Saturday, May 05, 2007

Penultimate Thoughts

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief, a dialog that is drawing to a close.

I promised to Ernie that I would write up some reflections on how our dialog has proceeded over the past eighteen months. This is not it.

I have wanted to hear from Ernie more details about his views of the Bible. In our last chat, when I asked about this, Ernie compared the Bible to lab notebooks, written by people "performing real experiments on 'moral reality'" who got "the right answer" even if the standards of evidence are below today's standards. He further compared the process by which scripture was copied and transmitted to the peer review and citation processes of modern science. His claim appears to be that we therefore have comparable reasons to trust scripture as we have for trusting the results of modern science.

I do not agree.

First, when Ernie admits that the standards of evidence were below today's standards but yet claims that they got the right answer, on what basis can he say that they got the right answer? Have there been modern experiments performed according to our modern standards of evidence that verify the Bible's answers about questions of moral reality? If these experiments have not been performed, how can Ernie claim that the Bible contains the right answers? As far as I can tell, Ernie seems to be basing this claim on the success of Western civilization, despite the various problems that exist in tracing this success to the moral claims of the Bible. I am not aware of any modern experiments that would allow Ernie to claim that (according to modern standards of evidence) that the Bible contains the correct answers to questions of morality. In fact, the Bible contains moral instructions that have been discarded by modern believers. This is most clear when examining the moral laws of the Old Testament, but I believe is also true of parts of the New Testament (to varying degrees among different groups).

Second, the Bible contains more than just moral instruction. It also makes claims about the existence and nature of God, of Jesus, of heaven and hell, and so on. Does Ernie claim that these were experimentally verified? How could these experiments be reproduced today? If they cannot, the modern standards of evidence cannot be met.

Third, the process by which scripture was transmitted and eventually canonized has only a vague similarity to the peer review process in science today. Ernie says that "People made claims, others wrote them down, still others decided they were worth copying and transmitting, etc." Without knowing the standards by which such decisions were made, this becomes little more than a popularity contest. An important part of the peer review process today is evaluation of a paper against the very standards of evidence that are important to modern science. Without those standards, standards that Ernie admits were lacking for the Bible, the peer review process loses much of its force.

Now, there were some standards that were supposedly used for the eventual canonization of the New Testament: apostolic authorship, correct doctrine and widespread use. As I have written recently, modern scholarship places considerable doubt on the correct assignment of authorship to a large number of New Testament books. The standard of correct doctrine assumes that there is an independent source of correct doctrine to which the books and letters could be compared. What was that source? Is it still available today? Without knowing what this source was, and without having good reasons to trust in its accuracy, the criteria of doctrinal correctness is in great danger of reducing to question begging. Widespread usage is also problematic. Perhaps if we had good reason to believe that widespread usage was indicative of widespread truth-testing, this might hold some weight. But since some popular books were not included on the basis of doctrinal incorrectness, we have good reasons to believe that popularity was not considered to be equivalent to wide-spread truth testing. (Note too that the doctrinal issues involved often revolved around Jesus' divinity and related concepts that are not open to experimental verification.)

The similarity between the development of the Bible and modern scientific progress is terribly shallow. No matter how many smiley-faces Ernie uses while comparing them, the differences that remain are substantial and important.

As our chat progressed, I claimed that Christianity has had trouble converging. Ernie claims that Christianity is converging, but slowly. He gave as an example of "numerous hard-won convergence points that have enormously broad appeal" the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization that resulted in the Lausanne Covenant. I found this example interesting for several reasons. First, this was a meeting of evangelical Christians, so it already illustrates one of the fracture lines that divides Christians in the world today. Now, Ernie did not claim that this was an example of universal convergence, just "broad appeal", but still this is an important point. The second point of interest is that the Lausanne Covenant affirms "the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice." As far as I can tell, while this statement may have broad appeal, it contradicts Ernie's own stated views about the nature of the Bible. The Lausanne statement does not describe a lab notebook written by fallible humans; it describes authoritive, inerrant revelation.

Ernie and I also discussed Christianity, atheism and secular humanism and their roles in societies. Here there are a few things that I need to clear up. Ernie said, "So, I get the feeling that you're attacking me from both sides. Either you say it doesn't matter that Christianity works, because its false; or else you say it must not work, since its false." This accusation has some merit and I need to answer. I think Ernie's description is misleading because it is not a question of purely working or purely not working. I have tried to acknowledge that there may be some useful contributions of Christianity (so it "works" to some degree). I have also stated multiple times that false beliefs can have some beneficial effects (so again, it "works" to some degree). But I have further claimed that, because it is false (or contains false elements), it will not work as well as belief systems that exclude the false elements. It is possible that this last statement is actually incorrect. Some people have argued that such false beliefs play important roles in social cohesion. While I have to acknowledge that possibility, I also believe that we have good reasons to search for alternatives that do not involve such false beliefs.

Ernie was correct to point out that, to date, there have been no examples of persistently successful societies that lacked some sort of shared religious tradition. Recent trends in this direction, such as in Europe and Japan, are neither pure examples nor have they demonstrated long-term success. It may also be true that secular humanism by itself will prove insufficient to bind a society together. As I just stated in the last paragraph, it may even be true that certain kinds of false belief are inevitable and/or necessary. That possibility raises some interesting questions about how those who recognize the beliefs as false should proceed. But it does not make the beliefs true. Absent other considerations, I would accept societal success as evidence that the beliefs reflect some sort of truth, if perhaps only indirectly. But when we have other reasons to believe that the beliefs are false, and when we also have reasons to expect the false beliefs to have beneficial effects, societal success simply does not carry sufficient evidentiary weight. I will also point out again that societal success (that is, persistence) does not necessarily imply individual well-being.

I had hoped to draw some parallels between this particular interaction and our larger dialog in order to illustrate what I think were some of our larger issues. At this point, I need to wrap this up, so I will simply take care of that in my coming reflections on our dialog.

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