Sunday, December 14, 2014

Faith is extrapolation...

I started writing this post ages ago, following an Unbelievable show featuring Peter Boghossian and Tim McGrew. It languished in a semi-finished state for a few months. I thought I may as well finish it and post it now. Apologies if it seems half-baked. It probably is.

I'm not going to say too much about that show as it was simply annoying, Boghossian (the atheist) grinding his axe the whole time, while McGraw repeatedly pointed out that it wasn't an axe, it was something else. Or something. Anyway, the discussion was fairly pointless, as it never really got beyond a dispute about what the word 'Faith' actually means.

Boghossian asserted (without evidence) that faith really means "believing something even though it is not supported by evidence"and "pretending to know things you don't know".

McGrew pointed out that the dictionary definition was more along the lines of absolute trust, and made a few examples of faith that is basically putting your trust in something where you have no control of the outcome, but choose to trust someone or something; for example taking a parachute jump - you trust the guy who packed the parachute, with your life... you get the idea.

Anyway, I don't think that the majority of believers use the word 'faith' the way that Boghossian claims, but neither do I think that believers generally use the word the way that McGrew claims either. The truth is somewhere in the grey area in between.

So what is faith? Or rather, what is religious faith? 

I'm currently putting my faith in the chair that I'm sitting on. But that doesn't tell me much about religious faith. When I go to the dentist I put my faith in his ability to detect decay in my teeth, and occasionally have to put faith in his ability to fix the decayed bits. But that doesn't tell me much about religious faith either. One of the problems here is that we have the same word used in different contexts and there are nuances to the word that we miss if we assume it means exactly the same in all instances. It doesn't.

"Faith", without a given object of faith is not a useful concept to debate. If someone says "I have faith" or "I'm a person of faith" it means nothing without saying what it is they have faith in. Even saying "I have faith in God" doesn't help much, because to understand your meaning for that phrase, I have to understand your concept of God, or more importantly, your interpretation of what your God has apparently promised to do.

Most of the Christians I know (so we're talking about British evangelicals, for the most part) use the word faith to mean something like this:
In situations where I do not know what the outcome will be, I will act in a way consistent with my past experience and my understanding of what the biblical promises say the outcome will be.
That is, the believer essentially extrapolates from their understanding of the bible and their understanding of reality and, if exercising faith, will behave as if this extrapolation is true.

Of course, a good many Christians would omit 'past experience' and 'reality' from that if you asked them. The promises of the bible should trump experience. In theory, given enough faith, they can move mountains or walk on water - the bible explicitly says that they can do this - but experience and reality tend to temper those biblical principles, so nobody really expects mountains to fall into the sea if commanded to do so.

So its not a question of believing without evidence, its a question of deciding to take a particular course of action, when there is no evidence (or, perhaps, when the evidence is not known by the person taking the 'leap of faith').

Occasionally Christians use the word faith to mean this:
I will obey the commands of scripture, as I understand them, even though my past experience and understanding of the situation would suggest that this isn't the best course of action, from a human perspective.
This is, of course, what most Christians mean by living by faith, even if few Christians actually exercise this kind of faith regularly. Note that this version of faith doesn't claim to know anything without evidence, it just seeks to trust a promise of God more than an expectation. And even if the expected outcome happens, and the action leads to loss of respect, loss of money, or loss of something else, the Christian may still feel that it was the right thing to do because God may be at work in some hidden way.

Problems arise for the believer when evidence or experience suggests an outcome that is contrary to biblical promises and there is no divine hidden agenda apparent. I guess this is most apparent in the 'snake handling' churches in the USA. Mark 16v17-18 says:
"And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well."
So there are some minority churches who practice handling poisonous snakes as part of their church services. And you know what, most of the time, the snakes do not bite the people. And sometimes when a snake bites a person, they don't die. All of this confirms the promise of scripture. Of course, occasionally someone is bitten and they do die - does this disconfirm the promise of scripture? No. It shows that the person who died didn't have enough faith! And so the snake handling continues.

Here its easy for a person with even a vague understanding of snake behaviour, venom toxicity and probability to realise that when you do all the calculations, there's pretty good odds of survival from handling a poisonous snake. Faith doesn't need to come into it at all. I've commented on this before. For the believer, there is no negative feedback loop (here and here). Failed promises are explained away or reinterpreted. But if this happens again, and again, and again, then the honest believer will end up having to question the promises. When the evidence consistently goes against the faith, then faith will begin to erode. Of course, probabilistically speaking, faith will sometimes be validated and sometimes not. It really comes down to how often faith 'gets lucky'.

The thing is, faith works. I know plenty of folk who live 'by faith' and get by just fine. Along the way, some of them have experienced some very fortuitous situations, and their faith is boosted. But even to those who didn't get unexpected windfalls of cash at "just the right moment", living by faith seems to work. I'm just not sure that there needs to be a God behind it, sending 'good luck' at all the right moments. When you consider every fortuitous event as a blessing and every hardship as character building and a challenge, the net effect is a faith boost and a confirmation that living by faith is the right thing to do. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The package deal of faith

I seem to have heard or read a few discussions / debates / articles touching on the subject of "what is faith?" recently. Generally, atheist types claim that faith means something like "claiming to know things you don't know", while Christians tend to emphasise the role of evidence and reason in faith.

I've found myself thinking recently that 'faith' is more of a kind of package deal than most Christians (and probably most atheists too) actually realise. Christian faith (and I guess this applies to other religions too, but I'm just talking about the belief system I have been part of) contains beliefs about many different things which all seem to come lumped together into the package of faith. Some of the individual beliefs are things for which there is (or may be) evidence. But there is no evidence at all for others, those must be taken 'on faith'. What I have noticed in the various debates, etc., that I have been reading and hearing is that Christians (generally) don't seem to notice that there are different categories of belief within faith. Just because some aspects of faith can be evidence based, it doesn't follow that all aspects of faith can be evidence based.

