Faith and Science: Ways of “Knowing”

 

Written over three days in order to address a key discrepancy when people of faith speak with secular people. Enjoy.

Introduction

One of the pressing question in recent memory is: how do we reconcile religion and science? The answer, to me at least, seems obvious. Science and religion are competitors at discovering truths about nature. And science is the only field that has the ability to disprove the truth claims of religion, and has done repeatedly. Religion, on the other hand, has no ability to overturn the truths found by science. In Moral Landscapes, Sam Harris challenges his readers to think of just one example where a scientific claim was improved upon thanks to a faith claim. You won’t be able to think of one. It cannot be stressed enough: It is this competition, and the ability of science to erode the hegemony of faith –  but not vice versa – that has produced the copious discussion of how the two areas relate to each other.

One can in fact argue that science and religion have been at odds ever since science began to exist as a formal discipline in sixteenth-century Europe. Scientific advances, of course, began well before that – in ancient Greece, China, India, and the Middle East – but could conflict with religion in a public way only when religion assumed both the power and the dogma to control society. That had to wait until the rise of Christianity and Islam, and then until science produced results that called their claims in to question.

And so the last five hundred years there have been conflicts between science and faith – not continuous conflict, but occasional and infamous moments of public hostility. The two most notable ones are Galileo’s squabble with the church and his sentence to lifetime of house arrest in 1632 over his claim of a Sun-centered solar system, and the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” involving a titanic clash between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan over whether a Tennessee high-school teacher could tell his students that humans evolved (the jury ruled no).

But these episodes of conflict didn’t give rise to public discussion about the relationship of science and religion until the nineteenth century. Ignited by Charles Darwin 1859 publication of Origin of Species, it quickly became the greatest scripture-killer ever penned, though that was not its purpose. What Darwin’s book did was demonstrate that purely naturalistic processes – evolution and natural selection – could explain patterns in nature previously explainable only by invoking a Great Designer. From this point on, a modern discussion was launched that highlighted a war between faith and science.

The purpose of this essay is to defend the claim that science and faith are incompatible when it comes to ways of knowing truth. Furthermore, I will demonstrate that it is indeed science – not faith – that provides the best method for understanding the nature of the world.

Defining Faith

From the outset, it’s important to begin with this point: faith is not a way of knowing, nor is it a good method for knowing. Faith, unlike science, is not a method but rather a confidence or trust in something. Modern apologists inextricably link post-Enlightenment descriptions like “reason” or “objectivity” to faith so that it can appear to have more credibility when juxtaposed to science. According to our historians and linguists who have studied the first three centuries, the early church is absolutely in disagreement with modern apologists hijacking faith and putting it under the guise of objectivity. Furthermore, faith cannot be a valid way of knowing or even about right beliefs when – throughout history – faith looks so wildly different everywhere you look. After all, there is a second century Syrian way of being Christian, but also there is an 8th century Irish way, a 12th century Eastern Orthodox way, a 15th century Chinese way, and a 19th century Scandinavian Lutheran peasant way. Faith is not about finding objectivity or reasonable beliefs, but rather, something else. First though, how can we define it?

Succinct definitions vary, but James W. Fowler states that faith is the way one structures their values, the patters of love and action, the shape of fear and dread and the directions of hope and friendship in one’s life. Faith is not always religious in its content or context. To ask these questions seriously of oneself does not necessarily mean to elicit answers about religious commitment or belief. Faith is a person’s or group’s way of moving into the force field of life. It is our way of finding coherence in and giving meaning to the multiple forces and relations that make up our lives. Faith is a person’s way of seeing himself or herself in relation to others against a background of shared meaning and purpose. In short, faith involves how we make our life wagers. It shapes the ways we invest our deepest loves and our most costly loyalties.

Shifting from Fowler’s understanding of faith to scripture, the Bible says faith is “the substance of the things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Notice its saying it’s a hope (or a confidence) concerning things not seen. While pistuou (faith) was an accepted understanding, albeit a direct contradiction to reason, Christian apologists are unsatisfied with this [as a side note we have extensive evidence showing that church history drew sharp lines between faith and reason from Paul in I Corinthians 2:14, Tertullian and Martin Luther]. The Oxford Dictionary definition defines faith as a “Belief in and acceptance of the doctrines of a religion, typically involving belief in a god or gods in the authenticity of divine revelation. Also (Theol.): the capacity to spiritually apprehend divine truths, or realities beyond the limits of perception or a logical proof, viewed either as a faculty of the human soul, or as the result of divine illumination.”

Note that what promotes acceptance of religious doctrine are revelation, “divine illumination,” and spiritual apprehension, leading to acceptance of “realities beyond the limits of perception or of logical proof.” Theologians don’t like this definition of faith, but it surly is, as is any system that requires supporting a priori beliefs without good evidence. In religions, not science, that kind of faith is seen as a virtue.

From Definition to Etymology

I will now attempt to lay out a brief history of faith, I hope that it becomes apparent that faith is not about one’s reasoning or cognitive capacities. In other words, it’s not a way of knowing. Moreover, to ask rhetorically, “Oh, so faith is just mindless?” is to ask the wrong question and miss the point of faith altogether. This is not to invalidate or minimize its meaning, rather, it is to say that faith serves a different purpose while possessing little to no use within the arena of epistemology. Let’s begin with the morphology of words.

If a friend says you’re “nice” you would most likely thank them for the compliment. Certainly seems like a nice thing to say. But that’s because you’re defining the word “nice” in a twenty-first century context. Way back in history, “nice” meant “ignorant” (Latin), then it morphed into “stupid” (Middle English). The importance of original meanings of words becomes paramount when the words express foundational “truths” of an ideological faith. “Faith” is one of those words that deserves prudent scrutiny.

