Saturday, February 26, 2011

Why Special Revelation is a Terrible System.

If you have ever played 'Chinese Whispers' (sounds a bit racist to me these days), you would know that through multiple transmissions of information, things get changed. The more information being transmitted, the more divergent the end result becomes, sometimes even to the point where it is unrecognisable from the original. I don't think you could find anyone who would accept that this would be a good method for learning anything, except when it comes to religion. In fact there are billions of people worldwide who believe in religions that follow this system.

Special Revelation is typically defined as when a god intervenes in the world to reveal something (or itself) to specific peoples at a specific time. I am going to extend this definition for the purpose of this post to include the teachings of Jesus, since most Christians believe he was God anyway.

In the case of the Bible, a substantial portion of the books were not written by people who had seen the events described, in fact many were written hundreds if not thousands (as with Noah's Flood and the garden of Eden) of years after the events were purported to have occurred. Let's assume for the time being that all of the stories are based on actual events, and see where we end up in terms of the believability and reliability of the stories when we get to the end of the chain.

  1. Eyewitnesses, or the receivers of revelation
  2. Re-tellers of the story
  3. Re-tellers of the story
  4. Re-tellers of the story
  5. Re-tellers of the story (this should be enough generations to demonstrate my point, there could perhaps be a lot more.)
  6. Author
  7. Re-tellers of the story
  8. Re-tellers of the story
  9. Copyists
  10. Re-tellers of the story
  11. Redactor
  12. Re-tellers of the story
  13. Copyists
  14. Re-tellers of the story
  15. Re-tellers of the story
  16. Copyists
  17. Re-tellers of the story
  18. Translators
  19. Commentators
  20. Theologian/Minister/Pastor/Priest
  21. Plebeian.

This is a fairly generic picture of how far removed we are from the original sources of any given Biblical text. The number of generations between each stage will differ for each individual text, and many old testament texts went through several stages of redaction (which is essentially a re-write of the text to include new content). Some Christians assert that each step of the process was 'inspired' by God, not only the authorship of it, but this simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny. The textual variants of the New Testament alone should be evidence enough to discount the idea that the re-tellers and copyists were inspired to keep the text the same. In fact many popular Christian ideas only appear in variant texts and do not appear in the majority of manuscripts. One key example of this is John 8:6-8, where Jesus says the famous "cast the first stone" line, the oldest and most reliable manuscripts do not have this story.

With the transmission process and textual unreliability out of the way, let us examine the authorship. Many of the books of the Bible were penned anonymously, and we do not have the originals (of any of them). In the case of the gospels, the names were attributed to them over a hundred years after we think they were authored. In the case of the Pentateuch, it was revised and added to many times over its history, with each step being anonymous.

Even if all of the text were completely reliable, and there were no discrepancies or errors, due to the nature of the material in the texts, they still wouldn't be believable. Textual support or 'evidence', or even eyewitness testimony is not sufficient to justify belief in miracle claims. The historical principle of analogy gives us a tool for weeding out probable and improbable events. If something in an ancient text (or a more recent text) makes a claim that an event occurs that defies what we currently know to be true, either through our own experiences, or through scientific study, then that claim is discredited. Even believers use this method (whether consciously or otherwise) when examining claims from other religions. For example, a Christian would not be likely to believe a miracle story attributed to Hercules, or to Mohammed.

An omniscient, or even just an intelligent deity would know these things, and would have an understanding that some people actual understand the nature of evidence and will not believe anything on faith. It is my position then, that Special Revelation, and thus Christianity are incoherent and unbelievable. If a deity constructed a system of religion knowing that the very credibility of his favoured method of revealing truth would come into dispute, then that deity is wilfully condemning all people who are not credulous, and is not worth worshipping. If the deity constructed the religious system, and didn't consider the fact that it would not be believable to people with a reasonable standard of evidence, then that deity is incompetent, and is less intelligent than many humans, and is also not worth worshipping.

