Saturday, August 15, 2020

Accepting One Theory, Rejecting Another, Hitting A Brick Wall

When a Christian says they accept the big bang as the best explanation for the origin of the universe, but then reject the theory of evolution, it then leads to the question:

What has God been doing for so long?

The universe is approximately 13.7 billion years old. This is beyond reasonable doubt.
Also beyond reasonable doubt is that various species of hominid primates have existed for anywhere up to 2.5 million years, but in order to be as generous as I can to the Christian argument, I will put the figure of human existence on earth as 5000 years.

This means that a Christian who accepts the Big Bang as the accepted beginnings of the universe, then has a theology that says that after creating the universe, God sat around for 
13'699'995'000 years waiting for...what exactly?

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The Evidence For Jesus Is Gone With The Wind...

The point I want to make:

An historical document is not a recounting of history simply because it gets some historical details correct. Thus, apologists cannot claim that the canonical gospels are strong evidence for the existence of Jesus on the basis that the canonical gospels get some details correct.


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One of the cases I make against assumption of the historicity of Jesus by excitable Christians is by comparing the gospels with the story of Gone With The Wind. The reason for this is because I believe there are a number of similarities between the two that highlight how we should look at the gospels, things that should impact our assessment of the historicity question.

 

Gone With The Wind, by Margaret Mitchell, details the story of Scarlett O'Hara, a teenage girl who grows up in the shadow of the Civil War.

 

One of the most striking similarities between the two is, just like the four gospels, Gone With The Wind makes references to actual people, locations, events and situations. The tale of GWTW initially takes place on a fictional plantation named Tara situated near Jonesboro, Georgia in the US. Abraham Lincoln is mentioned numerous times. Part of the story references Gen. Sherman's March To The Sea. Chattel slavery is also part of the story.

 

So we have no doubt that the author went to great lengths to create a believable story. Long story short - anyone who reads GWTW will have enough reference points to gain an understanding of how life was like in America of the late 1800's.

 

Now, let us look at the gospels:

 

The gospels recount the later stages of the life of an itinerant Jewish miracle-working preacher with a small following who was proclaimed by some of the population to be the Messiah, a figure in Jewish belief who will rescue the Jewish people from their oppression and herald a new epoch of freedom and liberty.

 

The bulk of the story takes place in Israel (then known as Judea) and references a number of historical figures such Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, Herod The Great, Augustus Caesar, etc., as we as referencing a number of known locations such as Jerusalem, Galilee, Nazareth, Bethlehem, the Temple and its marketplace, and more.

Furthermore, the gospels also recount the hatred of the people towards both paying tax and the tax collectors themselves, the general divides between men and women, between Jews and those of other ethnicities, and the fine line that the Jewish leadership of the time walked between wanting independence, but avoiding all-out war with Rome (again).

So anyone who reads the gospels will have enough reference points to gain an understanding of life in Judea two millennia ago.

 

So we can say with some surety that both the canonical gospels and Gone With The Wind are a reflection of their times. But now I want to bring a hypothetical scenario to you to help highlight some points I want to make:

 

In the year 2520, five hundred years from now, a group of archaeologists dig through what used to be a library and find a copy of Mitchell's book. 

 

This archaeological team then read through the pages, maybe after it has been translated from English in to whatever language has taken precedence in the possible scenario that English is no longer the lingua franca, and they see that this book references Jonesboro, Georgia. Well, hold on, we know where that was! The book references plantations - plantations existed, and so did the chattel slavery that took place at those plantations, but even if they can't find the particular one that Gone With The Wind takes place in, we know not every building lasts the test of time.

 

This research team also then looks up a list of Presidents of the United States of America, and right there is President Abraham Lincoln - the very same one GWTW mentions. They then talk to another research team that specialises in military history, and hey presto, there was indeed a large-scale war that took place between 1861 to 1865 that split the country in two, that there indeed a General William T. Sherman, and that he indeed led a destructive march through the state of Georgia.

 

We also see that Scarlett O'Hara had siblings, had domestic help in the form of an African-American slave, she gets married, becomes widowed, has children and runs a business. None of these are at all beyond the realm of historical probability.

 

So the question arises: are the people of the year 2520 justified in thinking Scarlett O'Hara was actually a real person? The answer depends on your standard of evidence.

