Saturday, February 7, 2015

FAITH, BELIEF, AND THE GREEN BAY PACKERS

I received an interesting comment from a Facebook friend to my recent essay on Sparring with Christians.  She complained that for me “everything has to be rational” but that for her “not everything is rational and in fact the most important things in life aren’t nor can be explained in rational human thought,” including religious faith.  I thought her comment raised an interesting point, and I decided that I would expand here on the response I made to her comment.


First, a word about what is meant by the term “rational.”  This is a concept that is much too complex to try to cover here.  Suffice to say that the term implies the drawing of conclusions based not on emotion but on a critical, logical investigation and evaluation of all available evidence.  

And that brings up a key distinction between two mental constructs, emotions and beliefs.  Emotions include such things as love, anger, disappointment, elation, and wonder.  Beliefs are statements about one’s view of the nature of the world, what one takes to be true.  Briefly stated, beliefs are properly subject to rational analysis and ought to be based on such.  Many emotions are not.

As an illustration, let us consider the Green Bay Packers.  I happen to be a long-time fan of the Packers.  (Sigh . . .)  This is an emotional attachment, not a rational one.  I can speculate, even analyze, why I have this attachment—I live in Wisconsin, many of my friends are fans, the team’s fortunes are featured prominently in local media, the team has a history of success.  But, with the possible exception of the team’s success, none of these factors is rational justification for being a fan.  (And, frankly, I am sure that, even were the team a perennial also-ran, I would still find myself rooting for them.  After all, I’m also a fan of the Milwaukee Brewers.)  I want to be as careful as possible in stating what I mean by this.  I can analyze the reasons why I have become a fan.  But that is different from stating that my being a fan is rational.  It’s not.  I didn’t sit down and weigh all the factors and decide to be a Packer fan based on that analysis.  Rather, fandom simply happened to me.

Beliefs are different.  They are one’s understanding of the nature of the world.  A claim that the Packers are the best team in the National Football League would be a statement of belief.  Rational people could argue about the truth value of that statement, pointing to won-loss records, offensive and defensive statistics, etc.  In some cosmic sense the statement is either true or false, depending on how one defines the term “best.”  

But here is the danger: Beliefs can be contaminated by emotions.  One’s attachment as a fan of, say, the Chicago Bears can affect his or her belief regarding whether they are the best team in the NFL.  But no matter how rabid a fan one is, that fact will not make the Bears the best team.  The key is to understand the difference between emotion and belief and to recognize how one can influence the other.

I want to think that my beliefs, including beliefs about religion, are based, not on emotion, but on a rational analysis of the best available evidence regarding the nature of the world.  After all, why would I want to believe something that is patently false?  Why wouldn’t I want my beliefs to be as close to the truth as possible?  To do that, I need to use the very best tools available.  That means relying on objective evidence, logic, the scientific method, and, yes, rational analysis.  

Why rely on those tools rather than on subjective evidence, such as feelings and “knowing in my heart,” or on authority, such as what scripture states?  Because the scientific method and rational analysis have been supremely successful in furthering our understanding of the world.  Reliance on subjective evidence and received authority have not.  It’s as simple as that.

Having said that, I also recognize that for many Christians religious belief is not primarily a rational matter.  It is an emotional one.  Indeed, they point proudly to their faith as fundamental to their worldview, understanding at some level (hopefully) that faith is simply belief in the absence of evidence or despite the evidence.  Many Christians would like to proclaim that their religious beliefs are grounded in reason as well as emotion.  However, the “tell” is their admission that there is no evidence or argument that could shake those beliefs.  Their beliefs are evidence- and logic-proof.

And I can understand the emotional draw that religious faith can provide, from a sense of community and friendship to facile answers to difficult philosophical questions to fear of losing one’s fundamental worldview without having something familiar to replace it.  All I can say is that for me, as well as for other nonbelievers, those are not a problem.

© 2015 John M. Phillips

19 comments:

  1. Hello John and readers: I have read your blog at times in the past and find your writing very good and also interesting. I have never responded to a blog, and have not stayed with you consistently. You are obviously knowledgeable about the Bible, you write well, and I appreciate the degree of civility that you exhibit. Without knowing you well, I venture to say that you and I think in a similar way about some things. I also like your photography! We have a major difference, however. You value rational analysis, and when you apply it to the Bible and faith in God, you reject it and turn to atheism. I also value rational analysis and logic, and when I apply it to the Bible and the existence of God, I believe it and turn to Christianity.

    I have not read all of your writings, but would like to respond to a couple of things. I base my beliefs on logic and what is to me good sense, even though I do not understand everything. I mistrust emotions, and do not believe that one should base religious doctrine on emotions. I try not to do that. The degree of faith or the depth of emotion does not affect the truth of whatever it is that we are talking about. "Weak faith in a strong plank gets us over the water; strong faith in a weak plank gets us wet."

    I believe that the Bible is a marvelous work. I believe that it was inspired by God. It was written over a period of about 2000 years by 40+ writers, and has a high degree of internal consistency. It also stands up to external verification by methods such as archaeology. It has withstood the test of time.

