Thursday, June 29, 2006

Bible study: The dangerous child myth

Imagine, if you will, a nation in ancient times, ruled by a cruel and vindictive king. He cares nothing for the people of his land. He rules by fear but he is hated by many. One day, the king hears that a particular child that has just been born. A prophecy states that this child will one day grow to become a leader and will eventually take the throne. Naturally, the king feels threatened. He gives orders to his soldiers to march through the land, and to kill every male child below a certain age. “Kill them all!” he barks at his generals. Despite the king’s actions, the special child manages – due to a divine warning – to escape the slaughter and to eventually fulfil its destiny.

Does this story sound familiar? Can you name the king in question or the small child? The characters in question are not the ones you would expect. The king in this story is King Kansa and the child is baby Krishna, the incarnation of the god Vishnu. This story appears in the Hindu poem Mahabharata, which was written two centuries before the birth of Christ.

Variations of the ‘dangerous child’ myth, as it is called, have appeared in many religions and legends. They roughly follow the same basic pattern as the story of King Kansa and Krishna: (1) a divinely appointed chid is born with a special destiny; (2) a local leader hears of the threat this child can become and orders the child be killed; (3) however, the child, through divine intervention, manages to escape. Various variations of this story can be ascribed to Jason, Hercules, Cyrus (king of Persia), and Zoroaster (see here, here and here).

This raises the question of whether the slaughter of the innocents by King Herod, as recorded by the writer of Matthew, really happened, or if it was simply an attempt on the writer’s part to use popular myth to raise the divine importance of Jesus in the eyes of readers at the time. It is telling that the story, which appears in Matthew 2:1-8, 2:16-18, does not feature in any of the other gospels, nor is it mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament. Moreover, it is not recorded in any non-Christian records at the time. For example, Josephus, a Jewish historian living in the first century AD, went to great pains to list all of King Herod’s atrocities in Antiquities of the Jews. Strangely, the slaughter of the innocents is not mentioned. One would expect such an event to have a huge ripple effect in that region but strangely the writer of Matthew is the only person who mentions it.

So we presently have no other accounts of this story. We also have an historical record of the ‘dangerous child’ myth, which is often associated with divinely chosen individuals of various religions and legends throughout history. Is it not safe to conclude, until further evidence is forthcoming, that the story of King Herod ordering the killing of male babies is itself but a myth? Is this an example where a mythical story has been infused in-between the pieces of historical truth within the Bible?

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Book: The Case For a Creator

Was the universe created by an intelligent designer? In this book, Lee Strobel, a journalist, attempts to answer this question by interviewing various advocates of Intelligent Design (ID) theory, who argue that: (1) the universe, including life, was the product of an intelligent designer; (2) the naturalistic processes of evolution fail miserably to explain how life began; and (3) the designer of the universe is possibly the god of the Christian Bible.

I must admit that I enjoyed the book. Strobel provides an easy summary of theistic arguments for ID. His style is also easy to follow: he records his conversations with the experts in a dialogue format.

However, I’m afraid that I have more criticism than praise for the book. Although I have much to say, I will only offer three points of criticism.

Unbalanced presentation
I have copies of Strobel’s two earlier books: The Case for Faith and The Case for Christ. While reading these two books I was quite frustrated by the fact that Strobel only interviewed advocates from one side of the argument; only Christian apologists were considered. I was disappointed to see that The Case for a Creator is no different.

The false link between evolution, immorality and atheism
Strobel also spends an entire chapter arguing that belief in evolution was the cause of his atheistic world view and his atheistic world view was the cause of his immoral behaviour before he became a Christian.

This link is fallacious, simply because: (1) despite what creationists believe, and what some atheists might claim, the theory of evolution says nothing about the existence or non-existence of a god; (2) there are many Christians who believe in the theory of evolution and have no problem with it (in all fairness, Strobel does mention this fact); and (3) there are many atheists who are moral, considerate and who do not “pursue personal happiness and pleasure at all costs.” (pg 25)

Answering the unknown with the unknown
How exactly did this god create existence out of non-existence? What processes and methods did god use in order to create atoms? Where did god come from? ID theory remains vague and nebulous as it does not provide satisfactory answers to specific questions such as these. In other words, the postulation of a god to explain the mystery of the universe explains nothing as it only presents us with more unanswered questions (i.e., it only presents us with a bigger mystery). As an atheist, I’m content just to answer “I don’t know” to the question of existence.

I am fascinated by the ID hypothesis, and this is why I enjoyed Strobel’s book. Although Strobel did a good job in summarising the main arguments of ID theory, I feel that The Case for a Creator has a long way to go to build a solid case for an intelligent designer. For a much better critique of the book, visit this page.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

A short note

Just a short note to those who are accessing my blog through a RSS reader: I have changed the Blogger setting to include my articles in their entirety when I post. I know in the past Blogger only included the first 250 letters (or words?) of each article on the atom feed, which wasn’t very useful for RSS readers. This also means that those receiving my posts through Feedblitz via email will also now receive my posts in full. Thank you to Roger for pointing this out.

To access my site through a RSS reader, all you have to do is add the following link as a new feed:

If you want to receive my posts via email, all you have to do is add your email address to the text box in the sidebar to register with Feedblitz.

All the best

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Truth and effort

Last week I attended a short course on data mining at work. Basically, from what I understand, data mining involves certain techniques that can be used to discover patterns in large computer data sets that otherwise would remain hidden from us. For example, a large database containing the buying habits of customers of a particular store can be analysed, and through such analysis it can be discovered that there is a strong correlation between the purchasing of juice and jelly (i.e., those customers that buy juice are more likely to purchase jelly). Using this discovery, the store can maximize profits by placing their jelly selection in the drinks isle, preferably next to the juice.

