Archive for the ‘Christianity’ Category

Give them enough rope …

2014/06/17

A law school connected to Christian institution Trinity Western University in BC is facing an odd hurdle.

Certain law societies in Canada (BC, Ontario, and Nova Scotia) are deciding not to allow graduates of the new law school to practice law in their provinces. (More have approved it already without fuss, including my home province of Alberta.) The justification seems to be the discriminatory admission practices of the university. Students must conform to a code of behaviour that excludes gays and unmarried couples who perform certain private acts.

My first reaction is that this is a ridiculous code of behaviour to impose on students, unworthy of an institution that calls itself a “university”.

My second reaction, especially after reading some of the news stories, is that the barrier seemed arbitrary. The news stories focus on the discriminatory rule (eg, here, here, and here). Nobody seems to argue that the students who come out of the program will be unqualified to practice law.

Students who are okay with TWU’s code of conduct may be more likely to oppose the rights of sexual minorities – or they to refuse clients or cases that are contrary to the bigoted position of their alma mater. If that is the problem, then surely the solution is to make individual lawyers to agree to a code of conduct. That way, you address not only the bad eggs coming out of TWU’s law school, but also the bigots that happen to study at more mainstream law schools.

But no – all the quotes in the media seem to centre around how horrible it is that the school has this sexually-discriminatory code for the students.* If this is the problem, then don’t punish the students for their school’s bigoted stance. Find some way to address it with the school. One effective and regulation-free solution would be for all the members of the relevant professional groups to be aware of TWU’s code. They are in a strong position to exert social pressure on new graduates, encouraging them to embrace a more pro-social attitude to the humans they encounter in their professional lives. Given how these votes are coming out, I think the social momentum is already leaning this way.

In the end, my position is the same as Hemant Mehta’s: the school (a private university) should be free to treat its students in this bigoted way; society should be free to criticize them; and its students should be allowed or not allowed to practice law based on their legal qualifications.

I’ll close by pointing to two comments that seem to speak to the content of the program. The Federation of Law Societies of Canada (responsible for accrediting law programs across the country) says

The Special Advisory Committee on Trinity Western University’s Proposed School of Law … concluded that there is no public interest reason to exclude future graduates of the program from law society bar admission programs as long as the program meets the national requirement.

And the Advanced Education Minister in BC, Amrik Virk, said in December,

The Degree Quality Assessment Board reviewed Trinity Western University’s proposed law degree and found that it met the degree program quality assessment criteria for private and out-of-province public institutions.

What do you think of this whole mess? What would be the optimal solution to the conflicting needs of private autonomy and freedom versus upholding equal rights?

Footnote:

* Yes, I am taking the media reports with a grain of salt. Journalists and their audience like a good A versus B narrative, and the secular-vs-religious narrative appeals to both liberals and conservatives – each gets to feel either smugly victorious or self-importantly oppressed.

Contending with Bart Ehrman

2013/04/29

This post reviews an essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics, the latest installment in the Ultimate Philosophy Challenge that I undertook some time ago. This time I’m looking at Daniel Wallace’s essay “How Badly Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament?”.

I was looking forward to Daniel Wallace’s essay, because it is the first to directly address a professional skeptic whose work I’ve seen*. Wallace speaks to Bart Ehrman’s arguments for scriptural corruption – that is, the position that the texts of the Bible as we have them are not the same as those penned by the original first-century authors. He doesn’t address Jesus Interrupted (the book that opened this Challenge), but Ehrman’s earlier book, Misquoting Jesus (MJ from here on). So I had some more Ehrman to read. I didn’t mind – he’s a clear and engaging writer, and it was nice to have an excuse for a sidetrack from the apologetics.

Interestingly, the main disagreement Wallace has with Ehrman isn’t a deep split over how to approach the problem of New Testament studies. They both appeal to the same sort of evidence. They even agree on some key conclusions: of the seven major examples where Ehrman suggests important doctrinal points depend on passages that have been changed, Wallace flat-out agrees with Ehrman on three of them. (That is, Wallace agrees that the passages as we have them were not written by the original authors. He denies that this fact undermines important doctrines.) On the other points, he disagrees in highly technical ways, so that I cannot competently referee the disagreement.

What sort of differences can I evaluate?

Well, Ehrman focusses on the fact that we cannot be sure they are authentic, and Wallace focusses on the fact that we cannot be sure they are inauthentic.

Call me conciliatory, but maybe they’re both right. Maybe the original texts of the New Testament books were fairly close to what we have today. But, using evidence available to us, we cannot be certain how close, or on what points. A belief in Biblical inerrancy seems to be fatally undermined by the evidence. But it’s likely true that the original authors of the books in the New Testament believed most of the main things Christians today believe about Jesus.

The great lesson I took away from Ehrman’s book is that the evidence that has survived is undeniably altered in some places. There’s a whole lot of evidence that has not survived. (Ehrman and Wallace both talk about “patristic” writings – by early church fathers – that talk about texts we do not have any more.) What changes may have taken place without leaving a paper trail for people like Ehrman and Wallace to follow? All of the key evidence has spent most of its history in the hands of people who were hell-bent on making sure we believe one story: the now-dominant, orthodox story. It is biased evidence. Even knowing that, I’m willing to take it as probably being fairly close to the original, for the most part. But those qualifications (“probably” and “fairly close”) stand.

