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.


The Heresiarch said...

Hi Nick,

A.C. is back, so let's all pile over to his place: there isn't room in this little space to look at all your arguments.

And please come over to my blog at some time. You might be surprised. I'm actually an atheist, although I have some good friends who are Christians, and know where they're coming from.

The reason I defend liberal Christians from people like you is that I want them to throw in their lot with the defenders of the Enlightenment project. It's not really fair to criticise them for not believing every word in the Bible, and then start ripping the Bible to shreds by demonstrating how complex and contradictory it is, as though that mattered. That isn't how faith works. It will never be destroyed by logical arguments.

There are all sorts of reasons for believing the "fantastical tenets" of Christianity, including tradition, personal spiritual experience, a belief that the resurrection "fits the facts", such as the facts are known, better than any other explanation. Some very rational people manage to square this with a scientific outlook in other respects. I don't myself know how they do it, but it isn't really a question of logical gymnastics.

As for the Bible, it works on many levels. I would say that the fact that it has been thought about, meditated upon, on analysed more than any other text through history gives it particular depths. People continue to extract valuable lessons from it. Where it actually came from is ultimately not very important.

I think Sam Harris was bang on the money in his criticism of liberal believers: that their moderation inclines them and others to think that religion is a "good thing". He also tells it like it is as regards Islam. But the answer isn't to destroy their faith: it's rather to convince them that their faith belongs with rationality and liberal civilisation, and against the reactionary forces, whether fundamentalist Christianity or Islam.

Someone came up with the phrase "atheists for Jesus". That's approximately where I am.

Nick said...

Hi Heresiarch,

Thanks for the comment.

"I'm actually an atheist". Well I never, although I did wonder once or twice if this might be the case...

"It's not really fair to criticise them for not believing every word in the Bible, and then start ripping the Bible to shreds by demonstrating how complex and contradictory it is, as though that mattered."

I understand where you're coming from. However, I do think that it is perfectly legitimate to criticise fundamentalists for thinking the Bible to be the inerrent word of God, but denying the existence of any contradictions, absurdities etc. With more liberal Christians, I take eception to the blatent cherry picking that goes on in order to support some of their beliefs. I would rather they be more consistent and honest, and just accept that it is a complex book written entirely by humans. I would have more respect for any Christians who were able to do that.

"That isn't how faith works. It will never be destroyed by logical arguments."

With most people, that is true. However, the occasional theist has been known to change camps following the exposure to logical and reasoned argument.

"There are all sorts of reasons for believing the "fantastical tenets" of Christianity, including tradition, personal spiritual experience, a belief that the resurrection "fits the facts", such as the facts are known, better than any other explanation."

Yes, there are all sorts of reasons - but they are either bad reasons, or involve varying degrees of self-delusion and wishful thinking. I have discussed this at length in other posts.

"People continue to extract valuable lessons from it."

I think that people see what they want to see. They judge the morality of the Bible based upon their own personal moral yardstick, since the morality of the bible is so contradictory. Therefore, those who wish to justify their own intolerance and violent tendencies can find plenty of support in the Bible. Likewise for those who wish to do good.

"But the answer isn't to destroy their faith: it's rather to convince them that their faith belongs with rationality and liberal civilisation, and against the reactionary forces, whether fundamentalist Christianity or Islam."

Unfortunately, I have no empirical data regarding the most successful methodology, so I can neither agree or disagree...

Nick said...


As a follow up to some of the points discussed, I shall soon add a post discussing what I see to be the intellectual dishonesty of the liberal Christian position.

However, going right back to the start of our discussion, I quoted Leviticus saying that blasphemers should be put to death, and suggested that Christian Voice therefore had some scriptural justification for their stance (and for taking it much further). You responded that "Leviticus isn't Christianity, it's Judaism. And archaic, pre-exilic Judaism at that. I know it's in the Bible, but the Bible isn't some textbook that Christians follow willy-nilly."

However, the point is that some Christians believe the Bible to be the inerrent word of God, to be followed to the letter (both Old and New Testaments). Liberal Christians would disagree with this, but it doesn't alter the fact that it is nevertheless a theologically defensible position. And, importantly in this case, that is exactly the view that Christian Voice take (see: In their own words:

"The ministry of Christian Voice and the position we take is entirely dependant upon the biblical witness, uncomfortable as that may be to the modern humanistic mind. We believe the Holy Bible to be the inspired, infallible, written Word of God to whose precepts, given for the good of nations and individuals, all man's laws must submit. Today it is fashionable to filter the word of God through our experiences. If our preconceptions differ from the scripture, we too often bend the Bible to try to make if fit. Our approach is different. We try, with the grace of God, to interpret our experiences and current events through the Scriptures."

So, whether you or any liberal Christians disagree, Christian Voice's stance is perfectly justifiable within their own theological framework. Furthermore, their framework is much closer to that adopted by many eminent Christian scholars throughout history (Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther etc.), so is arguably more theologically justified than the liberal stance.

And, going back to your point of: "That isn't how faith works. It will never be destroyed by logical arguments." Who said that my posts were an attempt to convert Christians? I certainly didn't. I might adopt a different tack if that was what I was trying to achieve, but I wasn't.

Further, when you say: "But the answer isn't to destroy their faith: it's rather to convince them that their faith belongs with rationality and liberal civilisation, and against the reactionary forces, whether fundamentalist Christianity or Islam.". I think that is nothing but speculation on your part.

The Heresiarch said...

