July 06, 2006

Why small problems create the most difficulties for Christians

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, has some interesting things to say on the importance of details in establishing credibility of any knowledge system. In his Reply to a Christian he points out how central it is to religious beliefs that one avoids any kinds of details that might lead to refutation, something that I have also been writing about for some time. His essay is worth quoting at length.

Christians regularly assert that the Bible predicts future historical events. For instance, Deuteronomy 28:64 says, "The Lord will scatter you among the nations from one end of the earth to the other." Jesus says, in Luke 19:43-44, "The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God's coming to you." We are meant to believe that these utterances predict the subsequent history of the Jews with such uncanny specificity so as to admit of only a supernatural explanation. It is on the basis of such reasoning that 44 percent of the American population now believes that Jesus will return to earth to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years.

But just imagine how breathtakingly specific a work of prophecy could be if it were actually the product of omniscience. If the Bible were such a book, it would make specific, falsifiable predictions about human events. You would expect it to contain a passage like, "In the latter half of the twentieth century, humankind will develop a globally linked system of computers-the principles of which I set forth in Leviticus-and this system shall be called the Internet." The Bible contains nothing remotely like this. In fact, it does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century.

Take a moment to imagine how good a book could be if it were written by the Creator of the universe. Such a book could contain a chapter on mathematics that, after two thousand years of continuous use, would still be the richest source of mathematical insight the earth has ever seen. Instead, the Bible contains some very obvious mathematical errors. In two places, for instance, the Good Book gives the ratio of a circumference of a circle to its diameter as simply 3 (1 Kings 7: 23-26 and 2 Chronicles 4: 2-5). We now refer to this constant relation with the Greek letter pi. While the decimal expansion of pi runs to infinity-3.1415926535 . . .-we can calculate it to any degree of accuracy we like. Centuries before the oldest books of the Bible were written, both the Egyptians and Babylonians approximated p to a few decimal places. And yet the Bible-whether inerrant or divinely inspired-offers us an approximation that is terrible even by the standards of the ancient world. Needless to say, many religious people have found ingenious ways of rationalizing this. And yet, these rationalizations cannot conceal the obvious deficiency of the Bible as a source of mathematical insight. It is absolutely true to say that, if Archimedes had written a chapter of the Bible, the text would bear much greater evidence of the author's "omniscience."

Why doesn't the Bible say anything about electricity, about DNA, or about the actual age and size of the universe? What about a cure for cancer? Millions of people are dying horribly from cancer at this very moment, many of them children. When we fully understand the biology of cancer, this understanding will surely be reducible to a few pages of text. Why aren't these pages, or anything remotely like them, found in the Bible? The Bible is a very big book. There was room for God to instruct us on how to keep slaves and sacrifice a wide variety of animals. Please appreciate how this looks to one who stands outside the Christian faith. It is genuinely amazing how ordinary a book can be and still be thought the product of omniscience. (my italics throughout)

All these are good questions. But as cogently as Harris argues, I do not expect him to convince the believer. This is because, as professor of religion Deepak Sarma pointed out during the panel discussion on the tsunami, all religions contain an MWC ("mysterious ways clause") that can be invoked as a last resort to say that the actions of God are inscrutable and that we simply have to accept the fact that a good explanation exists, though we may not know it. As long as believers are willing to invoke the MWC, there is nothing that can shake their beliefs.

Scientists can and do also hold on to theories in the face of counter evidence. They too often consider unsolved problems to be solvable but yet unknown. The difference is that for them, they do not accept this as the final word. They keep chipping away at the unexplained, generating new evidence as they go. For scientists, there is always a tipping point at which the weight of new evidence is such that it shifts the balance sufficiently that the entire scientific community rejects the old theory. That is why scientific theories keep evolving.

In the case of religion, though, there is no such collective tipping point. There are too many political and economic interests vested in religion for any religious leader (say the Pope) to say something like: "You know, after thinking about it, I've realized that this idea of god does not really make any sense. Maybe we should try to understand how the world works without invoking god."

Religious and political leaders have too much vested interest in maintaining religion, whatever their private views might be. So it is up to individuals to decide for themselves how much counter-evidence they can encounter and still maintain their faith. But we are mistaken in thinking that evidence and reason and logic are the decisive factors in how such decisions are made.

Next: The important role that emotion plays

POST SCRIPT: Keeping people locked up forever without trial

Once again, we have to look for comedy programs to tell us the truth. Stephen Colbert looks at the outrageous scandal that is Guantanamo and the fraudulent arguments that are used to keep people there indefinitely without access to basic legal and human rights.


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