Saturday, May 28, 2011

Where Morality Comes From

Theists tell us that morality comes from God, and some even go so far as to say that atheists can't explain why humans are moral. If we are solely the product of evolutionary processes, why is it that we often care deeply about those around us? Shouldn't we be selfish, concerned only with passing on our genes as efficiently as possible? As it turns out, no. Below I'll cover several intriguing phenomena that, when taken together, explain surprisingly well why we act the way we do.

The easiest concept to understand from an evolutionary perspective is parental investment. Fitness is defined as the ability to produce viable offspring, but this entails more than just surviving long enough to procreate. Once the offspring are born, they must in most cases be protected by one or both parents: for example, a father may go off to hunt while the mother protects her young. If the parents fail to do this, their offspring will die and their genes won't be passed on. Thus, natural selection molds the behavior of many species to form a powerful parent-child bond.

What about cases where the genetic relationship is less pronounced? For example, why would a worker bee care about building the hive if it doesn't get to procreate? Why would a prairie dog sound an alarm to warn its siblings of an approaching predator if this could cause it to be eaten? Kin selection provides the answer. Suppose animal A has a gene that causes it to help related animal B, even if doing so reduces A's reproductive fitness. Because B's genes are similar to A's, B is also likely to have the gene that caused A to do this. Since A has made B more likely to survive and reproduce, A's gene is more likely to be passed on indirectly through B.

The first two concepts I've mentioned depend on the genetic relatedness of individuals, but many others do not. For example, there's reciprocal altruism, which is perhaps best summarized by the phrase "I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine." When animal C does a favor for unrelated animal D, then D is expected to do a favor for C. If D does not oblige, then he is punished by C and the other members of the community. In this way, the two are motivated to help one another because their pact is mutually beneficial. In more advanced species, this idea works even with long time intervals and a wide range of "social currencies." For example, if C grooms D, then D might look out for predators on C's behalf several weeks down the line.

Among those species capable of complex cognition, a wide range of cooperative group behaviors are possible. For example, social predators hunt in packs: bottlenose dolphins will surround a school of fish, force it toward the surface, and take turns eating from it. Some dolphin groups off the coast of Africa even form alliances with fishermen, driving fish into the nets onshore in exchange for part of the catch. Sperm whales will defend themselves by creating a flower formation: vulnerable juveniles are protected in the center, surrounded by a circle of adults who face inward to create a barrier of powerful tails along the perimeter. And perhaps most touchingly, when one odontocete is near death, the others in its group will lift it to the surface to breathe.

We're already well on our way to explaining the moral sense we all share today. One additional idea to consider is that sufficiently advanced social creatures eventually form a culture. Individuals in such societies—and humans especially—are taught to hold certain values and beliefs. We learn them from our parents, from our friends, from our government and media, and even from complete strangers. These cultural values are so heavily reinforced that they become a part of us; this is known as enculturation. This idea may sound a little ominous, but in itself it's neither good nor bad: enculturation simply is.

Along with other values, cultures have a strong tendency to promote moral systems, because they help maintain order and are generally beneficial to society as a whole. These moral systems build upon our hard-wired altruistic and cooperative tendencies. Religion is one common source of moral values, but morality need not be so formal and ritualized. For example, the people of Scandinavia are largely nonreligious, but they seem by any measure to be just as moral as people in religious countries.

These phenomena give us a reasonably detailed understanding of the origin of morality in humans and other animals. However, it's important to realize that by explaining the evolutionary and cultural origins of morality, I'm not trying to derive an ought from an is. While these concepts tell us why we are moral, they say nothing in themselves about why we should be moral, or what moral truth is from an objective standpoint (if such a thing exists). These questions are better suited to philosophers, and I hope to examine them in depth—but that's for another day.

(Aside: I learned much of this information from a course I took on animal cognition. Book learnin' really can come in handy!)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

When Our Need for Explanation Backfires

Humans are curious by nature. And this has its advantages: When our ancestors heard a noise in the bushes, those who investigated were generally more likely to survive and reproduce. The problem is that our capacity to ask questions outstrips our ability to answer them. When that happens, we have a bad habit of simply making up answers to quench our thirst for knowledge. And because we're agent-oriented creatures—it was advantageous to interpret the cause of that rustling bush as either predator or prey—those made-up answers tend to involve agents as well.

