Monday, December 29, 2008

The Power of Prayer: Anecdotal Evidence

James 5:16b: The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.

Matthew 17:20: And He said to them, “Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.”

The Bible makes a number of very bold claims about the power of faith and prayer. Personally, I have seen faith greater than a mustard seed and I haven't seen any mountains move. I suppose most people have shared this experience. In light of how clearly false a literal interpretation is, it's not much of a surprise that most Christians think the mountain moving part is a metaphor. But a metaphor for what?

With few exceptions, the power of prayer is seen only through cool stories of how God works, rather than in verifiable claims. For now, I will meet the stories on their own ground.

About a month ago, I was driving home from Maryland in the dark and in pouring rain. I'm not sure why (probably to earn macho points), but I thought it would be a good idea to see if I could make it all the way without stopping. Three hours later, I had made it to my exit, but it was raining so hard that I didn't see the exit ramp until right after I passed it, even though I knew it was coming. If there's a good way to turn around on the New Jersey Turnpike, I still don't know it. A sign could have been proclaiming “Miss your exit? Go here, stupid” and I still couldn't have seen it through the rain. Half an hour later, I stopped at a gas station to ask which way was up. They gave me go-until-you-see-Wawa-then-turn-right-and-go-down-that-road-for-a-while style directions. After driving down that road for “a while,” I was still lost.

In the style of a Christian stopping to pray, I stopped for about a minute to collect my thoughts and simmer down. An hour ago, I was 15 minutes from home – that's gone, don't dwell on that. Anger is irrational here – adrenaline will just get me killed, so let go. Viewed from the bigger picture of say, today, a lost hour or two isn't really that bad. Prayer was very intentionally left out – I didn't go through some facade of “just in case.” I apply Pascal's Wager to an honesty loving deity rather than a faith loving deity, so I don't pray.

I found another gas station, and stopped to buy a detailed road map and have the clerk point out where I was. But he had a better idea. Despite the fact that I was 14 miles from home, he lived less than two miles away from me. Not only that, his ride home had just canceled on him, and his shift ended in ten minutes. Needless to say, I was more than willing to give him a lift for free. Heck, I almost gave him a tip.

If I had been a Christian, this would have been among my more dramatic examples of an answered prayer. Thank you God for making his ride cancel on him, and for leading me to that exact gas station! God hears before we even ask!

But I didn't ask. So why should I be impressed when Christians tell similar stories about what happened when they did ask? Either God is a rewarder of sincere disbelief, or stuff like this just happens without any deity calling the shots.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Book Reviews

In the last year, I've devoured numerous books on religion. My ranking are based on their relevance to the question “but is it true?” In order of best to worst:

1. Why I Became An Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity – John Loftus

Head. And. Shoulders. Above. All. Others. If your book shopping is based on my recommendations, stop reading my blog and go buy it right now.

2. C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion – John Beversluis
3. Beyond Born Again, chapters 5-7 – Robert Price
4. The History of God – Karen Armstrong
5. Incarnation and Inspiration – Peter Enns

Two through five were all excellent, and highly recommended if you are interested in the particular topic.

6. The End of Faith – Sam Harris

I'm not filling stockings with this one, but it was worth my time.

7. The Problem of Pain – C. S. Lewis
8. Letter to a Christian Nation – Sam Harris

These last two were complete lemons.

In more detail:

1. Why I Became An Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity – John Loftus

“Why I'm not Evangelical” would be a more appropriate title, as the focus is not a rejection of any concept of a god, but rather a rejection of the Bible and Evangelical theology. Its target audience is theologically and biblically informed evangelical laypeople/college students.

Rather than bashing the reader over the head with how ridiculous the whole thing is, Loftus patiently covers Christianity from start to finish. He begins with explaining why people should believe things based on actual reasons, and why Christianity must pass the outsider test to be a defensible belief. The rest of the book shows that not only is Christianity not required or suggested by reason, but it doesn't even come close to possessing the slightest shred of reasonableness.

Most of his arguments are a one-two punch of philosophy and biblical analysis. The first hit shows how (insert doctrine of choice) is meaningless/contradictory/impossible and the second hit undercuts the support for the idea actually being true. His philosophical analysis is consistently stellar – he dismantles all the little things in theology that you are supposed to learn but not think about. His biblical arguments switch between the rifle and shotgun approach – he spends the better part of a chapter on a few individual problems, and with others issues his gives a long lists of problems with little elaboration. The contents of the book could probably be divided into 50-100 articles, each of which addresses enough problems in the Bible/theology to justify deconversion or a least a major theological shift.

