The Sagan-Haunted Article

“I don’t want to believe. I want to know.”

This article may or may not be all over the place, and rather long. I’m hoping it will pull together some of my ongoing themes, and to that end I’ll be linking several of my older posts. If you haven’t read them yet, I would encourage you to read each one as you come to the link. I think all of them together will give a clearer and more comprehensive picture of the issues I’m addressing. The combined length of everything is in the range of a small book, so it may take you a little while.

I first ventured into the subject of knowledge and truth several months ago with this post, which is sort of an abstract philosophy piece about the nature of knowledge. Looking back, I can see that my ideas at the time were just beginning to form, and it’s a glimpse at the incomplete foundation on which I was starting to build new ideas. I’m sure several months in the future this article will look the same, and that thought excites me. What new things might I discover?

Lately I’ve been reading Carl Sagan’s excellent book The Demon-Haunted World. I’ve found it particularly interesting because he makes many points that I’ve already written or thought about on my own. While it feels good to find your own thoughts expressed by a highly intelligent and respected person in a bestselling book, it would of course be a fallacy to think it’s evidence they are true. We want to stay away from logical fallacies, and no matter how intelligent Sagan was, him saying something doesn’t make it true.

Before I had read anything by him, I quoted Sagan in my post about The Path to a Free Mind (as I write this, my reading progress in his book is, by chance, paused at the very page on which that quote is found). In that post I began tackling the issue of truth in religion. It is common for religion to claim an absolute truth, and all reasoning within the religion is expected to conform to what has already been established. This is a problem because history proves that humanity is very good at believing lies. In order for your belief system to honestly lead you toward the truth, it must have a method built-in to effectively separate truth and lies, and discard ideas that don’t work.

In my opinion, the way of thinking that is most effective at policing its own claims is the scientific method. Carl Sagan gives some practical advice on the matter in his “baloney detection kit”. It presents a starkly different alternative to most religious thinking, in that it pursues the truth by seeking to prove itself wrong, rather than seeking to prove itself right. Of course, individual scientists can easily become biased and manipulate evidence to support their ideas, but the basic method of thinking and investigating is designed to reduce the effects of bias when applied correctly.

Religion has no way to police its own claims. The changes in large organized religions happen in response to shifting culture, not plain evidence and logic. Christian apologetics, I believe, hides evidence and ignores logic in order to protect an assumption, such as the great assumption of Christianity that the Bible is perfect and true. The study of apologetics does not seek to honestly evaluate all the evidence, but to find arguments that are effective against problematic evidence. In my article A Search for Truth I gave a simple example of how that sort of thinking can very easily lead to believing falsehoods.

I also proposed that logic itself is a much stronger foundation on which to base your search for truth than a religious book. Logic does not make a claim of any particular truth, because it isn’t an ideology. It is rather a basic law of the universe, or as I put it, “the substance from which truth is formed”. There can be no truth without logic, no sentient thought, and in fact nothing at all can exist without logic. The very fabric of the cosmos is governed by logic; order is by definition logical. Without logic, there would be nothing but absolute chaos.

It seems like a difficult and abstract concept, but it shouldn’t be. Logic is merely a property of the universe and everything in it, something that says, “if this, then that”. If you add 2 and 2, then you get 4. If two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen are bound together, then you get a water molecule. Logic is to ideas, concepts, and events what mathematical symbols are to equations. I’ve had Christians ask me where logic comes from. You may as well ask where mathematics comes from; it’s all around you, an integral part of the universe on every scale. You may claim that your God created logic if you wish, but I would argue that for a sentient God to exist logic would also have to exist, which would make it as eternal as your God.

The use of logic, however complex it can get, is fundamentally very simple. You start with a truth…let’s say, the fact that humans have a sense of morality. You want to use that truth to find more truth, for example, the reason we have a sense of morality. In order to go from “we have morality” to “we have morality because“, I need to gather evidence. I need to fill in the variables of the equation that will lead to a logically valid conclusion. That does not mean the conclusion will be true, only that it’s a possible truth. Logic is useful to eliminate false options, and it’s only by eliminating all options but one that you can arrive at absolute truth. So really, what we’re doing is trying to get a little closer to truth.

Let’s consider the Christian claim that in order for morality to exist, or to make sense, there has to be a lawgiver. For the sake of a simpler argument, let’s narrow it down further to the specific claim that there is a perfect and unchanging God who has laid down an absolute standard of morality. What evidence is there for this claim? The Bible, of course. So the “truth” we are trying to verify is that the Bible is the ultimate and binding source of morality.

There’s one question I would ask someone who makes such a claim: “Do you believe it is morally wrong to kill a family member or friend who converts to a different religion and then tries to convince you to convert as well?”

Suppose the person says yes, that is a morally wrong thing to do. I can conclude logically that either they believe morality is relative, or they are ignorant of their own scriptures and thus their interpretation is uninformed and cannot be taken seriously. Why? In that one article I wrote with a click-bait headline, I looked at a passage from the Christian Bible in which God commands exactly the thing I laid out in my question. If it is morally wrong to do such a thing, morality must be relative, because what was right for the Israelites long ago is wrong for us now (we are assuming here that anything God says to do is morally right). My next questions might be, “What gives you the right to decide that something God commanded is no longer morally right? Isn’t it good simply because he commanded it? If morality is an absolute standard, why does it change so much over time and across cultures?” What’s really happening here? Is the Christian actually relying solely on the Bible for their moral direction?

I believe that morality is inherent to (almost) all humans. It is a logical extension of empathy as I explained in this article, because empathy is what drives your sense of justice. These people claim to strictly follow the Bible’s morality, but their own morality objects to parts of it, so they must find a way to explain why those parts are no longer in effect. Using the same reasoning, I could explain why the entire Bible is no longer in effect. Both of our moral systems come from the same place, but they use an old book as their basis for reasoning, while I prefer to use pure logic. But logic, it seems, has provided a stronger foundation than the Bible, since my model can explain every single system of morality in existence, as well as the self-contradictions in them. Our morality is imperfect because we are imperfect and empathy adds an element of subjectivity, not because logic is a bad foundation.

Some have asked why we should trust logic more than the Bible. The assumption seems to be that both of them are impartial things that we can either use correctly or incorrectly. While it’s certainly true that logic can be used badly (remember, valid conclusions can still be false), the Bible is far different. The Bible claims to be much more than logic is, and everyone has a different interpretation of it. That in itself should raise a red flag–why is a perfect book, inspired by an omnipotent being, impossible to agree on? Even humans can write carefully enough to remove any doubt about what their words mean. I would expect a perfect God to produce an astonishingly clear and understandable book. Nevertheless, Christians often claim that we can’t trust our own reasoning so we need to trust a holy scripture. This claim is self-defeating, because you’re using your own reasoning to decide that the Bible is trustworthy, and to decide what its confusing words mean. Even if you believe the Bible is the absolutely true word of God, that belief is still based on your own reasoning and assumptions.

Logic, on the other hand, is much simpler. Either you understand it or you don’t. There’s no ambiguity; your argument is either logical or not. And despite all our arguing, despite our frequent failures to use logic correctly, we can still agree on exactly what constitutes valid logic. No such consensus can be reached for Biblical interpretation. So every single one of us is relying on our own reason to support our beliefs, and every single one of us lives by a morality that is fundamentally no more than a specific application of empathy.

In my latest article, I explored the issue of evidence. When it comes to Christian apologetics, many things are given as evidence that do not point definitively to the Bible being true. How did the Bible endure and Christianity spread so far, if it isn’t true? But you can ask the same of many religions, and when you think about it, that’s not evidence at all. What if I asked you, “How was spaghetti invented, and how did it become so popular, if the Flying Spaghetti Monster isn’t real?” It’s the same argument, and it’s a fallacy. Ideas can and do spread across the world and endure for millennia despite being false, and there are countless examples of common misconceptions that started with one person writing a book, or saying something, or being misunderstood. There are even documented cases of widespread false memories, called the “Mandela Effect” by some people who think it’s an indication of parallel universes. Ideas truly are like viruses, and they can spread and mutate rapidly.

The claim that we need any specific religion in order to be morally good is nothing more than a long-standing misconception. In fact, at least in America, prison inmates are disproportionately religious, and there is an interesting correlation between areas with larger populations of Christians and a higher incidence of various moral issues, such as porn use, teen pregnancy, divorce, racism, violent crime, as well as other issues like poverty and obesity. Is it irrelevant that the least religious countries in the world are among the happiest and least violent? Even though correlation does not prove causation, the data must have something to say. I touched on my own hypothesis in the article How Christianity Perpetuates “Sin”, and toward the end of my article on Calvinism. However you interpret the facts, one thing should be obvious: a religious basis for morality has proven no better than a secular one, at least on a social scale. You may feel that you need the structure of a religion to keep you from murdering or raping, but don’t make the mistake of assuming everyone does.

I think religion, in its most common form, is what occurs when someone stops trying to verify a hypothesis and instead constructs a convoluted shell of protective arguments that render the hypothesis impossible to test, prove, or disprove. In order to maintain a stable and comforting “truth”, evidence that would disprove the hypothesis is assumed to be false without investigation. Fortunately, as we learn more about our universe, reality replaces our old superstitions and we become less religious, because when reality conflicts with your beliefs, it isn’t reality that’s going to change. Why not subscribe to a method of thinking that leads the way in eradicating lies?

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20 responses to “The Sagan-Haunted Article

  1. Is there one right way to determine all truth? For example, how would you use the scientific method to demonstrate that Christopher Columbus never understood that he found a new continent? You appealed to empathy and survival to explain morality. How would you use the scientific method to prove that? While there are many areas in which religion and science inter-mingle, there are also many areas where they don’t intersect at all. Science can’t tell us that theft and murder is wrong, and religion can’t find a cure for cancer.
    And it’s true that many scientific ideas aren’t accepted until they’re checked and re-checked, but under-pinning all that checking and re-checking is usually some sort of assumption. For example, many scientists today are operating within an assumption of uniformitarianism, the idea that the past is the key to the present. So if something is growing or shrinking at a certain observable rate now, they assume it must always have been growing or shrinking at the same rate, even if they weren’t observing it before. Within that, they can do a lot of checking and observing and be very accurate and precise, but if their initial assumption is incorrect—and there’s no way of scientifically demonstrating otherwise—then everything that “objectively” follows from that is also incorrect.
    Both religion and science have changed a lot, and some upheaval is usually involved in either one changing. There’s also a lot that’s remained the same in both. Science persists in the idea that we can learn about the world by studying, that we can learn more over time, and that we can use the knowledge to improve our lives. Everything else has been pretty much up for grabs, including how to study the world. Religions have held onto the idea that there is a Supreme Being, that morality comes from that Being, and that whatever Book they hold to is true. A lot of other things have changed, including how they interpret that book and how people apply it.
    And I won’t deny that questioning is usually discouraged among the religious, but that’s not unique to religion. Politics is exactly the same way. And medicine, which is very related to science. And only certain questions are allowed even among scientists. What would happen, I wonder, if someone questioned the scientific assumption of uniformitarianism? This is purely speculation of course, but I dare say if you had grown up among scientists, you would have ended up equally disillusioned by their biases and inconsistencies.
    Also, the idea of not questioning isn’t uniquely intrinsic to religions. I think—and this is purely speculation again—that the “not thinking thing” is so rampant because people are mentally lazy. They’ll find any excuse to avoid thinking through their beliefs—any beliefs—very deeply simply because it’s too much work. Religion is one of many handy excuses for doing what people would do anyway; it’s not the cause. I always question things, but I never thought/felt like that was incompatible with Christianity. And the people who sometimes got tired of my endless questions like, “how do you know the Bible means that? What if it means this?” “Is this really a convincing reason to believe this?” etc. were the same people who didn’t appreciate questions like, “what’s the purpose of a house?” and “what’s so terrible about getting rained on?” which had nothing to do with religion.
    As far as morality, if I understand you correctly, you’re saying that morality originates with us, and we developed it for reasons of pragmatism. Only a moral society can survive, and we use the golden rule/empathy to determine morality. The question is, why should we even care if society survives?
    Also, if morality comes from us, why aren’t we more moral? We know right and wrong—at least more or less—but we don’t follow it very well. Why? If morality has no meaning apart from our collective agreement that it does, shouldn’t humans be the epitome of morality? Where would behavior that’s not moral even come from?
    And what happens when there’s disagreement? For example, we all know that it’s wrong to hurt innocent people, but what happens when there’s disagreement as to what hurts someone? What about something like euthanasia? Or abortion? Or what about homosexuality? People could at least try to argue that it harms the people who practice it because the human body isn’t designed for it. Other people could dispute that. What then? How do we determine who’s right? And in the meantime, while people are figuring it out, how do we know which is more moral, to encourage people to act a certain way if they want even though it may harm them, or to discourage people from doing something that may be safe? To what extent is it appropriate to force people not to do dangerous things? I mean, things that everyone agrees are dangerous, like taking certain drugs, smoking, or driving very fast. How would you apply the survival of society and the golden rule to things like that?