The problem, however, with data mining, is that with large datasets it is easy to find a large variety of false patterns or correlations. For example, it is easy to analyse the last two thousand numbers of a roulette table and suddenly find correlations. However, these correlations are not significant as they are totally random and any gambler relying on these will loose just as much money.

So how do we separate the false patterns from those that are significant? This is where the field of statistics comes into play. There are various statistical tests and procedures that can be used to interrogate one’s analysis on a particular set of data. It is easy to find patterns in data, but it takes a lot of work and effort to determine which patterns are meaningful and which are vacuous. In other words, finding out what is really true can be an arduous process. I wonder if this concept applies to other spheres of life? Does it take effort to discover truth?

When I started doubting my faith I threw myself into reading up about Biblical history, evolution, creationism, science and philosophy. I have my own digital library containing almost 1 600 articles, reviews and debates that I’ve downloaded off the internet; my book collection is growing by the year with titles from apologists and sceptics alike; and I plan, for the first time, to formally enrol in philosophy courses at a local university later this year. Since I left Christianity I’ve had a great desire to get to the bottom of things. But I’ve also realised that finding out the truth about certain subjects, such as evolution and philosophy, can be a difficult and time consuming process involving a lot of work. I did not arrive at my current beliefs about God and the universe lightly: much blood, sweat and tears have gone into the process. And the more I learn, as the old saying goes, the more I realise how little I in fact know. For me, the journey of discovery continues.

And this brings me to thoughts on ‘scientific’ creationism. To me, and I could be wrong here, it seems that ‘scientific’ creationism is incredibly easy to believe. It requires little effort to get to the bottom of how it actually works, or what it entails. I sometimes wonder, then, if the very ease at which creationism can be believed is somehow a warning sign to the status of its validity. Where are the efforts, from the creationists themselves, to try and prove creationism false? Should they not, like all other scientists, be testing their own ideas in order to determine if, like the patterns found through data mining, creationism has any value? Although we should not disregard all claims out of hand, should we not be cautious of those that hold effortless views of truth and nature?

Saturday, June 10, 2006

God and war

This image was sent to me by a friend via email. I could be mistaken, but I think this is a group of American soldiers in Iraq, having a prayer meeting. It is a powerful image and it got me thinking about the relationship between religion and war.

If God exists, I wonder what he thinks about this picture. Would he respond to this group by saying:

“I have heard your prayers. I will protect you and help you in your cause”.

Is God on the side of the Americans? We know that the Americans invaded a sovereign nation that posed no threat. We continuously hear of all the innocent civilians that have lost their lives and how Iraqi prisoners of war have been tortured. I feel great sorrow for the American soldier who has been sent to this country to die for a meaningless war that should not have taken place, for an ideal built on faulty premises. Is God supporting this mess?

I can’t understand how leaders of a government, who are responsible for so much suffering and death, can believe that the loving God of the universe condones their actions.

If God is the God that Christians truly believe in, I think his response to this group of soldiers would be:

“Haven’t you learnt that I am loving? Haven’t you been taught to follow the example of my son, Jesus, who preached that you should love your neighbour? Why do you pray to me at one moment, and then kill in the next? Why do you follow your earthly leaders so blindly?”


Monday, June 05, 2006

Film: The Da Vinci Code

The other night Cori and I watched The Da Vinci Code at the local cinema. I will write in a moment what I thought about the movie and how it compared to the book, but first I want to focus on something peculiar that I noticed as we entered the cinema itself.

Behind the ticket booth, as in any cinema, the various posters of all currently showing films were displayed. It was quite strange to see the following, large warning sign pasted across the poster for The Da Vinci Code: “Special warning: content not taken in the fictional context might disturb religiously sensitive viewers”. The word ‘fictional’ was underlined. I looked at what other movies were on show: Mission Impossible 3, The Hills Have Eyes, and The X Men. Strangely, these posters had no large warning signs, despite their content of violence and sex. I found it quite bizarre that media content glorifying violence, degrading sex and entrenching stereotypes is easily tolerated, but media content that slightly upsets our religious beliefs is suddenly adorned with ‘special’ warning signs.

Anyway, we bought our tickets and went in to watch. The reaction of the audience was also quite interesting. As the movie progressed there was some uncomfortable laughter, some low whistles of disapproval, and even some sporadic clapping as the major claims of the story regarding Jesus were revealed.

What did I think of the movie? Well, I read the book in 2004 and really thought it was a well worked story, with quick pace and clever twists in the plot. I found that the movie was just as enjoyable. If you are looking for a movie with Oscar potential, historical truth and extensive character development, this movie is NOT for you. This is a fun thriller, and despite all the negative reviews, I enjoyed it.

There was one thing that I noticed that might have differed from the book. In the movie, the main character, Robert Langdon, suffers from claustrophobia – the result of a childhood experience of falling into a well. I honestly can’t remember if this appeared in the book (please correct me if it did). I also can’t remember if Langdon’s monologue at the end of the movie – where he recounts the story of the well, how he had prayed to Jesus to save him, and how Jesus was real to him personally – actually appeared in the book. If it was not in the book, I wonder if it was intentionally worked into the movie to placate conservative Christians who had just gone through two and a half hours of what they would regard as blasphemy.

What are your thoughts?