Here is a list of ten (randomly selected) beliefs that form part of the faith of most Christians that I know (different beliefs are available within what some define as Christianity, but lets not go there just now):
  1. Jesus Christ is the Son of God
  2. Jesus was crucified and died
  3. Jesus was bodily resurrected
  4. Jesus is now (physically, in a body) in heaven
  5. Jesus is part of the everlasting Trinity
  6. Jesus was the agent through whom the universe was created
  7. Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to his followers; you can experience the indwelling of the Holy Spirit today
  8. Followers of Jesus will go to heaven after they die
  9. Those who don't follow Jesus will go to hell after they die 
  10. Jesus acts in the world today to heal people, transform lives and do other miraculous things
I would argue that most of that list is a package deal. As a teenager I was already a believer in a few of those points (by upbringing), but it was when I came to believe in 10 and 7, on the basis of evidence, that I finally decided to become a Christian. I casually accepted the rest of the package without much scrutiny, it all just came as part of a package - if 2, 3, 7 and 10 were all true then (I assumed) 1, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9 must also be true.

It was only a few decades later that I came to question individual beliefs in isolation and realised that there are no good reasons for believing most of the things that are part of Christian faith.

Looking back at that list, I now realise that, for example, item 2 is a matter of history. Given sufficient historical data it would be possible to confirm this belief. (I'm not going to get into the issue of whether or not there is sufficient data in this post.)

Item 7 is a different matter. This is something which is, or should be, testable in the present day. Experience should provide evidence to support or deny this claim. And I think there is evidence to support this claim (whether the same evidence also supports alternative beliefs is a different question, which I will address in the next post). Item 10 is much like it, although with an unseen causality chain built in. Someone's life being transformed is not necessarily evidence that the transformation was due to some action by Jesus.

But there can be no evidence to allow us to decide on the truth of claims 4, 5, 6, 8 or 9. Not just that there is no evidence, but there actually can be no evidence. These are articles of pure faith. Which have to be either accepted or rejected with no evidence. It is impossible, literally impossible, for us to know what will happen in the future. We have precisely no data on what happens to people after they die (note: Near death experiences don't count; I'll be addressing them in another post soon). You believe this as part of a package deal, or you don't. That's it. Future prophecies are unconfirmed, by their very nature, and thus don't provide evidence for anything. What happens after death must be taken entirely on faith.

What happened at the origin of all things is also something that is forever beyond our reach. There is no contemporary evidence that can prove, one way or another, whether any god was involved in the initiation of our universe, let alone give us any evidence as to which god it was. Again, belief in any creation or creator is a purely faith based position.

For the Christian, the only 'evidence' for the majority of claims made as part of the Christian faith is the words of the bible. "The bible says it, I believe it, that settles it" as the saying goes.

I'm afraid that, for me, that doesn't settle it anymore. When I came to realise that some things in the bible were outright fiction and some biblical prophecies have (demonstrably) failed to come true, I had to give up on a bible-based faith. It took a long time (best part of a decade) for me to work through the implications of that realisation. But finally the package deal fell apart and I realised that most of what I had been taught to believe was based on false premises. One by one I have had to reassess and give up on my old beliefs. I'm afraid not much is left.

So where do you go without faith? Well, onward into the unknown. What I found when I lost the certainty that comes with faith, was that the uncertainty left behind leads to all the same places. The same sun shines down, the same rain falls, just as many bad things happen, just as many good things happen, I 'get lucky' just as often, and oddly enough all this is quite comforting. There's a big unknown 'final frontier' out there. Might as well boldly go where no-one has gone before...

Sunday, November 16, 2014

2 Corinthians 11-12: Is it pure sarcasm?

In 2 Corinthians 11v24-27 Paul gives a very potted autobiography of his life (NASB):
"Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure." 
I have never heard anyone suggest that these verses are anything other than Paul giving brief but true account of his missionary life. Well, I had never heard anyone suggest otherwise until I read "Profit with Delight" a few weeks ago (see my previous post). In an offhand comment in that book, Richard Pervo asserts that Paul was talking sarcastically here and giving an extremely exaggerated, if not entirely fictitious autobiography here. Pervo implies that the author of Acts took these comments as true and based several incidents in Acts on these comments, but that Paul did not intend these to be taken seriously.

On re-reading the passage in 2 Corinthians 11 and 12, I think I see what Pervo is getting at and I'm amazed that I've never seen this before or heard or read anyone discussing this issue before. Let's think about the context.

Paul is comparing and contrasting himself to the "super apostles" (NIV) or "most eminent apostles" (NASB) or "great apostles" (NCV). From context it is clear that various stories about these 'super' apostles are circulating and some of the stories make the apostles out to be more than mere men. They are portrayed as super-heroes, doing amazing deeds and enduring amazing persecutions, etc. Reading between the lines here it is also apparent that no such stories are circulating about Paul, so he comes out of all the gossip looking like an inferior apostle. What he says in these chapters is to set the record straight and put himself on an equal footing with these "super apostles" - if he can't bring them down to his level (reality) he's going to need to boost himself up to their level!

Look at the language he uses:
"I wish that you would bear with me in a little foolishness; but indeed you are bearing with me." 
2 Cor 11v1 - he starts out here admitting that his readers will have to bear with him while he indulges in "a little foolishness". What foolishness? Well in the verses that follow he starts boasting about all he has done for the Corinthian Church. He boasts about how he was not a burden and how he is not inferior to the super apostles. The foolishness is the boasting. There is nothing amazing in here, all this reads like fairly reasonable and unremarkable events are being described. He lives, works and preaches. Nothing much to boast about, but he has dropped humility and considers this foolishness.

In the midst of all this foolish boasting he says a few very cutting things about the super apostles - that they are false apostles, deceitful workers and servants of Satan (2 Cor 11v13-15).

So when Paul is talking foolishly, he does normal things that he boasts about and the super apostles are knocked off their pedestals.