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    • It is true that there are things that are possibly true that cannot be verified by the scientific method, but I would also argue that such things cannot be verified by any method. Aside from time travel to actually talk to Columbus right before he dies, there is no way to verify what exactly he understood about the Americas (unless he wrote it down, in which case all you’d have to do is use the scientific method to verify that the writing was actually done by him). I would challenge you to present something that can be verified as truth, but cannot be verified using the scientific method.

      I would argue that the scientific method, properly used, eliminates any justification for rejecting questions. The principle that everything should be questioned is and has always been an essential part of the scientific method. Of course, there are times when people ask questions not because they don’t know the answer but because they don’t want to accept the answer. Sometimes we get frustrated with them for asking those questions over and over, while ignoring the answer that is right in front of them. That frustration can lead to discouraging people from asking questions, and the bias and inconsistency you mentioned, but that is a human problem which is not part of science or religion. What’s unique to religion is the explicit encouragement of believing without evidence. I know a lot of Christians don’t think that way, and they do see the value of evidence, but the bible itself praises belief without evidence as being more virtuous than belief based on evidence.

      I don’t think you understood me correctly, at least not fully. We didn’t develop morality, in the sense that we intentionally created it. Morality developed in much the same way your body develops immunity to certain viruses, only on a much larger time scale. The simple fact that people with a sense of morality are more likely to survive would logically result in everyone having morality after a lot of time has passed. It’s an instinct that arose from simpler traits like self-awareness and empathy, and is now carried in our DNA.

      However, don’t make the mistake of conflating this naturally developed sense of morality with the process of applying morality. I think we need to distinguish between two aspects of morality…the instinct and the reason. When I talk about morality developing naturally, I’m talking about the innate sense we have that certain things are wrong for us to do. We have that sense because of self-awareness (we don’t like those things to be done to us) and empathy (we understand that others experience pain just like we do).

      I think what you mean by morality–and what most people think of–is a much broader and messier thing that involves belief systems and decisions. You’re hung up on the fact that we take our innate morality and then build a much larger system based on the knowledge and experiences we encounter during our lives. But those aspects are not required for morality to exist in its basic instinctive form (and, as I’ve mentioned, it exists in this form in quite a few animal species). To understand the natural development of morality, you have to separate the instinct from the reasoning, because the former is what you’re born with while the latter is something you develop through reason. Just like you’re born with the ability to remember things and over time collect memories, so you’re born with a sense of morality and over time collect a complex set of rules.

      It’s difficult to deal with areas where society has major disagreements on what is right or wrong, but the existence of those disagreements only means that each person has different experiences and thinks differently, which causes them to build a slightly different system of detailed morality on top of the instinct. The difficulty when it comes to law is balancing personal freedom with the good of the society. Too far toward the former, and you end up with a dysfunctional nation that can’t work together. Too far toward the latter, and you end up with a totalitarian government and unfair oppression of minorities.

      I don’t think there’s any one “right” way to find that balance, but I also don’t think an ancient religious book that says it’s okay to own slaves is in any way a good basis for it. I think logic is the best basis (which is where this whole conversation started), because using logic we can work out the most fair method of determining which actions should be restricted and which ones should be allowed.

      Basing such a determination on one religion introduces a bias that results in unfair treatment of people who do not agree with that religion. If everyone followed the same religion, that would be acceptable. But since we have so many competing religions and worldviews, the only way to find a compromise that is fair for everyone is to base it on something we all have in common. Thus, logic.

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      • It depends on what you consider verification. Our whole legal system is based on the idea that there are times when it’s appropriate to take someone’s word for it. In a court of law, if a competent eyewitness who has no reason to lie says, “I saw such-and-such a person committing this crime” the jury will rule “guilty!” and the judge will pass sentence. It hasn’t been “verified” in a scientific sense, but most people accept that as a fair way of judging a situation.
        Perhaps if the scientific method were used perfectly, nobody would reject questions. But because people aren’t perfect, it doesn’t actually work that way. There’s no way of knowing what would happen if people were completely consistent and followed the actual tenets of the scientific methods without fail. Maybe it would be an incredible and flawless system. Maybe not. It would certainly still have limitations, because science can’t really talk with any authority about the past; the past already happened; we can’t observe it.
        But the point is it’s not used perfectly, anyway. Scientists are human beings like the rest of us. They have biases. And that can’t not affect their work. Again, something scientists tend to assume nowadays is uniformitarianism. They can’t prove it without being circular, but they don’t take it kindly when people question it. It’s a bias. If you’re going to scrap religion for being biased and inconsistent, or because the people who practice religion are biased and inconsistent, you have to scrap science as well, and even logic itself.
        Besides, I could say that religion, properly applied, doesn’t discourage questioning, that the whole problem is that people don’t use it right, or understand it. I could go into a long explanation of what religion really means and how people have twisted it, and how it’s not really about blind faith at all. But even though you probably couldn’t disprove it, that wouldn’t be proof on my part, just conjecture. And in the real world, you would still have the problem of religious people shutting down questions. Same thing with science. Scientists can be as close-minded as anyone else. Even if perfectly following their system would get rid that, it doesn’t matter, because nobody does follow it perfectly.
        And as far as the Bible, I don’t think it discourages belief without evidence in the way you think it does. Sure, it exalts faith, but since we’re finite, all of us have to take something on faith anyway. The Bible is filled with public, dramatic events. Maybe it doesn’t sound very convincing thousands of years down the line, but even saying for the sake of argument that those events never happened, the fact remains that in the book we hold in our hands, God Himself is constantly appealing to people based on what they’ve seen, and heard, and experienced. Again, even if you don’t believe that there is a God or that He said those things, a book that contains that doesn’t sound like it’s discrediting evidence or rationality.
        I think it’s interesting that you classify empathy as a simple trait. I agree that we all—or most of us, with the exception of very young children and psychopaths—have a sense of empathy, but I don’t think it universally translates into moral behavior. Our western society is certainly structured around that idea, but historically, I don’t see that in the world at large, from cannibalistic tribes in the jungle, to the way the Hindus treated outcastes, to the way Muslims in Muslim countries treat their women to this day. None of those groups consist of sub-human creatures incapable of experiencing empathy, but their empathy doesn’t really impact their morality.
        Anyway, I’m still not real clear on where this innate morality is supposed to have come from. Yes, I can see why we would in history want to get along to survive, but I would think a natural result of that would be killing anyone weak to increase resources for the strong, and then all the strong people banding together because they’re scared of each other. Why would there be this universal sense of everyone looking out for each other?
        And this is kind of a side point, but I think you’re a little too hung up on the slavery thing. Americans react so strongly against slavery because the way we as a country practiced it was so grossly unfair. Also, it’s a betrayal of our ideals: “equality for all”, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and all that. To borrow another quote, we would rather die on our feet than live our knees. Slavery should never have been practiced in America because slavery is un-American. But it’s purely cultural.
        If you look at history and at other cultures, to protest slavery in particular is splitting hairs. To this day in the Middle East, many women are little better than slaves, but it’s not actual slavery. That doesn’t somehow make it better. Or if you go back to Europe in the Middle Ages, when there were feudal lords and the serfs who lived on their land, they were “free” but that didn’t do them much good.
        On the other side of the coin, in the ancient world, some people probably viewed slavery as a pretty good deal. You take some poor man who’s a nobody in society, who has no real way of protecting himself, or even of keeping clothes on his back and food in his stomach. Then he becomes a slave, answerable to his master. He now has someone looking out for him, providing for him, protecting him from those who would take advantage of him. If he’s the slave of an important man, he now has status. He has a job, and an important one at that, serving a prominent and respected man. That’s not a bad thing. Again, it’s thoroughly un-American; I wouldn’t recommend it for our society today. But I don’t see it as being intrinsically immoral.
        As for logic, even logic has to start somewhere. To make any case logically, you have to start with a premise. Where are you going to get that premise from? Also, to rely wholly on logic is just as circular as anything else. If you logically prove logic is superior, you’re being circular. If you can prove logic is superior without logic, then you’ve just demonstrated that logic isn’t the only way to prove something, and the argument collapses on itself.

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      • Conviction based solely on eyewitness testimony should not be allowed. Here is a documentary about the problems with eyewitness testimony: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nbARxiM0W_Q

        Of course it isn’t perfect, of course it has limitations and flaws…but the scientific method is, so far, the only possible way to actually improve your knowledge and discover new things. Don’t think of the scientific method as a set of rules like a religion. Think of it as the necessary logical process in order to learn with reasonable confidence about anything. We discovered that a specific logical process works better than anything else, and that’s why you and I are able to have this conversation. Probably also why you and I even exist, because the world would likely be much more primitive without the discovery and subsequent development of science. It started with tool use by our primitive ancestors and now we have a descriptive list of principles that have been proven to be the best way so far to figure out answers to questions and devise solutions to problems.

        You said “I don’t think it discourages belief without evidence”…I assume you meant to say encourages? What did Jesus say when he appeared to Thomas? Isn’t the common interpretation that Thomas had weak faith because he wanted physical evidence? That’s the only view I’ve ever heard of it. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.

        I don’t think that’s the only passage that specifically praises belief without evidence, but it’s the one I remember at the moment.

        In response to your question “Why would there be a universal sense of everyone looking out for each other?”, well, why would there not? Ants have it, bees have it, all the great apes have it, millions of other animals have it. There seems to be a reproductive advantage to taking care of each other rather than killing each other. I think I’ve explained this enough in previous comments.

        Your defense of slavery is, honestly, sad. A pitiful defense of a morally repugnant practice, all because your bible supports it. According to the stories and laws in the Old Testament, they were attacking and destroying cities and nations, taking captives for slavery, and it wasn’t forbidden, it was positively enforced. In Numbers, there is a story of Israel conquering Midian, killing the men and plundering their women, children, cattle, and goods. When they get done destroying an entire nation and taking their women and children captive, Moses gets angry with the captains of the army because they spared all the women, because these people worshipped a different god and convinced some of the Israelites to convert. He tells them to kill all the male children and the women who have had sex, but spare the virgin girls for themselves. Elsewhere, there are specific instructions about taking a female prisoner of war as a wife, with no regard for the woman’s desires.

