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May 20, 2011

How religion warps thinking

The many widespread and massive evil acts that god commits in the Bible (the story of Joshua being one) should logically undercut any religious belief in such a god. But the desire to believe is so ingrained in some people that they are willing to abandon the logic and evidence that they use in other areas of their lives in order to maintain the things they were indoctrinated with as children.

The best defense against charges of an evil god would be to concede that the Bible is pretty much entirely fiction. This should be easy to do since the evidence against the historicity of almost everything in the Bible is so overwhelming that one has to suspend all critical faculties to retain any credence. But of course religious people cannot do that. Believers have to cling to the historicity of the Bible, at least in its basic storyline and the main events, because they have nothing else.

They try to do this even though, for example, no traces of the kingdoms and magnificent palaces of David and Solomon have been found, although excavations have unearthed evidence of older civilizations. One inscription that was discovered refers to 'the house of David' but does not provide any information about who he was. No serious scholar thinks that a mighty king David ruling a large area ever existed. The only debate is over whether the person described in the Bible existed at all or was a minor warlord.

The Bible is riddled with contradictions, large and small. For example, camels are all over the Old Testament as symbols of wealth and as beasts of burden and they cause serious problems of credibility. The story of Abraham, who supposedly lived around 2,000 BCE, has plenty of camels in it. But we know that camels were not domesticated until 1,000 BCE and were used as beasts of burden only after 800 BCE. Furthermore, many of the place names mentioned in the Old Testament did not exist until the 6th or 7th centuries BCE. All these facts strongly support the proposition that the Bible consists of stories that were created after around 600 BCE, based on folklore and myths, with the authors simply projecting back in time. (The state of knowledge is summarized in the book The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand.)

The famous exodus story is another myth. According to Ussher's Biblical chronology, this occurred around 1490 BCE. The story says that the Israelites had been in captivity in Egypt for generations and then dramatically escaped under the leadership of Moses. While modernist believers are willing to concede that the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea may not be historical, they think the basic story is true. But there are no records of such captivity and no archeological evidence whatsoever to support the idea of 600,000 warriors (which one can estimate to about 3 million people if one includes the families of the warriors) wandering about in the Sinai desert for forty years. Absolutely nothing has been excavated in that region to suggest that a large community ever lived there for any extended period of time.

When you tell religious people this, they are surprised because their priests never informed them, assuming that the priests even know this. When I recently told this to a Catholic priest, he suggested (like most modernist believers seeking to believe in the face of evidence that the Bible is riddled with falsehoods) that while the Bible is true in its basic historical facts, it may not be accurate in all its details and may have been exaggerated. He suggested that the actual number of people who left Egypt may have been small enough to explain the lack of evidence in the Sinai. The fact that he was willing to make up this excuse on the spot to counter evidence that he had not seemed to be aware of suggests how deep is the desire to retain belief in the Bible's historicity. It also seemed odd that he would so easily concede that the numbers were made up but insist that the event itself must have happened. How low can the numbers go before they become meaningless? Would a single person walking across the Sinai constitute 'the exodus'?

I was also a bit disturbed that he did not seem to know about the lack of evidence for the exodus, even though he was a Catholic priest and thus should have attended a decent seminary with faculty who should have known about this scholarship. It just shows how religions need to keep their followers, and even their leaders, in the dark about basic facts that science has unearthed about the Bible in order to maintain belief.

But even conceding the possibility that the exodus story numbers may have been much smaller than stated in the Bible does not take away from the basic implausibility of the story. Take a look at this map of the Egyptian empire in the 15th century BCE.

ancient egypt.jpg

Note that the Egyptian empire extended all the way beyond Canaan. It does not make any sense to say that the Israelites 'escaped' from Egypt and went via Sinai to Canaan because their entire journey from start to finish would have been within the Egyptian empire. The whole exodus story not only lacks any empirical support, it makes no sense either.

A 2008 two-hour NOVA program titled The Bible's Buried Secrets discusses the origins of the Bible and the Israelites in the light of modern archeological evidence. While staying within the bounds of facts, the program's creators seem to be very sympathetic to believers and stretch the meager evidence to try and make the Bible stories (at least beginning after 1000 BCE which is around the time that David supposedly reigned) seem at least slightly plausible. But even they cannot hide the fact that the evidence for almost everything is either slim or none.

May 19, 2011

The real lessons from the story of Joshua

The lack of historicity of the Bible is rampant. To take just one example, there is no evidence for the triumphalist story of Joshua leading the Israeli soldiers, just returned from their (also fictitious) captivity in Egypt, in one victory to another over the various towns in Canaan. The most famous battle is the one for Jericho. But archeological excavations reveal that far from being a big fortressed city whose walls fell under a military onslaught that was favored by their god, Jericho was an insignificant little town that was unwalled.