    It is possible to put too much faith in the scientific method and the absence or existence of hard evidence. Don't get me wrong, I value science and the existence of evidence. But at times scientists are wrong as well. They disagree about things, sometimes with rather nasty arguments. The field of archaeology is a good example. The Minimalists insist that that the nation of Israel did not exist, the more traditional archaeologists insist it did -- both citing evidence to base their respective cases on. The pursuit of truth is not always the goal.

    Finally, I do not believe because somebody told me what to think. I believe because of what I have read in the Bible and what I have concluded myself. I may not have it all right, and I believe some things on faith, but tell me that it does not take a whole lot of faith to believe in the "BIG BANG!!" Maybe we will talk about that a different time.

    Stay warm. I am going to try to get this to post.
    Terry L.

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    1. Terry,

      First, thank you for your flattering words about my blogs, including my photo blog.

      Second, I have come to realize that the blog format is not conducive to continuing dialogue. In fact, I am surprised that there has been as much of it as there has been on my Skeptic Reflections blog, considering the logistical difficulties that it poses. Whenever someone comments on the blog, I receive a copy by email. However, I believe everyone else simply has to keep checking back to see if anything further has been posted. Moreover, I believe there are length limitations that the blog imposes on comments that can be a drawback for some discussions. If you would prefer, we could shift this to an email exchange or an exchange on Facebook. Email has the advantage of immediate notification but it is limited to a two-participant conversation (at least I am limited at my primitive level of technological acumen). Facebook allows for others to join in, but there needs to be a nexus through the FB system.

      If you want to continue to discuss these things by email, let me know, and I will post my address long enough for you to get it and then will take it back down. If by Facebook, simply send me a friend request. I think my email address is: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1184812225.

      In any case I will reply to your comments in a separate reply.

      One more thing, I would be interested in learning how you came across my blogs.

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    2. Terry,

      Sometimes when people disagree it is because they have let their emotions get away from them or because one or both of them are being illogical. I don’t think either of those is the primary reason we do not agree. Rather, I think it has to do with the fundamental assumptions we each have made, the “givens” on which our arguments are based and from which our logic proceeds.

      In short, I think that you accept the Bible as the word of God. I don’t. I see scripture as the sincere writings of men who lived over a 1000 year period, running from perhaps 800 BCE to perhaps 200 CE. (Although the Pentateuch refers to an earlier history and includes writings [or at least tales] from an earlier period, those were most likely cobbled together during the period between 800 and 700 BCE.)

      Although there is some continuity of theme in the Bible (after all its contents were compiled and chosen in the 4th century CE specifically to encompass that theme), it is also filled with errors and contradictions, as well as descriptions of God and rules of conduct that are amazing for how inconsistent they are with contemporary views of God or of modern day morals and ethics. I don’t mean that as being critical of the writers. They lived in a very different era. But that simply adds to the argument that the Bible was written by men for a different time. Biblical scholars (other than those who are committed to defending a particular religious point of view) generally see this the same way that I do. I really don’t expect you to agree with this and I only state this to point out my view of why we have come to different conclusions.

      What I would suggest is that you ask yourself why you believe that the Bible is inspired of God and that it occupies a position different from any other writings. I know that at one time I also believed that the Bible was the word of God. I have come to understand that I had that belief because my parents, teachers, church leaders, and friends all told me that was the case and I was simply too young to understand anything different or to think for myself. For some reason (a lot of which related to my personal explorations of science), that changed during my teen years, and I simply lost my faith in the authority of scripture or of what my church was telling me.

      One comment about science. It is true that scientists don’t always agree, but that is actually one of the greatest strengths of the scientific method. One of the fundamental hallmarks of science is that any theory, any finding, has to be subject to refutation through further observation and investigation. And we make progress, not by assuming that a theory HAS to be true, regardless, but by testing it against new ideas that refine or, in some cases, overturn prevailing theories. This, of course, is a fundamental difference between science and religion—science demands that any theory or point of view be subject to disconfirmation, whereas religion demands that ideas be accepted without evidence (faith) and without the possibility of disconfirmation.

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  2. Hello John: I am starting to understand the technical aspects of blogging -- why don't we continue communicating via the blog, as others may join us. I am not on Facebook.

    The question you ask -- why do I believe that the Bible is the word of God -- is an important one. I have asked myself that question. Let me tell you a little about my background, as it contributes to what I believe today. I grew up in a small town (pop.200) with a Catholic church in the middle. Almost everyone I knew was Catholic. When I was in first grade once each week class was dismissed and we walked as a group over to the church for a weekly catechism lesson. I don't know what the Protestant kids did - then again there were not very many of them. I was taught Catholic doctrine and did not question it for a few years, but when I got to HS I read more. The priest we had got a little upset when I told him I was reading "Why I am not a Christian" I believe by Bertrand Russell. I could be wrong on that name. I went to college at an institution that required me to go to church, so I went to the Catholic Chapel. During sophomore year, chapel was no longer mandatory so I quit going. Although I had gone to catechism faithfully I had not gotten into the Bible, and had not gotten into the "why's" of the doctrine. The high use of ritual, and the tendency not to question things turned me off, so for a period of about 7-8 years I had nothing to do with organized religion. I view this period as a time when I sort of "wiped the slate clean" and I was able to start from scratch, although at the time I did not foresee myself ever getting back to organized religion.

