Skepticism, Religion Archive

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Putting the Bible and Other Ancient Books in Perspective

Old Book Bindings, from Wikimedia CommonsI came across a question on Quora this week, Why do atheists not believe a book that was written 2000 years ago but believe in what scientists say happened 2.5 million years ago?. Now, I think it's safe to say that the questioner had one particular book in mind, but I decided to interpret and answer the question in good faith.

I have two related entries that might be of interest, Confidence in Scientific Knowledge and Confidence in Historical Knowledge. As their titles suggest, they focus on where my confidence in science in particular comes from. But for this Quora answer, I focused on the reliability of ancient books and putting them into perspective. Below is my answer in full, slightly edited, with a few footnotes not included on Quora.


I've read several books or excerpts of books that are on the order of hundreds to thousands of years old - the entire Bible, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Tao Te Ching, portions of the Popol Vuh, The Conquest of Gaul, The Travels of Marco Polo, and probably a few more I'm forgetting (I also just started on the Buddhavacana). They can be very interesting and offer fascinating links to the actual words and communications from ancient peoples*. But you have to take them for what they are. The standards of scholarship were different, more limited travel and communication made it harder to substantiate stories, and the aims of many of these books were different from the modern day goal (not always achieved) of an unbiased presentation of facts. Moreover, many of these books incorporate their culture's mythologies to greater or lesser degrees, sometimes mingling mythology with history with little distinction.

So, for example, when I read Marco Polo's Travels, I take it as a reasonably accurate description of what portions of Asia were like 700 years ago, but when he describes a bird "so strong that it will seize an elephant in its talons and carry him high into the air and drop him so that he is smashed to pieces", I think he's given in to exaggeration or believing travelers tales. Or when I read the Conquest of Gaul, I have to keep in mind that it wasn't an unbiased historian documenting the war, but a piece of propaganda written by Caesar himself to try to increase his popularity back in Rome. And when it comes to things like human origins, whether it's the Mayans writing that the gods tried making humans out of clay then wood before getting it right on the third try with corn, the Greeks writing that Prometheus and Athena teamed up to make man out of mud before Zeus created the first woman, Pandora, as a punishment for man, or the Hebrews writing about the first man being molded from clay in the Garden of Eden and a woman being made from his rib, I chalk them all up to those cultures' mythologies because they just didn't know any better**.

I like Jerry Coyne's definition of science broadly construed, "the use of reason, empirical observation, doubt, and testing as a way of acquiring knowledge." (source) It's not just running experiments in labs, but any field of inquiry where you use evidence and reason to try to figure out what's most likely to be true, including history. All lines of evidence are open to scientific inquiry, but those lines of evidence have to be weighed against other forms of evidence and evaluated as to how reliable they are. So, 2000 year old books do count as a form of evidence to be incorporated into scientific study. But, they have all those issues I identified above, meaning that they can't just be accepted unquestioningly as ultimate authorities. Each book or manuscript is one piece of evidence to be included among all the other ancient writings, archaeological digs, artifacts, and other forms of evidence about the past.

When it comes to understanding what was happening 2.5 million years ago, it's really not even a question of which is more reliable between ancient books and modern scientific knowledge, and it seems silly to even pose the question. All those thousands of year old books were written in a pre-scientific age when people just didn't have the same understanding as we do now. It's not that we're any smarter in the modern age. We've just built on the knowledge of all those generations before us, getting more and more knowledge and learning the best ways to do things. I mean, as a species, we had to start from scratch, not knowing anything about the geologically ancient history of the planet (or universe), and build to where we are now. We wouldn't have the knowledge or framework we do now if it wasn't for all those ancient philosophers laying the groundwork and building a philosophical tradition. And we certainly don't know everything now - future generations will build on our current knowledge (hopefully) for even greater insights in the future.


*It's this connection to the past that's one of my main motivations for wanting to read ancient writings. I've been to ancient ruins in various locations - Chichén Itzá, Stonehenge, various castles, the Colosseum, and more. And while ruins like that are always fascinating, and sometimes even give me goosebumps, they're silent. The ancient people who lived there no longer have a voice... EXCEPT for the few writings from their eras that have survived to the present. So writings like the Bible, Book of the Dead, Tao Te Ching, Popol Vuh, and Buddhavacana may be biased or full of mythology, but they're direct connections to those ancient peoples. We can reach out across the millennia and still hear some of their words. (Not that it will stop me from snickering at the sillier portions of those books.)