 

And when we consider the level of detail in the gospels, does it give us reason to believe that Jesus Christ was an historical person? The answer, again, depends on your standard of evidence.

 

But now, let me add two more factoids to this hypothetical scenario to make the analysis interesting:

1) Five hundred years after our archaeologists undertake their discovery and tasks in the year 2520, a group of people in the year 3020 form a society whose core belief (rightly or wrongly) is that in light of the fact that GWTW was an historically accurate narrative, Scarlett O'Hara was a real person.

2) In the five hundred year time gap between the time the archaeologists make their findings in 2520 and our hypothetical society forms in 3020, this society has gained documentary control and has come to actively resist any notion of GWTW being simply fictional, up to and including source redaction, persecution of heretics, well-produced refutations, weekly seminars (complete with elaborate buildings dedicated to the purpose), travelling groups of O'Hara apologists, and more.

 

So now, let us compare:

 

If your standard of evidence is that the document in question simply gets a lot of historical details correct, then belief in the historical Scarlett O'Hara is actually logically justified right now - no need to wait for our hypothetical society to enforce an orthodoxy.

 

If your standard of evidence is that the document is ancient and a lot of people have read that document, then in a thousand years time belief in the historical Scarlett O'Hara will be just as logically justified as what belief in the historical Jesus is right now.

 

If your standard of evidence is that not only is the document ancient, not only have a lot of people read that document, but also an influential group of people believe and advocate in the historicity of the main character, then, again, in a thousand years time, belief in the historical Scarlett O'Hara will be just as logically justified as what belief in the historical Jesus is right now.

 

If your standard of evidence is that lots of people who lived in the era when the document was produced said lots of things about the main character of the document, then unfortunately, both Christians and O'Hara-ites have a problem - while the M.O. of our hypothetical society accounts for the fact that they went to great lengths to control the documentary narrative about Scarlett O'Hara, the unescapable fact is that nobody in Jesus' time immediately contemporary to him ever mentioned him or produced anything to this day that we can study to verify his historicity. There were no statues or coins produced, no birth or death records, no tax documents and no trial transcripts of Jesus, despite the fact that he is recorded as having being tried before the highest Jewish authorities as well as two separate Roman authorities. The earliest verified and undisputed mentions of Jesus we get from the historical record from independent sources that explicitly mentions Jesus by name and are not simply mentioning Christians or the Christian faith in general, and is not considered to be either an outright forgery, an interpolation, an addition of a margin note, a redaction by later scribes, or any other known modification that happens to documents of antiquity, is nothing at all.

 

Yes, this is controversial. But if take a sober look at the data, we see that while a number of mentions of Christians are made in the first and second century historical literature, anything that relates to Christ himself either does not come until much later, is not independent, or has been shown to be at best an interpolation, possibly a misinterpretation, or at worst an outright forgery.

 

But if your standard of evidence is that it is simply ridiculous to think that either Jesus or Scarlett O'Hara never existed because firstly, no documents exist that question their historicity, and secondly, lots of people believe that either of Jesus or Scarlett O'Hara existed and belief in their respective historicity even gives those people comfort, then you have fallen in to the very trap that those who controlled the documentary corpus wanted you to fall in to.

It is well understood in the scholarship of antiquity that rival canons and sects were formed in the first two centuries after Christianity's beginning - including sects who believed in a non-historical and/or non-physical Jesus - but that the sectarian war was won by those who endorsed the Jesus-as-historical-man theology - the very same concept that our fictional society of O'Hara-ites have pushed.


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Something to think about...




Sunday, August 2, 2020

15 Reasons To Take Genesis As Myth

I was recently sent a video by Mark, one of my Creationist friends, who responded to a question I had about why would anyone take Genesis as history when I think it reads so much better as myth. The video was from Creation Ministries International and just happens to look a bit like the one below:




I honestly feel bad for covering so much of Creation Ministries International's material that it almost comes across as if I'm targeting them specifically. I can tell you that isn't the case, but there are two reasons why I typically respond specifically to CMI more than anyone else:

1. CMI produce so much material that anyone who wants to look up Christian arguments inevitably comes across something from them. A lot of their material comes up in Google searches on search strings that question Christian doctrines, and they have a lot of answers for a lot of things.

