More Pointless Parables

Atheism wrestles with ChristianityI’ve posted before about some modern-day Christian parables.  Here are two more.

Ah, for the good old days when biblical parables made a compelling point!  These are pretty weak.  If you come across more, let me know.

Here’s one I heard on the radio.

A man goes into his pastor’s office.  “I’ve got money problems,” he says.  “I try to give what God commands of me, but I’m having a hard time making ends meet.  At the end of the month, there are still bills to pay.”

The pastor says, “What if you did what God commands of you and then, at the end of the month, you bring any bills that aren’t covered to me and I’ll pay them.  Would you do that?”

“You’d do that?  You’d pay the extra bills?”

“That’s not the question,” said the pastor.  “If I agreed to pay the extra bills, would you do that?”

“Sure!”

The pastor said, “Isn’t it odd that you’d trust a frail human like me when you wouldn’t trust God, the all-powerful creator of the universe to help you with your problems …” and blah, blah, blah about how fabulous God is and all the stuff that he’s done for us.

If you’re already drinking the Kool-Aid, this one might hit home, but it does nothing as an argument for Christianity.  And the pastor is making a very testable claim—almost a science experiment.  He’s all but quoting Luke 12:27–8:

Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; but I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass in the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, how much more will He clothe you?  You men of little faith!

Test the claim!  I wouldn’t hold my breath for verifiable results, though.

I heard the next story decades ago.

In the early days of the space program, NASA scientists were checking the position of the sun, moon, and planets to make sure that they could safely put up satellites.  They checked thousands of years in the future and the past, but the computers ground to a halt.  The problem was a missing day in elapsed time.  They rechecked their data and the software, but the problem wouldn’t go away.

Puzzling over the problem, one scientist said, “You know, I remember a story from Sunday school.  Something about God making the sun stand still so that Joshua could win a battle.  Could that be it?” 

The scientists were skeptical, but they found a Bible.  With a little searching found Joshua 10:12–13.  “The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.”  With a little calculation, they found that this accounted for 23 hours and 20 minutes.  They were much closer but were still stuck.  They had to resolve that last 40 minutes.

The other scientists looked expectantly at the one with the Sunday school story.  “Well, I remember another story,” he said.  All eyes were on him.  “Something about the sun going backwards.”

There were a few chuckles, but they got out the Bible again and found 2 Kings 20:8–11, where King Hezekiah asked God for a sign, that the sun move backwards ten degrees.  Ten degrees out of 360 degrees in a circle—that is, 1/36 of a day.  In other words, exactly 40 minutes!

The scientists plugged in this information, and, sure enough, the calculations ran smoothly.

Ooh—let me guess the moral!  Modern science needs to get its guidance from the Bible.  (Did I get that right?)

Well, Mr. Smarty Pants Scientist—looks like the Goliath of Science has been defeated by the David of Christian Truth!

Despite its longevity and popularity—this story originated in a 1936 book by Harry Rimmer and was popularized by a 1974 book by Harold Hill—it’s bogus.  NASA even released a press release denying the popular story.

There are lots of red flags.  Even if God had stopped the sun 3000 years ago, there is no way to deduce that from information available to astronomers today, so the entire premise is flawed.  And let’s not even speculate at what “stopping the sun” (that is, stopping the rotation of the earth) would’ve done.  Concluding 23 hours and 20 minutes from “about a full day” is wishful thinking, and the ten degrees is more properly translated as “ten steps”—an angle based on local instrumentation that we can’t reproduce.

As usual, imagining that the Bible’s miracle stories really happened takes us to nowhere that can be scientifically justified.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

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Word of the Day: Argument from Authority (and How Consensus Fits In)

An authority could argue that God exists, but why believe them?I can’t count the number of times that I’ve said something like, “I accept evolution because it’s the scientific consensus” and gotten the response, “Gotcha!  Argument from Authority Fallacy!”

Let’s take a look at this fallacy and see where it applies and where it doesn’t.

Suppose I said, “Dr. Jones is smarter than both of us put together and he agrees with me, so I’m right!”  This statement could fail due to the Argument from Authority Fallacy for two reasons: (1) we haven’t established that Dr. Jones’ expertise is relevant to the question at hand, and (2) even if Dr. Jones is an expert on the subject, that he agrees with my position doesn’t make me right—at best, it would make me justified in holding my position.

