tiny village.) One more "fulfilled prophecy" that turns out not to be anything of the sort.

    Finally, Matthew 27:9-10 claims that Jeremiah prophesied about the thirty pieces of silver being used to buy the potter's field. It wasn't actually Jeremiah that said that. It was Zechariah. And even then, the actual text in Zechariah 11:12-13 does not really match Matthew's rendering, either in words or meaning. Worse yet, only Matthew even mentions the thirty pieces of silver. So again we have what appears to be a not a fulfillment, but a fabrication, and not really a very good one.

    To summarize, in order to support Jesus being the Messiah, Matthew claims that he fulfills a number of Old Testament prophecies, but these claims are weak and speak more of Matthew's dishonesty than anything else. Yesterday we saw Matthew improving Jesus' miracles. Today we saw Matthew fabricating prophetic fulfillments. Next we will examine Matthew's account of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.

    For further reading about biblical prophecies, here are a few web pages to consider: Prophecies: Imaginary and Unfulfilled, The Fabulous Prophecies of the Messiah and Prophecy Fulfillment: An Unprovable Claim.

    Saturday, October 29, 2005

    Matthew, Part I

    I ended the last post with some questions about the Bible. Now I would like to begin to give some answers. As you read this post and the ones that follow, remember my claim that in order to justify eternal punishment for disbelief, there should be no cause for reasonable disbelief. I intend to demonstrate that there are in fact very good reasons to doubt the authenticity and authority of the Bible as a book of divine origins.

    The Gospel of Matthew is where I would like to start. Perhaps later I will address some of the reasons that the authorship of this book and others is in doubt and what implications that has. For now, I want simply to look at features of the text itself.

    Matthew is one of the synoptic gospels, along with Mark and Luke. They are called synoptic because they have a substantial amount of parallel content, often told using the same or very similar words. Most scholars believe that Mark was the first one written, and Matthew and Luke were based on Mark as well (possibly) on a now lost document termed "Q". Mark is the shortest of the three; the others add details that Mark lacks, including the story of Jesus' birth as well as details that follow Jesus' supposed resurrection.

    Today I would like to examine some differences between Matthew and Mark. Although the harmony of the gospels is usually stressed by Christians, there are differences among the accounts, and I had long been a bit uncomfortable with how those differences mesh with the idea of divinely inspired, inerrant scripture. It is all well and good to say that the differences lie in the authors' humanity and imperfect recollections, but as soon as you open that door, how do you know which statements have divine authority and which ones are merely "close" because of the role of the fallible human authors. I think that is a real problem.

    But the specific differences I will address here relate to the accounts of miracles that are present in both Matthew and Mark. If the accounts are entirely and perfectly true, these accounts should not be incompatible. If they are not completely compatible simply because of the influence of fallible human authorship, then I propose that the differences should be of a nature that reflects honest, "disinterested" failed recollection. But that is not what we will find.

    Consider the Gadarene demoniac. Or was it demoniacs? Mark 5:1-20 says there was a single demoniac. Matthew 8:28-34 says there were two.

    How about the raising of Jairus's daughter in Matthew 9:18-19, 23-26 and Mark 5:22-24, 35-43. In Mark's account, Jairus comes to Jesus and tells him that his daughter is at the point of death (but not dead yet). Later, while Jesus is on his way there, someone comes to tell him that the daughter has died and he shouldn't bother to come anymore. In Matthew's account, on the other hand, Jairus comes and says that his daughter has already died, but Jesus should come and he will be able to bring her back to life.

    In Mark 6:45-52, Jesus walks on water. When Matthew tells the story, though, Jesus walking on water is not enough; Peter does it as well.

    In Mark 9:14-29, Jesus helps a demon-possessed boy. The father describes how the demon causes convulsions and foaming at the mouth and a number of other symptoms that sound pretty much like some sort of epilepsy. When Jesus tells the demon to come out, the demon throws the boy and causes some convulsions, and the boy eventually becomes "like a corpse" and the father thinks he has died. Jesus takes him by the hand, though, and he gets up. In Matthew 17:14-18, though, when Jesus rebukes the demon, the demon came out and the boy was cured at once with no reported ill effects.

    How about Bartimaeus, the blind man by the road in Jericho? Actually, only Mark names him as Bartimaeus. But then, in Mark, there is only one blind man. Matthew reports two blind men that were both healed at the same time.

    Then there is the cursing of the fig tree in Mark 11:12-14 and 20 and in Matthew 21:18-19. Never mind the logic in cursing a fig tree that wasn't bearing fruit even though it wasn't the season for figs. (Why curse a fig tree at all?) In Mark's account, Jesus curses the tree and when they pass by the following day they see that the tree has withered. Apparently, that took too long for Matthew's taste, because in his version the tree withers immediately.