So much for the philosophical differences. Unfortunately, some of the content of this article is more personal. Wallace’s rhetoric leaves me with strong doubts about his inclination to be impartial. He uses the term “radical” about any view that departs from orthodox Christianity, and anyone who promotes such a view. And he distorts Ehrman’s own claims in rather easy-to-spot ways. Here is one of his main accusations (p152):

“There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament,” argues Ehrman. Elsewhere he states that the number of variants is as high as 400,000. That is true enough but by itself is misleading. Anyone who teaches NT textual criticism knows that this fact is only part of the picture and that, if left dangling in front of the reader without explanation, is a distorted view. Once it is revealed that most variants are inconsequential – involving spelling differences that cannot even be translated, articles with proper nouns, word order changes, and the like – and that only a small minority of the variants alter the meaning of the text, the whole picture begins to come into focus. Indeed, less than 1 percent of the textual variants are both meaningful and viable.

(As a side note, even before I read MJ, the math of this jumped out at me. Less than 1% of 400,000. Wallace is basically saying, “Ehrman exaggerates. There are only upwards of four thousand meaningful and viable variants in the New Testament texts.” Is that supposed to inspire my confidence?)

And here is a passage from Ehrman that gives the claim Wallace pounces on (pp10-11):

Possibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms: there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.

Most of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant. A good portion of them simply show us that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than most people can today (and they didn’t even have dictionaries, let alone spell check).

Do you notice the immediate context of the line Wallace quoted above? The very next sentence completely undermines Wallace’s claim that Ehrman is alarmist in his rhetoric. Ehrman raises readers’ interest with an impressive statistic, then provides context, encouraging us not to over-interpret that statistic. Wallace claims that “Scholars bear a sacred duty not to alarm layreaders on issues where they have little understanding.” What about undermining a colleague’s credibility with selective quote-mining?

So Wallace is quite willing to use misleading rhetoric to undermine Ehrman’s credibility. But let’s return to the actual claims at hand.

I am open to the possibility that Ehrman overstates the corruption of the biblical texts. Wallace is right that Ehrman would probably sell fewer books if he put more emphasis on the uncertainty and less on the possibility that the texts are altered. On the other hand, Ehrman came to these conclusions from within an evangelical belief system. He was a believer; he learned about the texts; and the evidence forced him against his inclination to reject the inerrantist position he preferred. That gives him far more credibility as an unbiased investigator than those who believe their salvation and self-identity rely on the conclusion they defend.

The question of how unchanged our modern reconstructions of the New Testament are from their original forms is a fascinating debate from a sociological standpoint. But I think I should close by pointing out that, however this debate comes out, it doesn’t really affect the underlying question at issue in the Challenge: does a god – the Christian God or any other – actually exist? If the Greek and Hebrew texts we have today are exactly the words written by the first people to put them to paper, and if those words faithfully record the recollections of the early Christians, it would still just be a report of the beliefs of some ancient people. It would, at best, make the merest smidge of a difference in my estimate of how likely a god is, or the possibility of life after death. It would have no affect on my moral rejection of the idea of substitutiary atonement or the doctrine of infinite consequences for finite actions.

Footnote:
* Yes, a couple of the earlier essays in this book responded to Dawkins. But they were responding to Dawkins’ philosophy (an area of interest to him, but not one where he is an expert), not his science (where he is a recognized leader in his field). This essay takes on Ehrman in his home arena: New Testament studies.

Contending with history

2013/04/26

This is a review of the second section of the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

The Jesus of History

There are six essays in this section, but my reactions to most of them are similar enough that it really isn’t worth reviewing them separately.

The thing is, they all tend to lean on evidence from within the books of the Bible to support their claims. And that’s just silly. I mean, really? You have a collection of books, culled by a particular religious group from many alternatives and, in several cases, selectively edited in the process. This highly biased set of texts is then used as evidence – sometimes, different books within the set are put forward as independent sources of evidence! – of the theological position of the religious group that collected them.

Now, let’s be fair. If orthodox Christian beliefs do represent a faithful history of early-first-century events, then we would expect to have the books of the New Testament more or less as they exist today. (Perhaps with fewer internal contradictions, but not necessarily error-free.)

But then, if those beliefs are false, given people’s natural tendency to believe, even in spite of evidence to the contrary, it isn’t all that surprising that we have the books of the New Testament as they exist today. Including contradictions.

Now, for some brief responses to the individual essays.

First, Robert H. Stein outlines “Criteria for the Gospels’ Authenticity”. Some of them sound plausible, others less so. The examples from the gospels – particularly for the “criterion of embarrassment” – tend to be very weak. The only criterion that seems at all persuasive to me is the linguistic one: there are elements in the gospels that point to translation from an Aramaic oral tradition, and that point to a Palestinian geography. So yes, I’ll accept that the oral traditions that were the sources for the (Greek) gospels came from Aramaic-speaking Palestinians. To the extent that the others give anything reliable, it is about elements that skeptics (such as Bart Ehrman) would not disagree with: Jesus existed; he said certain things; he was crucified; his followers started a religion in the wake of his demise that flourished, evolved, and has come down to us as a thousand different communities, all with slightly different takes on slightly different subsets of text and tradition from that time. Unimpressive.

A further barrier to my accepting this approach is the assertion, made for example by Richard Carrier here and here, that the “criteria” approach is bankrupt. It is not a valid historical method for ascertaining reliability. I wonder if he elaborates on this in the next book in our series (The Christian Delusion contains 2 of his essays)? If any historians are reading this, please let us know your thoughts.

Ben Witherington III closes his essay “Jesus the Seer” by reminding us that “who a person is, who a person claims to be, and who others say a person is can be different.” (p111) And yet Witherington hangs all his certainty about who Jesus claimed to be on indirect evidence of what others said he was. Unimpressive.

Gary Habermas, in “The Resurrection of Jesus Time Line”, works back from a small sample of late, non-eyewitness textual accounts, through two or three levels of extrapolation. At each stage, possibilities are exaggerated to certainties with little or no consideration of alternative explanations. At no point is the inherently incredible nature of the resurrection claims even acknowledged, let alone accounted for. Habermas concludes that “this is the argument that has rocked a generation of critical scholars.” (p125) Really? So, are critical scholars recanting their skepticism en masse and accepting the literal resurrection? I can’t say for sure, but the content of Ehrman’s very recent book, Jesus, Interrupted, and the existence of the next volume in our challenge (The Christian Delusion, edited by John Loftus) seem to speak against this claim. Unimpressive.