The Modern conundrum is that Christian faith has morphed into beliefs that are properly supported by proposition backed by evidence. It suggests that what God really cares about is the beliefs in your head- as if “believing the right things” is what God is looking for. As if having “correct beliefs” is what will save us. And if you have incorrect beliefs, you may be in trouble. It’s remarkable to think that God cares so much about “beliefs.” Moreover, when you think about it, faith becomes a relatively impotent and powerless word. You can believe all the right things and still be in bondage. You can believe all the right things and be miserable. You can believe all the right things and still be unchanged. Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power.

In order to understand early understandings of faith, we need to look at the Latin words of assensus (“assent”), fiducia (“trust”), fidelitas (“commitment of the heart”), and visio (“a way of seeing the world”). We can begin with faith as assensus, and its pre-Modern meaning as a way of (assent to) approval. Assensus took a turn during the Reformation and morphed into assent to propositions. I’ll come back to assensus in a little bit. Faith as fiducia, connotes a radical trust. This kind of faith is like floating in a deep ocean. I owe the metaphor to Soren Kierkegaard, a radical Christian and one of the philosophical giants on the nineteenth century: “faith is like floating in seventy-thousand fathoms of water. If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink.” Faith as fidelitas means loyalty, allegiance, the commitment of the self as its deepest level, the commitment of the “heart.” Simply put, it is a radical centering of God. Faith as visio, is a way of seeing the whole of life. This way of seeing the whole of life, makes possible a different response to life. It leads to radical trust. It frees us from anxiety, self-preoccupation, and concern to protect the self with systems of security that mark the first two viewpoints (paranoia, the universe is against us). It leads to the “self-forgetfulness of faith” and this to the ability to love and to be present to the moment. As an aside, the Modern era also elevated the word “notitia” (sounds like “no-shay”) from the Latin word “knowledge” and linked it synonymously with – you guessed it – faith. Never-the-less, all the way through history up to Martin Luther, faith was not assensus, but rather fiducia, fidelitas, visio. The importance of highlighting this is to illustrate how faith moved from the (pre-Modern) heart to the (post-Enlightenment) head. And this is where faith as assensus takes off.

Faith as assensus sees belief as giving one’s mental assent to a proposition as that of believing a claim or proposition is true. Christian faith became believing in the right things, and having right beliefs instead of wrong beliefs during the Enlightenment. This development, for example, even changed the meaning of the word “orthodoxy”. Before the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, orthodoxy referred to “right worship” or “correct worship”. If you did the liturgy right, the practice right, you were orthodox. Then, in the aftermath of the Reformation, orthodoxy came to mean “right belief” or “correct belief”. And faith began to mean “believing the right things.” The Enlightenment identified “truth” as “factuality.” Truth is what can be verified as factual. Modern Western culture is the only culture in human history that has made this identification.

For many people, faith as assensus has become primary because the central claims of Christianity have become questionable – thanks to the Enlightenment challenging so many Christian claims. For many today, faith means believing in spite of difficulties, believing even when you have reasons to think otherwise. It means believing “iffy” things to be true. This is very different from what faith as assensus meant prior to the modern period. Imagine for a moment what assensus meant in Christian Europe in the Middle Ages. Most people took truth of Christianity and the Bible for granted. If was the conventional wisdom of the time. There was no conflict between science and religion. In that setting, faith as assensus was effortless, and the emphasis was thus on the other meaning of faith. But now, faith as assensus has become effortful. Again, this makes the propositions of one’s theology (soteriology, inerrancy, Christology, etc.) the main concern. Ask any fundamentalist Christian if you can remain a Christian while believing that you can get to heaven by just being good or believing that all religions lead to heaven. You can safely bet that they will immediately challenge your faith because your propositions are “invalid.”

Most of Christianity emphasizes the creeds (Nicaean, Chalcedonian, and Apostles Creed) to form the foundation of the Christian belief. The emphasis on the creeds assumes that faith garnered its power and meaning in the “I believe” propositions stated in the creeds. It is paramount to state at this juncture that the premodern meanings of the English words “believe” and “believing” and the Latin word credo are very different from what believing has come to mean in our time. By recovering these premodern meanings, we will see that faith is a way to love.

We commonly translate credo as “I believe.” And because most modern people understand “I believe” as “I give my assent to,” many Christians have difficulty with the creeds. Marcus Borg states that “if I were to make a list of the ten questions I am most frequently asked when I talk to Christian groups, on that list would be, “What are we going to do with the creeds?” The reason: they think saying “I believe” means giving up one’s mental assent to the literal truth of each statement in the creed. Assensus and literalism are often combined in the modern world, by believers and unbelievers alike. But credo does not mean, “I hereby agree to the literal-factual truth of the following statements.” Rather, its Latin roots combine to mean “I give my heart to,” “I give my loyalty to,” and “I commit my allegiance to.”

Just as credo involves a level of the self, deeper than the intellect, so do the premodern meanings of the word “believe.” Prior to the seventeenth century, the word “believe” did not mean believing in the truth of statement or propositions, whether problematic or not. Grammatically, the object of believing was not statements, but a person. Most simply, “to believe” meant “to love.” Indeed, the English words “believe” and “belove” are related. What we believe is what we belove. Faith is about beloving God.

To relate this to the four meanings of faith, originally the word “believing” covered all of these meanings. But in the modern period, we have suffered an extraordinary reduction in the meaning of “believing.” We have reduced it and turned it into “propositional believing” – believing a particular set of statements or claims to be true. But originally, believing included all of the dimensions of faith that I have included. The premodern meanings of “faith” generate a relational understanding of the Christian life.

I return to the words of Jesus as he spoke about the greatest commandment. Relationally, look at the two commandments: “You shall love the Lord God with all of your heart, life force, mind, and strength.” And the second, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And the passage concludes with “upon these two relationships hang all the law and the prophets.” In the time of Jesus, the law and the prophets, the first two parts of the Hebrew Bible, were all that had been canonized.

