Sunday, January 27, 2008

Trying To Be Moral Through The Distorted Lens Of The Bible

We are repeatedly confronted with the claim that without religion one cannot be moral. More specifically, the Bible is held up again and again as a source of moral guidance. Unless a person lives their life in accordance with its principles, we are told, they cannot be moral, they cannot be blessed by God, they cannot receive eternal reward.

Even a superficial perusal of the book makes it clear that this position is deeply conflicted. First, there’s a long list of vital moral principles that it has very little to say about. There’s no outright condemnation of slavery, even though that’s clearly one of the most important moral issues confronting the human race. There’s no condemnation of genocide even though that’s consistently been one of the most profoundly immoral things that we do to each other. There’s no condemnation of pedophilia or child sex abuse even though to most people the child sex abuser is the most despicable and evil person they can imagine. There’s no condemnation of child physical abuse. There’s no clear remark on abortion. There are no clear remarks on vital end of life issues like euthanasia. Now consider the biggest and most far reaching moral issues that you will encounter in your life. Most, if not all of these will be on that list.

Not only does the Bible not offer any clear guidance where it is obviously needed, the examples and commandments we do find there are obviously morally repugnant to anyone with any decency. The Old Testament is full of examples of God commanding or God perpetrated heinous acts of genocide. God regularly condones rape, incest, and the physical abuse of women. God issues commands for the Israelites to murder all the men, women, and boys, but to keep the virgin girls for their own purposes. The punishments commanded for the most trivial infractions of arbitrary rules are death. The punishment for violating the 10 Commandments is death. The Old Testament is flooded in gore, torture, cruelty, and injustice either at God’s hand directly or through his commandments. If a person today committed the sorts of horrible acts that God or God’s followers did in the Old Testament, we’d condemn them as the most vile sociopath. The New Testament, Paul in particular, repeatedly endorses sexist policies that subjugate women. Christian slaves are enjoined to be obedient to their masters. The list goes on.

The view that the Bible can offer us any real moral guidance would be laughable if it weren’t so widespread, so ill-conceived, and wasn’t responsible for so many moral crimes itself. The irony is that the people espousing the view invoke many acceptable moral principles implicitly when they cherry pick their examples of moral virtue from the Bible. In claiming that the Bible is the only route to morality, they undermine their own position by selecting those cases that are exemplars of goodness and by refusing to take the multitude of God’s vile commandments and acts seriously. The people who claim that only the Bible can make us moral know in their hearts and on completely independent grounds that genocide, slavery, pedophilia and sexism are wrong, and they bring this autonomous ability to discriminate between right and wrong to their rationalizations and siftings of the Bible. But the moral lessons to be learned there are such a hopeless mess that their ability to separate right from wrong gets hopelessly warped and perverted. If they could abandon their attachment to that source, it would seem that they could be better people than it makes of them, and we could hope to make some real moral progress as a race. Think of how much better off they could be if they weren't expending so much energy trying to rationalize and justify God's various moral crimes in the Bible, and struggling to live by some of those demented principles.

Monday, January 21, 2008

God Doesn't Do Miracles, full version

Brothers and Sisters:

A draft of my full article arguing that God doesn't perform miracles is now posted here:

God Doesn't Do Miracles

Comments are welcome.



Wednesday, January 16, 2008

God Wouldn't Do Miracles

Even if a miracle occurs and there’s compelling evidence for it, what would that show?

Suppose I am confronted with what appears to be a miracle, and all of my earnest efforts to investigate it point to the conclusion that a genuine violation of the laws of nature has occurred. (Let’s leave Hume’s criticisms of these sorts of arguments aside for the moment.) This one really looks like it’s the real thing. What could be going on here, I wonder.