        I don’t think you can justify this. I think it’s so plainly evil that there’s no excuse. These stories come from ancient tribes who glorified warfare and passed down tall tales of supernatural feats and greatly inflated population numbers, which were eventually written down and turned into the basis of a religion or three.

        How is my hypothesis any less reasonable than yours? Mine is consistent with all of the evidence, and is basically the same as the hypothesis you have about every religion other than your own. I’m just being consistent and applying it equally to all religions.

        I’ve written about the starting point of logical reasoning many times. Quite simply, logic is the only way you can know anything. Or even think. Thinking is a process that follows rules of logic. You do have to start with an assumption—that your experience of the world is generally real and things can be known about it. What follows is a process of testing and verification against other perspectives from other people, in order to find hopefully the most objective perspective possible. That perspective is what we call truth.

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  2. First off, there’s a lot that you’ve said, in this post and others, that I agree with. Logic is important, and it’s something many people ignore. And I’ve also many times been frustrated by the poor reasoning many people have demonstrated and the strange (strange to me) defensive posture they take when people question their beliefs. What are they afraid of, I wonder, if they’re so sure they’re right? And if they’re not sure, don’t they want to find out what is true? And I agree Christians have often been little better (and sometimes worse) in that area. I’ve seen and heard and been exposed to my share of bad arguments.
    That said, I’m not sure it’s fair to blame religion or Christianity or belief in the Bible for poor reasoning. It seems in every area of life (politics, medicine, sometimes even DIY), most people don’t take the time to think things through. You and I instinctively like to think things through, but I think to a lot of people it’s just hard work and no fun. So they don’t. It’s just easier (for them) to believe whatever—about everything. There’s a website—Snopes—about urban legends. All sorts of random stories get spread as if they’re true and most people just believe them because someone said it. And it has nothing to do with religion.
    Moving into the meat of your article, I agree that there’s great value to the scientific method, but does it really stand up any better than religion? It might be perfect if people didn’t have any biases as they followed it, but we do. We can’t escape them, in religion or science. And people have used very poor science, over and over again, to “prove” things, not because there was proper evidence, but because that was simply what people wanted to believe/justify. http://classroom.synonym.com/difference-between-craniology-phrenology-16686.html If anything, the scientific method has given people a false sense of security, because they can set up experiments that give the appearance of objectivity even though they’re still colored by human bias.
    Addressing the more philosophical side—and I know you’ve touched on it in other blog posts—science is dependent on the unprovable assumption that we can trust our senses—even though many times we’re mistaken. For example, we’ve all heard of cases where someone has been falsely convicted for a crime because the victim is certain that so-and-so is the criminal, even if he/she isn’t really. I’m not saying any of this to be down on science—I love science—I’m just pointing out that it has flaws and limitations, just like anything else.
    Also, I don’t see religion and science has being two opposing things, any more than science and history are. There are things science can’t tell us—like “why” anything. It also can’t make moral decisions. Religion on the other hand, doesn’t tell us what the weather is going to be tomorrow, or how to cure cancer, and a multitude of other things. Both of them—used properly—can and should involve logic and reasoning—and both of them can’t help but be tainted by human bias and finiteness.
    Something I very much believe in is the unity of everything, by which I mean that even though we put knowledge, or information, into different categories, (religion, science, math, history, etc.) it’s all different facets of the same thing. Nothing that’s true in one field is going to contradict what’s true in another. If they do, one of the things must not be really true meaning someone has misapplied the tools of their field.
    And yes, logic in an important, integral part of them, inextricably bound up with everything else. I don’t think you can even separate it. I agree with you that God didn’t create logic. I think logic is because He is, and part of Him being is logic. (Note: I’m not saying logic = God or God = logic. They’re not interchangeable; one is a concept; the other is a Person.)
    It’s kind of hard to analyze the section about a law requiring a lawgiver, because you’re responding to an argument structured one way, and if I were arguing, I would structure it a different way. I agree that it’s a poor argument to say, “the evidence for a perfect God is the Bible,” especially if someone is starting with “there is morality.” That’s skipping a billion steps of the argument and inviting a pretty hard-to-answer counter-argument such as the one you offered—quite reasonably I might add.
    If I was structuring an argument for the existence of God—or the truth of the Bible—or the existence of the God of the Bible—around the idea of morality, I wouldn’t even start there. The one thing I think we can both agree on—or assume true for the sake of argument, at least—is that we exist. We are real, and we are people. And we both know and agree that we’re limited. We didn’t make ourselves. We can’t make ourselves. So everything about us had to come from somewhere or something greater than ourselves. We are people, so we must have come from a greater Person—or from Someone Who’s more than just a Person

    And yes, we are moral beings; we have an understanding of morality. So the Someone we came from must also be moral. But even though we have a very strong sense and understanding of morality, we all fall short. We aren’t moral. Not all the time. We all do many things that we know are wrong. So Whoever made us, made us good, but something went wrong with us. It must have. Where else could un-moral behavior come from? Now perhaps I’m stretching things a bit here, but moving on from there, our sense of morality tells us that when someone does something wrong, that person deserves to be punished. And we frequently do things that are wrong. Only it doesn’t really seem as if we’re being punished. And even though totally apart from what human beings do to each other, there’s a lot of pain and misery in the world—natural disasters, animals killing each other, etc.—there’s also beauty, and pleasure, and good things. That’s mercy, and in addition to understanding morality and justice, we understand and value mercy.
    Anyway, Whoever God is He has to reflect all those things: morality, justice, and mercy. Now I’ve arrived at all of that without once making reference to the Bible; I used logic derived from what we know about ourselves and the world around us. But I think you’ll find that Biblical Christianity is the only belief system that describes such a Being. I know you argued that the Bible isn’t completely moral, and I’m coming to that, but Christianity is the only belief system in which the concept is even there. Throughout history, most people have believed in gods who aren’t moral. (Think of the selfish, deceitful, sensual, and tyrannical gods of the Greek and Roman myths.) The Catholicism of Martin Luther’s day had little to no concept of God’s mercy. A lot of people now tend to think of god as being loving and merciful, but they forget that God has to be just, that anything less than that would be immoral (as in, not moral).
    As to whether the Bible is true, that’s something of a separate question, and there are several different ways of coming at it. I guess I’ll start by making one final point that logically carries on from where I started, and then I’ll address at least some of what you’ve said. We’ve already established that there’s something wrong with us. We aren’t as moral as we know we should be. We also know that we’re limited and finite. So it’s entirely possible that our sense of morality, while real and valuable, isn’t perfect; in other words, it’s not a stretch to suggest that we can’t wholly rely on our own sense of morality to determine if something is truly, objectively, moral.
    That said, to address your point about killing family members who don’t believe what we do, it’s not special pleading to appeal to the context. Israel lived under a theocracy. Serving another god wasn’t just changing religion. It was rebelling against the head of the country. It would be more comparable to an American plotting to assassinate President Obama than to someone from a Christian home deciding to join another religion. Therefore, we’re not just randomly deciding that that doesn’t apply. There’s a specific reason; we don’t live under a theocracy anymore. (Also, there was no law that said anyone born an Israelite had to remain an Israelite; anyone who didn’t want to obey God could simply leave, just like an American can choose to go to another country and become a citizen of that country.)
    As far as contrasting the Bible with logic, people don’t always agree on logic. I’ve had conversations with people in which I’m trying to explain the difference between taking an argument to its logical conclusion, and the slippery slope fallacy (which is taking an argument to an illogical or unwarranted conclusion). That’s not something everyone readily understands, but that doesn’t mean logic isn’t valid. It means some people are better at it than others. It’s the same with the Bible. People not understanding it is a flaw in people, not in the Bible.
    And can humans produce writing so clear that nobody could misunderstand it? Someone, somewhere, can usually manage to misunderstand anything, especially in our postmodern day and age when people think writings (and everything else) can mean whatever they want it to mean.
    I agree that it’s bizarrely self-defeating to say that we should trust the Bible instead of our reasoning, since we’re using our reasoning to come to that conclusion. But is it an either/or? I believe our reasoning can lead us to the Bible and help us understand it. Still using reasoning though, we should also expect that everything won’t be easy to understand and there will be things that don’t seem to make complete sense, because God is greater than we are. We’re dealing with the supernatural, with things above us. Is it reasonable to expect that we could understand everything about a God Who’s so much greater than we are? I think there needs to be a balance between using our reasoning and acknowledging that something could be true even if we can’t completely understand it. Pure rationalism is self-defeating because we’re limited. “Pure” faith is blind faith. So we need both.
    As for using the spread of Christianity as evidence, I think if you take a look at history, you’ll find that it’s unique among all the belief systems in at least two major ways. First, much of what’s in the Bible would have been very verifiable. Many cultures have myths and legends that may or may not be true, but there’s no way of checking. Either they’re very vague (like ancient Greek and Roman myths), or they rely on “Take my word for it that I saw a vision when I was alone” (like Islam and Mormonism). It’s not hard to imagine how an untrue idea could spread in either of those instances. But that’s not what’s going on with the Old Testament. The events were public, and filled with details about time and place that would have made them easy to verify—or discredit.
    Second, both the people who spread Christianity and the people who followed it had nothing to gain and everything to lose by doing it. Even secular history will verify that the apostles and those who followed them were persecuted for their beliefs. And they didn’t fight. And the apostles at least knew one hundred percent for sure if they were telling the truth or not. You can’t accidentally think you saw someone alive after being dead, to the extent that you’re willing to be beaten, imprisoned, tortured, and killed for that belief. That’s unique to Christianity.
    One final point about Christianity that makes it unique, though I don’t think it’s as strong as the other two. Christianity has always strengthened and flourished under persecution. You said—correctly—that Christianity is very divided, and it is, especially under the broadest definition of Christianity. But we live in America. (I’m assuming you live in America? At the very least in a free country.) It’s easy for anyone to say “I’m a Christian.” When the going gets really tough for Christians here—and it probably will—the petty differences will go away, the jerks (or worse) merely pretending to be Christians will disappear, and Christians will be strong and unified. It’s happening all over the world. It always has. Most of the abuses and corruptions and pointless strife have occurred when it’s been almost too easy to be a Christian. What other group can say that—without violence—they grow more and are more fervent when there’s persecution?
    And I’m just going to briefly address one last thing you said, and leave it there. It’s true that people don’t have to appeal to religion in order to be moral. There are plenty of moral atheists. But in order to give a reason for morality beyond “that’s just the way we are”, I think we do have to appeal to religion. What alternative is there that doesn’t just create more questions than answers?
    Anyway, I’ve really enjoyed reading (and re-reading) your post(s). It’s hard to find people who like getting into logic and/or philosophy, so thanks for giving my philosophical soul an outlet for expression, and for making me think hard. I hope I’ve managed to return the favor. 😀 I’d love to know what you think.

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    • This is one of the best responses I’ve received to anything I’ve written. Thank you for taking the time to read, think through it all, and write such a well-presented response.

      I don’t mean to blame religion in general, or Christianity, for poor reasoning. I have often said of extremism that it’s the people, not the religion. Many people use Christianity for good, and some use it for bad. The same goes for every ideology in existence. The same principle applies to reasoning…some Christians use poor reasoning, and some don’t. Perhaps people who aren’t very good at reasoning are attracted to religion; it does offer to explain the world in much simpler terms than science.