Science, Fact and Truth

As I now shift from faith to science, I hope to clearly articulate and demonstrate how science – unlike faith – is the most reliable way of knowing. Let’s begin by attempting to come to an agreement as to a definition of science. A reasonable definition of science is that it is a method for understanding how the universe (matter, our bodies and behavior, the cosmos, and so on) actually works. In addition, Michael Shermer says it’s a collection of methods that produce “a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation.” The key word in both of these definitions is “method.” It is precisely this method that overturned the thought that the continents are static, when actually they move at the same rate that our fingernails grow. It is this method that helped Edwin Hubble (1929) show that the universe is expanding when it was previously believed to be static as well. It is also this method that helped Watson and Crick discover the structure of DNA, when so many before thought that the genetic material was a protein. The examples are never-ending, from advancements in medicine, technology and architecture; science has been the most reliable method to help us get to the best way of knowing the facts.

Since the dawning of Modernity, the idea of truth has been the captivating siren. As if “truth” is floating out there waiting to be found by the smartest and brightest. Oxford English Dictionary defines truth as “conformity with fact; agreement with reality; accuracy and correctness.” Religious people have attached themselves to the idea of, not just truth, but absolute truth. But as history has shown us, the best trait is humility when dealing with fact claims, because the elusive “truth” is usually changing and evolving.

Scientific truth is never absolute, but provisional: there is no bell that rings when you’re doing science to let you know that you’ve finally reached the absolute and unchangeable truth and need go no further. Absolute and unalterable truth is for mathematics and logic, not empirically based science. As the philosopher Walter Kauffman explained, “What distinguishes knowledge is not certainty but evidence.” Furthermore, scientific truths are transitory, some (but not all) of what we find is eventually made obsolete, or even falsified, by new findings. That is not a weakness but strength, for our best understanding of phenomena will alter changes in our way of thinking, our tools for looking at nature, and what we find in nature itself. What moves science forward is ignorance. The danger of absolute truth is that is puts an end to further inquiry and questioning. Why? Because for the religious, the “[T]ruth” has been found and, therefore, no need for further progress. Science on the other hand, looks at theories as provisional and keeps the quest for understanding alive and ongoing.

Truth is simply what is, what exists in reality and can be verified by rational and independent observers. It is true that DNA is a double helix, that the continents move, and that the Earth revolves around the Sun. It is not true, at least in the dictionary sense, that somebody had a revelation of God. The scientific claims can be corroborated by anyone with the right tools, while a revelation, though perhaps reflecting someone’s real perception, says nothing about reality, for unless that revelation has empirical content, it cannot be corroborated.

In reality, we can consider many scientific truths to be absolute as truths can be, ones that are very unlikely to change. I would bet my life savings that the DNA in my cells forms a double helix, that a normal water molecule has two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, that the speed of light in a vacuum is unchanging, and that the closest living relatives of humans are the two species of chimpanzees. After all, you bet your life on science every time you take medicines like antibiotics, insulin, and anticholesterol drugs. If we consider “proof” in the vernacular to mean “evidence so strong that you’d bet your house on it,” then, yes, science is sometimes in the business of proof.

Ways of Knowing

Richard Dawkins in an article in the Humanist, states that there is a very, very important difference between feeling strongly, even passionately, about something because we have thought about and examined the evidence for it on the one hand, and feeling strongly about something because it has been internally revealed to us, or internally revealed to somebody else in history and subsequently hallowed out by tradition. There’s all the difference in the world between a belief that one is prepared to defend by quoting evidence and logic and a belief that is supported by nothing more than tradition, authority, or revelation.

Allow me to provide several examples of “faith statements” and how science is able to approach them at more reasonable angles.

  • “I have faith that because I accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior, I will join my wife in heaven.”
  • “I have faith that when I martyr myself for Allah, I’ll receive seventy-two virgins in paradise.”
  • “I have faith that the day will break tomorrow.”
  • “I have faith that taking this penicillin will cure my urinary tract infection.”

Notice the difference. The first two statements exemplify the religious forms of “faith,” the one Walter Kaufmann defines as “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from a reasonable person.” There is no evidence beyond revelation, authority, and sacred books to support the first two statements. They show confidence that isn’t supported by evidence, and most of the world’s believers would reject them. In contrast, the second two statements rely on empirical evidence – strong evidence. In these cases the word “faith” doesn’t mean “belief without much evidence,” but “confidence based on evidence” or “an assumption based on performance.” You have “faith” that the sun will rise tomorrow because it always has, and there’s no evidence that the earth has stopped rotating or the sun has burned out. You have faith in your doctor because presumably she has treated you successfully in the past and has a good reputation. The conflation of faith as “evidenced belief” with its vernacular use as “confidence based on experience” is simply a word trick used to buttress religion. You will almost never hear a scientist speaking in these terms.

This is important because often the religious will say that the scientist has faith, not in God, but in reason. Reason is not an a priori assumption, but a tool that’s been shown to work. The scientist doesn’t have faith in reason, she uses reason, and we use it because it produces results and progressive understanding. Honed by experience to include tools like double-blind studies and multiple, independent reviews of manuscripts submitted for publication, scientific reason has produced antibiotics, computers, and our ability to reconstruct the tree of life by sequencing DNA from different species. Reason is simply the way we justify our beliefs, and if you’re not using it, whether you’re justifying religious or scientific beliefs, you deserve no one’s attention.

Tests for Knowing

Contra to what Christians propagate, science is not a faith or a belief system. Rather, science is a process and/or methodology. Part of the methodological process that is relevant when discussing ways of knowing concerns parsimony, doubt and criticality, replication and quality control, and falsifiability (to name just a few). The faith fails on all of these methods.