2. They are one of the most-published Creationist organisation in Australia, and guess who lives in Australia...

So anyway, I have always wanted to write up a response to their 15 Reasons material since I first came across the book of the same name some time back at a seminar one of their lecturers was giving, and now that my mate Mark sent it to me, I may as well write it up.

I do agree with the general point that people from ancient Semitic cultures all the way up to Victorian times overwhelmingly read Genesis as history and worked their hardest to interpret everything they saw around them to fit in to that paradigm. But to me, this is simply because they didn't know any better because they didn't have a way of knowing any better - they didn't have access to the same body of knowledge and the refined methods of inquiry, especially that driven by technology, that we do today. So we in modern times are much better positioned to confirm or refute the historicity of the Bible, and in particular Genesis.

So, here are my responses to Creation Ministries International's article, "15 Reasons To Take Genesis As History", point by point.

                                    -----

1. Jesus Understood The Old Testament As History.

It's not so much that Jesus understood the OT was historical - it's more that Jesus has been reported as understanding that it was historical. The problem here is that Jesus never wrote anything personally himself so we simply don't have his direct opinion on the matter, and for all we know, the gospel writers could be putting words in Jesus' mouth.

Also, the gospels were written anonymously, which has to be taken as a mark against the gospels-as-history hypothesis - rarely is history written anonymously.

The best-case scenario is that the gospel writers (especially for the gospel attributed to Mark) were heavily employing tropes of myth and storytelling to make their points and then re-writing each other as per The Synoptic Problem (making the gospels unreliable as history because at least three of the four accounts are really just the one account re-written), or at worst, they were writing with such skewed theological and political slants as to make the four separate accounts of Jesus fairly disparate (again, making the gospels unrealiable as history).

And this is if we completely put aside the question of if Jesus existed in the first place which, offensive and grating as it may be, can't be hand-waved away.


2. Jesus Regarded Adam, Eve and Noah As Historical People.

This is just a re-hash of the previous argument which fails on the same point - everything attributed to Jesus was written in documents that employed heavy use of mythology and allegory, thus making them unreliable in terms of history.

The other problem we encounter with this point is that the weight of scholarship is actually against Adam, Eve and Noah as historical people - no-one but dyed-in-the-wool Biblical Triumphalists would try argue a case that anyone mentioned in Genesis actually existed as they are mentioned, or that anything mentioned in Genesis actually happened as it was recorded.


3. Genesis Was Written As History.

The problem? So were texts like The Book of Mormon. But no-one aside from adherents of those fringe religious movements consider texts like The Book Of Mormon or Scientology: A History Of Man to be historical or to be accurately reporting history.

CMI also seem to forget that there is an entire genre called Historical Fiction that a text can be categorised as, alongside those of history and outright mythology - it's not a black-and-white one or the other. As an example, Gone With The Wind writes with frequent nods to history as it references real people, real events and real locations, yet no-one would consider Scarlett O'Hara to have been an historical person.

Or as another example, Betty Crocker was said to have been born in 1921 and had a career where she signed letters, had a radio show,  produced cookbooks and she even has a street named after her - all things we know can and do happen to historical people - yet she never existed as a real person, only as a fictionalised corporate mascot.

Just because words are written down on a page and the words don't come with the disclaimer "any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental" doesn't automatically qualify it as history. We have to have a way of determining history from myth that is more nuanced than what gives you comfort in your salvation. 

We have to remember that ancient societies were not so much concerned with recording matter-of-fact history as they were with preserving social structure, and it is a lot easier to enforce structure if you can create an air of legitemacy about your central texts, the most effective of which is to enforce the belief that the events actually happened as recorded.


4. The Rest Of The Old Testament Takes Genesis As History.

Which is no surprise, really. Firstly, the people who wrote the latter books of the Old Testament had no way of knowing if the events documented in Genesis ever really happened as they would have been compelled to believe in Genesis as history because of tradition and religious inculcation.

And second, the people who compiled the Old Testament weren't in a position to know if the events of Genesis did or didn't happen - they just wanted to preserve tradition and enforce social norms.