Religious believers naturally tend to be disturbed by new scientific findings that show that almost all the 'history' in the Bible is without foundation. But when it comes to the Joshua story they should be thankful that this story is not true because it reveals a god who is truly depraved, ordering the wholesale brutal genocide of an entire population. What the Israelites were asked to do by their god was to kill everyone and everything without exception, and they did so. "They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys." (Joshua 6:21) In other words, it was as complete an act of genocide as one can imagine, putting to shame the attempts at genocide by any modern counterpart.

Such stories, even if fictional, are not harmless. Because they are told to children as something glorious (and praised in song about even today), they serve to indoctrinate young children with the tribal mindset that atrocities are acceptable as long as they are done by 'our' side (by definition good) against 'their' side (evil). As researcher George Tamarin shockingly revealed, young Israeli school children approved of Joshua's genocidal acts as reported in the Bible but when the identical story was told to them with the setting transformed to ancient China and the killers into an obscure warlord, they condemned it. The differential response of the children based on whether the killers belonged to their own tribe is no different from that of a supposedly sophisticated theologian like William Lane Craig who seems to find it easy to justify any evil action as long as it is done or commanded by his own particular god.

Here is a another website that tries to justify the genocide perpetrated by Joshua and his army.

Killing a person, while often wrong, is not wrong in all situations; for example, it can be justified if necessary for self-defense. That is, it's not automatically wrong for God to issue an order to kill humans. Since the Israelites had good reason to believe in God's moral perfection, omniscience and omnipotence, the best choice for them would be to trust that God had a better understanding than they of the situation itself and the moral rules governing it. The only way for them to be justified in not obeying God's command would be if the command were inherently evil and impossible to justify (though it must be cautioned that humans with their imperfect understanding could incorrectly decide a command was inherently evil).

This passage is a good example of the kind of pretzel shapes logic gets twisted into when you try to justify the unjustifiable. (The irony is that this website is called Rational Christianity!) It says that even if a command from god seems manifestly evil, you should still do it because god is morally perfect and knows more than you and hence your own judgment is worthless. The author seems to realize that most people might find the relinquishing of all personal judgment too extreme because he/she then says that you can disobey a command only if it is "inherently evil and impossible to justify", seeming to imply that your judgment is not entirely useless but can be used to decide whether to follow god's command or not. But then he/she immediately undercuts that by saying that we are imperfect because we are mere mortals, unlike god, and thus have only an imperfect understanding, and thus we cannot be sure of our own judgment. So what should we do? Use our judgment and follow the order that we think is "inherently evil and impossible to justify" or not? Alas, the author does not say and, as religious apologists often do when faced with these irreconcilable contradictions, changes the subject. This is because there is no way to justify the evil acts that god commands in the Bible without sounding like a monster.

What is disturbing is that this is precisely the kind of reasoning ("God told me to do it and so it must be good and must be obeyed") used by religious fanatics of all stripes down the ages when they commit atrocities. How can we say that they are wrong when their supposedly holy books are approving of the same kinds of reasoning?

In Mark Twin's autobiography that has just been released, he recounts in his bitingly sarcastic style (see here and here) the massacre of 600 men, women, and children of the Moros tribe by US forces in 1906 in the Philippines. Reading this brought back to mind the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam war (see here and here). Both these massacres were excused in the US because they were done by 'our' side. Imagine the reaction if the tables had been turned and 600 American men, women, and children were murdered by a foreign force.

The real lesson from the story of Joshua is that people are most dangerous, and can be most cruel, when they think they know the mind of god and believe that he is on their side.

May 13, 2011

Looking closely at the Bible

In a previous post, I said that two things lead to greater disbelief in god. In it I discussed the one where people start to take a skeptical attitude towards their most cherished beliefs.

In this post I want to discuss the other group, which consists of people who develop increased knowledge of what the Bible and other religious texts actually contain. This can be revelatory for those who grow up with just their Sunday school knowledge of a benevolent god who did a few miracles here, a few good things there, and generally told people to behave themselves in a manner he approved of if they wanted to go to heaven after they died. But as soon as one starts to examine religious holy books more closely, one cannot help but conclude that what they contain lack any solidity and are pure wind. What is more, they are not at all in keeping with the Sunday school image of god.

The Bible.jpegTake the Judeo-Christian Bible. The Old Testament reveals a god who is a truly nasty piece of work who is willing to commit genocide at the drop of a hat, orders the indiscriminate murders of innocent people, is cruel and capricious (the story of Job is a classic example of a sadist god), pretty much hates everyone, and who creates a vast number of petty rules and then demands that people be stoned for violating them. Gays, stubborn and mouthy children, adulterers, women who are not virgins when they are married, blasphemers, those who work on the Sabbath, practice wizardry, worship other gods, and even merely pick up sticks on the Sabbath are all targeted for slaughter.

Furthermore, this Bible violates the basic laws of science and even common-sense knowledge. The more you know about religion and science, the less likely you are to believe. Let alone the obvious fictions about Adam and Eve and Noah and the like which most modernistic religious people are willing to concede are not historical, there is little or no evidence for Abraham, the captivity in Egypt, Moses, the exodus, David, Solomon, and so on. In fact, pretty much the entire Old Testament until around the Babylonian captivity in 586 BCE is mythological but unlike with the creation myths, modernists are reluctant to concede that the later stories are also fictional.