    When I was 27 years old I moved to Wisconsin and found that my boss was a Bible-believing Christian, and he and his wife invited me and my wife to sit down and look at the Bible. It was the first time that I had read the Bible and I knew very little about it. I got interested and it started to make sense. The church was an independent church and there was no hierarchy to set doctrine. One thing that stood out to me was the interaction between individuals in an adult Sunday School class. Men and women who seemed to know about what was in the Bible were disagreeing over what certain passages meant. I had had the perception that Christians merely believed what they were told to believe, and to hear them debating made an impression on me. As they say, "the rest is history!" I began to study the Bible, and came to the conclusion that it made sense. I am not seminary trained, and have not attended Bible College or other formal Bible instruction. What I know I learned in the local church Sunday School, messages from the pulpit, and teaching adult Sunday School. There is much that I do not know.

    It may be useful to differentiate between religion and faith. I view religion as a set of rules that someone set up. Frankly, I am not very religious. Many, or most of the people who practice religion don't have a good idea why they do it. I do have faith in God. The main source of my faith comes from the Bible. I do not believe that we could have received it except from God. I do not believe that a human or group of humans could have written the Bible without divine intervention. That does not mean that it is wrong to question things. As the father of the demon-possessed boy said in Mark 9:24, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief."

    I need to go now -- I understand that I have left a lot open here -- I will continue when I can.

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    1. Terry,

      I like your distinction between religion and faith. It sounds like you gave up "religion" but never gave up your "faith." I get that.

      And for the record, Bertrand Russell did indeed write "Why I Am Not a Christian." I read it myself when I was 19 or 20 and still have it in my library.

      You have explained some of your personal religious journey but have not really explained why you believe the bible is the word of God. It doesn't sound like it was the result of indoctrination when you were a child, but it does sound like the couple you met when you moved to Wisconsin (the boss and wife) had a major influence on your beliefs. It is interesting to note that the persons in the church you joined discussed and perhaps disagreed on the meaning of various passages, but they did not seem to be arguing over whether those passages were inspired by God. That seems to have been a given. And that gets to what I am asking, of course--what is the basis for belief that the bible should be considered differently from other writings, either in the same timeframe as the bible (Epicurus and Lucretius come to mind) or more contemporary writers (Russell, Dawkins, or Hitchens, for example). Maybe that will be in your next "chapter."

      I am still interested in knowing how you stumbled across my blog.

      Looking forward to your reply.

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  3. Hello John: We have been travelling to visit grandchildren and as a result I have not been very active with blogging. You asked how I came across your blog: We have a mutual friend who mentioned the blog to me. I read some of your writing and got interested in it.

    Your question, of course, is the right one: Why do I believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God? I do believe that, as do most of the people in the churches I have attended. I cannot point out a single "smoking pistol" that "proves" it, but I will attempt to relate to you several things that, taken together, form the basis for my faith.

    First, the Bible and the people in it say that it is. The Old Testament (OT) as we call it, or the Hebrew Bible as the Jews call it, says repeatedly that God told the writer to write down what he is told, or use phrases like "thus says the Lord." Yes, I realize that is circular reasoning, but it is a piece that takes on meaning when put together with some of the other items that I will say. Josephus tells us a period of time when the writings were not scripture: "From Artaxerxes to our own times a complete history has been written, but has not been deemed worth of equal credit with the earlier records, because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets." This covers the last 400 years BC. The authors of the OT were all prophets (arguably) and were regarded as scripture up until that point. There were many things written during the 400 years, some of which were good history books, but none that were regarded as scripture. These books form the Apocrypha, which is regarded as scripture by the Catholic church. What I am trying to say is that the writers of the OT say that it is scripture, while Josephus does as well by setting apart a time when the writings were not considered scripture.

    Second, the historical accuracy of the Bible is very high, and there is quite a bit of archaeological evidence that it is so.

    I just had a business matter come up that I need to tend to. My apology -- I will come back and complete this as soon as I can.

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  4. OK I am back. Archaeology is a relatively new field of science. It came into existence just a couple of hundred years ago, and significant finds are occurring today. There are numerous examples of archaeology giving credence to the Bible. Archaeologists are not unanimous in that, of course. Here are some examples:

    1. First, a question: Many archaeologists maintain that the nation of Israel did not exist when the Bible says that Joshua conquered Canaan. There is little evidence of a military campaign. The key is that they say that Israel did not exist 'at that time.' Dating is probably the most difficult aspect, and archaeologists could be wrong. Lack of evidence in our possession does not mean that evidence does not exist. This is an example of questioning what the Bible says.

