Tuesday, February 26, 2013

God and Reason Part 5: "Is the Bible Reliable?"

Prof. David Matthews spent some time discussing the timeline for the Bible's composition, pointing out that most of the books of the new testament were written about 65 - 100 years CE (Christian Era... after Jesus was born). Then, the elapsed time from the events until the earliest Bible was about 300 years. He compared that to the Iliad (about 500 years), and Herodotus (about 1300 years). From this, I suppose we are to favour the historical accuracy of the Bible.

I had a chance to ask a question. I said that if the age of a holy text is used as a measure of factual confidence, then the Book of Mormon and Dianetics must be even better than the Bible.

A self-described atheist in the audience pointed out that the vast majority of Biblical scholars believe that the gospels were anonymously written, even though they were attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Prof. Matthews basically had no response. Then Prof. Robert Mann chimed in and claimed that the debate was more even-sided... I don't know who to believe on this point.

Prof. Matthews also told us that the gospels mention many secondary details about towns, people, events and buildings that were later confirmed independently. He gave the example of the Pool of Bethesda.

To cap off the argument and assert that the authors of the Bible must have told the truth, Prof. Matthews asked why they would subject themselves to persecution and death just to preserve what they knew to be false?

It's like asking, "How can Islam be wrong when suicide bombers are willing to give up their lives to be martyrs?" Holy wars are groups of people with incompatible religious beliefs killing each other. They can't both be right. Yet they both feel right.

My main question, though, was about how far personal testimony can take us. It is becoming progressively undeniable that eyewitness testimony, even after a few hours, can be horribly inaccurate. The work of psychologist Elizabeth Loftus shows us how precarious our memories are. In a 2003 Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper, she wrote,

Many influences can cause memories to change or even be created anew, including our imaginations and the leading questions or different recollections of others. The knowledge that we cannot rely on our memories, however compelling they might be, leads to questions about the validity of criminal convictions that are based largely on the testimony of victims or witnesses.

In other words, even if someone swears up-and-down that event X occurred, we should take it with a grain of salt. Confidence in one's recollection should not be mistaken for accuracy.

Then throw in other cognitive biases, like subjective validation and confirmation bias (here is a larger list), and a motivated person can come up with just about any story they need to.

I concede that the Bible probably DOES contain many historically accurate facts. But the facts that form the foundation of Christianity -- that Jesus is the son of God, that he performed miracles, that he rose from the dead, etc. -- were not the focus of Prof. Matthew's talk. But it is exactly THOSE extraordinary claims that require extraordinary evidence. And I don't consider decades-old testimony of a handful of witnesses who are all pushing the same ideology to be extraordinary evidence.

The more I hear about it, the more it seems like religious texts are just collections of stories with enough variety that people can find support for whatever beliefs they happen to espouse.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

God and Reason part 4: "Doesn't the church produce hypocrites and injustices?"

It's taken me a couple days to find the time to write this blog post. Largely because I didn't really find anything objectionable. Actually, I didn't find much at all in the talk.

This 4th talk was given by Prof. David Matthews (no, not the musician, but the statistics prof). As I've come to expect, the talk was well delivered by a thoughtful and experienced speaker.

However, I found the talk to be devoid of any content. To go back to the question, "Doesn't the church produce hypocrites and injustices?", Prof. Matthews says yes. He gave examples of religious people being hypocrites (Peter).

He said we are all guilty, and described the church as a hospital for sinners. He posted the quote by General Norman Schwartzkopf,
The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.
I don't think it's that simple. Indeed, the problem only exists for those who believe that there is a strictly-defined right and wrong. According to whom?, I ask. Everyone has competing drives. But to label a bunch of our intrinsic desires as sinful is a strategy that religions have evolved to keep their followers coming back. Check out my blog post and interview with Dr. Darrel Ray about his book The God Virus.

Prof. Matthews spent a lot of time talking about grace. On this point he became quite emotional. I admire that. But since grace was not really defined, all it amounted to was people interpreting what they wanted to interpret, backed up by emotional oomph.

One of the only messages I could grasp was that trouble arises when the church mixes with politics. Yes, I agree. When one dogma enforces its creeds on others, that's a problem. Prof. Matthews was quick to point out that some non-religious regimes also ran into trouble trying to push ideology down people's throats; he gave the examples of Russia under Stalin, and Cambodia.

During the question period, I asked why highly secular societies such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland are superior according to many measures of societal happiness. He pointed out that each had a history of religion, and he said that their success is a legacy of that ideological foundation. So I pointed out that we should see a decline in their happiness in the near future, to which he replied "not necessarily". It's true that cause and effect is almost impossible to establish, but I think I made my point. Prof. Matthews reiterated that mixing religion and politics causes problems, and pointed out that the Taliban banned the flying of kits, and that music was banned by Muslims in Mali.

I agree, so I don't see what his point is. If it's that religion is fine as long as it does not influence public policy, then I'm on board. But that's not usually how it plays out. Counter-examples include gay marriage, birth control, abortion, and apparently music and kites.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

God and Reason Part 3: "The Problem of Pain"

The speaker this week was Prof. John North. He's been at the University for over 40 years now. That surprised me. Though he and I did cross paths during my undergrad days. My girlfriend and I, along with some other friends, were going to rent a house he owned. We all agreed, and returned to our co-op jobs. However, a few months later we called to confirm, and he decided to rent it to someone else. We were pretty pissed.

Prof. North is a great, impassioned speaker. More of a preacher, really. Very loud at times, and then suddenly quiet. He certainly had my attention.

His talk, however, had little of substance for someone like me. Rather than a scholarly, persuasive argument, it seemed more of an emotional plea. And emotional it was. At times, it seemed Prof. North was on the verge of tears. Not surprisingly, since he told us of his experiences as a volunteer Chaplain at the Grand River Hospital. He estimates that he's visited over 800 dying patrons in his 27 years of service.

His arguments for the function of pain were weak, and half-hearted. He spoke more in metaphors than in defensible clarity.

He told the Bible story of Lazarus and Dives. Dives was rich, and ate like a king every day. Lazarus was poor, and survived on the discarded scraps from Dives' table. But they both died, and - of course - Dives ended up in Hell, and Lazarus ended up in Heaven. Dives begged Abraham to have Lazarus bring him just a drop of water. But Abraham said it couldn't be done.

What's the moral of the story? If you have lots of money, you should give it to the church to make sure you don't end up like poor Dives.

I agree with Jeff Shallit's assessment of pain. It's a motivator. Your brain actively creates pain as a behavioural mechanism. And I agree with Jeff that there is nothing noble about enduring pain for no reason. Pain has no cosmic rationale. Suffering is not in service of some greater good. Pain is your way of making the best of a bad situation. The universe never said anything about fairness. In fact, fairness is a construct invented by social species.

Much of Prof. North's talk was an affirmation of his faith, describing how he sees his religion, and laying out the passages that he finds most compelling.

His speech was moving. But emotion is not the same thing as reality. I find music can make me very emotional. But I don't worship music, or think it controls the universe. My brain is a machine, and if I pull the right strings, I can induce a feeling of awe, and wonder, and reverence. Of course, drugs can do this for you too. Perhaps religion is addictive in this sense.