      If there’s any blame in Christianity itself, it’s that there are scriptures that seem to support the rejection of reason in favor of blind faith, at least when the two collide. You could argue that this interpretation is an example of poor reasoning, and that’s fair. The main problem is people actively using those scriptures and that interpretation to suppress freedom and rational thinking.

      Does the scientific method stand up any better than religion? I would ask whether you think it is religion or the scientific method that has caused a greater change in humanity’s condition over the past several centuries. Where would we be if the Catholic church had been successful in maintaining old incorrect scientific beliefs and extinguishing dissent? It’s science that ultimately exposes the bias of people who do it wrong, whether they’re other scientists or people whose biases are related to religion.

      Of course the two are not fundamentally opposed; you’re right that science and religion occupy different regions of influence, and they can and do work together. Yet the most prevalent form of Christianity in America is blatantly anti-science. It’s that particular brand of religion I typically address, the one that contradicts and claims to overrule scientific fact and progress. Look at what happened to some scientists centuries ago who went against the established beliefs about how the world works. I see the same thing happening today. Many of those scientists were and are religious, but they’re smart enough to keep the two in their appropriate realms.

      That is why, at the end of the article, I made sure to clarify that I was talking about religion “in its most common form”. You might call it organized religion, a religious organization supported by individuals with some common goals, rather than a personal religion adopted by an individual. The people who employ strong reasoning and follow the scientific method are generally outsiders in the realm of religion, no matter how religious they are themselves.

      Your argument for the existence of God is very well done. There’s only one small piece that I consider a lapse of logic. Everything else follows clearly and logically afterward, so if I agreed on that one thing, I would agree with the rest (and I would have a year ago).

      The lapse of logic is the assumption is that we can use reason to determine the nature of a god—whether through pure reason or choosing an ancient book to believe. I’ve written a bit about my reasoning for the deist part of my beliefs, but not much about why I call myself an agnostic deist. I’ll probably be writing an article about it, but here’s a condensed version: It’s logical to suppose that if the universe had a beginning, it must have been at the prompting of a force which would by definition be supernatural—a force not constrained by the natural laws of our universe. It’s also reasonable to suppose this force shares characteristics of our universe, such as being orderly and logical. But this is where we hit a wall that reason cannot pass.

      How do you determine the detailed nature of an entity that is not subject to the laws of everything you know? You can’t reason your way to anything beyond the simple conjecture that such a being is a possible explanation for the universe. There are other explanations. There is also no way to test the hypothesis. It’s what we call unfalsifiable, and presenting an unfalsifiable idea as truth is the mark of superstition and dogmatism. In order to conclude that the Christian God is what caused the universe, you have to make an assumption. I prefer not to make assumptions. I may still be wrong, but at least I’m less likely to be wrong if I stick with what is logical and established in knowable facts.

      It’s interesting, when confronted with the basic issue of the existence of a god, Christians often use arguments that point to the god of deism. I think they feel that once they’ve established the existence of a god, it’s fine to make the leap to deciding it must be the Christian God. But is that reasonable?

      I don’t think Christianity is the only belief system that describes a moral, just, and merciful god. Most deists in the era of the American Revolution despised traditional Christianity but believed in a god almost indistinguishable in nature from the God you describe. They recognized the contradiction between the personal, promise-making God of the Bible and the reality we can observe and test. Many Muslims would say that their religion describes such a god, and how can you tell them that their interpretation of their holy book is wrong? Any argument you used to do so could be turned back on you and your interpretation of the Bible.

      You ask if it is reasonable to expect that we could understand everything about a god who’s so much greater than we are, but that’s essentially what the Bible claims to be for. Not literally everything, but far more than you can get with observation and logic. That’s the main reason anyone believes it…religion offers to fill the gaps, to make the unknowable known.

      So if you believe the Bible is the one that got it right, you have to reach that conclusion somehow. I can just as easily believe in a moral, just, and merciful god that isn’t the Christian God. The leap from “there must be a god” to “he must be the Christian God” is what lacks evidence and reason.

      I also find your argument of the Bible being verifiable somewhat lacking…verifying a few events is far from verifying all the specific claims about the nature of God. There are countless examples of people believing the magical parts of a story because there’s historical basis for the non-magical ones. You may as well read a historical fiction about Abraham Lincoln hunting vampires and conclude that vampires are real. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and the evidence that the Bible isn’t just another a collection of legends and stories that passed down orally through generations, gaining embellishments and superstitions before being written…well, it’s lacking. It may be the most commonly believed collection of legends and stories, but that doesn’t make it true.

      A quick paragraph about the Deuteronomy passage I mentioned: Your argument makes sense for why the law would not apply to us anymore, but does not fully address the issue. I still have to wonder why it’s any more right to kill someone for that reason in a theocracy than in any other sort of nation. We could also bring up the many other cases in which the death penalty is commanded, which don’t involve anything like being a traitor to your country. Why is it moral for certain people to be killed in a society governed by God, and not in a society governed by humans? What, exactly, makes it morally right to kill a woman who can’t prove she’s a virgin on her wedding night? How would living in a theocracy make that one any better? Furthermore, many Christians argue that their allegiance is to God, not to any earthly power, which is just internalized theocracy. God’s laws trump man’s laws, they say, but why only certain ones?

      Moving on, you say we can’t rely on our own sense of morality to determine if something is objectively moral. That would be a fine argument, if morality was an objective thing. It isn’t. Imagine if you were the only sentient being in existence (I used this same thought experiment in my article about the basics of human rights). Would anything be right or wrong? No. There would be no higher power to decide for you, no other beings to harm. You would be god. Morality exists only where sentient beings interact, and the rightness or wrongness of something is defined by how it affects them, so it cannot be objective.

      I can give a reason for morality without religion. It comes into being as a logical result of struggling to survive together as sentient beings with the capacity for emotion and empathy. That gives us the “how”. I think you want the “why”, and that’s even simpler: it’s beneficial both for humanity in general and for the well-being of individuals. What other questions do you need answered? Maybe you feel that the simple reason of survival and living happy lives isn’t interesting enough, so you want to bring in a God who has to be appeased so that you can go to heaven after you die instead of suffering for eternity. That’s a more interesting story, but is it really the best reason? Which one is more relevant to life in a world shared with billions of other humans, a world where no god steps in to relieve suffering?

      Finally, I will also object to your claim that Christians are the only group that grows more fervent when they are persecuted. First, as you noted, many who call themselves Christians would not. Does that really mean they’re not Christians? Secondly, you can find people in pretty much any belief system who will stand by their beliefs through torture and death. Muslim terrorists are an obvious example. Not all adherents of any given ideology will persevere, but neither would all Christians.

      I think it’s rather due to another human trait, the stubborn desire to overcome adversity, combined with truly believing that you must live by your beliefs or risk going to hell. It’s very admirable to stand strong in the face of persecution, as long as it’s true persecution and not consequences for being a jerk, but it isn’t unique to Christianity. You will find martyrs in many religions.

