Saturday, April 30, 2011

JI: Introduction to Forgeries

Ehrman spends the first few pages of JI's fourth chapter explaining how we know the gospels were not written by eyewitnesses. First he identifies the purported writers: Matthew and John were disciples, Mark was the disciple Peter's secretary, and Luke was Paul's traveling companion. But there are several problems with accepting these people as the authors:
  1. The four books have many contradictions and opposing viewpoints that make far more sense if the authors aren't eyewitnesses.
  2. None of the gospels claim to be eyewitness accounts of the events, and in fact all are written in the third person.
  3. Jesus' followers were illiterate, Aramaic-speaking Galilean peasants. Yet the gospel writers were highly educated Greek-speakers who sometimes display ignorance of the area's geography and customs.
  4. None of the gospels originally had an author's name attached to them; it was only later in early church history that they were attributed to these four people.
A few early church fathers did say that the disciples wrote gospels. But Papias got his information third- or fourth-hand, and "when he can be checked, he appears to be wrong." And Irenaeus had strong motives for attributing the gospels to authoritative people in order to increase their credibility and reinforce his viewpoint.

Next Ehrman provides a brief introduction to ancient forgeries. Remarkably, only 8 of the 27 New Testament books have completely undisputed authorship. He places the 19 whose authorship is disputed into three categories:
  • Misattributed writings: anonymous books with incorrectly identified authors (e.g. the gospels)
  • Homonymous writings: books by someone bearing the same name as a famous person (e.g. the author of James was simply assumed to be James, brother of Jesus)
  • Pseudigraphic writings: books written under a false name—either as a pen name or as a literal forgery
Ehrman argues that forgeries were prevalent in the ancient world, that they intended to deceive, that they often did, and that ancient societies viewed the practice just as seriously as we do today. Then he gives a fascinating list of motivations for forgeries, only a few of which had occurred to me. I'll list the ones relevant to Christian writing here:
  1. To make an enemy look bad: For example, Ehrman suspects that heresy hunter Epiphanus forged a book called The Greater Questions of Mary and claimed it was used by the heretical Phibionites. It contained a story about Jesus performing a sex act, thus casting them in a bad light.
  2. To oppose a certain viewpoint: For example, the forgery 3 Corinthians uses Paul's name to argue against heretical views from the second century.
  3. To make their enemies agree with them: For example, early Christians inserted references to Jesus to make it seem like pagan oracles prophesied his coming.
  4. To express humility or love for an authority figure: Some forgers may have considered their works a mere "extension of what the master himself said." And the author of The Acts of Paul and Thecla claimed he wrote it "out of love for Paul."
  5. To supplement the tradition: For example, in Colossians Paul mentions a letter to Laodicea which was never found, so early Christians forged a couple. And there's little mention of Jesus' childhood in canonical books, so they wrote several stories of their own.
  6. To counter other forgeries: The Acts of Pilate, the Apostolic Constitutions, and the canonical book of 2 Thessalonians are cited as examples.
  7. To provide authority for their own views: Ehrman says this is easily the most common reason for forgeries, especially for small groups who had been branded heretics.
With so many reasons to commit forgery, it's not surprising that a huge number of forged books were written, nor that some managed to make their way into the Bible. Next I'll cover the evidence Ehrman presents to demonstrate that this is the case.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Relic of Skepticism

During the Christian apologetics course I took in my senior year of high school, I read Lee Strobel's popular book The Case for Faith, which attempts to answer some of the most common objections to Christianity. In Chapter 2, Strobel interviews apologist William Lane Craig about miracles, which is essentially just a pretext that allows Craig to present five arguments for the existence of God. They're all very well-known, so eventually I hope to cover each of them in more depth. However, I was doing some spring cleaning the other day and came across a paper I wrote related to this chapter, dated November of 2006. I was still a Christian at the time.