But he doesn't stop there... he goes beyond foolishness and into the realms of the "insane"  (2 Cor 11v23). It is in the context of speaking as one who is insane that he gives the biography that includes beatings, floggings, shipwrecks, starvation, etc. In other words, Paul himself says that only an insane person would claim that all these things happened to him! In other words, Paul is saying these things did not happen to him. He is fabricating a super-biography to make stories about himself equal to the stories about the super-apostles. But these are the words of someone who is insane, and by implication he is saying that these things did not happen to any of the super apostles either.

Wait a minute! The implications of this are that 2 Corinthians shows that the amazing stories about Paul in Acts are complete fiction! Scripture is disproving scripture!

But Paul doesn't stop there... he drops back from insanity into boasting and recounts the story of when he was lowered in a basket over the city walls in Damascus (2 Cor 11v32-33). So maybe this is the only 'amazing' story in this biography which is not insane - maybe the rest was made up, but this was true? Maybe.

But having said this, he doesn't stop there... he "goes on" (beyond boasting?) to "visions and revelations of the Lord." Are these mere boasting or are we back in the realms of insanity again? Is the famous vision of the "third heaven" (2 Cor 12v1-6) boasting or insanity talking? We can't tell. And given that, given the context, we must consider this claim of a vision to be suspect. Maybe Paul is saying that this kind of vision is the sort of thing claimed about the super apostles. Maybe not.

Putting the stories of Acts to one side for a moment, and merely considering the passage in 2 Corinthians, it seems reasonable, if not entirely likely, that the 'insane' passage is not biographical, and that any stories like this which are told about Paul or any other apostle, must be considered to be exaggerated gossip, at best, or pure fiction, at worst. So any such stories we read (such as Acts, and the various non-canonical apocryphal Acts books) must be considered with a pinch of salt.

When Paul boasts, he boasts in the mundane. Clearly his own biography actually was mundane, characterised by ordinary preaching and teaching, without miracles, signs and wonders. Everything else is was made up by his biographers to make him into a 'Super Apostle'...

Thursday, November 06, 2014

The book of Acts: historically accurate or literary fiction?

I've just read the book 'Profit with Delight' by Richard I. Pervo. Not the greatest surname I've ever come across, but the guy certainly seems to know the book of Acts inside out and upside down. I think this book (written in the mid 80s) is basically a rehash of his PhD thesis (from Harvard, no less). Nothing wrong with that, of course. I've always meant to turn my PhD thesis into a book...

So what is his thesis? Well, his central thesis is that the book of Acts should be considered as a novel, not as a historical record. Yes, it may contain history, but it also contains fictional episodes and events which were written purely to entertain, and which have no basis in what actually happened.

The structure of the book is rather odd, at least I found it so. After a short introductory chapter, the author goes through the book of Acts in exhaustive detail, listing and discussing every story in the book which he thinks show signs of having been invented purely to entertain. In Chapter 2 he discusses all the scenes invented (according to his theory) to make the book an adventure story, in Chapter 3 he discusses the other entertaining features, such as the funny stories. Then, and only after he has discussed the above in detail for over half the book, does he address the question of what a novel actually is, in the context of the 1st and 2nd century setting. It would have made more sense to me to put this first and then ask "does Acts conform to this genre?" rather than start with the presumption that it does, and then answer the question towards the end of the book. Chapter 5 is a discussion of various novels from the period, including Acts, and then the book concludes.

My issue with the book is not the central thesis of the book. Pervo does a great job in Chapters 2 and 3 in convincing me, the reader, that many stories in Acts are inventions of the author (assumed throughout to be 'Luke'). No, my main issue with the book is the thing it assumes but never demonstrates, which is stated in these two quotes:
"Although clearly a theological book and a presentation of history, Acts also seeks to entertain." (p 86)
and
"My thesis is that the canonical Acts are best explained as an example of one type of historical novel. [...] I hope that it is now clear that relating Acts to ancient novels is hardly a means for writing the book off for being fiction, least of all, pure fiction." (p 122)
Pervo insists on several occasions that Acts is a book of history, containing historical details from pre-Lukan sources, and although it contains fiction, it isn't all fiction. But how does he know this? He gives no evidence. He presents no method for distinguishing the fact from the fiction.

I have to admit that the first of those quotes, which comes at the start of Chapter 4, caught me totally off guard. Having read all the discussion of the episodes which Pervo says are clearly fiction, I had assumed he was coming to the conclusion that this book is a work of pure fiction. But he denies this, with no justification.

Its similar to the assumptions I have noticed in the work of Bart Ehrman and others regarding the gospels. They view some of the gospel stories as clearly fiction (usually the miracles or other 'impossible' stories) but then assume the non miraculous stories contain kernels of history. Why?

If a work of writing clearly contains fiction and fabrication in numerous places, how can we assume that the other bits are in any way reliable? What if Luke simply made the whole thing up? How can we distinguish between a book that is 50% fiction and 50% fact, from one that is 75% fiction and only 25% fact, from one that is 100% fiction? Pervo doesn't give us this method. Neither, as far as I have seen or read, does Ehrman. They just both assume there is some truth in there.

But we know that Peter and Paul, etc., were real historical people, don't we? And so a story told about them, even if heavily embellished, must contain some truth, mustn't it? Well, no. And Pervo seems to know this. Regarding Jewish novels he notes that:
"Jewish novelists did not invent their characters. They elaborated figures and events from myth, legend, Scripture and history." (p 120)
The novels he's talking about here are pure fiction. But in a historical setting with historical characters as the main characters in them. Why can't Acts be one of these? No reason given.

So Pervo comes away from this study content to believe that Acts is an embellished history book, but I'm afraid that I come away from this study thinking that most, if not all, of Acts is not history.

