Thursday, November 22, 2007

Biblical Interpretation - part 2

In response to an article on the Guardian Comment is Free site, I made some comments that cover related ground to my previous post. Here they are.

In response to the comment “Fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist atheists share the same delusion: they take the Bible far too seriously.”, I said:

I agree that Fundamentalist Christians take the Bible far too seriously. However, I would extend this to all Christians. By contrast, I do not take the Bible seriously at all. This is because I believe it to be just a book written by humans, and disagree that it contains any divine message, since I doubt the existence of the Christian God (for the record, I also doubt that the historical Jesus ever existed). However, I am forced to refer to it if I want to debate Christians, since so many of them continue to justify their beliefs and actions by reference to the Bible.

That Christians have felt able to do this has historically allowed them to justify the oppression, torture, and killing of so-called heretics, apostates and other undesirables. Even such Christian luminaries as Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther felt justified in sanctioning such atrocious actions by reference to the Bible. Perhaps you feel better qualified then these religious scholars to determine how the Christian faith should be interpreted.

“But you still seem strangely hung up on the letter of the text.”

As I said previously, I am only responding to those Christians who insist on quoting chapter and verse in order to justify their beliefs and actions.

“Most Christians couldn't care less about Leviticus, frankly: they haven't read it, and wouldn't know what to make of it if they did.”

Let’s face it, most Christians have barely read the Bible at all. Rather, their epistemology consists of one of the varieties of Christianity that they have taken as an off-the-shelf package (most likely the one into which they were born), and then made their own unskilled adjustments to.

Beyond that, those people who tend to see the world in black and white terms, and who wish to justify their own tendencies towards intolerance and smiting their neighbours will find plenty of support in the Old Testament. They might further believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, will generally ignore the fact that it is full of contradictions and inconsistencies, and will have a faith that is largely unshakable in the face of contrary evidence.

On the other hand, those who see the world in much more grey terms, and who wish to justify their liberal tendencies will find more material in the New Testament. They will probably refer rather less to the Bible, as they are aware that it is a can of worms. However, they work very hard to come up with theological justifications for ignoring whole tracts of the Bible (including most of the Old Testament), and interpreting much of what remains. Nevertheless, when they do find something that they agree with, they will happily quote it – as if it can be used to justify some moral precept or other. This rather ignores the fact that it is rather ridiculous to attempt justify some moral or epistemological belief by reference to the Bible if, at the same time, they are forced to ignore all the passages that flatly contradict what they are saying. It is nothing but cherry picking. Anybody who attempted to do such things in other areas (science, law etc) by reference to other books would be laughed at.

Nevertheless, for atheists and people of other religions, they are far preferable to the first sort of Christian, since they are far less inclined towards oppression, torture, and killing. They are also far more likely to doubt their faith. Fortunately, in the more secular Western societies, this type of liberal Christian is currently in the majority.

Most Christians will then also go through such mental pirouettes as are needed in order to reconcile contradictions such as:

1. They believe that their god is onmibenevolent, but the god of the Old Testament is clearly described as a jealous, vindictive, petty, and bloodthirsty tyrant.

2. They further believe that their god is omniscient and omnipotent, and yet it allows a vast amount of human and animal suffering in the world – both man made and natural. The system created by their god is one in which animals must kill and eat each other in order to survive, and most humans and animals throughout all history have led short, painful, and brutish lives. They attempt to explain this away (theodicy) by appeal to such things as human free will (which, in the face of determinism is likely illusory, but is anyway irrelevant in the case of suffering caused by natural disasters etc.), or the benefits of suffering in terms of encouraging more virtue (an abhorrent idea that is just an entirely ad-hoc excuse, and anyway doesn't come close to justifying the vast quantity of suffering in the World, and its indiscriminate distribution. And, why should the cultivation of virtue or courage be worth all that suffering? Couldn't God just make us virtuous or courageous from the start?).

