Skepticism, Religion Archive

Friday, November 15, 2013

Friday Bible Blogging - Midway Reflections

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index.

BibleHaving completed the Pentateuch and the Historical Books, I figured I would take a hiatus this week on doing actual reviews, and instead pause to reflect on this project thus far. (In fact, as I'll announce in my next post, I'm creating a print version of this series, and this post began as the afterword to the first volume of that collection.)

It's rather interesting reading the Bible anew. When I was still a Christian, the preconception that colored my interpretation of the Bible the most was believing that it was divinely inspired in its entirety. This led to a couple other preconceptions - that everything in the Bible was true, and that the Bible was a coherent work, with a unified message and theme throughout. I never believed in an overly literal interpretation - I knew that the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis couldn't have been true on that simplistic level of believing the universe was created in six actual twenty four hour days, but I believed that there still had to be some truth to the story, and that perhaps it was an allegory or a figurative story. And I believed that the Bible was free of contradictions - anything that seemed like a contradiction must have been a misunderstanding on my part.

But once you abandon that first preconception, all those other expectations about the Bible fall away, and you can begin to read it for what it is - an amalgamation and collection of different legends, stories, oral histories, and other writings from a wide range of authors over the span of centuries. I'm going to repeat myself here, and quote something I wrote in my summary at the conclusion of Chronicles. And while this passage was specifically about Chronicles, it is largely applicable to all the books I've read so far.

...there are multiple levels of interpretation when reading these stories. One is as a skeptic, thinking of the people who believe these stories literally, and seeing all the reasons why they couldn't be true. But moving past that and ignoring those problems, I can try to read this as I would other mythology, and try to see it through the eyes of the people who wrote it, and what it says about their mindset. Perhaps what I find the most interesting level, however, is trying to discern the kernels of truth, and how these stories could have developed. There is real evidence for some of these kings and some of these events, so we can be pretty sure that some of this did actually happen. But then there's the Chronicler's interpretive gloss on the whole thing, trying to rationalize why it all happened. And then there's some myth and legend added to it all as well.

And when you take each book on its own, without trying to force it into some larger narrative that's supposed to tie the whole Bible together, you can appreciate the message that each particular writer/editor was trying to convey.

Taken all together, the books of the Bible are a bit of a mixed bag. There are some parts that really are quite good, but then other parts that are boring, tedious, or even offensive to a modern reader. And then there are all the 'scars' in the books that have come from combining multiple previous sources. But given the Bible's nature as a collection of only loosely related books, that's to be expected.

With all that said, I have to admit to being a bit surprised at my younger self for reading the Bible so credulously my first time through. I'm going to repeat myself again, this time from my summary at the conclusion of Deuteronomy.

I can also say that I almost feel a bit embarrassed to admit that I'd read through the entire Bible once before, but that it didn't shake my faith. As I described above, it seems obvious to me now that the Bible isn't a divinely inspired book, and that it doesn't present a particularly praise-worthy god. I wonder just how I could overlook all those problems the first time I read it. Perhaps it's because I was younger, and hadn't really learned to read critically, yet. Perhaps it was the indoctrination and the fear of God, and not wanting to question the reliability of the Bible out of fear that I'd be punished or end up in Hell.

I started this project without a clear idea in my mind of how exactly I was going to approach the summaries of each book. I suppose I began from a more adversarial position, looking for the flaws in the books. And while those are still clear and I'll continue to point out some of them in the coming reviews, as this project has progressed, my focus has shifted to trying to enjoy the books the same way I would any other mythology.

Next week will be back to the normal reviews, starting on the book of Job.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Texas Science Textbook Adoption - Reminder

Stand Up for Science TexasIf you haven't already seen it, go read my entry, Texas Science Textbook Adoption. To summarize, On November 22nd (a week from tomorrow), the Texas State Board of Education will have their final vote to adopt the currently proposed textbooks and other instructional materials for high school biology and environmental science. So far, everything appears to be going relatively well, but there are a few idealogues on the board who have thrown a wrench in the works before. So, please contact your school board representative and urge them to vote in favor of sound science. Links on how to take action are included in that entry.

For anyone interested, I've posted my letter to my representative, Marty Rowley, below the fold.

Continue reading "Texas Science Textbook Adoption - Reminder" »

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Follow Up to a Follow Up - Morality

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismA couple months ago, I posted a few entries about a conversation I was having with a creationist in the comments section of his site (see the end of this post for links). A real life conversation I had recently reminded of that online conversation, so I went back to look at it again, and decided that I liked my last comment enough to repost it here, to hopefully allow it to be read by more people. For background, my comment was prompted by this question from the creationist:

Therefore, if you'll permit one more question: By what objective standard of morality are you appealing to when you express that those things are wrong?

