Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The idiot apostles...

I'm currently reading "Let the Reader Understand" by Robert M. Fowler. Its pretty technical and theological stuff for bed-time reading, but some of it is really fascinating. Its basically an analysis of the gospel of Mark, but keeping its eyes firmly on questions like "what is the author trying to achieve here?" and "what effect does this passage have on the reader?"

The bit I've just read discusses the pairs of miracle stories in the first half of the gospel and points out something I'd never noticed, or even considered, before.

Take, for example, the "feeding of the five thousand" in Mark 6:30-44 and compare it with the "feeding of the four thousand" in Mark 8:1-10. I've heard various theories about why both stories are actually retained in fairly short a gospel. The reader knows what Jesus can do after the first story, so why repeat it a couple of chapters later?

The most mundane explanation for including the story twice is because it happened twice. Possibly more than twice. Could be, but in a short gospel, where the author had to have left out some stories, why repeat this? Surely once is enough?

A more compelling explanation for the repetition of the story is that this is not to tell us something about Jesus (one telling of the story could do that), but rather it is to tell us something about the disciples. For the disciples behave in a completely incredible manner here. Or rather, they behave in a totally believable manner in the first telling of the story - stating, quite rightly, that a few small loaves and fish cannot be used to feed thousands of people - but then behave in a totally unbelievable manner the second time, because they do the same thing twice. The point is that they have learned absolutely nothing whatsoever from the first miracle and so can't comprehend the possibility the second time around.

This is the plain explanation here. Mark deliberately sets out to make the disciples look like idiots here. Well, either that, or the disciples really were idiots and this really happened, exactly as described. The problem is that nobody is actually that stupid. If the disciples really had seen Jesus miraculously duplicating food for 5000 people on one occasion, on a second very similar occasion, not long afterwards, it is literally inconceivable that none of them would have said something to Jesus along the lines of "we have a small amount of food, can you do that miracle again and turn it into lots of food?"

The only option we are left with is that the author of this gospel intended to make the disciples look like idiots. That is the only agenda in the repeated story. By itself, this is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that this gospel contains fiction.

But the thing that Robert Fowler points out in his book, which I had never noticed before, is that the two stories have been carefully constructed to emphasise the stupidity of the disciples.

Story 1 (Mark 6:30-44) goes like this:
...many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”
They said to him, “That would take more than half a year’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?”
“How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.”
When they found out, they said, “Five—and two fish.”
Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.
The story is told from the point of view of the disciples. And the disciples are shown here as sensible and practical people; they suggest the people need to go home and find food, and they calculate how much it would cost to feed the multitude, when Jesus instructs them to do something unexpected (get the people to sit down), they go along with this.

So the disciples come out of the first story quite well. However, when we turn to story number 2 (Mark 8:1-10) it goes like this:
During those days another large crowd gathered. Since they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance.”
His disciples answered, “But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?”
“How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked.
“Seven,” they replied.
He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. When he had taken the seven loaves and given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people, and they did so. They had a few small fish as well; he gave thanks for them also and told the disciples to distribute them. The people ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. About four thousand were present. After he had sent them away, he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the region of Dalmanutha.
Note that this story is told from the point of view of Jesus. We get his feelings towards these people in a direct quote from him, not in third person as in the previous story. Here, before the disciples have even suggested that the people be sent away, as in the previous story, Jesus explains why this would be a bad idea. And then the idiot disciples demonstrate that they have no recollection whatsoever of the earlier incident.

This change of point of view is mirrored in other pairs of stories in Mark. Each time showing the disciples favourably the first time, from their own point of view, and as idiots the second time, from the point of view of Jesus.

I'm convinced. Not only is the author of this gospel a much cleverer writer than I had previously thought, he really wants to convey to us that the disciples were idiots.

Were the disciples really idiots? Probably not. If there was a real Jesus, and if he recruited real disciples, and if he actually discipled them, then they must have learned from the master. That is what 'disciples' do. A real disciple cannot be a real idiot. So what we have here is not history but polemic. And not polemic against people outside the church, but polemic against the supposed founding fathers!