3. They believe that God wants us to understand his message, and thus to be saved. And yet, he only revealed this message to a tiny number of people in the distant past. Furthermore, this message was, or has become, confused and ambiguous. Moreover, the evidence for his existence is very weak. Hence, millions of people have never heard this message, or have rejected it. They will therefore not be saved, as they either have some other religion, or no religion at all. How could an all-powerful and all-loving god allow this state of affairs to persist?

4. They believe that their god would create a universe that is unimaginably old, huge, and lethal to life just so that one species of lifeform could eventually evolve on a planet orbiting an ordinary star – amongst countless billions of stars in billions of galaxies. The stated purpose of this lifeform’s existence is just to give praise to this god.

5. They believe that they can communicate with their god by means of prayer, but only seem to receive banal, unverifiable, or contradictory messages. For example, some are apparently told to help relieve human suffering, whilst others are told to rape and murder women.

6. To quote Richard Carrier, they believe that there is a "disembodied, universally present being with magical powers; that this superbeing actually conjured and fabricated the present universe from nothing; that we have souls that survive the death of our bodies (or that our bodies will be rebuilt in the distant future by this invisible superbeing); and that this being possessed the body of Jesus two thousand years ago, who then performed supernatural deeds before miraculously rising from the grave to chat with his friends, and then flew up into outer space." This they believe in the complete absence of any remotely compelling evidence.

7. They believe that their religion is the source of human morality, and that without it we should all lose our moral compass. This is despite the fact that such basic moral foundations as reciprocal altruism and prohibitions upon murder are present in almost all societies - primitive or complex, Christian or otherwise (and is even seen in some primate societies). Moreover, the Ancient Greeks had a very well developed ethical system long before the Christians came along. Further, there is very good data that shows a strong positive correlation between a society’s level of religiousity and the prevalence of all sorts of ills – crime, illiteracy, mortality rates etc. This doesn't necessarily imply a causual relationship, but it does completely undermine the idea that morality is dependent upon religion. More on the subject of morality here.

8. In the face of such weak reasons for believing in this god as opposed to any other, or to none, they say that unquestioning belief by ‘faith’ is a virtue. Moreover, those who choose not to believe by means of faith run the risk of everlasting torment in a Hell created by their omnibenevolent god. As St. Anselm of Canterbury said, theology is fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding). This neatly summarises its baselessness. Furthermore, why should this type of faith (i.e. belief contrary to, or in the absence of evidence) be seen as something that is intrinsically valuable? Why would God wish to cultivate such an apparently counter-productive tendency? Of course, it is very convenient when your central thesis is one that does run counter to the evidence.

“Law, I'm not so sure”.

On reflection, I’ll grant you that. Science is to me much closer to the ideal model for how to seek knowledge. To quote Richard Carrier (by the way, I would highly recommend reading the whole article), this is how it works:

“Long ago, people could make up any theories they wanted. As long as their theory fit the evidence, it was thought credible. But an infinite number of incompatible theories can fit the evidence. We can design a zillion religions that fit all the evidence, yet entail Christianity is false. And we can design a zillion secular worldviews that do the same. We could all be brains in a vat. Buddha could have been right. Allah may be the One True God. And so on, ad infinitum. But since only one of these countless theories can be true, it follows that the odds are effectively infinity to one against any theory being true that is merely compatible with the evidence. In other words, not a chance in hell. Therefore, we cannot believe a theory simply because it can be made to fit all the evidence. To do so would effectively guarantee our belief will be false.

Fortunately, people came up with what we now call the scientific method, a way to isolate some of these theories compatible with all the evidence and demonstrate that they are more likely to be true than any of the others. The method works like this (and this is very important): first we come up with a hypothesis that explains everything we have so far observed (and this could be nothing more than a creative guess or even a divine revelation--it doesn't matter where a hypothesis comes from); then we deduce what else would have to be observed, and what could never be observed, if that hypothesis really were true (the most crucial step of all); and then we go and look to see if our predictions are fulfilled in practice. The more they are fulfilled, and the more different ways they are fulfilled, the more likely our hypothesis is true.

