We’ve Moved!

It’s been a great first year for Galileo Unchained, but it’s time for a move. This blog is moving to Patheos, one of the largest religion sites on the internet. It has portals featuring material on lots of other religions, including over 100 blogs, such as Hemant Mehta’s “Friendly Atheist” and Greg Epstein’s “Good Without God.” I invite you to continue following the blog at the new site and with a new name: Cross Examined.

All the old content will remain here, but new posts will be only at the new site: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/

If you’ve signed up for email notification, there are two ways to do that at Patheos. You can sign up for notification of all Patheos atheist blogs (right side, top) or just Cross Examined (right side, scroll down a couple of pages).

Please join me at the new site!

No matter where you go … there you are
— Buckaroo Banzai

OK, Smart Guy—YOU Tell Us What Happened

Is Jesus the son of God?I’ve been on the offensive with a series of posts on the historicity of the New Testament. In conversations with Christians, however, I’ve been asked variations of this: “Okay, smart guy: you make clear that you don’t want to interpret the gospel story as literally true. Enlighten us then—how do you explain the facts? What do you think happened?”

That’s a fair question, and I’m happy to make a claim and defend it. Even if you accept my contention that the Bible is just legend and that the supernatural stuff didn’t happen—that it’s the surviving fragments of the blog of a prescientific tribe of people who lived two to three thousand years ago—that only tells us what didn’t happen.

So what did happen? That the New Testament exists is undeniable; what explains it? Here we go.

1. Jesus lived. The Christ Myth Theory, which argues there is insufficient evidence for a historical Jesus, is another possibility, but the simplest argument seems to be that a real man grounded the Jesus story. It’s easy to imagine false legend being built on a foundation of an actual person in history.

2. Jesus was an influential rabbi who had a following. He was killed, and stories grew up about him after he died.

3. The stories were passed from person to person orally for decades, eventually touching thousands or tens of thousands of people. The religion spread quickly by evangelism and trade through the Ancient Near East, from Palestine to Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, and beyond.

4. The stories were corrupted as they went. Some of this might have been inadvertent, but some was deliberate. Embellishments were added to improve the story, either to satisfy imagined or real prophecy from the Old Testament (for a Jewish audience) or to duplicate a supernatural feature of a competing Greek, Mesopotamian, or Egyptian religion (for a gentile audience). Starting from a Jewish community that spoke Aramaic, it found a home in a far-flung community that was culturally Greek.

5. Christianity relied initially on oral history. After decades, when it became clear that the imminent second coming wasn’t coming, the apocalyptic element of the religion was toned down, the religion settled in for the long haul, and the stories were committed to parchment. A handful of these gospels were written in the first century, including the four that made it into the New Testament. Dozens more were added in the following centuries.

6. Some of these later gospels were benign, but others were dangerously incompatible. A Christian community that accepted one tradition might consider another community heretical, and vice versa. Church fathers wrote books against particular heresies: Irenaeus wrote against Gnosticism, Tertullian against Marcionism, and Origen against Platonism. Different philosophies were debated, and the collection of dogmas that we think of today as orthodox Christianity was hardly the obvious winner.

  • In opposition to Paul, the Ebionites saw Jesus as preaching an extension of Judaism, not a new religion. Paul himself documents this internal disagreement in the debate over circumcision (Gal. 6:12–13).
  • Other heresies fragmented the church before the Council of Nicaea—Montanism (an early kind of Pentecostalism), Nicolationism (hedonism), Antinomianism (an extreme view of salvation through faith alone), Sabellianism (Jesus and God the Father were not distinct persons but two aspects of one person), Doceticism (Jesus was only spirit, and his humanness was an illusion), Arianism (Jesus didn’t always exist but was a created being), rejection of Trinitarianism (God exists in three persons), and others. But of course these were heresies only from the standpoint of the church that eventually emerged victorious.

7. The gospels and epistles were copied over the years and modified in small and large ways to adapt to different communities’ beliefs.