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      • Hi! Thanks for taking the time to respond to my lengthy—response.
        If people weren’t using the Scripture as an excuse for poor reasoning—and I completely agree with you that many do—they’d be using something else. People can appeal to family loyalty. Hitler appealed to patriotism among other things. And—dare I suggest?—evolution. People can even appeal to science, not taking the time to think things through because they’re assuming scientists are right (blurring the line between science as a concept and finite scientists.)
        There’s an interesting irony in you mentioning the Catholic church no longer having such power and authority, because that was accomplished just as much by religious people as it was by others. And many of the scientists of that era—while not necessarily being Bible-believing Christians—were motivated at least in part for religious reasons, wanting to understand the world God made and assuming it had an order based on the character of God. Religion and science were very intertwined then. Both religious superstition and scientific superstition were major problems. And the solution wasn’t to get rid of either field entirely, but to get them both out of the hands of a self-styled “elite” who would tell everybody else what to think. Scientists and theologians alike (and many were both) made an effort to get people studying and thinking critically in both science and religion. There was Martin Luther’s 95 theses, and there was Francis Bacon’s inductive reasoning (I know they weren’t in exactly the same time period, but still—). They both operated in their own different spheres, but they weren’t working against each other. The two advances in society melded together beautifully.
        I have to admit I’ve had little experience with religion “in its common form.” I grew up in a conservative Bible-believing home, but I was mercifully spared mainstream ‘conservative’ Christianity in America, which probably is a mess. Again, I don’t know a whole lot about it, but I’m guessing we’re probably in quite a bit of agreement on that. The difference is that I believe you’re arguing that those problems indicate that there’s a problem with believing the Bible, whereas I would argue that it points to the importance of reading the Bible responsibly, and not miss-using religion. People are very good at fooling themselves, at manipulating others, and at taking something good and using it as an excuse to do something bad. Often it’s Christianity and the Bible that they use, but that’s more a reflection of the fact that a lot of people respect the Bible than of anything objective about the truth of the Bible itself.
        Addressing your point about how we can use reasoning to determine details about a superior entity not bound by common laws, I’m really just extending your reasoning. Since we can both agree that we can use the created universe to determine something—if only a limited amount—about a Supreme Being—it logically follows that we could also use ourselves to determine something about that Supreme Being. I don’t know where you are on the issue of evolution, but thinking about it from a philosophical perspective, nothing and no one can produce something greater than or more than itself. So it makes no sense to suggest that God created the universe, and the universe somehow produced human beings with personality, because the universe doesn’t have personality. And if there’s some possibility other than a Supreme Being for the existence of the universe, I’ve yet to hear it from anyone. Most people are like, “there was a Big Bang.” And I’m like, “what banged? The whole point is nothing physical was there yet.” It doesn’t really answer the question.
        I agree that simply establishing the existence of God doesn’t prove that He’s at all involved in our lives (although one would wonder about the nature of a God who would do such a thing; what on earth could the point be?), but there’s more. Like I said, we have a sense of morality. That had to come from a moral Being. Also, we don’t follow our own standards of morality. So something is wrong. Whoever God is and whatever is true has to reflect that.
        And yes, that reasoning is limited. I agree that it can’t get into super specific details. We couldn’t deduce just from looking at ourselves and the world around us that Jesus is the Son of God and He died for our sins. But it does help us narrow down the possibilities.
        But see, there isn’t one marvellous slam-dunk argument for everything. Anyone who tries is going to end up making some leap of logic somewhere along the line. What I would do—I guess what I am doing—is start by establishing things that we can know just from experience and reasoning. Then I’d show the limits of that, how our reasoning points to the fact that there must be more that we can’t just figure out by thinking about it and looking around us. And that would be one thread of reasoning. Then with that as the foundation, I would switch tack to how we know the Bible is true and the Word of God. All of the previous reasoning wouldn’t be proof of that; it would just be one way of establishing the Bible’s credibility, because it doesn’t contradict what we already know from other sources. And that kind of addresses what you said later on about the Bible just filling in the gaps. In a way, yes it does, but not just randomly with leaps of logic.
        As for the early Americans, they basically had a watered-down “Christianity” and believed in a watered-down version of the Bible. They certainly were familiar with the Bible, and in their own odd way, they had a respect for it (if believing only what they wanted to believe from it counts as respect). They took the genuine Christian idea of the concept of morality, divorced it from an absolute Standard of morality, and just used their own opinions about what was and wasn’t moral.
        As far as Muslims—and I say this with the greatest affection toward Muslims—the Muslim concept of God isn’t of a Person. Their god is unknowable. Also, whereas we (Christians) would say that the one thing God can’t do is violate His own nature and character, the Muslims view such a limitation as a weakness. One of their god’s names is “the deceiver” or “the deceitful one.” (And I heard that from a very educated young man who grew up in a Muslim home.) Furthermore, Muslims are only supposed to read the Koran in Arabic, a language many of them don’t understand. So the question of what their book does or doesn’t teach is a little less relevant than it is for Christians. In Christianity—or in Western Christianity—some of the heroes have been those who sought—sometimes as the cost of their lives—to give people access to the Bible in their own language. None of that proves that Christianity is true and Islam is false, but it is a pretty significant difference between the two.
        Theoretically, people could believe in a moral, just, and merciful God without it being the Christian God, but I don’t think anybody does. It’s a bit hard to discuss with our Western concept, because our culture has been so saturated with Christian thought that I think we take it for granted. I think we’ve forgotten that we even got the idea from Christianity and the Bible. But if you look at the ancient world, there was nothing of the sort. And even now, like I said earlier, without the Bible, the concept is pretty watered down.
        You’ve said “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” before, but why? I once read a book in which someone pointed out that on any given day, there’s a pretty slim chance that the winning lottery number will be the winning number. But nobody says that they require extraordinary evidence before they’ll believe that that’s the winning number (especially if it’s theirs!). Besides, my point is that the counter-claim is more extraordinary.
        First of all, the Bible isn’t written like fiction, or myth, or legend. Apparently even the grammar of the Hebrew indicates that. There’s a different sentence structure. (I don’t know Hebrew, but that’s what I’ve heard.) But even apart from that, the level of detail sets the Bible apart. What ancient legends get so specific about time and place? That’s always very ill-defined in ancient myths. Also, you never get the impression that they’re written by eye-witnesses or to anyone close to the situation. The Old Testament writers almost take it for granted that the readers will know something about what they’re talking about, even to details like giving the name and location of wells (Genesis 16:14). Why would anyone bother making that up? And what would be the point of making up little details just to “sell” some big story? And again, how do you make up, “the wall fell down when the people yelled, in such and such a place, at such and such a time, in such and such a generation?” Or “Your grandparents walked through the Red Sea on dry land and watched the Egyptian army drown. They just kind of forgot to ever mention it to you.” That’s even harder to believe.
        As for the Deuteronomy passage, I don’t know how you feel about capital punishment, and it’s probably not the most profitable conversation we could have, but for those who do believe in it, treason is hardly an extremely immoral reason to implement it.
        As far as other passages—I admit that’s getting into areas that I’m considerably less sure on—the precise relationship between the Old Testament, moral law, and us now. But what I do know is that God’s plan for one part of history was to have an entire country following the law as He set it forth. Then He allowed that country to be taken over so they couldn’t follow that law anymore. Whether they should follow it became a non-issue. And then for the entire history of Christianity, there’s never been an entire country populated or even ruled just by Christians. So what parts of the Old Testament law we should follow if we could is a bit of a funny question. We can’t, so what difference does it make?
        Furthermore, while I don’t think following OT law is a moral requirement—partly because we can’t and partly because there’s nothing in the NT to indicate it—I wouldn’t say following it is immoral. And as far as women and being virgins, I think that would be a pretty effective way to end the rape culture people sometimes talk about. Makes it simple. “No sex outside of marriage for any reason. If a guy tries to force you, scream. He dies. If you don’t, you’re guilty. You die.” I mean, that clears up all the ambiguity. A guy can’t accuse a girl of “asking for it”, if it’s actually against the law. And if a woman/teenager is taught from childhood “scream or die”, there’s not going to be any doubt in her mind as to whether or not it’s okay to “let” a guy have sex with her. She doesn’t have to decide if she’s comfortable with it or not, or why she wants to one time but not another. It’s just an across the board, “no.” And it would be very clear in her mind that anyone who doesn’t accept that isn’t just “a nice guy who loves her too much.” He’s a criminal. That doesn’t have to be law, but really, how would that be a bad thing? (And I’m saying this from the point of view of a young woman who’s grown up in the city.)
        If there were no God, morality would be dependent on us. If/since there is a God, He defines morality. That’s what gives it its objectivity.
        As for the why of morality, yes, being moral benefit humanity, but why does it matter if humanity benefits? To what end? What purpose? Who cares if humanity just dies off?
        And according to the Bible, God did step in to relieve human suffering. God became a Man. He suffered with us for 33 years. He suffered for us on the cross. He healed many people from their physical diseases. He rose from the grave and conquered death so that we can one day be free from our frail physical bodies and away from this suffering earth. (That wasn’t the only reason or even the primary reason, but that was part of it.) Now obviously that’s dependant on the truth of the Bible, but since I already talked about that earlier, I don’t want to just repeat myself here.
        As for Christians growing more fervent when persecuted, in the first place, I would say that those who turn away weren’t Christians. But I’m aware that on its own that sounds like the no true Scotsman fallacy. That, too, goes back to the truth of the Bible, though. The Bible says that those who leave a group of believers demonstrate that they were never truly part of the group (I John 2:19). Now, I’m not expecting you to believe that just because I said the Bible says so, but since I believe the Bible, that’s my reason for believing—just about everything. Everything the Bible actually talks about.
        Many groups can become fervent when persecuted if they can fight. That’s how wars work. It’s not even religious. You just get a bunch of young people fired up with visions of splendor and defeating the enemy and if they go out, going out in a blaze of glory, and sure, people will get passionate even in the face of danger and death. But what other group prior to Christians have advocated just accepting it? Not fighting. In fact, respecting the government (Romans 13 1-7). Christians weren’t going out in a blaze of glory. They were publicly humiliated, burned, thrown to lions, and crucified, and they didn’t retaliate. That’s pretty unique.
        And again, in the first century, with the apostles themselves, they knew if they were telling the truth or not. Why would they be willing to die for something they knew was a lie? They didn’t have armies, and people to fight for them. They just—died. Why would they be willing to do that? Someone might be willing to be killed without resisting for something that isn’t true if he truly believes it, but if he knows it’s not true? Who does that?

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      • I think we’re in agreement that any ideology can be used badly to support what a person wants to believe. That’s precisely why an ideology that inherently fosters or promotes faith over reason can be dangerous to rational thinking. It preys on the weakness people already have in order to prevent them from leaving. But the negative effects of popular Christian ideology on the people who have lived in it can wait for another time, it isn’t very relevant to the issue at hand, and on the topic of simple human fallibility, we are entirely agreed.

        Like I said, many of those scientists were religious, and some were not. My point is that it’s not religion that developed modern science, that eradicated smallpox, that found ways to grow more food more cheaply so that we’re actually on the verge of eradicating poverty and starvation (assuming we can work together toward that goal). Sure, religious scientists may be inspired by their religion to pursue certain goals, but it’s not the religion that forms the practical bridge to reaching those goals. And many scientists who aren’t religious are still inspired by their own ideologies toward the same goals. In that sense, any specific religion is basically irrelevant—people are inspired by whatever they happen to believe, and it’s science that actually gets things done.

        I also grew up in a relatively good Christian home. Unfortunately I’ve encountered manipulation, intellectual dishonesty, judgment, and other major flaws at just about every church I’ve attended…and I’m talking about my experiences as a Christian. I’ve never been “acceptable”, no matter what I believed, I always had Christians telling me how wrong and evil I was. Of course, that continues now that I’ve left the religion, only now it comes from almost all Christians and they like to tune me out as soon as they find out I’m not one of them. So perhaps I’ve been unlucky enough to have seen a large portion of the ugly side of Christianity.

        I think evolution is pretty well established, as is the age of the universe. If you really are going to use the universe and our own nature and history to determine something about a supernatural entity, I don’t see how the reality we observe could possibly point to anything like the Christian God. There are a lot of different points to be made in this regard, such as the fact that even as humanity becomes more secular, violence and other immorality (things that all of us consider immoral, at least) continues to decline. In fact, most of the worst violence we still have is perpetrated by religious people. We’re not just becoming more moral and less religious, we’re also becoming more intelligent and more knowledgeable about the universe, and I think all four are strongly connected. When you get some perspective, such as understanding general relativity, human quarrels over ideology begin to look more and more useless and boring. Through science, the human species is growing up.

        Other possibilities for the beginning of the universe? Well, I’ve got some fun ideas for you. Imagine, if you will, that the universe is a self-contained four-dimensional entity, where the dimension of time is no different from a spatial dimension. What if our universe is a four-dimensional elementary particle, atom, or cell in a five-dimensional world? I realize this doesn’t exactly answer the ultimate question of where we came from, and sort of pushes it off into another universe so different from ours that we couldn’t comprehend it. But the logic remains sound—it’s a “possible” explanation. Here’s another one: We know enough from studying the expansion of the universe, and the background radiation that is ubiquitous throughout, that playing time backwards through the magic of science and math brings us to a point where all matter and energy is packed into an extremely dense and extremely tiny area. We also know that there is a phenomenon in our universe that creates such a thing—black holes. Because gravity distorts time, the gravity of a black hole distorts it so much that anything happening inside the black hole takes infinitely long to make its way out (in other words, it never does from our perspective, even though for an observer inside the black hole, time would seem to run normally). This has led to the theory that universes are created inside black holes. It probably makes a lot more sense if you understand general relativity, but it’s not too hard to imagine. Again, the logic is consistent with what we observe in the universe, and it is a possible explanation. And again, it doesn’t exactly answer the ultimate question, because you still need an origin for the star in some other universe that collapsed to produce a black hole that created ours, but it’s a fun concept to ponder, however unlikely it is.

        Those are my favorite unlikely explanations, because of how mind-bending they are. But let’s bring in an intelligent creator. What if the universe is a four-dimensional piece of art in a five-dimensional world, created by a being in that world much like a human would create a three-dimensional sculpture? What if it’s a scientific experiment? What if we appear to the gods as movie characters appear to us? Or, even crazier, what if the universe is the brain of a five-dimensional god? Honestly, with or without a creator, the possibilities are nearly endless.

        But what about morality? I say morality isn’t the big question, because it seems to arise naturally from sentience. It’s sentience, self-awareness, the ability to reason, that raises the big questions. Yet, what is sentience but the ability to act in a specific way? Even atoms can act, and they don’t have to think about it. What makes atoms behave like they do? To me, that question is no different than the question of why we have morality, since all matter and energy (they are the same thing, only in two different states) came from the same place and event, and since every thought we have is just a transfer of energy.

        Of course this is all very theoretical, and involves ways of thinking that are somewhat at odds with our limited view of the world as three-dimensional. We tend to think little of time because we’re in a constant free-fall through it; we tend to think of it as a constant and unchanging force, but that’s not true. If you want to explore the idea further, I’d suggest learning about general relativity.

        Now, let’s look back at religion. From this point of view, it looks like nothing more than a man-made crutch for people who are incapable of understanding the complex reality of the universe. It fills in the gaps that could just as logically (or even more so) be filled in with different ideas. So, that’s not to say it is 100% false, but at best it provides just another hypothesis among many that are equally reasonable and equally impossible to prove. That’s the best case for a very logical religion, but in reality, most religions are too inconsistent with observed reality to be taken seriously.