Here was my response:

As far as objective morality, this is a topic that's been debated ever since there's been philosophy, so I doubt you or I will say anything that hasn't already been said. In other words, I don't foresee this as a very fruitful discussion, either, but I'll briefly indulge your question.

I don't think there is an objective morality. Morality is based on values, which are in the realm of the subjective. I know some people have tried to make a case for an objective morality based on science, such as Sam Harris in his book, The Moral Landscape. And while I haven't yet read the book, I don't understand how he could get there. Rather, I think you must start with givens that come from our human values, for example, that causing pain is wrong, or that increasing positive emotions is good. You start from your givens, and build from there. And sometimes, single actions can cause conflicting effects, so you have to weigh the good and bad consequences. For example, I already wrote that one of my givens is that causing pain is wrong. But sometimes, the beneficial effects of causing pain outweigh the negative ones, such as spanking a misbehaving child to improve their behavior or keep them from repeating a dangerous action, or putting criminals in jail as a deterrent to crime. But all this weighing and considering is subjective. It depends on how much you value the positive aspects you want to promote, or how much you oppose the negative aspects you want to curtail. While I only spanked my daughter a handful of times because I thought inflicting physical pain was a pretty big negative that needed a very substantial positive to justify it, I know other people who spank their kids on a daily basis, and have even heard of people that whip their kids with switches.

I can guess that you think God is a source of objective morality, but I wouldn't agree, even if Yahweh existed. I'm sure you've heard of the Euthypro Dilemma [Wikipedia], which I think sums up my stance pretty well. Appeals to God's authority like Divine command theory are merely dictating obedience to authority, not true morality. And I can further guess that you might accuse me of trying to put myself above God, but how can you truly be considered to be a moral agent if you abandon the up front work of trying to determine what's moral and fall back on a divine version of the excuse 'I was just following orders'.

I'll use an example. I can think of no inherent reason why homosexuality is immoral, yet Yahweh obviously doesn't like it. Now, just imagine that we were having this conversation 3000 years ago, before Jesus supposedly came along and told people to stop throwing stones. If I found out that somebody was homosexual and had engaged in homosexual acts, I'd be in a quandary. The Law makes the punishment quite clear, that they should be stoned to death. But according to my own moral compass, I'd think that stoning the person to death would be horrible - I'd basically be committing murder, since the person had done nothing wrong. So, do I attempt to follow my moral compass, or do I abandon my moral compass in place of obedience and a selfish fear of being punished by Yahweh. Is it more moral to do what you think is moral, or what you're told?

To add one small point to that, I think the Christian interpretation of the New Covenant completely does in any argument for objective morality. If the just and right thing to do 3000 years ago was to stone a homosexual, but the just and right thing to do now is to judge not lest ye be judged, then it shows that there never was a single proper reaction to learning that someone was a homosexual. It makes morality the whim of God (and also removes the attribute of unchanging or immutable from the description of God).

Related Posts on This Site:

External Entries That Inspired the Above:

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Texas Science Textbook Adoption

Stand Up for Science TexasI haven't written about the Texas School Board in a while, but it's time to, again. On November 22nd, the school board will have the final vote to adopt the currently proposed textbooks and other instructional materials. Now so far, things appear to be going the right way for our students' educations. Despite some school board members appointing creationists and other idealogues to the textbook review panels, and those idealogues making recommendtions against sound science, the publishers haven't made any changes undermining science education. There's still full support for evolution and climate change, the two big controversial points for the extremists.

If the final vote approves the recommended materials without any last minute shenanigans, then our students will at least have good science textbooks. But, given the school board's past behavior, it doesn't hurt to send the members a gentle reminder to vote properly. If you would like to send such a reminder to your representative, the links below provide you the means to do so (and please remember to be polite).

Links to Take Action:

Links for More Information:

Links to Past Entries on This Site Related to SBOE or TEA:

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

How to Convert Me Back to Christianity

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismI have a couple good friends who happen to be Catholic. If you follow this blog, you know I'm no fan of religion, but I don't think it should be surprising that I have religious friends. As I wrote in the short entry, The Misleading Image of Bloggers, there's so much more I do in real life that I never address on this blog, so debating religion is just a small aspect of life. And I also live in the U.S. where the vast majority of people are Christian, which means most of my interactions are with Christians, and subsequently most of my friends are Christians. Granted, I don't think I could be friends with a Fred Phelps or a David Duke, but thankfully, there are many, many Christians who are far more reasonable in the way they live their lives and treat other people, and these friends of mine are definitely good people.