Unfortunately, I can't remember whether the assignment was to critique the chapter or just to respond to it. Either way, though, I think I did a pretty good job, especially considering that my knowledge of skeptical arguments at the time was basically nil. I don't agree with everything I wrote here—especially not the ultimate conclusion, of course—but overall I'm proud of how well I responded:
Craig makes five main arguments for the existence of a miracle-working God: He makes sense of the universe’s origin, the universe’s complexity, objective moral values, and the resurrection of Jesus, and He can immediately be experienced. When taken together as a whole, I believe these arguments provide sufficient evidence for one to rationally believe that such a God exists. However, there are certain individual parts of the argument that might appear weak, particularly to a skeptical atheist. I will examine each point to see how it holds up from an atheist’s perspective.
One important point to make is that because the book is designed to build the case for the Christian faith, it will generally be slanted towards the creationist/Christian side of the argument. Strobel goes to Craig without going to an evolutionist/atheist to hear their side of the story. For the sake of simplicity, I will assume unless otherwise noted that all the claims made in the book are correct and not biased or misleading in any way.
First, we have the claim that God makes sense of the universe’s origin. Craig states that whatever begins to exist has a cause, that the universe began to exist, and that the universe therefore has a cause. However, as I understand it, many scientists believe that the universe at the time of the Big Bang consisted of a tiny sphere that contained all of the matter in the universe. If we can assert that this sphere has been expanding and contracting for an infinite amount of time – that is, if there have been an infinite number of Big Bangs – it is possible that the universe never began to exist and never had a cause, and if so this part of the argument is negated.
I consider Craig’s second point, that God makes sense of the universe’s complexity, to be the most convincing. His facts regarding the low probability of the creation of life are hard evidence for a creator. However, I don’t think that Craig gives enough credit to the Many Worlds Hypothesis, the idea that in an infinite number of universes, one would probably be capable of sustaining life. In fact, to be more accurate, in an infinite number of universes, an infinite number would almost certainly be capable of sustaining life. While this hypothesis cannot be proven, I don’t believe it’s as outlandish as Craig claims it to be.
The third point Craig makes is that God makes sense of objective moral values. I believe that this is one of the weaker arguments. Humans might develop some objective moral values based on their personal realization of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would want them to do unto you. This axiom is plain common sense: for example, you don’t like to have pain inflicted upon you, so it’s a safe bet that others don’t like having pain inflicted upon them. Naturally a person would consider anything that is done to him that he dislikes to be “wrong”, and the simple application of that standard to others essentially creates a universal standard of morals.
His fourth point is that God makes sense of the resurrection of Jesus. What bothers me here is that much of his evidence comes straight from the Bible itself, which many atheists see as somewhat or even completely unreliable. In proving the resurrection to unbelievers, non-Biblical historical evidence is absolutely crucial, and yet the argument is severely lacking in this area.
For the skeptical atheist, Craig’s final point is by far the weakest. When we claim to have experienced God, it is not inconceivable that our minds are playing tricks on us. Rather than the power of the Holy Spirit guiding us, it could just be a subconscious impulse that only appears to be coming from an outside source. The mind can heal the body simply by making us believe we are supposed to be healing (the placebo effect). If the mind has such power over the physical aspect of our lives, the same could be true for the spiritual aspect.
In spite of the weaknesses I have listed here, the five arguments as a whole provide enough solid evidence, perhaps not to prove, but at least to justify a belief in a miracle-working God. The points put forth, even with their flaws, make a convincing case that even the most intelligent and knowledgeable atheist would be hard pressed to refute entirely.
My memory from around this time is somewhat fuzzy, but I see this short paper as a kind of relic that gives me insight into my first grasps at skepticism. As I read each paragraph I can imagine my mind at work, parsing the arguments and searching for the holes. Based on what I've written here—and in spite of my conclusion—it's not at all surprising to me that I eventually ceased to believe.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Making Connections

I thought I'd give an update on how things are going on the school front. I've been attending Rational Thought @ UCSD's weekly "Rationally Speaking" meetings ever since this post, and I've met a lot of really nice, really smart people in the process. As I mentioned, they come from a variety of religious backgrounds and have expertise in many different areas, so it's interesting to get some other perspectives on atheism and rationality. Plus, those who weren't brought up in a religion can get new insight into the believer's mind from those who have. I've traded Twitter feeds with some of the RT members, and a couple have even linked to this blog, including Jonathan from Conversational Atheist. His site has a bunch of great articles and resources for talking with theists.

But the connections I've made aren't just limited to atheists. At RT's quarterly Ask an Atheist table (the same event that originally got me interested in the group) I met a guy named Neil. He's a Christian who preaches on campus now and then, and it turns out that he not only knows both of my parents, but actually converted my dad from Judaism to Christianity. I had heard my mom mention that she knew someone who preached at UCSD, but this comment never sank in until I met him. Although of course I see Neil's views as deeply misguided, he did seem like a sincere and kind person. Thankfully, he agreed to let me tell my family about my unbelief on my own time rather than tattling on me himself, so that's one potential disaster averted.