Chastised at my poor argument, I go back and rework it.  Now I’m careful to first establish Dr. Jones’ relevant expertise and I modified my claim this way: “Dr. Jones, an established authority, agrees with me, so therefore my position is well justified.”  This is better, but my statement could still fail due to this Fallacy.  What if Dr. Jones is a maverick in his field?  He could be a cosmologist still holding on to the Steady State model of the universe now that the Big Bang model is the overwhelming consensus.  Conversely, imagine that it’s the 1930s and he is arguing for an expanding universe when that was the minority position.  Either position makes Dr. Jones a maverick, and the layman (as an outsider) has no grounds from which to conclude that this minority position is the best approximation.

The Argument from Authority is not a fallacy when the person indicated (1) is an expert in the field and (2) is arguing for the consensus.  Of course, that doesn’t necessarily make you right, but being in line with the relevant consensus is the best that we can hope for.

I’m amazed when I hear people reject evolution who aren’t biologists.  I can imagine browsing biology textbooks and concluding that evolution is a remarkable claim.  I could even imagine thinking that the evidence isn’t there (though the fact that I’ve only dipped my toe into the water would scream out as the explanation for this).  What I can’t imagine is concluding, based in my “research,” that the theory of evolution is flawed.  I mean—on what grounds could I possibly make this statement?  On what grounds could I reject the consensus of the people who actually understand this stuff?  The people who actually have the doctorate degrees and who actually do the work on a daily basis?

And yet I hear people justifying this step all the time.

Let’s move on to another topic, the question of consensus.  After many discussions that have forced me to carefully think my position, let me offer my views on consensus from different fields.  Note that this is the view of a layman—someone who is an outsider to these fields.

  • Scientific consensus: I always accept this.
  • Historical consensus: I always accept this.
  • Consensus of religious scholars about their own religion: I always accept their statements of what their beliefs are.  For example, when the consensus of Catholic scholars says that within the Catholic church the eucharist (the communion wafer) is believed to transubstantiate into the body of Christ, I accept that.

But don’t accept everything.  I draw the line at supernatural claims, whether by scholars or believers, and whether the consensus or not.  I will consider evidence for these claims, but so far I have always rejected them.  If I were to accept these claims, that would probably be based either the scientific or historical consensus.

Supernatural claims are in a very different category than scientific or historical claims.  For more, see my post Map of World Religions.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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Book Review on “Bible Geek” Podcast

Dr. Robert Price gives a review of the novel "Cross Examined"I’m a big fan of Dr. Robert Price’s Bible Geek podcast as many of you know.  If you’re interested in the Bible and the culture from which it came, this podcast is a fire hose of information.  His other (more recent) podcast is The Human Bible.  I recommend both.

On a recent Bible Geek podcast (scroll to 5:45), Dr. Price was good enough to give a review of my novel, Cross Examined.

Very flattering!

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MS-DOS and Objective Truth

Jesus, atheists, Christians, and apologeticsBack in the character-based Stone Age of the personal computer, all IBM-compatible MS-DOS PCs started up with a C-prompt, the “C:\>” text with a blinking cursor.  At least, all PCs that weren’t broken.

Can we conclude anything from that?  That “C:\>” is a reflection of some supernatural or transcendental truth?  That it is an insight into God’s mind?  No—it’s just a useful trait shared by this class of PCs.  There’s no objective meaning behind these characters.  This text is useful (it shows the directory in which any typed commands will take place), so it was selected.  There’s nothing more profound than this behind it.

Human morality is like this.  Almost all humans have shared moral instincts, not dissimilar from instincts in other animals.  Through instinct, honeybees communicate where the nectar is, newborn sea turtles go toward the ocean, and juvenile birds fly.  Training or acculturation can override human instincts, of course, but in general we have a shared moral sense—a shared acceptance of the Golden Rule, for example.

We think our moral instincts are pretty important, and that’s understandable, but there’s no reason to imagine that they are objectively true—that is, based on some supernatural grounding.  Said another way, we think that our morality is true because it tells us that it’s true, but we can’t infer from this that it is grounded outside us.

We must not confuse universally shared moral instincts with universal moral truths.

Human moral instincts are what our programming says they are—it’s no more profound than that.  There’s as much reason to imagine that they are a window into the transcendent as that the MS-DOS C-prompt is.

