Monday, December 24, 2007

Apples and Aircraft Carriers

I do not think a week goes by in which I don't see some conservative Christian blogger talking about how the manuscript evidence for the New Testament is so much better than that for other ancient writings like the Illiad. I have never found this comparison particularly meaningful. It seems to me to be not just a case of comparing apples to oranges, but a case of comparing apples to aircraft carriers.

Suppose for an example that I was quite happy with my barber, but I were to find myself in need of an operation on my brain. In seeking out a brain surgeon, I would not be impressed by someone who recommended a particular surgeon on the grounds that he was just as reliable as my barber. I would simply not measure the reliability of a barber on the same scale as the reliability of a brain surgeon. By the same token I don't see the sense in comparing the reliability of a document that purports to be the inerrant and infallible message of God to humanity to the reliability of a document that purports to be nothing more than an ancient work of fiction.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Don't Know Much About History: The Sandy Rios Story

On Monday afternoon, evangelical radio gabber Sandy Rios interviewed Michael Newdow, an atheist who is suing to have the words "under God" removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. Throughout the interview, Rios demonstrated her ignorance of history, historical methods, and principles of government. Naturally, she believed that she understood all the relevant facts.

Given her belief that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, you might think that Rios might have some grasp of the concept that some documents and statements are more authoritative than others. She doesn't. When Rios quoted a prayer that George Washington offered for the United States that was directed to "almighty God," Newdow correctly pointed out that the prayer reflected Washington's personal beliefs rather than the position of the government. When Newdow noted that almighty God wasn't mentioned in the Constitution, Rios replied "That doesn't matter." To Rios, the personal beliefs of various notable Americans are more than adequate justification for ignoring the Establishment Clause.

Rios did not seem to have a very good command of what was in the Constitution. At one point, she challenged Newdow to explain why the Bill of Rights referred to being "endowed by their Creator." Of course, that is the Declaration of Independence, which unlike the Constitution, is not the supreme law of the land. Perhaps I am being unduly harsh on Rios since it is the kind of mistake that the vast majority of Americans would make. Still, if you are going to claim to understand the Framers position on religion, you need to know which ideas made it into the Constitution.

Rios did not even seem to have a very clear idea of when the Constitution was written. At one point she claimed that she "like[d] to read the things that go back closest to the actual events" when she considers historical questions like this. However, she then proceeded to cite something lauding Christianity that was written by the House Judiciary Committee in 1854, seven decades after the adoption of the Constitution. Of course there was also the question of why she considered the statement authoritative as she did not say why the Committee issued the statement, i.e., whether it was some sort of official report or just the bloviating of a committee member or a witness.

As I have noted before, in order to claim that their belief in the Bible is a matter of provable facts, evangelical Christians must embrace a very distorted notion of what constitutes evidence. The Culture Campaign routinely asserts that their position is conclusively proved when they can find anything that supports it. Campaign President Sandy Rios demonstrated that anything that contradicts their position can be routinely dismissed, even the Constitution of the United States.