I don't think the book offers any new arguments that scholars haven't seen before, but that's not its goal. The goal is to communicate to evangelicals ideas that are already out there but are not usually phrased in ways that have a good chance of penetrating through their intellectual defense mechanisms. Pure-bred atheists, or unbelievers coming out of nominal religious backgrounds simply can't do this because it takes a former preacher to really understand the evangelical mind, and not just evangelical beliefs.

60% philosophical/theological, 40% biblical

2. C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion – John Beversluis

This book is meant to be a complete rebuttal to all of Lewis' primary arguments for faith. After reading this book, I feel the intellectual pull of none of his reasons. The main targets are the argument from desire (If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world), the Trilemma, the moral argument, the argument from reason (without God why think our thinking leads to truth?), and a series of rebuttals to Lewis' changing answers to the problem of pain/evil.

The book is heavy philosophically – I didn't make it through a couple of the chapters with understanding. However, Beversluis does an excellent job writing to the more philosophically inclined while allowing more left-brained people like me to listen in profitably. For instance, in one chapter he discusses how Lewis' life and books fit into the discussions of the philosophy of religion that were raging in his generation. Beversluis doesn't assume the reader is up on the philosophical developments of the '50s, but manages to transform what sounds like an extremely esoteric tangent into a highly informative lesson on the modern history of thought.

This book played a major role in pushing me from deist to atheist, but I imagine that many other books would have been better at accomplishing this particular goal, especially one that's a bit easier.

50% philosophical, 50% rebuttal

3. Beyond Born Again, chapters 5-7 – Robert Price

The topic here is rebuttals to the standard historical arguments for the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. It's written at an extremely accessible level and online for free. My top two books take 50-100 pages to fully get started – this one takes about 3. If you aren't sufficiently convinced by the possibility that Christianity might be false to think skeptics' arguments are even worth taking seriously, this is a great place to start because the time investment is low. This book is my first recommendation to Christians.

However, I do have a couple criticisms. Price takes apologists seriously in that he accurately represents their arguments and provides serious rebuttals. However, he doesn't take them seriously rhetorically. While he doesn't cross the line out of civil discussion, I'd bet it takes a bit away from it's persuasiveness to those who don't agree with him. However, it's not more insulting than, say, a typical partisan editorial or the way C. S. Lewis talks about skeptics.

Price was some sort of liberal Christian when I wrote it, but it's not at all surprising that he's now an atheist. His left-handed concessions to apologists that Jesus might still have been raised even if it's not historically defensible are distracting at times, but that's where Price was at at the time – thinking it might be true, but that apologists use bad arguments.

100% rebuttal

4. The History of God – Karen Armstrong

This is the history of man's concept of God as it has changed from paganism to Judaism to Christianity to Islam. I'm only 1/5 the way through, but this alone is an eye-opener. As the book is chronological, I don't think finishing it will be important to my evaluation of the beginning.

Armstrong explains with great clarity how Judaism developed out of paganism. The opening points come from some pre-biblical archaeological finds of pagan religious writings. This includes a creation story that is suspiciously similar to the Genesis creation story. The name of the Canaanite high god was El. Abraham begins by worshiping El Shaddi (El of the Mountain). It's not until Exodus 6:3 that Yahwah is reveled to be the same God as El Shaddi, the God of Abraham.

The Bible is chock full of stories and theology that doesn't quite add up. Armstrong goes through the Bible's history and explains what is really going on. At numerous points, I had noticed the discrepancy she was talking about (has anyone seen God's face, for instance?) Rather than just leave it as a contradiction and walk away in biblical debunking victory, she does something with the discrepancies. They are clues for learning the history of the writing of the Bible and the changing of man's concept of God along the way. In the end, you see that the God of the Bible does not appear paradoxical because he actually is paradoxical, but because of the jamming together of different concepts of God that were not meant to go together.

This book is informative rather than persuasive. In many places I have questions about how we know something that Armstrong claims. When how we know is not important to understanding what her position is, the reasons are usually a reference in a footnote. Seldom are dissenting views given a hearing or rebuttal. So while the book is excellent background on what secular/liberal scholars think is really going on in the OT, it's not a great source for arguments that these secular/liberal scholars are correct.

Had my criteria been best-written book in a literary sense, this would probably be number one.

The part I have read is 50% historical, 50% biblical.

5. Incarnation and Inspiration – Peter Enns

Surprisingly enough, a book by an evangelical scores highly on my list. Enns professes acceptance of “inerrancy”, but IMO, the way in which he describes this term is sufficiently different from traditional definitions that he should use a new word.

The premise of the book is an analogy between Jesus and the Bible. Just as the incarnation resulted in a fully human person the inspiration of the Bible involves a book that was fully written by human but is also more. Enns three primary topics are the influence of the surrounding cultures on the OT, the theological differences within the OT, and the NT's use of the OT. In each case, he first argues that the problems are not just surface misinterpretations, but real issues. Next he argues why this doesn't undermine God's role in inspiring the Bible.

