Monday, November 22, 2010

Did the Disciples Hallucinate?

According to Christian apologists, it is unreasonable to think that the post resurrections appearances of Christ to the disciples were hallucinations because the relevant scientific literature contains no examples of shared hallucinations. Of course the relevant scientific literature also contains no examples of people rising from the dead, but if the skeptic points this out he is accused of anti-supernatural bias.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mormonism and Christian Apologetics

I just finished Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven which tells the true story of a fundamentalist Mormon in 1984 who believed that he had received a revelation from God instructing him to kill his brother’s wife and baby daughter. Apparently, the fundamentalist’s wife had not responded favorably when he decided that he should start practicing polygamy and his sister-in-law had encouraged his wife to take the children and leave him. The fundamentalist was assisted by another brother who was convinced of the validity of the revelation. The story is set against the backdrop of the strange history of the Mormon church going back to Joseph Smith’s first encounter with the Angel Moroni in Palmyra, New York in the 1820’s.

The history of the Mormon church provides an interesting test case for many of the arguments that Christian apologists make.

If Jesus hadn’t actually been raised from the dead, the Romans or the Jews would have produced his body and that would have nipped Christianity in the bud.

There has never been any shortage of people to point out the absurdity of the Joseph Smith’s claim that the American Indians are descended from tribes of Israelites who migrated to the New World hundreds of years prior to the birth of Christ. Nevertheless, there has never been any shortage of Mormons who would happily dismiss such criticisms as deceptions of the devil. The notion that religious enthusiasms are subject to logical refutation is not supported by the evidence.

The rapid spread of Christianity couldn't have happened if it's historical claims had simply been invented.

It has taken less than two centuries for Mormonism to grow to almost 14,000,000 adherents. Although we do not have accurate figures for Christianity's growth its first 200 years, it is hard to believe that Mormonism compares unfavorably.

Nobody knowingly dies for a lie. Early Christians would not have willingly endured persecution if the resurrection was a hoax.

Early Mormons followed Joseph Smith from New York to Ohio to Missouri. In Missouri, the governor called out the militia to exterminate the Mormons or drive them from the state. Vigilantes killed many Mormons and the Mormons moved to Navoo, Illinois where Smith was arrested and lynched. Nevertheless, many Mormons willingly endured great hardships to follow Brigham Young. If willingness to endure hardship and risk persecution is proof of a religion's claims, then it is reasonable to believe that the Garden of Eden really was somewhere in Missouri.

We have no record of any of Christianity's early critics disputing that Jesus was a real person or that his tomb was empty.

If we only had the records preserved by the Mormons, we would have a much different picture of the Church's history than we have today. For example, when the Mormons slaughtered 120 settlers in the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857, the official LDS position was that the Paiute Indians were responsible. If not for independent investigations establishing Mormon responsibility, the church would have continued to deny it. If we only had Mormon sources, we would believe that the LDS had abandoned polygamy completely in 1890 when in fact its leaders continued to take multiple wives for many years thereafter. Since the earliest records of Christianity are the ones that the Catholic Church chose to preserve, we cannot take much comfort from the fact that we lack records of people who challenged orthodox beliefs.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

How Stories Grow

In Galatians 1:15-19, Paul describes what he did after his conversion:
But when God, who had set me apart even from my mother's womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went away to Arabia, and returned once more to Damascus. Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days. But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord's brother.

Paul doesn't say what he and Cephas talked about, but many Christian apologists think that Cephas gave Paul the creed that is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.
I do not personally find this argument persuasive.  When Paul says that he delivered what he received, I think he is talking about the message of salvation that he received by revelation from God, not a particular creedal formulation of that message that he received from Cephas.  I think this is consistent with the way Paul uses the word "received" in other places.  I think that Paul would have known the elements of the creed before he went to Jerusalem since he had already been preaching for three years, but I don't think we have any evidence of when or where those elements were put into the particular creed found in 1 Corinthians 15.

Many people do not share my reservations about the apologists arguments.  I frequently come across people who assert that Paul got the creed when he visited Jerusalem as if it was an incontrovertible fact.  When I point out the fact that Paul never says this, they will cite apologists like William Lane Craig or Gary Habermas or they will simply assert that it is the consensus position of biblical scholars.   I think that mostly they accept it because it "makes sense" that Paul learned the creed on his first visit to Jerusalem.

I think this is probably a very good illustration of the way that the stories in the gospels may have grown over time.  When people pass along stories, they add details that make sense and those details are accepted as part of the story.  In our literate culture, it is possible to look at what Paul actually wrote, but that doesn't prevent people from accepting added details as facts.  In an oral culture, there would be no way to determine which details in a story were original and which had been added in the retelling because they made sense.