“How Scholars Fabricate Jesus”, by Craig A. Evans, is an interesting walk through some of the better-known extra-canonical Christian texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas (which, Evans notes, is featured in The Da Vinci Code). While Evans seems to be exaggerating the weight that critical scholars give to extracanonical material, this essay is largely an informative, interesting account of that material. (Note that, at least as Ehrman builds the case in Jesus, Interrupted, this material is irrelevant to the question of the historicity of the Gospels. They can be competently challenged on internal grounds alone.)

Daniel B Wallace’s essay, “How Badly Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament?”, is one I was particularly looking forward to, as it directly responds to Bart Ehrman. Unfortunately, it doesn’t respond to Jesus, Interrupted (JI), the Ehrman book that opened the philosophy challenge. Instead, it tackles Misquoting Jesus. I actually took the time to look through the latter book before reviewing this essay. This review will be presented in its own post – there’s a fair bit to chew on there. But, perhaps predictably, my overall conclusion was that Wallace’s arguments are unimpressive.

Michael Wilkins’ essay, “Who Did Jesus Think He Was?”, draws on gospel material to affirm the claim that Jesus saw himself as the same saviour that modern Christians see him as. Interestingly, Wilkins actually weaves in the fact that the Jewish picture of the Messiah presented in the Old Testament, the character expected by Jews (including Jesus’ disciples) is not the messiah that Jesus turned out to be. He suggests that this failure to fulfil the prophecies supports, rather than undermines, the claim that Jesus is the prophesied messiah. It is an odd and quirky approach, but not particularly impressive.

In all, this section was vaguely interesting – particularly Wallace’s essay. But all of the essays suffer from one central shortcoming, in the context of the Ultimate Challenge. By leaning on the texts of the Bible, they give insufficient reason to take any of their conclusions seriously. It is extremely unlikely that a reasonable outsider will accept the claims of any religion, based only on the texts that its adherents pick out as divinely inspired.

It should be noted that the book wasn’t (of course) written for the Ultimate Challenge. It reads more like a book that was written to give believers an excuse to keep believing, if they are worrying about the arguments offered by critics. Sort of an internal apologetics. So I can’t say whether the writers failed at their own goal. I can only say that their arguments fall flat from the perspective of this outsider.

Banned! Minority tyrrany! (Perspective?)

2012/02/13

There’s been a ruling in an English High Court that, instead of praying at the start of council meetings (when everyone must be there), the Bideford town council should instead pray just before the start of council meetings (when attendance is optional). The case was introduced by a local councillor, and supported by the National Secular Society (NSS). Michael Langrish, the Bishop of Exeter, tells us in that story that this is an attack on the religious freedom of Christians. “I think it’s a great pity that a tiny minority are seeking to ban the majority, many of whom find prayers very, very helpful, from continuing with a process in which no-one actually has to participate.”

It seems to me that there is a whole lot of wrong wrapped up in the Bishop’s words. I’ll take some time to review the two main bits of wrong: the demographics involved, and the injury done.

For the demographics, I’m drawing on a 2011 poll commissioned by the British Humanist Association (BHA), and a 2007 poll conducted by Why Church, a Christian group. I do not know how biased either of these polls might be, so I will also throw in numbers from the recurring British Social Attitudes Survey. The numbers differ, but the overall story is basically the same.

The BHA study found that 53% of people in England and Wales claim to be Christian (7% claim other religions), but only 29% claimed to be religious. For how many of those is the message of their church important? The Why Church study finds that regular attendance is declining steadily – at the time of the report, it was at 15%. That’s how many in the UK attend at least once a month. In particular, compare this section from the executive summary of their report to the bishop’s statement above (my emphasis):

Two thirds of UK adults (66%) or 32.2 million people have no connection with church at present (nor with another religion). These people are evenly divided between those who have been in the past but have since left (16 million) and those who have never been in their lives (16.2 million). This secular majority presents a major challenge to churches. Most of them – 29.3 million – are unreceptive and closed to attending church; churchgoing is simply not on their agenda.

The BHA study supports this, reporting that 63% of respondents had not been to church in more than a year.

It looks like the good bishop’s claim to speak for the majority is, at best, barely true and soon to be outdated. More likely, he’s thinking about a Britain that is several decades in the past.

The BHA poll reports that while 53% claim to be Christian, 65% of people in England and Wales claim to be non-religious. Clearly, some see themselves as “non-religious Christians” – a category which reminds me of “secular Jews”. A Scottish poll gave similar results: 58% claiming some religious affiliation, and 56% saying they were not religious. Even the Why Church survey shows agnostics and atheists at 33% of the population. Langrish’s claim that it is a “tiny minority” imposing these onerous restrictions is therefore ridiculous. It is no stretch to say that, if they don’t already, non-believers are likely to soon outnumber believers in the UK.

The British Social Attitudes Survey shows a drop in Church of England affiliation from 22.50% in 2008 to 19.98% in 2009. Christians overall went from 49.70% to 43.83%, and total religious affiliations from 56.38% to 48.86%. The “no religion” category grew over the same period from 43.19% to 50.67%. Call me crazy, but it looks to me like the bishop’s C of E flock is less than half the size of those whose interests the NSS seeks to protect – Langrish’s “tiny minority”. Probably, he meant all religious people when referring to the “majority” – but even so the numbers are close, and moving in favour of the non-religious.