    2. The Nuzi tablets and the Mari tablets are significant finds that help us understand practices and customs that existed in the 2000BC to 1000BC period, or the time of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the OT. The tablets do not name people from the Bible, but they do confirm some of the practices regarding contracts, public records, family customs, writing, etc. that are described in the Pentateuch.

    3. Judges 4 & 5 cover the story of Deborah, and are one of my favorite passages. Deborah is my favorite woman in the Bible. The Israelite people were under the domination of the Canaanite King Jabin. Deborah calls the troops to war, and some tribes come but some don't. Why not? Archaeology has revealed the reasons why, and dovetails exactly with the two chapters of Judges. I wish that I had time to go into detail about Deborah - this is a fantastic story!

    4. 1 Sam 13-21 describes something that demonstrates that 1 Sam had to have been written around 900BC, the date that fits the Biblical record. These verses use the term Pym. For years it was not known what it meant. This is the only place in the OT that the word appears. It was recently discovered (maybe the 1980's? I am not sure) that a Pym is a weight used on a balance scale. It appears only between the 9th and the 7th centuries BC. To quote archaeologist William Devers in an interview in Biblical Archaeology Review (a secular publication) -- interviewer: "Time and again, se seem to be coming back, Bill, to the idea that . . " Devers: "The Bible was right after all."

    5. Other examples include the invasion by Egyptian King Shishak and several different 'Bullae" or the seal formed by pressing the ring into a lump of clay. Two of these belong to Baruch, the scribe of Jeremiah. One of the two contains what is thought to be the fingerprint of Baruch!

    When I consider that the Bible was written over a period of 2000 years by forty-some authors, with much detail and much agreement between them, I am impressed and I think: "if this were not done by God, who did it? How did it come to be?" I firmly believe that it could not have been done by human hand. I don't know all the answers, and I certainly have questions, but I feel that I know enough to put me over the "critical point" of believing the who thing. It is easier than the 'Big Bang!"

    I would be interested in knowing what you consider to be "errors, inconsistencies, etc. in the Bible."

    Best regards: Terry L.

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    1. Terry,

      Let me say that you are most probably more of a student of archaeology and of the bible than am I. Nevertheless, I will do my best to respond.

      First, I agree with you that relying on biblical claims to being inspired of God to establish that inspiration is indeed circular. As to the Apocrypha, I am sure you are aware of how the various canons were established, including the fact that the Apocrypha was excluded from the Protestant canon at the time of the Reformation, when the Protestants excluded the Apocryphal books which were contained in the Catholic canon but were not in the Hebrew Bible canon. From my limited reading in biblical scholarship, it is my understanding that the Pentateuch was cobbled together from at least four different sources in the period of 1000 to 800 BCE and that the gospels were most likely written in the period from 80 to perhaps 200 CE. In that sense it is difficult to know which accounts to accept and which to exclude, since none were actual eyewitness accounts. I know that there is controversy re a number of these matters. However, it is my sense that those who defend the eyewitness arguments are generally those who have a particular faith to defend rather than looking at the evidence from an objective point of view—with no dog in the fight, so to speak. It may be unfair to say that, but that is my view. Again, I am not a biblical scholar, and I suppose you could argue that I am more likely to accept that which is consistent with my point of view.

      Second, with respect to the archaeological evidence for the nation of Israel, I personally do not doubt that there were such a people. And while one could quibble over whether the biblical accounts are supported by the archaeological evidence, I don’t think that inconsistencies in details (dates for example) would refute the fact of their existence. (On the other hand, my understanding is that there is scant if any evidence for the exodus from Egypt.)

      You might be interested in a couple of books. One is “Who Wrote the Bible,” by Friedman, which really talks about the OT rather than the NT. I believe he is a well respected biblical scholar who doesn’t have a particular religious faith to defend, which for me is an issue, as I said. The other is “The Evolution of God,” by Wright, which traces the history of how the concept of God changed over the course of the OT from a simple tribal god to the most powerful of the gods to the only god.

      With respect to the degree of agreement among the scriptures, a couple of points. First, keep in mind that the biblical canon was established at the Council of Nicaea by men. It was their intent to create a canon that was, for them, internally consistent, so in that sense it was in effect a self-fulfilling process and was in fact put together “by human hand.” Second, in my view there are a great many inconsistencies in the bible. Without going into detail here, just compare what I consider to be an impatient, demanding, bloodthirsty god in the OT to a more loving, forgiving one in the NT. I realize there are rationalizations for that transformation but the distinction is, to put it mildly, stark. Again, I would refer you to “The Evolution of God.”



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    2. I am a strong believer in the universality of the operation of the laws of nature, both as to time and location. Science has adopted that as a basic premise, and it has been incredibly successful in doing so. Just look at all of the advancements in knowledge and technology that we have realized by reason of the research based on that underlying assumption. The laws of nature as we know them lead to the conclusion that the universe as we know it began with a explosion some 13.7 billion years ago. There are few if any in the physical sciences who doubt that fact. You can say that I have put my “faith” in science, but in fact the scientific approach to an understanding of the world has been the most successful approach to knowledge that humans have ever developed. In that sense my support of science is not based on a lack of evidence but on the evidence that science has generated.