        I have to disagree that nobody else believes in a moral, just, and merciful god. Certain forms of paganism venerate the natural world as a god, and subscribe to the simple philosophy of “if it harms none, do what you will”, which implies morality, justice, and mercy all at once. Various other religions hold the universe to be “god”, and we are part of it, which makes our morality god’s morality. Justice comes through in the idea of karma. Mercy and forgiveness are almost always valued traits.

        The interesting thing about gods is that they are always humanized. In many religions, this results in gods that may not seem moral, but if you believe morality must be defined by a god, how can you claim they’re not moral? If Allah defines morality, why would anything he does be immoral? This is the problem with the argument that a god must define objective morality. It still isn’t objective—it depends on what the given god thinks and does, so in the big picture it’s still subjective. If you’re going to base your morality on a god, you can’t use your own moral sense to determine one god is more moral than another and therefore must be the right one. At that point you’re making your god in your own image…which, in my opinion, is what everyone does. The problem with the Christian God is that he seems no more moral to me than any other. You merely reorganize your way of thinking to accept everything he supposedly said and did as morally right simply because he did it. You can use that same reasoning with any god you want.

        So why does it matter if humanity benefits? Who cares if humanity dies off? It matters because we decide it does, and we care. The instinct of self-preservation gave rise to more complex ideas of emotional well-being and enjoyment. Think of humanity as a movie, with a plot gaining complexity as it heads toward a “happily ever after” ending. Who cares about the movie? The observers, of course, and we are our own observers. We care about the future of humanity for the same reason we care about our own children, the same reason we value peace and happiness, the same reason we dream of exploring the universe.

        It may be hard for you to imagine purpose and meaning driven by our own sentience through our goals and what we value, but it’s no harder than me imagining that it depends on a god who leaves millions of innocent children to suffer and die, even though he supposedly answers prayer and does what you ask if two or more of you agree on it. The promise of response to prayer is one of the biggest issues for the Bible, because it makes clear and firm promises that are easy to prove false by simple observation.

        Again, I have to object to your claim that only Christians advocate non-resistance to persecution. Jainism is a notable ancient religion (older than Christianity) that holds nonviolence as one of its essential doctrines, and even forbids violence in self-defense. There are similar philosophies in various other religions and sects outside of Christianity. Just like there will be people in every ideology who stand firm through persecution, there are people in many ideologies who believe they should do so without retaliation. Pacifism is a far-reaching philosophy, especially in Eastern religions, not unique to Christianity.

        As for the apostles being martyred, I would never claim they knew their beliefs were not true. The problem is assuming that the accounts we read in the Bible are true, because as far as we know they were written long after the apostles were dead, and not by their popularly attributed authors. The same goes for events in the Old Testament…they’re a combination of actual history and mythical embellishment. That’s exactly how most myths and religions begin…something notable, unusual, or unexplained happens, it’s passed along orally for a period of time, gaining embellishments and alterations, until someone finally writes it down, and then history becomes mixed with legend. It happens all the time on smaller scales with urban legends and recent history, and obviously it happened on a massive scale with the many religions throughout the world. If Christianity is true, every single other religion must be false, but then if you explain how they came into existence, that explanation holds up just as well for Christianity, whether or not it’s different from the rest (honestly, I think all major religions can claim to be different from the rest, while they’re still all very similar in certain ways).

        Finally, one more note on the Old Testament law: the issue of whether or not you should follow it isn’t really relevant. The issue is how those particular laws could be considered moral in their time and place, if we would all consider them immoral today. And the law about virginity I was referencing is not the one about rape…I’m talking about the one where a husband accuses his new wife of not being a virgin after they’re married, and if she and her family can’t prove she was, then she is killed. Regarding capital punishment, all I’ll say is that I’m literally “pro-life” and I think it’s an immoral way of dealing with crime. I’m not an absolute pacifist so I do recognize situations in which it may be necessary to kill someone who’s actively trying to harm others in order to protect the victims. That, to me, is the only moral justification for killing.

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      • Religion was never designed to cure smallpox. Math, history, geography, the Civil Rights movement—none of those cured smallpox either, but that didn’t mean they weren’t good. And again, the way I see the world, everything is connected. Religion isn’t science and science isn’t religion, but the Bible does say we’re to take dominion over the earth. The Bible says the second greatest commandment is for us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and one way of applying that is by finding cures. We believe a doctor wrote a significant portion of the New Testament (Luke and Acts), and a large part of Jesus’ ministry was healing people. You’re right that Biblical reasons aren’t the only reasons we find cures for diseases and seek to make the world a better place, but the two can still work together rather than being pitted against each other.
        I think there’s intellectual dishonesty and judgement everywhere, not just in religion. Certainly in politics. And anything to do with the mainstream media. And very much in the realms of science. When someone threatens the established status quo, scientists are just as likely to lash out like cornered animals as any other group. (I’ve read Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion.) I don’t deny that it’s rampant among professing Christians and not entirely absent among people that I would call genuine Christians, but if we judged every realm by that criteria, nothing would stand, including logic.
        As far as evolution, how can something about a process that occurred in the past, and that’s currently supposed to be occurring so slowly that we can’t observe it, be established scientifically? That’s very much rooted in speculation, and it’s very much open to other explanations for the data.
        If I were trying to make the argument that any and all religious beliefs result in less violence than any and all atheistic beliefs, then statistical evidence to the contrary would effectively disprove that. But that’s not an argument that I’m making. (It’s also irrelevant to the question of what’s true, anyway.)What I am trying to argue is that those who actually follow the Bible are following a unique and superior moral code. The problem is that both now and throughout history, the majority of people who claim to follow the Bible are just using it as an excuse for immorality and anti-intellectualism.
        As far as ideas for the beginning of the universe, those are fun concepts, and I’d love to play with them at some time. (I’ve dabbled just a little bit in quantum physics, by the way, and I’d love to learn more if I had the time. Any good books you can recommend?) It’d be even better if I could ask a physicist about them. But they don’t answer the question. Even if someone proved conclusively that that was how the world began, it wouldn’t eliminate the need for God, because there would still be the question of where the five-dimensional world or the black hole came from. In short, there’s still a logical need for God.
        Other religions may believe in a good “god” of sorts, but do they believe in a good Personal God? The problem with pantheism is that it offers no explanation for Personality—or morality, for that matter. If all is one and one is all, where did individuality come from? And if everything is part of this supreme nature-God thing, that would have to include immorality and injustice, so what makes that bad? It’s one thing to have a concept of morality; it’s another to have a logically consistent reason for it.
        I can see your point, about it being hard if not impossible to argue that one God is more moral than another and argue at the same time that morality comes from God. But then it’s hard to argue for anything solely from a philosophical standpoint. That’s why I try to couple that with a discussion about the truth of the Bible. The reliability of written words are less theoretical and easier to discuss. That said, to follow the philosophical train of thought, if there is a personal God separate from Creation, everything about Creation must be either a reflection of Him or something that goes against what He would reflect, just like if I paint a painting, either it’s exactly what it’s supposed to look like, or, if someone spills water on it or scratches it, it’s my vision in twisted, marred form. Everything about that painting is either what I intend, and therefore good, or not what I intend, and therefore bad. It’s the same with us. Everything about us has to be either what God wants, or not what God wants, and therefore sin. So that which we call bad must be somehow a twisting of that which is good. That’s one of the ways we can know what’s good and bad. Bad is twisted goodness. Goodness is something in itself.
        To say that something is important because we decide it matters is to turn us into gods. And we know that we make poor gods, because we’re so flawed, finite, and—well, immoral. We don’t even follow our own standards, so how could our feeble, pathetic attempts at morality be the best there is, especially since we’re capable of such high ideals? Our own weakness tells us there must be something superior to us.
        The issue of suffering is a difficult one. I could address it on a philosophical level, but not without sounding extremely cold and unfeeling, so I think I’m going to leave it for the time being.
        Pacifism in and of itself isn’t unique to Christianity. You’re right there. I’m looking at all the factors together. Janism is obscure. Christianity swept the globe in spite of insurmountable odds, and continues to be widespread (admittedly in a very weakened form at the moment, at least in the West) to this day.
        I believe there’s ample evidence that the Bible was written by who it claims to be close enough to the time to be reliable, but I don’t have the sources with me. A book I would recommend is More than a Carpenter, by Josh McDowell. He started off as a skeptic. In the meantime, let’s stick with what we know for sure. A lot of people now, today, believe that Jesus lived on earth, He died, and He rose again. As much as I can see, any history scholar of the time period could verify at least that Jesus existed. The belief that He died and rose again must have come from somewhere. It’s also well-documented outside of the Bible that within a couple generations, Christians were being persecuted for their faith. And a couple generations isn’t that long. There were still people alive who would have noticed if it was made up. There’s not really enough time for that extensive of a legend to develop. There’s no explanation for why there aren’t prominent competing accounts, like there are with many other legends. It’s not clear what the motive for making this up would have been. There are so many unanswered questions, it’s actually a lot easier to believe the Bible is what it says it is than it is to come up with some other explanation.
        I don’t think the OT laws are so terribly immoral. I don’t think we’re required to follow them, but frankly, they’d probably be an improvement on what we have today. They may be harsher and stricter than what we have today, but there’s a certain mercy to that. I mean, if you want to talk about cruel and barbaric, what’s with our habit of locking people away from society for years and then expecting them to somehow live a normal life after that? I’d just as soon be dead. Capital punishment is far more merciful than throwing tons of people in prison. At least when laws are strict, we know where things stand. I mean, take sexuality. There’s so much confusion about it now, people trying to decide what’s right and what isn’t, and how close they have to be to someone before they’re willing to have sex with them. Talk about confusing! I honestly don’t know how people can even live like that. I don’t think it does any harm to say, “don’t do this at all or else. You know I’m serious, because this is literally life and death.” We don’t have to do it that way, but if one thinks a little more objectively, it really isn’t bad.

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      • The elimination of smallpox is just one example of what the scientific method has achieved. Scientific thinking is also responsible for a lot more, and closely involved with the development of mathematics, evidence-based history, and the secular revolution which is largely responsible for the increase of civil rights. In the meantime, religion of some sort has always been opposing progress. Of course, other sorts of religion haven’t been pitted against science, but that doesn’t mean they can claim the same level of achievement that scientific thinking has.

        On evolution: We dig up dirt and rocks, we find data, we find bones and fossils, and we piece together the story. We observe and study animals and plants, and we even see it happening right in front of us. Young earth creationism is based on denying hard evidence, of which there is a lot. There is actually very little speculation involved–massive amounts of research have supported evolution and continue to do so, and while it does happen slowly, it is not so slow that we can’t observe it in action.

        What makes the Bible’s moral code superior to the morals from any other religion? Especially when there are plenty of religions with very similar codes, including one that shares more than half of your scripture with you. It’s hardly unique…in fact there are numerous examples of other religions before Christianity that teach many of the same things, and even share major aspects of the mythology such as a virgin birth and being the son of a god. You might argue that people develop very similar moral codes in other religions because they’re all made in the image of /your/ god, but then why can’t someone else say the same thing, that you were actually made in the image of /their/ god? Neither of you have any more evidence to support your claims, although if the other religion came first, that raises the possibility that aspects of your religion were copied from it. Also, if the image of a god in me is what gives me my inherent sense of morality, I’d trust my own morality more than an ancient book that’s quite simply absurd on many levels. I have much better evidence for the goodness of my system than there is for the Bible, and the blatant rejection by Christians of various Biblical commands indicates that it’s not quite as perfect as anyone thinks.