The Old Testament is a library of books written between the late 6th century BCE and the early 2nd century BCE by people who were basically making it up out of whole cloth, based on the legends and myths that form the oral traditions of every group of people.

We even have evidence that the advent of monotheism, which is seen as the driving narrative of the entire Old Testament and its crown jewel, the gift of the Jewish people to posterity, is also not as portrayed in its pages. New research reveals that the ancient Israelites were not monotheistic in their beliefs for most of their early history, at least until the period of Babylonian captivity, and monotheism likely arose when some of the Judean intellectual elites encountered Persian abstract thought during their captivity. Before that they believed that Yahweh even had a wife named Asherah who was also worshipped.

But that is not all. In future posts I will look at all the other events in Biblical history which are unquestioningly believed as true but which are likely fiction. No wonder that some clergy, who are likely to learn about these disconcerting facts in their seminary studies, can become secret skeptics. Daniel Dennett says:

My colleague Linda LaScola and I are currently studying this phenomenon, and when discussing our first pilot study of closeted non-believing (or other-believing) clergy, we often heard two jokes about the seminary experience that was part of the training of most clergy: "If you emerge from seminary still believing in God, you haven't been paying attention," and "Seminary is where God goes to die."

Is it any surprise that increasing levels of knowledge about the Bible, accompanied by increased awareness of science, leads to greater disbelief? The top leadership of religious institutions must know this and realize the need to keep their followers in the dark. So they promote ignorant belief by calling it faith and making it seem virtuous. As I have said before, I used to be very religious and studied the Bible formally but even I was not made aware of all the problems. I had to discover all these things on my own.

On the other hand, those who are truth seekers tend to have a skeptical attitude and quickly discover that religious holy books are mostly fiction.

March 02, 2010

Religious texts as metaphors

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In yesterday's post, I wrote about those religious believers who try to explain away some of the incredible events reported in the Bible as simplifications that were appropriate for the naïve people of thousands of years ago, and why that explanation was not credible.

Those believers who realize that even the simplification explanation is inadequate and that they need to go further in distancing themselves from the literal words of their text sometimes say that the Bible should be treated as metaphor. They assert that the stories are not meant to be taken as historically true but as vehicles to reveal underlying meaning, somewhat like Jesus's parables, and so any contradiction with science is not an issue. The catch here is that such apologists are often not willing to specify precisely how far they are willing to go along this metaphorical road. For example, are they willing to concede that the entire story of Jesus's life a metaphor? Or are there at least some elements of that story that they hold back as historical fact (Virgin birth? His miracles? Resurrection?) if the Bible is to retain any credibility to them at all as the word of god?

Greta Christina finds that those who argue for metaphors are often disingenuous:

Progressive religion says, "This is simply a story"... but it isn't sincere. You can tell that it isn't sincere by how bent out of shape it gets when people point out that it's just a story, and therefore isn't really true. Progressive religion uses the "metaphor" trope as a slippery way of avoiding hard questions when engaged with skeptics... and as soon as the skeptics turn their backs, it slips right back into actual, non-metaphorical, "belief in immaterial entities or forces that it has no evidence for" religion. Progressive religion is ultimately just as willing to ignore evidence that contradicts its comforting story as hard-line conservative religion.

Truly secular "religion," on the other hand, says, "This is simply a story" -- and means it.

The difference is this:

If you say to a "Religion is a useful metaphor" believer, "Your religion is a story, it isn't factually true, a lot of the history is mangled and some of it's flatly wrong, and all the God stuff is totally made up"... chances are they're going to get seriously defensive. They'll tell you how intolerant you are, how you're just as dogmatic and proselytizing as religious fundamentalists, how disrespectful you are to point out the flaws in religion and try to persuade people that it's mistaken, how close-minded you are to reject ideas just because they're not supported by dumb old evidence.

She uses an apt comparison with Star Trek to point out that you can always tell the difference between those who apply the "it's just a metaphor" line sincerely and those who advance it as a rhetorical ploy. Avid fans of Star Trek act in ways that are very similar to religious believers, except that they can tell the difference between truth and metaphor.

Think about it. Trekkies are devoted to a story that they find entertaining and inspiring, even though they know it isn't factually real. And there's great diversity in their devotions, similar to those among religious beliefs. Some Trekkies are intensely dedicated to the story, to the point where it takes up a substantial part of their lives: going to conventions, making costumes, buying memorabilia, watching the shows again and again. Others are more casual followers: watching the shows when they happen to come on, maybe taking in a convention or two. And different Trekkies follow different variants of the story. Some are more interested in the original show with Spock and Kirk; others care more about The Next Generation. Some weirdo fringe cultists even follow Voyager.