I’ll let you sift through the statistics yourselves for further insight – there is obviously a lot of scope for picking different numbers, depending what aspect of the issue is important to you. The British Social Attitudes Survey releases their data to registered users; the Why Church people have a number of informative graphics on their website, as well as an in-depth report (PDF). The BHA provides downloadable statistical summaries of their poll on their website.

What wiggle room do we have in interpreting the demographics for this issue?

On the bishop’s side, we could include only regular attenders of the Church of England? That would be somewhere well south of 15%. It’s tempting, but of course other Christians and religious people more generally may also claim an interest in making prayers part of the official council business. That would put the number up as high as 61% – but only, mark you, if the prayers are inclusive of all religious perspectives. And what about people who only attend services rarely or not at all? Is it reasonable to think that they would be upset by a law that allows councillors to opt out of pre-meeting prayers? Counting regular (monthly or more) attenders from all religions, we get something closer to the 15%.

On the secular side, should we only look at members of the NSS, the BHA, and other organizations promoting non-belief? If so, we’ll have a very low number – perhaps appearing to justify Langrish’s “tiny minority”. The BHA has 28000 paying members and supporters; the HSS (Humanist Society of Scotland) has around 6500 members; and the NSS is estimated to have fewer than 10000 paying members. Some individuals will be members of more than one of these groups, and there are many smaller groups that I have left off of this list, but this indicates that something like 40000 people – a fraction of a percent of the UK population, are card-carrying, dues-paying secularists. Should we also include the “de-churched” – the 33% of UK adults who used to attend church, but no longer do? They seem to have made a pretty solid vote for reducing the influence of church in their daily lives. Should we include everyone who claims to be non-religious? Again, it’s tempting, but not all of this group (depending on the survey, somewhere from 33% to 65%) will agree with the secularization of Britain (just as not all religious people agree with the establishment of church power and rituals in government institutions).

Regarding the specific issue at hand – religious prayers before council meetings – a couple of questions about politics on the British Social Attitudes Survey are also relevant. A growing number of people think that churches have too much power in the country (10.58% in 1991, 29.76% in 2008), and people increasingly object to religious leaders influencing government (56.64% in 1991, 67.26% in 2008).

Goodness, what a mess of numbers! Over all, the bishop’s appeal to democratic sensibilities seems to backfire. If the will of the people is important, then the British people seem to be saying that the church should back off. (Of course, an obvious rejoinder from Langrish’s camp would be to bemoan the fact that people are turning their backs on religion – but that becomes more paternalistic and less democratic. Besides, I wouldn’t want to put words in the good reverend’s mouth.)

But let’s back up a little. What did the court rule, exactly? It ruled that prayers are okay in a pre-meeting context, but not as part of the minuted, mandatory-attendance part of council meetings.

So when we hear people complain that their voices are being silenced, their rights trampled on, bear that in mind. They are being pushed perhaps a few minutes earlier, so that people who object to the practice of prayer in council meetings have more freedom to absent themselves while the religious folks carry on thanking and invoking and praising as they always have. That is the great secular imposition which Langrish and others are wailing about.

This is the point where I would typically want to extract some broader lesson. Perhaps about people’s tendency to inflate perceived injuries against them. Or I would congratulate myself on my humility by noticing that we also tend to minimize perceived injuries against others when we identify – by creed or otherwise – with those accused of the attack. (It’s true that I think the Bishop is being alarmist. On the other hand, he is right in his statement in the Guardian that ” the agenda of the National Secular Society is inch by inch to drive religion out of the public sphere.”)

But I think I’ll leave it there, and see what you think. Is there an obvious demographic perspective that makes this all clear? Should we be worried about how many of us there are and how many of them, or is secularization about something more than just one side beating another side with brute numbers? What is the significance of the (apparently overlooked) fact that it was the High Court, attempting to interpret the laws of the land, that handed down this ruling (and not the NSS or one disgruntled atheist councillor)?

Heritage

2011/07/28

The UK government recently reasserted its determination to privilege Christianity over other religions, and especially over unbelief, in public schools.*

There are plenty of rants one could indulge in over this – on the merits of a secular public sphere in general, on the dangers (to religious as well as secular values) of mixing religion and government, on the indoctrination of children.

Today, I’d like to simply reflect on the justification given: that the collective worship assemblies reflect the country’s broadly Christian heritage.

Many replies could be made to this statement. First, I will agree that Christianity has played a long and important role in shaping British history and culture. It would be a disservice to children and society to deny or downplay this fact in teaching kids about British history.

But what is, in fact, suggested, if we really take seriously the claim that British religious heritage should be imparted in school assemblies? You see, as I understand it, the religious heritage of the UK is not one of meekly accepting traditions that have been handed down. A large part of that heritage is a laissez-faire attitude: great numbers of people claiming religious affiliation for but doing nothing about it.

Leaving that very important part of the British character aside, the religious history of the isles is an exhilarating tale of reform, revolution, and advance. England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have all been swept with waves of religious reform, from the Anglican break from Rome, through the Protestant Reformation, down through the Enlightenment and the rise of scientific scepticism.

British religious heritage includes ideals of Catholic universality, of Anglican nationalism, of Protestant individualism, and (very dear to me) of radical dissent from religious belief. The intellectual history of humanism is as indissoluble a part of this heritage as Christian traditions such as the “Lord’s Prayer” – and as necessary to understanding the contemporary character of British society.

To deny this – to privilege Christian beliefs and rituals over the other aspects of British heritage – is to reject the great advances that have been made by some of Britain’s most well-known and respected historical figures – NewtonHume,Darwin, Huxley, and many others. It is also to reject the growing portion of the population that finds fulfilment in life without any reference to a god or religion.

