Is the Bible Stupid?

November 27, 2012

I have been quite busy lately managing a household of three teens with my wife, working full weeks and spending many extra hours in my work as a school board chair. As a result I haven’t been doing the reading, writing and discussing that I do in less busy times. So I have been doing a bit of catch up recently and something that caught my eye was a series over at Mike’s The A-Unicornist’ blog. Mike occasionally comments here so I stop by there when time permits and see what he is on about. Recently he did a short series called “Why Christianity is b***s***”. Obviously the title was meant to evoke the civil dialogue Mike always strives for.

Nonetheless, the series itself is the usual collection of Sunday school level objections that ancient people could never suggest anything of value to us obviously superior modern people. Most of it is just a vague re-hash of the New Atheist claptrap that every single New Atheist regurgitates to other audiences of New Atheists. It amazes me how constantly amused they are with such obviously limited material. Wouldn’t it be easier just to type ‘Ditto’ in the comments section of better known blogs like Jerry Coyne’s or PZ Myer’s?

Nonetheless Mike does say something at the end of his first installment (another intelligently named piece called The Bible is stupid – one can almost hear the third grader in him yuck-yucking at having thought up this title – “Hey, guys, I called the Bible stupid! Funny, huh?!”) which caught my eye. At the end he makes what I think is a somewhat intriguing point:

Think of all the things the Bible could be if it were really divinely inspired. Think of all the knowledge and insight such a holy book could contain that simply could never have been made up — profound scientific insights, timeless moral instruction, and revelation clear enough to prevent the innumerable schisms in Christian theology over fundamental issues, like how to attain salvation. Any sane, rational view of the Bible shows it to be little more than the confused scribblings of Bronze Age tribes.

I like this because it is one of the rare times when a skeptic actually puts on the table what they expect the Bible should say rather than merely criticizing what it does say. It’s allows us to explore the assumptions that go into rejecting Christianity.

Mike gives three things that he thinks would distinguish the Bible and give us warrant to accept it as revelation.

The first is “profound scientific insights”. This one comes as no surprise because if one has read Mike’s posts (or any New Atheist’s posts for that matter) one knows that scientific knowledge is his gold standard for knowledge. Ironically atheists most appreciate science because they think it allows them to explain the universe apart from God, so why profound scientific insight would lead us to believe in the Bible isn’t clear. However, atheists also tend to believe science has been the greatest boon to mankind, so if He truly existed, presumably God’s first order of business would be to fill our heads with scientific knowledge. But would this actually be so wise? As Mike himself points out, the Bible contains many insights into healthy living – disease controls like cleanliness and quarantine. It also talks about caring for the environment and how we might best use the resources we are given. Those are fairly profound insights which despite our own knowledge, we often fail to employ today. But knowledge isn’t merely a benefit; knowledge is power. The same knowledge which allows one to understand microbes and prevent disease can also be used to turn those those microbes into weapons. We expend a significant amount of effort trying to keep some societies – like Iran and North Korea – from gaining certain scientific knowledge about nuclear engineering because we understand they could use it for great evil. The same engineering principles that allow us to transport ourselves quickly across distances creates other societal problems like pollution and the breakdown of communities. So raw scientific insight isn’t all that helpful unless it occurs within a cultural context already tempered by moral considerations.

And to his credit Mike does mention “timeless moral instruction” as one aspect of revelation. Why he doesn’t find a set of instructions like the Ten Commandments to be ‘timeless’ isn’t clear. Quite obviously if we lived in a society where everyone was honest, avoided taking what wasn’t theirs, unselfish and respectful of others property as well as making truth the highest priority and occasionally resting from our labors, the world would be a deeply and profoundly better place. Imagine no third world corruption, no wars driven by greed, no murders over petty disputes, no fathers prioritizing work over time spent with family and friends and people respecting each other’s lives and property. No one can argue this wouldn’t transform human experience in the most amazing ways – humanity would have the ability to achieve in ways it never has before.

Jesus distills it down even further for those who can’t handle ten laws – He reduces all human morality to two simple rules – love God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. A world that could follow the simple rule of loving others as we loved ourselves would be as close to heaven on earth as we could possible imagine – in practice it would eliminate greed, most poverty, the suffering we intentionally cause one another and a significant portion of suffering caused by neglect. It is nothing if not timeless and profound.