I'll be attending some additional RT events over the next two weeks. There's a talk on "Hate Speech in Religious Texts" on Thursday as part of the Hate-Free Campus Campaign. While the point of the meeting is to draw attention to intolerant verses in the Bible and Quran, in a way it's also meant as a criticism of the very idea of "hate speech." Really, all (legal) forms of speech should be allowed on campus, even those with hateful content. Following that is Atheism Awareness Week, five day's worth of events on the following topics:
  • Monday: "What's an Atheist?"
  • Tuesday: "Questioning Religion"
  • Wednesday: "Improve Your Mental Health"
  • Thursday: "Critical Thinking Workshop"
  • Friday: "Parenting Beyond Belief"
I'll go to a few of these and write about it if anything of particular interest comes up. It's encouraging to be able to talk with friends about this stuff and not just read it from books and the Internet. The sense of community you get from spending time with like-minded people is certainly one of the reasons that religions are so successful, and in this regard it's great to see unbelievers follow suit.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

WEIT: Island Evolution

Last time I covered Coyne's evidence from the geographical distribution of fossils and current life on the world's continents. The rest of the chapter is based on the distinction between types of islands. Oceanic islands are land masses that rose up from beneath the sea—for example, the Hawaiian and Galapagos islands. In contrast, continental islands such as Japan (at right) and Madagascar began as part of the nearby continent but later broke off and drifted away.

When we study the life on these islands, here are the trends we find:
  • Continental islands generally have every major type of animal just as the mainland does: insects, birds, amphibians, mammals, and so on.
  • In contrast, oceanic islands often have native birds, plants and insects, but generally lack amphibians, reptiles, mammals and freshwater fish.
  • There tend to be a huge number of bird, plant and insect species on oceanic islands, which are related to one another, but fill different niches.
  • The species existing on oceanic islands tend to be the most similar to species that live on the closest mainland continent.
And now for the big question: why exactly do we see this unusual pattern? If you're a creationist... well, no real reason. God just felt like it, maybe. But even leaving aside the fact that this explanation lacks any evidence, it could be used to explain literally any pattern we happened to see. It is completely devoid of what scientists call explanatory power. A good explanation is detailed, non-arbitrary, makes testable predictions, and can be falsified. "God did it" has none of these traits.

The real answer is much more interesting. Unsurprisingly, the ecosystems of continental islands look normal because they were once part of the mainland. But what about oceanic islands? Their species are most similar to the nearest mainland species—for example, species from the Galapagos Islands (at right) resemble those from South America—because that's where they originated. And why do we see only certain forms of life on oceanic islands? Because there are practical limits to crossing large bodies of water. Birds can fly, while plant seeds and insects can attach to their feathers or be carried in droppings. Some seeds and bugs are even light enough to drift on the wind, and other seeds can survive for long periods floating in salty oceans. In contrast, amphibians and freshwater fish can't handle the saltwater, while reptiles and mammals can't swim far enough. Mammals like seals and bats are the lone exceptions and are found on oceanic islands, elegantly confirming this trend.

Finally, in the absence of competition, the species that are found on oceanic islands undergo rapid speciation to play a wide variety of roles. Coyne gives several examples. Of the 28 bird species in the Galapagos, half are finches—all descended from one ancestor. He says:
"[D]ifferent species specializ[e] on foods as different as insects, seeds, and the eggs of other species. The "woodpecker finch" is one of those rare species that uses tools—in this case a cactus spine or twig to pry insects from trees. ...And there's even a "vampire finch" that pecks wounds on the rear ends of seabirds and then laps up the blood."
There are also about 60 species of honeycreepers (with diverse feeding habits and beak shapes) and almost a thousand species of Drosophila fruit flies have been discovered on the Hawaiian islands. And on the South Atlantic island of St. Helena, members of the daisy and sunflower family have evolved into "small woody trees."

These examples are powerful displays of evolution's ability to mold both behavior and physical traits to suit the environment. Again, creationism is at a loss to explain these phenomena. Why did God make it so that there are nearly 1,000 species of Drosophila on one island group, and 14 finch species that variously feed on seeds, insects, fruit, eggs, nectar and blood on another? Well, now we know: he didn't.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Potential Reading List

The list of books I want to read on subjects related to this blog is growing far more rapidly than the pace of my actual reading. Here are some of the books that I might cover here in the future, in no particular order:
There's a pretty big variety within that list. I picked that group based on my interest in certain subjects, and by studying the pros and cons mentioned in the Amazon reviews. It ranges from atheist morality (Carrier) to the resurrection (Komanitsky) to evolution (Dawkins) to Christian historical revisionism (Rodda). A few highlights: The Bible Unearthed uses archaeology to show that much of the Old Testament has no historical basis. The Impossibility of God makes the bold case that God can be conclusively disproven from a logical standpoint. And The End of Christianity is an upcoming sequel to an excellent anthology I read, The Christian Delusion.

While there are a lot of topics I want to learn more about, I don't want to live in an echo chamber that only backs up my existing opinions. For that reason, I've also looked at some books advocating for Christianity and theism:
I'm actually not particularly interested in any of these, so it'll be hard to get myself to read them. But doing so does have its benefits: in the unlikely event that I'm wrong, they may help convince me, and even if they don't, I'll be more familiar with those arguments and hopefully have a better idea of how to respond.