8. What we think of as the official Christian canon of books was largely fixed at the Council of Nicaea in 325.

Point out anything that doesn’t fit, but this sketch best explains the facts as far as I can tell. It is far more plausible than accepting the gospel stories as history.

Read the first post in this series: What Did the Original Books of the Bible Say?

The word “belief” is a difficult thing for me.
I don’t believe. I must have a reason for a certain hypothesis.
[If] I know a thing, then I know it.
I don’t need to believe it.
— Carl Jung

Photo credit: fradaveccs

Word of the Day: Atheist’s Wager

Pascal’s Wager imagines belief in God as a wager.  Suppose you bet that the Christian god exists and act accordingly.  If you win, you hit the jackpot by going to heaven, and if you lose, you won’t have lost much.  But if you bet that God doesn’t exist, if you win, you get nothing and if you lose, you go to hell.  Conclusion: you should bet that God exists.

A thorough critique of the many failings of this argument will have to wait for another post.  But this argument is easily turned around to make the Atheist’s Wager.  If God exists and is a decent and fair being, he would respect those who used their God-given brains for critical thinking.  He would applaud those who followed the evidence where it led.  Since God’s existence is hardly obvious, he would reward thoughtful atheists with heaven after death.

But God would be annoyed at those who adopted a belief because it felt good rather than because it was well-grounded with evidence, and he would send to hell those who misused his gift of intelligence.

Here it is formulated as a syllogism:

  • God treats people fairly and will send honest, truth-seeking people to heaven and everyone else to hell.
  • God set up the world without substantial evidence of his existence.
  • Therefore, God will send only atheists to heaven.

The Atheist’s Wager can be different than Pascal’s Wager in that Pascal is assuming the Christian god, while the Atheist’s Wager can imagine a benevolent god.  The difference is that the actions of the benevolent god can be evaluated with ordinary human ideas of right and wrong, while Christians often must play the “God’s ways are not our ways” card to explain away God’s occasional insanity as recorded in the Bible.  For example, no benevolent god would send one of his creations to rot in hell forever.  Or support slavery.  Or demand genocide.

Of course, if a non-benevolent god exists, and the Christians stumbled upon the correct way to placate him, then the atheist is indeed screwed.  But then we’re back to the fundamental question: why believe this?

Photo credit: maorix

Related posts:

Related articles:

  • Austin Cline, “Atheism & Hell: What if You Atheists Are Wrong? Aren’t You Afraid of Hell?,” About.com.
  • “Atheist’s Wager,” Wikipedia.

Witch Hunts, Sex Scandals, and the Atheist Community

I attended The Amazing Meeting 2, the skeptics conference organized by magician James Randi, in 2004.  I’ve been to many conferences before and after, but this one was a big deal for me.  Though not actually an atheist conference, I think it was the first chance I had to publicly kick around my embryonic interest in atheism.  A year later, I heard Sam Harris lecture on his new book, The End of Faith, and my interest in Christianity and atheism was ignited.

I bring this up because of dark clouds gathering over The Amazing Meeting.  I don’t pretend to understand the issue, but an Elevatorgate-like discussion has blown up about an incident of sexual harassment at a previous TAM, how it was handled, and then the inevitable recursive discussions about the descriptions of those incidents, critiques of those discussions, analysis of those critiques, and so on, seemingly to infinity.

Are women welcome and safe at TAM?  That the question is even being asked is incredible to me, but early evidence suggests the fraction of attendees who are women will be half of last year’s 40% because of concern over this story.  It must be an unintended consequence to all sides for a conference that is accused of being unfriendly to women to now become even more populated by men.

Some good has come out of this in that it has encouraged conferences to adopt anti-harassment policies.  That sounds like a positive step to restore confidence, assuming that they’re not extreme by, say, prohibiting a handshake or tap on the shoulder.

I’m amazed at the byzantine turns this topic has taken and the hold it has on some atheist bloggers.  It would take me days to read all that has been written, and let me say again that, not having done that, I don’t pretend to be well-informed about the issue.  But let me summarize an event that happened in my part of the country about 15 years ago that, while much more extreme, may have parallels to today’s anxiety about TAM.