First, faith fails the test of parsimony. Simply put, parsimony states that scientific theories ought to invoke no more factors than necessary to adequately explain any phenomenon. If we can completely explain smallpox by infection with a virus, why even consider factors like whether the patient ate too much sugar or that it is divine punishment for immorality? With the resurrection, we are in a compromising position of having to inject an ineffable [and unknowable and un-see-able] God with a plan to rid a humanity of its disease of sin brought about by the first two humans ever created in Adam and Eve and if you accept the resurrection your belief can get you a ticket to eternity in a place called heaven where you can eventually meet God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit who, by the way, are three different entities yet really one. All of the extraneous theological baggage is unnecessary, whether it’s faith in Jesus, the ascension of Romulus or the revelation of Joseph Smith.

The second test faith fails are doubt and criticality. Actually, faith doesn’t so much “fail” this test as it really just illusively side-steps it. Both doubt and criticality are crucial in examining theories because in the process of scrutinizing and analyzing, theories can show up as either bogus or have validity. A striking example of the importance of doubt was the finding in 2011 that neutrinos appeared to move faster than the speed of light, discovered by timing their journey over a path from Switzerland to Italy. That observation was remarkable, for it violated everything we know about physics, especially the “law” that nothing can exceed the speed of light. Predictably, the first thing that the physicists (and almost every other scientist) thought when hearing this report was simply, “What went wrong?” And, sure enough, immediate checks found that the neutrinos had behaved properly, and their anomalous speed was due simply to a loose cable and a faulty clock. Although if such an observation were correct it would surely garner a Nobel Prize, one would risk a lifetime of embarrassment to publish it without substantial replication and checking. While we can indeed doubt and apply critical thinking to, for example the resurrection, Christians can easily deceive critical thinking by invoking spiritual language claiming that “his [God’s] ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9)” and “the natural man cannot understand the spirit of God (I Corinthians 2:14).” Such language, in all of its vagueness and ambiguity, has provided Christianity (and Islam and Mormonism) a lasting legacy throughout generations while eluding criticality because it’s claims reside in a spiritual dimension. While we can test to see if neutrinos move faster than the speed of light, we cannot test to see if Jesus’s physical body ascended to heaven.

The third test involves replication and quality control. Results become true when they’re repeated often enough to gain credibility. The discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012, for which Peter Higgs and Francois Englert received the Nobel Prize the next year, was deemed prize-worthy because it was confirmed by two completely independent teams of researchers, each using rigorous statistical analysis. What is interesting about this is that not only can faith claims not be replicated, but given that data shows over 30,000 different Christianities, how do we know which faith is the right one? In addition, the idea of ‘collectivity’ is paramount when assessing theories. One of the best parts of science’s toolkit is its international character, or rather, its transcendence of nationality, for although there are scientists throughout the world, they all work by the same of rules. The participants of the Higgs boson, for instance, came from 110 countries, with 20 of those nations being official collaborators in the project. Christianity, even with its major doctrinal themes, takes on completely different complexions from country to country.

A final method that faith claims absolutely fail is that of falsifiability. Falsifiability as an essential way of finding truth. What it means is that for a theory or fact to be seen as correct, there must be ways of showing it to be wrong, and those ways must have been tried and have failed. The theory of evolution is in principle falsifiable: there are dozens of ways to show it wrong, but none have done so. In contrast, string theory is an example of something scientific that is untestable. String theory is a branch of physics claiming that all fundamental particles can be represented as different oscillations on one-dimensional “strings, and that the universe may have twenty-six dimensions instead of four.” But, alas, nobody has thought of a way of testing it. In the end, a theory that can’t be shown to be wrong can never be shown to be right. Whether we are talking about the faith claims, the Easter Bunny or string theory, they all fail the test of falsifiability. Thus, we can possess faith, but it isn’t a way of knowing.

Conclusion

As William James argued, it is the subjective and revelatory aspect of religion that gives it the most purchase: “the feeling of certainty that religious claims are true. But when one has a religious experience, what is “true” is only that one has had an experience, not that its contents convey anything about reality.” And this is precisely my concern when it comes to ways of knowing: the epistemic content. The statement, “I’m hungry,” can be seen as extrascientific knowledge. Indeed, any feeling, notion, or revelation can be seen as subjective truth or knowledge. What that means is that it’s true that you are feeling that way. What that doesn’t mean is that the epistemic content of your feeling is true. That requires independent verification by others.

This is where both faith and science diverge into different domains. The verification process between the two are completely different ways of knowing. Faith is confidence or trust in something or someone, whereas science is a method – not a feeling. I can say that I “know my wife loves me;” but even that is something I hold as provisionally true based on my years of experiences with her. Thus, even with love, there are tools in place to verify if it’s a reasonable claim. Now, if I went up to a complete stranger on the streets and professed my love to her, people would think I was crazy! Rightly so, the evidence of love is lacking, even if a subjective feeling is there. My point in all of this is that science, by way of the methods it employs, affords us the best way of knowing.

What about faith? Well, just look at theology. “Theology is a subject without an object. Theologians don’t study God – they study what other theologians have said about God.” The claims of a priest, imam, a rabbi, or a theologian about God have no more veracity than anyone else’s. As Dan Coyne says, “despite millennia of theological lucubrations, we know nothing more about the divine than we did a thousand years ago.” At least with science, there is progress. But even with faith, you can never know which faith is right. After all, while some Christians accept the existence of Jesus because they have mental conversations with him, Hindus have mental conversations with Shiva, and Muslims with Allah. All the revelations in the world in all of the world’s scriptures have never told us that a molecule of benzene has six carbon atoms arranged in a ring, or that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. It is this asymmetry with knowledge that, despite religion’s truth claims, makes its adherents embrace the fallacious claim that religion and science occupy separate magisteria.

Wes Fornes

 

 

 

7 Important Questions for Bible Believing Christians [Part 2]

Written at Starbucks in Los Gatos with Katy Perry on Pandora (“Teenage Dream” playing when I typed last sentence] with a double espresso and two pumps white mocha.