For anyone who happens to be reading, book recommendations (for either side) are welcome.

Friday, April 22, 2011

My Conversion Story

I was raised in a Christian home. I accepted the tenets of Christianity ever since I was old enough to understand them. But this is the account of how I explicitly, officially "converted" to Christianity. It's not your average conversion story.

I became a Christian because of a Disney movie.

In 1996, when I was seven years old, I saw the animated film The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The main antagonist is a judge named Claude Frollo. He's certainly not a sympathetic character, but throughout the film, he agonizes over his actions and worries that he will suffer everlasting punishment because of them. At the end Frollo dies by falling into a fiery pit that clearly represents hell. Having gone to Sunday school, I was familiar with that doctrine, but that scene was what made it real to me. I couldn't get it out of my head: the Latin chanting, Frollo's unshakable guilt, and that eternal bubbling inferno.

I was familiar with what was necessary for becoming a Christian. The oft-quoted verse from Romans 10 says that "if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved." I took that verse quite literally. But even though I sincerely believed and "confessed the Lord Jesus" privately dozens of times, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was still bound for hell. Could I really be sure that I had met all of the requirements? It seemed like it, certainly, but because the stakes were infinitely high, even the tiniest chance I was wrong was cause for alarm. This was my one profound anxiety at the ripe old age of seven.

I tried to comprehend what endless suffering would be like, but I just couldn't wrap my head around it. It made me dizzy. I would lie awake in bed imagining as long a period of time as I could and think, surely this is long enough? But I realized that no matter what length of time I imagined, it would not even begin to represent the amount of suffering experienced in hell. So, although I had nominally met the requirements for Christianity, the sheer magnitude of hell was absolutely terrifying to me. The idea that I had somehow missed one was enough to consume me with worry.

I remember flipping a cardboard coin I got at Chuck E. Cheese and mumbling to myself, "heads I go to heaven, tails I go to hell." If it came up heads I tried to convince myself it meant something; if it was tails I rationalized it away as a silly game. I remember going to the supermarket with my mother and helping her load groceries onto the conveyor belt at the checkout counter. I would pretend that I was "packing for hell." I realized that no amount of supplies would be enough, but I continued doing so anyway out of some twisted desperation. I knew I had to do something to quench my uncertainties.

A couple of months later I went to the Harvest Crusade with my mom and dad. At the end of the sermon, they had the altar call, and I told my parents I wanted to go down onto the stadium field to be saved. I remember my parents being pretty surprised—they probably figured that I was basically a Christian already, so it wasn't necessary—but they took me down anyway. Someone walked me through the sinner's prayer, and I got a little illustrated "Ben Born Again" pamphlet. A wave of relief and warmth washed over me. As I walked out of the stadium, holding both my parents' hands, I was beaming ear to ear. The lights in the parking lot shone brilliantly, as though ushering me into salvation. It was one of the happiest days of my life.

In the days that followed I read through the little booklet several times. I got a form letter from my church congratulating me on being saved. I wrote a letter to Jesus on broadly-lined school writing paper thanking him for his sacrifice and expressing my hope that the devil would step on a nail. At the top I wrote "I want to go to heaven with God and Jesus"—I don't think I was aware of the whole "trinity" thing yet. I thought about just going outside and letting it blow away in the breeze in hopes that God would eventually make it float up to heaven, but decided against it since I wasn't sure if he did things like that.

Those were simple, untroubled times for me. Life went on as usual, and for quite a while I was at peace. I can recall being on the elementary school playground, gazing at the empty swing set, thinking, Very soon, when the Rapture comes, this is what the world will look like. When I imagined my future, I basically assumed that I would never make it to college, let alone get a job. When I thought about what I would do when I grew up, I was only half serious. Jesus would surely come back before then. It was a calm, surreal sort of feeling, as though this world were just a fleeting illusion.

On the one hand, I could view the things I did as a Christian at age seven as quaint and naïve. But when I really think about my behavior, I find much of it to be pretty disturbing. I was fixated on the terrifying possibility that I might suffer forever in a place that doesn't exist. I played weird mind games with myself centered around this notion. I asked forgiveness of an imaginary entity, and wrote a follow-up letter in gratitude—and such sentiments were actively encouraged by those around me. I welcomed the Rapture completely at the expense of my life on earth. This is how religion warps the thoughts and beliefs of an innocent child. And although Christianity brought me great happiness at times, I can't look back on it now and say it didn't harm me.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


To say that Conservapedia is a conservative knockoff of Wikipedia would be technically correct, but it's so much more than that. Its members will take any topic and give it an ultraconservative, rabidly pro-American, literalist evangelical Christian, anti-science, anti-reality slant. (At right is their old logo, complete with hilariously ironic typo.) RationalWiki's page "What is going on at CP?" does a great job of documenting their most noteworthy antics.