So in this respect the moral instruction Scripture gives certainly meets the criteria Mike proposes for a revelation from God. Like most atheists, Mike might point out that others have come up with similar rules, and so why should we consider the Bible to be special in this regard? But the fact that the rules are simple doesn’t make them any less timeless or profound. In fact if the precepts Jesus taught were actually the way humans were intended to live, then we would expect that we would have some inherent inclination to come up with such rules. The Bible makes it clear that all humans have consciences that instruct them in what is moral – so it doesn’t surprise me when others come to the same conclusions about the best ways for humans to live together.

So given the obvious benefits of the Bible’s teachings and its pervasiveness at least in the Western world, why don’t all men act morally? If mere knowledge were sufficient then we would expect the knowledge of the Ten Commandments and Christ’s teachings to be sufficient to modify human behavior. And yet every single human continues to act selfishly and greedily in some form or another despite their moral and scientific knowledge. Knowledge is plainly not enough because what is wrong with humanity is not what we know, but our refusal to do what is right even when we know what is right. This is why the primary purpose of the Bible isn’t merely to convey knowledge, but to transmit the truths about our broken relationship with God and how it might be restored – because it is only through a restored relationship to God that we experience transformation and transformation is necessary to experience actual moral renewal for individuals, and for societies. This in turns leads to the stability and prosperity that allows us to enjoy the fruits of scientific knowledge and material wealth.

This leads to Mike’s third contention that a revelation from God would be “clear enough to prevent the innumerable schisms in Christian theology over fundamental issues”. Understanding mankind’s corruption and corruptibility explains why even though the Bible’s message of salvation is so simple a young child or mentally handicapped person can comprehend it that  people still fight over theology and traditions inside and outside the church. No one is above above this aspect of human nature – Mike wants atheists to have power and influence, and I want believers to have power and influence on our society, yet both groups can succumb to the corrupting influence such power brings.  No one is innocent in this regard. Such disputes aren’t evidence against the Bible but a primary evidence for it’s fundamental contention that human beings are sinners – that is they are corrupted in such a way that they don’t do what they ought. 

The Bible claims there is an escape from this downward cycle through spiritual transformation. Now the Bible may be wrong in this regard, but  if it is wrong nothing Mike suggests here will make a difference because humans already reject the knowledge they have. All civilizations fall and human endeavors grow corrupt and if and if there is no God, there is no escape from this. We are what we are and our fate is what it is.

Like most New Atheists Mike speaks as a beneficiary of the millennia long effort in Western Civilization to incorporate Christian values. He assumes because he inherited and internalized these values that they must be inherent to humanity and no outside agency is necessary to preserve these qualities – but this belies a profound ignorance of history, which has demonstrated again and again humans are always a generation away from barbarity. What is stupid isn’t the Bible, but the notion that knowledge is alone sufficient to transform human lives.

The Reliable Bible – The Davidic Kingdom

May 15, 2012

As I have mentioned before, contrary to the regular atheist meme there is actually a large body of evidence supporting the events chronicled in the Bible. Not only does such evidence exist in large quantities, it is constantly growing. And the evidence is not merely that which supports the general claims of the Bible in terms geography and place names, but it goes to the existence of very specific details concerning the experiences of the people mentioned in Scripture.

And such evidence often flies in the face of secular claims about Jewish history. One such example concerns the existence of the kingdom of King David. Atheists claim that the existence of such a kingdom is mythological, and the stories in the Old Testament were conveyed long after the supposed events took place. David and the kingdom the Old Testament claims he founded play a central role in both the Old and New Testaments. It is through the Davidic line that it was foretold the Messiah would come, and Jesus was understood to be from the line of David which helped establish His claim to be that promised Messiah. If the secular claim that David was mythological figure and no such kingdom existed is true, then the claims of both Jews and Christians could be rightly called into question and there is much reason to be skeptical of the accuracy of Scripture.