It is very easy to imagine how details could be added incrementally to create a story.  For example, Paul never says anything about the empty tomb or how Jesus was buried in any of his letters.  For all we know, Paul might have believed that the Romans had thrown Jesus' body into a common grave for executed criminals.  However, it would have made sense that Jesus' body was no longer in the grave because Paul said that Jesus was physically resurrected.  Someone who was retelling the story of the appearances that he heard from Paul might simply have added the empty tomb.  Once you've got the empty tomb in the story, it would have made sense that someone had seen it empty.  In order for someone to find the tomb empty, it must have been a specific tomb rather than a common grave.  In order for a crucified criminal to receive an honorable burial, it makes sense that there would have been a prominent person who had some political pull but was nonetheless sympathetic to Jesus.  Before you know it, you have the story of Joseph of Arimathea.

It fascinates me that Bible believers can so easily accept as fact the content of Paul's conversations on his visit to Jerusalem when it fits the narrative that they want to believe, but they recoil in such horror at the notion that the stories recorded in the gospels might be the product of a similar series of embellishments.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Crappy Little Plastic Toys

America has the highest obesity rate in the world, but Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman seems to think that there is a constitutional prohibition on any government action that would infringe upon the right of corporations to exploit the poor decisions that human beings make.
Now, there are many places where the government ought to be: between a citizen and a mugger, between the polluter and the sky, between us all and al Qaida. But the space between a diner's hand and a diner's mouth is not one of them. 
Chapman is up in arms over a San Francisco regulation that would prohibit McDonald’s from providing free toys with Happy Meals that are loaded with fat, sugar and calories.

I don’t know whether the San Francisco rule is a good idea or not, but I don’t understand why McDonald’s right to exploit poor parenting decisions which are harmful to the health of children trumps all other concerns.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Can Evidence Ever Prove a Miracle?

The reason we think that fingerprints on a gun might tell us who used that gun to commit a murder is that we think that we understand the natural processes by which the unique patterns in the skin on the human finger might come to appear on another object and, just as importantly, we think that those natural process are unvarying.  If we thought that those patterns just appeared randomly on objects or if we thought they appeared by divine fiat, we could not say that fingerprints on murder weapon constituted evidence of anything.

Unfortunately, miracles don't follow natural processes and they do not occur uniformly.  We cannot claim that the Shroud of Turin constitutes evidence of the resurrection of Christ because we have no idea what happens when a human being is supernaturally raised from the dead.  We have no basis to assert that any particular piece of evidence is more likely the result of a miracle than a natural cause because we have no idea what kind of evidence a miracle is likely to produce.

Christian apologists will claim that this is simply an anti-supernatural presupposition that skeptics bring to the table, but that is not where the problem lies.  The problem lies in the logic of the "inference" tool that we use to draw conclusions from evidence.  We infer anything from any particular piece of evidence without some knowledge of the way in which particular causes produce such evidence.

Friday, November 5, 2010

We Are So Screwed

I would just go back to the way in which the market was muscled under the GSE’s [Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac] to do zero down payment loans because the presumption was that we wanted to get everyone into a house.
Republican Congressman Ed Royce of California who is hoping to become Chairman of the Financial Services Committee on the grounds of his knowledge and experience. 

Those poor bankers. They're the real victims. They didn't want to generate huge fees and bonuses by securitizing crap mortgages. They were "muscled" by the government.

Republican candidates may have ranted and raved about bank bailouts, but anyone who thinks that the new congress won't be as big a lackey for Wall Street as the Democrats is delusional.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Reflections on the Election

A great day for the Republicans, but I am not so sure that it was such a great day for the Tea Party.  A couple of very vulnerable Democrats, Nevada Senator Harry Reid and Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, managed to keep their positions because voters were scared off by Tea Party opponents Sharon Angle and Bill Brady (although the Illinois race is still in doubt).  The Democrats managed to hold on to Colorado where I would have expected the Tea Party to do well.  Rand Paul won in Kentucky but he did it by playing ball with the establishment Republicans.  Even in Caribou Barbie's backyard, Tea Party favorite Joe Miller is still in battle with a write-in establishment Republican. 

Monday, November 1, 2010

Cutting Other People's Benefits

The Big Picture has an interesting post that notes that the above average growth in the use of food stamps in some of the states where the Tea Party is strongest and individual counties that voted decisively for Bush in 2004 and McCain in 2008.