The characters in the story are idiots, not real disciples. The real disciples of Jesus (as far as this author is concerned) are the author himself and the implied reader of the text. This work is clearly written by someone from some rival faction of the early church - a faction opposed to the faction which claimed the disciples as its founders.

You certainly don't get taught that in Sunday school!

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Omnipresence and relationship with God?

Just reflecting on the garden of Eden story. Here's a chunk of it:
Genesis 2:18-20
"The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for the man no suitable helper was found."
Why was the man alone? Wasn't he in the (omni)presence of God all the time? There was no sin blocking him from God. In current evangelical thinking, he should never have known what it was to be alone, he should have been basking in the presence of God and shouldn't have needed anything else.

The man should have had an intimate and personal relationship with God, which should have been fully satisfying. So why was the woman necessary? 

I guess Genesis wasn't written by an evangelical...

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Family completeness in heaven...?

I've just been listening to a recent Unbelievable show on the question of "Why does God allow suffering?" featuring a discussion between Vince Vitale (Christian) and Julian Baggini (Atheist). Most of it was the same old stuff and not much worthy of comment. But one comment made by Vince Vitale made me pause for thought.

I can't remember the exact wording now, but he was talking about a Christian family who had experienced the pain and suffering of a late-term miscarriage. The gist of his comment was that the family who lost the baby gained comfort through the knowledge that their child would not be lost to them forever, and that their family would be complete in heaven. In other words, the miscarried child would go on to eternal life, and would be part of their family in the world to come.

Its a great thought, and one that I'm sure would give some comfort to a grieving family, but only makes sense if you don't think it through. If you stop and think about this, there is no reason why this should only apply to late-term miscarriages. It would have to apply to early miscarriages too. Including those that occur before the couple even know they are pregnant. Indeed, there's not really any reason why this shouldn't happen in the case of a fertilised egg that doesn't implant.

Statistically speaking, about three out of four conceptions do not lead to babies. The majority of these do not implant or 'miscarry' before there are any signs of pregnancy. But put this in the eternal context imagined by the Christian family above. This would mean that for every child you actually have, in heaven you will have an extra three, on average. That is to say, that only a quarter of the human population of heaven will actually have had a life in this world.

Whichever way you slice it, this idea makes no sense in the light of salvation theology. Did Christ only die for a quarter of humanity and the rest get a pass to heaven? Indeed, if we follow the reasoning that children who die very young (and in the womb?) get a free pass into heaven, then the implications are inevitably that the souls of all miscarried children will outnumber the souls of people who lived on earth and got saved many, many times over. As only a fraction of the quarter who make it to term will be saved.

Stop and think about it for a moment. It just makes no sense.

But now, stop and think again. What sense is there in putting a dividing line in at the moment of birth? If a baby has a soul after birth, they must have had one just before as well? And a month before that? And before that? There is no dividing line that actually makes sense. The reality of miscarriage actually makes the claims of heaven and salvation sound nonsensical. Doesn't it?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The first quest of the Historical Jesus... and Christian models of Jesus

I've been slowly working my way through the audio version of Albert Schweitzer's "The Quest of the Historical Jesus" (1906), which you can get for free from Librivox.org. I'm nearly at the end of it. Its quite long winded, but comprehensive, thorough and fascinating. It is basically an exhaustive (but not exhausting) critical survey of pretty much everything published in the 19th century on the question of the Historical Jesus. In audio form it comes in at over 21 hours of listening, which is about three weeks' worth of commuting for me.

As I've said before (see this post and other posts tagged with 'Historical Jesus'), the quest for the Historical Jesus is an attempt to strip away the layers of faith from the gospel stories to uncover the real, historical character who was the basis of the Christian religion. The quest is based on the somewhat shaky assumption that some of the gospel material is truth and some of it is fiction.

As I've said before, ad nauseum, on this blog, there is no reliable method for testing any passage in the bible to determine whether or not it is true. If there was, this question (and many others) would have been solved long ago. 