      As to biblical errors and inconsistencies, there are a number of different types of errors. There have, of course, been numerous errors of transcription over the centuries. We don’t have any original texts, as I’m sure you know. And I will say that the bible is better than most texts in terms of relative accuracy of transcription. I think that’s attributable to the importance with which the bible was considered over the years. And, in truth, I am not so concerned about that type of error. But the fact that there are so many such errors is a reminder that the bible is a human product.

      A second type of error is internal inconsistencies. I have already mentioned the transformation of the characterization of God over the course of the period in which the scriptures were written. There are many other inconsistencies as well. Here is one cite that lists many logical as well as internal inconsistencies: http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/science/long.html. Admittedly, while many of the inconsistencies are fundamental, others are pretty picky.

      For me, the most serious errors and inconsistencies concern cases in which the text is simply inconsistent with how we have come to understand the nature of the world. The earth was certainly not created in six literal days. The sun did not stand still for Joshua. Jonah was not swallowed by a great fish and cast out three days later. The patriarchs did not live hundreds of years. There was not a great flood. Maybe you consider these to be allegorical accounts that are not factual but were written to make a point. There are other sections of the OT particularly where God allows—and in fact prescribes—rules and conduct that we find abhorrent. It is difficult to justify these passages under almost any set of circumstances.

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    3. Terry, in my initial (overly long) response I think I was to some extent guilty of missing the forest for the trees, something I do way too much. Let me add the following points.

      First, a fundamental problem I see with your point about archaeological support for the bible's accuracy is this: The fact that some of the bible's historical narratives have archaeological support is not really evidence for the belief that the bible is therefore divinely inspired. It only establishes that the the Israelite people existed. There are other BCE writings unrelated to the Abrahamic tradition that are also supported by archaeological research, but no one considers them as establishing the divine inspiration of such writings.

      Second, the fact that the biblical canon is consistent in its monotheistic message (which is in some dispute if one analyzes the Pentateuch's narrative of God as the development of one of any number of tribal gods into the only true god) is a function of the fact that the writings selected were done so specifically because they were consistent with that message. The Council of Nicaea didn't consider the writings of Greek and Roman philosophers, for example, Epicurus and Lucretius, which spoke of many gods who were simply not particularly interested in human issues. This speaks of a human rather than a divine selection process.

      For me, as I said, the most telling aspects of scripture concern (a) how its portrayal of god evolved over time from a brutal, peevish deity who only represented its chosen people to an omniscient, omnipotent god who was willing to save humans from perdition and (b) how the bible is so inaccurate in its representation of how the world really works. The scriptures simply get the facts wrong about science (think flood, cosmology, and natural phenomena), just as one would expect of men writing in the iron age, but certainly not of an omniscient god.

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  5. Hello John: I hope your week is going well. The last few paragraphs that you wrote served to clarify things nicely. I will try to be as clear with my thoughts.

    First, just a couple of background items: 1. There are a couple of things that I am skeptical about as well. One is Biblical Scholars, and the other is the "early church fathers." I don't mean to offend the scholars, but it seems that there is a wide range of beliefs among them, and it seems as though some have an "ax to grind" rather than seeking the truth. We are all vulnerable to that, I guess! The "early church fathers" likewise represent a wide range of beliefs, and are sometimes intertwined with secular government. That is not necessarily a criticism, as the Christian doctrine was in its formative stages at that time and the means of communication was much more crude that what we have today.

    We have different views of how the Canon was assembled. Rather than a group of men sitting down and choosing the books of the Canon, I believe that these books were always regarded as scripture. The various councils, including Nicaea, may have served as forums of discussion and debate, but at most served as confirmation of what had been in place, sometimes for hundreds of years. I know the theory of several writers of the Pentateuch, but I don't believe it. The Pentateuch is referred to throughout the OT and NT as "the Law and the Prophets" or "Moses and the Prophets." The Gospel of "Q" is given more credibility than it deserves. No one has ever seen it, read it, referred to it, or quoted from it but it is believed to exist because of the similarity of some of the other Gospels. Many other false gospels were written but not accepted at the time as scripture.

    I understand what you are saying when you describe the "universality of the laws of nature." I am not a "science hater." I think that to a high degree God created the world and then lets it run. However, you add a few words: "as we know them." In some cases we don't know them very well. The idea that one second there is absolutely nothing in the world and suddenly there is a huge explosion and the world is created is hard to believe. It cannot be reproduced in a lab. There were no eyewitnesses. We can take certain measurements of the universe and draw some conclusions, but what we know is sketchy at best. The same goes for evolution. The fossil record does not support the evolution of the species. The process of genetic selection is real, but the "missing link" is really many, many missing links. The other things you bring up are valid questions. The flood, the six days, old earth vs. young earth are puzzles. But even if you take the intelligent being out of the picture, they are still puzzles. And, just because we don't understand something does not mean that it is not true.