What is a 1st or 2nd century historical novel? Well, its a story that generally contains themes of adventure, travel, sea voyages, companionship, persecution, apparent death (which the hero then recovers from), and so on, generally with religious or magical themes and overtones of love and sex. Hmm, apart from possibly the sex angle, Acts has all of that in bucket-loads. But if the sea voyages, travel, persecution, etc. were all just invented out of genre convention - apparently this was what 1st and 2nd century readers wanted in their books - then we know virtually nothing about what Paul or Peter, etc. actually did. Paul may throw us a few hints in his letters (but see the next post I am writing!) but they're not really enough to build a biography on.

Hmmm, yet another part of my once strong faith comes crumbling down. Which is either very sad, or about time too, depending on your viewpoint.

If anyone out there knows of any defence of the historicity of Acts, please point me in that direction. Even better, if anyone can offer a reliable means of detecting historical facts in stories containing fictional elements, I'd love to read about those! 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Conversion and deconversion

Despite the fact that numerous conversations, events and internal ponderings all contributed in some way to it, I can pinpoint a specific time and place when I made the transition from not being a Christian into being a Christian. It was on a train (somewhere near Falkirk), on a specific Saturday evening in October 1988 (26 years ago! Eeek!). That was the moment of decision. That was when I made the transition from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. That was when I made my decision. That was when I was 'born again'. That was when I was saved. That was when I converted. That was, as far as I was concerned, when I became a Christian.

And it rather narked me for several years afterwards when I had conversations with Christians of more liberal leanings than I was who would make comments to the effect that I was 'on the right track' or 'on the journey of faith' or whatever, before that time.

As time went on I began to soften my views a bit and came to realise that the process was important - the process that began a long time before 'conversion' and continued to play out for a long time after it. (See this blog post from 2007 to see where I was in terms of thinking about this back then.) The 'moment' of conversion was one step on a journey or one rung on a ladder, but there were many steps before it and many steps after it.

So while once upon a time 'conversion' was pivotal in my spiritual journey, over the years its influence has diminished, I think.

Why am I raising this issue now?

Well, I'm wondering if there is an equivalent pivotal point on the path of deconversion? Once again it is a journey of many steps or a ladder with many rungs, but is any one of them the definitive transition point where you go from being a 'born again' believer, to a 'dead again' non-believer? If there is such a step, how do you know when you take it?

Basically I'm trying to work out if I have 'deconverted' yet. (In another blog post back in 2007, I addressed this question and concluded at the time that I hadn't deconverted.) I'm not so sure now.

Two weeks ago in church I took communion - should I still be doing this? Am I still part of that 'community' body? As far as I am concerned, I have never stopped following Christ and his teachings, but I have come to doubt the authenticity of those teachings and the historicity of the man who allegedly said them. I suppose Romans 10v9 is clear on this one: 'if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved' - well, its a while since I actually believed that in my heart and I haven't been confessing that either for a few years, so by that token I am not 'saved'. But saved from what? The need for salvation is one of the many things I doubt.

There has been no 'Damascus Road' experience on the way back. No moment of decision not to follow. So there has been no moment of deconversion. I don't think my heart has changed. I do think my beliefs have changed. That's all down to evidence and understanding. You can't make yourself believe something that goes against the evidence. Your beliefs have to follow behind what you know.

A year or two ago I had the shocking realisation that if I had known back in 1988 what I know now, I would never have made the decision to become a Christian in the first place. I now know too much to make the decision that I made back then, because the decision I made back then was a (relatively) naive one, based on few facts and a lot of claims that I now have good reasons to doubt.

Given that, I think I probably have deconverted somewhere along the way, even if I can't pinpoint the place and time. I am no longer a Christian (except in the most liberal definition of the word, and I've never chosen to be a liberal Christian!). So what am I? I really would quite like to still be a Christian, because I really would quite like it all to be true. Then again, I really would quite like to discover a doorway to Narnia in the back of my wardrobe too. What I want has no bearing on what is true, or even on what I believe to be true.

My Facebook profile says I am a 'Christian Humanist' (whatever that means) and I have certainly never decided to become an 'atheist' at any point. I don't need to 'come out' as an atheist. But as to what I am? I guess your opinion will be different from mine, but I'm OK with that.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Is this the sort of a universe that looks like it was designed by a God?

Just listened to last Saturday's Unbelievable show. It was a debate between 'young apologist' Calum Miller and 'humanist community leader' James Croft on the subject of "Is our universe more likely on atheism than theism?". I think, by any standard of marking debates, that Croft won on this occasion as he more than adequately took apart every one of Miller's arguments and offered strong alternative views that Miller was unable to rebut.

I've listened to debates and arguments on this theme before and I have always found them unsatisfying. The problem is generally that both sides seem to have a concept of 'what the universe would look like' if the other person's view was correct, and that concept doesn't match with what they see in reality, so therefore it can't be right. (I have to say that Croft wasn't using this kind of reasoning here, but Miller clearly was.)

The thing is, we have no way of knowing what a universe other than the one we are in would look like. Either this universe was created by a god, or it wasn't. The probability is either 1 or 0.

Suppose, for a moment, that there is no creator god. This universe is therefore the product of naturalistic processes. So the universe as we observe it is what a naturalistic universe looks like. Now at some point in time inside this naturalistic universe, someone conceived the notion of a god. What would the inventor of the god concept make their god like? Well, they'd make that god concept more or less compatible with their concept of the world. In other words, the god concept would be developed to fit with the observed world. In this supposed universe, a god believer asking whether or not the universe looks likely given the existence of a god would almost inevitably come to the conclusion that it is likely - because their god concept meshes so well with their experience and philosophy of the universe. But remember, all this is under the supposition of no god. In this reality, there is no god, but it just seems like there is good reason to believe in one. But it is because god was honed to fit reality, not that god honed reality.

The opposite works too. Suppose, for a moment, that there is a creator god. The universe is the product of design. Yet in this framework, someone devises a system of scientific method which is consistent in its handling of reality without the need for a god concept. Does that mean there is no god? No. The atheistic scientific method is a product of the created order, so of course it is fully consistent with it. And so on.