Thirdly, mythosymbolic interpretations of historical fiction tend to attract the wrath of people who aren't interested in nuanced debate. What Biblical Inerrantists and Triumphalists overlook was that numerous theological battles were fought over the history-vs-allegory meanings of the texts in the backdrop of an openly pagan society, so much so that competing sects formed and rival canons produced, the battle getting so heated to the point that St. Augustine, the highly venerated father of the church, endorsed torture in his book City Of God as a way of bringing heretics in to line.

So when you have a whole bunch of people who firmly believed (or firmly wanted people to believe) in the scripture as an historic text, is it any surprise that they chose books that reflected the narrative they wanted people to believe?

But again, just because someone important believes a text is historic doesn't make it an accurate recording of history.


5. The New Testament Takes Genesis 1-11 As History.

This isn't a new argument, and again, runs in to the same problems as before - when you have a particular group of people actively filtering documents in line with a theological pre-conception, it's no surprise that the documents produced line up with the particular viewpoint they were aiming for.

Oh? You didn't know that the early church actively suppressed filtered selected the documents to weed out heretical doctrine bring their version of God's chosen message to the world? Yikes. 


6. Genesis' History Is Consistent With God's Nature.

Has anyone interviewed God to get his take on Genesis, since God himself didn't actually write it?

For all we know, Genesis could completely misrepresent God because some easily excitable theists couldn't fathom the concept that while God may indeed exist, Genesis gets his nature completely wrong.

But let's look at what happens in Genesis to see what we can tell about God's nature:

God kills every man, woman and child (Noah's flood).
God actively works against human progress and achievements (destruction of the Tower of Babel).
God inflicts diseases on a man because another man deceived him (Genesis 12:10-20).
God wipes out two towns of people because he hates homosexuality (Sodom and Gomorrah).

If Genesis is consistent with God's nature, then God indeed acts in a manner equivalent to that of a war criminal.


7. Genesis As History Explains The Origins Of Death And Suffering.

Not really. As I discussed in one of my previous posts, if we look at the mere existence of flesh-eating bacteria from a literal Creationist perspective, the only person to blame is God and God alone - no Fall needed.

And I wouldn't say that Genesis explains the origins of death and suffering any more than piecemeal detail. It's more the case that Christians latched on to a handful of disparate verses and then extrapolated those out to try blame all the evil in the world on the very people who were set up to fail by the very god who knew they would fail.

How about we take away Genesis - nay, the whole Bible - and then work back and see if the origin of death and suffering can be traced back to two people eating an apple. That would make a convincing case!


8. The Gospel Presupposes The Historical Events Of Genesis.

I agree it does. But again, it comes down to the fact that the authors and the compilers of the gospels didn't have a way of knowing any better, and that any theological deviation from a literal interpretation was met with charges of heresy, which in religiously inculcated communities, was enough to raise alarm with the theological police of the day.


9. A Consistent Christian Worldview Depends On Genesis As History.

This, I feel, is an instance of Creationists getting judgemental towards Christians of other beliefs.  Creationists seemingly have a hard time accepting Christians who deviate from strict Creationist paradigms and accept Genesis as allegory instead of absolute literal history, to the point where I've experienced Creationists accusing Genesis-as-myth Christian of not being a real Christians, but instead of being a Christian who is friends with the world, or a secular Christian.

By using this argument, CMI are hinting that a Christian who doesn't accept Genesis as literal history, despite the mountain of evidence and scholarship against that case, is not really a Christian.


10. Denying The History Of Genesis Disconnects Christianity From The Real World.

There's plenty of things to disconnect Christianity from the real world aside from discarding Gensis as history. Speaking magical words in order to affect material reality? Believing that your real life only starts when your current one ends? The fact that bad things happen, despite there being an omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient God who controls everything and loves everyone? An Jewish itinerant preacher who was the most revolutinary person in history, yet left very little evidence of his existence?

But on the converse, by taking Genesis as history, you actually do disconnect yourself from the real world - The Flood never happened. There was no talking snake in the garden. The Tower of Babel was not responsible for the creation of new languages. God didn't need men to have a piece of their penis cut off for him to accept them.


