Saturday, July 29, 2006

The gospels: middle ground?

I’m quite surprised at the amount of debate and discussion that is taking place under the last post. As I read through the various lines of argument put forward by marc, eddie, Bishop Rick and others, my mind kept on coming back to the whole aspect of historical documents. Where do we draw the line between belief and non-belief when it comes to claims made by documents of antiquity?

On the one hand, there are Christians literalists who believe that every event recorded in the gospels, including the miracle accounts, are historically true. I don’t think this position is very defendable, for reasons that were covered in the discussion. However, is it also valid to disregard everything in the gospels as pure myth? Although there are no non-Biblical references to Jesus during his lifetime, can we not regard the gospels themselves as evidence of some sort of historical truth?

At this present time I can accept the proposition that a man, who might have had the name of Jesus, caused a brief stir in ancient Palestine, and was responsible for starting the cult that was to eventually transform into Christianity. However, I don’t believe that this man was born of a virgin, conducted miracles, rose from the dead, or was the son of God. These mythical attributes of divinity were only ascribed to him by his followers at a later stage. Although it can be argued that the gospels are heavily coloured by myth, are there not some grains of truth that we can detect within the texts?

Do you think this ‘middle ground’ view of the gospels (i.e., believing that Jesus might have existed, but rejecting the miracle claims) is defendable?

Comments, anyone?

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Finding tranquillity in unbelief

In a recent post, the following comment was left by a visitor to my blog:

Nick wrote:
“My Prayer is that God reveal himself to you as he did to me when I was not interested.”

My response:
When I was struggling with my faith, I did ask God to reveal himself to me, a number of times. I remember one night when I went for a walk under the clear, star-lit sky. I remember praying and asking God in anguish, over and over again, that he somehow reveal himself to me – even if it was in a way that only I could understand. But despite this earnest prayer, there was no answer. There was nothing but silence. That was the point where God had his chance, the point when he could somehow and in someway enter the picture and say: “Don’t worry, Kevin, I am here.” But instead I suddenly realised that I was alone in the quietness of that night. I can remember a number of pivotal turning points in my faith struggle – that night was one of them.

I never wanted to leave Christianity; I never wanted to give up my faith. But how could I keep on having faith in something I could not honestly believe in, that I could not intellectually accept as being true? Isn’t it a Biblical promise that if you search with all your heart, you shall find? I searched with all my heart and I did find. But it wasn’t what I expected. I found that I was alone, that there was no supernatural being looking out for me. I found that my existence, including my consciousness, would one day be extinguished. First I felt dread at this prospect, but this was quickly replaced by an inner, quiet confidence. I realised how totally insignificant I am in this old and incredibly large universe. But as I’ve written before, I also realised how incredibly unique I am: out of 250 million sperm cells I was the one that was awarded this brief period of consciousness. Upon this realisation life suddenly became more valuable, every day more special and wondrous. I now take less for granted. There is no afterlife to work for, no heaven in which to invest treasures. I now place all my energies into making this life count, as it is the only life I will ever have.

I searched with all my heart and I discovered my frail mortality, the brief horror of realising that one day I will be no more, in both body and mind. But at the same time I found an incredible appreciation for this brief life of mine, a realisation that only I, and no-one else, can make this short life meaningful in some way.

I searched with all my heart and I did not find God.

Instead, I found peace.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Miracles and the truthfulness of Acts

Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, in their apologetic work, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, list an impressive array of arguments for the truthfulness of the New Testament. One of these arguments appeals to the historical details found in the book of Acts. They reference the work of Colin Hemer, who chronicled 84 facts in the last 16 chapters of Acts that have been confirmed by historical and archaeological research. Geisler and Turek point out that Luke reports 35 miracles in Acts and argue:

In the light of the fact that Luke has proven accurate with so many trivial details, it is nothing but pure anti-supernatural bias to say he’s not telling the truth about the miracles he records. (pg 260)

Lee Strobel, in The Case For Christ, argues along the same lines:

If Luke was so painstakingly accurate in his historical reporting . . . on what logical basis may we assume he was credulous or inaccurate in him reporting of matters that were far more important, not only to him but to others as well? (pg 99)

Is this argument valid? It may be. However, as George H. Smith notes in his book, Atheism: The Case Against God, the apologist who adopts this argument is faced with a dilemma of selectivity: on what basis can the Christian apologist accept the miracle stories of the New Testament, but reject those found in holy texts of other religions? (pg 216).

On this site, a good example is mentioned. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, recorded his revelations and life story in The Pearl of Great Price (see here). Within this book there are many historical facts that can be verified to be true. For example, it can be verified that Joseph Smith was born on December 23, 1805; that the Mormon Church was organised in 1830; that there is a place called Sharon in Windsor County, Vermount; etc. However, Smith also claims in this book that he was visited by God and Jesus, and that the angel Moroni gave him golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was written.

The Pearl of Great Price contains many historical claims that can be verified as true. Does this mean that we should believe everything contained within the book? According to the logic of Geisler, Turek and Strobel, we should. If we don’t, we – Geisler, Turek and Strobel included – will be exhibiting ‘anti-supernatural bias’.

If Christian apologists accept the miracle stories from the New Testament, but reject the miracle accounts from other religions, then what objective criteria are they using to distinguish between fictional miracles and those worthy of belief?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Why do I still bother with Christianity?

I’ve been asked: why do you still bother with Christianity? If you are an atheist, why do you still study and discuss a belief system that you have long since rejected?

These are good questions. I’ve thought about this a lot and I think there are two main reasons as to why I still bother with Christianity at all.