Recent evidence however appears to show that the Jewish traditions were already being practiced in the time period when the Davidic kingdom was said to exist, and that there were fortified cities and temples as befits an established nation. As ScienceDaily reports:

According to Prof. Garfinkel, “This is the first time that archaeologists uncovered a fortified city in Judah from the time of King David. Even in Jerusalem we do not have a clear fortified city from his period. Thus, various suggestions that completely deny the biblical tradition regarding King David and argue that he was a mythological figure, or just a leader of a small tribe, are now shown to be wrong.” Garfinkel continued, “Over the years, thousands of animal bones were found, including sheep, goats and cattle, but no pigs. Now we uncovered three cultic rooms, with various cultic paraphernalia, but not even one human or animal figurine was found. This suggests that the population of Khirbet Qeiyafa observed two biblical bans — on pork and on graven images — and thus practiced a different cult than that of the Canaanites or the Philistines.”

Specific objects mentioned in the Old Testament chronicle were also discovered, establishing the veracity of details mentioned there, as well as the familiarity of the writer with objects and time period considered:

The three shrines are part of larger building complexes. In this respect they are different from Canaanite or Philistine cults, which were practiced in temples — separate buildings dedicated only to rituals. The biblical tradition described this phenomenon in the time of King David: “He brought the ark of God from a private house in Kyriat Yearim and put it in Jerusalem in a private house” (2 Samuel 6).
The clay shrine is decorated with an elaborate façade, including two guardian lions, two pillars, a main door, beams of the roof, folded textile and three birds standing on the roof. Two of these elements are described in Solomon’s Temple: the two pillars (Yachin and Boaz) and the textile (Parochet).

It is impossible to explain how a writer could include such details unless he was personally familiar with them; certainly no writer could be so accurate hundreds of years later when secularists claim the text was written. Mythologies certainly aren’t known for detailed accuracies.

While this doesn’t in and of itself prove the miraculous aspects of the Old Testament, it does lend credence to the idea that the writer’s weren’t attempting to write mere fiction.

And it shows once again how vapid the secular criticisms of the Bible are.

The Reliable Bible – The Philistines

August 2, 2011

I have been a horribly negligent blogger lately in large part because summer lasts a handful of days in Minnesota, and if you are going to enjoy summer you have to head out the door every time the sun makes an appearance. The outdoors is a siren that calls me away from all screens in the summer, and I must obey her call; so the pickings are sparse around here as a result.

That being said, I keep a running list of topics I want to blog about. One subject that has appeared with increasing regularity has been evidence from archeology and linguistic studies that reinforce the historical reliability of the Bible. It has been a topic around here often enough that I decided to assign it its own category – The Reliable Bible.

To that end, a recent article on the MSNBC highlighted the work going on concerning the archeological record of the Philistines, a people group mentioned frequently in the Old Testament that were constantly at odds with the nation of Israel. Such work highlights the degree to which Biblical material was drawn from historical realities. From the article:

The hero Samson, who married a Philistine woman, skirmished with them repeatedly before being betrayed and taken, blinded and bound, to their temple at Gaza. There, the story goes, he broke free and shattered two support pillars, bringing the temple down and killing everyone inside, including himself.

One intriguing find at Gath is the remains of a large structure, possibly a temple, with two pillars.

Maeir has suggested that this might have been a known design element in Philistine temple architecture when it was written into the Samson story.

Diggers at Gath have also found shards preserving names similar to Goliath — an Indo-European name, not a Semitic one of the kind that would have been used by the local Canaanites or Israelites.

These finds show the Philistines indeed used such names and suggest that this detail, too, might be drawn from an accurate picture of their society.

The findings at the site support the idea that the Goliath story faithfully reflects something of the geopolitical reality of the period, Maeir said — the often violent interaction of the powerful Philistines of Gath with the kings of Jerusalem in the frontier zone between them.

Absent the details in Scripture, it is unlikely that archeologist would know anything about the Philistines – certainly not to the degree shown here, and they certainly wouldn’t be able to place them into a detailed historical context. In turn, the discovery of such artifacts supports the Biblical narrative. Each body of knowledge informs and expands on the other.

Many skeptics might consider the fact that Scripture accurately describes names, places, events and people groups accurately to be inconsequential or trivial – this despite the fact that one of the primary criticisms skeptics have of the Bible is that it does not accurately record history

But such details or not at all trivial – instead they portray a consistent record of accuracy and almost painful dedication to getting details right, and this indicates that the record contained in Scripture is trustworthy – a record that was created over the course of millennia, by numerous authors.