If God were attempting to demonstrate his existence to me I can’t see any obstacle to his doing so. Being all powerful and all knowing, he’d have no problem making his existence manifest if he wanted to. But miracles are always insufficient to this task. Somebody’s walking on water, someone coming back from the dead, healed sick people, floods that wipe out humanity don’t show that the origin of the event was omnipotent or omniscient. A less than all powerful, and less than all knowing being or force could have done it. (Just imagine that the being in question only has enough power to do this one thing, or only knows how to do this one and nothing else.) So the miracle I witness doesn’t show that God (the omni-God) exists. He would do a much better job than this if he was trying to demonstrate his existence.

Maybe God’s trying to accomplish some good in the world with this miracle, right some wrong, reward someone’s virtue or piety? But if God were attempting to accomplish good in the world, then there would be no obstacle to his achieving much more of it than any particular miracle accomplishes. Suppose that thousands of the sick get healed, or the hungry get fed, or the Red Sea parts to save the Israelites, or someone survives a plane crash, or someone has a baby, or someone wins the lottery. These miracles don’t accomplish nearly as much as God could if that’s what he’s up to. So this miracle is can’t be God’s trying to achieve good in the world. He would do much better than this if that was his goal. “Come on, God! Is that the best you’ve got? I’m pretty underwhelmed down here. . .”

Maybe he’s trying to punish the wicked. It’s frequently alleged that he does. Lot’s wife gets turned to pillar of salt for watching the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah when God commanded them not to. They say that Hurricane Katrina was sent to punish sinners in New Orleans. They say that HIV/AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality. Lots of people think that when they have a heart attack or a car wreck, God’s trying to tell them to change their lives.

But if God were attempting to exact some punishment or retribution through a miracle, then he wouldn’t arbitrarily single out one individual for some petty misdeed while ignoring so many others, particularly when the crimes of others are so grievous. Nothing stopped the Nazis. Lots of them fled to Argentina and lived out comfortable lives on the beach. Idi Amin died of old age, same for Pinochet and Pol Pot. And lots of completely innocent people have suffered horribly from natural events where God could have violated the laws of nature and didn’t. An omni-being could achieve vast, effective, balanced punishment if that was what he was trying to accomplish. So this miracle cannot be God’s attempting to punish. He’d do a much better job of punishing if that’s what’s going on here.

If God were attempting to accomplish anything unambiguous in the world, then he could. But this miracle is ambiguous. They always are. So this miracle cannot be God’s attempt to achieve any clear goal. He’d do a much better job of accomplishing a clear objective, if that’s what’s going on here.

So for any miracle I encounter, I would have to conclude that whatever is going on here, and whoever or whatever is responsible, it is not God. God doesn’t do miracles.

Grave robbers or Magic?

My apologies in the recent “Should We Believe that Jesus Was Resurrected?” post. A big section of the post got left off of the end. Here’s the full version. It should make things clearer.

I have been working on a paper about the miracles of Jesus. I have put a draft of the paper here and would gladly get input from interested parties.

Problems for the Miracles of Jesus

The central idea is that in order for a person to accept some conclusion p on the basis of evidence E, then he or she needs to be confident that if p wasn't true, some indications of that could show up in E. What that means is that I shouldn't believe sources that indicate p is true unless there's a reasonable expectation that they would have informed me that p was false if that had been the case. Here's the principle:

Counter Evidence Principle (CEP): S would be reasonable in concluding that p is true on the basis of the evidence E only if it is reasonable for S to believe that the evidence E would indicate ~ p if ~p had been the case.

Many people who believe that Jesus existed and was divine believe that the Bible contains a reliable body of evidence that makes it reasonable to believe that Jesus was resurrected. There are 4 briefs accounts of the resurrection account in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

In a nutshell, what I argue is that when you consider the time between the alleged resurrection and the writing of the Gospels, and then the time between the writing to the oldest existing copies of those Gospels that we now have (about 200-300 years), it becomes obvious that those sources can’t be trusted to be telling us the whole story, if in fact there had been any available counter evidence to the resurrection. Suppose that Jesus was a fraud, or that the disciples faked the resurrection, or their enthusiasm led them to exaggerate, or Roman teenagers stole the body as a joke, or grave robbers got it, or the authors and transcribers over the next 300 years altered the story. Would we expect to find a record of that important counter evidence in the Bible that we have today? Is it reasonable to think that if Jesus had not been resurrected, and there was evidence that showed it, then that evidence would still be present in the Bible today for us to consider when making up our minds? Furthermore, is it reasonable to think that the people surrounding the alleged resurrection had the skills, the concepts, the methodology, and the objectivity to adequately investigate the alleged paranormal events?