I tend to favour the position that no such deity exists that could invent a religious system where people not only have to believe in the god purely on faith, but to know anything about said deity, they have to rely on people, who were relying on people etc. ad nauseum, also with faith alone. If a deity exists at all, it is almost certainly not one that creates a religious system that praises credulity.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Where do you Draw the Line?

Here's a question for Christians, where do you draw the line between myth and history, with regards to the Old Testament?

Let me elaborate. (I discussed this in some depth last month, but this post is mainly to pose the question)

It is quite plainly obvious that the first few chapters of Genesis are entirely mythic in nature. In fact there are enormous problems with the rest of Genesis too, anachronisms in the patriarchal narratives, including place names that didn't exist at the time etc. We have similar problems with the exodus account, along with other problems including the fact that Egypt was in control of the entire Mesopotamian area. To compound that problem, there hasn't been any evidence uncovered that Hebrew speaking people were ever enslaved in Egypt, or that over a million people lived in the Sinai Desert for 40 years.

When it comes to the stories following Moses, about the conquest of Canaan etc. (I've done a post on this before) the problems become even greater. The Bible has the Israelites destroying cities that didn't exist at the time. To me, this is pretty convincing evidence that all of the Biblical 'history' up to this point is fiction.

Next is the Judges period, and then the United Monarchy under David and Solomon, which seems to me like it is mostly fictitious too. One lone inscription has been found mentioning the 'House of David' and no evidence has ever been found of Solomon's existence. In fact all of the evidence discovered thus far contradicts the idea of a United Monarchy altogether!

The later kings such as Ahaz, Hezekiah etc. are actually verified to have existed, though the Biblical account of them is rather biased and polemical, reporting victories when they were actually defeated, tainting successful kings with the 'evil' brush because they weren't monotheists and so on.

To me, it seems obvious that there is a blurry line somewhere between Solomon and the Babylonian exile. Though this would be a position that is unacceptable to a Christian, since without an actual Moses or Abraham, there is no first covenant, so Jesus' second covenant is meaningless. It would also mean that since there was no united monarchy of David, then the Davidic messiahship is also meaningless, and therefore Jesus could not be the Jewish messiah.

If there are any Christians reading this, I would like to know where you draw the historical line, and why.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Damned if They Do, Damned if They Don't.

Note: This is sort of an unusual post for me, as I'm (in a rather odd way) giving advice to Christendom.

I have been thinking of a solution to the general ignorance of the Christian populace regarding their own religion, and have come to the conclusion that there isn't really a solution, because either path will undoubtedly lead to the eventual destruction of the core of the religion. Here's how I came to this conclusion.

If the Christian church continues the way it has done for virtually its entire history, leaving the general majority of believers in the dark about the intricacies and facts of the development of its scriptures, and the development and history of its foundation (Judaism), then when individuals discover this for themselves as I did, it will likely result in a severe erosion of their faith. In my case, my faith was eroded piece by piece until I had none left, and eventually realised that I no longer even believed in a god.

On the other hand, if the church decides that it is going to tell its members about how their religion really came to be, how unreliable the scriptures are historically, and so on, it will no longer be a 'simple faith', i.e. that people won't be able to bury their head in the sand, or check their brain in at the door and recite verbatim statements like 'Jesus died for your sins and he loves you, all you need to do is accept him!'. Converts will no longer be obtained through emotional deception, Evangelists will not simply be able to tug at the heart strings of potential converts, leaving out all the important details.

Imagine this scenario, someone is 'tricked' into becoming a Christian by an evangelist who assures the person, 'Jesus is God!, and he died for your sins!'. The next week when they go to church for the first time, they hear the Preacher teaching the congregation that we really know NOTHING about who Jesus was!
"How can you know that he is God if you know next to nothing about who he really was?"
"You just need to have faith!"
".... Seriously? That's all you have?"
Perhaps this scenario is more favourable (for the church) to one where the church actively obfuscates and lies, and the convert discovers from other sources about these things.