If the government really wants to impart British heritage to schoolchildren, to give them a real experiential connection to the grand themes of British religious identity and heritage, then it should open up the scope of the religious assemblies to explore all of that heritage, rather than only one corner. How were things in Britain different before and after Henry VIII’s break with Rome? How have different religious groups, when in power, persecuted or protected other religious groups? Perhaps children could watch (or, even better, participate in) re-enactments of the encounters between John Knox and Mary Queen of Scots, or between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce.

Having grown up mostly oblivious of religion in Canada, I rather like the British idea of openly discussing and learning about religion in the classroom. Too many of the ills of religion are due to (or exacerbated by) ignorance of other beliefs. It is a shame that the UK government undermines their basically positive principle by cravenly catering to sectarian influences, as in the case of collective worship.

I have to agree with this statement by Lord Avebury at the end of this piece that,  “this is going to happen in the end” … “whether they like it or not, it is going to come. Sooner or later we shall get rid of the act of compulsory worship in schools, and the sooner the better.” Britain is becoming more secular, and secularists are gaining a stronger voice. But sooner would be better, for the children’s sake.

Footnotes:

* The media at large doesn’t seem to have picked up on this, so I can only link to the BHA’s summary. See also this report by the Accord Coalition, a group of religious and non-religious organizations working to improve education and religious rights in the UK.

Contending with Christianity’s Critics

2011/07/18

This post introduces the fourth book in the philosophy challenge that Deena and I began last year.

Contending with Christianity's Critics

Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

  • ISBN: 978-0805449365; ISBN10: ; B&H Academic; Pages: 304; [Amazon]

Edited by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig

This book contains a collection of essays by various apologists, responding to various criticisms of Christian belief.

The previous apologetic book in the series began with high ambitions and a promising premise. In this book, our expectations were set low from the opening paragraph. The editors begin their introduction by pointing out that the recent popular “New Atheist” books are less philosophically and historically solid than much of atheist philosophy, previously and currently. It is these New Atheist books that the current volume aims at.

I can understand the desire to counter the more prominent voices, rather than the stronger ones. And I am sure that, aside from Deena and me (and the others who have accepted Luke’s challenge), very few atheists will be reading this book. It is aimed at other believers and apologists, not at atheists. Nevertheless, the admission that this book aims philosophically low disappointed us.

On the other hand, we looked forward to at least one essay in this volume: Daniel Wallace’s piece critiquing Bart Ehrman on the reliability of the New Testament as a record of historical events. I mentioned in my review of Ehrman’s book that I would like to see what arguments are raised against it, because I am unqualified and not strongly motivated to see for myself any errors he commits. Perhaps this essay would help balance my impression?

Anyway, this is a book of essays, so I will review them individually (for the most part). I will maintain a list of links here pointing forward to the reviews as they go up:

Part 1: The Existence of God

1. Dawkins’s Delusion, by William Lane Craig

2. At Home in the Multiverse? by James Daniel Sinclair

3. Confronting Naturalism: The Argument from Reason, by Victor Reppert

4. Belief in God: A Trick of Our Brain? by Michael J. Murray

5. The Moral Poverty of Evolutionary Naturalism, by Mark D. Linville

6. Dawkins’s Best Argument Against God’s Existence, by Gregory E. Ganssle

Part 2: The Jesus of History (single review for whole section)

7. Criteria for the Gospels’ Authenticity, by Robert H. Stein

8. Jesus the Seer, by Ben Witherington III

9. The Resurrection of Jesus Time Line, by Gary R. Habermas

10. How Scholars Fabricate Jesus, by Craig A. Evans

11. How Badly Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament? by Daniel B. Wallace

12. Who Did Jesus Think He Was? by Michael J. Wilkins

Part 3: The Coherence of Christian Doctrine

13. The Coherence of Theism, by Charles Taliaferro and Elsa J. Marty

14. Is the Trinity a Logical Blunder? God as Three and One, by Paul Copan

15. Did God Become a Jew? A Defense of the Incarnation, by Paul Copan

16. Dostoyevsky, Woody Allen, and the Doctrine of Penal Substitution, by Steve L. Porter

17. Hell: Getting What’s Good My Own Way, by Stewart Goetz

18. What Does God Know? The Problems of Open Theism, by David P. Hunt

(I will also provide a summary of the volume at the end.)

50 reasons people give for believing in a god

2011/07/11

50 reasons people give for believing in a godThis post introduces the third book in the philosophy challenge that Deena and I undertook last year.

50 reasons people give for believing in a god. ISBN: 978-1-59102-567-2; Prometheus Books; Pages: 330; [Amazon]

by Guy P. Harrison

In the introduction, Harrison says, “This book is not an attempt to prove the nonexistence of gods.” So believers are free to simply read his responses as “Here’s why I don’t find your reasons for belief persuasive,” rather than, “Here’s why you have no justification for your beliefs!” By the same token, non-believers cannot pretend that Harrison’s responses to the 50 reasons are anything close to disproofs of gods’ existence.

So, as an entry in this Truth-Seeker’s challenge, this book may seem a little irrelevant. I can imagine a believer reading it with the same impatience I had reading Letters to Doubting Thomas. Many of the points it puts forward for atheism are answerable by more sophisticated apologetics.

But I think such a response may fail to see the value (and purpose) of the book. Remember Harrison’s disclaimer. He’s not out to soundly disprove the best philosophical defenses of theism. He’s interested in responding, as a regular atheist, to the reasons regular believers give for their belief.

Harrison draws on extensive travel, not only to spice his book with interesting anecdotes from around the world, but to demonstrate that he’s not just setting up convenient straw men to tackle. He really is responding to the reasons most people give for believing. If I, as an atheist, do not understand these reasons and have a quick reply ready, I am unlikely to influence anyone’s belief. And if you, a believer, have not seen the casual atheist reply to some of these claims, you are unlikely to influence atheists’ beliefs. For both of us, seeing these in-the-trenches arguments, presented respectfully and succinctly, may help avoid a certain amount of talking past each other. They may help us see more clearly where the points of difference lie.