Perhaps you remember the story about the Wenatchee child sex ring, what has been called history’s most extensive child sex abuse investigation.

It began in 1992, when, after much questioning, the 7-year-old daughter of poor and uneducated parents accused a family acquaintance of molesting her.  After repeated encouragement by the Wenatchee police lieutenant who was acting as foster parent to the girl and her sister, the girls eventually named over a hundred abusers and many child victims.

Local Pentecostal pastor Robert Robertson tried to do the right thing and talk sense to the investigators.  For his troubles, he and his family were sucked into the investigation, and the story was rewoven to include his church as a center for orgies with the children.  Others who also tried to rein in the crazy were also charged or fired.  (What explains a defense of the accused but that that person is similarly guilty?)

Child witnesses, mostly from 9 to 13 years old, were often taken from their families and placed in foster care. Many said later that they were subjected to hours of frightening grilling and if they didn’t believe they had been sexually abused, they were told they were “in denial” or had suppressed the memory of the abuse. They were also told that siblings and other children had witnessed their abuse, or that that their parents had already confessed.

Interrogators called some children who denied abuse liars. Children were told that if they agreed to accusations they wouldn’t be separated from parents or siblings. Many of them later recanted. [The police lieutenant] neither recorded nor kept notes of his interrogations.

Recantations were ignored. “It’s well known that children are telling the truth when they say they’ve been abused,” [the] Wenatchee Child Protective Services [supervisor said.] “But (they) are usually lying when they deny it.”

In all, “43 adults were arrested and accused of 29,726 counts of sexually abusing 60 children….  Eighteen pleaded guilty, mostly on the basis of signed confessions.  Ten were convicted at trial.  Three were acquitted.  Eighteen went to prison.”  All confessions were later recanted, all felony convictions related to the sex ring appear to have been overturned, a third of the children claimed to have been abused were at one point taken from their parents and put up for adoption, and the city of Wenatchee had to face lawsuits claiming millions of dollars in damages.

It was a modern-day replay of the 1692 Salem witch trial in which several girls’ accusations resulted in 19 people being hanged and one more pressed to death.

No, just because there’s smoke doesn’t mean there’s fire, and someone encouraging restraint isn’t necessarily part of the problem.  I hope the Wenatchee example of good intentions gone horribly wrong highlights some potential parallels with the TAM situation and that all parties analyze the evidence dispassionately.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Links about the Wenatchee sex case:

  • “Wenatchee Witch Hunt: Child Sex Abuse Trials In Douglas and Chelan Counties,” HistoryLink.
  • “Wenatchee child abuse prosecutions,” Wikipedia.

Links about charges against The Amazing Meeting:

  • “‘Dogmatic Feminism’ Discussion Podcast (part 1),” Ask an Atheist blog, 6/12/12.
  • “‘Dogmatic Feminism’ Pt. 2, and Some Other Things,” Ask an Atheist blog, 6/14/12.
  • Jason Thibeault, “Harassment policies campaign – timeline of major events,” Lousy Canuck blog, 6/15/12.

God is Nonexistent

who is god?Does God exist?  I don’t think so.  But can we prove that?

Proving that God doesn’t exist—or, more generally, that no supernatural beings exist—is impossible as far as I can tell.  An omniscient being wanting to remain hidden would succeed.  That’s a game of hide and seek we could never win.

To see what we can say about God, let’s look for parallels in how we handle other beings not acknowledged by science—Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, space aliens, leprechauns, fairies, or Merlin the shape-shifting wizard.  Any evidence in favor of these beings is sketchy, far too little to conclude that they exist.  Do we reserve judgment?  Do we say that the absence of evidence is no evidence of absence?  Of course not.  There’s plenty of evidence (or lack of evidence) to make a strong provisional case.  In fact, in common parlance we say that these things don’t exist.