What's interesting is that we can see the implications of this in religious contexts. For example, the stories in Genesis can function almost like a time capsule, revealing the sort of questions people wondered about a few thousand years ago:
  • How did the world begin?
  • How did the animals get their names?
  • Why do people wear clothing?
  • Why do snakes crawl along the ground and (seemingly) eat dust?
  • Why is childbirth so painful?
  • Why does a colorful arc sometimes appear in the sky?
  • Why do people speak different languages?
The Bible's answer to each of these questions invokes God as a prominent part of the explanation. According to Genesis 1, God created the entire universe in six days. According to Genesis 2:18-20, God tasked Adam with naming the "birds of the air" and "beasts of the field." According to Genesis 3:1-7, humans ate from the tree that God placed in the garden, realized their nakedness, and clothed themselves with animal skins. According to Genesis 3:13-14, God made snakes crawl on their bellies and eat dust as a punishment for deceiving Eve. According to Genesis 3:16, God made childbirth painful for women as a punishment for disobeying him.

Thanks for not drowning us all
a second time, God.
This trend continues with the stories about the Great Flood and the tower of Babel. According to Genesis 9:8-17, God placed the rainbow in the sky following Noah's flood as a promise that he would never flood the whole earth again. According to Genesis 11:1-9, everyone spoke the same tongue until God "confused their languages" (for some reason this supposedly omnipotent being seems to feel threatened by them) to get them to stop building the tower.

It's easy to see where these stories came from. For example, it would have been natural to wonder how that multicolored shape got up in the sky, and there certainly wouldn't have been any way to explain it at the time. Rainbows also have an otherworldly feel about them, especially since they have no definite physical location. How would ancient people interpret this peculiar phenomenon? Someone created a story about how and why it came to be—clearly, a very powerful being must have placed it there—and suddenly they had an answer. This explanation plugged an uncomfortable gap in their knowledge, so it caught on and eventually became universally accepted as truth.

The answers the Bible gives to these questions can be satisfying, but the problem is that every last one of them is wrong. In fact, the entire approach we've seen here—to fill the explanatory void with some completely unfounded agent-centric conclusion—is fundamentally flawed. What we should do when we encounter something we can't explain is say "I don't know," and begin investigating until we can develop a theory based on hard evidence.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

May 21: The Aftermath

Gaze upon the destructive force
of the apocalypse! Oh wait.
I sit typing these words within the rubble that was once my home, following one of countless devastating earthqu—oh, wait a second. That didn't happen. That was what Harold Camping and his followers predicted would happen. The prophecy of a May 21, 2011, rapture will be remembered only as yet another instance of a testable religious prediction that failed miserably and spectacularly.

It was very interesting to watch the initial reactions on Twitter: some people simply fell silent, while others spouted Bible verses, some of which had no apparent connection to the situation at hand. A few of the less-indoctrinated were merely disappointed but emphasized their continued faith in God, while still more insisted on waiting until midnight in the very last time zone, even though judgment was supposed to spread across the globe an hour at a time as each area reached 6 pm. In this video, devout follower Robert Fitzpatrick expresses utter bewilderment in front of reporters and onlookers.

So what will the May Twenty-firsters do now that Jesus has failed to whisk them away into paradise? It's hard to say. As of this writing, Camping himself has been strangely (or not-so-strangely) silent on the matter—in fact, he's nowhere to be found. My hope is that at least some will be so disillusioned with the whole thing that they'll become skeptical of Christianity as a whole. But I suspect that most will either come up with some rationalization for pushing back the date or assimilate back into the mainstream. What's unfortunate is that many people gave up their whole lives—monetarily, socially, and otherwise—buying into this absurdity.

The other sad thing is that those Christians who didn't believe the prediction will see its failure as a validation of their own views. "Jesus said that 'no one knows the day or hour' of judgment, and he was right," they'll boast. Of course, it's not as though Camping's teachings are much more extreme than theirs: according to one poll, 41% of Americans believe that Jesus will return by the year 2050. The only difference is that Camping picked a specific date. If Christians would only realize how easily they criticize beliefs that are nearly identical to their own, they might start to question their own beliefs without their biases getting in the way.

Update 1: At least a few people have apologized for their errors, but some are already proclaiming October 21 as the new date for judgment. Meanwhile, Camping is trying to "think it out" and plans to make a statement on the 23rd.

Update 2: Just listened to part of Camping's radio address. He "explained" that the God's judgment began on 5/21, but that it was spiritual rather than physical due to His love and mercy. He's predicting that earthquakes, rapture, and the end of the world will occur all at once on October 21 (he had originally thought that only the latter would occur on that date). Looks like we'll have to wait another five months for the next falsification.