The answers to these questions are all an obvious no. Hundreds or even thousands of invested, enthusiastic believers had ample opportunity and motive to make adjustments in the story to make it support the “Jesus is divine” conclusion. It would have been the norm for the uneducated, largely illiterate, superstitious people of the time to believe in all manner of omens, spiritual occurrences, ghosts, paranormal events, and miracles. No serious investigation by anyone without a vested interest in the events seems to have occurred or been recorded. Even if one had, they didn’t have the concepts or skills to get to the truth. Consider how many well-educated, smart people today are readily duped by religious charlatans performing easily debunked sleight of hand tricks. And we actually know that there was a great deal of trimming in the composition of the modern Bible to exclude those accounts of the resurrection and Jesus that did not satisfy later religious leaders.
To make matters worse, the four Gospel accounts we have all tell very different stories about what happened. See my recent post:

Perfect Word of God? Reliable Historical Document?

One of the alternative Gospels, the Gospel According to Peter, was deliberately excluded from the cannon of New Testament books. The story it tells of the resurrection deviates even more, and raises more questions about what happened. There, the Jews get Pilate to put Roman guards at the tomb. The guards hear a voice and then see two men come down from the sky and then carry a body out of the tomb. Later, Mary and her friends find someone dressed in white in the tomb who claims that Jesus is gone.

I won’t defend a particular alternative version of the events; my point with the CEP principle is that the Biblical evidence is undermined so that we can’t draw reasonable conclusions about what really happened. But consider that if we include the Gospel of Peter account, then in four out of the five accounts, the tomb isn’t found empty; rather some one or two people (“angels”) are found inside. And in the Peter case, they are even seen removing the body! In John, Jesus is still in the tomb and talks to Mary. If we are really going to take the Biblical evidence seriously, then the obvious conclusion to draw is either that Jesus never left the tomb (suggesting that he was alive all along), or that the people (“angels”) that they found in the tomb took the body. If I walked into a tomb and saw that the body was missing and there were some dudes in there, the first and obvious question I’d ask is, “What did you guys do with the body?” Wouldn’t you? And you wouldn’t take them seriously for a moment if they said, “He magically came back from the dead, and then flew up into the sky to be with an a invisible being who has super powers.”

Long story short: If the Bible is our body of information about whether or not Jesus was resurrected, then we can’t trust it to be telling us the whole story. If there had been some important counter evidence that showed that Jesus was not resurrected, it would not have made it through the centuries to us. So we can’t form a reasonable conclusion about what really happened on the basis of what is probably a doctored, adjusted, tilted, fragmentary, and ill-formed body of evidence.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Should We Believe that Jesus was Resurrected?

I've been working on a paper about problems with believing the evidence for the miracles of Jesus. I have put a draft of the paper here and would gladly get input from interested parties.

Problems for the Miracles of Jesus

The central idea is that in order for a person to accept some conclusion p on the basis of evidence E, then he or she needs to be confident that if p wasn't true, some indications of that could show up in E. What that means is that I shouldn't believe sources that indicate p is true unless there's a reasonable expectation that they would have informed me that p was false if that had been the case. Here's the principle:

Counter Evidence Principle (CEP): S would be reasonable in concluding that p is true on the basis of the evidence E only if it is reasonable for S to believe that the evidence E would indicate ~ p if ~p had been the case.

The principle here is similar to Wykstra’s CORNEA principle that he brings against William Rowe’s inductive argument from evil against the existence of God. Wykstra says,

On the basis of cognized situation s, human H is entitled to claim "It appears that p" only if it is reasonable for H to believe that, given her cognitive faculties and the use she has made of them, if p were not the case, s would likely be different than it is in some way discernible by her.