The fearless leader of Conservapedia is Andy Schlafly, a home-school teacher and lawyer who has absolute authority over his domain. Say anything to anger him or any of his cronies? Insta-ban. They even have a habit of completely erasing embarrassing edits, but thankfully RationalWiki takes image captures to combat this (e.g. this bizarre speculation that Obama's birth certificate might reveal him to be an atheist). It's all very Orwellian and seems somewhat contrary to their supposed belief in small, unintrusive government. Andy himself has also made some particularly crazy comments over the years. Among them:
  • It's a good thing when bookstores close, because most books other than the Bible are liberal "claptrap."
  • Having the female main character in a Disney film aspiring to run a restaurant is outrageously feminist and anti-conservative.
  • Liberals ought to criticize... the Great Wall of China... for some reason.
  • Earthquakes occurring on fault lines is a liberal dogma.
  • Atheists can't explain why fish died en masse, so we should look to the Bible for answers. (Nevermind that we can explain it.)
  • Aha! It was unusually cold in North Carolina for a week. Global climate change must be a big lie!
  • "Real" humor (whatever that means) didn't exist until the birth of Christianity.
  • He apparently really hates soccer. It's an unintelligent sport that requires little vocabulary and has strong ties to socialism.
  • Gay marriage is partly to blame for high unemployment levels in Spain.
Of course, Conservapedia's insanity isn't limited to a few offhand comments from its founder. Here are some of the site's silliest projects and articles:
  • They believe that modern translations of the Bible have a pro-liberal bias, so they launched the Conservative Bible Project. It consists of replacing any words and phrases from the King James Version that they don't like.
  • They suspect that Obama is secretly a Muslim and was born in Kenya. And his main article is named "Barack Hussein Obama" for good measure.
  • According to their Best New Conservative Words page, the number of "conservative" words is magically doubling every century. Most of the listed words have little or nothing to do with conservatism.
  • They have long lists of supposed counterexamples to evolution and an old earth, ranging from the merely wrong to the laughably ridiculous.
  • They're convinced that Einstein's theory of relativity is somehow related to moral relativism, so they've produced a page of "counterexamples to relativity." Jesus instantly healing a man from far away is one of the listed disproofs.
  • In the infamous Lenski dialogue, Andy Schlafly demands to see the "raw data" from Richard Lenski's landmark E. coli evolution experiment and gets a well-deserved smackdown.
  • All manner of strange and irrelevant articles about atheism. Why are atheists so fat (*cough*)? Does Richard Dawkins have machismo? Why doesn't he appeal to Asian women? Inquiring minds want to know!
I fully realize that not all Christian conservatives think and act this way—I was one for a few years, and am living with a few currently. Even so, Conservapedia is an endless source of unintentional humor and a great example of how irrationality can pervade every aspect of a person's thinking, from religion to science to politics.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

WEIT: The Layout of Life

Chapter 4 of WEIT is dedicated to the evidence for evolution gleaned from biogeography, the study of the geographical distribution of life. The case Coyne makes is based on a few basic patterns of life that we consistently find across the globe.

Coyne first covers an interesting observation about continents: not only do they often have similar habitats—deserts, forests, jungles and so forth—but they have species that appear similar, yet are fundamentally different. He illustrates this by comparing and contrasting Australia and the Americas: anteater, mole, and flying squirrel-type creatures can be found in both habitats. But the Australian versions are marsupial mammals (which have pouches and prematurely-born young), while the species in the Americas are ordinary placental mammals. Coyne rightly asks:
"If animals were specially created, why would the creator produce on different continents fundamentally different animals that nevertheless look and act so much alike?"
Perhaps the habitats are subtly different, such that the marsupials couldn't have survived in the Americas (and vice versa)? Unfortunately for the creationists, no. Various plant and animal species often thrive when introduced onto a new continent. In truth, the pattern we see is explained quite well through a combination of speciation and convergent evolution. Coyne explains that we find the earliest fossil marsupials (80 million years ago) in North America. They then migrated down into South America (40 mya) and eventually found their way to Australia (30 mya). From there, convergent evolution kicked in: traits that are extremely useful in certain habitats will tend to evolve independently. This explains, for example, why gliding flaps can be found in both flying squirrels and the marsupial sugar glider.

The marsupials' "jump" from South America to Australia was possible possible because both continents were once part of the supercontinent Gondwana. So was Antarctica—and marsupial fossils from 35–40 mya have also been found there, just as scientists predicted. Trying to make sense of this trend in young earth creationist terms would be futile: why would the flood bury them in this precise configuration, and why do the fossil dates line up so perfectly?