The problem with this is that, therefore, no observation of the universe can help us to decide either way on the god question. Either hypothesis is equally likely given any observation.

Unless God reveals himself in some obvious way, of course.


And another thing that niggled me about this debate, once again, was somebody with no training in probability trying to use it as part of their argument. Calum Miller is a medical student with an amateur interest in philosophy and apologetics. He clearly doesn't understand probability and inference adequately...

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Starting point?

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step..."

Lao Tzu
Famous, wise words. But not entirely true, because before the first step you've done something else, which influenced (at least in part) the first step. And before that you did something else, which in some way influenced your choices, and so on, back and back. The first step is never really the first step. You may think you're taking the first step onto a new venture or a new journey, but all the stuff that has gone before has influenced your reasoning, your choices and your actions.

I've been thinking recently about starting points. For me, in my life and worldview, the starting point was a basic belief that the Bible was, in some way, the Word of God. From before I can remember I was taught bible stories, and more than that, I was taught that these stories were true, Beyond that, I was taught that these stories were important. That appeared to be the starting point for me. The bible is the foundation upon which every other bit of belief (at least, every other bit of belief relating to eternal metaphysical realities) was built. The bible was unquestionably true. Sure, you could choose to disobey or disregard the bible, but that would be a choice to wilfully disregard reality, the reality which I knew to be true.

I never questioned this starting point for the first thirtysomething years of my life. It was the starting point for my parents, my grand parents, and so on back through my family history as far as anyone knows. (Note, in my family, mine is the first generation for at least six not to contain any church ministers...) Somewhere, back in long forgotten family history, one of my ancestors first believed the bible to be true. This was probably so long ago that almost everyone in the country would have been believing the bible to be the Truth (with a capital T). So they probably had good reasons, or at least a good excuse for taking the bible to be their starting point. But we live in a very different world than they did. Here and now I think there is a very good reason to ask:

Why should the Bible be our starting point?

What is it about this book that might make it appropriate to have as a foundation?

Well, if there is a God, and this book is the 'Word of God' then that would probably do it. But you'll note that there are two conditionals in that last statement, as well as a poorly defined term. This book is not a good starting point if there is no God. And even if there is a God, this book is not a good starting point if it did not originate with that God. And what do we mean by 'Word of God' anyway?

So really, it seems to me that there needs to be some sort of process of scrutiny of the bible before we can decide if its a suitable 'foundation' to use as a starting point. But how can we decide if the bible is the Word of God? What would the Word of God look like?

Well, for a start, you should expect it to be historically reliable. That is, assuming God is not the author of confusion, you would expect that any and all historical details recorded in it would be consistent with what actually happened in history, and probably consistent with other historical accounts outside of the bible. (Although, if they are not inspired, then they may be subject to a greater degree of human error, so the non-biblical histories might contain errors, omissions and factually inaccurate stories.)

Here the New Testament, at least, appears to do quite well. Characters like Pilate, Herod, Festus, Felix and even John the Baptist are attested in secular histories and the timescale presented in the NT is reasonably consistent with secular historians like Josephus. Of course, it could be that the historical NT writings (Gospels and Acts) were written late enough to be dependent on Josephus, but that's irrelevant to this post. Here, all that really matters is consistency.

Of course, when we get to the OT, we start to run into problems. For a start, for large parts of the OT there are no secular histories to compare it with, so we need to test the narrative against hard evidence, like archeology. Sometimes there appears to be an agreement, sometimes not. And the further back we go, the less reliable the biblical history seems to be. While historians are still arguing over whether or not there was a King David, one thing is certain - that his kingdom wasn't as extensive or rich as the bible claims it to be. And if we go further back we find that the Exodus did not happen as described. There was no mass movement of a nation from Egypt to Israel by any route consistent with the biblical narrative. If there was an exodus, it was only a handful of people, not a nation. Its not just that there is no evidence for such an event, its that there is evidence that no such event occurred. Archaeologists can identify caravan routes through the desert from thousands of years ago, but none of them was forged by a mass exodus.

So it appears that the bible may not be a totally accurate history. But even supposing it is, giving it the benefit of the doubt, surely the Word of God should be more than just a good history?

If God is really speaking through this book, we'd expect it to have greater insight into the human condition than secular writings of the same age or holy books of other religions, which presumably are not inspired. In other words, it would have to transcend human wisdom. It doesn't appear to do this. The wisdom sayings of the OT, while undeniably containing some very wise sayings, are not significantly more wise than Hindu or Buddhist or other 'sacred' writings from about 3,000 years ago. And some of the 'wisdom' in the bible is not very wise at all, like Jesus telling his disciples not to wash their hands before eating, because nothing that goes into a man can make him unclean. Maybe it doesn't make a man ritually unclean, but it can give him food poisoning. (See this blog post for some related thoughts.)

You might also expect the Word of God to be full of great moral guidance. And in places this book is, but only in some places. In other places we get instructions to force rapists to marry their victims, commands from God endorsing slavery, including sex-slavery, and commands from God demanding genocide. And its not just the OT, even in the NT there's some dubious morality espoused.

At this point it is possible to conclude that some of the material in the bible (the wise and historically accurate bits) is the Word of God, and some of the material (the morally dubious and inaccurate bits) is stuff that comes from human sources and is not the Word of God. For several years I tried to reconcile this view of the bible with reality, but in the end I realised that this view simply doesn't work. We have no way of determining which bits of this book (if any) come from God, and which bits come from people. OK, so it is clear that some bits have human origins, but there are few (if any) bits that must have come from a divine source. In the end, and after much internal debate, I grudgingly came to this understanding: either all of the Bible should be considered the Word of God, or none of it should be. There is no middle ground.