But they all have one thing in common: They know that "Star Trek" isn't real. Unless they're certifiably mentally ill, they know that the story they're devoted to was made up by people. And they act accordingly. Avid convention-goers don't treat casual fans as apostates; Original Showians don't treat Next Generationists as sinners and blasphemers; and none of them write editorials lambasting people as immoral sociopaths if they prefer documentaries to any sort of science fiction. And they -- okay, fine, we -- don't insist that "Star Trek" is just a story... and then get bent out of shape when people point out that it is a story, and hence that it's not true. Trekkies have a good time trying to fit the inaccuracies and inconsistencies into some sort of continuity (that's half the fun); but we understand that the show is a fictional story, with all the flaws that fiction is heir to, and we don't treat it as a divinely-inspired guide to reality and life.

That's what "it's just a metaphor" religion would look like.

Unless religious believers specify which parts of the Bible are metaphors or stories and which parts are historical (something they find hard to get agreement on even amongst themselves) the "it's just a metaphor" argument just won't fly. And they also have to address the even more difficult question of how they decide what is historically true and what is not.

In some ways, those who take the Bible as strictly a record of historical events, those people who are labeled as creationists or fundamentalists, have a more well-defined challenge. They have to create an entirely alternate science that conforms to their history. Doing so leads to its own insurmountable contradictions such as how they can live and take advantage of all the benefits that "standard' science provides while denying its validity. But at least they have drawn a clear line. Those who argue for the metaphor model have no clear and agreed-upon beacons of what should be taken as historically true and are thus navigating blind.

POST SCRIPT: And now, here is some person with his opinion

For some reason, news operations like CNN have decided that it is newsworthy to read the tweets of random, anonymous people expressing their opinions on news stories. My local newspaper, the Plain Dealer also devotes a considerable amount of its rapidly decreasing page space to actually soliciting such terse opinions, most of which are ignorant, banal, or smart alecky. Whoever coined the proverb 'Vox populi, vox dei' ('The voice of the people is the voice of god') clearly had no idea what the vox pop would sound like in the 21st century.

That Mitchell and Webb Look has the appropriate response to this trend.

March 01, 2010

The Genesis story: Simplification or fabrication?

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Religious believers occupy a continuous spectrum that range from those take their religious texts as literally true to those who say they treat them as metaphors.

For those who treat them as literally true, books like the Bible serve as infallible history texts. Although religious texts are not meant to be scientific textbooks (in that the material is not organized in a way that seeks to elucidate the laws of nature) and are not considered so even by ardent literalists, the events described as history (such as the Genesis story and the miracles) do have scientific consequences and treating those events as factual leads to conflicts with science that have to be resolved in some way.

For example, the Bible does not come right out and give the age of the Earth but its genealogies and the chronology of the kings, if assumed to be historically true, enable one to calculate it quite precisely, as was done by Bishop Ussher, Isaac Newton, and others. (See here and here for how those calculations were done.) The more fundamentalist religious believers who take everything in the Bible literally are stuck with these conclusions that impinge on science, however many contradictions and complications it causes them. That is why they eventually become essentially anti-science.

Other religious believers, being more sophisticated and not wanting to be seen as anti-science, know that they have to escape the shackles of being bound to the literal truth of the religious texts while not discrediting them entirely. One device is to argue that although the Bible is the word of god as revealed by him, at the time he chose to make his revelations god was dealing with a population that was generally ignorant, especially of the concepts of modern science, and thus had to greatly simplify the truth of how creation came about. He thus gave them the Genesis story, telling a tale of creation in a way that could be understood by the people of that time.

The implication in this mode of thinking is that if god had waited a couple of thousands of years more before revealing himself, and chosen Pat Robertson as his Moses and taken him to a mountain to whisper in his ear, he would have revealed his creation story in terms of the big bang theory, conservation of energy, and other modern scientific concepts. (Though Pat may still not have understood, not being the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, if you get my drift.)

Although this sentiment is widespread among those who are not literalists but want to preserve the idea that the Bible is a source of great and eternal truths, is it reasonable? Jason Rosenhouse doesn't think so. He takes this argument apart by pointing out that there is a big difference between simplifying and fabrication, and he gives as an example of how we try to answer small children when they ask deep questions.

When you explain something to a small child you routinely simplify the situation. You omit details and context, and express yourself in language the child will understand. It is rare, and almost never appropriate, to lie outright to the child about what is going on. Surely God could have presented the essential spiritual truths without embedding them within a fictitious story. Accommodating His presentation to the level of His audience calls for simplification, not fabrication.

Rosenhouse does not specify the rare instances where it may be appropriate to fabricate but may be thinking of stories like the stork delivering babies, because people are uneasy with talking about sex with their children until they reach a certain age. But even in such cases, it is possible to finesse the sex issue but still preserve the essential truth that a baby emerges from the mother's womb.

As a general rule, it is desirable to follow the advice of Albert Einstein who said:

It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience. ("On the Method of Theoretical Physics", The Herbert Spencer Lecture, delivered at Oxford (10 June 1933); also published in Philosophy of Science, Vol. 1, No. 2 (April 1934), pp. 163-169.)

More popular variants of this sentiment that have been attributed to him are "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler" and "Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler." In other words, don't simplify to the point of distortion. It can be argued that any major simplification necessarily implies some distortion but the caution to bear in mind is to not simplify to the point where you have changed the very core of the idea.