Do the Gospels Contain Eye Witness Tradition? dwdwdwdwd

First point: The Gospels don’t claim to be written by eyewitnesses. They are all anonymous and the titles in your Gospels were added by later editors.

Second point: None of the Gospels claim to written by the name it bears. Again, these are later traditions.

These traditions do not begin appearing for about 100 years. Some people think that there is an early church father named Papias who attests to the eyewitness of Mark and Matthew, but in fact there are very solid reasons to think that Papias, who lived around the year 120-140 is not referring to our Mark or Matthew. The first time anyone mentions the names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John was Irenaeus in the year 180. One hundred years after these book were written. Let me reiterate that the Gospels were written anonymously and were not written by eyewitnesses.

But let me also make another point. Even if the Gospels were written by eyewitness, this would not guarantee that the Gospels are indeed accurate. Think about our legal system today. Are eyewitnesses always accurate in what they report? If so then why do we have trials that call into testimony more than one eyewitness? If eyewitnesses were always 100% accurate in what they report we wouldn’t need law courts, if we wanted to know what happen, we would just simply ask somebody. Eyewitnesses do not always get the information correct, but even if they did it wouldn’t matter because the gospels don’t claim to be written by eyewitnesses. The Gospel writers were living 40 to 50 to 60 years after Jesus died. They wrote the gospels in Greek, Jesus’ language was Aramaic. These Gospel writers were living in a different country, decades later. Where did they get their information from? They were not the followers of Jesus and they don’t claim to be the followers of Jesus. So, again, where did they get their information from? They heard stories about Jesus that had been in circulation year after year, decade after decade. Now, what happens to oral stories that are transmitted orally? They change. The Gospel writers have discrepancies among them because the stories that were told to them and then retold, and then again retold decade after decade. And in the continual retelling of these stories, we know that the Gospel writers themselves sometime change the stories. This is why scholars might be able to tell you generally what the stories of Jesus were about, and they can list eight things that Jesus did, but they can’t tell you the details and agree. Why can’t they agree? Because there are so many discrepancies.

Do archeologists and historians use the Gospels as sources? wdwdwd

Archeologists do not use the gospels as a guide for their digs. Historians, however, do use the Gospels when trying to understand the Historical Jesus. But the Gospels are that we have. One thing that most Christians fail to understand is that we have much scanty documentation about the life of Jesus. Most people don’t realize this, but Jesus is never mentioned in any Greek or Roman non-Christian source until 80 years after his death. There is no record in these sources that Jesus even lived. In the entire 1st century of Christianity, Jesus is not even mentioned by a single Greek or Roman historian, religion scholar, politician, philosopher or poet. His name never occurs. The first time Jesus is mentioned in a Roman or Greek source is by the Roman governor of a province in Asia Minor, named Pliny in 112. And even then Pliny doesn’t name him “Jesus,” he simply refers to his name as “Christ” in passing. That is the only reference within 80 years of Jesus death. Jesus is mentioned very briefly by the Jewish historian Josephus in the year 93, which is 60 years after his death; but he is mentioned in no other Jewish texts in the 1st century at all. If you want to know about Jesus, you have to turn to Christian sources. The earliest Christian source is the apostle Paul, but to the surprise of many Bible readers Paul scarcely mentions anything about the words and deeds of Jesus. Paul says a lot about Jesus death and resurrection but almost nothing about his words and deeds while alive. Which means we are left with the Gospels if we want the earliest writings concerning Jesus, which are written anonymously, not by eyewitness, and full of discrepancies.

Apologists usually retort, “but eyewitnesses were around and could have provided verification as to the validity of these texts.” This is one of hundreds of fabrications by Christian apologists. Christianity started out as a small group of Jesus followers in Jerusalem right after his death. Within 30 years there were Christian communities that were establish in and around the urban areas of the Roman Empire. There were Christian churches in Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor (Turkey), in Greece, in Rome, possibly in Northern Africa, and almost certainly in Alexandria Egypt. Hundreds of people were converting, thousands of people were converting – how did they convert? By people telling them stories about Jesus. Who was telling the stories? If I convert you, and you convert your wife, and she converts her next door neighbor, and her next door neighbor converts her husband, and her husband converts a business associate, who goes to another city and converts his business associate … who’s telling the stories? Is it eyewitnesses? Are the 12 disciples talking to everyone and telling them the stories and telling them, “make sure you get this right.” The eyewitnesses are probably in Jerusalem. But where are the eyewitnesses in Ephesus? Where are the eyewitnesses in Tarsus? Where are the eyewitnesses in Alexandria? They are not there. The stories are changes and retold many times.

wdwdHave the Gospel’s been accurately preserved throughout the centuries?

It’s important to know here that we do not have any originals of the New Testament. What we have are thousands of copies of the New Testament that were made, in most cases, centuries later. These copies that were made centuries later contain tens of thousands of mistakes.

This is the pivotal question: If God had inspired the Bible without error, why hadn’t he preserved the Bible without error?

Take the Gospel of Mark; whoever wrote Mark wrote it and then put it in circulation and then somebody copied the Gospel of Mark, then somebody copied that copy, then somebody copied the copy of the copy – so on and so forth – oh and by the way, we don’t have any of those copies. Everyone who copied the texts made mistakes. Our first surviving copy of Mark dates to around the year 220. Our first complete copy of Mark comes from around the year 350 (280 years after Mark!). We have thousands of copies of Mark. Now when you compare these copies of Mark they all differ from one another. What is striking is that the earlier you go to look at the manuscripts the more differences you find. The earliest copies have the most mistakes. What would happen if we found copies that were still earlier? The only evidence we have is the evidence that survived which suggests that the earliest period of copying contained the most mistakes. We have no way of knowing what the author was really trying to communicate.