Continental drift also explains the bizarre distribution of Glossopteris tree fossils. They can be found scattered haphazardly across all the southern continents—but as the map below illustrates, this pattern makes perfect sense:

1: South America; 2: Africa; 3: Madagascar; 4: India; 5: Antarctica; 6: Australia
Some of the less savvy YECs probably deny continental drift altogether, but with evidence like this, the facts are hard to ignore. As I mentioned here, the accelerated young-earth version of this drift is both arbitrary and completely impossible. In contrast, both the biogeographical patterns and continental drift are beautifully consistent with (and even strengthen) evolutionary theory.

I had hoped to cover this whole chapter in one shot, but there's so much material that I'll have to split it in two. I'll summarize the biogeographical evidence from islands in the next installment.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The 10 Commandments, Version 1.5

The Ten Commandments are undoubtedly the best-known moral instructions in the entire Bible. Some Christians exalt them as the basis from which we get our laws, and even insist that we have statues of the two ancient tablets in front of our nation's secular courthouses. Yet in terms of their actual usefulness in regulating human morality, they're really a mixed bag. Here's a summary:
  1. You shall not have any other gods than Yahweh.
  2. You shall not make any carved images (i.e. idols).
  3. You shall not take Yahweh's name in vain.
  4. Keep the Sabbath day holy by refraining from work.
  5. Honor your father and mother.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not lie.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife or possessions.
Some are great commandments, others not so much. Ebon Musings has an essay in response to them entitled "The New Ten Commandments" that lays out ten completely new commands for the modern world. All of them are great, but they got me thinking: we don't even have to totally rewrite the Ten Commandments in order to massively improve them. A little tweaking could go a long way. This is what I might expect to find if the Bible was really an inspired book:
  1. Respect Yahweh and have no other gods than him.
  2. You shall not persecute those who do not follow Yahweh.
  3. You shall not own other humans as slaves.
  4. You shall not kill or mistreat animals unnecessarily, or sacrifice them.
  5. Honor your parents except in cases of abuse.
  6. You shall not kill humans except in self-defense.
  7. You shall not commit rape or adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not lie with the intent of causing harm.
  10. You shall not treat others as inferior due to race, gender or sexual orientation.
Now let's take a look at what I changed. First I condensed the four God-related commands into one. Even if Yahweh actually existed, things like not taking his name in vain and honoring the Sabbath shouldn't be anywhere near that high on the list of important commands. Of course Yahweh still shouldn't be respected if he goes on killing sprees. But I wanted to keep the new set of commandments plausibly religious, and it's still an improvement overall. To balance this out, I made the next one a command against religious persecution. The two after that are meant to explicitly forbid two of the worst elements of the Old Testament: slavery and animal sacrifice.

I only needed to make relatively minor changes to the next bunch. Honoring one's parents is a good sentiment, but it could be misused to apply even to extreme cases. I made the "kill" commandment less vague by forbidding all cases except self-defense (which could apply to defensive wars as well). Adultery, while certainly immoral, pales in comparison to the evil of rape. I couldn't think of any obvious scenarios where it would unambiguously acceptable to steal, so that's the only commandment I left untouched.

I added "with the intent of causing harm" to the ninth commandment to allow for "white lies" that avoid offending people, and for scenarios such as lying to Nazis to hide Jews. And finally, as others have pointed out in the past, coveting isn't necessarily a bad thing at all. In fact, it's an extremely useful trait in a capitalist society. I replaced it with a broad commandment against racism, sexism and homophobia—wiping out centuries of intolerance against countless groups with just one sentence.

Are my revised Ten Commandments perfect? Certainly not—nor are they meant to be. But as with my reworked version of Genesis 1, I would expect an omniscient and all-good God to come up with something even better than a lowly human could. The fact that I could improve upon the holy commandments of the Almighty so easily suggests that they are not, in fact, what they claim to be.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Were We Never Christians At All?

Perhaps the most common claim that Christians make about ex-Christians is that they could not possibly have been "true Christians" in the first place. It can be frustrating to hear this, and from the unbeliever's perspective it seems downright ridiculous. To show why, let's start with an illustration.

Let's take the case of a hypothetical Christian, Jane, who accepts this doctrine. She believes herself to be a "true Christian." She sincerely believes that Jesus is Lord, and that God raised him from the dead, and that she accepted him as the savior of her life. But here's the problem: there is some possibility—even if it's only a small one—that at some point in the remainder of Jane's lifetime she will reject Christianity and either become nonreligious or an adherent of some other religion.

Now, Jane could deny this as a possibility. But life often presents us with unexpected twists and turns, so to rule out such an outcome would be narrow-minded and naïve. So if Jane accepts the possibility that she could reject Christianity in the future, she must accept the possibility that she is not currently a Christian—in spite of her sincere belief! She would likely find this conclusion patently absurd, and I find the conclusion that I was not a Christian absurd for more or less the same reason. 

