The BBC news has reported: Pilot Jailed for Sicily Air Crash. What was his crime? Instead of doing his job, he thought it would be better to pray:

An Italian court has jailed a Tunisian pilot who paused to pray instead of taking emergency measures before ditching his plane, killing 16 people.

Since everyone knows that prayer works it was a rational decision! Right? Obviously prayer would bring the aircraft down safely or fill the empty fuel tanks. Right? Tell that to the families of the 16 people who died. And they say that prayer can’t hurt. In this case, it hurt plenty.

I just finished reading Dr. Bart Ehrman’s newest book, Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them). This is an extremely powerful and well written book. Anyone who has an interest in the Bible or Christianity needs to read this book, especially those who come from the Biblical Inerrancy camp. If you can still hold to Biblical Inerrancy after reading it, then you are just going by faith not by facts. Although, I do suspect that the usual conservative rebuttal books from Dallas Theological Seminary and the likes will be hitting the shelves shortly, so those people who want to keep their heads in the sand and read the rebuttals without reading the book will have some comfort.

Dr. Ehrman documents the following facts that have been known by Biblical Scholars for decades or more:

1. An historical-critical examination of the Bible and a horizontal reading of the Gospels (reading what each Gospel records about a particular event) shows that there are both minor and major (irreconcilable) differences in the Biblical stories from the birth of Jesus to his death on the cross. There are also historical difficulties.

2. The Gospels are not eyewitness accounts but rather are based on oral traditions floating around at the time. They were written decades after the events they describe and they weren’t written by disinterested parties wanting to maintain historical accuracy. It may surprise some to know that we don’t even know who these authors were and there were other Gospels written that never made it into the Bible we now know.

3. Each of the Gospels has a distinctive view of Jesus, why He died, when He became the “Son of God” (this isn’t a divine reference), how one is saved, the purpose of the law (especially when Paul is thrown into the mix), etc. Only John, the latest Gospel, has the view that Jesus was divine. Again, this might come as a surprise to many people who read these scriptures and just assume they are saying the same things or just gloss over the differences.

4. When Paul’s own Epistles are compared with the Book of Acts, it is clear that there are differences between the two which means that Acts cannot be used as a strictly reliable historical document.

5. We don’t know who wrote most of the Epistles and only about 7 can be clearly attributed to Paul.

6. Jesus was an Apocalyptic prophet, meaning that he thought that the end of the world was imminent and that one needed to repent and turn to God before judgment was executed. What happened to this message? “When the end does not come, people who want to remain faithful to the original vision of Jesus and his disciples have to grapple seriously with the fact that an essential element of that vision appears to have been wrong. Of course the faithful would not claim that Jesus was wrong. More likely, he was misunderstood. And so there begins a long
and significant process of reinterpretation, in which the original message comes to be transformed into a less tactile, less tangible, less easily disconfirmed view. Specifically, the teaching of a future resurrection of the body, in which the righteous will be rewarded and
the wicked punished here on earth, gets transmuted into a message of heaven and hell, where judgment comes not at the end of the age but at the end of one’s life. Your soul goes to one place or the other.”
(Kindle Edition: 4099-4105)

7. Surprisingly for many people, Dr. Ehrman states: “There were lots of early Christian groups. They all claimed to be right. They all had books to back up their claims, books allegedly
written by the apostles and therefore representing the views of Jesus and his first disciples. The group that won out did not represent the teachings of Jesus or of his apostles. For example, none of the apostles claimed that Jesus was “fully God and fully man,” or that he
was “begotten not made, of one substance with the Father,” as the fourth-century Nicene Creed maintained. The victorious group called itself orthodox. But it was not the original form of Christianity, and it won its victory only after many hard-fought battles.”
(Kindle Edition: 3341-47).

8. In spite of what some evangelicals teach and preach, the resurrection as well as the Gospel miracles are NOT subject to historical analysis and this isn’t because of any anti-Christian or anti-Miracle bias. It is because a miracle, by definition, is a highly improbable event or it wouldn’t be a miracle! So any explanation, ANY explanation at all, is more plausible than a miracle. It’s not to say that a miracle didn’t occur, just that historically speaking (as well as scientifically), any explanation is more probable than a miracle. As Dr. Ehrman says: “The resurrection is not least likely because of any anti-Christian bias. It is the least likely because people do not come back to life, never to die again, after they are well and truly dead. But what if Jesus did? If he did, it’s a miracle, and it’s beyond historical demonstration.” (Kindle Edition: 2782-84)

9. The doctrines and theology of Christianity changed over time to morph into something that would have been unrecognizable to Jesus. What Jesus said became less and less important than defining who he was and what he said was seen through the glasses of this definition. What Jesus taught is vastly different from what we call Christianity: “Christianity, as has long been recognized by critical historians, is the religion about Jesus, not the religion of Jesus.” (Kindle Edition: 4128-29) These are not minor doctrines but doctrines the Church considers core such as the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, the suffering Messiah and even the Christian concept of heaven and hell!