Well, these particular friends have led a few retreats for their church - a weekend free of distractions to discuss religious matters and help renew your faith. My wife's been considering going to one of these retreats, so she's been talking to the wife half of our friends (they're a married couple). Well, last week our friend told my wife about an upcoming retreat that her husband was going to lead, and wondered if I'd be interested in going. My wife asked her if she was serious considering that it was, well, me, and our friend thought better of it and said that maybe that wouldn't be the best idea.

To be honest, I would find such a retreat interesting, but I also think I'd be rather disruptive to their normal process. It's not that I'd be disruptive on purpose. It's that I've given this topic so much thought and researched it so much, that I know from experience talking to my Christian friends that my objections go far deeper than the average doubts that I'd imagine are typical of the normal attendees of these retreats.

So it got me to thinking. If I were to attend one of these retreats or something similar, and I went in with an open mind ready to be convinced to return to the fold, what would it take? Where could they even start? My objections to Christianity are extensive and multi-layered, so there would be a lot to cover. Below is a list of the broad areas that would have to be addressed. I tried to arrange them in some type of order in which they should be addressed, but it's only a loose ordering. I've put links to related articles I've written previously where appropriate (note that these are related articles, not necessarily a full discussion of that point).

  1. Evidence for a Soul - Given how much we've learned through neuroscience, it really seems that our thoughts, emotions, and personalities are controlled by the physical processes of our brains. Chemical drugs affect us. Strokes and diseases like Alzheimer's affect people's personalities and memories. Physical damage to the brain like happened to Phineas Gage drastically changed his personality. Just what role do souls play?
    Further Musings on the Soul
  2. Christianity vs. Other Religions - Why does Christianity bear so much resemblance to other religions? The flood story seems remarkably similar to the Mesopotamian Flood Myth (Gilgamesh is another variant). Yahweh looks to be evolved from the Canaanite pantheon of gods, having originally been a sky god or a thunder god. The earlier books in the Old Testament show multiple signs of polytheism. God's own designs for the first temple seem to copy the tripartite design common to the region. Osiris and Jesus seem to share some close similarities, as do Christianity and Mithraism. Why does it appear so strongly that Judaism and Christianity evolved out of previous religions?
    Another Similarity Between Osiris & Jesus
  3. Evidence for Judaism/Christianity - Aside from souls, what evidence is there for Judaism & Christianity in particular? What extra-Biblical evidence is there for any of the stories in the Bible (more than just evidence that certain cities existed - even Greek & Roman mythology reference real locations)? What evidence is there for God acting in the modern world? (I don't place a lot of weight on 'faith', because I don't know how to value one faith more than another. i.e. What makes Christian faith valid, but Muslim or Hindu faith misguided?)
    Standards of Evidence for Religion
  4. Bible - Reliability - I'm reading the Bible right now. It's clear that it's not a coherent, unified work, but rather a collection of different writings. And even some of those individual books show signs of being cobbled together from previous sources. Granted, all of the books deal with a similar theme, but the different books reveal different theologies, and they're even contradictory in places. If the Bible is meant to be some type of a guide to Christianity, how do you deal with its shortcomings?
    Friday Bible Blogging
  5. Historicity of Jesus - This is a special case of the above, but a rather important one for Christianity. Why are the only accounts of Jesus the Gospels that were written well after his supposed death. Why are there no contemporary accounts of a man that supposedly had such a huge following and such a huge impact on the politics of his region? What external evidence is there that the Biblical Jesus actually existed?
    Liar, Lunatic, or Lord ... Or Something Else
  6. Bible - Squaring with Reality - Some of the stories in the Bible very clearly did not happen literally - the creation stories from Genesis including Adam and Eve, Noah's flood, the Tower of Babel, etc. How do you square those stories with reality? If you're going to explain them as metaphors, how do you distinguish metaphors from actual history? Was Moses a metaphor? King David? Solomon? Jesus himself? And if they are metaphors, what do they stand for?
    Problems with a Day-Age Interpretation of Genesis
  7. Immorality of Commandments in the Old Testament - Why is the Old Testament so full of such horrible rules? Just read through Leviticus - slavery, stonings for modest crimes, stonings for actions that shouldn't even be crimes, etc. And then there are all the actions God directed the Israelites to commit - slaughtering entire cities, including men, women, and children; killing all the men and married women, but keeping the virgin girls for themselves; etc. Why would God issue such commandments? (Note that the New Covenant doesn't really help here - even without the jot or tittle debate, God still supposedly issued these commandments at some point.)
    The Old Testament - It's a Bit Strange
  8. Immorality of Yahweh in the Old Testament - When he wasn't instructing the Israelites to commit atrocities, God was pretty busy himself - indiscriminate punishment of entire nations for one person's sins, killing someone who dared touch the ark to try to keep it from falling, the quail episode from Numbers 11, killing Korah's entire family because of Korah's insubordination, hardening Pharaoh's heart to extend the plagues, the indiscriminate nature of the plagues, the massacre of Noah's flood, etc. How are these horrendous acts from Yahweh justified while still trying to call him a loving god?
  9. Hell - This is another aspect of the immorality of Yahweh, but a Christian addition. How can eternal punishment for finite crimes be just? Here's an excerpt from an old story called The Little Shepherd Boy (it's been paraphrased numerous times).
    In Lower Pomerania is the Diamond Mountain, which is two miles and a half high, two miles and a half wide, and two miles and a half in depth; every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on it, and when the whole mountain is worn away by this, then the first second of eternity will be over.
    Think of that length of time. Now think of someone burning in the torment of hellfire that entire time. And like the fable says, that's only the first second of eternity. What crime could possibly merit such a horrendous punishment?