Friday, May 20, 2011

JI: Our Sources for Jesus

In the fifth chapter of JI, Ehrman explains what we can and can't know about Jesus, based on mainstream biblical scholarship's interpretation of our ancient sources about him. He lists the criteria that would be ideal for understanding such a historical figure. The sources should be:
  • Many in number
  • Contemporary with the described events
  • Independent from each other
  • Written by people free from ulterior motives
  • Consistent with one another
The sources for Jesus fail on four of these five criteria. It's true that we have multiple accounts of Jesus' life. But, Ehrman writes:
"They were written thirty-five to sixty-five years after Jesus' death by people who did not know him, did not see anything he did or hear anything that he taught, people who spoke a different language from his and lived in a different country from him. The accounts they produced are not disinterested; they are narratives produced by Christians who actually believed in Jesus, and therefore were not immune from slanting their stories in light of their biases. They are not completely free of collaboration, since Mark was used as a source for Matthew and Luke. And rather than being fully consistent with one another, they...[contain] both contradictions in details and divergent large-scale understandings of who Jesus was." (emphasis mine)
To summarize: our sources are late, biased, codependent and contradictory. The task of biblical scholars is to piece together the truth using these flawed bits of evidence. Ehrman describes the gospels as a product of several decades of oral tradition—passing from stranger to stranger, from language to language, from culture to culture—and changing significantly over that time.

What do secular, extrabiblical sources say about Jesus? As Ehrman says, "the answer is breathtaking." No Greek or Roman sources mention Jesus until about 80 years after his death. The first ones we find are from Pliny the Younger in 112 CE and the historian Tacitus in 115 CE, and even those offer very few details. The first Jewish source is Flavius Josephus writing in 90 CE, but scholars generally agree that much of this brief account was inserted later by Christian scribes.

And so, flawed though they are, the gospels are the best resources available for evaluating the historical Jesus. Ehrman presents four criteria that biblical scholars use for finding the information within the sources that is most likely to be reliable:
  • The earlier the betterHe identifies the gospel of Mark along with the hypothesized sources Q, M and L as the earliest sources.
  • The more the better – Example: Matthew, Luke and John independently state that Jesus was born in Nazareth, so it's more likely to be true.
  • Better to cut against the grain – Details that are contrary to the Christian agenda (e.g. Jesus' baptism) are less likely to have been made up.
  • It has to fit the context – Anything that is unlikely to have taken place within the Jesus' cultural environment probably isn't authentic.
There are many other such criteria that aren't discussed. It's also worth mentioning that the minority of scholars who believe Jesus never existed at all would disagree with the validity of most of these criteria. In any case, next time I'll take a look at what Ehrman says we can learn about the real Jesus using guidelines such as these.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Collapsing the Trilemma

One famous argument meant to prove the divinity of Jesus is C.S. Lewis’s Trilemma. Lewis puts forth three possibilities as to the identity of Jesus, and rejects two of them, leaving behind only the conclusion that he must have been divine. This is a really, really terrible argument—so much so that it's almost not worth covering. But people really do use it, and it's kind of fun to pick apart anyway. Here it is as a syllogism:
  1. Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or God.
  2. Jesus was not a liar or a lunatic.
  3. Therefore, Jesus was God.
In this formulation, the conclusion follows from the premises, but that's basically the best we can say about it. There's a very tenuous train of logic behind this argument: first is the assertion that Jesus claimed to be God. If he knew he wasn't God, he was a liar, while if he was mistaken about his claim, he was a lunatic. Jesus appears to be of sound mind, so he can't be a lunatic. And he's such a great moral teacher that he can't possibly be lying. The only other option is that he must have been God.

Liar and Lunatic
I'll tackle the second premise first. Lewis hugely exaggerates the implications of Jesus being mistaken or making a false claim to divinity. In these two cases, Lewis says in Mere Christianity, Jesus is either "on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell."

Mmm, poached egg...
and on toast, no less.
He's wrong on both counts. I'll start with the "lunatic" prong: First of all, claiming to be God is more grandiose, but certainly far more sensible than claiming to be a "poached egg"—God would be capable of intelligent interaction, and is even anthropomorphized in the Old Testament. Second, plenty of people make startling and ridiculous claims about themselves and yet appear to be completely normal under most circumstances. And third, the gospels record on multiple occasions that people think Jesus is crazy or demon-possessed (Mark 3:20-22; John 8:48-52John 10:19-21)—and this is from sources that portray him sympathetically!