I haven’t given any examples to support the above statements because I want you to actually read and engage the book yourself. Dr. Ehrman’s thesis is “that not only is the Bible a very human book, but that Christianity as it has developed and come down to us today is a
very human religion”
(Kindle Edition 3503-4). However, his personal view “is that a historical-critical approach to the Bible does not necessarily lead to agnosticism or atheism. It can in fact lead to a more intelligent and thoughtful faith—certainly more intelligent and thoughtful than an approach to the Bible that overlooks all of the problems that historical critics have discovered over the years.” (Kindle Edition: 4200-4203) He is very insistent on this point and lets the reader know that there are many professors and others with these views who claim to be a Christian and worship Jesus as divine. While this is undoubtedly true, I have to ask why?

If you know the Gospels were not eyewitness accounts, don’t accurately portray the historic facts, that the message Jesus preached is far and removed from the message preached today, that he wasn’t seen as divine until decades after his death, that the “orthodoxy” version won out over numerous other views of Jesus, that even the Canon of scripture was disputed, that many of the most precious doctrines of scripture were simply invented in order to explain difficulties (for example how can Jesus be fully man and fully God when there is only one God), and that even now there are still major disputes over major doctrines of the Church. If you know all this how can you still believe? What is so compelling that you feel you must use the label Christian? What is it about this label that people want to hang on to in spite of what they actually believe? Why knowingly worship a man? Why partake in rituals that have few roots in the original brands of Christianity? There can be no doubt that Jesus said some wonderful things but so have philosophers, Kings, poets and authors throughout the ages and no one worships them. What is so compelling about the Christian label?

Before Ehrman became an agnostic he said that Christianity “resonated” with him and comforted him. This may be the case with many people but what would you think if we talked this way about another god? What if someone said:

I know how lightning is formed but I prefer to worship Zeus and look at lightning as an attribute of his godhood because it resonates with me. It comforts me that it isn’t random but controlled by the Almighty Zeus.

Does this make any sense to a modern person? I once heard a person describe them self as a secular humanist Christian? Huh? Isn’t this a conflict in terms? Why then insist on the label “Christian”? Why does one want the label of Christian when the facts are so much different than the original Christianity or Christianities? I really don’t have an answer. I suppose this has something to do with faith, how we were raised, where we were raised, and how we can compartmentalize what we believe. As Dr. Ehrman says: “Faith is not a matter of smarts.” So true, so true.

Dr. Bart Ehrman was a strong evangelical Christian, attending both Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. His strong fundamental, evangelical, inerrant views of scripture gave way in the light of the evidence presented in his Seminary studies. As he says, “…it became clear to me over a long period of time that my former views of the Bible as the inerrant revelation from God were flat-out wrong. My choice was either to hold on to views that I had come to realize were in error or to follow where I believed the truth was leading me. In the end, it was no choice. If something was true, it was true; if not, not.” (Kindle Edition: 68-71) However, he is equally clear that his new view of scripture did NOT destroy his faith. He continued believing but became an agnostic only after considering the problem of evil, the subject of another one of his books (God’s Problem).

09. March 2009 · Write a comment · Categories: News

The American Religious Identification Survey for 2008 was released today. The results are good news for atheists but not so good news for religion in general. As the survey puts it: “The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion”. The “No Religion” group makes up 15% of the population, up by 6.8% from the 1990 survey. An additional 11% didn’t know what religion they are or refused to answer the questions. Only Catholics and Baptists have a higher percentage of the population (15.8% and 25.1% respectively). But even those groups have shown a decline from the 1990 data. Actually most religions showed a decrease in numbers or small gains of 0.5% or less from the 1990 survey group. Those who identify as Christians have fallen from 86% in 1990 to 76% in 2008, a drop of 10%. This correlates well with 24.4% of people who think there is no god or there is no way to be sure or there is a higher power but no personal god. Of the people who identify as Christian, 44.8% (34% of the population) believe themselves to be Born Again or Evangelical Christian. Interestingly, 18% of Catholics identified as such.

The No Religion group gained in all states, even in the deep south. The New England region, at 22%, has the largest number of people identifying as No Religion followed by the Pacific Region at 20%. The deep South states of AL, KY, MS, TN had the lowest number of No Religion respondants at 10% but even this number is a doubling of the 1990 value of 5%.

A table from USA Today gives a good summary of the data but I would encourage people to look at the actual report.

The survey was based on 54,461 adults and has a margin of error of less than 0.5 percent.

It is well known that children favor teleological (purpose-based) explanations for a variety of phenomena. It may be cute to see a child thinking that rocks were made to break or icebergs exist for polar bears; however, it is assumed that adults should outgrow such explanations. The question is: Do They? How ingrained are these ideas? Do such unscientific beliefs explain the wide prevalence of belief in Creation or Intelligent Design or even religion in general? While we certainly don’t know all the answers, a recent study by Kelemen and Rosset sheds some light on the subject (The Human Function Compunction: Teleological explanation in adults. 2009. Cognition 111:138-143, article kindly supplied by the author).