Often you will hear apologists say that the New Testament is the best attested book from antiquity and therefore you can trust it. I agree. It is indeed the best attested book from antiquity, but the attestation is all from a 1000 years later. It doesn’t make sense to say you can trust it because it’s well attested, if the New Testament was well attested then you could say what the New Testament originally said. Whether you can trust it or not is another question. But the reality is that we have many late manuscripts of Mark and of every other book of the New Testament.

Do any scribal errors impact any important teaching of Jesus?

Did Jesus say, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone”? Nope. This was not in the original NT Gospel and was inserted later by a scribe.

Did Jesus say, “Neither do I condemn you go and sin no more”? Nope. Does it matter whether Jesus said it or not – turns out it was in a textual variant and it was not in the original New Testament.

Did Jesus say “go out into the world and preach the gospel to all of creation, he who believes in me will be saved but he who does not believe will be condemned?” – Nope, it’s only found in a later textual variant.

Did Jesus say, “These are the signs that will accompany those who believe, in my name they will cast out demons, they will speak in new tongues, they will pick up serpents and if they drink any deadly thing it will not hurt them, they will lay their hands on the sick and they will recover.” Nope. Does it matter if Jesus really said it?

Did Jesus give the entire Lord’s Prayer, or just half of it – as in Luke? Does it matter? It depends on which manuscript you read.

Does it matter whether or not the doctrine of the Trinity is taught in the New Testament? The only verse that comes remotely to teaching it is found in I John 5:7-8, yet, it’s a later addition.

Does it matter if the Gospel of John never calls Jesus the unique God or not. It’s based a textual variant.

Does it matter whether or not the Gospel of Luke teaches an atonement or not? The view that Jesus dies for the sake of others; well it depends on a textual variant.

Does it matter that Jesus was in such agony before his death that he began to sweat blood? It’s found only a textual variant found in the Gospel of Luke.

Does it matter that entire words, lines, paragraphs, and pages were left out by some scribes? Does it matter that there are numerous places in the New Testament where scholars cannot decide what the original text says.

Does it matter that we will never know what the original author said?

Many evangelicals claim that it does not matter. But I don’t believe them because many of these scholars devote many years to studying the manuscripts. Why would they do that if it doesn’t matter? Major evangelical seminaries raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for manuscript projects to study these manuscripts; why would they do that if it doesn’t matter? It does matter.

How can the Gospels be a trustworthy and reliable guide if we have no idea what the original author even said? While the Gospels shed light on the Historical Jesus, they do not provide information that can be trusted.

~Wes Fornes

7 Important Questions for Bible Believing Christians [Part 1]

skWritten from Starbucks in San Jose by my office with Milky Chance on Pandora. Drink of choice is a blonde roast coffee.

Are the Gospels reliable?

I believe that there is historically reliable information in the Gospels, but there are also pieces of historically unreliable information. This can be seen by the fact that sometimes there are flat out discrepancies between the gospels; as you will see yourself if you just read them carefully side-by-side. Let me give you a taste out of thousands of examples.

The Gospel of Matthew says that the father of Joseph, Jesus’ father, was Jacob; his grandfather was Matthan, his great grandfather was Eleazar. The Gospel of Luke says Joseph’s father was Heli. His grandfather Matthat; and his great grandfather was Levi. Well, which was it? The genealogies differ.

One of the key motives of the Gospel of Mark is that the disciples don’t recognize him as the Messiah until chapter 8. But in John the call him Messiah right away; the first time they meet him chapter 1. Which is it?

Was Jairus’ daughter sick but still alive when Jairus father came to Jesus and ask to heal her as he does in Mark 5:35-43; or did she die before Jairus came, so that he could ask Jesus to raise her from the dead as he does in Matthew 9? Hard to see how it could be both ways.

The Gospel of John says explicitly that Jesus died on the day of preparation for Passover, the afternoon before the Passover meal was eaten. The Gospel of Mark says explicitly that Jesus dies the morning after the morning the Passover meal was eaten. Don’t take my word for it, read it in John 19 and Mark 15 for yourself.

Or look at the resurrection accounts sometime in the four Gospels and ask yourself how many went to the empty tomb? What were their names? Was the stone rolled away before they arrived or after? What did they see there? One man? Two men? Or two angels? What were they told to do? To tell the disciples to go to Galilee or not? Did they tell the disciples or not? Did the disciples go to Galilee or not? Well it depends what Gospel you read. You get a different story every time.

We should not say that these are a bunch of details that don’t affect the larger picture. The larger picture is made up of nothing but details. And the big picture differs greatly between the gospels.

nhDo the Gospels accurately preserve the teaching of Jesus Christ?

In the New Testament, there are things that Jesus did actually say. But there are other things in the Gospels that he did not say. The leading Christian apologists today will retort that there are methods that are employed to decipher between early and later traditions and evangelists. What this means is that some of the New Testament sayings for Jesus go back to Jesus himself, and some were made up by those who told stories about Jesus, and some were made up by the Gospel writers themselves. This is actually something that Christian apologists and scholarly skeptics agree on. My question is then: Is the Bible inaccurate in some of the things it says that Jesus said? Because if it is inaccurate in some things, how do we know it’s not inaccurate in lots of things? And if it’s inaccurate in lots of things, what makes us think that we can trust it? One way to prove that gospels don’t portray what this accurate is to point to the things that Jesus said from one Gospel to the next.

There is no doubt that in the gospel of John, Jesus understands himself to be God and explicitly calls himself divine. Jesus says (John 14:6) “I am the way the truth and the life, no one come to the father except by me.” And he also says, “I and the father are one” and “Before Abraham was, I am.” These are sayings found only in the gospel of John. Jesus calls himself God in the Gospel of John, the latest of our gospels, but what is striking is that he never calls himself God in Mathew, Mark and Luke, are earliest gospels. I don’t think Jesus really said these things, and any critical biblical scholar will agree. The burden of proof is on the Fundamentalist to prove on historical – not theological grounds – how Jesus manages to escape getting stoned to death for blasphemy. And more important, how Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t record him calling himself God.