What is clear from Schweitzer's survey is that the quest for the Historical Jesus is really all about starting with the assumption that the bits you can't believe in the bible are, necessarily, false, and the rest is probably true. From that, you whittle away at the passages until a figure emerges, who looks and sounds a bit like a possible historical figure, but actually generally represents the best aspirations of the quester himself. In other words, people go looking for Jesus and are surprised to find their own reflection there.

On the basis of this survey, 19th century Christianity was fixated on a few questions that don't seem to be debated in the church these days. These include: (i) Synoptic gospels vs. John - most of the questers seemed to believe that either John or the Synoptics was 'true', but not both equally, so they would pick the one they preferred and interpret the other through this. (ii) Miracles vs. Naturalism - many Christian questers in the 19th century appeared to have issues with the idea of miracles, OK, for some of them the resurrection was probably true, but the other stuff couldn't be. If anything, the 19th century church sounds a lot more 'rational' than the church is today. I can't help but think that 19th century Christianity in general, and the theologians in it in particular, were a much more mixed bag than current Christianity and current theologians. Christians today probably assume that the church in years gone by was either much as it is today (worship styles aside), or was more 'orthodox' in years gone by, whereas there is an assumed liberalisation of the church today. On the basis of this survey through the church a couple of hundred years ago, the opposite would seem to be the case. People seeking Jesus have always been finding a Jesus who mirrors some aspect of their own culture.

While thinking this over, I realised that this is - essentially - what all Christians do, whether or not they are seeking the 'historical' Jesus. Everyone who believes anything about Jesus, consciously or not, prioritises some bible passages over others (I've said this before too). For most believers its not a question of whittling away the false to reveal the true, but it is more a question of emphasising some aspects and diminishing the others, in order to form a 'working model' of Jesus in their minds. This process of diminishing some aspects and emphasising others is necessary to iron out the inconsistencies, conflicts and contradictions that are actually in the bible. It is impossible to create a 'working model' of Jesus taking all statements about him as being equally valid, but if you can emphasise some and diminish others, then a plausible model of Jesus can emerge. Someone you can really believe in. Someone you can persuade yourself originates in the bible and walked the roads of 1st century Palestine. Someone you can ask WWJD? about. 

The more I think about this, the more I see that this is what most Christians I know actually do. This is why there are so many different denominations of Christianity - each one emphasises different aspects from the others, and diminishes different other aspects. This is why the Jesus of Pentecostal Christianity is vastly different to the Jesus of liberal Anglicanism. Each denomination creates a working model of Jesus that emerges from its own preconceived ideas. None of these is actually the 'real' Jesus, the 'biblical' Jesus or the 'historical' Jesus. They are all, at best, flawed models of Jesus. And none of them can accurately show us what the 'real' Jesus, if there ever was one, was or is actually like. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Juvenile Bible (1804)

Wow. Just came across this blog post. This is amazing. A book for kids that summarises the entire bible in verse; alphabetically! One line of poetry per chapter in the bible, for the entire bible. You can read it all on Google books. Here is the gospel of Mark to give you a taste:
  1. A gospel Mark writes: Christ's baptised
  2. Declares he's sabbath's Lord
  3. Heals wither'd hand, doth devils command
  4. The sower sows the word

  5. Brings dead to life; casts legion out
  6. Five loaves five thousand feed
  7. He makes the ear that's deaf to hear
  8. Sev'n loaves their wants exceed

  9. Casteth a deaf-dumb spirit out
  10. Check's Zebedee's sons desire
  11. Casts changers out who sold and bought
  12. The vineyard let to hire

  13. Downfall of temple, and the world
  14. By Judas he is sold
  15. He's thrice deny'd and crucify'd
  16. Then rises as foretold
You'll note that everything is presented in four line verses, with each verse within a book beginning with the next letter of the alphabet. The author cheats a bit when books don't have multiples of four chapter chunks by simply extending the final chapter or two out to the end of the verse, using as many lines as needed. Thus Philemon, II John, III John and Jude, despite only having one chapter each, all have a four line verse.