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The Bible’s Dark Ages

Parchment and whether Jesus is divineWe’re taking a trip through time, from our English New Testament, back through the translations and various copies (Part 1), back through the textual variants to our best guess at the original Greek manuscripts (Part 2).  We’ve arrived at our best reconstruction of the canon determined by the Council of Nicaea (325 CE).

The novel The Da Vinci Code portrayed the Council as the stereotypical politicians’ smoky back room where the features of Christianity and the books that represented it (the canon) were haggled over.  Many Christian sources have argued against this characterization, saying that the canon had largely been decided by the early churches by that point, but this doesn’t avoid the problem.  Selecting the canon would’ve been a popularity contest either way.  If the bishops at Nicaea didn’t vote it into existence, then the weeding-out process in the early church created a de facto canon that the bishops accepted with minimal change.  Either way grounds the canon on the imperfect shoulders of ordinary people.

Let’s take the next step.  We have a big gulf to cross from 325 CE to roughly 70–90 CE, when the originals were written down.

Suppose that Mark was written in Rome in the year 70.  Copies are made and it gradually makes its way to Alexandria, where it is copied over and over until it finds its way into the Codex Sinaiticus in about 350.  What happened to it in those 280 years?  How does the version that we have vary from the original manuscript, now lost to history?  That’s a lot of time for hanky-panky.

The issue isn’t that I’m certain that the books were changed significantly; rather, we aren’t certain that they weren’t.  This period from Nicaea back to the originals is the Bible’s Dark Ages, a period with very little documentation.  We have just a few dozen Greek manuscripts that precede the complete codices.  The papyrus manuscripts are all fragments, containing at most a chapter or two of one book.  These manuscripts are remarkable finds, but that does nothing to change the fact that we’re bridging a large gap with little information.  We can’t say that our copies differ little from the originals because we don’t have the originals.

This biblical Dark Ages was a period of much turmoil in the Christian community.  The divisions in early Christianity were much bigger than the modern Lutheranism vs. Presbyterianism distinction, say.  Instead of French vs. Spanish, think French vs. pre-Columbian Mayan.  And these divisions were all fighting for survival, fighting for their place in the canon.

Historians know of four primary divisions in the early Christian church.

Proto-Orthodox.  This is Bart Ehrman’s term for the early Christian sect that would become Christianity as we know it today.  Paul’s writings (which changed Jewish law to reject circumcision, the kosher laws, and so on) form the heart of this division.

Ebionites.  These may have been the first Christians, because they saw Jesus as a Jew.  This was the Jesus who said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets” (Matt. 5:17).  The New Testament documents the struggles between the James/Peter sect and Paul in Galatians 2:11–21.  Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus says,

According to the Ebionites, then, Jesus did not preexist; he was not born of a virgin; he was not himself divine.  He was a special, righteous man, whom God had chosen and placed in a special relationship to himself.1

Marcionites.  This Christian variant was put forward by Marcion in about 144 CE.  The Marcionites had no use for the Old Testament, since it documented the Jews’ god, who was different from the (unnamed) father of Jesus.  Marcion argued that you could answer to Yahweh if you wanted, but Jesus offered a much better option.  This Jesus was divine and only appeared to be human.  Consider John 20:26: “Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them.”  Marcion considered only Paul’s writings to be canonical.

Gnostics.  The Gnostics rationalized the evil in the world by saying that the world was created by a demiurge (craftsman) who didn’t intend to or wasn’t able to create a perfect world.  While most people on the earth were just animals, some held a divine spark.  For that special few, Jesus’s hidden knowledge would be necessary after death to see them safely back to heaven.  We see this in Luke 8:10: “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, ‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.’”

Biblical redaction is the deliberate change or concatenation by a later editor, and the Bible is full of examples.  For example, the Old Testament has two creation stories, two flood stories, two contradictory Ten Commandments (Exodus 20 vs. 34), and even two David and Goliath stories.

The New Testament holds clues to this kind of change as well.  For example, John ends with chapter 20 and then again with chapter 21.2  The authorship of Peter’s two epistles is unclear.  Jesus says, “But about that day or hour [of the end] no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matt. 24:36), but some scribes omitted the startling phrase “nor the Son” from their copies.