**Granted, you could argue for a figurative or allegorical interpretation of these creation myths, and that's fine if that's what you want to do. Just don't pretend that they're literal accounts of the history of the planet, or that pre-scientific writing from hundreds or thousands of years ago can somehow overturn the vast mountains of evidence in support of things like the Big Bang or universal common descent.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Religious People Aren't Stupid, So Why Do They Believe?

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismI came across the following question on Quora, Is it bad to think people who believe in god are stupid?. I wrote what I thought was a good answer, though it hasn't gained as much traction as some of my other answers on the site. At any rate, below is my answer (slightly edited), which addresses not just why religious people have mistaken beliefs, but why all of us have mistaken beliefs.


Yes. It is bad to think that people who believe in gods are stupid.

People have all kinds of beliefs that they accepted at some time in their lives on the basis of authority and haven't gone back to re-examine. If they're in a culture that reinforces those beliefs or holds them up as virtues, it may be even harder for the person to examine them critically. And while having these kinds of un-examined beliefs may be bad, we all do it to some extent, so there's no reason to single out one particular kind of belief as marking that person as stupid.

Let's take a non-controversial bit of knowledge. Atoms are composed of subatomic particles, such as protons, neutrons, and electrons, some which are composed of even smaller particles. Most educated people know that, but most educated people accept it on the authority of science without understanding the evidence for how we know that. Maybe you happen to like physics so you actually do know that one, but how many people actually know and understand the evidence for how we know the earth revolves around the Sun, or understanding the structure of the Milky Way, or how to do isochron dating to know the ages of geologic layers, or understand aerodynamics well enough to explain how insects fly, or the evidence for why we believe Hannibal was a real historic figure, or actually understand evolution and the mechanisms behind it? Sure, if you're so inclined, you can delve into any particular subject to examine the evidence and theories and truly understand it. But the fact of the matter is that the totality of human knowledge is way too vast for any single person to apply that type of effort to everything. So, we learn what sources we can more or less trust, and tend to accept what we learn from those sources. Hopefully, it's not completely unquestioning acceptance. But I know that when I read articles in Encyclopedias, the claims go into my 'probably true until demonstrated false' mental bin instead of my 'probably false until demonstrated true' or 'grain of salt' mental bins.

Most people who believe in gods were raised that way. Almost from the time they could talk, they've heard claims from people they trust about the nature of gods and their religion - parents, relatives, friends, peers, etc. If their parents are even moderately devout, they'll probably get this reinforced every week when they go to church and hear these claims over and over from trusted priests, see an entire community of like minded believers, and quite possibly go to Sunday school to get detailed lessons from teachers. This is similar to the way children learn most everything, from formal education, to rules for sports and games, to unspoken rules of society. Why would we expect them to differentiate when it comes to this one particular topic?

Hopefully as people mature, they do develop critical thinking skills, and do re-examine many of their beliefs. But even that is a learned skill, not just 'intelligence'. Just like you wouldn't call someone stupid who couldn't do an indefinite integral if they'd never had a chance to study calculus, you shouldn't call someone stupid who doesn't practice critical thinking and skepticism if they've never been taught to think that way, or taught about all the cognitive biases that can affect what we think we know.

Plus, even for people who do learn those skills, it's awfully optimistic to expect them to apply that type of critical examination to everything they've been taught, for the simple fact I mentioned above, that there's just too much to know and not enough time to study it all in detail. And if they're still immersed in a community where everyone around them just 'knows' certain beliefs, it's going to be that much harder for them to question those beliefs, whether it's gods, urban legends, or popular misconceptions (like the common misapplication of Bernoulli's principle to describe airplane wings).

So, I guess the short answer is that people who believe in gods may be mistaken, but that's just one thing they're mistaken about, and we're all mistaken about plenty of things. And the way most religious people came to be mistaken about gods is the same way most of us have come to be mistaken about those other things. So, unless everybody who has mistaken beliefs is stupid (which would be pretty much everybody), there's no reason to single out the mistaken belief about gods as marking a person as stupid.


Note 1: Perhaps an easier way to answer this would have just been by example, as there are plenty of respected intelligent people who believe in gods - way too many to list. Since I personally have a keen amateur interest in evolutionary biology, I'll mention Ken Miller as an example of an intelligent evolutionary biologist who believes in a god. Note also (and perhaps obviously), that you can find plenty of respected intelligent people who don't believe in gods - also way too many to list. So, the examples show that intelligent people can have varying beliefs. I thought it would be more interesting to look at how people can come to have mistaken beliefs.