The body of proof that the Bible is an apt historical record is growing – the question is, at what point do skeptics acknowledge it?

A Dialogue with Judge – 2

April 25, 2011

This is the second and last in a series responding to some questions a semi-regular poster on the site, ‘Judge’ had about some of my recent articles and claims. Judge first asks a number of addition questions, starting with these three:

1. What does it mean for something to be the ‘basis’ of a culture/society? How does it inform that society in practice? If we’re talking about cultural, aesthetic, artistic influence, why is Christianity privileged over something like, say, the Greco-Roman world, which is just as preponderantly present everywhere in our culture?

I think this is fairly straight forward, and I have mentioned it briefly before. I think when I say ‘basis’ of our culture/society I am talking about the origin and development of those aspects that make up a society – the arts, music, literature, philosophies, politics, economics, etc. Even more particularly I am talking about the operating principles of a society.

In American society for example there are a number of defining principles, like human equality, inherent and definitive rights and the respect for conscience that can be specifically traced to our Christian worldview. Also critical is our understanding of human nature and how it informs our political philosophies and economics. Take for example one simple one – the view of human nature as corruptible. That is a distinctly Christian view derived from what Christians refer to as the ‘sin nature’, the view that we have a tendency follow our own selfish desires and are tempted by various enticements. The very structure of our government reflects that in its checks and balances system – a system meant to prevent selfish human ambition from becoming tyrannical.

2. Do you reckon that Hinduism, Buddhism and the like form the ‘basis’ of the Indian, Chinese, Japanese, etc. societies? If that is so, then do you think it is possible for the basis of a society to be something other than religious? If so, can you provide an example? If not, then isn’t your point tautological – aren’t you just using the word ‘basis’ as just a synonim for ‘religion’?

No – if I say ‘flour is the basic and essential ingredient of bread’ it does not then follow that flour is synonymous with bread. However it might be essential to making bread. I think that invariably a society requires some sort of over-arching view about the nature of humanity and their relationship to each other, and principles by which to operate. I think the few times we have those principles have been derived from purely material or atheistic philosophies, the societies they have produced have been dismal failures – examples of that would be Revolutionary France, the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, N. Korea, to name a few.

3. Are bases of societies necessarily monological – that is to say, is it possible to conceive of a society split in two or more different, competing cultural forces for its basis? Is it possible that the political division of right and left reflects the fact that society doesn’t have a single ‘base’, but more than one force acting in competition with each other, and that these forces put together form the real ‘basis’ of the society within which they work?

Sure, I don’t see Western society as only being the product of Christianity, and I have never made this claim. We have a long and varied influence with many influences. And there have been many failures along the way, as I said before stops and starts, steps forward and back. The same is true for most human societies. But I don’t think this prevents us from clearly seeing how the operating principles of Western society have largely been influenced by Christianity. At some level I think the politics of right and left, at leastin the extreme, reflect radically different views of human nature and the operating principles of government.

As it were, Christianity led to an equally complex set of superstitions and mythologies on the architecture of heaven, the number of angels and archangels, not to mention saints, as well as demons, witches, exorcisms, vampires and spirits, the structure of heaven and hell (which is completely fictitious, as the details barely appear in Scripture), and cloudy theological mysteries like the Trinity. I’m assuming you’ve read the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost? They’re every bit as colourful as the Odyssey or the Metamorphoses. Again, I have the impression that you’re assigning to Christianity a ‘special status’ of some kind. Much like you burden science with things which Christianity is no less vulnerable to, so you accuse pagan religions of issues which are also present in Christianity.

I think you are confusing ‘Christianity’ (that is a scripturally based belief system derived from the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles) with the history of Christian Europe. There is no doubt that over the millennia a number of ideas have been introduced either as a derivative of or emanation of Christianity. In fact you acknowledge above that many of these ideas are completely fictitious and have no basis in Scripture. The writing of Milton and Dante were impactful and certainly influenced by certain ideas in Scripture, but they were never themselves considered doctrinal or traditional beliefs of Scripture – they were taken for what they were, powerful poetic ruminations on the implications of certain Biblical ideals – and they were notably allegorical with respect to the events at the time they were written.