One could think of many ways to tell a simplified story of the origins of the universe that approximate the best scientific ideas of current times in ways that should have been understandable, at least in their general outlines, by children now or people who lived several thousand years ago. Recently I was asked by an elderly relative who has absolutely no scientific background to explain the big bang theory to him "in words of one syllable." i.e., without jargon or the assumption of knowledge of even slightly esoteric scientific concepts. It is not that hard to do and I am preparing such a document and may post it later. In doing so, I will follow Einstein's dictum.

Rosenhouse argues that the story of Genesis does not fit the description of simplification. It so disconnected from the way we now believe things actually happened that it cannot be viewed as anything but a total fabrication. Take for example the implications of the Genesis story for evolution:

The question is: If… the Bible was not meant to provide us with scientific information, then why does it say anything about science at all?

Let us assume for the moment that evolution is God's means of creation. We can understand that He would not lay out the technical details of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis, since those details would not have meant anything to ancient readers. How does it follow that His only option was to present the story of creation via an entirely fictitious sequence of events? A story which, if you accept the results of modern science, has led astray enormous numbers of sincere seekers over the centuries.

Rosenhouse correctly argues that the Genesis story cannot be re-interpreted as a simplification of the big bang theory or of evolution. For those who think that evolution was guided by god and that the Genesis story was meant to hint at that, I could easily think of a simplified story that would have served god's purpose better. "And god created the Sun and then later the Earth. In the waters he created life, first as tiny beings from which came forth worms which then became fishes that later crawled upon the land and became a multitude of animals and birds. And finally there came man. And the morning and evening were many, many days. And he saw that it was good." It needs work, but you get the idea.

The purpose of the Genesis story, as Rosenhouse says, is clearly something else, to drive home the idea of original sin and the fall from grace.

The stories in Genesis are central to the grand narrative of fall redemption, yet modern science tells us these stories are completely fictitious. Given this basic fact I can understand why so many people believe you must choose between science and scripture. What I do not understand is people trying to maintain the idea that the Bible is holy and inerrant some of the time, while utterly unreliable at other times.

Good points.

Next: What about the idea that the events in the Bible are not simplifications but are metaphors?

POST SCRIPT: A mystery solved

Ever wonder why so much of TV is so awful? That Mitchell and Webb Look explains.

July 13, 2009

Why people believe in god-7: God the moody

For the last post in this series, I want to look at the way god has been characterized through history.

It is a popular belief, especially among Christians, that humans have been created in god's image. Actually, it is the other way around. Humans create god to meet their needs, and as their needs change, then so does their image of god.

Robert Wright has published a new book called The Evolution of God (2009) that I look forward to reading that traces the origins of monotheistic religions. In an interview, he discusses the main ideas. Basically, he sees the Bible and other religious books originating as political documents meant to serve immediate political needs, which explains why god seems so moody, casually committing genocide one day and calling for love and forgiveness the next.

My basic premise is that when a religious group sees itself as having something to gain through peaceful interaction with another group of people, including a different religion, it will find a basis for tolerance in its scriptures and religion. When groups see each other as being in a non-zero sum relationship -- there's a possibility of a win-win outcome if they play their cards right, or a lose-lose outcome if they don't -- then they tend to warm up to one another. By contrast, if people see themselves in a zero-sum relationship with another group of people -- they can only win if the other group loses -- that brings out the intolerance and the dark side of religion.

The western monotheistic tradition began in Judaism but not the way the Bible says. In fact, there is almost no evidence for all the stories about Abraham, the captivity in Egypt, Moses, the exodus, the ten commandments, Kind David, King Solomon, etc. The Jews began as a polytheistic indigenous grouping, just like all the other polytheistic indigenous groupings that occupied the land that we now call the Middle East.

The events in the Bible only start to resemble real history around 650 BCE. In 722 BCE, we know that the polytheistic indigenous people living the northern region known as Israel were captured by the Assyrians. The ruler of the southern region of Judah, King Josiah (649-609 BCE), used the demise of the northern kingdom for his own propaganda purposes against his political rivals, arguing that Israel's capture was due to their infidelity to god. Using the time-honored tradition of assigning supernatural agency to natural or political phenomena. King Josiah created monotheism as a political act, saying that his god was the true god and that people should appease the true god by killing off those who worshipped rival gods, and by killing off their leaders as well. He was thus able to consolidate power over his rivals, and in the process monotheism came into being.

As part of this process, it was during this time that one of Josiah's priests conveniently 'discovered' in the temple some hitherto unknown 'holy' books. And surprise, surprise, this book provided support for all of Josiah's claims to his god's exclusivity and forbade people from worshipping rival gods.

This document, now considered to be that which makes up the bulk of the book Deuteronomy, was then added to over the next 300 years to become the religious book of the Jews called the Torah, the core of the Old Testament, containing the Abraham and Moses stories which are, of course, almost entirely fiction. Thus began the creation of a single narrative that sought to retroactively create a past, justify the present, and to lay the groundwork for a new social order in the future. That is how Judaism really came about.