    Now, those are not all of the miracles described by both Mark and Matthew, but all the other accounts are substantially in agreement. These are the only ones that appear to me to have incompatible differences. In every case, it is Matthew's account that is more miraculous. And Matthew was written later. The stories are growing over time. That is the fingerprint not of simple mis-recollection by Matthew (if he was even the author), but of legend. We will see this same kind of growth in the next two posts as we look at the fulfillment of messianic prophecies and the story of the death, burial and resurrection as reported by Matthew. Taken by themselves, the discrepancies in the miracle stories are troubling, but perhaps not fatal. When considered along with other problems with Matthew, serious doubts about the honesty of the author will need to be raised.

    Thursday, October 27, 2005

    Would You Believe It?

    Just about every time that I have talked to somebody about my deconversion, the place that I start is with the observation that no matter what is true, most people deeply believe things that are false. Whether Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, or whatever, the choices are pretty much mutually exclusive. They cannot all be true. Even under the umbrella of Christianity are a variety of theologies and doctrines that are incompatible. Perhaps if there were no consequences to a belief, these differences would not matter. But if there were no consequences, there would be little point in holding to any belief at all. What are the consequences of the religious beliefs that we choose to hold? The ultimate consequences will depend on which (if any) are right. In particular, if Christianity is true, the ultimate consequence of belief is eternity in heaven, and the consequence of disbelief is eternity in hell. With so much (supposedly) riding on our beliefs, we ought to do all that we can to figure out what is true.

    But how will we decide? What can we do to determine if a belief (system) is worth holding? How can we “know” anything? I am sure philosophers have gone over this ground far more completely than I have, but all I can give you is my answers.

    First, a set of beliefs should be internally consistent. It should not contradict itself. It simply makes no sense to believe contradictory statements. Of course, sometimes what appear to be contradictions may not be, so we should not be too quick to abandon our beliefs when apparent contradictions surface. But neither should we continue to hold them long after the contradictions are firmly established.

    Second, a set of beliefs should be relatively consistent with what we are able to observe with our senses, either directly or indirectly. We do need to be aware of our own imperfect ability to observe accurately, but we cannot abandon observation either. Pure logic is insufficient to discover the truth.

    Third, our commitment to beliefs ought to be consistent with the evidence supporting those beliefs. When evidence and reason is insufficient, we should delay commitment. When supporting evidence is found, strengthen commitment. When contrary evidence is found, commitment must weaken. When commitment to belief exists apart from evidence and reason, we cease to be rational, and we will very likely end up believing falsehood. (In support of this I offer as evidence the aforementioned multitude of incompatible beliefs.)

    The idea of internal consistency has a consequence that needs to be explored more fully. A belief system may be evaluated based on the interrelationship of its component beliefs without necessarily establishing the truth of any individual beliefs. We can accept the beliefs for the sake of argument and search for contradictions. If we find contradictions among the beliefs then the entire belief system (taken as a whole) cannot be valid, even if we don’t know which of the component beliefs is false. We can remove beliefs from the belief system until the contradiction disappears, but the mere presence of a contradiction does not tell us what beliefs to remove. There will always be at least two ways to remove the contradiction, and quite possibly more.

    Christianity (and especially fundamentalist or conservative Christianity) makes some pretty strong claims. This is fortunate for someone searching for inconsistency. It seems clear that stronger claims should be easier to disprove than weaker ones. If we can find an inconsistency in the stronger claims, we must remove some claims, thereby weakening the system as a whole.

    So what kind of claims or beliefs does Christianity make or entail? One of the most important has already been mentioned: that one’s belief has consequences of the most extreme nature. Eternal torture waits for those that do not choose correctly. This is not just annihilation, not an end to existence, but rather perpetual existence in a state of pain and anguish, with "wailing and gnashing of teeth." Indeed, this consequence is made necessary, we are told, by the perfectly just nature of God, who cannot abide any kind of imperfection, and who cannot be satisfied by the mere destruction of that which is imperfect, but who must rather torment it forever.

    I hope that you will consider how such an arrangement could be considered “just”. Personally, I do not believe that any beliefs held or actions undertaken by finite, mortal men can justify eternal torture. But at the very least, for such a consequence to be considered just, the standard of evidence to which this system of beliefs should be held will be very high. In other words, if there is reasonable doubt as to the veracity of Christianity, God would not be justified in imposing such stringent consequences for disbelief.

    So, if we examine what Christianity claims, particularly by examining what is written in the Bible, what do we find? Clear evidence of divine authorship? Lack of internal contradiction? Harmony with observable features of the world? Or do we find evidence of imperfect human authorship and contradictions both internally and with the world?

    Stay tuned.


    The name I chose for this blog, "Little Endian", is a computer term referring to the ordering of bytes within a larger multi-byte number. In a "little-endian" architecture, the least significant binary digits (the little end) are stored "first". But that has nothing particular to do with anything I intend to write about here. I just needed a title and "Little Endian" seemed a slightly whimsical title that ties in with my being a programmer.

    My purpose in writing here is to communicate with others (family, friends and whoever may come across it) how in the past couple years I have decided to reject Christianity and its god as untrue. This was not a quick nor painless decision. I have written two essays that cover some of the same ground that I hope to cover here, but I hope that a blog will permit a sort of monologue (and dialogue) that can continue, live and grow rather than being simply a snapshot.

    So that is my beginning. Welcome.