        Our prison system is largely controlled by private companies, and it is terribly immoral to profit from the incarceration of people. It leads to higher imprisonment of innocent people and a lack of focus on rehabilitation. The solution is not to kill criminals, though, and I find many of the Old Testament laws to be thoroughly immoral. It seems obvious to me, since pretty much every society on earth today considers things immoral that the Christian god supposedly commanded the Israelites to do. It would seem that the “god-given” morality of humankind has resulted in systems even better than what you can find in the Bible. Christianity didn’t even turn against slavery until the rise of secularism, and you would think that if something is so obviously evil, god would have condemned it instead of blatantly condoning and even commanding it in some cases. Furthermore, secular societies have enjoyed very low violence, and the freedom our country was founded on, which has spread throughout the world as other governments shift to more democratic methods, originated with several secular philosophers and was implemented mainly by deists and other non-Christians. If you look at the facts of history, you can see that governments based on the Christian Bible have been overwhelmingly tyrannical and immoral, while secular governments that put a strong emphasis on freedom of religion by separating religion from government entirely have been the most successful at maintaining that freedom. C.S. Lewis has some excellent quotes on exactly why theocracy is the worst form of government.

        Our own weakness does not imply that there must be something greater than us. That is an obvious non sequitur. Everything you have used as evidence for the existence of your god is compatible with many other explanations, and thus is not evidence that will logically lead to the conclusion that your god is real…this was the whole point of my article titled “The Problem of Evidence”. There is precisely zero evidence that a personal god exists, and in fact very strong philosophical arguments against it, not to mention promises made by religions that can be easily tested. Perhaps that’s why not a lot of religions believe in such a god.

        The Bible is no more inherently reliable than the holy books of most other religions. In fact, the Book of Mormon even has stronger evidence. Look at how popular Mormonism is, and consider that it was started by a con artist. Even so, the firsthand statements of several named witnesses…who lived less than two hundred years ago…give the Book of Mormon a better level of validation than much of the Bible. I don’t see how anyone can honestly rule out the glaring possibility that Christianity started just like every other religion mankind has invented. It is pretty well established that there was a historical Jesus, but the Bible is the only source that exists for the claim that he rose from the dead. Quite simply, your dismissal of the possibility that it’s just a legend lacks any substance, ignores many possible explanations, and fails to account for the extreme gullibility of humans which has been plainly tested and verified many times, even in the modern age of freely available information. In a few hundred years, will there be a new religion based on all those Chuck Norris jokes? Stranger things have happened.

        Even with the internet and other readily available sources for information, modern people still believe lies about things that happened merely years ago, not even decades, let alone an entire generation. Imagine how easily a rumor about Jesus rising from the dead could have spread in a much more superstitious and less educated society. His message would have been popular, and there’s no reason to think the spread of Christianity is any indication that it’s true. It took a few centuries to really take hold, which means it took even longer than Mormonism. The tendency to believe outrageous claims without sufficient evidence has been the standard condition of all human societies for all of history, which is why religion has flourished.

        The argument that there’s still a logical need for god is actually not useful at all. I do think a sentient being is one possible explanation, and perhaps the most reasonable if framed in a certain way. However, the question of how the universe started is only relevant if you assume that it hasn’t existed infinitely with an unending cycle of collapses and “Big Bangs”. Such an idea is no less reasonable than pushing off the issue to an infinite god. If you can claim an infinite god, I can claim an infinite universe. If you claim god is necessary to create the universe, I can claim something else is necessary to create god. Every one of those claims is mere speculation and all are equally logical.

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      • To study science and physics, educational YouTube channels are pretty awesome. One called PBS SpaceTime has a really good series of videos explaining the basics of general relativity, plus other videos about the universe and crazy science stuff. I haven’t got much into quantum mechanics yet but I will. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Carl Sagan’s work, which I highly recommend.

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    • I think you’re looking at the best kind of science and the worst kind of religion. People held on to incorrect and harmful scientific ideas for a long time (such as the idea that bleeding patients to balance the unbalanced humors was the best cure for pretty much everything) for reasons that had nothing to do with religion. It was just bad science. And while many if not most religions have caused many problems, they’ve also spent years doing good, humane deeds, such as running orphanages, educating children, etc. For example, the original Sunday Schools were literally schools on Sunday because that was the one day a week when children weren’t working, so the church decided to educate them then, teaching them to read so they could read the Bible. William Wilberforce, the man responsible for the abolition of slavery in England, was motivated by his Christianity. The renaissance, a time of re-birth and increased re-learning, spawned the Reformation, a religious revival. None of that proves religion is inherently good (and it’s not) and it certainly doesn’t prove that Christianity is true, but it does make it hard to make the case that religion has been the main problem and science is the main solution.
      The issue with evolution is one of extent. Yes, we can all observe changes in organisms. We don’t even have to dig anything up to see that. But there’s a pretty significant leap in logic/evidence when it comes to the idea that one organism over time becomes another. (That’s probably not the best way of wording it, but you get the idea.) There’s little to no fossil evidence for all the in-between stages, and no explanation for how all these in-between organisms that there’s mysteriously no evidence for could even survive. What would keep them from losing the characteristics of one organism that are essential to its life before gaining the essential characteristics of the organisms it’s turning into? That’s pretty convenient for a random process geared toward eliminating anything weak. It’s not that young earth creationists deny the evidence. We just look at/interpret the same evidence differently.
      You’re absolutely right that similarity doesn’t prove that Christians are right, since other people could say the same thing. That just makes it likely that something along those lines is true, that there is a personal God Who’s interacted with us in some way and probably still is. Again, I can’t take any one thing and say “this is the clincher argument that proves I’m right.” There’s a gradual progression of thought. That’s why I started with the idea that there is a personal God—not necessarily mine—and that He is moral, that we get our morality from Him, and that something went wrong. That we’re not completely moral, even though He is. I think those are all conclusions we could reach without the Bible, things we can tell just by looking at ourselves and the world around us. We’re still kind of hashing that aspect out, so the things that follow from it—or may follow it—like the morality of the Bible, won’t make complete sense. And of course our own innate system is going to be better from our point of view. And the Bible’s system is better from its point of view. And Mormonism’s system is better from its point of view. And Nazism is better from its point of view. Every system is going to see its own goodness. And how does the fact that Christians don’t actually obey the Bible prove that the Bible isn’t moral? None of us, if we have any decent kind of moral code at all, follow it perfectly. We all do things that we know are wrong.
      I think if we understood the Old Testament commands in their historical context, we wouldn’t find them to be immoral. If you think about it, there are a lot of commands in the Old Testament about how to treat foreigners in the land. The fact that those laws were even needed shows that people chose to come to Israel from other countries. If they were a horrible, cruel, and oppressive country, more immoral than the others, nobody would ever come to it, and those commands would be pointless.
      As far as slavery, if people practiced slavery the way it was actually outlined in the Bible, it probably wouldn’t be that bad. When you look in history at the way employers could treat employees, it’s almost splitting hairs to make a big deal about slavery in particular. We react so strongly against the idea of slavery because we think of the way it was in America, in which it was a uniquely unfair and unjust system, antithetical to American ideals and principles.
      As far as secular societies versus religious societies, America was founded by men who had a great respect for the Bible. They weren’t Christians and they did feel free to pick and choose the parts they liked, but they certainly—at least most of them—didn’t view the Bible as a largely immoral book. And atheistic societies have typically been pretty awful, like Soviet Russia and communist China. And I can’t think of any country that ever has genuinely been based on the Christian Bible. People just used religious talk to further their own political ends. They weren’t even religiously motivated. Look at how the Church of England started. The king wanted to divorce his wife. It had nothing to do with religion, even though he and others may have put it in religious terms.
      So what are the other possibilities for why the followers of a dead carpenter-turned-teacher—one who lived most of his life in poverty and relative obscurity—would insist that He was the Son of God—in just about the only strongly monotheistic belief system of the time—and that He rose from the dead. Who would start such an idea? Why? What did anyone have to gain from it at the time? (It was centuries before anyone started using the ideas of Christianity for some sort of political advantage.) And I know that typically an argument from silence isn’t a good one, but there when there were so many people very much against a certain belief—Jesus was crucified, after all—it’s more than a little far-fetched to suggest that nobody could come up with any over-whelming evidence that people were just making this up—like producing Jesus’ body. Christianity really had nothing going for it at the beginning, unless it was true. And while the advent of the Internet has shown just how gullible people are, it’s also shown that a lot of people are unwilling to do any remotely hard based on the things they supposedly believe. It takes a lot to get people to act on their beliefs. (When they do, that alone isn’t proof that the belief is true, of course, but my point is that there needs to be more of an explanation for it than “people are just gullible.”)
      And just one final note on the Bible, like I don’t want to get too deeply into since we’re already discussing so many other aspects. Anything that seems too obviously false, like verses about God answering prayer if two or three pray for it, can’t be false, because if it really meant that, someone would have noticed it long before now. The people at the time evidently understood it and similar passages to mean something other than what a cursory reading could suggest.
      P.S. Happy Thanksgiving!

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      • No, I’m talking specifically about the effects on the world that can be directly attributed to religious teaching or the scientific method. There’s a major fundamental difference between the two. The people who use their religion to do good things are merely crediting their belief system for their own goodness. We know that religion does not inherently inspire goodness, and that good and bad people use it for their own purposes. On the other hand, the scientific method is simply a way of thinking that has proven itself over and over by discovering truths that religion has never known. The religion is given credit after the fact, while science is directly responsible for progress in clearly observable ways. One other important difference is that science has a built-in method for correcting itself when evidence shows it is wrong. Religion does not; religion only changes after social pressure from outside.

        You plainly do not understand evolution, or even know what evidence there is. You are incorrect that there is little or no fossil evidence. We have dinosaur fossils with feathers, birds with reptilian teeth and claws and tails, fish with lungs, dozens of different humanoid and ape-like remains from all around the world with brain sizes ranging from the size of chimpanzee brains to nearly as big as modern humans. A recent discovery in Africa turned up several complete skeletons of a creature that was like a great ape above the waist but had nearly human legs and feet. Not all of these are “transitional” fossils, of course, because most are other branches of the tree of life that have since ended. But speaking of that tree, DNA has provided us with an easy way to see that all life is related. You know how we can examine people’s DNA and see if they are closely related or not? Well, the same thing can be done across species, and we can look at the DNA in ancient bones, in modern apes, and see that chimpanzees are essentially our cousins, many generations removed, and we can construct a family tree with all those other extinct creatures.

        Furthermore, we have observed new species arising due to natural selection. We’ve only been watching for a short time, so of course we aren’t going to see huge changes, but there’s no difference between a huge change and a lot of tiny changes over time. You seem to be under the mistaken impression that a particular system or organ has to evolve in its complete form to be useful for survival, but that’s not true at all. Take the eye, for example. There are microorganisms that use photosynthesis to produce food, and they have tiny clusters of light-sensitive proteins called “eyespots” that allow them to sense where the light is. Moving up from there, small multicellular organisms have clusters of cells devoted to sensing light, larger organisms have recessed eyes which allows for a better sense of direction, and then we see eyes with pinhole openings that project a small amount of light onto even more sensitive cells at the back of the eye cavity to form crude images. The development of a fluid-filled eyeball turned it into an enclosed system that better protects the light-sensing cells, and then a lens makes it possible to focus and see clear images.