A possible reason why the advent of monotheism led to the current Bible is given by Daniel Lazare in his March 2002 Harper's magazine article False Testament: "A single, all-powerful god required a single set of sacred texts, and the process of composition and codification that led to what we now know as the Bible began under King Josiah and continued well into the Christian era." (See part 5 of my series on The Bible as History. The whole series describes the fictional origins of what many religious people believe to be history.)

There can be no question that the top religious leaders and theologians and other religious scholars know all this, though lower level priests and rabbis and imams may not. Ordinary religious people are carefully shielded from the true knowledge of how their holy books came about, because the religious authorities risk losing their sinecures if people realized that even the commonly accepted ages of the books, let alone their claims to divine origin, are false, as are their favorite stories about their religious heroes. So religious leaders suppress the truth and perpetuate fiction about how the books came about in order to give divine credibility to what are essentially political tracts.

Priests know that people will hold on to religious beliefs unless they find themselves in an intellectually untenable position. And since in our society religion is a protected belief system, priests know that ordinary believers will rarely encounter views that force them to confront the contradictions inherent in believing in a god.

This is why the 'new atheist' campaign (of which I am proud to be a part) to publicly voice critiques of religion is to be welcomed and why we resist calls for us to not disparage religious beliefs or religious books because we might upset 'good' religious moderates. The true history of religions and their holy books must be brought out into the light if we are ever going to get rid of the pernicious effects of religion.

POST SCRIPT: Betty Bowers on prayer

America's Best Christian explains the prayer concept.

January 19, 2007

The Bible as history-7: The danger of too much information

(For the earlier posts in this series, see part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, and part 6.)

In the series of posts regarding the issue of how reliable the Bible was as history, the conclusion that was reached was that almost all the information before about 650 BCE was probably false. In other words, there was almost no evidence for the existence Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, the exodus, etc. And as the film The God Who Wasn't There points out, the evidence for a historical Jesus is also very weak.

The interesting question is why this lack of historicity of much of the stories in the Bible is not told to people. It must surely be the case that religious scholars are aware of the lack of archeological and other reliable sources of evidence for the major events that are described in the Bible. Religious leaders seem to be treating the relationship of Biblical events to history differently from its relationship to science.

The topic of the impact of science on religious doctrines has not been avoided. This may be partly because science has an unavoidable impact on daily life and its implications for all other areas of knowledge cannot be avoided even if one wished to. But as a result of being forced to deal with science, religious scholars and apologists have managed to finesse the fact that modern science has cast doubt on the miraculous events described in the Bible, so that nowadays a religious person with a scientific perspective can avoid giving any credence to stories about seas being parted, sun being kept still, people rising from the dead, water being turned into wine, and so forth, without being considered an apostate. The success of these efforts can be seen in the fact that the wealth of scientific counter-evidence to the miracles of the Bible has not stopped even many scientists from continuing to be religious. So why have theologians not taken the same attitude with the archeological counterevidence to Biblical history and found similar ways to confront the lack of historical evidence?

Perhaps it is because the actual story of how the Bible came about tells people too much for comfort. As I pointed out earlier, the present day Bible was the codification of documents produced by priests around 650 BCE, long after almost all the events it purportedly claims to record. It was seemingly produced with the goal of convincing King Josiah to enforce strict monotheism on his people, and the strategy worked. But in order to have this effect, the documents created a narrative that emphasized god's obsession with stamping out the worship of other gods. In order to achieve people's compliance, the priests created an image of a god who was fierce and authoritarian, demanded total obedience, and had no scruples whatsoever in committing genocide on people who happened to disobey in any way. It also shows a god who was extraordinarily vain and thin-skinned, needing constant praise and using any slight as an excuse to indulge in wholesale massacres. It is not a pleasant picture of god but as a literary device to scare the daylights out of people and get them to fall in line, it was pretty effective.

If you tell people the real story of how the Bible came about, you would take away much of its power. Take for example the ten commandments, that pillar of modern-day religious fundamentalists who would like nothing better than to have it displayed in every classroom, courthouse and other public places. They are venerated by a great number of people (even if they are less than conscientious about actually following them). For people of my generation, much of its impact comes from the visual image of Charlton Heston as Moses in the film The Ten Commandments going up a mountain and seeing god in the form of lightning etch those words on two stone tablets.

That image gives the commandments an authority that would disappear if people were told that these commandments were hatched in some back room by a group of priests who had a specific political agenda. People could argue that they might be still good ideas and should be observed but there is no question that the story of Charlton Heston Moses getting them directly from god on a mountain gives the commandments a certain heft they would lose if replaced by a more realistic story of them being scribbled in a backroom somewhere by people trying to advance their cause.

The actual history of how they came about, however, explains something that always puzzled me about the ten commandments and that was its curious mixture of grand but vague requirements, combined with quite petty and even impossible requests. (Note: there are different versions (.pdf) of the ten commandments and I'll use the King James' version.)

