Thursday, November 1, 2012

Intellectual Honesty for Religious Believers

Deuteronomy 25: 13-14 (NIV) Do not have two differing weights in your bag—one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house—one large, one small.

Proverbs 20:10 Differing weights and differing measures— the LORD detests them both.

More broadly, Thou shalt not have any double standards. Go ahead, show me where in the Bible God says it's okay to hold others to strict intellectual standards but be slovenly in your own thinking. Do you suppose when St. Paul supported himself by making tents (Acts 18:3) he felt it was okay to do sloppy work because he had so many more important things to do?

If you want to cite a case where you prayed and got what you asked for as evidence for the efficacy of prayer, then every answered prayer by a Muslim or Buddhist counts as evidence for their beliefs, and every unanswered prayer counts as evidence against the efficacy of prayer. If you want to cite "problems" with evolution as evidence against evolution, then everything evolution can explain counts as evidence for it. If you want equal time for creationism in schools and museums, you have to grant equal time for evolution in your pulpits and equal shelf space for evolution in Christian bookstores. If you want to cite examples of intelligent design in nature, then every case of bad design, like having a too-small birth canal or nerves passing in front of the retina, counts against it. If you want to cite noble deeds by believers or vile deeds by atheists, be sure to mention all the cases that are the other way round.

"B-b-but I can't prove anything using those rules." Yeah, that's kinda what "faith" means, doesn't it?

Romans 13:1-2 (NIV) Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

When you take your car to the shop, you don't try to tell the mechanic what to do based on the Bible. In that situation the mechanic is the lawful authority. You don't refuse a blood transfusion based on the Bible, or at any rate, those who do, usually die. When you're sick, the doctor is the lawful authority. Now I know people will tell me the doctors gave someone six months but the person was healed by prayer or some alternative treatment. But the doctor didn't say the person must die, only that he was likely to barring some unforeseen circumstance. And - see the point above - be sure to mention the cases where people sought prayer or alternative treatments and died anyway.

What does it mean to say something in the Bible is "true?" Apologists repeatedly point to verifiable historical facts in the Bible that match other accounts. In other words, external reality is the standard. If the Bible said grass was red and sheep had six legs and pigs can fly, it would have been laughed out of existence before the ink was dry on the papyrus.

And that means, when it comes to external reality, specialists who study those fields are the lawful authority, not the Church, not priests, ministers or Popes, not the Bible. When astronomers said the earth rotated and revolved around the Sun, they, not the Church, were the lawful authority (Martin Luther said of Copernicus: "this fool wants to overturn the whole science of astronomy." For the first twenty years of its existence, Harvard University taught earth-centered astronomy. The Catholic Church quietly admitted its error when it removed the ban on Galileo's book in 1835.)

So people who study the history of the earth are the lawful authority, not Genesis. Biologists are the lawful authority on evolution, not creationists. A science degree is worth something in evaluating science; a theology degree is worth nothing.

Exodus 20:16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. (KJV)

Is there an asterisk in your Bible that leads to a footnote saying: "unless you get it in an e-mail," or "unless you see it on a Christian blog?" Or even "to the best of your knowledge?"

No. It says Thou shalt not. No ifs, ands or buts. If it's false, and you forward it without checking it thoroughly, you, personally, are lying. There is no lie so vile that Christians will not pass it along in e-mail. The Procter and Gamble symbol is Satanic? *Forward* Obama eats aborted babies on toast? *Forward*

In fact, the Procter and Gamble thing is even more sinister. In 1997 the company filed a lawsuit against people who were deliberately spreading the message, presumably to undercut consumer loyalty and sell another company's products.

And there's no asterisk here that says "to the best of my knowledge." That means that unless you thoroughly check the story, you have no business passing it on. If you don't have time to check things out, you don't have time to have an opinion. The Post Office puts out Islamic stamps? First, why is that any more offensive than Christmas or Hanukkah stamps? Second, the stamps are actually sold by a custom stamp company that charges extra and reimburses the Post Office for the postage. That took me two minutes to check on line when someone sent me an indignant e-mail.

The Nazis based their ideas on Darwin? It took me ten whole minutes to locate Mein Kampf, download it, and run a word search. Of the dozen or so uses of "evolution" (Entwicklung in the original German - I checked that, too - the word is used many more times and mostly translated as "development") not a single one refers to biological evolution. Darwin is not mentioned once. So now that you've read this, if you repeat that the Nazis based their ideas on Darwin, you are deliberately lying. If you doubt me, locate Mein Kampf and do the research yourself.

Philippians 2:3 (NIV) Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.

Go into a Christian bookstore and leaf through a few tomes about secular humanism, evolution, or other religions. Do the authors esteem the people they're writing about as "better than themselves?"

James 3:1 (NIV) Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 

Small wonder Luther labeled James "an epistle of straw." It must have seared his soul every time he read it. The average Christian reads James about as often as he reads Habakkuk. And certainly, to listen to the blather lots of Christians spout when trying to evangelize, they don't think this verse applies to them.

Next time somebody tells you that "in Biblical times, people used to...," ask him what his source is. Josephus? Tacitus? Livy? Suetonius? Better yet, don't ask him. Ask if he can name a few historians from Biblical times. Next time someone tells you that a certain word meant something in Greek or Hebrew, ask him to write out the Greek or Hebrew alphabet. I recently heard a devoutly Christian professor of New Testament Greek say that whenever he heard preachers expand on the meaning of some Greek word in the Bible, ninety per cent of the time it was wrong. Not judged doctrinally, merely by the well defined standards of Greek. The second half of this verse is sobering.