Wykstra, Stephen J. The Humean Obstacle to Evidential Arguments from Suffering: On Avoiding the Evils of “Appearance”” Int J PhiI Re116: 73-93 (1984).

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Stephen Pinker: Instinct for Morality

There's a nice essay about the evolutionary foundations of morality by Stephen Pinker in the New York Times today:

Pinker: The Moral Instinct

Monday, January 7, 2008

Wide Atheism: There Are No Gods Whatsoever

Many people have muddled thinking about atheism. Proving a negative claim, they often say, is impossible. You can’t look everywhere. You can’t convince everyone. You could always be wrong. You can’t possibly give a proof that there is not a God the way that we can prove that the interior angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees. God’s too big, we’re too little, and we’d expect that whatever God would be, it would surpass our abilities to understand. So proving there is no God is short-sighted hubris.

There’s a lot here that worth reacting to, but I’ll confine it to two distinctions:

A wide atheist is someone who think there are no gods, no divine or supernatural beings whatsoever. And a narrow atheist is one who just thinks that there no classic God of the Judeo-Christian, Islamic tradition exists. There is no omnipotent, omniscience, and all good being. But narrow atheism by itself leaves open the possibility that some other sort of divine being might exist.

A lot of people, even skeptics and narrow atheists, think that wide atheism is unreasonable. Wide atheists are a rare and foolish breed, they think. Even among the people who have warmed to the idea that you can make a convincing case against the omni-God, they figure that you could never prove that no gods at all exist.
Wide atheism is correct, however.

Here’s a very brief argument in favor of wide atheism. It’s no more challenging to make a compelling case that no elves, pixies, dwarves, fairies, goblins, or other mythical creates exist than it is to argue that there are no Gods. I don’t have to give a decisive proof against every possible mythological, magical being in order to conclude that none of them are real. At some point, once you’ve thought about, reflected on the general considerations about natural laws, magic, and supernatural entities, it becomes perfectly reasonable to conclude that the whole enterprise is an explanatory dead end for figuring out what sort of things there are in the world. Even though scientific naturalism has managed to explain every single alleged supernatural phenomena in the past entirely in natural terms, should we insist on being agnostic about the few magical beings that people still stubbornly cling to? Surely I don’t have to be agnostic about invisible, supernatural beings that might be responsible for those remaining phenomena that we are still trying to explain. All of the instances of phenomena that were alleged to be supernatural but that turned out to be natural give me as much proof as we can hope for that the God idea should go the same way as evil demons did as an explanation of mental illness.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

God Wouldn’t Leave Room for Agnosticism, There Are Agnostics, So There Isn’t A God.

Carlo Sclippa suggested this very interesting argument against agnosticism to me:

The agnostic concludes that neither the evidence for or against God is compelling. So the one thing that they think is reasonable to conclude is that the world is ambiguous concerning God. Is that fact consistent with the existence of God? Would an all powerful, all good, and all knowing being deliberately devise a world in which the evidence for God’s existence is obfuscated to the point that a reasonable person cannot form a clear view about it? That seems implausible. Such a being would certainly have the power to make the evidence clearer one way or the other. It would know how to make the world unambiguous with regard to its own existence. And presumably, if it was all good, or loved humanity, it wouldn’t leave them dangling in the wind, searching for answers but not finding them, depriving them of thing they want the most. So the agnostic has to reconcile the fact that they think the evidence is insufficient with God. God wouldn’t leave the evidential situation inconclusive. So if the evidential situation is inconclusive, then there is no God. The agnostic believes that the evidential situation is inconclusive. Therefore the agnostic should conclude that there is no God.

Here are some very powerful analogies that J.L. Schellenberg gives for why a good God wouldn’t leave the evidential situation inconclusive. This passage is from "Divine hiddenness justifies atheism," in The Improbability of God, eds. Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier.