The first four commandments (roughly "Don’t have any other gods, don't make or worship any images, don't take god's name in vain, keep the Sabbath holy") seem a little excessively self-focused for a presumably omnipotent being, as if god was suffering from an inferiority complex and needed constant reassurance that he was numero uno. But if your main goal in writing the commandments was to enforce monotheism on the population and get people to dump their dependence on other gods, it makes sense to make the list of commandments top heavy with obedience to one god.

Only the sixth through ninth commandments ("Don't kill, commit adultery, steal, or lie") can be considered universal rules or morality and all are easily understood.

The fifth and tenth commandments are vague and not operationally clear. The fifth ("Honor your father and mother") is one that I can enthusiastically support now that I am a parent, while the last ("Don't covet your neighbor’s house, wife, servants, ox, ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s") seems unusually wordy. The wife-coveting thing seems like it could have been subsumed under the adultery commandment, while the rest could have simply been listed as "Don't covet other people's stuff." Envy seems like a pretty minor sin, too, hardly worthy of inclusion in such a major-league list.

One gets the sense that the priests had agreed initially that ten was a nice round number for commandments and that by the time they got to the final one they, like any committee, had got exhausted by trying to get consensus on the other nine, and so just slapped together a laundry list of items just to get it over with so that they could go home and have a beer.

One notable omission from this list is the absence of any prohibition against homosexuality, something that causes present-day anti-gay activists some anguish since they have to go digging in obscure Biblical passages to find support for their cause. Why would the priests leave it out, since condemnations do occur in other passages (such as Leviticus 18:22) that outline detailed rules of behavior? It must be quite irritating to anti-gay zealots that the prohibition against simple envy makes the top ten list while homosexuality does not. My guess is that homosexuality was not uncommon then and existed among the priests as well (just like it does now), and they did not want to come down too hard on a practice that they themselves their colleagues indulged in.

Understanding the history of how the Bible actually came about makes its content much more intelligible to me. But I can see how this knowledge can be quite unsettling to believers and thus why religions that depend on the Bible as the basis for their organization are not too keen on trumpeting this information.

POST SCRIPT: Gary Larson

I can never think of the scene where Charlton Heston as Moses parts the Red Sea in the film The Ten Commandments without remembering and laughing again at the cartoon by the amazingly imaginative Gary Larson, which shows Moses parting his hair by standing in front of a mirror and stretching his arms wide, exactly the way Heston does.

January 18, 2007

The Bible as history-6: The Bible as propaganda tool

(For the earlier posts in this series, see part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.)

Few people read the Bible cover to cover. That is understandable. For one thing, it is very long. Second, the language is hard to follow. Third, it can be quite confusing with lots of characters and places involved, even more so than a Tolstoy novel. Fourth, interspersed with the stories are huge and boring chunks that are of two kinds: one consists of sequences of 'begats', which trace the genealogy of people, and the other consist of rules that god has said that people should live by.

So while the Bible is the best selling book of all time, it is also probably the least read. It is kind of like the religious equivalent of Steven Hawking's A Brief History of Time.

One can see why current religious leaders are less than enthusiastic about publicizing the actual historical record of the Bible and prefer to keep people believing the Biblical myths. After all, three of the major religions of the world, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, all draw inspiration from these same set of now-discredited stories and draw their lineage and even their sense of identity from them. To lose them is to have their followers go through a fairly excruciating re-evaluation of self-identity and about what they can believe and not believe in the Bible.

One of the puzzling things about the faith of those who do not take the Bible literally is the basis for their choice about what to believe and what not to believe. It can be argued that if the authors of the Bible can make up stories about god doing all kinds of fantastic things like making the Sun stand still, parting the seas, rising from the dead, the exodus, and so forth, haven't they pretty much ceded their right to be taken at face value on anything? Why should we take their word for other things? This problem becomes even more acute when, as the previous posts in this series showed, even those events that are not miracles but supposedly simply a bland recounting of history are also revealed to be fiction.

In fact, this is the problem for any modern person. Once you concede that any portion of the Bible may not be correct, you have to confront the decision of where to draw the line at reinterpreting its message.

The established religions have tried to draw a fine line between an unchanging Bible and modern sensibilities by 'closing the canon' at some point, by decreeing that the books that they selected as authoritative were the final revelations of god, not to be tinkered with any further. The Jewish canon was closed around 200 CE while the Christian canon was closed later.

This is why the Bible is not like an encyclopedia, subject to periodic revisions, with discredited stuff being omitted and new material added. Doing so would dilute the supposed timelessness of the message and open up endless and acrimonious debates about what should be included.

But at the same time, the religious establishments have informally allowed people to reinterpret Biblical passages to take into account modern scientific analysis. So in some sense, while they have officially closed the canon, they have unofficially opened it again. This is what has resulted in the many diverse religious denominations and sects within the mainstream religions, each interpreting the Bible in its own way but all claiming to follow the same religion.