And it includes the 10 commandments too:

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Why did Jesus preach?

Why did Jesus preach? 

No, seriously, I mean it, why did he preach?

The gospel stories of Jesus show us many things, but if you read between the lines the following trends appear:
  • Jesus was popular among the people because he healed people and told entertaining stories.
  • Jesus primarily taught in parables which were generally not understood by his audience (and often not understood by his closest disciples).
  • Indeed, Jesus did not want his audience to understand! (Luke 8:10 "He said, 'The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you [disciples], but to others I speak in parables, so that, "though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand."')
  • At the merest hint of trouble most of his audience disappeared - they had no loyalty to him, he was only a passing entertainment.
  • Very few people had their lives transformed by meeting Jesus, and nobody is recorded as being transformed through hearing his preaching.
  • Jesus recruited his disciples by command ("Come, follow me") not through his preaching.
So what was the point? The end result of Jesus's ministry appears to be a handful of committed followers. They started the church after Jesus was gone, the church was not started by Jesus through his ministry.

Its not even as though Jesus 'planted the seeds' that would ultimately be 'harvested' by the disciples in their later ministry. If Acts is to be believed, the church grew primarily in gentile and diaspora-Jew communities. There is no record of mass conversions among the Galileans. 

The sole purpose of Jesus's teaching, therefore, appears to be the edification of later generations of Christians, who would get to read his words many years later after the gospels were composed, duplicated and distributed. [Note to self: Remember to read "Let the reader understand" by Robert M. Fowler sometime]. In other words, the primary audience for the teaching of Jesus wouldn't be born for at least a century or two after the preaching was done. This doesn't seem to be a very effective way of doing things. If the later readers were really the intended audience, it would have been far, far better if Jesus had written letters or books himself.

I don't think I'm going too far by saying that, as far as the stories presented in the gospels go, Jesus preaching ministry was a complete waste of time. Nobody came to faith, no-one was saved, people were entertained, but then they moved on to the next thing and Jesus was forgotten. It doesn't really read like a divine master-plan.

Friday, January 09, 2015

The Unbelievers

Just watched "The Unbelievers" a 2013 film documentary following Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss about at various speaking events (its on Netflix). It had a few interesting moments but was largely pointless. It would have been better to have watched or listened to just one of the Dawkins/Krauss discussions in full than to have watched this series of clips. Indeed, given that I did listen to one of those shows in its entirety, it was more interesting than the film.

But this film has lots of short snippets of other celebrity atheists (Woody Allen, Cameron Diaz, Ricky Gervais, etc.) at the beginning and end, so maybe that makes all the difference.

Does this film make a compelling case for non-belief? No.

Does it even give a coherent scientific message? No.

The entire point of this film is to say "look, there are lots of atheists out there and some of them are very clever and very popular" to the intended audience, which I guess is mostly American atheists. I guess the film makers hope that some believers (of whatever flavour) will watch it too.

Not sure that was 80 minutes well spent though. If I was you I wouldn't bother. Watch a full debate between a theist and an atheist on YouTube, you'll probably learn more.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Near death experiences and evidence in support of the theory of life after death

A recent edition of the Unbelievable radio show (on 6th December 2014) looked at near death experiences and out of body experiences. Unusually, for the Unbelievable show, there was no Christian guest on the show. This made the discussion and debate somewhat different from usual, in that there was no defence of the Christian viewpoint in the show. And there was no anti-apologetic either.

The show featured Eben Alexander, a former non-believing neurosurgeon who had a "near death experience" (NDE) while in a coma and has written a couple of books about it. The experience has convinced him that consciousness does not require a functioning brain to exist in, that is, that the conscious mind will exist after the brain ceases to function. In other words, the experience has led him to believe in life after death. But he isn't a Christian. 