Then comes the "liar" prong of the Trilemma. Would falsely claiming to be God necessarily make someone on par with "the Devil of Hell," as Lewis claims? Certainly not. For example, perhaps Jesus was a great moral teacher, but told a single lie in the hope that it would help spread his moral teachings far and wide. Doing a little evil to achieve a much greater good seems like a perfectly plausible rationalization for a moral teacher to make. And even if this lie did imply that Jesus was evil, so what? Maybe his teachings were a charade put on for the purpose of gaining widespread fame, in the style of some modern televangelists. These scenarios may not be likely, but they're much more probable than the "God" conclusion, and they demonstrate why the blanket assumptions made in the Trilemma are problematic.

The Other Options
The first premise is even flimsier than the second. There is no reason to limit one's options to Lord, liar and lunatic. We can instead question the entire basis of the claims, and even consider the possibility that Jesus never existed at all (a topic that I plan to do more research on in the future). We'll call this the "fabrication" view. To be sure, most historians think he existed. But due to the startling lack of reliable evidence both inside and outside the Bible, there seems to be a small but nevertheless very real chance that this theory is correct.

And then we have the view that a man named Jesus existed, but never claimed to be God—the divinity claims found in the Bible were invented by later writers. We'll call this the "legend" view. This is the actual position of many New Testament scholars today. Some believe that he only thought of himself as an agent of God, or a kind of apocalyptic prophet warning the world of impending judgment. Once we drop the unnecessary and question-begging assumption that the gospels provide an accurate portrayal of Jesus, the Trilemma completely falls apart.

In the first section I showed that the two prongs of the Trilemma that Lewis wants us to deny are actually fairly plausible. In the second, I added two more prongs to create a "Pentalemma." Now we must choose between liar, lunatic, legend, fabrication, or God—and any of the first four labels are more likely to describe Jesus than the latter one. In light of the current Biblical scholarship, the legend viewpoint seems most probable.

Lewis' Trilemma is flawed on multiple levels: it takes the reliability of the gospels for granted, it throws out two valid options, and it completely ignores the other options available to us. In a way I hope that apologists continue to use this argument, because it's so transparently awful that it should instantly make people skeptical of any other claims that they make.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Powerful Thoughts

Over the last couple of months I've posted a lot of my favorite quotes on topics such as theism and skepticism to my Twitter page, and I decided to compile them here. It's remarkable that combining just a few words in the right order can produce such powerful and thought-provoking ideas.

Here are some quotes on religion and theism:
  • "What worries me about religion is that it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding." –Richard Dawkins
  • "All [divine command theorists] can say about Al Qaeda and the Taliban is that they’re mistaken about what God commands." –Chris Hallquist
  • "When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." –Stephen Roberts
  • "As a kid I used to pray every night for a new bike. Then I realized the Lord doesn't work that way. So I just stole one and asked Him to forgive me." –comedian Emo Philips
  • "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion." –Steven Weinberg
  • "Mythology is someone else's religion, different enough from your own for its absurdity to be obvious." –Anonymous
And on science, knowledge and skepticism:
  • "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science." –Charles Darwin
  • "The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge." –Stephen Hawking
  • "Throughout history, every mystery ever solved has turned out to be... not magic." –Tim Minchin
  • "You are not a Bayesian homunculus whose reasoning is 'corrupted' by cognitive biases. You just are cognitive biases." –Luke Muehlhauser
  • "If you attend only to favorable evidence, picking and choosing from your gathered data, then the more data you gather, the less you know." –Eliezer Yudkowsky
  • "If you are equally good at explaining any outcome, you have zero knowledge." –Eliezer Yudkowsky
  • "Everything is a mystery from the dawn of human experience right up until someone solves it." –Eliezer Yudkowsky
And finally, a few rather telling quotes from believers:
  • "The problem with Islam, then, is not that it has got the wrong moral theory; it’s that it has got the wrong God." –Christian apologist William Lane Craig
  • "Natural science at the moment seems to overwhelmingly point to an old cosmos." –YECs Paul Nelson & John Reynolds
  • ID must create a "theory of biological design. We don't have such a theory right now, and that's a real problem." –YEC/IDist Paul Nelson
I can't help but think how lucky I am to live in an age where all of these writers are instantly at my disposal. Darwin's writings can stand alongside those of a renowned modern genius like Hawking and lesser-known rationalists such as Eliezer Yudkowsky. The notion that we can only know what we know by "standing on the shoulders of giants" has never been more true than it is right now.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

WEIT: A Force to Be Reckoned With

Chapter 5 of WEIT is an overview of the force that has shaped all of life on earth: natural selection. When the less savvy creationists say they don't think we could have evolved purely by chance, they reveal a fundamental misunderstanding. Evolution contains an element of randomness (mutations), but natural selection is not random—and in fact, that's the very reason evolution works. (Coyne also briefly discusses genetic drift, a process that occurs more noticeably in small populations, which is in fact random.)