I think that, for a challenge that is aimed at non-philosophers, this book maps out some of the important philosophical foothills that we’d need to navigate before we try to tackle the more rarefied heights addressed (I hope) in the remaining books (all of which are written or contain contributions by professional philosophers).

To sum up, this book does not directly tackle the question at the heart of the challenge: “Which belief is most reasonable?”

But to the question “Do people generally believe in gods for good reasons?” then this book makes a good case for the answer “No”. This seems to be Harrison’s project – he is not pretending to be a philosopher. For that reason, and because of the entertaining presentation and many anecdotes from Harrison’s extensive travels, I’m glad we’ve read this book, and glad to have it on my shelf for future reference.

 

Letters to Doubting Thomas

2011/07/04

This post introduces the secondLetters to Doubting Thomas book in the philosophy challenge that Deena and I undertook last year.

Letters to Doubting Thomas. ISBN13: 9780195308150 ISBN10: 0195308158; [Amazon]

by C. Stephen Layman

It is difficult to sum up my very mixed reactions to this book in the space of a single blog post.

Layman’s book claims two excellent ideas as its organizing principles: it is written as a dialogue; and it is an argument to the best explanation.

Dialogues have a long and distinguished history in philosophy, and I looked forward to seeing this format applied to such an interesting topic. And, to the extent that an argument to the best explanation adheres to the rules of its big brother, probability theory, it represents one of the most reliable ways of deriving new beliefs from existing knowledge.

So I dared to hope that here, at last, was a book that might embody that ideal of an accessible, balanced approach to the perennially muddy question of the existence of a god.

Alas, no.

In terms of the dialogue – the back-and-forth between characters on either side of this debate – Layman falls flat. His characters are a theist philosopher (understandably, someone much like Layman himself), and an atheist layman (named Thomas, of course). Sadly, the arguments reflect the characters’ unbalanced backgrounds. The theist character draws on modern scholarship; the atheist cites Freud and Nietzsche. The theist is confident and verbose in defense of his intuitions. The atheist rolls over and accepts the most absurd assertions – such as:

The Principle of Credulity (p45): Accept what experience suggests unless special reasons apply. (p43)

It was not a robust back and forth between equals; it was a teacher-student exchange. I don’t mind that the characters end up agreeing in favour of theism; what bugs me is that only the most superficial straw-man version of naturalism is given time in the book.

In terms of the positive case that Layman tries to build for theism through the book …

Let’s begin with the “principles” that he offers early on – principles which seem custom-made to elevate human bias and wishful thinking above the objective, dispassionate weighing of evidence. In addition to The Principle of Credulity above, he offers these gems:

The Starting Principle (p45): Accept what seems to be so unless special reasons apply.

The Principle of Testimony (p49): Accept what others tell us unless special reasons apply.

Clearly, these principles make life easier. Instead of questioning everything, we can simply accept things at face value. Most of us live by such principles most of the time. But of course, they stand directly in the way of advancing knowledge – of learning new stuff, and correcting old errors.

Or, put another way, centuries of scientific investigation have taught us that special reasons very often apply. Our experiences can be misleading; our intuitions about “what is so” are often crashingly wrong;and the testimony of others is confounded by such a host of conscious and unconscious biases that uncritical acceptance of another’s report can be downright irresponsible.

Let me offer a couple of highlights. One is the theist’s assertion (which receives only token resistance from the naturalist character) that libertarian free will obviously exists. Because Layman offers nothing more than his gut feeling that his is true, I am content for now to counter it with nothing more than my own gut feeling that it is false.

Another is Layman’s suggestion that naturalists have a problem grounding the concept of “evil”. He even has the temerity to claim that this problem negates theism’s disadvantage due to the theistic problem of evil.

It was difficult to finish this book. It became clear early on that Layman wasn’t really interested in pitting the best theistic philosophy against the best naturalist alternative. He was content to conjure up a straw man out of his own imagination, or perhaps from randomly selected Internet chatrooms discussing religion.

Deena and I were left hoping that the next apologetic book in this series will contain a bit more bite.

But I’ve also had the germ of an intriguing idea: maybe I could do some part of what Layman so completely failed to do. Maybe I could construct a probabilistic comparison of the theism and naturalism. A proper comparison. Involving, you know, actual numbers, instead of the vague statements offered by Layman.

Given the subjective nature of many of the concepts involved, anything I came out with would, like the famous Drake equation, certainly not be a definitive or persuasive argument. But it would be an interesting exercise in probability theory. Also like the Drake equation, it might be a useful spur to further refinement and improvement, with the hope of eventually producing a more robust calculation.

I’ll get to work on it, and let you know what I come up with.

In sum, I can’t say this book was a total loss. It has inspired me to learn more about probability. It also gives an interesting, if not terribly impressive, initial idea of what passes for philosophy in religious circles.

Next up, stay tuned for Guy Harrison’s fast-paced romp through popular reasons for believing in gods …

 

Jesus, Interrupted

2011/06/20

This post introduces the first book in the philosophy challenge that Deena and I began last year.

Jesus, Interrupted

Jesus, Interrupted. ISBN: 9780061173936; ISBN10: 0061173932; HarperOne; Pages: 304; [Amazon]

by Bart D. Ehrman

This book presents an overview of some of the discrepancies and contradictions apparent in the New Testament, and what they tell us about the actual history of early Christianity, from Jesus’ life to the eventual formation of the modern Christian canon.

This is not a book claiming to debunk Christianity or religious belief in general. It’s a book of history, aiming to introduce laypeople to the scholarly consensus – a consensus that has failed to reach not only lifelong heathens like me, but also most people who claim to believe in and follow the Bible as a guide to life.