    The God of the OT vs. the God of the NT likewise is not easy. A factor may be the condition of the world at the time. The world was a brutal, savage place. People were cruel and killed each other for pleasure. They sacrificed babies to their gods. Without going through the whole OT, the peoples that were killed were bad people to start with. I once heard a person say something to the effect of: "the God I believe in wouldn't do that to people." But just because we don't like some of the things that God did, doesn't mean that they were not real. He is a loving God, yes, but he is also a wrathful God. We may want to make up our own god, but we don't have that leeway.

    I have not answered your points completely, but I need to break off. Please understand that I am enjoying our discussion.

    Thank you for the references that you suggested regarding the writers of the Bible.

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    1. Terry, I have to say I found your latest comments to be a bit discouraging. I will try to explain in my following responses to some of the points that you make.

      First, I have reviewed what you said about the Nicaea Council and have to agree generally with your point of view. I feel I had been working under a common misconception of how important the council was in the creation of the biblical canon. I agree that the OT canon (excluding the Apocrypha books retained by the Catholic version of the bible but ultimately rejected by the Protestants) had already been established by the Jews and was retained by the Christians. I really need to educate myself further on the creation of the NT canon, as my understanding remains that there were other books proffered for acceptance that were rejected, and I would like to understand better the reasons why certain books were accepted and others rejected.

      However, having said that, the fact remains that the biblical canon, however it has been created, was created by humans. Moreover, the books included were selected in an effort to present a coherent picture of the Christian religion. Writings that were consistent with the views of those who created the canon were retained. Writings that were inconsistent were rejected. In that sense it was a self-fulfilling process—a process conducted by humans. One of your arguments in favor of believing in the divine inspiration of the bible is its consistency. But to the extent it is consistent, it is attributable to the very method of its construction by humans. You make reference to “false gospels,” but were they false simply because they disagreed with then current Christian theological thinking? If I were to construct an anthology in support of, for example, the rights of women to obtain abortions, I would choose writings that supported that point of view and exclude writings that did not. The anthology would, presumably, be consistent, but that would not by any means establish that the anthology was divinely inspired. Moreover, as I have pointed out, the bible is very inconsistent in, inter alia, its portrayal of the character of God.

      With respect to your comment about biblical scholars, I was not sure to which scholars you were referring. I think it is human nature to tend to agree with those “experts” who reinforce our existing point of view and to disagree with those whose point of view would undermine our own. But I do believe there is a fundamental difference between the “scholarship” of those who begin with and hold sacrosanct a specific religious belief when investigating these matters and those who don’t begin with a particular religious point of view and are willing to go with wherever the best evidence leads them. I am inclined to find the views of the latter more persuasive.

      Moer to follow in a subsequent reply.

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    2. Look, when I first began reading about cosmology, in the early 1960s, there was a debate among cosmologists between two main competing theories, the Big Bang theory and the Steady State theory. (You may be familiar with the history of this debate.) Both groups accepted that the universe was expanding—the evidence was overwhelming and undeniable. But the Steady Staters argued that the overall density of the universe remained more or less constant and that additional matter was being created on a continuous basis to keep that density at a steady level. I decided that I liked the Steady State theory better because it seemed to favor a universe of infinite time duration, thus avoiding some of the questions that Big Bang theorists (or at least I) seemed to struggle with, such as how did the Big Bang get started and what existed before it. In the early 1960s but theories were still viable in the sense that they were consistent with the existing evidence. Well, in the end the evidence favoring the Big Bang theory overwhelmed that favoring the Steady State theory, and no one supports the Steady State theory anymore. And I found myself accepting the Big Bang theory also. Here’s my point, the scientific community ultimately accepted the Big Bang theory based on an objective appraisal of the evidence—all of the evidence. This is how research should be conducted, not to support one point of view regardless of contrary evidence, but to accept that there are no sacred cows and to go in the direction in which the evidence leads. This is how biblical scholarship needs to be conducted as well.

      So I have to ask the question, which I believe is critical to this discussion: Do you accept the bible as the word of God because of what you perceive to be its great internal consistency, or do you accept the bible as the word of God because that is a fundamental belief of yours and you point to the bible’s consistency as a means of justifying that belief?

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    3. I wanted to add a couple of comments relating to your statements on science. First, I used the phrase "as we know them" knowingly. I say that because scientific understanding is always tentative, always ready to be replaced by an understanding that is closer to the truth. That is fundamental to its incredible success in understanding and coping with the world.

      The fact that something cannot be reproduced in the lab does not mean that it cannot be the subject of research. I don't mean to denigrate your understanding of astronomical research, but it is just as robust in its methodology as other branches of science, including the establishment and testing of hypotheses. A researcher may develop an hypothesis about, for example, the composition of certain types of stars. The hypothesis may entail a prediction that stars of a certain type are, let's say, more abundant than stars of a different type. The astronomer then tests that hypothesis by doing a stellar population analysis either to support or disconfirm that hypothesis.