Understanding where I’ve come from
Christianity has been a part of Western culture for two thousand years. For better or for worse, it has influenced language, thought, music, literature and philosophy. It has shaped our views of both origins and of the human condition. Despite the relatively recent move away from Christianity in Western countries, elements of Christian symbolism and thought still remain deeply ingrained in Western consciousness.

I was born in the context of Western culture. I have a great desire to learn about where I’ve come from, to learn about the history of my heritage. Christianity may or may not be true, but no one can deny that it has made an impact on Western thought. It is this impact that I like to study.

Understanding myself
Not only was I born in the context of Western culture, but I was also born in a country that was entrenched in a Christian way of thought. Before the advent of democracy in 1994, Christianity was the religion adopted by the apartheid state in South Africa. As a child in the 1980’s, I grew up in a society saturated by Christianity: every South African child had to attend classes on Christianity at school; school prayer was mandatory; and Christianity was the religion that received the bulk of airtime on radio and television.

I believe the first six to ten years of a child’s development are extremely important as this is when the child builds psychological foundations regarding belief systems, values, aspects of self esteem, elements of culture, sexual attitudes, etc. The society and culture in which the child is raised determines many of these foundations, and it’s upon these foundations that everything else in later life is built.

However, some of these foundations might hold false representations of reality, or they might be destructive (e.g., holding false stereotypes of other races). Others might be beneficial. Like a struggling alcoholic, a person who recognises and works hard to change a destructive or false neural foundation built in their childhood will struggle with it for the rest of their lives.

Despite my rejection of Christianity, I still have those odd times where I fall back onto the false Christian neural patterns that were built in my childhood. In times of crisis something deep inside still wants to cry out for help to the god I grew up with. In times of great serendipity I feel something is missing, and I suddenly realise that there is no-one to thank for my good fortune. These habits of theistic thought and action are difficult to get rid of. The concept of the Christian god is built deep within my psyche, cemented within my mind by the society in which I was raised. I can only begin to dismantle this neural foundation by understanding it.

Despite being an atheist, Christianity is still an integral part of my subconscious. To understand Christianity is to understand my heritage. To understand Christianity is to understand myself.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Characteristics of frindge groups

I have just finished reading Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things. I will write a full review of this book at a later stage. However, what I found most interesting about the book was Shermer’s discussion on the characteristics of pseudoscientific and pseudohistoric groups, such as ‘scientific’ creationists, Holocaust deniers and extreme Afrocentrists. These fringe groups make various claims that are supported by very little evidence and their beliefs run contrary to common scholarly views on history and science. Shermer argues that these groups, due to the lack of evidence for their claims, resort to fallacious modes of argument in order to advocate their views. These groups share the following common characteristics:

  • They are absolutely certain that they have the truth (pg 206);
  • They concentrate on opponent’s weak points, while rarely saying anything definitive about their own position (pg 212);
  • They exploit errors made by scholars who are making opposing arguments, implying that because a few of their opponents’ conclusions are wrong, that all of their conclusions must be wrong (pg 212);
  • They use quotations taken out of context to buttress their own position (pg 212);
  • They mistake honest, genuine debates between scholars about certain points within the field for a dispute about the existence of the entire field (pg 212);
  • They focus on what is not known and ignore what is known, emphasize data that fit and discount data that do not fit (pg 212);
  • They rely on post hoc rationalisation, after-the-fact-reasoning to justify contrary evidence (pg 216); and
  • When the ideas of fringe groups fail to be accepted by mainstream scholars, advocates propagate conspiracy theories. (pg 206).

Anyone familiar with ‘scientific’ creationism – especially the young earth variety – will recognise some of these tactics.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The ineffectiveness of intercessory prayer

These interesting articles (see here, here and here) outline the results obtained from a recent study on the effectiveness of intercessory prayer. 1802 patients, undergoing coronary bypass surgery, took part in the study which spanned almost a decade. The patients were split into three groups, two of which were prayed for by various Christian congregations. The study’s aim was to find out if intercessory prayer had any affect on the health and recovery of the patients.

As it turns out, the results showed no statistically significant differences between the prayed for and non-prayed for groups. In other words, the intercessory prayer seemed to have had no noticeable affect on the health or recovery of those patients who were being prayed for.

Now this obviously raises the question on the effectiveness of intercessory prayer. If there are no measurable affects of such prayer, then why bother?

A theist might come in at this point and argue that the primary use of prayer is not to ask things of god, but to build a relationship with god. I accept this. Aspects such as praise, love, meditation and confession are all important parts of prayer. Prayer can be an incredible spiritual experience and can even have positive affects on the health and well-being of the individual who is praying. It is not with prayer in general that I have an issue with; it is the intercessory aspect that is in question here.

The results from intercessory prayer are not consistent. Some people who are sick are prayed for, and they are healed; other people who are prayed for die. Some people who are not prayed for are healed; other people who are not prayed for die. Wouldn’t it be better to do something constructive with the time and energy used for intercessory prayer? I’ve often heard the expression: “Two hands working do more than a thousand clasped in prayer”.

So what does this study mean for intercessory prayer? I think that it would be wonderful if more experiments were done on this field of study, but at this time it seems that intercessory prayer has no impact on the health and well being of medical patients. It cannot be used in conjunction with known medical cures. With prayer having so little effect, it would be best for everyone, for the time being, to rely fully on the scientific cures that actually show consistent results. As Carl Sagan noted in his book, The Demon-Haunted World:

We can pray over the cholera victim, or we can give her 500 milligrams of tetracycline every twelve hours . . . The scientific treatments are hundreds or thousands of times more effective than the alternatives. (Pg 13)