Now Christians can (hopefully) see how their assertion looks from my perspective. But some of them might say, "I know I'm a Christian because my faith resulted in good works. You unbelievers didn't bear spiritual fruit, so your Christianity was false." But this has two problems. First, the Bible doesn't necessarily require these fruits for salvation. Romans 10:9 states, "That if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved." All this verse requires is a sincere confession of belief in Christ's deity and resurrection—no ifs, ands, or buts.

Can one find verses that say there's more to being a Christian than sincere belief? Certainly. But what that shows me is that the Bible is at worst contradictory, and at best startlingly unclear, regarding what is by far the single most important element of Christianity. If we're to be punished or rewarded eternally according to a certain set of criteria, isn't it strange that the Bible doesn't just lay out all in one place (or better yet, in many places) exactly what those criteria are? It seems rather cruel of a supposedly omnibenevolent God to leave the matter even slightly ambiguous.

Second, let's assume the objector is correct. In fact, let's raise the stakes even higher. In 
Luke 9:23 Jesus says, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him pick up his cross daily, and follow Me." If we interpret this as a requirement for "true Christianity," then almost the entire church consists of fake Christians. Yet I can point to ex-Christians who met even this ridiculously high standard. Ex-preachers like John Loftus and Dan Barker once dedicated their lives completely to Christ and produced plenty of so-called spiritual fruit. If they weren't "true Christians," then no one is.

Those who claim that ex-Christians weren't Christians at all probably haven't had any experience with them. My advice to them? Read the testimonies linked in the above paragraph. Read the stories from regular people on the forums. Read Ebonmuse's excellent essay "Into the Clear Air," which describes the agonizing process that Christians go through when they leave Christianity. And read blogger Luke Muelhauser's detailed account of the richness of his former relationship with God. If they've read all that and still believe that ex-Christians must have been insincere, they are only revealing their dogmatic adherence to a view that bears no resemblance to reality.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

JI: Paul and the Ignorance of Idolaters

Most of my coverage of Jesus, Interrupted thus far has been of problems within the gospels, so now I want to focus on two differing views within the life and writings of Paul (pp. 95–97). The issue is a fairly simple one, which just makes the discrepancy that much clearer. So, does Paul think that God has overlooked the unbelief of idolaters in the past due to their ignorance of him? Let's look at two passages, starting with a passage from Acts 17:
"Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.' "
Paul tells the people of Athens quite clearly that God has overlooked the past ignorance of those who worshiped idols. While they are now expected to repent and believe in Jesus, they had previously believed in pagan gods because, as Ehrman says, "they simply didn't know any better." And as Paul says to the Athenians, God doesn't blame them for it.

But does Paul really think that? What about the passage in Romans 1 that includes:
"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things."
Here Paul takes exactly the opposite viewpoint. God "has shown" himself to them, his "attributes are clearly seen," "they are without excuse," and "they knew God." The discrepancy is threefold, as Ehrman explains:
"Do they worship idols out of ignorance? The "Paul" of Acts says yes, Paul in his own writings says no. Are they responsible for their idolatrous activities? Acts says no, Paul says yes. Does God inflict his wrathful judgment on them in the present as a result? Acts says no, Paul says yes."
So here we have two views of God's relationship with unbelievers that are clearly at odds in multiple ways. Either Paul had hopelessly conflicting opinions on this subject, he was lying to the Athenians to win them over, or the author of Acts fabricated his story. Ehrman takes the latter position, saying that "the real Paul would likely have preached some fire and brimstone to get these people to realize the error of their ways." In any case, this example deals a serious blow to the Christian claim that the Bible is an inerrant and unified work.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Quranic Interlude

While my main focus is generally on criticism of Christianity, I thought it might be interesting to pause for a moment and try something new. I helped the Rational Thought group find some of the verses in the Bible and the Quran that promote hatred or intolerance toward some specific group—gays, women, unbelievers, and so on. I'll be going into the awful passages in the Bible in some depth later on, but for now I'll just post some of the worst stuff I found in the Quran. There's plenty more where this came from, of course; this is just a small sample of the terrible things to be found in that book.

