Friday, March 30, 2012

The Book We Would Expect

I've dedicated one post to figuring out what world we would expect given the Christian God, and another to what God we would expect given the world we live in. But there are other elements of religion that we can examine using this method as well. For example, the way in which God interacts with us in most of the major religions: holy books. Given what we know about the world, and assuming a classical Christian God—omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent and so on—would we expect him to give us the Bible, or something else entirely?

No Book At All?
Well, to start with, we wouldn't necessarily predict that God would communicate via the written word. This is especially true of ancient times, when reproductions were done by scribes who made mistakes and inserted their own biases into the text. Books are also relatively easy to forge: we do have methods for detecting forgeries (and the Bible has quite a few), but in principle all you have to do to avoid being caught is put the right words in the right order.

If God wants us to understand him, the best form of communication is one that would be direct, inimitable, and empirically verifiable. This could be as blunt and straightforward as appearing in the sky at regular intervals and proclaiming his commands in a booming voice for the world to hear. Christians at this point often object that this would conflict with our ability to choose or reject God, but to advocate this position is to deny the possibility of misotheism—and besides, as I've argued before, the Christian God doesn't care about free will.

In any case, let's assume for the sake of argument that God would communicate using a book. What would we expect from this holiest of holy tomes? Certainly we would expect God to distribute it universally, to all peoples and in all languages. If this information is so important, there's no sense in giving it only to a select few and waiting centuries for it to slowly spread across cultural barriers. We also wouldn't necessarily expect God to use humans to write it—and if he did, he would presumably find a way to make the canonization process simple and obvious, not seemingly arbitrary and mired in church politics.

And what of the actual content of the book? Well...

A Book of Clarity
I've noted in the past that while reliable methods of truth-finding like science tend to converge on an answer, religion tends to diverge into countless opposing dogmas. But it doesn't have to be this way: God could avoid most of the religious schisms and bloodshed by producing a book of maximal clarity. A benevolent God would communicate his message using unambiguous, easily understandable language—especially the parts of his message that are most important. For example, given the stakes involved in eternal salvation, we might expect God to devote a section of the book to describing, with pinpoint precision, exactly what he wants from us. If we don't start with the Bible, we would never predict the tangle of vague, scattered instructions that it provides.

This book, we might assume, would lay out plainly the answers to all the important issues God wants us to know about. For example, is abortion murder? For all the scathing condemnation from fundamentalists, the Bible never explicitly says a word on the issue, and may even suggest the opposite. Where do people who die without hearing the gospel end up? That's something that could affect billions of people, but since the Bible is silent on it, Christians' positions on the topic are all over the map. Perhaps God intends, for some reason, to keep certain issues a mystery—but even if that's the case, there's nothing to stop him from stating that intent outright.

That doesn't mean we'd expect everything in this book to be completely literal. Sometimes metaphor can be a useful tool for getting one's point across. But there's no apparent downside to denoting what's metaphorical and what isn't. When God does use metaphor, we'd expect him to be perfectly clear about that fact. We would not predict a book that begins with a completely inaccurate account of the creation of the universe—one that not only isn't labeled as allegory, but is treated as literal by other parts of the book, and offers no hint as to what its lesson might be.

An artist's depiction of Genesis.
Another aspect of clarity is applicability to the target audience. We would expect God's message to be applicable to all of us, not just a specific culture at a specific time. There are two ways God could accomplish this: he could use his book only to impart ideas that apply to everyone, or he could create multiple versions of his book, removing certain sections when they're no longer relevant. Ancient law, for instance, could be archived for reference, but there's little reason to include outdated material in newer editions.

A Book of Insight
If God expects us to accept a book as his divine word, it would need to stand out as something unlikely to have a human origin. One way to do this would be to offer predictions of the future or scientific insights that couldn't have been known at the time. Describing heliocentrism, evolution, germ theory or relativity many centuries before their discovery would go a long way toward getting the skeptics to sit up and take notice—and would greatly benefit humanity to boot. Describing specific future wars or natural disasters would have the same effect. Although apologist claim that the Bible does meet these expectations, the examples they use are dubious at best.

Given a benevolent God, we would also predict his book to be provide perfect insights in the realm of morality. At a time when various tribes and nations murdered each other freely, we might expect a strong denouncement of unprovoked killing. At a time when one man owning another was normal, we'd predict that God would state unequivocally that slavery is wrong. At a time when societies were patriarchal and women were treated as inferior, we'd look for God to establish once and for all that men and women are equal. Yet in the Bible we find God sanctioning or even endorsing all of these backward moral values.

A Book of Perfection
If God is absolutely perfect, it would be natural to assume his communication with us to be flawless as well. There are no benefits to allowing errors into the text, and multiple drawbacks: Every internal or external contradiction is not only another possible cause for confusion, but also another reason for skeptics to believe the book is not of divine origin. Of course, we see so many such conflicts in the Bible that we have websites dedicated to documenting them all.

We would also expect a book that originates from a single being to contain a thematically unified message. It could certainly tackle a variety of subjects, and even use different methods of delivery (poetry, prophecy, parables and so on) to get different concepts across. But what we would never expect to find are sections with ideas that clash starkly with one another—for instance, John and the Synoptic gospels, or the noble love described in 1 Corinthians 13 and the depraved, barbaric fury of Jeremiah 19:9.

Finally, if God didn't provide this book in all languages as I suggested above, we'd at least expect the translation process to be perfectly guided. It would make little sense for him to create a perfect message to humanity and then not bother to preserve it for the vast majority of his audience. While translations can't always be exact, God could easily have made the process smoother in a number of ways (for instance, miraculously preserving the original manuscripts). In the same vein, only a handful of translations should be needed in any given language, not hundreds of oft-conflicting versions.

A Surprising Book
So what can we say about the book we would expect God to hand down to humanity? Insofar as we would expect a book from him at all, we would expect that book to be...
  • Universally distributed
  • Easily authenticated
  • Optimally translated
And in terms of content, it would be...
  • Maximally clear
  • Thorough in tackling important issues
  • Applicable to all cultures
  • Prophetic and scientifically insightful
  • Perfectly moral
  • Internally and externally consistent
  • Thematically unified
Once again, the predictions we make are completely in conflict with what we find in the Bible (and with all other holy books, for that matter). How strange that God would communicate with us in a manner that's so contrary to our expectations!

Apologists might look at this list of predictions and say that the Bible lines up with nearly all of them, but I've already provided the counterexamples. What I'm interested in is their excuses for the predictions that even they must admit the Bible has failed to meet. Why is the Bible silent on some vital issues and less than perfectly clear on others? Why did God allow its canonization to be so muddled, its early distribution so limited? I'd love some real answers, although past experience tells me that any I receive will be remarkably unsatisfying.

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