The Ebionite, Marcionite, and Gnostic passages above suggest that our Bible is a conglomeration of different traditions, with verses or chapters added as necessary to dull the edge of an unwanted concept.

This isn’t meant to be a thorough discussion of New Testament redaction.  Rather, I want to show just a few places where it is suspected and to suggest that it could have been even more widespread.  Claims as remarkable as those of the gospels must be built on more than “Well, they might not have been changed.”

The message of James differs from the message of Paul; the message of Paul differs from the message of Acts; the message of the Revelation of John differs from the message of the Gospel of John; and so forth.  Each of these authors was human, each of them had a different message, each of them was putting the tradition he inherited into his own words.3

Would writings be deliberately changed?  The author of Revelation apparently knew it was widespread enough to end with a curse against anyone who would modify his book.  The famous Testimonium Flavianum in Josephus (“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man …”) is almost universally said to have been added by later copyists.  With the pull of competing Christianities, the urge to “improve” a book might have been irresistible.

Would competing writings be destroyed?  It happened in Islam.  The “Uthmanic recension” was the process through which one version of the Koran was accepted and all competing versions destroyed.  The Nag Hammadi library seems to have been buried.  Why hide these books unless there was reason to fear destruction?  Perhaps, like the Koran, the Bible has been modified through destruction.

While historians have told us a remarkable amount about the societies from which Christianity arose, our understanding is changing even in our time.  For example, consider “Gabriel’s Revelation,” a recently discovered first century BCE writing that talks about a suffering messiah, not Jesus but Simon of Peraea.  “In three days you will know that evil will be defeated by justice.”  Do we conclude from this that resurrection after three days wasn’t a new concept to the Jesus-era Jews?  In this revelation, the messiah sheds blood, not for the benefit of sinners but for the redemption of Israel.

Of course we don’t discard the clues we have about the original New Testament documents, but let’s proceed with humility about how little we can say with confidence.

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

Next time: the last post in the series will take the step from gospel originals to the figure of Jesus.

1 Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus (HarperOne, 2005), p. 156.
2 Ehrman, 61.
3 Ehrman, 215.

Photo credit: Walter Noel

Word of the Day: Survival of the Fittest

What Would Jesus Say?The term “survival of the fittest” did not initially come from Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, though later editions did use it.  It was first coined by Herbert Spencer, after reading Origin.

While a convenient phrase, it can be confusing.  “Fit” in biological terms doesn’t mean what we commonly think (strong, quick, or agile, for example) but refers to how well adapted an organism is for an environment.  Think of it as puzzle-piece fit, not athlete fit.

Creationists sometimes use the phrase to mean that might makes right or that the most savage or ruthless or selfish will survive.  On the contrary, rather than might makes right, cooperation can be the better approach.  And even if evolution did have some bloodthirsty aspects to it, how does that change whether it’s an accurate theory or not?

NewScientist magazine says:

Although the phrase conjures up an image of a violent struggle for survival, in reality the word “fittest” seldom means the strongest or the most aggressive. On the contrary, it can mean anything from the best camouflaged or the most fecund to the cleverest or the most cooperative. Forget Rambo, think Einstein or Gandhi.

What we see in the wild is not every animal for itself. Cooperation is an incredibly successful survival strategy. Indeed it has been the basis of all the most dramatic steps in the history of life. Complex cells evolved from cooperating simple cells. Multicellular organisms are made up of cooperating complex cells. Superorganisms such as bee or ant colonies consist of cooperating individuals.

Note also that evolution is descriptive, not prescriptive; it simply says what is the case and doesn’t provide moral advice.  “I’ll model my morality on evolution” makes as much sense as “I’ll model my morality on the fact that arsenic kills people.”

Creationists sometimes twist Darwin’s The Descent of Man to argue that he favored eugenics.  Darwin’s damning paragraph said, in part, “hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.”  In the first place, whether Darwin ate babies plain or with barbeque sauce says nothing about whether evolution is accurate or not.  In the second place, the very next paragraph clarifies Darwin’s position about denying aid to the helpless.

Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.

“Survival of the fittest” is a handy description of natural selection as long as all parties understand what it means.

Photo credit: EvolveFish

Related links:

  • “Survival of the fittest,” Wikipedia.
  • Michael Le Page, “Evolution myths: ‘Survival of the fittest’ justifies ‘everyone for themselves,’” NewScientist, 4/16/08.