But that isn't the end of it. To make sure our theories are more likely the true ones (as any old theory can be twisted to fit even this new evidence), they have to be cumulative--compatible with each other--and every element of a theory has to be in evidence. We can't just "make up" anything. Whatever we make up has to be found in the evidence. For example, when Newton explained the organization of the solar system, he knew he was restricted to theories that built on already proven hypotheses. Every element of his theory of the solar system was proved somewhere, somehow: the law of gravity had an independent demonstration, the actual courses of the planets were well observed and charted, and so on. Nothing in his theory was simply "made up" out of whole cloth. He knew the data on planetary behavior had been multiply confirmed. He knew there was gravity acting at a distance. The rest followed as a matter of course.”

Of course, science is a human endeavour, so it is inevitably subject to such human failings as jealousy, petty rivalries, deference to authority, dogmatic attachment to one’s pet theory etc. However, and this is very important, science is ultimately self-correcting. That’s what makes the scientific method so useful.

Furthermore, and contrary to what the layman might believe, all of science’s theories and laws are only provisional. No matter how well accepted a theory is, and how many times it has passed rigorous testing, the evidence may still be found to refute it. As Popper said, any proper scientific theory should be falsifiable. Hence, scientists are (or should be) never entirely sure of any scientific knowledge. By contrast, what would it take to falsify your Christian belief and cause you to reject it (if, as I assume, you are a Christian)?

“It's about the sort of person who craves certainty, I suppose”

I suspect that you are alluding to the ubiquitous view amongst theists that atheists are fundamental in the disbelief in God. However, in my case (and of other atheists that I know), I am not certain that the Christian god doesn’t exist. Rather, I believe that the arguments for the existence of Christian god in particular (as opposed to some inscrutable universe-creating intelligence) are very weak. They are either logically flawed, or require the inclusion of huge numbers of entirely ad-hoc assumptions in order to square them with the evidence. This process makes the theory unfalsifiable, since the appearance of more contrary evidence will just be explained away by inventing more ad-hoc assumptions. Moreover, the arguments against the existence of the Christian god in particular are very strong.

Hence, I see no reason to favour the existence of the Christian god over an infinity of other gods (or universe-creating intelligences) that I could make up. So, whilst I am not sure that the Christian god doesn’t exist, I consider this likelihood to be so remote as to be safely discounted as an explanation for the existence of us and the universe. The fact that millions of people believe it to be true makes it no more likely to be so. Since millions of religious people have mutually exclusive ideas of creation, it is guaranteed that millions of them are wrong. I would argue that they are all wrong.

The latest scientific thinking is pointing towards the idea that our universe may be just one in an infinite ensemble of island universes that may have always existed. However, we may never be able to know this for sure. So, questions about the any meaning in the existence in the universe may never be answered. In fact we may never know if asking questions like this make any sense at all. On the small scale, we may never be able to penetrate to the smallest constituents of matter, or even know whether such constituents exist. So, in the face of such uncertainty, I am humble in my lack of knowledge. However, I still think that in the (possibly fruitless) search for answers, the concepts of the universe-creating Christian god can be effectively discounted.

“Hang on a minute. How much oppression, torture and killing have Christians been doing lately? That was years ago. Always with the Inquisition”

I think that history, together with a cursory look around our world today, confirms that any totalitarian regime with a dogmatic attachment to a belief system inevitably leads to the oppression, torture, and murder of certain of its citizens. This was the case with Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Hitler’s Germany, and any number of past and current theocracies. The power of Christianity in the West has been very much reduced during the last few hundred years. However, when it had more power, it used it to enforce conformity to its rules (often under pain of death). Evidence from current theocracies (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan etc.) suggests that this tendency is still alive and well. Even in the States, whilst a lack of religion won’t get you killed (unless at the hands of some lone fundamentalist), it is used in all sorts of insidious ways to make life difficult for atheists. In a recent survey, atheists were identified as the most hated minority in American society.

What I and other atheists are on our guard for is any evidence of a slide away from a secular society, as that is the route away from Enlightenment values such as equality and freedom of speech. We need to be very careful to preserve an effectively secular state (not atheist but secular), as this gives the greatest freedom for all – religious and non-religious alike. If any one religion achieves too much power, then human nature dictates that it will inevitably attempt to coerce others into adherance to that religion.