The problem with the former option is all the issues I have raised above. Suppose this book is the inspired Word of God, what does the book reveal about the God who inspired it? Inspired all of it, that is. You can't just create a picture of God out of the bits you like, you have to include the genocidal bits and the outright lies (see 2 Chronicles 18 and 1 Kings 22) that God inspired the prophets to speak. God is sometimes loving, sometimes hating, sometimes truthful, sometimes deceitful, sometimes he plays games with his people, and so on. This is an inconsistent God. How can we follow such a God? Well, the way most Christians manage to do this is by ignoring or explaining away some of the more problematic passages. Look for guidance in the Psalms, the nice bits of (some of the) prophets, or -best really- stick to the New Testament, maybe omitting Revelation. If you do this, you can find guidance.

So what is there about this book that makes people base their lives upon it? Well, on a practical level, it seems to work as a source of guidance. Christians all over the world pray about questions in their lives, read the bible, see something in the passage that they've just read that can be interpreted as being relevant to their situation, and act accordingly. The fact that others in other religions do the same with their holy books and are able to do the same with their holy books is generally overlooked. The bible works, and if you only read the bible (and books that support this view of the bible) then you can go for years, maybe an entire lifetime, trusting this book and finding that it does offer support when you need it and guidance when you need that. Of course, this doesn't necessarily entail that this book has a divine origin. It could simply be a collection of wise sayings that were collected and passed on from generation to generation precisely because they work for comfort and guidance.

The (undeniable) fact that the bible works for some people is not evidence that it has a divine origin. If it was, then this would also imply that the Koran has a divine origin, and the Hindu Vedas do, and so on. So I think we have to conclude that no holy book is the divine Word of (any) God, and that none of them are particularly justifiable as a starting point for belief, or in life.

But if you take away scripture, what have you got to build your worldview on? To be honest, I can't see a firm foundation anywhere, which is why I envy those who can still use the bible as their firm foundation. It appears to work, if you don't question it too much. The alternative is having to admit there is no good starting point and no solid foundations (note, science is built on untestable axioms too, and while it appears to be internally consistent, it doesn't have a fully firm and absolute objective foundation either).

Being cast adrift on uncertainty isn't all bad though. Its probably better than having certainty in something that is wrong...



Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Bart Ehrman, multiple attestation and probability

I've just listened to the entire 12 hour audio book of Bart Ehrman's "Did Jesus Exist?" which someone posted on YouTube. I transferred it to my iPod, and listened to it while commuting, of course.

I don't have too much to say about the book. I totally understand why many folks in the "Mythicist" camp are angry at this book, as it does seek not only to counter their arguments, but also makes a number of ad hominem attacks on them, individually, specifically, by name. But I'm not going to defend them here, they've gone as far as to write a whole book in response. I might read that eventually, but I'm in no hurry...

I also don't dispute the central thesis of this book. I'm reasonably convinced that there really was a 'historical Jesus' and that Christianity, at least in part, is based on some of his teachings and actions. I also believe, as explained in this book, that an awful lot of legends have been added to the historical core of Christianity, such that the modern religion is almost certainly something that the 'historical Jesus' wouldn't recognise at all.

But the main thing that annoyed me with Ehrman's book was the sloppy thinking at the centre of his reasoning. During his ad hominem attacks on the mythicists, he made a big deal about the fact that most mythicists (with the exception of Robert M. Price and Richard Carrier) do not have postgraduate degrees in relevant disciplines, and so (in his thinking) the arguments by these people can be largely dismissed. For Ehrman, appropriate qualifications are essential. It is odd, therefore, when he wades into the field of probability - something that he has no postgraduate education in - and bases the main points of his argument on probability judgements. He does not appear to understand how probability works.

The core of Ehrman's reconstruction of the historical Jesus is based on the criterion of Multiple Attestation - put simply this is taken to mean that if a story about Jesus or a teaching attributed to Jesus is attested in multiple independent sources, then it is more likely to be true or authentic than one which is not. Ehrman builds a library of stories and sayings that are multiply attested and concludes that these are most likely historically authentic.

Hang on, do you see what he did there? He takes a statement of relative probability (that Story A, which is attested in two independent sources, is more likely than Story B, which is found in only one source), and assumes it to be a statement of absolute probability. In other words, he seems to equate "more likely than" with "certainly happened". This is very sloppy thinking! An event that has a one in a thousand chance of having happened is more likely than an event which has a one in a million chance of having happened - a thousand times more likely in fact - but both events are still extremely unlikely. Relative probability tells us nothing without some quantification of absolute probability. Just because a story appears in multiple sources, doesn't mean it actually happened. It merely means that more people wrote it down.

Another annoying aspect of Ehrman's reasoning is the way he invents independent sources. I actually can't remember all the sources he claims, but his list of independent sources includes:

Mark; Q; M; L; John; Traditions in Paul; Traditions in Acts; Traditions in non-Pauline epistles; Revelation; and various non-scriptural sources.

This is all very impressive, but Ehrman forgets that Q is a scholarly construct which may or may not have existed. If it did exist, then the claim is that both Matthew and Luke used some of it, in addition to Mark, when creating their own gospels. There is no claim that both of them used all of Q in their gospels, so it seems quite likely that one or both of them might have missed out bits of Q. This means that it is possible that some, if not all, of the M and L material was actually part of Q. In other words it is quite possible that Q, M and L are not independent. Given that this is a real possibility, which we cannot discount, we cannot claim that these are independent sources.

For what its worth, I'm reasonably convinced by the Farrer hypothesis, that Luke used Matthew and Mark when writing his gospel. In this way of thinking, M and Q are reduced to a single source, and Luke (including L?) is not independent of either of them.

How Ehrman manages to justify to himself that the traditions in Acts are independent of L is a mystery to me. Both were written by the same author, it is supposed. And under the Farrer hypothesis, these become not independent from Mark and Matthew.

So I think Ehrman completely overstates his case. Sure there are some stories that are genuinely multiply attested, but not half as many as Ehrman makes out.