Apparently women are only half as reliable as men, and women can be beaten if they disobey men.
  • "And call two witness from among your men, two witnesses. And if two men be not at hand, then a man and two women, of such as ye approve as witnesses, so that if one erreth (through forgetfulness) the other will remember." (Surah 2:282)
  • "Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them." (Surah 4:34)
Muslims who want to promote interfaith relations evidently haven't read their Quran:
  • "O ye who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians for friends. They are friends one to another. He among you who taketh them for friends is (one) of them. Lo! Allah guideth not wrongdoing folk." (Surah 5:51)
It also condemns gay people. As a side note, "as no creature ever did before you" is a clear scientific error.
  • "And Lot! (Remember) when he said unto his folk: Will ye commit abomination such as no creature ever did before you? Lo! ye come with lust unto men instead of women. Nay, but ye are wanton folk." (Surah 7:80-81)
Killing Unbelievers
The Quran makes many more explicit references to the punishment of nonbelievers than the Bible does.
  • "They long that ye should disbelieve even as they disbelieve, that ye may be upon a level (with them). So choose not friends from them till they forsake their homes in the way of Allah; if they turn back (to enmity) then take them and kill them wherever ye find them, and choose no friend nor helper from among them…" (Surah 4:89)
  • "Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful." (Surah 9:5)
Unbelievers in Hell
It also tends to be almost gleefully detailed in its terrifying descriptions of hell.
  • "Lo! Those who disbelieve Our revelations, We shall expose them to the Fire. As often as their skins are consumed We shall exchange them for fresh skins that they may taste the torment. Lo! Allah is ever Mighty, Wise." (Surah 4:56)
  • "We have prepared for disbelievers Fire. Its tent encloseth them. If they ask for showers, they will be showered with water like to molten lead which burneth the faces. Calamitous the drink and ill the resting-place!" (Surah 18:29)
  • "But as for those who disbelieve, garments of fire will be cut out for them; boiling fluid will be poured down on their heads, whereby that which is in their bellies, and their skins too, will be melted; and for them are hooked rods of iron. Whenever, in their anguish, they would go forth from thence they are driven back therein and (it is said unto them): Taste the doom of burning." (Surah 22:19-22)
By no means is the Quran a more intolerant book than the Bible in every category, though. For example, the gratuitously cruel punishment of stoning isn't mentioned even once. It denounces homosexuality, but doesn't call for killing gay people as the OT does. And although it does endorse slavery, it doesn't do so as heartily as the Bible. One could make an argument for either book being a greater source of evil teachings, but in the end it doesn't really matter. They both advocate despicable views, and no one should use either of them as the basis for their morality.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

WEIT: Other Vestigiality & Atavisms

I have a lot of ground to cover this time around. Last time I covered WEIT's description of vestigiality and atavisms in humans, and now I'll do so for other animals.

There are many examples of birds with vestigial wings: ostriches and penguins use them for a different purpose, while kiwis' wings (see below) are stubby and basically useless. Other species have vestigial eyes that are malformed and covered by skin or scales, including the eastern Mediterranean blind mole rat and certain varieties of fish, salamanders and snakes. Why might this loss of function occur? Because both wings and eyes are costly to create and maintain. Notably, kiwis live in New Zealand, where a lack of large predators makes their inability to fly less of a disadvantage. And loss of eye function occurs only in species that live underground or in caves, and thus have little use for vision.

Cetaceans are some of the best cases of these phenomena. Whales have several vestiges, such as the pelvises embedded deep within their bodies. Embryology reveals yet more examples: hindlimb buds are initially visible but vanish after about seven weeks, a thin coat of hair is grown (and quickly lost), toothless baleen whales "develop embryonic teeth that disappear before birth." And remarkably, in rare cases whales are born with atavistic legs—sometimes even fully formed ones. These features point to their common ancestry with furry, four-legged, toothed land mammals.

Other examples of atavisms: Chicken embryos develop teeth if provided with a certain protein, revealing their reptilian ancestry. And splint bones in horses sometimes form into extra toes, showing how they "descend from smaller, five-toed ancestors."

Next up are genetic vestiges. 50 percent of the 800 olfactory receptor (OR) genes present in humans and other primates are inactivated, probably because we're so visually oriented that we don't need them. Dolphins—which "don't need to detect volatile odors in the air...and have a completely different set of genes for detecting waterborne chemicals"—still have OR genes, although 80 percent are inactivated. Genes for synthesizing vitamin C are also inactive in primates, fruit bats and guinea pigs. And genetic vestiges are sometimes directly connected to physical ones: for example, most mammals have a vestigial yolk sac, but mutations have inactivated the genes for producing the nutritious protein that once filled it.

The most amazing thing about these genetic vestiges is that "the sequences of the dead gene exactly mirror the pattern of resemblance predicted from the known ancestry of these species." That is, if a gene-inactivating mutation occurs, it generally occurs at the same place in all species, and the more closely related two species are, the more similar the genetic sequence will be. This phenomenon perfectly matches the hierarchical structure of the tree of life.

There's so much more I could cover from this chapter—at some point in the future I'll take an in-depth look at endogenous retroviruses and poor design—but I want to move on to some of the other completely different lines of evidence. Up next: biogeography.