The authors conducted 2 studies. The first divided 121 students into 3 groups (fast speed, moderate speed, unspeeded) and asked them to read a question and then determine whether the explanation was good (correct) or bad (incorrect). Some of these questions were:

Earthworms tunnel underground to aerate the soil
Mites live on skin to consume dead skin cells
Mosses form around rocks to stop soil erosion
Finches diversified in order to survive
Germs mutate to become drug resistant
Parasites multiply to infect the host
The sun makes light so that plants can photosynthesize
Water condenses to moisten the air
Molecules fuse in order to create matter

As you can see these questions attribute purpose-based (teleological) explanations for natural phenomena. For example, while earthworms evolved to live in the soil and they do provide aeration to the soil, that is not why they tunnel. And while plants do use the sun to photosynthesize, that is not why the sun makes light.

The results for the first study were very interesting. In the authors own words: “When processing is limited by speeded conditions, adults are more likely to endorse scientifically unwarranted teleological explanations of natural phenomena”. In other words, adults, like children, sought purposeful explanations in natural events.

In order to determine whether such explanations were influenced by scientific training or religious beliefs a second study was done with 109 students who were tested on scientific knowledge and asked questions about their religious beliefs. These results showed that “even after completing multiple college level science courses, adults possess scientifically unwarranted teleological explanations of natural phenomena” and this did not correlate with belief in God. In other words, adults have a strong tendency to see purpose where there is no purpose. While this study did not find a correlation with belief in God, one can’t help but wonder if it isn’t a person’s current belief system that causes teleological explanations, but rather the beliefs taught while in childhood? I belief that such a follow-up study would prove interesting.

Of course the Christian might make the case that Paul made: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (Rom 1: 19-21, NASB). These innate beliefs are there because God placed them there. The more likely explanation is that Paul believed this because we are purpose-seeking animals. It is how we evolved. We want to know why and since we are purpose-driven animals, we make the mistake of attributing purpose to natural events that have no directing purpose.

What is becoming evident is that this tendency runs deep and is not easily replaced. This has implications for scientific education and even for “winning” the battle against non-scientific ideas such as Intelligent Design.

02. March 2009 · 1 comment · Categories: Atheism
Kill a man, and you are an assassin. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill everyone, and you are a god.” Jean Rostand.

Christians like to talk about how morality comes from god and without god there can be no morality. They are convinced that their god is morally blameless. In fact Gen 18:25 says: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (NIV) This verse used to give me much comfort especially in those areas that the Bible is silent:

What happens to a baby when it dies? I don’t know but won’t the Judge of all the earth do right?
What happens to someone who never heard of salvation through Christ? I don’t know but won’t the Judge of all the earth do right?
Why did god allow that tragedy to happen to that wonderful person? I don’t know but doesn’t the Judge of all the earth do right?

It never occurred to me to question this Bible verse. In other words, “Does the Judge of all the earth do right?” By any human standard the answer is no. Here is just a very small list of Biblical “justice” (A more complete list can be found here – Biblical Atrocities by Donal Morgan):

1. Because of one act of disobedience by one man (and one woman), every man, woman and child who were ever born were cursed with death (Gen 3). The magnitude of this injustice cannot even be fathomed, especially when you consider that Adam and Eve were acting exactly as their maker created them. To get just a little taste of the implications of this “justice” consider a man killing his entire family, his entire neighborhood, and his entire country because one of his children disobeyed him.

2. God is so unhappy with how his creation is living that he decides to kill all life on the planet except for the few aboard Noah’s Ark (Gen 6-9). What did the animals do to deserve this? I suppose all the infant children where horribly evil too?

3. Because of the sins of Pharaoh, who by the way god hardened so he would not repent, the Egyptian people were punished including killing all first born sons (Ex 7-12). Yup, that’s justice all right. A ruler sins so the people are punished.

4. God commands “in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the LORD your God has commanded” (Deut 20:16-17, NASB). A little extreme don’t you think?

5. Achan sins but to please the Lord not only is he put to death but his sons, daughters, oxen, donkeys and sheep are also stoned. (Jos 7:19-26) Justice?

6. “The LORD to harden their hearts, to meet Israel in battle in order that he might utterly destroy them, that they might receive no mercy, but that he might destroy them, just as the LORD had commanded Moses.” (Jos 11:20) So God blames them for something that he forced them to do. Justice?

7. David sins by committing adultery with Bathsheba and having her husband killed so god serves justice by killing David and Bathsheba’s child. (2 Sam 11-12) The parents sin so the child is killed? Is this justice that you could accept?

8. Lest you think this is just an Old Testament phenomenon, the ultimate injustice is committed by punishing men, woman and children eternally for finite sins. Especially when the Bible clearly states that the faith to repent is given by god and it is impossible to come to him without it (Jn 6:44, Eph 7:8-9).

I ask you, if any man committed even a fraction of the above crimes would you consider him a virtuous and moral man? Yet when god does it or commands it, suddenly it is moral? By one estimate, using only what is recorded in the bible, god has killed over 33 million people (How Many Has God Killed Part 1 and Part 2) and this estimate does not include the “acts of god” that occur every day. We expect much better from any man, even in times of war (Nüremberg Tribunal). I’m sure glad we don’t get our morals from the god of the Bible.