Coyne first lists the three components required for natural selection to take place: a trait must vary across individuals, it must be heritable, and it must affect the probability of reproduction. We can also make predictions based on this idea. As a general rule, natural selection predicts that a trait will:
  1. Evolve only by step-by-step processes.
  2. Raise the fitness of its possessor at each step.
  3. Increase reproductive output, but not necessarily survival.
  4. Never solely benefit members of a different species.
  5. Raise the fitness of the individual, but not necessarily some larger group.
  6. Be well-designed, but not necessarily optimally designed.
  7. Evolve regardless of any resulting suffering, however extreme.
We see these predictions fulfilled at every turn. Take #4, for instance: Coyne says that at first glance, the hollow thorns and nectar of certain acacia trees appear perfectly designed to house and feed ant colonies without benefit to the trees themselves. Could it be that nature isn't so impartial and pragmatic after all? Not so: having the ants around is useful because they attack animals that eat the trees' leaves and cut down rival seedlings.

Note also that most of these predictions (particularly the last two) are not necessarily what we would expect from a good and competent God. One example Coyne gives of cruelty in nature are the Asian giant hornets, which will invade a hive of bees and bite off their heads by the thousands. Japanese honeybees will respond by mobbing the hornets and cooking them alive through vibration. However, European honeybees are defenseless against them, having only been recently introduced.

Next Coyne moves on to observed evidence of natural selection and speciation, starting with bacteria and viruses. In Richard Lenski's famous experiment, E. coli mutated to grow 70% faster in conditions with varying amounts of available nutrients and gained the ability to eat citrate. In another experiment, E. coli evolved a new biochemical system for breaking down lactose in a series of three separate mutations. In a third, the bacteria strain Pseudomonas fluorescens formed two additional new species within just ten days. He also mentions drug resistance: for instance, after just 70 years, "more than 95 percent of staph strains are resistant to penicillin."

Finally, he goes over some examples of natural selection observed in plants and animals. A study of Galapagos finches found that during a drought which produced mainly hard-to-crack seeds, average beak size increased by 10 percent—astonishingly, all in a single generation. The length of the soapberry bug's proboscis (needed to penetrate fruit skins) changed by 25 percent within a few decades of colonizing three new plant species. And the wild mustard plant began blooming one week earlier in response to a five-year drought.

Coyne has a section on irreducible complexity as well, but I plan to cover that topic in more detail sometime in the future. Next up is a full chapter on sexual selection.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Can Creationism Be Falsified or Not?

How is it that evolution supporters can claim creationism is unfalsifiable, but then turn around and attempt to falsify it? This is a common complaint among intelligent design (ID) proponents and other creationists, and on the surface it seems to have some weight. Aren't the evolutionists being unfair? Well, the short answer is no. The long answer is a bit more nuanced.

Here's the main problem evolutionists encounter when dealing with this question: whether or not creationism/ID can be falsified depends on how specifically they define their god or "intelligent agent."

Irreducible Complexity
Let's take the following issue, for instance: If ID is unfalsifiable, how can scientists claim to have falsified proposed examples of irreducible complexity (IC)? To see why scientists are in fact perfectly justified in doing so, let's look at the claims of ID and IC more closely. ID states roughly, "Life was created by an intelligent designer." IC states roughly, "Biological systems exist that could not be created naturally through the iterative addition of parts."

The first thing to note is that IC isn't so much an attempt to prove ID as it is an attempt to disprove naturalistic evolution. But more importantly, ID does not by any means require IC. If the concept became so bankrupt that even IDists had to abandon it, they would just claim that a designer (for some reason) created only life that could also have been created via step-by-step addition. Thus if IC is falsified, the larger thesis of ID would be a bit weaker but still quite intact.

IC (or at least alleged examples of it) can be falsified; ID as commonly argued cannot. There's no contradiction here: it's simply the case that an unfalsifiable argument contains a falsifiable (and in this case only somewhat related) sub-argument.

Poor Design
Let's use the argument from poor design as another example. Many critics reasonably assume that an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good creator would design his creation as skillfully as possible. Well, we know of many instances of suboptimal design in nature—the eye and the vermiform appendix are two examples that can be found in humans. So the God hypothesis has been falsified, right?

Not if the creationists have anything to say about it. Those attempting to go the secular ID route will simply claim that (for some reason) the designer didn't make creatures as flawless as he could have. Those of the more fundamentalist bent will often claim that suboptimal design is the result of sin "entering the world" as a result Adam and Eve's disobedience to God. Either way, an entire class of counterexamples has been conveniently explained away.

