Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Bible-victory by Bible-concession

Sometimes, when confronted with an especially un-God-like passage or pair of passages from what we all know to be the Most Amazing Book of all Time, Christians have a rather interesting response along the following lines:

Look, the Bible is the product of dozens of writers working over hundreds of years in the contexts of many different cultures. Furthermore, the actual canon was decided by councils of fallible human beings. Of course it's going to contain
errors, contradictions, nonsensical stories, and morally problematic bits!

My first reaction to this is, wait, what was the atheist's original question again? Because whatever it was, it seems to have been answered with agreement.

"How can you say the Bible is God-breathed when it contains X?"

"Because the Bible isn't God-breathed, that's how! At least, X certainly wasn't."

Believe me, I get that the sophisticated mainstream understanding of the Bible holds that such superficial notions as Mosaic authorship and the-real-Luke-writing-Luke have gone out the window. (Actually, that second one never had currency, which only makes me more confused about how Christians ever found the canonical gospels so authoritative.) I get that God influenced the creation of the Bible very subtly. Very, vvveerrry subtly, perhaps by means of butterflies. So subtly, in fact, that…

… that it doesn't distinguish itself from other holy texts on any grounds. And even if some part of the Bible did contain an irrefutable piece of prophecy or other wondrous knowledge, that would at most speak to a need to examine and appreciate the specific writing in question, be it Esther or Jonah or Revelation. And we still wouldn't have much to accept the book as truth apart from the independent evidence anyway.

Consider Darwin's Origin of the Species. It includes a few errors and fallacies, such as (in its early editions) the hypothesis that the landgoing ancestor of whales was bearlike (in fact, it was a carnivorous ungulate, awesomely enough). This suggests that just because Darwin got so much right isn't enough reason to accept any single thing he said; it's the independent evidence that justifies our doing so. Neither Darwin nor the Origin is "evidence for" evolution, merely a recorder and record of evidence.

Religion, conversely, doesn't work like science in that respect; at the end of the day, the texts are the big deal. Any evidence that Paul or Mohammad or Joseph Smith, and/or their texts, were less than divinely inspired (whether their mental or moral faculties are called into question) is evidence against the religion, because the religion doesn't allow itself to go by anything else. There isn't a non-Mormon archaeology of the Lamanites; either you're a Mormon and accept them or you're not and you don't. Religion is by definition faith-based. It's somewhat like how — warning, cliche up ahead — alternative medicine that's demonstrated to be effective is no longer alternative medicine.

Once you concede that your holy book is 100% human and 0% divine, you concede whatever religion builds itself around the book. You can still call yourself a Whateverite, but it's much more a cultural than religious designation, like being a secular Jew. (In my compassion and magnanimity, I allow for exceptions for those areas of religious practice which travel into the realms of philosophy and mental/physical exercise, such as Buddhist meditation, Scientological auditing, or Hindu yoga. Lots of atheists and agnostics practice those — well, maybe not the middle one, but for a few.)

On top of all that, "The Bible" is just an artificial human assemblage that is no more "a book" than my DVD collection is a movie. Which brings me full circle: That phrasing of the situation is just the sort of language that some use to defend its divinity.

It's like a homeopath defending homeopathy by saying "Of course it didn't outperform placebo — it's just water!"

Do I expect ill people doused with homeopathic water to be instantly healed? Do I expect the Bible to read as though every iota and keraia (Matt. 5:18) was dictated by the Lord of All? Nope. I just expect the respective viewpoints to at least distinguish themselves from other pseudosciences/religions. And when they fail to, I'm just not that impressed with "It's because they're all true."

Friday, March 12, 2010

This God Character

My atheist body includes a theistic ear. I'm not sure if it's my right or left one. Sometimes, I hear an atheist make an argument I more or less agree with, but my theistic ear tells me that, from the perspective of the religious, something is amiss, something that makes the whole thing fall apart. It's like hearing a record needle whine under a symphony.

One such argument is that which takes the following form: Belief in God is like belief in Zeus or Osiris: they are equally indefensible, and the atheist needs no particular argument to even support lack of belief. Do I agree with this? In a sense, yes — God (sometimes accompanied by his son-avatar) is indeed just our culture's current popular deity. But the problem is that, unsurprisingly, the religious don't view that to be the case.

Language is a major obstacle here. God's parents picked a very, very smart name for him, one that makes his existence seem that much more "generic" (think deism) and less "specific" (think Sistine Chapel ceiling). When atheists speak of all those ancient gods, then compare the modern monotheistic God to them, it sort of sounds to theists the way it would sound if someone wished to declare that the chemical periodic table is a fraud from hydrogen to copernicum, and used, by way of example, the Aristotelian elements of earth, air, fire, and water. Whether she's right about this or not (the answer is not), the theist thinks God, a divine Presence, and "gods", those squabbling super-beings, are simply two totally different creatures. God isn't a deity. He is the phenomenon of Deity itself.

Despite its seeming modernness, this is not a new line of thought on the subject. One of history's earliest outspoken monotheists (well, monolotrists) was the famous Akhenaten, predecessor to the even famouser Tutankhamen. Akhenaten wished to establish Atenism, a form of the Egyptian religion that focused solely on the sun figure Aten. For Akhenaten, the other gods were trifles, merely the stars to Aten's sun. (He had, of course, no idea that stars are suns themselves, many of them larger and brighter than ours.) He felt that it was a category error to even call Aten a god — gods were lesser beings.

I think the parallel I'm drawing there is clear. In fact, I'm not sure what my point is beyond that. I do think that by emphasizing those aspects of modern religions which are not exactly pantheistic helps a lot in the retreat of religion into Eagleton-Armstrong-land, where it has ceased to even recognizably be religion (though they'll keep insisting that that's where things always stood).

Okay, I have another point beyond that: the degree to which Akhenaten was hated and opposed by his people (it was their relief at his passing that lead to the popularity, and hence tomb-wealth, of his successor King Tut) strongly suggests that they took their deities seriously. In other words, an ancient Egyptian who heard the word Osiris would not think "childish fairy-tale belief" but "very real divine being". This is part of where the language barrier, how the connotations of words and names change over time, gets in the way. Because of this barrier, the argument seems to fail; "God isn't like those gods; they were fiction, while God is philosophy."

Perhaps the best examples to use in the "compare to other religions" family of arguments are modern religions that bear similarity to whichever religion is being discussed; in contrast to the ancients, it's much harder to think of your fellow present-day humans as being hopelessly deluded. Ask Catholics why they are not Mormons, and Mormons why Muhammad's revelation is less correct than Joseph Smith's. It gets the ball rolling.