Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Picking and Choosing Belief

A discussion is going on in the comments of another thread on this blog, here, about how non-believers pick and choose which portions of a religious text (the Bible in this case) to accept and which to reject. I thought it was interesting enough to bring up on the main page. I'll hide it below the fold for those of you who are uninterested (which I would best is most of you!).

It thus does not seem rational to pull a morsel or two out of the gospels as good advice or philosophy and reject everything else He said and did as a hoax, the words of a lunatic, or fabrication.


You keep coming back to this, and it honestly doesn't make sense to me. Let's say a man says to you, "If you step onto that burning log, you will be burned. Also, I am a bear." This man, clearly, is not a bear. Does that mean you should also disregard his good advice about not stepping on the log?

Even if Christ was not the Son of God, that doesn't mean his Sermon on the Mount should be tossed aside as foolishness -- it contains great wisdom regardless of Christ's divinity. The meek really do inherit the earth sometimes. Being kind to those less advantaged than you is both wise and practical. There's no reason to reject that just because I don't believe he was resurrected. That would really be irrational.

In the end for an atheist, is it just too much to believe, and why is it too much to believe? Are doubts really based on lack of evidence or could there never be enough evidence? How much does one's view of the world and themselves affect an honest appraisal of the historical Jesus? Is there just a pre-established belief it could not have happened the way it says (for whatever personal reason), so theories must be made to explain how it could be fiction? (I've read a lot of those theories, and while they sound like rational possibilities on the surface, there's not a shred of evidence to support them, as compared to all the evidence on the Christian view.) Intellectually then, I find the rejectionist view to be quite thin. Your thoughts?



Christ rising from the dead
The basic question you are asking is, "How does someone pick and choose what to believe and what to reject -- what is true and what is false -- from the New Testament?". I lost my "Speaker for All Non-Christians" badge after the last apostate meeting, so what follows is just my personal method for approaching the issue. Others, obviously, will take a much different approach and probably would think I'm insane for doing it my way.

The guiding principle for most skeptics is the notion that "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Claims in the New Testament that are not extraordinary, therefore, do not need a terribly high level of evidence for me to accept them. For example, lots of people who would fit Christ's general description were alive at the time, so I don't have a problem believing he probably lived. It's the extraordinary claims -- his resurrection, that he was the son of god, that he is the only way to get to the divine, that he could heal wounds and raise the dead -- require more evidence than the simple fact of someone saying it was so. It is these claims that require the most picking and choosing, so I will focus on how I go about doing so.


Joseph Smith reading the golden tablets in a hat, from South Park
First, I wonder whether there are examples of other extraordinary claims that would seem to be irrational, and yet which are widely held to be true. And looking around the world, there are lots and lots of examples in the form of various religious faiths. Billions of people believe things that you and I would consider extraordinarily unlikely, and yet they believe them nonetheless. Humans, then, have the ability to believe things that are fundamentally irrational, and to believe them with all their hearts and minds. Given hundreds of examples of religions espousing irrational beliefs, it seems reasonable to propose that perhaps Christianity is in the same boat. Other religions are replete with disciples who carried word of the central figure to the wider world, have religious documents that are extremely consistent and reasonable within their own internal system of logic, and which took place in verifiable historical times (the Koran and the Book of Mormon are two good modern examples). Christianity is not unique in this respect, and thus those strains of evidence are not what I would consider extraordinary. I don't wave away such evidence by any means, they do provide support, but I have to approach them with the understanding that they are not necessarily sufficient to support an extraordinary claim.

Second, I look at how convincing the evidence for the claim is to non-Christians. I take this approach because of the example of science, wherein people of wildly divergent belief systems nonetheless agree on basic scientific principles. You can be Hindu, atheist, Christian, or Muslim and still agree on the age of the earth, for instance. Claims that are persuasive regardless of religious, ethnic, or cultural background have a much higher likelihood of being true, in my experience. Regarding the resurrection of Christ, billions of people around the world have examined the evidence and come away unconvinced. That doesn't mean it's wrong necessarily, but it's obviously not in the same league of convincing as, say, Newtonian physics.

Third, I look at the evidence for or against the specific claim that are not part of the religious canon itself. Regarding Christianity, this would include contemporary Roman accounts, documents like the Dead Sea Scrolls from contemporary Jewish leaders, and other writings from the first couple of hundred years A.D. by various Christian sects (one resource for this I used is Lost Christianities" by Bart D. Ehrman).

Fourth, I try to figure out of there is a non-miraculous explanation for what might have happened. The most likely candidates are later modification to the original text or a natural phenomenon that the witnesses misinterpreted. The modern Catholic church approaches claims of miracles in the same way -- an entire office of clerics is devoted to figuring out which claims of the supernatural are real and which are not, so I don't think this is an unreasonable approach to take.

So let's look at a specific example to see how this would work in practice. I won't go through them all, that would make this even more tedious than it already is.