Anecdotal evidence supports my opinion that this book could easily shake the faith of a conservative Christian, and could easily cause a conservative losing their faith to settle on a more moderate theology. This book unofficially led to his peaceful removal from Westminster Theological Seminary.

90% biblical, 10% historical

6. The End of Faith – Sam Harris

Harris picks up the political side of the case against faith. It's extremely quotable, but not all that relevant to my questions of if religion is actually true. He is trying to shake up moderate and liberal believers and to answer the question “So religion is false – what now? To what degree should it be tolerated and to what degree should it be actively opposed?” While I slowly liberaled out a number of opinions before deconverting, I was always theologically conservative at heart, so most of his criticisms miss my prior positions.

His primary target of criticism is Islam. His secondary targets are liberals with an unhealthy respect for Islam, Christians, and religious moderates because any concept of faith that isn't based on evidence serves to perpetuate a culture that empowers the extremists. Ironically enough, I agreed with more of his criticism of liberals than of Christians – he rarely (never?) expresses awareness of the concept of people believing because they think the evidence supports their belief. I often thought his case for just how bad religion is was overstated by means of going after all the worth instances of religion rather than after a representative sample, but it was well-worth reading while keeping in mind that there is another side.

Harris's opening story is so memorable that I cannot resist a lengthy quotation. Harris begins with a narrative about the last minute in the life of a suicide bomber. After describing the explosion, he then writes:

“These are the facts. This is all we know for certain about the young man. Is there anything else that we can infer about him of the basis of his behavior? Was he popular in school? Was he rich or was he poor? Was he of low or high intelligence? His actions leave no clue at all. Did he have a college education? Did he have a bright future as a mechanical engineer? His behavior is simply mute on questions of this sort, and hundreds like them. Why is it so easy, then, so trivially easy – you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it easy – to guess the young man's religion?”

Other brilliant quotes include,

“But faith is an impostor. This can be readily seen in the way that all the extraordinary phenomena of the religious life – a statue of the Virgin weeps, a child casts his crutches to the ground – are seized upon by the faithful as confirmation of their faith. At these moments, religious believers appear like men and women in the desert of uncertainty given a cool drink of data.”


“The men who committed the atrocities of September 11 were certainly not 'cowards,' as they were repeatedly described in the Western media, nor were they lunatics in any ordinary sense. They were men of faith – perfect faith, as it turns out – and this, it must finally be acknowledged, is a terrible thing to be.”

30% political, 30% historical, 30% philosophical, 10% rant

7. The Problem of Pain – C. S. Lewis

I read this several years ago and was a bit confused by it, but I liked it. I re-read it early 2008 and realized that much of my confusion was the result of assuming the soundness of Lewis' less-than-stellar reasoning. The central thesis is this “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Given that many consider the problem of evil/pain to be the most common reason for modern Christians to lose their faith, I dare say that God's megaphone appears to be malfunctioning.

100% philosophical

8. Letter to a Christian Nation – Sam Harris

(**Update 2/4/09**: I first read this in May '08 and had a confusing mix of emotions. My December review was based on this sour memory. I have since re-read it and changed my mind. If you grit your teeth and say the truth of Christianity has nothing to do with the behavior of Christians, as I did the first time through, then Harris offers little. But on the other hand, one significant reason many believe is due to the positive effects they think Christianity is having on the world - this is an argument deserving of a rebuttal. As he's taking on Christians' illusion that their morality is helpful, rather than something like a scholarly textual argument, rhetoric with much more bite than I usually provide is both appropriate and needed. I'm not deleting my extremely negative review, but I no longer agree with what follows.)

This is a letter from an atheist telling Christians just how bad they really are. I read this one in one siting in a Border's Books. The coffee I drank while reading it was of more lasting value. The biggest reason I'm glad I didn't buy it isn't the saving of my money, but rather the knowledge that I'm not part of a system that financially supports this approach. In the introduction or foreword or somewhere not worth looking up, he admits this is a rant because more civil approaches have failed. And then he rants. At times, it was hilarious, but if you just want a simple laugh at religion's expense, watch The Life of Brian or Religulous. These are two excellent movies that fully stand up to all the academic rigor we have come to expect out of R-rated comedies. (But seriously, they are good movies. They are also comedies.) The book did help make me glad my faith was gone, but I felt this was done through appeal to baser aspects of my mind. He has plenty of real arguments – I wish his passion didn't get in the way of his expression of them.

