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Friday, April 06, 2007

Sonata For Unaccompanied Atheist: Easter Surprise

You have suggested that looking to religions for answers is worth while and starting with Christianity is the best bet. Obviously I'm willing to follow along with this line of thought but I'll just remind you why *I* don't think religion seems like a useful place to look for answers. The fact is and I'm sure you'll agree that most people for most of recorded history have had the *wrong* beliefs (from your perspective and mine). Furthermore, almost everyone on the planet has the same beliefs as their family, neighbors. On that alone it's hard to be enthusiastic that one of these is actually the true religion and it just happens to be the one that you are affiliated with. It could be true but I don't know why I would be optimistic about this. And if one is true I'm not sure why I would trust my self to pick the right one since obviously the majority of humanity is really bad at picking the right one. Just a couple of considerations as we go forward.

You make a number of statements that all seem to center around the claim that believing the Bible is true makes more sense than to doubt it, in particular the claim that Jesus was the Son of God. Before looking at your case, here are some things that it seems I'd need to address with respect to Jesus before making a commitment to him:

  • did the person/being named Jesus Christ described in the Bible actually exist in the flesh and walk the earth?
  • are the accounts of him in the gospels and the rest of the NT true, complete, unembellished, consistent?
    • miracles (virgin birth, resurrection, healings, walk on water, water->wine). Is there any reliable way to know if a one time occurrence actually happened?
    • are all the important parts of his life story and message included in the Bible? Ie, were the authors of the NT trustworthy, accurate writers? Did the group who assembled the Bible in current form do a good job (keep the good stuff and throw out the bad)?
  • even if his words/actions were correctly recorded do we know he was speaking the truth? (e.g. A Jew could make the hypothesis that he came to deceive people and trick them away from Judaism with his miraculous powers.) He could mix in so good stuff to lure the unwary.
  • was there something special/unique about his message?
    • did he make statements or provide wisdom that weren't shared by other traditions and are totally beyond the ability of a humans to come up with?
  • are we correctly interpreting what the scriptures say?
    • e.g. if the truth of the Bible is so clear to the open mind then why are there so many denominations with fairly important doctrinal differences?
  • can we trust him to keep his word?
    • maybe he came down to test us for gullibility. maybe he was an alien just passing through? maybe he's asleep now or he lost interest in us.
    • does he have the power to deliver on his promises?
    • maybe the devil has a trick ending in mind? maybe god is powerful but deluded e.g. there is a god over your god that even he doesn't know about.

That's a short list of some of the points that I'd need to be pretty sure about before I committed to Christianity. From my point of view we'd have to be really sure about *every* one of these. If one link in the chain doesn't hold then the rest of the links are useless.

If any of these requirements seem unfair or overly demanding you should ask yourself what questions you would want answered by someone of another religion about their faith. I'm fairly confident you'd be at *least* as picky about their beliefs.

From your previous email (and some earlier ones) here's what I take to be part of your case for believing the Bible and that Jesus is the Son of God: (sorry if I've misrepresented any of your beliefs.)

  • You say that the Bible is the most amazingly consistent and predictive book ever.
    • I would consider this to be the *last* thing we will know for sure. If I did believe the some past events were correctly predicted then we would still have lots of important predictions that haven't come true yet. We won't know that the Bible is 100% true until *all* the predictions have come true. Even if the Bible is a little bit amazing then we'd still be well advised to maintain skepticism about the entirety of it's claims.

      And of course as we've discussed before it's far from uncontroversial that the Bible is error free, self consistent and contains prophecy. If you have serious concerns about how honestly I looked at the Daniel prophecies I'm open to hearing your criticisms but at best it's inconclusive that prophecy took place. And if I need to become an expert on the Qumran scrolls in order to be convinced that seems a little unfair to expect that most/many people would ever see the truth of prophecy.