    And the worst part is that most of your actions really have no effect on whether you'll face this punishment or not. No - it all comes down to one action, one choice, whether or not you accept Jesus. If Hitler had a death bed conversion, he'd be playing on his harp in the clouds, while Gandhi, heathen that he was (Hinduism), would experience an eternity of torment with the fires and the gnashing of the teeth. How is this justice?
  10. Purpose of the Resurrection / Sacrifice - One of the only ways the resurrection story makes sense to me is if sacrifices really do propitiate God. The Old Testament, with its emphasis on animal sacrifice, does seem to indicate this. The resurrection, then, is so powerful because it's divine blood, not just an animal. But animal sacrifice in and of itself is barbaric. What is the point of animal sacrifice in the Old Testament? How did it honor God for Solomon to consecrate the temple by "sacrificing so many sheep and oxen that they could not be numbered or counted"? How is it reasonable to transfer guilt to scape goats? Couldn't an omnipotent god have come up with a less convoluted way to forgive humanity?

    (As an aside, another explanation I recently heard to explain the resurrection that makes a bit of sense is that God isn't omnipotent. Someone had to sneak into the underworld in order to free the souls trapped there. The only way to sneak into the underworld was to send his son. Jesus had to die in order to enter, but then once there, he could go about freeing everyone else.)

    Really, I'd just like some coherent explanation for the resurrection.
  11. Is God Worthy of Worship? - This ties into the immorality aspects from above. But, if all of God's immoral actions from the Old Testament were true, what does that say about the nature of God? Would a God that horrendous even be worthy of worship?
    The Benevolent Dictator - Should We Worship the Christian God?

So, there you have it. If I was ever going to attend one of these retreats, these are my major objections that would have to be addressed. Honestly, I doubt they can be addressed effectively, or I'd still be a Christian rather than an atheist. But if somebody could answer all these questions for me, I would entertain the idea of returning to the fold*.

I do think I did my friend a favor by not going to the particular retreat he was hosting. He'd probably have thought I was a bit of a jerk if I kept on derailing the conversation.

*Honestly, I have no more desire to renew my faith and return to Christianity than I do to be won over to Hinduism or Islam. I think my other writings and the points I raised above make it clear that I don't see Christianity in a very positive light. The longer and longer I'm an atheist, the more and more comfortable I become with it. In fact, I think it's fair to say that I'm happier now than I was as a Christian. I may have lost the promise of an afterlife, but I've also been freed from the immoral dictates of the Bible, and the guilt and fear of Hell that go along with it (especially fear of Hell for other people besides myself - reading Douglas Adams' last book while I was still a Christian was really difficult - believing that this insightful, thoughtful man was suffering for eternity because of his lack of faith). This whole entry is really more of an exercise in intellectual honesty and being open to other viewpoints. I'm not saying I couldn't be convinced to return to Christianity if these issues were addressed, but I am saying that I don't have a Jesus shaped hole in my heart looking to be filled.

Update 2013-10-17: Made numerous changes - added several links to my Friday Bible Blogging series to cite some of my examples, replaced the Little Shepherd Boy translation (it was originally this one), and slightly reworded the above footnote.


Selling Out