Also on the show was sceptical psychologist Jane Aspell, who thinks that Alexander's experience was purely a creation of the mind, and not evidence of consciousness outside the brain. Aspell contends that Alexander's 'journey' was, essentially, a creation of his subconscious mind as he was coming out of coma, not an experience he had during the time he had "no brain function".

Apparently (according to Eben), the visions he had must have coincided with the time he had "no brain function" because the vision included six people who were there when he was in the coma, and who weren't there at a later stage. Well, actually, only five of the six were there during his coma, the sixth wasn't there, but is apparently relevant, for some reason not explained in the show. I'm afraid this sounds a bit like special pleading. A vision of six people which supposedly corresponds to a visit of five of them doesn't sound like great evidence. Maybe it is, but Eben's response to questioning on this issue was "buy my book, I've discussed all the evidence there", which doesn't make for great debate.

So the discussion was inconclusive. Alexander had a vision, but didn't manage to persuade the audience that it had to have been during his "no brain function" period, so the jury has to be still out on that one. Meanwhile Aspell's explanation for the whole thing sounds compelling and really quite reasonable.

Also on the show was Graham Nicholls, an out of body experience (OBE) researcher who claims to have been having out of body experiences all his life. He is also not a Christian. He gave some hand waving examples of 'real' out of body experiences he has had, but came across as quite a credulous chap. Basically, willing to believe almost any story of 'evidence' that is presented to him.

What he (and Alexander) seem to think is that evidence which is consistent with a hypothesis necessarily lends support to that hypothesis. For example, Nicholls' remote viewing of a cathedral in Tallinn (I think that's where it was) was taken by him as 'proof' that OBEs are real.

The issue is that this is only half of the rigorous scientific method. In order to count as 'evidence' for any given hypothesis, an event or observation must also count as evidence against any and all rival hypotheses. If an observation is equally consistent with all possible hypotheses, then it lends no weight to any of them. This is the essence of Bayes's Theorem, which I've blogged about before.

In other words, if someone claims to have had an OBE, the story of their experience only counts as evidence if it contains elements which are inexplicable by 'natural' explanations. In Nicholls's story of the OBE involving Tallinn cathedral, the 'observation' of the scaffolding on the hidden side of the cathedral could only count as evidence in favour of OBE if there was no physical way that Nicholls could have seen the scaffolding before, and no way that anyone could have mentioned it, and no way he could have seen something about it on TV or the internet, etc. Given that it is almost impossible to prove that one doesn't know something, or didn't know about it before a given point in time, this hardly counts as evidence.

The possibilities in this case are (a) that Nicholls had a genuine OBE, and therefore OBEs are real, or (b) that Nicholls hallucinated the whole thing, possibly based on things that he 'knew' prior to the hallucination (perhaps he only knew these subconsciously), or (c) that Nicholls is an intentional fraudster. Note that neither (b) nor (c) entails that OBEs are either true or false.

The 'evidence' of the story as presented in the Unbelievable show is entirely consistent with all three hypotheses, so really counts as evidence in favour of none of them. Given that we have quite a lot of other evidence for people being fraudsters or deluded, but limited evidence in favour of OBEs, our reasonable conclusion cannot be in favour of the existence of OBEs based on this. Maybe other evidence will present itself, but certainly nothing presented in this radio show was strong enough to give support to the OBE hypothesis.

No evidence is not proof against any theory. No evidence is simply no evidence.

Finally, I have to comment about the flawed reasoning behind the premise of the show. It seemed to be taken as read that evidence of out of body experiences, or brain activity during the "no brain function" period, or other 'near death' experiences would in some way count as evidence for the possibility of life after death. Why should this be? The thing is that NDEs are always recounted by people who return to conscious life after the experience, similarly with OBEs, the people telling the stories are always back in their own bodies and clearly not dead. The conscious mind is always tied to the body which it inhabited before the experience. We know nothing, precisely nothing, about what happens once the link between conscious mind and living body is actually severed. Maybe the conscious mind can continue (somehow) after this, maybe not, but as far as I know, we have no way of investigating this. Well, not by talking to the living anyway...

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...