    • Being self consistent (assuming that is true) is not really *amazing* per se. The Iliad is self consistent. It would be almost *more* miraculous if it was completely contradictory and people still believed it. :)
    • We are always going to have trouble showing that prophecy took place if the prediction and the event both happened in the past. Even if I *did* see real prediction occur today, how do I distinguish between: luck, supernatural but evil influence, advanced technologies I don't understand, self fulfilling prophecies.
    • Every issue of this magazine (and lots of other resources) argues against this claim of consistency, etc. Whether you buy their arguments or not it's simply not true that the Bible is obviously true, self consistent, etc. E.g. if someone sees two different lineages for Jesus in the gospels it's not obvious that these are not contradictions. And yes I'm aware of the apologist case. I'm just saying that on a first reading an open minded person would hardly be faulted for seeing this as a contradiction.
    • People are notorious liars and embellishers. Even with the best of intentions memory plays tricks on them. In other words the human element in the creation of the Bible and it's propagation and interpretation will always be a problem.
  • People died for their beliefs
    • I'm sure you don't want to allow this as evidence for other faiths so why is that relevant here? People killed themselves so they can catch a ride on a spaceship hiding behind a comet. People do lots of nutty things. Suicide bombers seem to gladly sign up for the job.
  • They told unflattering truths about themselves
    • First of course we'd have to verify that these unflattering truth were actually truths. Perhaps they just make a better story. Stories about perfect people who don't make mistakes or don't have anything interesting (unexpected, dangerous, unfair) happen to them are really boring. Also these could have been real people who did real things and later on people tried to view these factual events in some religious ways.
    • A common conman trick is to disclose false flaws about yourself to earn trust. The victim then might say to them self: "why would someone tell me a fault unless they were an honest person?" You should read up on the history and techniques of conmen you might find some interesting perspectives.
  • Truths in the Bible are hard to swallow
    • Lots of truths in life are hard to swallow that doesn't make them divinely inspired.
    • Assuming he did say these things, giving hard to swallow advice is not obviously a sign of greatness, godhood. Every religion is filled with things that are hard to swallow. In fact that is just about the definition of religion: a collection of statements that are hard to swallow.
  • Just read X and you'll be amazed. In this case you recommended the gospel of John for X. I have read it several times (as a believer and after). I am not amazed. How many times should I read it? Which parts?
    • Even if I was amazed that doesn't imply divine inspiration. Lots of things written by humans have really amazed me, changed my life, gave me tingles on my spine, put me in a daze for days. So even if John had that effect it is not obvious how I would interpret that.
    • If I went with whatever speaks to my heart I'd probably go with zen or taoism. So obviously my aesthetic/spiritual sense is not too reliable. Why should I trust yours?
    • Jesus doesn't seem to say so many profound things as far as I'm concerned. Much of it is rehashing from the OT and much of his wisdom is found independently and earlier in other religions. Saying "I'm the light of the world" doesn't seem very profound to me. It's not wisdom per say it's a claim regarding his attributes. It's somewhat vague as to what it means and I have no way to verify it in any case.
    • Even if Jesus said profound things, people say all sorts of profound things. All the time. And even if something sounds profound to me I'm not always a good judge. I'm not aware of anything that is *so* amazing that you can't imagine someone coming up with it on their own.
  • "My life was transformed". All religions have people who claim this. How would you prove to me that this is a spiritual transformation and not just a something in your brain? Or the work of the devil?
    • in what way are you/the world better off because of this transformation?
    • how can you differentiate this from a pure fantasy or delusion as it most assuredly is the case in every *other* belief system.
    • besides spending eternity in heaven, what is your transformation doing for you now? Could an independent observer in any way distinguish between a transformed person and a non-transformed person?
  • Christianity makes the most sense of the world.
    • It is possible for an explanation to fit the data pretty well and be completely wrong (Ptolemy).
    • I don't understand why the existence of Hitler and Wilberforce fits the Christian world view better than anything else. Why does it fit better than Judaism? Or taoism? What is specifically mismatched with the taoist world view?
  • It's true because believing it works. (You may not have said this, but i hear this all the time so i thought I'd throw that in)
    • I hope you don't need me to point out why this isn't true.
  • How do i know that Christianity isn't a false extension of Judaism the same way that Mormonism is a false extension of Christianity?
    • I certainly can't make a judgement based on popularity or intensity of belief.
    • New variations of religions come along *all* the time even in this modern age when people have much better ways to detect fraud. And people fall for these new religions in droves. I'm assuming that you think Mormonism is false. Clearly millions and millions of people disagree. Why couldn't people have been bad judges of character and truth back then as well? I would imagine they'd be even worse. But certainly they were probably not (much) better than we are today.

It could be very well true the the "truth" was revealed in a one time historical event and that event was recorded in a book and I have an opportunity to accept that truth. How could I possibly prove that is not the way things are? But it's also not likely that I could ever know for sure that that *is* how things are. Until it's too late of course. I find it hard to believe that God would work in such a "hacky" way. That's not proof that he didn't, but it would be somewhat surprising. I've been surprised before.

Next I'll take a look at the Glen Miller essay you recommended.

As just a final thought, whether you believe me or not I'm actually trying to be as honest and rigorous as I know how. I'm far more interested in understanding and reaching the truth than reaching a forgone conclusion. I could certainly reach a forgone conclusion with a lot less work. The bottom line is that in an important sense I don't really care if there is a god or if Jesus was his son. If there is and he was then obviously I'll have to readjust my life in some ways but my most important consideration right now is to determine what is true to the best of my ability.

As always I look forward to your reply. Happy Easter!



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