The Miracle Retreat
Young-earth creationism is a treasure trove of falsified claims. Biology, geology, cosmology and many other fields of science have shown that the earth and universe are many thousands of times older than YECs require. But at any point, all they have to do is resort to supernatural intervention as an explanation, and their worldview becomes instantly untouchable. Fossil record getting you down? Just say the devil planted the bones there to fool you, or that God put them there to test your faith!

The Omphalos hypothesis takes this to an extreme: maybe God created the universe with the appearance of age in the most intricate detail. From geological formations to starlight to the ancient junkyard of genes in each of our cells, God could have set everything up so that the universe appears to be 14 billion years old even if it's only a few thousand. If a YEC accepts this possibility, no mountain of empirical evidence could budge them from their position.

So, is creationism unfalsifiable? It depends. In some cases we can falsify components without affecting the falsifiability of the whole. And we can attempt to falsify the rest. However, creationists can respond by either defining the creator as vaguely as possible or claiming that he used miracles to simulate the evidence. Their ability to move the goalposts at will demonstrates that their position is unfalsifiable in practice.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Absurd (and Unbiblical) Trinity

Borromean rings are sometimes
used to symbolize the trinity.
The idea that God is "triune," or "three in one," is one of the strangest doctrines of the Christian faith. It states that there exist three separate "persons"—the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit—who are simultaneously a single being, God. The three beings are equal in power, and although they play different roles within Christianity, they have identical "nature" and "substance."

Christians are very particular about this dogma. It's not that there are three gods, they insist—that's tritheism. Nor that there is simply a single god—that's unitarianism. Nor that the three persons are simply aspects of a single god—that's modalism. And it's not that the Son is a "son" in the sense that of being created by the Father—that's Arianism. Nor that Jesus wasn't fully human in addition to being fully divine—that's docetism. All of these views, along with many others, are seen by mainstream Christians as heretical.

Not only does the doctrine sound strange, it's also not explicitly stated anywhere in the Bible. Nowhere do the scriptures use a term like "trinity," and nowhere does they say anything like "God consists of three persons: Father, Son and Spirit." Instead, theologians have inferred this by piecing together verses throughout the Bible. One would think that if trinitarianism were true, God would simply say so instead of beating around the bush. The mere existence of the Comma Johanneum suggests that the trinity is nowhere to be found in scripture:
"For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one." (1 John 5:7-8)
The italicized phrase was not part of the original text. It's a later interpolation; we know because it's not found in any of the early manuscripts, and the early Church fathers only used the text immediately surrounding it when trying to prove the doctrine of the trinity. The very fact that someone felt they had to add to the Bible to substantiate this doctrine implies that it wasn't all that evident to begin with.

To be fair, there are certainly verses that support this concept—for instance, Jesus says in John 10:30 that "I and the Father are one." However, there are also many verses that seem to explicitly go against the concepts associated with the trinity. For example:
The different persons of God want different things and have different knowledge. One is in some way inferior to another, and the power of one stems from another. One doesn't even seem to be a "person" at all. It's not looking good for the trinity based on the Bible alone. There's better support for the "seven Spirits of God" (whatever those might be) than there is for a triune deity.

Pictured: the trinity.
Not pictured: logic.
Even if the Bible supported the trinity, though, the concept would still be incoherent. First, terms used to refer to the trinity, such as "person" and "nature," seem to be poorly defined. In what sense are the "persons" different if they share identical "natures"? And second, Christians generally accept that, for instance, God can't create a rock so large that he can't lift it—that would be not just physically but logically impossible. Yet then they turn right around and say that the Father, Son and Spirit are numerically identical with God but not with each other. This is a direct violation of the transitive property (e.g. if a=b & b=c, then a=c), and is just as logically impossible as the rock-lifting example.

Christians will point and laugh at the strange beliefs of other religions, even as they take their own for granted. I did it myself for all too long. Yes, the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha is patently ridiculous, and I certainly have no qualms with identifying it as such—but Christians ought to take a look at the plank in their own eye as well.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

JI: Forged in the Name of Paul

Last time I summarized Ehrman's introduction to ancient forgeries—remarkably, only 8 of the 27 New Testament books were definitely written by the authors they are traditionally attributed to. Now I'll cover his evidence that many books of the NT are forged. In particular, I'll go over five of the epistles supposedly written by Paul: Colossians, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus.