Note 2: Obviously from my answer, I'm an atheist and answering from the assumption that there are no gods. Of course, it's possible that's one of my mistaken beliefs about the world. But, given the number of mutually contradictory religions, the majority of people are necessarily wrong at least about the nature of gods. i.e. Even if the Hindus were right, it wouldn't be just us atheists who were wrong, but also the Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and all the other non-Hindus.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Answering Quora - What is the weirdest thing in the bible?

I recently answered the following question on Quora, What is the weirdest thing in the bible?. And while my answer was cribbed from a previous post on this site, since I was pulling out that one story in particular, and changed the wording just a bit, I figured it was worth reposting that Quora answer here.


Well, between a talking donkey, magic box, worldwide flood, animal sacrifice, human sacrifice, etc., there are lots of weird parts of the Bible. But I think my personal favorite is the quail episode from Numbers 11. The story takes place while the Hebrews are wandering the desert for 40 years after the Exodus, and are subsisting mostly on manna, an apparently nutritious but not particularly tasty gift from the Lord. So, the people got a little tired of eating manna day after day and began complaining, wanting some real meat.

The first minorly weird part of the story was Moses's part. He got so frustrated with the complaining that he asked God to either help him or put him to death so that he wouldn't have to deal with it anymore. God's response was to gather up the elders, and "take some of the spirit that is on you [Moses] and put it on them [the elders]", so that they could share his burden, as if Moses's spirit were some measurable quantity that could be divvied up. But the sharing only lasted a night, so it was a rather temporary respite for Moses.

But then, for the really weird part, it was time for God to deal with the complainers. And he did it in the most petty, vindictive, and violent way you can imagine. First, "a wind went out from the Lord, and it brought quails from the sea and let them fall beside the camp, about a day's journey on this side and a day's journey on the other side, all around the camp, about two cubits deep on the ground" (keep in mind that two cubits is roughly three feet). So God's response was, 'you want meat, I'll give you meat'. But the people apparently decided to make the best of it, cooking up some of the quail to finally have some variety in their diet. Seeing that his punishment wasn't having quite the effect he'd hoped for (which is odd given his supposed omniscience and all), God became even angrier, "while the meat was still between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord struck the people with a very great plague." So when his over-reaction of dumping 3 feet of birds on his people didn't have the intended effect, God just went ahead and killed them anyway.

I know there are lots of bizarre stories in the Bible, but there's just something about that story in particular that I find amusing in a black humor sort of way (though it would be terrifying if true and the creator & ruler of the universe were that vindictive).

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Problem of Evil

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of Atheism One particular argument that people sometimes use to try to promote atheism is the Problem of Evil. Why would a good god allow such bad things to happen in the world? In fact, it's such a well-worn topic that there's even a name for the field of apologetics that attempts to answer it, Theodicy. And while this argument may make you question what you learned in Sunday School, I've never considered it a very strong argument for atheism, per se*. It just means that if God exists, he's not particularly nice. I mean, if a god created the entire universe and could have done so in any manner it saw fit, it still created a universe in which cancer in children is a thing that actually happens.

The fallback that some fundamentalists use of Adam and Eve and the Fall doesn't help out at all, at least when you take that story literally and not metaphorically. I mean, God just created these two beings, knowing full well what their characters were, and then put the one object that could doom the entire universe right in the middle of the garden where they were living. And these two innocents (because they didn't know right from wrong until after they ate the fruit of the tree) were punished because they were gullible enough to be tricked by a serpent (which God also created). If God really cared that much about his creation, he could have at least put a fence around the tree, or better yet, not even put it in the garden so it couldn't have caused all that trouble to begin with. It's like he was setting them up for failure.

The other most common defense I've seen by Christians is to bring up free will. If God is going to grant us free will, then some people will abuse that freedom to cause evil. But that doesn't explain natural evils like the example I mentioned above of cancer in children. Why create a universe where that's even a possibility? I mean, if we all have souls that are the real us, why even create the universe to function on a physical level with things like DNA that can go awry and cause so much suffering at random?

But the free will explanation is also pretty weak for human caused suffering. If God really is like he's presented in the OT, and took an active role in human affairs, from the Exodus to aiding the Israelites in their conquest / genocide of the Promised Land to, my personal favorite, the quail episode from Numbers, he could certainly have intervened a bit to stop the Holocaust or Stalin's massacres in the Soviet Union. I mean, it's not like the Bible presents an aloof god who was afraid to step in and do things.