While I basically agree with Ehrman's conclusions, I think his overly exaggerated claims of authenticity don't do his case much good. The same case could be built on more sober and reliable reasoning.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Life of Apollonius of Tyana, by Philostratus - some thoughts

I've recently listened to the Librivox audio book of the Life of Apollonius of Tyana, by Lucius Flavius Philostratus. I don't intend to review it here, but here are a few thoughts on the content of this book, and their implications for how we should read the gospels and Acts in the New Testament...

Apollonius is one of those characters who gets mentioned in theist-atheist debates as a sort of messiah-figure who was approximately contemporary with Jesus. He apparently lived in the late 1st century CE. What we 'know' about him we know from the biography written by Philostratus in the early 3rd century. Philostratus claims his primary source was a biography of Apollonius written by one of his disciples, Damis, but this work has either been lost to posterity or is an invention of Philostratus's own.

The main point of interest here, for me at least, is that this book is a biography of a miracle-working 'son of god' character, and so any parallels with the gospel accounts might be of interest and might be able to tell us something about the gospels. I don't think this necessarily goes any further than a might, though.

So here are a few thoughts on Apollonius that might be relevant to our reading of the NT stories as well:

The introduction is much like Luke's introduction
Philostraus introduces his work in pretty much the same way that the (anonymous) writer of the third gospel does, although Philostratus is much more wordy and 'Luke' more concise:
"It seems to me then that I ought not to condone or acquiesce in the general ignorance, but write a true account of the man, detailing the exact times at which he said or did this or that, as also the habits and temper of wisdom by means of which he succeeded in being considered a supernatural and divine being.And I have gathered my information partly from the many cities where he was loved, and partly from the temples whose long-neglected and decayed rites he restored, and partly from the accounts left of him by others and partly from his own letters. For he addressed these to kings, sophists, philosophers, to men of Elis, of Delphi, to Indians, and Ethiopians; and in his letters he dealt with the subjects of the gods, of customs, of moral principles, of laws, and in all these departments he corrected the errors into which men had fallen. But the more precise details which I have collected are as follows." (Book 1, Chapter 2)
This is broadly similar to Luke who says:
"Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught." (Luke 1)
Both authors are disappointed by the current state of knowledge, cite their sources (vaguely), and claim to be writing a true and orderly account. As we will see, Philostratus doesn't appear to be writing something that is either true or orderly, so we should perhaps question Luke's accuracy here too?

Both feature miracle-working healers
For the most part, Apollonius does few actual miracles in the book, but there is an interlude from Book 3, chapter 38 and following, where all of a sudden lots of sick and demon-possessed people suddenly appear and all of them are healed, one by one, very much as in the gospels. As is common in Philostratus, he gives a much more detailed back story for each of the characters being healed than any of the gospels do. The purpose of all these healings, which are clearly legendary in nature, is to demonstrate the divine-man nature of Apollonius. Why should we assume the similar stories in the gospels are real and not merely fabricated to demonstrate the divine nature of Jesus?

The (lack of) distinction between the narrator and the characters
It is clear that Philostratus frequently uses the character of Apollonius to make the philosophical points that he (the author) wants to make. But he also makes many philosophical observations as the narrator. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish whether or not Apollonius is saying something or the narrator is - they speak with the same voice. In other words, Philostratus puts his own words into the mouth of Apollonius. Biblical scholars have made the same observations about the fourth gospel in particular. Consider, for example, the famous passage in John 3:
"Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son." 
At what point in this passage does Jesus stop talking and the narrator take over? Most translators opt to stop the quote by Jesus just before the most famous verse, and attribute that to the narrator, but there's nothing in the original Greek to suggest a change of voice there. Both Jesus and the narrator speak with the same voice - could it be the narrator putting his own words into Jesus's mouth, much like Philostratus does with Apollonius?

One thing is clear when reading Philostratus, his primary objective in writing the book is not to tell us about Apollonius, but it is to use the character and story of Apollonius as a means of showcasing his own ideas of the 'ideal philosopher', his own opinions, and his own knowledge on various topics. It is reasonable to suppose that all the 'wisdom' and 'facts' expressed here come not from a single human (or divine) source, but come from many different sources, which the author has compiled together, and are only presented as being the wisdom of a single man. Apollonius is portrayed as the ideal philosopher, and while there is a consistency in the things attributed to Apollonius, there is no reason to suspect that the historical Apollonius said all those things. Is the same possibly true of the bible? Could some or all of the 'wisdom' attributed to Jesus or Paul have originated from other people? There is no compelling reason to think not. Certainly, as I mentioned in a previous post, the 'quotes' of Peter and Paul in Acts seem to originate from the same source, not two distinct characters - such that there is actually no reason to suppose that either Peter or Paul was the original source...

Miracles and legends
Apollonius is presented as being a miracle worker and healer, there are no two ways about this. What is surprising to me is that there is an awful lot of narrative in which he doesn't actually do any miracles. For the vast majority of the books, his 'miraculous' deeds are mostly his wisdom on certain topics and the way he seems to know things in advance of them actually occurring (on one occasion he produces a letter to give to someone he met for the first time, which was exactly what was needed, and which he apparently wrote in advance knowing he was going to meet the guy). It is clear that the author thinks that wisdom and following the lifestyle of a philosopher are much more important than the miraculous stuff, but yet the miracles are included to demonstrate the divine character of the man. In the gospels, the ratio of miracles to teaching and narrative is much higher.

It seems like a collection of material from other sources
One thing that surprised me in the Apollonius stories was the section in Books 6 and 7 where the author gives up on trying to create a coherent narrative for Apollonius and simply strings a list of random stories about the philosopher together, joined by phrases like "And it is said that he also did..." and "On one occasion he said..." and so on. This very much suggests that Philostratus was not the author of all the stories, but really was trying to compile a full account of his subject, by collecting all the various (and occasionally contradictory) stories about him. So maybe all this stuff does pre-date Philostratus, and he is merely the compiler. That would put the original (highly legendary) stories back much closer to the time of the "actual events". I'm sure if there were Apollonius Apologists, they would use this to demonstrate the reliability of the material and the truth of the stories...