Colossians & Ephesians
The evidence that these two books are forgeries is pretty strong, though not the strongest of all the NT books. Compared with Paul's other letters, Colossians and Ephesians use longer and more intricate sentences (e.g. Col. 1:3-8 & Eph. 1:3-14 are single sentences in the Greek), have more theologically developed views (e.g. Col. 1:15-20), use different vocabulary and use common terms differently. But Ehrman focuses primarily on one big difference in viewpoint.

In most of his epistles, Paul is adamant that Christians who've been baptized have "died with Christ" and been set free from sin, but have not yet been "raised with Christ." He emphasizes that only later will they be raised with him (e.g. Romans 61 Cor. 15). In contrast, here are Colossians 2:12 and Ephesians 2:5-6:
"...buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead."
"...even when we were dead in trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus..."
These two books explicitly state that they have already been raised. The difference may seem minor, but to Paul such a claim would have had enormous theological ramifications. The writers of Colossians and Ephesians, on the other hand, apparently didn't quite catch the distinction.

1 Timothy, 2 Timothy & Titus
Due to similarities in theme and language, virtually all scholars agree that these three books (the pastoral epistles) have the same author—but they also agree that the author is not Paul, as he claims to be. First Ehrman explains the argument from vocabulary:
"There are 848 different Greek words used in these letters, of which 306 do not occur anywhere else in the letters allegedly written by Paul in the New Testament. ...Something like two thirds of these non-Pauline words are words used by Christian writers of the second century. That is to say, the vocabulary of these letters appears to be more developed, more characteristic of Christianity as it developed in later times."
Next he points out conflicts in the use of important terms. For example, in all of Paul's other writings, the word "faith" roughly means "trust in God." But in the pastoral epistles, it instead means "the beliefs that comprise Christianity" (e.g. Titus 1:13-14).

Most importantly, though, are the starkly contrasting portrayals of the early Christian church. In 1 and 2 Corinthians, Paul's churches are portrayed as eschewing hierarchical leadership in favor of letting the Holy Spirit work among all the members and giving each a "spiritual gift" such as teaching or prophecy (see 1 Cor. 12-14). When Paul writes to rebuke the sinful ways of the Corinthian church, he addresses all the members—he can't address the church bishops because there weren't any. While this setup was chaotic, it was okay with Paul, because he believed that Jesus' return was imminent: they just needed to support one another until the end came.

But it didn't come. And so over the decades, the churches had to organize themselves and appoint a hierarchy of leaders in order to survive. That's what we see in the pastoral epistles: they're all about how to appoint bishops and deacons to various positions, how to deal with false teachers, and so on. Paul would have been long gone by the time the churches had reached this state. The conclusion: someone living in the second century wrote these books under Paul's name so they could influence the churches' policies more easily.

Ehrman goes over several other NT books as well, but this should be enough to illustrate the point. At some point in the future I'll devote a whole post to the authorship of 2 Peter. Although Ehrman doesn't give much space to it, the evidence of forgery there is even more decisive.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Doubts on the Horizon

I've already written about my formal conversion to Christianity. Now I want to talk about a few of my other memories from my life as a Christian: the times during which I was troubled and the experiences that helped lead my eventual deconversion.

Questions About Prayer
One of my earliest childhood memories—I was probably five or so—is from when I was first coming to grasp basic Christian doctrines. I asked my parents whether heaven was "further than space." They told me I should pray and ask God that question. I closed my eyes and solemnly asked, "Dear God, is heaven further than space?"

I received no answer. I was confused. I told my parents as much. This was roughly their reply: "He won't speak to you in an audible voice. You have to listen on the inside." I prayed again, and when I received no answer, I created a voice in my head that said, "Yes, Timmy, it is." I did this in the same sort of way that a child might narrate the speech of the dolls they play with. And part of me could tell it wasn't real, so I was left unsatisfied.

Faith vs. Works
Even after I was saved, there were periods during which I had serious doubts about my salvation. What really troubled me was the idea that faith ought to be accompanied by good works and good fruit—or as James 2 puts it, that "faith without works is dead." How did passages like these square with the idea that salvation comes through faith alone?

I eventually reasoned that faith was technically the sole requirement, but spiritual fruit was the indicator of that faith. But how could I know if my behavior and works were good enough? And if they weren't, did that imply I wasn't a true Christian? These questions loomed over me throughout my time as a believer, and to this day I don't think Christians have an answer that I find truly satisfactory.