In fact I would say this has been the great battle of Christianity over the years, the fight against maintain a pure doctrine derived from foundational orthodox beliefs and keep it from being tainted by human superstition and speculation. The Reformation was critical in this regard as it elevated Scripture into its proper centrality in the church, and made it available to believers for review and comprehension. From this we see Christian thinkers like Francis Bacon developing the scientific methodology as a bulwark not against Christianity, but against the ‘idols of men’s minds’ – superstitions and biases.

Also, the cosmology that you advocate is a bit of a free interpretation. The Gospel certainly doesn’t encourage scientific enquiry to understand God’s laws. I wouldn’t say that Acts 19:19 encourages open research, for example: Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men. The Old Testament does include more cosmological statements, though I’d like to see the specific passages by which you sustain an interpretation which seems to me rooted outside of Scripture (where do you get this idea that since the universe is made for us, it follows that we’re equipped to understand it?).

I find it curious that you see the passage in Acts 19:19 as anti-science. The word ‘curious arts’ is from the Greek periergos or in this context ‘magic arts’. The Christians were destroying their own books on magic – that isn’t a superstitious act, in fact in the full reading it’s the opposite! They were ridding themselves of superstitious items.

Also, the God in the OT is not too different from Zeus/Jupiter. A quick comparison of Yhwh in the Bible with Zeus/Jupiter in Homer and Virgil reveals the same fundamental function – an anthropomorphised fulcrum of physical, legal, moral, cosmic authority. The details are different, of course, and Zeus is anthropomorphised more explicitly, but their literary role is the same. In this sense the pagan minor gods have an almost subsidiary role, like the angels (consider the scene in the Iliad where Zeus tells Hera, ‘even if every other god in the world pulled a rope in one direction and I in another, it would still go where I’m pulling it.’).

I disagree strongly with this – Zeus was a child of Cronus, part of a genealogy of Gods – Jehovah is the ‘I am’, ever existing and transcendent. Zeus rules men according to his own whims and desires – Jehovah rules men according to well defined and unchangeable laws. In Greek mythology the troubles of men are a punishment for transgression of gods – in the Old Testament men suffer because of choices they made to transgress the eternal will of the only Jehovah. Jehovah inhabits no earthly place, and the universe is His creation, subject to his laws. The Greek god’s demi-gods inhabit earthly places and phenomena in nature are the result of their activities. Jehovah makes covenants with men that are eternal and binding – Zeus is fickle and deceptive and acts according to his own selfish purposes. I could go on, but I think the differences are clear.

If Christianity ‘cleared the way’ for scientific thinking, why is it that the period immediately following its consolidation in Europe was the most stagnant in scientific progress (or any progress) in European history – namely, the Dark Ages? Why didn’t science just immediately follow, instead of having to wait almost one thousand years to flourish again? Doesn’t this suggest that the direct connection you propound is in fact a fiction?

First off, ‘science’, that is the methodology developed by Francis Bacon didn’t ‘flourish’ previous to Christianity. In fact one of the most important steps Bacon and other thinkers of his time did was to free themselves from the hindrances of Greek and Roman thinking vis-à-vis natural phenomena – namely the use of deductive syllogisms to interpret nature as opposed to the inductive reasoning employed by Bacon’s methodology. And I am not sure what your view is of history, but Christianity didn’t become ‘immediately’ become consolidated in Europe – Rome stopped persecuting Christians around 300AD. After that it began to spread over Europe over the course of hundreds of years while facing growing challenges from Islam in the South, Huns from the East, Mongols from the Far East, plagues, and the incorporation and corrupting influences of Rome itself.

I think it would be simplistic to expect the immediate development of science, which depends not only certain principles, but also on the establishment of universities, the ability to publish and disseminate books and the freedom to exchange ideas. This doesn’t negate the fact that the scientific method sprung out of the thinking and writing of Reformation era Christian thinkers, who had those advantages – in large part because of the Reformation itself.

Furthermore, it is also ‘disproved as humanly possible’ that the earth and man weren’t created in seven days, that a man cannot be resurrected from death or water be turned into wine just by sheer will, nor can blindness be cured by touching a forehead, and that man evolved from the apes. You could claim that some or all of these things are metaphorical, but then, why isn’t Apollo’s chariot metaphorical as well?