While we’re at it, note the error in the adage “absence of evidence is no evidence of absence.”  Of course it’s evidence!  Absence of evidence is no proof of absence, but it can certainly be strong evidence.  If you’ve spent five minutes poking through that drawer looking for your keys and still can’t find them, that’s pretty strong evidence of their absence.

Note also the difference in the claim that Bigfoot doesn’t exist versus the claim that God doesn’t exist.  Science has been blindsided by new animals in the past.  The gorilla, coelacanth, okapi, and giant squid were all surprises, and Bigfoot could be another.  After all, Bigfoot is just another animal and we know of lots of animals.  But the very category of the Christian claim is a problem.  Science recognizes zero supernatural beings.

As definitively as science says that Bigfoot doesn’t exist, how much more definitively can science say that God doesn’t exist when the category itself is hypothetical?  Perhaps more conclusively, what about the claim that a god exists who desperately wants to be known to his creation, as is the case for the Christian god?

Let’s be careful to remember the limitations on the claim, “God doesn’t exist.”  Science is always provisional.  Any claim could be wrong—from matter being made of atoms to disease being caused by germs.  As Austin Cline said in “Scientifically, God Does Not Exist,” a scientific statement “X doesn’t exist” is shorthand for the more precise statement:

This alleged entity has no place in any scientific equations, plays no role in any scientific explanations, cannot be used to predict any events, does not describe any thing or force that has yet been detected, and there are no models of the universe in which its presence is either required, productive, or useful.

The Christian may well respond to science’s caution, “Well, if you’re not certain, I am!”  But, of course, confidence isn’t the same as accuracy.  This bravado falls flat without dramatic evidence to back it up.

Now, back to the original question, Does God exist?  Does this look like a world with a god in it?  If God existed, shouldn’t that be obvious?  What we see instead is a world in which believers are forced to give excuses for why God isn’t present.

Or, let’s imagine the opposite—a world without God.  This would be a world where praying for something doesn’t increase its likelihood; where faith is necessary to mask the fact that God’s existence is not apparent; where no loving deity walks beside you in adversity; where far too many children live short and painful lives because of malnutrition, abuse, injury, or birth defects; and where there is only wishful thinking behind the ideas of heaven and hell.

Look around, because that’s the world you’re living in.

But this isn’t an anarchist’s paradise; it’s a world where people live and love and grow, and where every day ordinary people do heroic and noble things for the benefit of strangers.  Where warm spring days and rosy sunsets aren’t made by God but explained by Science, and where earthquakes happen for no good reason and people strive to leave the world a better place than it was when they entered it.  God isn’t necessary to explain any of this.  Said another way, there is no functional difference between a world with a hidden god and one with no god.

Listen closely to Christian apologists and you’ll see that they admit the problem.  The typical apologetic approach is to:

  1. make deist arguments (for example, the existence of morality or design demands a deity to create it)
  2. argue that this deity is the Christian god rather than the god of some other religion.

Mr. Apologist, are your deist arguments convincing?  If so, you should be a deist, not a Christian.  And why is the first step necessary?  It’s because the Christian god is functionally nonexistent—you admit this yourself.

The God hypothesis isn’t necessary.  God has no measurable impact on the universe, and science needn’t sit on the sidelines.  There is enough evidence to render a judgment.

We apparently have natural disasters whether there is one god, 20 gods, or no god.  Prayers are answered with the same likelihood whether you pray to Zeus, the Christian god, or a jug of milk.  Religion is what you invent when you don’t have Science.

Can we say that anything doesn’t exist?  With certainty, probably not.  But with the confidence that we can say that anything doesn’t exist—leprechauns, fairies, or Merlin the wizard—we can say that God doesn’t.

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect
if there is, at bottom,
no design, no purpose, no evil and no good,
nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.
– Richard Dawkins

Photo credit: Philosophy Monkey

Related posts:

Related links:

  • August Cline, “Scientifically, God Does Not Exist: Science Allows us to Say God Does Not Exist,” About.com.