Interviews with leading authorities
In Books 7 and 8, Apollonius travels to Rome and is imprisoned, then is brought before the Emperor and pleads his case. It reads very much like the stories of Peter and Paul in prison, then being brought before the (local) authorities, etc., where the central character then gets the opportunity to make a public defence of their way of life or beliefs, commonly confounding or surprising their audience. Was this just a genre convention of the time?

Miraculous release from prison
In Acts, both Peter and Paul on separate occasions get released from prison in miraculous ways. Their chains simply fall off and they are able to simply walk out of their cells. In Book 7, chapter 38, Apollonius also miraculously steps out of his shackles, demonstrating that he could leave at any point if he chose to do so (although, in this instance he doesn't). Is this another genre convention? If so, it suggests that the miraculous escapes of Peter and Paul are no more real than the miraculous ability of Apollonius to remove his chains.

The ability to appear and disappear at will
In book 8, chapter 7, having been acquitted by the emperor, Apollonius vanishes into thin air during his trial, thus confirming - for the first time in the book - his completely divine nature. This is followed by a sudden appearance by the philosopher in an (implicitly) closed room, very much like the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in the upper room in John. Thus Jesus's post-resurrection ability to appear and disappear at will appears to be shared by Apollonius. Given that nobody really believes that Apollonius had this ability, why should anyone believe that Jesus had it either?

The death of the main character
The death of Apollonius is not recorded, although several conflicting stories are mentioned. This is, of course, quite unlike the gospels, but it strikes me that it is broadly similar to Acts, where the death of Paul is alluded to, but not described. Perhaps another genre convention?

Post-mortem visitations to opponents
Following his death, Apollonius miraculously appears to one character in a striking vision, which is not totally shared by those around him, although they realise something miraculous is going on. Furthermore, this vision is not delivered to one of Apollonius's disciples, but rather to one who is largely against them and disputes the teachings of the philosopher. Of course, the vision transforms the man from skeptical opponent to fervent believer. Does that sound vaguely familiar? Sounds a bit like Paul's Damascus Road experience to me. Why should the Paul stories be considered fact and the Apollonius story be considered a fiction? Seems to me quite likely that they both emerge out of the same literary genre conventions.

Conclusion?
So there you have it. A few comments on the semi-parallels between the NT writings and the stories about Apollonius of Tyana. Given that the Apollonius stories are definitely later than the gospels (even acknowledging the least-conservative opinions on gospel dating out there), it could be that the stories of Apollonius have simply incorporated parts of the gospel stories, so we could be dealing with literary borrowing here. But I don't think so. Certainly, the author of the Apollonius stories has no interest whatsoever in any Jewish wisdom. While Apollonius travels widely to India and Ethiopia and Rome, he never stops in Israel or makes any mention of the Jewish people or religion. The view of the gods in Philostratus is exclusively Greek in outlook, and the only foreign philosophies deemed worthy of consideration are those of India and Egypt/Ethiopia. There is no evidence of the influence of the teaching of the gospels in Philostratus at all.

It seems to me more likely that the gospels and Philostratus emerge from the same milieu of stories, rather than that there is any direct literary borrowing. But if the memes in these stories have a common ancestry, then that implies strongly that the NT stories about Jesus and Paul are not necessarily original, but descend from earlier stories of the same type, which were not necessarily about Jesus. In other words, Jesus was not unique.

Of course, this is only a mild inference from a single pass through a text, not a detailed study. Others have inevitably gone through this in much greater detail than I ever will, and I expect that there will be a whole range of opinions out there among those who have studied this more. But for me, this has added weight to the hypothesis of the non-uniqueness of the gospel stories, which further undermines my trust in the biblical stories.

Apollonius almost certainly wasn't a miracle working son of god who lived on after death and made post-mortem appearances. The evidence seems to suggest that Jesus wasn't that either.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The problem of evil and a better world?

I've just listened to the Unbelievable show from a few weeks back where Christian apologist Clay Jones engaged with atheist philosopher Richard Norman on the question of "Why does God allow evil?"

For the most part, it was fairly standard stuff, but I found the challenge laid down by Clay Jones (about half way through the podcast) to be interesting, and worthy of some thought. He said that he frequently found in his debates with atheists, that they often said that God should have been able to create a world that allowed free will, but also limited the suffering of innocents in some way, yet atheists (in his experience) never seem to be able to define such a world and end up saying "I'm not God, but he should have been able to do this...", which Jones pounces on and uses against the atheist. Its a clever argument, but fails as soon as the skeptic comes up with a plausible world description. So here's my answer:

A world in which free will is retained, but its consequences for harming the innocent are reduced would be a world in which there is no death (or, at least, no premature death for humans) and where there is no such thing as unbearable pain. Pain is necessary and important for people, but I can think of no reason why unbearable pain is necessary, and I can think of no reason why the ability to kill people short of their allotted span (three score years and ten?) should be a required aspect of free will.

So there you go, why couldn't God have created that world?

The odd thing is that as soon as I had that thought, I realised that that 'actually' is the world that the bible says God created. Death and suffering only entered creation as a punishment for the very first exercise of free will (well, depending on which interpretation of the first few chapters of Genesis you adhere to). So not only could God have created that world, Christians claim that he did! The only thing that would need to be different between that world and this, is that death would not be the punishment for sin.

So what do you think? Could an all powerful God have created that world? If not, why not? If so, then why didn't he do that?

Beyond this challenge, Clay Jones relied almost entirely on the 'unseen infinite' solution to the problem of evil, which is really not a solution to anything. At one point Jones said that if someone died young as a Christian, that he "guaranteed" the believer was in heaven now. How can he guarantee any such thing? Sure, he believes it. Yes, it is his future hope. But it certainly falls short of being a guarantee...