The real problem with books like this is that no matter how ridiculous the position being defended, emotional arguments can be crafted that are every bit as compelling as these. Thus, even if he's right, the mud-slinging obscures our vision of if he has really won. Moving the battle into turf like this takes away any debate advantage the truth should have possessed due to being true. I don't want an atheist version of Ann Coulter to exist – we can be better than that. (For the record, Harris is better than Coulter, but he's far too close.)

X% rant, (100-X)% political, where X is large

The Unfinished

I started reading The Design Matrix by Mike Gene, but I lost interest in it with my faith. It's an argument for Intelligent Design that assumes evolution (you read that right.) Science isn't the turning point for me anyway, and ID alone only pushes me toward deism. I might finish it, but not soon.

I started The Case for Christ, but I was unimpressed enough that I couldn't bear to slog through. Basically Lee Strobel starts off as an agnostic journalist, and then interviews Christianity's best apologists and scholars. Through the process, Strobel becomes a Christian. Inspiring stuff, but what you're reading is a bad skeptic losing to Christianity's finest. Mixing in all sorts of narrative detail makes the book psychologically persuasive, but it's irritating when you just want to read the case for Christ. I don't care how much confidence Habermas delivers his arguments with, I want to read his arguments and see how they stack up against skeptical rebuttals and vice versa. I may finish this one, but only as a conversation piece.

I'm still reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis. I have every intention of finishing both and may review them in the distant future.

My Upcoming Religion Reading List:

Unweaving the Rainbow – Richard Dawkins
Who Wrote the Bible? – Richard Friedman
The End of Biblical Studies – Hector Avlos
The Gods of War: Is Religion the Primary Cause of Violent Conflict? – Meic Pearse
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark – Carl Sagan

In the unlikely case that a professor of mine reads this, yes, this is one reason why mathematically speaking, I accomplished so much less this semester than normal...

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Bible's Most Mythical Story

Genesis 6:4 “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.”

Christians don't all agree on what the Nephilim were. I will make the case that the Nephilim were a mighty race of the half-demon/half-human.

Unless you have something against the idea that at times the Bible is as implausible as a fantasy novel, this is the most natural reading of Genesis. “Sons of God” is contrasted with “daughters of men,” so one group comes from God and the other from men. Also, “sons of God” is also used in Job 1:6 “Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan came also among them.” This further established that “sons of God” takes its natural meaning of angels/demons. This alone is enough to make my case.

If you accept the inspiration of the NT, the case is even stronger. The author of the book of Enoch agreed with me in 300-200 BC. Enoch 6:2-3a “And the angels, the children of the heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: 'Come, let us choose us wives from among the children of men and beget us children.'”

At first glance, Enoch is irrelevant to Genesis. Enoch is neither contemporary to Genesis nor canonical. However, no less than Tertullian, the man who first articulated the doctrine of the Trinity, accepted this book as canonical. One reason he accepted it is that Jude quotes from Enoch:

Jude 14b-15 “Behold, the Lord came with many thousands of His holy ones, to execute judgment upon all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds which they have done in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him.”

Enoch 1:9 “And behold! He cometh with ten thousands of His holy ones
To execute judgement upon all,
And to destroy all the ungodly:
And to convict all flesh
Of all the works of their ungodliness which they have ungodly committed,
And of all the hard things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him.”

While this is not a full endorsement of Enoch by Jude, it does suggest that Jude had the ideas of Enoch in mind in other parts of his letter, and these ideas should be considered when trying to determine what Jude meant. Jude 6-7 fairly clearly communicates that demons bred with women:

“And angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode, He has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day, just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh.”

Looking at the phrase “they in the same way as these indulged” it's clear from context that they = angels and these = Sodom and Gomorrah. Thus, Jude believed demons engaged in some kind of gross sexual sin. As this happened through the abandoning of their proper abode, the best conclusion is that they sinned sexually after leaving heaven and coming down to earth, thus with humans. Especially in light of Jude's connection to Enoch, the conclusion is inescapable. If you accept the Bible as the word of God, you should also believe the Bible's most mythical story.

I would like to pause and savor a few choice implications the Nephilim have upon our understanding of the world:

1. Demons are straight, so we should reconsider Paul's whole being-evil-makes-you-gay line of reasoning.
2. Due to the reproductive compatibility of demons and humans, demons should be referred to as homo sapiens minionus, as they are clearly at least a sub-species of homo sapiens.
3. If we found the right ancient remains, and if Jurassic Park were not so obviously fictitious, we could genetically engineer demons, or at least creatures whose might comes from their demon DNA.
4. Homo sapiens minionus have needs, too.
5. In the throughs of a nasty break-up or divorce, women occasionally wonder if the man for whom she fell is really a demon. This is a possibility that deserves more serious consideration than it typically receives.

The Bible is myth and superstition. Why is this a controversial statement?