32 Matthew 27:52-53. "And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many."

Clearly this is an extraordinary claim, hopefully we can agree on that. Surely such an incredible occurrence would have earned loud exclaim and documentation throughout the region, yet there is no mention of it whatsoever in contemporary accounts.

None.

People got up out of their graves and appeared to many, yet not one single person thought this remarkable enough to write down. No journal entry of "Uncle Bosephus rose from the dead today and came by for a chat, it was nice." That's a pretty big obstacle to overcome.

Could there be a documentary mistake of some sort? Looking at http://ffrf.org/about/bybarker/rise.php, there appears to be evidence that there is. Most scholarship indicates that the early Christians believed not in a physical resurrection but rather a spiritual one. The actual rising of the dead body appears to be a later addition. That seems to be a reasonable possibility. Using Occam's Razor, then, I would tend to accept the simplest explanation as the most likely, and conclude that the dead probably did not rise in massive numbers as described, but that this is a later addition by entities interested in supporting their version of Christianity over competing ones.

I hope that helps explain one way that one person (me) tries to figure out both overall truth of the gospels and how to "pick and choose" what parts to believe and which to reject. I understand that others would look at the exact same evidence and come to the opposite conclusion; such is life. I don't require that everyone have the same belief system I do, and I readily admit that I could be in error not only about this specific example but about the entire edifice. Nonetheless, this is the approach I take, and these are the conclusions I have come to. I didn't start out looking for reasons to disbelieve, but I was willing to go where the evidence led me. And it has led me to atheism. I do not find atheism incompatible with the position that Christ still had wisdom to impart, but I understand how a believer would find that position untenable at best.
I hope you won't begrudge me the lessons that I do take from Christ's life, even if in your eyes I am missing the best parts of all.

1 comment:

Geopoet said...

Thanks for that explanation. That helps me understand your position a lot more than previously. I also appreciate the goodness you've garnered so far from the Christ. Taking your main points, may I offer this perspective?

1. Given hundreds of examples of religions espousing irrational beliefs, it seems reasonable to propose that perhaps Christianity is in the same boat."

I would offer that what is "rational" or "irrational" is an opinion in many cases. Certainly, belief in the face of contrary facts would be irrational, but this does not apply to Christianity. However, consider that the workings and meanings of God, assuming He exists, would be "a-rational", that is, He wouldn't totally fit in necessarily with the human experience; How could He? Secondly, a critical defining difference in Christianity from the others you mention is like night and day; a guy alone in a cave/desert saying he got a book is much easier to refute than the many witnesses of Christ's life, death and resurrection. Some things are more true than others, I don't think you can put it all in the same "boat".

"Second, I look at how convincing the evidence for the claim is to non-Christians."

Heck, a lot of people don't believe we went to the moon either. Actually, if you look at the level of acceptance, the statistics are pretty impressive. 2 billion Christians, another billion muslims believe he was more than just a "prophet", with the rest being Asian where the cultures are entrenched or won't allow proselytizing. Not bad for a dozen dumb fishermen. Agreed that many aren't convinced; yet many of the most brightest and brilliant of all ages converted. A vote or tally then has only limited value.

"Third, I look at the evidence for or against the specific claim that are not part of the religious canon itself."

It seems to me you've limited yourself to anti-Christian literature and sites in your conclusion. There's plenty of corroboration to at least provide a very strong contrary view. Try http://www.probe.org/content/view/18/77/ or even just encyclopedias such as http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historicity_of_Jesus#Non-Christian_writings. There are many, many more. To be frank, I'm guilty too of hovering mostly in chat rooms or sites where my beliefs are strengthened and confirmed, so it's safe to say that the more time spent in like-minded spheres, the more enticed it becomes. In the end I think, as Denise has often said, it comes down to faith since the "evidence" route can be inconclusive to doubters.

Also, discarding the religious canons themselves, while appearing to be neutral, is not. One would not throw out Darwin's notes for example, or Greek historian accounts. All in all, this was an obscure event in terms of history and the eyewitness accounts are immensely valuable.


"Fourth, I try to figure out of there is a non-miraculous explanation for what might have happened. The most likely candidates are later modification to the original text or a natural phenomenon that the witnesses misinterpreted."

Even medical doctors have looked at this and discarded it. For a look at some of these other theories, try the following:
http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12789a.htm. Again, why are the alternatives "likely" if it is in the realm outside of human experience, especially in light of the evidence?


"Most scholarship indicates that the early Christians believed not in a physical resurrection but rather a spiritual one. The actual rising of the dead body appears to be a later addition."

This claim has no basis, in fact. It's revisionist history by Gnostic lovers and ignores the literal account of the gospels where Thomas touched Jesus's wounds and 500 people saw a physical Jesus ascend. The incarnation is one of the strongest and long-held stances of the church actually. Again, it might help to step outside of those blogs and look at some Christian sites.

Again, thanks for opening up the dialogue.