And why is it whenever you read the gospel of John, it doesn’t matter what part of John you read, whether you read the words of John the Baptist, the words of Jesus, or the words of the narrator – all three sound exactly alike and speak the same theology. Why? Because in the Gospel of John we’re not hearing three voices, we’re hearing one – the narrator. The narrator has modified the voices of Jesus and John the Baptist to make them say what he wants them to say. This is not Jesus’ voice we’re hearing, it’s the voice of the author of John. Why does this matter? Because people in this world keep asking, “Is Jesus who he says he was?” and if you read the Gospel of John, you don’t learn who Jesus said he was, you learn who the anonymous author said Jesus was.

bbDo the Gospels accurately preserve the activities of Jesus Christ?

What Christian apologists say is that the Gospel writers adapted the words of Jesus. Well, that means they changed the words of Jesus. If they changed the words of Jesus then how do we know we’re actually reading the words of Jesus? The same apply to Jesus’ deeds. Can we trust what the Gospels say about what Jesus did? If the stories of Jesus were sometimes changed, as Christians told and retold the stories, as they adapted them, then how do we know they weren’t changed a lot?

I am absolutely certain that the Gospels do not give an accurate historical account of what Jesus actually did. Simply compare the Gospel stories and you will see the blatant discrepancies.

During Jesus’ temptations, what was the second temptation? To jump off the temple? Or to bow down and worship Satan? Matthew says the first and Luke says the second. If one of the authors felt necessary to change the details of the story, how do you know he didn’t feel free to change the substance of the story?

Did Jesus have extensive conversation with Pilate as he does in John or was he silent except for uttering two words as he does in Mark? How could it be both?

Here is a major discrepancy that we should consider. Jesus on his way to his death in the Gospel of Mark is completely silent. Simon of Cyrene carries Jesus’ cross, and he doesn’t say a word; they nail him to the cross and he’s silent. Now he’s hanging on the cross, both robbers mocking him, the passerby’s mock him, and he doesn’t say anything until the very end and he cries out, “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” And he dies. That’s the end of the story in Mark. But not quite.

Because then he is raised from the dead. But how did he feel in the end? Compare that with the Gospel of Luke. In Luke, Jesus is not silent on his way to being crucified. On his way, he sees some women weeping for him, and he turns to them and says, “Daughters of Jerusalem, weep for yourselves and for your children and for the fate that is to befall you.” Jesus in Luke’s gospels is more concerned about these women than he is about his own fate. When being nailed to the cross, in Luke’s gospel, he’s not silent, he says, “Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” In Luke’s gospel he’s hanging on the cross and he has an intelligent conversation with one of the robbers, where only one of the robbers mocks him in Luke, the other tells the first robber to be quiet because Jesus has done nothing to deserve this, he then turns his head to Jesus and says, “Lord remember me when you come into your kingdom,” and then Jesus says, “Truly I tell you that today you will be with me in paradise.” In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus does not feel forsaken like he does in Mark. In Luke’s gospel he knows he’s on God’s side, God’s behind the proceedings, he knows why this is happening, and at the end rather than crying out, “My God my God why have you forsaken me?”… He doesn’t say that in Luke, In Luke’s gospel he says, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” And he dies. This is a very different portrayal.

But what people do instead is that they take the words of Luke’s gospel and then take the words in Mark’s gospel and smash them together into one big account. So Jesus says everything in Mark, he says everything in Luke, then you throw in what he says in Matthew and John, and then you end up with the “7 Last Words of the Dying Jesus,” which you find in none of the gospels. You are free to do this and smash them all together, but realize what you’ve done is you’ve written your own gospel.

Part 2 coming tomorrow …

Ontology of a Secular Morality

Written over two days and finished at Great Bear Coffee on August 8th while listening to “Blink 182” station on Pandora and drinking a Cafe Americano.

uhgoiuI recently drove up to a 4 way stop with no stop signs and no properly functioning traffic lights. It was obvious that, for some reason, there was something wrong with the traffic lights. The boulevard I was on was heavily populated, so I wondered if any sense of value driven morals would kick in once cars pulled up to the intersection, or would mass chaos ensue. I pulled off to an adjacent parking lot that was perpendicular to the intersection so that I could see how people would react to the poorly defined expectations of what one ought to do at the intersection. I mean, what does the car traveling south owe to the car wanting to go east bound through the intersection? Who is obligated to stop? And if you’re feeling rushed, why not roll through the intersection since, technically, you are not breaking the law since the traffic lights are not enforcing the rules? Perhaps, most importantly, what’s the impetus and ontological reason for acting morally in this situation? This is critical given this real life situation reveals desires, values and expectations of society that will manifest into a moral context in which right and wrong become objectively true.

As I observed the intersection for around 20 minutes, it appeared that civility prevailed and people displayed typical evolutionary and cultural traits of respect and consideration for the group. But this should not surprise us. We are in situations every day where the opportunity to cause someone’s loss will in turn be our gain. Yet more times than not, mutual respect wins out. The evolutionary and cultural trait of mutual respect is seen in every country and observed in remote tribes. Sure some defect and live duplicitous lives of greed with complete lack of regard for other people, but this is the exception and not the rule. Furthermore, just about all societies have done their due diligence to set up norms to punish and deter the defectors who choose to live duplicitous lives. But what is the basis of these “norms”? Is it a divine commander in the sky? Is it relative to the context you’re in so what is considered cruel in one place is a virtue in another? This pushes the conversation towards to the root of the matter: the ontological basis of morality. I believe, however, that it is clearly evident that objective moral facts can be known.

gtfuytcFirst of all, we are surrounded by physical relationships [that can be known empirically]. Physical relationships are objective realities that encompass how things physically relate to each other. Physical systems can be reduced to properties that can be understood objectively. Take for example the scariness of a tiger: a tiger is scary to a person (because of the horrible harm it can do) but not to Superman, even though it’s the very same tiger, and none of its intrinsic qualities shave changed. Thus the tiger’s scariness is relative, but still real. It is not a product of anyone’s opinions, it is not a cultural construct, but a physical property about tigers and people. Thus the scariness of an enraged tiger is not a property of the tiger alone but a property of the entire tiger-person relationship. This scariness is also not simply subjective. Our emotional experience of fear is subjective, but the ability of the tiger to harm us is an objective fact of the world. The tiger “ought” to scare you.