I. The Hiding Analogy: Imagine yourself in the following situation. You’re a child playing hide and seek with your mother in the woods at the back of your house. You’ve been crouching for some time now behind a large oak tree, quite a fine hiding place but not undiscoverable—certainly not for someone as clever as your mother. However, she does not appear. The sun is setting, and it will soon be bedtime, but still no mother. Not only isn’t she finding you, but, more disconcerting, you can’t hear her anywhere: she’s not beating the nearby bushes, making those exaggerated “looking for you” noises, and talking to you meanwhile as mothers playing this game usually do. Now imagine that you start calling for your mother. Coming out from behind the tree, you yell out her name, over and over again, “Mooooommmmmmm!” But no answer. You look everywhere: through the woods, in the house, down the road. An hour passes, and you are growing hoarse from calling. Is she anywhere around? Would she fail to answer if she were around?

Now let’s change the story a little. You’re a child with amnesia—apparently because of a blow to the head (which of course you don’t remember), your memory goes back only a few days—and you don’t even know whether you have a mother. You see other children with their mothers and think it would sure be nice to have one. So you ask everyone you meet and look everywhere you can, but without forwarding your goal in the slightest. You take up the search anew each day, looking diligently, even though the strangers who took you in assure you that your mother must be dead. But to no avail. Is this what we should expect if you really have a mother and she is around, and is aware of your search? When in the middle of the night you tentatively call out—“Mooooommmmmmmmm!”—would she not answer if she were really within earshot?

Let’s change the story one more time. You’re still a small child, and an amnesiac, but this time you’re in the middle of a vast rain forest, dripping with dangers of various kinds. You’ve been stuck there for days, trying to figure out who you are and where you came from. You don’t remember having a mother who accompanied you into this jungle, but in your moments of deepest pain and misery you call for her anyway: “Mooooommmmmmm!” Over and over again. For days and days. . . the last time when a jaguar comes at you out of nowhere. . . but with no response. What should you think in this situation? In your dying moments, what should cross your mind? Would the thought that you have a mother who cares about you and hears your cry and could come to you but chooses not to even make it onto the list?

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Don’t like my tone? Am I being rude?

One of the most common and loudest complaints about the arguments from authors and speakers like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett is that they are bashing religion, they are rude, they are hateful, they are angry, they are encouraging intolerance, or they are prejudiced against religion. (Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion is being investigated in Turkey to determine if it is an attack on religious values, which could lead to the prosecution of the book’s Turkish publisher.) As far as I can tell, and I have read a lot of the reviews of their books, these objections to the “tone,” are just about the most substantial criticisms that anyone seems to have. Justifiably, Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett have expressed their frustration because these criticisms don’t have much to do with the substance of what they are saying. If one is presenting reasons for thinking that there is no God, what in the world does the “tone” that you use to do it have to do with the issue?

In particular, religious moderates and lots of otherwise very sharp intellectuals in the scientific and philosophical community have chastised these atheist authors repeatedly for their strident, passionate style. The typical criticism is that when atheist authors are rude or angry, or insinuate that believers are childish idiots, their project will backfire and they will antagonize more than convince. What these critics are actually revealing is not desire to help Dawkins and Harris be more effective or be able to reach a wider audience. They don’t really want the project to be successful at all. More likely these complaints belie the critics’ deep, uncritical affection for religion and their discomfort with anyone who scrutinizes it closely. Making these stylistic complaints seems to concede the content of the arguments by focusing instead on the form. Rather than argue, “yes, there is a God. Here are the reasons for thinking so. . . “ they complain that the atheist authors are smug, and have presented their case with contempt for believers. With so many of these evasions, it makes it hard not to have some contempt. That the atheist authors have been able to stir up this sort of criticism so often from the intelligentsia and nothing much more substantial is a really strong indicator that they are doing something right.