        At every step, the available machinery is useful for the survival of the organism. They do not lose the essential characteristics of one organism before turning into another. Dinosaurs with feathers survived because the planet cooled and feathers kept them warm. With less food available, the smaller ones would survive better, and then it’s only a few small steps to birds. Which, again, we can see in fossils. Perhaps you don’t deny the evidence, but you interpret it very badly.

        What I mean about Christians disregarding commands in the Bible is that modern Christianity finds ways to explain away commands to do things that we all agree are immoral. If our morality comes from a god, why would it contradict commands that the same god gave to the Israelites? You simply can’t follow those evil commands in a world where everyone else considers them evil, so you decide they aren’t applicable anymore. Which makes your god’s morality terribly relative and untrustworthy.

        As for slavery, we generally agree in modern times that it’s immoral to own other humans. However, the Bible explicitly says it is acceptable to buy people as slaves, and pass them on to your children as a /permanent/ inheritance. It says you can beat your slave as long as they don’t die, because they’re your property. If the enslavement of other humans is wrong, the Christian god seems to have forgotten to tell anyone. The selling of women as sex slaves is also condoned in at least one place, and in another passage god specifically instructs the Israelites to keep the virgins for themselves after slaughtering everyone else in an enemy nation. This does not sound like employment; the only thing that was slightly comparable to employment was the enslavement of their fellow Hebrews, as they were forbidden from treating /Hebrew slaves/ as permanent property. People from other nations were captured and enslaved, bought and sold, as permanent property, and the Bible says no more than “here are a few rules for how you should treat your slaves”. It never says “enslaving people is wrong”. Abolitionists citing the Bible to support their beliefs were doing exactly what Christians have always done when faced with a moral shift in the greater society…ignoring parts of the Bible that don’t fit what they want to believe.

        There are plenty of quotes from deists in the 18th century, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, that characterize Christianity as absurd, the Bible as violent and evil, and so on. Thomas Paine called the Bible the “word of a demon”. They respected the good bits and threw out the rest.

        The “atheistic societies” you’re talking about have far more in common with religion than secular humanism. They merely replace god with a powerful man. In fact, in many of those societies the dictator has essentially demanded worship. That has nothing to do with atheism, and everything to do with a power-hungry human using the same principles as religion to keep his followers under his control. Also, there is plenty of history of church-run governments, which was cited by the founders of America as the reason that our government is not based on any religion. John Calvin himself ruled over Geneva, the Catholic church had power over the governments of many nations throughout history, and Protestant governments arose mainly in opposition to the Catholic church’s claim to authority over everyone.

        Your lack of imagination is not evidence that Christianity is true. It’s easy to think of various ways in which Christianity could have started; in fact I’ve already worked out a complete plot for a novel about a possible historical Jesus and the origin of Christianity. Also, your final paragraph is terribly illogical. Something that is obviously false can’t be false because people would have known it was false? What? Set aside the fact that you really have no idea what people thought two thousand years ago, it’s still a silly argument. People have believed false things since they started believing things in the first place, and they will most likely continue to do so for the rest of humanity’s existence.

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      • Hi! I promise I hadn’t forgotten about this conversation. I’ve just been super busy with college. Now that I’m on Christmas break, I should have more time for a while.

        I think we might be starting to go around in circles and repeat ourselves. At least I feel like I’m just repeating myself.

        All that to say, I’d like to take a couple of steps back and go back to the main idea(s) in your original post (which I’ve been re-reading to re-gain my mental bearings). You had a couple of foundational ideas in there, and I think we sort of moved on from them prematurely. We never fully hashed out/agreed on the exact nature of science, religion, logic, and morality.

        One of your original arguments, if I understand it correctly, was that science is superior to religion because it’s inherently testable and objective, whereas religion is inherently subjective and un-testable. But while I would agree that there’s great value to science, I don’t think it’s uniquely objective, because when we use science, we can’t separate it from ourselves, and our human limitations and biases. It probably would be fool-proof if we could remove our biases, but the whole point is that we can’t. Usually when people think they are, they’re fooling themselves. And science is constantly changing. It’s not just that we gain more knowledge—although we do, which is of course a good thing—but that in the whole history of scientific thoughts, there have been different ways of even determining how to arrive at truth. The idea that the way to carry out proper science, logic, and reasoning is to eliminative possibilities by dis-proving as many things as possible is merely the latest in a long line of methods for arriving at truth. It’s not necessarily a bad way, but judging by the history of science, there’s no reason to think it’s uniquely perfect either. And again, even if it were perfect, biased people—and we’re all biased, there’s no way around that—would follow it imperfectly and inconsistently.
        Same thing with logic. In the first place, it might not be perfect. I was doing some reading about Russel’s paradox. Check it out. It was kind of hard for me to follow, but there are some interesting ideas there. But even if logic were perfect “by itself” so to speak, when we use it we can’t help but insert our own prejudice into it.

        Now that’s not to say that we shouldn’t use science or logic; it’s just an attempt to demonstrate that it’s not the one and only perfect path to truth.

        And then moving on to religion, we’re fully agreed that it’s heavily, heavily, tainted by human bias. I don’t dispute that. But so is everything else. Religion isn’t inherently inferior because it can be confusing and contradictory. It’s confusing and contradictory because flawed humans are the ones who believe in it, just like flawed humans are the ones who use science and logic. All of which is to say that in light of that, we would need to find a different way to determine whether something is true than by how humanity responds to it, or what we do because of it.

        As far as morality, we’ve talked a lot about the Bible and the legitimacy of Christian moral standards, but what about your ideas? I’d like to explore them a little more thoroughly. You said that morality is a logical extension of morality, that there are things that we all instinctively know and understand, like justice, and the idea that we can’t just kill people who aren’t threatening us. And that’s true—for most of us, anyway. And I agree that it isn’t dependent on whether someone believes in God or not. But knowing something isn’t the same thing as knowing why. We know that we shouldn’t kill people—it’s so intrinsic to our humanity that’s it’s ludicrous to even question it—but the question is why? Why is that sense even in us? Where did it come from? If everybody believed that it was all right to kill innocent, unarmed, non-threatening people, would that make it right? Why or why not?

        Anyway, sorry it’s been so long since I responded, and I hope it’s okay that I changed tack a bit. I’m not trying to avoid getting into some of the other issues; it just got so convoluted I was having a hard time keeping track of it all. Have a good Christmas.

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      • What I mean about science and logic being “superior” to religion is specifically that they are superior ways of discovering new truth. Science has changed a lot because it must…we’re so biased and flawed that any good method of knowing will inevitably change as we learn more and more about what is true and how things work. Science is much better than religion at correcting for bias because of the strict method it follows. Something is not accepted as scientific fact until it’s been heavily researched, supported by evidence through multiple separate studies, and checked by a lot of different people. Each individual person has their own bias, but working together, using the power of combined perspectives, is how we eliminate bias and get closer to the truth. That’s what science is.

        Religion, on the other hand, establishes an absolute truth and only changes when forced to do so by scientific or social progress. There is no method in religion to verify that its claims are true. They are expected to be believed as truth and questioning them is usually discouraged. Religion is stuck in tradition, science (speaking generally of the whole process) is not. Religion focuses on maintaining old ideas as truth, science focuses on figuring out how old ideas might be wrong. Again, it’s science that has given us a far deeper understanding of the universe than any religion has ever offered. There’s a huge fundamental difference…one approaches its own worldview as an established truth, while the other approaches its worldview as a work in progress that should be questioned and modified according to the evidence.

        If a religion was committed to verifying its claims with evidence through the work of researchers who come from a variety of worldviews, and if it was willing to throw out ideas if the evidence shows they’re wrong, then it would be comparable to science. As it is, I don’t know of any major religion that has anywhere near that level of commitment to finding unbiased truth. I often have to correct my religious friends when they share blatantly false information, because their worldview does not put a priority on questioning and verifying the truth of what they already believe, and thus confirmation bias is rampant.

        I thought I explained why we have the sense that it’s wrong to kill people. It’s a matter of survival…a social species flourishes when they work together. In the early years of human civilization, it was essential to our survival to be able to trust each other, since different members of a tribe would have different essential roles. Some would be hunters, some would gather fruits and vegetables, some would care for infants, and so on. Anyone without morality would be less likely to survive and reproduce because they would be less likely to be accepted by the rest of the tribe. People who hurt or kill others are more likely to be hurt or killed themselves. Thus, simple natural selection in an intelligent social species easily results in nearly universal morality.

        If you showed me a society that universally accepted murder, I would think they’re wrong, because the only way I can describe something as right or wrong is to judge it according to my own morality. But I don’t think the question as you put it really makes sense. We consider murder to be wrong because we have a sense of morality that defines what is right and what is wrong. That’s literally what morality is…a method of defining the concepts of right and wrong. The alternate world you’re imagining, where /nobody/ thinks murder is wrong, can’t really be judged by the standards of right and wrong that exist in our reality. In fact, such a world could only exist if nobody objected to being murdered themselves. Try imagining another alternate world where being hugged is universally unpleasant and thus it’s considered morally wrong to hug people. Now, imagine someone in that world saying, “what if everyone thought hugging was fine, would that make it right?”

        You’re thinking of wrongness as an eternal and absolute rule that would exist even if the universe did not. But in reality, wrongness is an abstract concept you apply to things that you object to, and morality (on a social level) is the nearly universal agreement among humans that certain things are objectionable. Murder is wrong precisely because everyone objects to being murdered. Trying to determine an absolute wrongness that would apply to any theoretical world is nonsensical, like asking what temperature the sun would be if it didn’t exist.

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  3. That’s a lot to mull over haha. While I do agree that logic and reason are the most concrete way of knowing, I’m wondering if you hold logic on a higher pedestal than it deserves. Just as you pointed out all the disagreeing interpretations of the Bible as evidence for its fallibility, I think the many disagreements between people who use logic as their basis for truth is evidence for its fallibility. What do you think?

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    • The thing is, nobody who actually knows logic disagrees on what valid and invalid logic is…we agree on what it fundamentally is and says and does. The only thing people disagree on is how to use it, and sometimes we disagree on whether something is logical or not because our understanding is limited. But we’re all using the term “logical” to mean the exact same thing.

      In the case of the Bible, everyone disagrees on what it fundamentally says. The term “Biblical” means something entirely different to people who have different opinions about what it means. Take the issue of gay people, for example. You can look at the passages that are supposedly “very clearly” against all gayness, and decide they mean something entirely different, as I did a while back with my Honest Reading of the Bible posts. As I said, even humans could do a better job making a book clear and understandable. When a Christian writes a theology book, we generally don’t see arguments centered around what specific sentences in their book mean. We argue about the ideas that they expressed clearly and whether or not we agree with them.

      I’m not saying this is evidence that points definitively toward the Bible being a solely human invention, only that it appears to be inconsistent with the idea that it’s the product of a perfect God. And I’m mainly using the argument to draw a distinction between the Bible and logic. Nobody agrees on what the Bible means, but everybody agrees on what logic means.

      The main argument for why the Bible is unlikely to have come from a god has much more to it, and I intentionally didn’t include it here because it isn’t relevant.

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  4. Wow. You weren’t kidding when you said your blog post would address the point I made in the one Facebook post. I see vistas of stimulating conversation opening up before me. But alas! I have two tests and a Greek quiz to study for. But when I have a chance, I’m going to take a very careful look at what you’re saying, and I think we could have a very good, enlightening, and mutually beneficial dialogue.

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    • It definitely turned a little more that way because of your comments. It was an interesting process, piecing together all the thoughts I already had in my notes, and working in some new material to address the things you said.

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