Worship in the Wilderness
I went to about half a dozen wilderness retreats while attending Christian school. Those were the times each year when a lot of the kids felt closer to God and recommitted themselves to Christ (although I generally didn't see any change at them once school started again). At one particular retreat around eighth grade there was a worship session during which nearly the entire class walked to the front of the room for prayer. There was a lot of crying and laying on of hands, and people assumed that the Holy Spirit had been at work in the room. But I could only stand numbly by my seat. I was frustrated, wondering what I was supposed to be feeling, unsure of why I wasn't up there with them.

During a worship session at another retreat a few years later, I worked up the nerve to close my eyes and lift up my hands as I sang. As I did so I felt a wave of warmth pass over me. We broke up into small groups afterward, and I told them it might have been the first time I had truly experienced God. I tried to convince myself of that at the time, but I never fully believed it. Looking back, it's clear that I had just been extremely shy about closing my eyes and raising my hands. What I felt was a therapeutic surge of relief that I had begun to conquer my fear.

Questioning Christianity
Finally, there's the question that ultimately led to my deconversion. A few years ago it occurred to me that most people in the world believe in something other than Christianity, and believe in it just as strongly as Christians do. I wondered: If this is the case, why are Christians are so confident in their own beliefs? Perhaps we are justified in our beliefs, I thought, but shouldn't we examine the evidence objectively just to be sure?

It was this line of questioning that drove me to investigate my faith. I perused countless online articles and blogs. I read two books, Why I Became an Atheist and The Christian Delusion, which presented a compelling overview of the arguments against Christianity and theism. John Loftus' Outsider Test for Faith presented a more formalized version of the concept I had grasped intuitively: that to be intellectually honest, religious people should scrutinize their faith from the perspective of someone on the outside. I also investigated the creation-evolution question and rejected the young earth creationism I'd been raised with.

Even though I'd already spent years learning about the world from a theistic perspective, I also read The Case for a Creator and reviewed parts of The Case for Faith (required reading for my twelfth grade apologetics class). But in the end, my belief slowly slipped away as I found myself agreeing more and more with the nontheistic arguments. For a time I called myself agnostic, but eventually I realized that I simply had no belief in gods.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Can Unbelievers Interpret the Bible?

"The Bible was written under the anointing of the Holy Spirit and thus should be interpreted under the anointing of the Holy Spirit. It's written in such a way that unbelievers won't understand it."
This is a rough quote taken from a comment on YouTube. I heard variations on this theme several times back at my Christian high school. It's a common objection from Christians in response to those who interpret the Bible in ways they're not comfortable with, and I think many of them find it perfectly satisfying. The best way to get them to see the absurdity of this view is probably to use an alternate religion comparison. How would Christians respond to this assertion if it was presented by a Muslim?:
"The Koran was written under the anointing of the Spirit of Allah and thus should be interpreted under the anointing of the Spirit of Allah. It's written in such a way that unbelievers won't understand it."
Now, how would Christians respond? They wouldn't take it seriously for an instant! They would continue to interpret the Koran in the way it made the most sense. And that's all they could do, because the only alternative would be to throw up their hands and say, "Okay, I guess we don't have the authority to judge their holy book." If after considering all the evidence and viewpoints the Koran appears to contain errors and evil, then we must accept that it does, regardless of excuses like the one above. And outsiders to Christianity have the same view of the Bible.

I should also point out that Christians differ tremendously in their various interpretations of scripture. If they were guided by the Holy Spirit, one might expect them to agree on what the Bible means, but instead we see literally tens of thousands of Christian denominations (main ones below) that each have their own view of Christianity. So which of these interpretations is the one that comes from the "anointing of the Holy Spirit"?

Based on the ARC and the fact that Christians can't hope to agree on the right interpretation of Scripture, the idea that the Spirit grants a uniquely correct understanding of it seems a bit silly. Critical scholars are obviously knowledgeable about the Bible and its historical context, and thus should be taken seriously instead of stubbornly dismissed as not having the Holy Spirit. Instead of clinging to this view, Christians should try to honestly compare the religious and secular interpretations of the Bible. Most of them will probably end up reconfirming their existing beliefs, but it's still worth a try.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

March & April in Review

On the first of March I created an index for my first two months of posts, and I figured I'd do the same thing for the next two. Here are my posts from March:
And from April:
In these past weeks I've done a little of the ethics and philosophy stuff that I had previously expressed interest in, and I hope to elaborate on those topics fairly soon. I also gave more details on my personal history and situation. My coverage of WEIT and JI continues to proceed slowly but steadily.

I'm still pretty satisfied with how things are going. Although I expect my rate of posting may gradually decrease to 13–14 posts per month, I think I've already exceeded my initial expectations.