Hi Nick,

I look forward to your demolition of "liberal Christianity". I heard Desmond Tutu on the radio last night. Widdecombe and some American bishop certainly reduced his theological arguments to rubble; on the other hand, he remains one of the world's great champions of human rights and a shining example of moral courage. Would he have been quite the same man without his faith? Impossible question, perhaps.

You seem obsessed with Christian Voice. Are you aware that it has only one known member, viz Stephen Green?


Nick said...

Hi Heresiarch,

"Would he have been quite the same man without his faith?"

I might ask you in return whether Mohamed Atta would have been quite the same man without his faith? (Yes, I know that he was a Muslim, not a Christian, but it is the influence of religious faith that I am considering).

Well, as you say, there is no way to answer that question. I tend to think that people such as Desmond Tutu would likely have been good people without their faith - after all, plenty of atheists are. It is true that his high profile does give him an opportunity to broadcast his opinions, and thus influence others. However, in the absence of his faith, he might still have achieved some influential position within society, and used this to the benefit of others.

Although it might make some intuitive sense to conjecture that Christianity makes people morally good, the empirical evidence (as opposed to anecdote or wishful thinking) doesn't support this theory at all (at least on a societal level).

Herein lies the rub, I think. For, just as with Desmond Tutu, Mohamed Atta was able to use certain tenets of his faith in support of his views and actions. Furthermore, I think it is likely that, in both cases, their faith amplified the pre-existing tendency towards doing good or bad. In this sense, it might be argued that Tutu is therefore more passionate in his desire to do good than he would have been without his faith. But, of course, the flipside with Atta applies equally.

Since the Bible and Koran (and any supposed personal revelation or communication with God) are so open to interpretation, there is plenty of scope for the justification of the best and worst possible acts that one can conceive of. When we look at the empirical evidence throught history, this is exactly what has happened.

However, despite the potential for religion to justify both good and bad, the empirical evidence shows that the bad seems to prevail in societies with a particular adherence to the Abrahamic religions (Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Dark Ages Europe etc).

By contrast, I think that it is certainly possible to conceive of secular ethical systems that contain the good aspects of religious morality (that pre-dated the Abrahamic religions anyway), and discard the bad.

Simplistic utilitarianism has a number of shortcomings. However, it is possible to devise far more robost formulations, and these are far better than those offered by Christianity, for example. I would recommend Peter Singer's book Practical Ethics for one such formulation. Kantian ethics and Virtue Theory also have things to offer here.

I think that it is also a fallacy that moving towards a secular morality necessarily leads to such atrocities as happened in Russia and China in the 20th Century. I explain why in my post.

"You seem obsessed with Christian Voice. Are you aware that it has only one known member, viz Stephen Green?"

I only discuss them as they are mentioned in Mark Vernon's original article. However, I consider Stephen Green and his views to be ridiculous.

The Heresiarch said...

Hi Nick,

"in the absence of his faith, he might still have achieved some influential position within society, and used this to the benefit of others"

Seeing that his society was apartheid South Africa, I think the church was the only institution in which it was possible for someone like him (ie a black man) to attain any kind of public position.

I expect you'll think that was a cheap shot. After all, apartheid SA was a specific, and thankfully now defunct, state. And I'm well aware of the role of the Dutch Reformed Church on the other side of the fence. Nevertheless, Christianity was at its best on that occasion, just as it was at its worst during the Spanish Inquisition. It's important to pt both sides in the balance, I think.

I certainly wouldn't be so crude as to suggest that people need religion to be good, or even that people who are religious are morally better than others. I don't think having a religious belief makes that much difference, actually. Except that there is an ethical dimension to most religions: religions provide a relatively accurate guide to doing the right thing. It isn't an infallible guide: a comprehensive philosophical analysis will sometimes show that the religious answer to a moral question is not only wrong, but damaging. And sometimes common sense will deliver the same answer: Catholic teaching on birth control, for example. I don't personally know any Catholics who take it seriously, however. Ann Widdecombe, possibly, but then she's in no position...

Nevertheless, Christian teachings provide a reliable guide to good conduct more often than not. The same is probably true of Muslim teachings, though there are rather more difficulties in that case...

It's easy to go yah-boo-sucks on both sides of this argument. I give you Tutu, you give me Atta. In fact, I'll go further than you do: I think that, without religion, Mohamed Atta would never have come close to being a terrorist. His motivations were a mix of the political and the religious, just as Islam is a mix of the religious and the political; but the religious predominated. Of course Islam drove him to do what he did. Stephen Green, on the other hand, strikes me as a kind of freelance eccentric who, sans Christianity, would have some other bee in his bonnet. Immigrants, probably.

But these are enormously complex questions. I think, morally, the most important contribution of religion is the concept of absolutes. It's possible to assert moral absolutes without religion; I do; but without religion they float in mid air. It's turtles all the way down. And in a relativistic age moral absolutes, however two-edged, are better than the alternatives. I agree with you about utilitarianism. It is rational, but cool and can produce inhumane and morally dangerous outcomes. Peter Singer scares me, frankly. Kant believed in God, of course. Personally, I think it might be possible to base an ethics on a Platonic conception of The Good. But try arguing that Good has some kind of existence: you end up with a variant on the ontological argument. Which is, incidentally, the only argument for the existence of God I have ever found remotely convincing (although it is deeply flawed, of course).

"Abrahamic religions"? No such thing. Jesus was a subversive and inspirational figure. He said, "My kingdom is not of this world". The trouble came when Christianity got into positions of political power. Mohammed was a leader and a warrior. Power was always part of his agenda. There's an important difference.

Nick said...


I shall soon respond to some of your points at length in an uncoming post about Christian versus secular morality.