11. The Early Church Leaders Accepted The Timeframe And Global Flood Of Genesis.

All this says is that some people accepted Genesis as history. Good for them. Those people had no way of verifying the facts of Genesis in order to make their acceptance of Genesis based on anything other than theological bias. It's not like their method of documenting history was anything like the Romans came up with.

Considering that these same early church leaders seemingly didn't have a problem launching persecution campaigns against heretics (i.e. anyone whose theology they didn't approve of), Papias wrote that Judas didn't commit suicide, but instead his genitals oozed pus and his body became larger than a cart - and that during the time of the early church fathers, approximately 40 non-canonical gospels were produced (including one that details Jesus' life as a child where he cursed another child), I'm not too sure I'd trust anything the early church fathers said simply because they were the early church fathers.


12. The Reformers Understood Genesis As History.

Yet again, these people weren't very big on research, but very big on ensuring people had the correct theology.

It's funny - when people are big on Biblically literal theology, they aren't big on research, and when they are big on research, they aren't big on Biblically literal theology.

It's almost like researching history through the lens of rational enquiry with an agnostic view leads you to not believe that Genesis is an accurate recording of history.


13. Atheism Requires Naturalism.

No. Atheism is simply not accepting the positive claims that any gods exist. 

But what we do find is that when people have their theological blinkers removed, they then find that the cases presented for the existence of gods falls apart under scrutiny and that naturalism presents the best and most honest explanations of reality and history.

The bigger question is - why do CMI feel the need to defend Genesis by attacking atheism? If Genesis is able to stand as history on its own two feet, you don't need to talk about atheism - the evidence will speak volumes for itself.


14. Abandoning Genesis As History Leads To Heresy And Apostasy.

Again, this plays the "sure, you may call yourself a Christian, but you're not a true Christian if you don't accept the Bible literally" card.

This, as an example, is how they attack Dr. Francis Collins when he says that evolution is certainly correct and that it presents no problem with the Christian faith - they don't question his scientific credentials or method, they question his theology.


15. Why Not Take Genesis As History?

Because, in short, taking Genesis as history requires you to invent a large number of ad hoc rationalisations to make a literal interpretation of Genesis fit with reality and history (talking snakes, anyone?). Whereas, and this comes back to the original point, Genesis reads a lot better as myth than as history.

I, in my opinion, would classify a document or story of antiquity as being myth instead of history when it meets a number (if not all) of the following criteria:

1. We don't know for certain who the author/s of the document were, or the names were attached to the document post-hoc by later authorities.

2. The document is written in a style that does not line up with how we know history is recorded.

3.  The story in question is comprised of either highly improbable events and/or of events whose historicity cannot be verified objectively or independently.

4. Precious few details are given of the main characters in the recording, or they are presented in broad brush strokes that tend to play in to known mythological tropes.

5. The names of the characters are typically, though not always, functional (i.e. are a description of their character or function in the story) instead of being neutral to the story being told.

6. The document is written in a way that transmits values, particularly cultural and social ones, instead of a neutral observation of history.

Truth be told, we simply do not know who wrote Genesis. The format and content of Genesis don't line up with any bona fide historical records. Genesis describes events that are at best improbable, or at worst impossible. Very few concrete details are given of the characters or locations involved, to the point that we don't know where critical parts of the documented events take place. A large amount of the names of the main characters coincidentally describe their role in the story - for example, Adam means 'the ground', Eve means 'living', Joseph means 'God will increase', and even though Moses isn't in Genesis, his name funnily enough means 'drawn from water'. And finally, the story of Genesis isn't to tell a dispassionate story of a fledgling nation - it is to transmit religio-cultural values to Semitic peoples as tradition to pass on to future generations.

So by these markers, the probability of Genesis being myth is a lot stronger than Genesis as history. For Genesis

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But also of note is how CMI haven't presented any serious scholarship to back up or prove an objective case for the historicity of Genesis. Their strongest arguments for Genesis as history aren't based on the research of historians or scholars, but instead on the limp arguments that the Bible is self-interpreting, that lots of other Christians accept Genesis as history, and that you're not the right kind of Christian if you don't accept Genesis as history as well.

This is not how you convince people who are agnostic of your claims that your claims are concordant with reality - this is how you keep people from straying from the approved theological line.

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Stay safe and rational!

- Damien

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