In a recent incident in Janesville, WI, a high school student ripped up a Bible in class as part of a speech he was giving in which he was arguing that the Bible was false. He was trying to demonstrate, among other things, that nothing supernatural would happen to him if he did it. Nothing supernatural did happen to him, but there was a firestorm of protests from the community. The student was suspended for a week. In conjunction with an article in the local paper, dozens of people expressed their outrage at how rude the student was, how intolerant, how arrogant, and how disrespectful it was to act so offensively.

Let’s be clear: a person’s right to free speech is not contingent upon their making their comments in a calm, mild-mannered, polite fashion. It’s a right to free speech, period. Aside from social niceties, a person is under no moral or legal obligation to express themselves nicely, with humility, or even respectfully. There seems to be a confusion for people who think that religious tolerance means never saying anything critical about religion or asking hard questions about it. Being tolerant of religion means that people have a moral and legal right to pursue the religious activities of their choice. It does not mean that they have a right to adopt any insane, unfounded, superstitious nonsense they want to and then expect the rest to remain completely silent about it. Freedom of religion does not guarantee immunity from reason and good sense. Having freedom of religion does not protect you from hurt feelings. Having freedom of religion does not protect you from disagreement.

When atheists are criticized for being angry, or when it is argued that being contemptuous makes the atheists’ argument less effective, the critics are missing the point. Whether those points are true, they only concern successful public strategy. They aren’t relevant to the question of reasonable belief in God. Furthermore, even if being strident or antagonistic will hamper one’s ability to convince, that does not impose any sort of moral obligation not to express oneself that way. You haven’t done something wrong to your targets by being mean. And it certainly doesn’t follow that theism is vindicated by the atheists’ being offensive.

Those people who will be offended would most likely have not been convinced anyway, and they don’t have a right not to be offended. There is no moral or legal right not to have your feelings hurt. What’s more obvious is that if you’re feelings are hurt or if someone’s tone seems intolerant, you’d be well advised to carefully consider the source of those hurt feelings inside of you. If you’ve got attachments to some beliefs that are so emotional that you can’t even listen to or read some words that challenge them without getting bent out of shape, then that’s a very good indicator that those beliefs are irrational and dogmatic and they need to be challenged. If there are people out there for whom the crucial difference between believing in God and not believing in God is whether or not the atheist presented their case politely, then they need to reevaluate their grounds for believing in God.

If you don’t like my tone, then you can go fuck yourself.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Perfect Word of God? Reliable Historical Document?

Countless Christians maintain that the Bible is a special book because God somehow acted to bring about its writing. We will leave aside for now the point that different Christian sects have different Bibles, with different books included or excluded, and they disagree about which translation is best. Let’s focus on the fact that many Christians maintain that the Bible is a perfect, unerring, non-contradictory book. The claim is often that it is entirely consistent and coherent internally.

Contradictions, conflicts, missing details, reversed sequences, and other sorts of glaring internal inconsistencies are easy to find. Consider the first four books of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which give accounts of the life of Jesus. Among other differences, they give four very different accounts of the events at Jesus’ tomb after he was executed:

In the Luke account, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women go to the tomb, find it open, talk to two men in shining garments, and then go tell what they saw to the other disciples.

In the Mark account, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome go to the tomb, find it open, and find one man sitting there in white inside. They talk to him, then they run away in fear and they do not say “any thing to any man; for they were afraid.”

In the Matthew account, Mary Magdalene and the “other” Mary go to the tomb. A great earthquake opens it by rolling the stone away. They go inside and find an angel of the Lord in white. Then they leave with fear and joy and run to bring the disciples word.

In the John account, Mary Magdalene (by herself) finds the tomb open. She goes and gets Simon Peter and the other disciple “that Jesus loved.” The two of them go to the tomb and find it empty. They leave, but Mary stays crying. Then two angels appear to her. Then Jesus himself appears to her. She talks to him and then goes to tell the rest of the disciples.

These starkly different accounts of the alleged resurrection of Jesus should raise serious questions for anyone who thinks that this book can be employed as a reliable historical document or trusted for accuracy concerning Jesus. In addition to these obvious contradictions, there are countless other passages in the book that contain similar problems.