I think you have conflated a few things here and missed the point in the process. The claim that Apollo’s chariot pulled the sun across the sky was an attempt to specifically explain directly observable phenomena in nature; i.e. that the sun moves across the sky. As we have disproved this religious idea it has been demonstrated that we can in fact disprove religious ideas, contra the claim that, “that no scientific theory can “disprove” any unfalsifiable assertion, whether religious or otherwise.” I think both by observation and scientifically derived explanation we have in fact disproved the idea that a chariot is pulling the sun across the sky.

With regard to the aforementioned miracles (water to wine, the resurrection, and blindness cured) these aren’t attempts to explain natural phenomena, but chronicles of unique events understood to have happened in the past. Though I think they can be discussed and debated reasonably and believed for perfectly rationale reasons, I don’t think they can be (nor have they been) disproved scientifically because they aren’t subject to current observation or experimentation. And as they aren’t offered as explanations for certain observable phenomena (as Apollo’s chariot was) then we wouldn’t expect science to contradict them in the same way.

And concerning the origin of the universe, earth, and mankind, I don’t think it is required that one has to see the description in Genesis as either an attempted scientific explanation or a metaphorical description – I have written elsewhere about how they should be viewed, which doesn’t contradict our current scientific understanding at all.

So I guess the short answer here is no, science has not disproved these things in the same way it has disproved other religious ideas, though I think it could render them untenable.

Jack says: Even in the OT you have Jewish laws which advocated practices like sterilization, quarantine, ritual cleansing, avoiding potential disease bearing vectors, not to mention the fact that certain living practices like those that forbade sexual promiscuity which would have avoided a host of diseases (like AIDs, which now plagues Africa).

I understand what you’re saying, but do bear in mind that a correct application of guided scientific methods – like contraception – would have been as effective as a correct application of religious ones in preventing the spread of Aids. Once again, you’re giving the lip to Christianity – there’s many more systems which would have been great for humanity if everybody had agreed to apply them, the problem is that people don’t. A doctrine that fails to account for human fallibility is responsible for the evil that is perpetrated as a result of this failure. Marxism, for example.

I find this somewhat contradictory and convoluted claim here. On one hand you admit the strictures given in the OT would have been effective in preventing a number of human ills, but then go on to claim that certain scientifically derived solutions would have been ‘as effective’ as the Scriptural solutions. But then you criticize Scripture for failing to ‘account for human fallibility’. Obviously the existence of contraceptives and prophylactics and medicines haven’t succeeded in eradicating the same problems for the very same reasons – so we are only left with the conclusion that our primary problem as a species is our fallibility! Or as the Bible puts it, it is the fact that we are corrupted but our sin nature. We have an inherent tendency to act according to self-destructive desires and so undermine potential solutions. And that is why science alone is not sufficient to deal with these problems – because it doesn’t solve for the problem (nor recognize it). But the whole point of the Bible is to point out that this problem exists, that it is the primary cause for human suffering, and that there exists a means to address the human condition. Science will never solve this for us, which is why the Bible is essential in this regard.

I fully agree with the last sentence, but yet again, what’s with the special status of Christianity? It never succeeded in changing human nature and our tendency to live immorally. We’ve had two-thousand years of it and it doesn’t seem to me like human nature has changed or wars have stopped. Yeah, of course if everybody followed the tenets Christianity, it would all work well, but that point is moot. Even fascism would ensure stability and peace if everybody were to follow the principles of Obey, Believe, Work. Or Communism, for that matter.

Well again, I think we in the Christian West live in one of the freest, healthiest, most prosperous places and times in human history. I think this is true in large part because Christian principles have been incorporated into our lives and society in a way they never have before. Not perfectly, but widely and uniquely from a historical perspective.

And beyond that Christianity is personally transformative, so that whether or not society at large accepts Christianity as true, an individual can experience the freedom and joy of faith in Christ. This is quite different than systemic solutions like Communism which depend on forcing individuals to comply with impositions by the state or society. Christianity is ‘bottom-up’, which is why it is organic and progressive unlike human systems which are ‘top-down’ and require certain entities to compel others to act a certain way. This is the inherent danger of atheism – it has no power to transform, and yet seeks to bend others to its will – which is why atheistic systems invariably become totalitarian.

Judge, I hope this addresses some if not most of you points. Thanks for taking the time to have this dialogue.