I also wonder what Christians who use free will as an excuse for the problem of evil think about heaven. Do we still have free will in heaven? If so, does that mean the problem of evil still exists in the afterlife, and that we can expect the same type of suffering in heaven as happens in life? Or do they believe it is possible for God to set up a realm with free will and without suffering? And if so, then you're back to the problem of why he created the physical universe so differently.

Granted, there are other reasons to not believe in God, so we don't have to fret about being stuck in a universe created by such a cruel deity. This is really more just a thought experiment to point out the flaws in some apologetic reasoning. We might just as well be wondering why Apollo's chariot doesn't burn up from the heat of the sun.

*I've used examples myself of Yahweh not being good (e.g. God vs. Supervillains). But it's always been to make people question their assumptions about religion, not as evidence itself against gods.

Note: This entry is adapted from a series of comments I left on the CNN article, Penn Jillette: Time for atheists to stand up and be counted.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Answering Quora on the Safety of Organic Foods and Microwaves

Organics, Just Say NoI recently came across a question on Quora, Will it be okay if I eat healthy organic food, twice a day, with the stipulations that they be microwaved?. This is related to a previous entry of mine, Why I Oppose Organic Food, so I decided to repost my answer here, with a few edits.


It depends on what context you mean by 'okay'.

Let's start with the organic food. If you mean okay as far as your own health, then sure, organic food can be healthy. Here's a good summary from a previous Quora question, Jae Won Joh's answer to Is organic food a better option?. For the most part, organically grown food is about the same nutrition-wise as conventionally grown crops. Organic had slightly higher risks for some bacterial infections, but not by a huge amount. Organic tended to have less pesticide residue than conventional, but according to another study (see this Quora answer - Richard Muller's answer to What are some mind-blowing facts about food?) organic crops tend to be higher in carcinogens. This makes sense because varieties used for organic crops have to have higher natural resistance to pests, meaning the chemicals conferring this resistance will be present throughout the food, not just on the surface like sprayed pesticides which can be washed off.

But me, I tend to be a bit of a tree hugger. So when I think of 'okay', I think in terms of the whole environment. And this is the main reason I try to avoid organic foods. Habitat loss is perhaps the biggest threat to biodiversity in the world - even more of a threat than global warming. And studies show that organic crops on average give yields 20-25% lower than conventional techniques (with a lot of variation depending on the particular crop). That's huge. If all crops were grown organically, we'd need roughly 1/3 more cropland! And that means a whole lot more habitat destruction, and hence a lot more loss to biodiversity. And the thing is, 'conventional' farming will always be at least as good as organic, and most likely better, because conventional farms can use every technique available to organic farms plus some. (More info - Why I Oppose Organic Food).

As far as using a microwave, the health considerations are minuscule. Cooking only with a microwave can be slightly more nutritious, as described in this article, Microwave cooking and nutrition - Harvard Health. The shorter cooking time means less breakdown of nutrients, and less liquid means less nutrients are leached out to be dumped down the drain (like if you boil veggies). But if you're going to be cooking your food conventionally at home first and then using a microwave to re-heat it, then this nutrient loss will have already occurred when you initially cook the food. But as that article stated, "let's not get too lost in the details. Vegetables, pretty much any way you prepare them, are good for you, and most of us don't eat enough of them."

As far as the environmental impact, here's another article, Stove versus Microwave: Which Uses Less Energy to Make Tea?. Basically, the difference is tiny. Stove tops are slightly more efficient at boiling water than microwaves, while microwaves are slightly more efficient than full size ovens at heating food. But to put those slight differences in perspective, the article quotes a consumer advocate as saying "You'd save more energy over the year by replacing one light bulb with a CFL or turning off the air conditioner for an hour--not an hour a day, one hour at some point over the whole year." So the differences are hardly worth worrying about.

So to summarize, as far as health, organic has about the same nutritional value as conventionally grown food, only slightly higher risks as far as bacterial infection, and a bit more risk regarding cancer due to the higher carcinogen levels. Microwaves don't make much difference at all regarding health, especially if you're using them to reheat food, not for the initial cooking. On the environmental side, organic has a much higher negative impact due to lower crop yields and associated habitat destruction. Microwaves make hardly any environmental difference compared to conventional cooking techniques.

So all in all, while it's not super risky, I'd recommend against organics because of the higher levels of carcinogens and the bigger environmental impact. Using a microwave to reheat food is fine.


Selling Out