      I also disagree with you with respect to whether the fossil record supports the evolution of species. I hope you realize that the record is not going to show links between two existing species. We did not evolve from monkeys or the great apes. Rather, and this is important, humans, monkeys, and apes all evolved from ancestor species that in turn evolved from more distant ancestor species. And at some point in the past humans, apes, and monkeys evolved from an ancestor common to all three. And there are many examples of predecessor linking species leading back to such ancestors. Indeed all living species can trace their origin ultimately back to a common ancestor. A key to keep in mind here is that this all took a very long time--millions, and in some cases billions, of years. Another fact to keep in mind is that the preservation of fossils is a rare occurrence simply because of the various factors that have to be present to allow for such preservation and for later discovery.

      To say the 6-day creation and flood are "puzzles" is really to ignore the obvious explanation that they are simply myths that were a common explanation for questions that bronze and iron age humans simply weren't equipped to answer but that we now have very good answers to. They really aren't "puzzles" to anyone willing to view the bible as a collection of such myths.

      You state that, in effect, God was justified in killing the Israelites' neighbors because they were "bad people." I have never heard that explanation before. I know of no evidence that those people were more evil than were the Israelites. But, putting that aside, I don't know why that would justify killing them wholesale. Isn't it so much more reasonable simply to understand the biblical account as the story of God as a tribal deity who chose and represented "his" people?

      I find these concerns to be most troubling, as they seem to represent a willingness to dismiss discrepancies as "puzzles" despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of scientists working in those areas are in agreement. One would need either to assume they are all ignorant of the facts or that they are all participating in some sort of conspiracy.

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  6. Hello John: My apologies for not being very prompt in my responses. In spite of the fact that I am (mostly) retired I still find myself short of time.

    My understanding of the New Testament Canon is that it was formed in similar fashion to the Old Testament. It was recognized from the start, and was agreed upon by the end of the first century or the beginning of the second. The authors of the NT were all apostles, or had a strong link to the apostles. Mark, for example, was not one of the twelve apostles, but he was a companion of Peter. In any case, they were eyewitnesses to Jesus and his preaching and teaching. There were many other books written, something like 50 gospels, but most fell away from acceptance. My belief is that the Bible is the inspired word of God, and therefore is something more than "man-made." You have stated a number of times that the Canon was created by humans in that the writings that were consistent with the views of those who created the Canon were retained. I don't think that is bad or that it indicates that somehow we have the "wrong books." The NT authors were in a good position to judge which writings were valid. Examples of these "false gospels" that I have heard seem to be pretty far from what is accepted as scripture. Some examples: The gospel of Thomas says something to the effect of "for a woman to enter the kingdom of God she must become a man." The gospel of Marcion was written by an anti-Jewish sect who rejected the entire OT and all of the NT except Luke. There are others. I ask the question, "What if we are missing a book," or "What if we have one book too many?" My answer is that the effect would be minimal. It is illogical that a doctrine would be added or taken away from the 66 books that we have on the basis of one more book.

    I still struggle a bit with the "Big Bang." I am not an expert, admittedly. I find it ironic that the early objections to the "big bang" included the view that it brought religion into the picture - in fact one of the early scientists was a Catholic priest. Even today my understanding is that the "big bang" theory starts with a lump of highly dense matter, not from nothing. The origin of the world is a difficult subject, whether you approach it from a theological or scientific angle. I don't want to criticize those who are sincerely seeking the truth.

    I would like to defend my use of the term "puzzles." The atheist considers only the physical world, and anything spiritual or supernatural is excluded from consideration. It is assumed not to exist. I don't make that assumption. I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and is correct. I also believe that (most) scientists are right for much or most of the time. They are often in conflict. I believe that both may be correct, and possibly both may be wrong about some things. The term that comes to mind to me is "puzzle."

    I do not believe that the Bible is a collection of myths, and I do believe it is internally consistent. Is it a fundamental belief of mine and do I use consistency to justify it? I probably have to admit that at times I do.

    Time to go do some outdoor work. Have a good week.

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    1. Terry,

      Much of our dialogue has concerned your belief that the bible is the inspired word of God and the reasons that support that belief. If I may summarize, the primary arguments you stated included (a) that the bible states that it is the word of God, (b) that there is independent evidence to support some of the events described in the OT, and (c) that the bible is remarkably well preserved and internally consistent.

      As to (a), I think you admitted—and I agreed—that the fact that the bible (or at least parts of it) asserts that it is divinely inspired is circular and really doesn’t provide support.

      As to (b), I agreed that there is independent archaeological evidence to support the existence of the Israelite people, though the extent of that evidence as to certain specific events is sketchy. However, the fact that the archaeological record supports the existence of the Israelites and portions of the histories included in the OT doesn’t of itself help to establish that the OT was inspired by God any more than that the histories of other peoples, such as the Greeks, would establish the existence of their deities. One would I suppose need to find unambiguous archaeological or other objective evidence of events in which God intervened as described in the OT narrative. Examples might include the 6-day creation, the flood, destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by fire, etc. I don’t believe there is any such evidence.