Jesus, Interrupted makes two main points. The more obvious is that, in communicating their religious messages, the books of the New Testament fail to accurately portray the historical events they talk about. The other point is that acknowledging this fact does not require abandoning the Bible as an inspiring collection of texts, a devotional tool, or even the centrepiece to the Christian religion.

Fallibility

This book is no simple irreverent catalogue. If you want to see atheists exclaiming “How can people believe this garbage?” you will need to look elsewhere – for example, the Skeptics Annotated Bible.

Ehrman’s attitude is more scholarly. Drawing on his deep familiarity with the New Testament, he lays out numerous examples where the narrative in one part of the New Testament is inconsistent with the narrative in another part. Sometimes it is just a matter of tone. On the way to being crucified, was Jesus the confident son of God, willingly sacrificing himself as part of a greater plan [Luke 23:26-49] or a bewildered human, silent, feeling abandoned by his god [Mark 15:16-39] (pages 64-69 of JI)? Other times, it is a question of differences that are striking, but can be reconciled with sufficiently creative narrative distortions. Did Jesus cleanse the temple of money-changers and other commerce at the beginning of his ministry [Mark 11:15-19] or at the end [John 2:13-16] (p166 of JI)? Apologists may conclude he did both (see also here) – but Ehrman points out that this is an awkward solution that misses the point of the incident in the context of each individual account. And, often enough, there are flat-out contradictions, where no plausible interpretation can rescue the assertion that all of the canonical books are historically accurate. Compare the account of Judas’ demise in Matthew 27:3-10 with that in Acts 1:18-19 (from page 46 of JI).

Throughout the book, Ehrman is also showing us the historical approach taken by mainline biblical scholars. He slowly builds a picture of how we got these various books in their present form. What did Jesus and his followers probably believe? What happened after his death, and how did the early Christian community evolve in those first few decades?

I will not go in to detail – it would take an entire book to do the material justice. This book, I think.

Ehrman’s arguments are very convincing – particularly those that rely mainly on the text of the New Testament. After all, if the evidence is at your fingertips (in print or online), it is very easy to check, to make sure the author isn’t pulling a fast one. But even the rest of it, drawing on non-canonical gospels and on more detailed scholarly research, builds a picture that seems to hang together very comfortably.

Historicity vs faith

The second key point that Ehrman makes – that the fallibility of the New Testament as history doesn’t have to undermine Christian faith – might seem very secondary indeed. It’s not the main content of the book by word count, and it’s certainly not the bit you expect to agitate conservatives and excite skeptics. But it’s clearly important to him. He mentions it prominently in his opening, and devotes his entire last chapter to it.

He is careful to point out that his own agnosticism is not due to the historical inaccuracy of the Biblical texts.

He has given many presentations of these arguments to a lay audience, and notes that often people – religious people who are honestly interested in learning about this book that’s important to them – ask him afterwards why they’ve never learned this before. Not as a challenge; they are genuinely interested. They want to know more – not because they have begun to doubt their faith, but because understanding their scriptures in more depth is an important part of that faith.

I was surprised how much this second theme of Ehrman’s book affected me. After all, as a “cradle atheist”, I have never had a faith in the New Testament’s historicity that could be threatened by Ehrman’s revelations*. But you see, up to now I’ve only ever encountered the Bible in two contexts: believers arguing for its truth, and skeptics arguing for its falsehood. One side has been singularly unpersuasive; the other has carried the day. End of story. What reason do I have to spend more time reaffirming obvious facts? Oh, some people point to the Bible as inspiring literature in its own right. And I’ve had a little taste of that. But generally, whenever I’ve opened up the Bible, my sense that the authors want me to believe (while never offering good arguments for belief) ruins my ability to enjoy the non-belief-related side of the prose.

Reading Ehrman’s book is the first time I’ve been walked through a genuinely interesting alternative: the Bible as an archaeological artifact. It is a set of very old documents. What can they tell us about the people and times that produced them? Just as I don’t have to embrace or reject the British monarchy to enjoy walking through Edinburgh Castle, I should be able to enjoy reading the Bible for what it is without always thinking about whether or not it is the miraculous word of a god.

I don’t know if I’ll actually do this, mind you. It’s a little outside my preferred genres of literature (science fiction and fantasy, with the occasional bit of philosophy). But thanks to Ehrman, I now have a plausible way to enjoy the Bible, if I do decide to pick it up.

Too good to be true?

Okay, so here’s the caveat. First, Jesus, Interrupted is the first exposure I’ve had to biblical scholarship, and second, Ehrman’s conclusions coincide with my expectations. These are two very good reasons to be careful before accepting his conclusions. He seems to make a lot of sense, and he seems to have done careful work. For the moment, I will tentatively take his assertions as true. But I really would like to see if there is another side to New Testament scholarship, and what it has to say.

Fortunately, just such an opportunity will come up later. One of the essays in Contending with Christianity’s Critics, the volume edited by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, is titled “How Badly Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament? An Examination of Bart Ehrman’s Claims” (written by Daniel B. Wallace). I’ll let you know how Ehrman stacks up after reading that.

In the meantime, I’ll just say that Jesus, Interrupted was a delightful book to begin this face-off between Christian and atheist philosophies. I learned some interesting facts, and a liberating approach to this terribly influential book I’ve never read. The fact that it wasn’t, in fact, philosophical in nature didn’t bother me. Its subject matter is clearly relevant to the matters at hand, and may come in handy if any later author tries to stand on the Bible as a reliable historical text. But Christians wouldn’t try that, would they?

Footnote:

* Ehrman does not claim to have personally discovered any of these things about the Bible – most have been long-known by biblical scholars. Which makes it all the more scandalous that the stuff Ehrman is talking about is not more widely known.