Second of all, it’s important to note that there is a neurobiological and social aspect to the statement: the tiger ought to scare you. Stimuli in the brain, specifically norepinephrine in the amygdala, engage the receptors that indicate fear, anxiety and stress. So yes, science can help us to understand what situations trigger panic or joy for the sake of our well-being. Science, based on neurological responses in our brain, can say: you ought to be afraid of tigers. Contrasted to panic, dopamine and oxytocin within the brain help us to understand feelings of bonding and happiness. Thanks to fMRI imaging, we are quickly learning how the brain reacts to ethical dilemmas and situations to either panic or bliss. Science can tell us that engaging with a wild tiger or forcing women to wear burqas does not transmit dopamine in our brains. All this to say, evolution has created neural pathways in our brains to provide indicators of how should feel in certain situations that might not be advantageous. This is a physical relationship that helps us understand our relationship between us and tigers.

jkhbouThe social aspect is not so apparent in the tiger analogy, but is nevertheless a physical relationship that provides objective imperatives. If, for instance, you are working with a group of around 10 people, is there an objective moral duty that you should have within the group? The answer is yes, if your goal is to provide a net positive contribution to the group. Virtues such as respect, trust and cooperation play into the physical system of human relationships. Therefore, it objectively behooves those who demonstrate trust and cooperation. For those who defect by demonstrating selfishness and dishonesty, however, will inevitably be ostracized. Before moving on to my next point, I want to reiterate: the ontology of morals has an objective basis due to the physical relationships around us that invariably cultivate moral pretexts in which to act.

But what separates moral facts from personal opinions? Moral facts consist of imperatives about what we “ought” to do. But why should I do anything? Take for example, “you ought to change the oil in your car” which means “if you knew your car was running low on oil, and you don’t want you car’s engine to seize up, then you would change the oil in your car (as long as you were able to without harm).” If you don’t want your engine seize up, then “you ought to change your oil” is objectively true. My opinion is irrelevant to it being true.

(1) You ought to be scared of tigers because they can harm you.

(2) You ought to demonstrate trust and cooperation in groups or you will be ostracized.

(3) You ought to stop at a 4 way intersection if the lights are not properly functioning because you may get hurt or hurt someone else if you carelessly speed through.

In these three examples, both my opinion and cultural factors are completely irrelevant. All three examples function within physical relationships that demonstrate how they relate to each other in an objective and empirical way.

;iuhiuBut we can go deeper and bolster moral objective facts with the concept of well-being. I suggest that it may be best to think in terms of well-being, rather in terms of right or wrong, good or evil. Well-being is like the concept of physical health: it resists definition, and yet it is indispensable. In fact, meanings of both terms seem likely to remain perpetually open to revision as we make progress in science. Today, a person can consider himself physically healthy if he is free of detectable disease, able to exercise, and destined to live in his eighties without suffering obvious decrepitude. But this standard may change. Moreover, we must occasionally experience unpleasantness – medication, surgery, etc. – in order to avoid greater suffering or death. My point is this: all sane people would prefer to have good health over bad health; and we can have consensus to what good and bad health would look like. A healthy lifestyle, thus, can be known in an objective way. [Sam Harris expands on the concept of well-being in “The Moral Landscape”]

Let’s keep unpacking well-being. Most people would describe a good life as involving: happiness, fulfillment, no stress, meaningful friendships, all basic needs are met, etc. All of these have a high degree of personal well-being. At the same time, most of us would describe the worst possible life as involving pain, isolation, war, lack of basic needs met, etc. Again, the bad life carries a low degree of well-being. Anyone who doesn’t see that the good life is preferable to the bad life is unlikely to have anything to contribute to a discussion on well-being. Must we really argue that beneficence, trust, creativity, etc., enjoyed in the context of a prosperous society are better than the horrors of civil war endured in steaming jungle filled with aggressive insects carrying dangerous pathogens?

I conclude my point on well-being by reiterating that it is critical to underscore the fact that the concept of well-being within the framework of morality can give us an objective foundation to scrutinize morals. Well-being can provide a lens to look through when it comes to common ethical conundrums that I, for instance, experienced last week. A man in a coffee shop dropped a clipped wad of cash on the floor as he stood up to leave. Through the lens of well-being, my moral duty is made clear: get the man’s attention and inform him that he dropped his cash. But what does this have to do with well-being? First, given that this has happened to me, I would want someone to inform me if I dropped a wad of cash. Second, it feels good to help someone and to know that I assuaged a potential frustration for the stranger. Lastly, I am cultivating a virtuous character – rather than duplicitousness – by quickly acting to help someone, irrespective of anyone else’s opinion or what another culture thinks. All of these foster an objective standard of well-being within my life which I can point to and say, “I ought to help this stranger.”

So what did I, as an atheist, do at the 4-way intersection that I mentioned at the beginning of this post? I proceeded slowly to the intersection and stopped, then allowed the car to my right to go because she stopped 2 seconds before me; then the car to my left gestured for me to turn, and so I did. Darwin was right, mutual respect feels really good and benefits the group.

This post in a nutshell:

Physical Relationships > Creates Moral Constraints > A Moral Context is Formed