      Most of our discussion has concerned (c), the idea that the bible is so well preserved and internally consistent. I will grant that scripture is very well preserved, but I believe that that is a function of the status it assumed at an early date as a sacred writing.

      With respect to your argument that the bible’s internal consistency points to its having been divinely inspired, my responses were (1) it is not particularly consistent and in fact is riddled with inconsistencies and (2) to the extent it is consistent it is because it was created by men WITH THE INTENT OF CREATING A CONSISTENT DOCUMENT. You have schooled me on some of the details of how the canon was created (or more precisely “canons were created” since there are a number of canons depending on one’s particular brand of Christianity). However, that doesn’t change the fact that the canon was created BY HUMANS. The history of the establishment of the canon is extensive and it is abundantly clear that it was created by humans. Moreover, the fact that there are multiple canons is evidence that it is a human creation. If God were guiding the creation of the canon, why would he establish multiple canons, and why would it take over a thousand years to firmly establish them?

      Keep in mind the point you were trying to support: that the bible’s internal consistency is evidence that it was inspired by God. The fact that the canon (or at least the NT canon) has some consistency or that certain texts were rejected because they were inconsistent with what was included provides no support whatever that God inspired the process.

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    2. A few more comments:

      With respect to your use of the term “puzzles,” your statement was, “The flood, the six days, old earth vs. young earth are puzzles.” For the overwhelming majority of scientists, they are not “puzzles” at all. There is no evidence for them—other than what is written in the bible—and they are wholly inconsistent with what we know about the nature of the world. They are simply myths—explanations by bronze and iron age people who simply weren’t equipped with the understanding that we have gained over the past two to three millennia.

      Virtually the only so-called “scientists” who think otherwise are those who are committed, up front, to defending the veracity of a literal interpretation of the bible, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Many of those do have science or technical degrees, but generally in fields other than the ones in which they are asserting a young earth, creationist, or anti-evolutionary point of view. To favor such opinions over those of the vast (probably 99% plus) majority of true professionals in the fields of biology, geology, and paleontology is, sadly, to assume either that such vast majority is either ignoring the best evidence or that they are engaged in some sort of giant conspiracy.

      It is clear that you know more about the history of the establishment of the biblical canon, but I believe I know more about science and, particularly, astronomy and cosmology. In my “youth” (middle teens) I probably read 50 to 100 books about astronomy and related areas and have retained a life-long (but strictly layman) interest in the field. The history of our understanding of the nature of the universe is fascinating and would, I think, be well worth your effort to learn more about. For instance, as recently as 100 years ago, we did not know about the expansion of the universe, nor did we know that the Milky Way was not the entire observable universe. That is, we did not know that the Milky Way was only one of some 200 billion visible galaxies and that the universe is expanding.

      As to objections to the big bang theory on the basis of religion, I may have miscommunicated. I don’t think professional cosmologists were at all concerned with possible religious implications; I was. Yes, the origin of the world is a difficult subject and there is a lot we don’t know. but what we do know is that the earth was not created only several thousand years ago. Instead, we know that it formed some 4.5 billion years ago from the detritus of interstellar gas and the remains of previous supernovae. In fact, we have a very good idea of the history of the universe for the past 13.7 billion years and none of the accounts in the bible are consistent with that understanding.

      Just one further example: if there were truly a worldwide flood, covering all of the land, that would require enough water to raise the sea level some 29,000 feet. Where would that water have come from? Where would it have gone? It simply doesn’t exist. And the geological record is entirely inconsistent with any such event. If one needs to maintain belief in a flood in the face of contrary physical evidence and knowledge of physical science, then there is no further fruitful discussion available along the lines of rational thought. I regret saying that, but I don’t see any way around it. Nearly 50 years ago a friend pointed out to me that if a belief is not arrived at through rational analysis, then it is not subject to change by rational discourse.

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    3. So where are we? Unfortunately, I think we are at an impasse. I don’t believe there is anything I could say, any evidence that I could present, that would change your mind about the divine inspiration of the bible. Nor about the fact that the OT stories of creation, the flood, etc., are myths totally inconsistent with modern knowledge. I have done my best to explain why I do not believe there is support for your position. My guess is that whatever I have said has had no impact on your point of view. That may be a function of my inability to be clear or persuasive. You would have to state what would lead you to change your point of view.

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  7. Hello John: Let me start with your final comment. It has been my feeling all along that we would end up in a position where we would "agree to disagree." I never believed that I would "convert" you, and a committed believer will maintain his/her beliefs in the face of strong opposition. I do believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God; although I would not agree that you are unable to be clear or persuasive. You explain yourself very well and I appreciate that. I have also learned much from you in the short time we have been corresponding. I am impressed with the fact that you read 50-100 books on cosmology in your younger years. I admit that I am weak in astronomy and cosmology, and have a desire to learn more. I have already done some reading about the "big bang" using that incontrovertible resource, the internet. I have some college textbooks, but I fear that they are too old to be really useful!! In any case, I have enjoyed our dialogue. This is the first time that I have ever done anything like this and I have learned a lot.

    I will leave a response to your latest posting.

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