A new challenge

2011/06/13

Luke Muehlhauser, over at Common Sense Atheism, set a challenge early last year: The Ultimate Truth-Seeker Challenge. He challenges his readers to read several books discussing two worldviews: Christian theism, and atheism. About ten thousand pages of (primarily) philosophical arguments, divided roughly equally between those defending Christianity and those defending atheism. These are the best presentations, in Luke’s opinion, of the two sides.

It is an admirable undertaking, but far beyond my ambitions as a casual philosopher, both in the level of some of the books, and the sheer volume.

Never fear! A couple of months later, Luke came out with an abridged version of the challenge.

The basic idea (in either version of the challenge) is to encourage people to challenge themselves to read the best arguments for an opposing worldview to the one they currently hold.

This sort of activity appeals to Deena and me. Similar reasons have, in the past, led us to check out Christianity Explored at a local church in Edinburgh, to attend a philosophy book group organized under the Humanist Society of Scotland, to become involved through the student humanist group with the Chaplaincy Centre at the university there, and to invite Mormon missionaries into our home for a series of discussions.

So, starting late last spring, we began working our way slowly through the more manageable list of eight books – four apologetic, four atheistic.

We’re going slowly. At times I’ve been tempted to give up, for various reasons. I may tell you more about that in a later post.

For now, I just want to lay out the situation.

As I write this, we are working our way through the fourth book, a collection of apologetic essays. Going in to this exercise, I would say that I held three main positions that are relevant to the question being debated in these books:

  1. I was a negative atheist. By this I mean that I was unconvinced by existing arguments purporting to demonstrate or support the existence of any god. I was not particularly convinced by (or committed to) definite claims about the non-existence of a god.
  2. I was an enchanted naturalist. A naturalist in that I thought that everything that exists (ie, interacts causally with the world I experience) is natural (as opposed to supernatural). This is also known as physicalism. Enchanted because I think the universe presented to human experience through the naturalist lens is beautiful and exciting.
  3. I took all religious beliefs, systems, dogmas, etc. to be products of human minds – through wishful thinking, hyperactive agency detection, pareidolia, misunderstanding of probability, political and social pressures to conform, a desire to externally codify innate moral sense, etc.

I don’t want my use of the past tense in that list to suggest that I no longer hold those positions. I just mean that, at that time, those were my positions, as closely as I can remember. When we’re done the challenge, I’ll check my state of beliefs and see if any of these points has shifted appreciably.

So, next up, I will start posting my reviews of the books we have read. I won’t necessarily do a point-by-point philosophical analysis, but I do want to share my overall impressions, as well as any belief-shift that each book occasions. Of course, there will be individual points that I’ll want to discuss in more detail.

Here are the eight books, as Luke presents them:

And here it is, my Ultimate Truth-Seeker Challenge (Easy Version):

  1. Bart Ehrman – Jesus, Interrupted (304 pages). A leading Biblical scholar explains the basic facts of Biblical scholarship, and why they undermine conservative Christian views.
  2. C. Stephan Layman – Letters to Doubting Thomas (240 pages). Presented as a series of letters between a Christian and an atheist, this book presents a case for God not based on the usual arguments but on why God is the ‘best explanation’ for the way things are. A careful and respectable case for God’s existence.
  3. Guy P. Harrison – 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God (354 pages). Each brief chapter explains one of the 50 most common reasons people give for believing in a god, and summarizes why skeptics are not persuaded by that reason.
  4. Paul Copan & others – Contending with Christianity’s Critics (304 pages). Eighteen major apologists respond to the New Atheists and other contemporary critics of Christianity.
  5. John Loftus & others – The Christian Delusion (385 pages). Michael Martin writes: “Using sociological, biblical, scientific, historical, philosophical, theological and ethical criticisms, this book completely destroys Christianity.”
  6. William Lane Craig – Reasonable Faith (416 pages). A leading Christian philosopher’s defense of theism and Christian doctrine, with all the standard philosophical and historical arguments.
  7. Richard Swinburne – Is There a God? (144 pages). Many philosophers think Richard Swinburne has given the best evidential case for God ever conceived. This slim and attractive book is Swinburne’s own attempt to make his arguments accessible to the layman.
  8. Richard Carrier – Sense and Goodness Without God (444 pages). A comprehensive case not just for atheism but for a full, enriching, purposeful, and moral naturalistic worldview.

I will begin soon with a discussion of Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus, Interrupted, which is in the “atheist” category. In the meantime, I’m curious what people think of Luke’s list. If you’re interested, don’t forget to head over to his blog to see the discussion of the books there.

As I post my reviews, I will link to them from here:

[Added 2013 April 24:]

For those who are still following along, you may have noticed one or two sidetracks – not exactly reviews of the texts above, but lines of thought clearly connected with them. I’ll keep a list here for anyone interested:
  • Evolving Free Will – Inspired by an assertion in one of the essays in Contending with Christianity’s Critics. This post looks at how we might expect evolution to interact with libertarian free will, if such a thing were possible.
  • The precariousness of libertarian free will – I reflect on the main reasons why I take a compatibilist approach to free will. (Sort of connected with the previous item.)
  • Duty and futility – In which I ponder the value of carrying on once it has become clear that the Christian apologists in the series are largely leaning on the same tired old arguments.

And, just for completeness, here are some books I have picked up as a result of issues raised in the Challenge:

  • Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman. I picked this book up so I could more fully evaluate the claims made by Daniel Wallace in his essay from the fourth book in the series. (Wallace’s essay is about this book, not Ehrman’s other book, Jesus, Interrupted, which began this Challenge.)
  • Proving History by Richard Carrier. This book I wanted to read because it addresses historical claims from a Bayesian perspective. (Ultimately, in a follow-up volume, it aims to address questions of this historicity of Jesus.) Bayesian reasoning is a mathematically rigorous way of determining the probabilities of claims (how credible we should think they are) based on evidence available to us.

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