By the way, it is a fallacy that the atrocities of the communist states in the 20th century are the inevitable result of atheism. Atheism is not an ideology; it is just the absence of religious belief. What happened under Stalin and Mao were the results of totalitarian regimes that held a dogmatic attachment to communist ideals, and set their leaders up as quasi-gods. What I would propose instead is a secular state that is run along humanistic lines. To paraphrase Sam Harris, nobody was ever killed because we became too reasonable.

“I'm not sure about that either. In the sense that they doubt they have all the answers, certainly”

That is indeed what I mean. It seems to me that some liberal Christians must have an unresolved conflict going on in their minds. They would like to believe in some of the fantastical tenets of Christianity (existence of God, virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus, heaven etc.) despite the lack of any good supporting evidence but, in the final analysis, can only justify doing so by means of faith.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Biblical Interpretation

This post is in response to a post on Stephen Law's blog - see here. Stephen was referring to a book called Outrageous Tales From the Old Testament, and somebody left a comment to say that:

"...I would just like to say that I find that Christian fundamentalists and secular fundamentalists read the bible in the same way. How do they read it? Entirely without sophistication, unable to appreciate irony, humor, metaphor, or purposeful moral ambiguity. They leave everything they may have ever learned about literature behind them..."

Comments along these lines are often heard from liberal Christians, who believe that the Bible requires their particular interpretation in order to be understood correctly. Here is my reply:

There are a number of problems with such interpretation in general, including, but not limited to the following:

1) Many Biblical passages containing contradictions, absurdities, atrocities, or intolerance of one sort or another are, on the face of it, explicitly clear in their meaning, and are not really open to any alternative interpretations.

2) It might be someone's opinion that such and such Biblical chapter or verse should be interpreted metaphorically or ironically. However, the onus is surely upon this person to justify why the passage should be interpreted in such a way, and not as it is explicitly written. For example, try to do this with the following Biblical quotes:

"He that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him." -- Leviticus 24:16

"They found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day. ... And the LORD said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones.... And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the LORD commanded Moses." Numbers 15:32-56

"Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." Exodus 22:18

“If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” Lev.20:13

“Whosoever would not seek the LORD God of Israel should be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman.” 2 Chronicles 15:13“

“If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die.” Deuteronomy 13:6-10

“If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.” -- Deuteronomy 21:18-21

3) It is evident that the Liberal Christian only feels the need to ‘interpret’ those passages in the Bible that do not accord with our current knowledge and morality e.g. those containing absurdities or preaching intolerance or hatred.

4) If we are to allow the text of the Bible to be interpreted in such a subjective and personal way, then how are we to discriminate between what can and can't be interpreted in a way other than it is written?

For example, perhaps the rejoinders in the Bible to do good were meant to be ironic, and not to be taken literally? Perhaps the resurrection of Jesus was only metaphorical? Perhaps Jesus didn't exist at all, but was only a myth that was intended to be symbolic? Perhaps even the whole concept of God himself was meant to be interpreted metaphorically?

5) For me, as an atheist, I have no qualms about ignoring what is written in the Bible, as I consider it a ragbag collection of myths, superstitions, historical events, and often highly dubious morality. However, surely the self-professed Christian does not have this luxury?

For example, if God actually does exist (as the Christian must believe), and did explicitly command that Sabbath breakers (or gays, or witches, or people of other religions) should be stoned to death, and the liberal Christian ignores this injunction (thinking it to be ironic or metaphorical), then surely they are running a terrible risk? For, if this command was not intended to be interpreted or ignored, then the liberal Christian risks spending an eternity in Hell? To rework Pascals' Wager, if the Christian unnecessarily keeps the Sabbath, then they have little to lose. However, if they mistakenly do not keep it, then they risk an eternity in Hell.

Furthermore, if these commands were issued by God, then who do the liberal Christians think they are to presume to know better than an omniscient and omnipotent being?

And, on a lighter note, here is a bit of fun to finish with.