But not all are pleased with this freedom to pick through the Bible to find an interpretation that suits you. This is seen, quite rightly, as detracting from the more powerful idea of the Bible as the unerring, unchanging word of god. One can thus understand the appeal of religious fundamentalism. Life becomes very simple of you believe that your religious text was directly written or at least dictated by god, that it is infallible and true in every detail however slight. If one turns one's face against all modern scientific and historical analysis, then there are no pesky contradictions to deal with. Any contradiction with the Bible is a problem for the other sources of knowledge, not for the Bible or one's faith.

But even for the Biblical literalists there lurks danger within the Bible itself, which explains why even fundamentalists do not tend to read the Bible very closely.

Next: The danger of too much information.

POST SCRIPT: Beyond parody

Some political commentators are so completely wacky that they don't even know when their legs are being pulled and thus they get dragged into stranger and stranger territory. Watch Stephen Colbert having fun with Dinesh D'Souza (author of a new book The enemy at home: The cultural left and its responsibility for 9/11), getting him to agree that FDR (yes, FDR!) was partly responsible for 9/11 and that in the current wars, liberal Americans are on one side, and terrorists and conservative Americans are on the other.

The first part of Colbert's interview is here and should be immediately followed by the second part.

If the second part does not load automatically, click below

People like D'Souza not only have no sense of how to interpret history, drawing far-fetched links between Yalta and Afghanistan, they don't even have a sense of humor, making them perfect patsies for Colbert's brilliant interviewing skills. D'Souza comes across as a total doofus.

Alan Wolfe reviewing D'Souza's book says "Like his hero Joe McCarthy, he has no sense of shame. He is a childish thinker and writer tackling subjects about which he knows little to make arguments that reek of political extremism. His book is a national disgrace, a sorry example of a publishing culture more concerned with the sensational than the sensible."

I wonder about people like D'Souza and Ann Coulter. Is there no bottom to the levels of idiocy that they can sink to, no end to the stupidity or even hatefulness that they can utter? Aren't they embarrassed to say things that are so obviously crazy? Or is it that they can depend on a core of supporters, and more importantly, financial backers, who are willing to provide them with a platform come what may?

December 01, 2006

The Bible as History-5: Why the Bible was invented

(See part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.)

If much of the history reportedly recorded in the Bible prior to about 600 BCE is false, why were the stories invented? Why did the ancient scribes make up all this stuff? Daniel Lazare in his March 2002 Harper's article False Testament points out that it is not simply that they were deliberately lying, in the way that would be shameful for any modern chronicler of supposedly factual events. They were not the early equivalents of people who would be currently drubbed out of the historical profession for their actions. Lazare suggests that they were working under a different paradigm, with a different concept of truth.

To say that the Jerusalem priesthood intentionally cooked up a phony history is to assume that the priests possessed a modern concept of historical truth and falsehood, and surely this is not so. As the biblical minimalist Thomas L. Thompson has noted, the Old Testament's authors did not subscribe to a sequential chronology but to some more complicated arrangement in which the great events of the past were seen as taking place in some foggy time before time. The priests, after all, were not inventing a past; they were inventing a present and, they trusted, a future.

They also may had practical reasons for making up certain specific stories, such as the one which had them as exiles returning from Egypt and capturing the land of Canaan from its then inhabitants, instead of the story supported by scientific evidence which has them arising out of an indigenous people of that region, separating from the other indigenous peoples in a manner similar to speciation. Lazare says:

One reason may have been that people in the ancient world did not establish rights to a particular piece of territory by farming or by raising families on it but by seizing it through force of arms. Indigenous rights are an ideological invention of the twentieth century A.D. and are still not fully established in the twenty-first, as the plight of today's Palestinians would indicate. The only way that the Israelites could establish a moral right to the land they inhabited was by claiming to have conquered it sometime in the distant past. Given the brutal power politics of the day, a nation either enslaved others or was enslaved itself, and the Israelites were determined not to fall into the latter category.

The main driving force for the invention of the Biblical narrative may have been the advent of monotheism around 650 BCE, which required quite a different worldview from the earlier polytheistic ways of thinking.

Monotheism was unquestionably a great leap forward. At a time when there was no science, no philosophy, and no appreciable knowledge of the outside world, an obscure, out-of-the-way people somehow conceived of a lone deity holding the entire universe in his grasp. This was no small feat of imagination, and its consequences were enormous.

Monotheism had been advocated earlier by some priests but had not been rigorously enforced by the rulers of Israel and Judah. But when the northern land of Israel was conquered in 722 BCE by the Assyrians, the priests in the southern land of Judah used that as a propaganda tool and blamed that defeat on the fact that the people of Israel harbored a multiplicity of gods, thus incurring the wrath of the one true god, which by the kind of happy coincidence that always accompanies such assertions, happened to be their own god, of course. They argued that the conquest of Israel by the Assyrians was because god was punishing them for this transgression. (This is a remarkably similar tactic to what is adopted by current-day radical clerics like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson when they blame the events of 9/11, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and the like on the anger that god feels because of homosexuality or abortion or whatever sex-related obsession they think god has.)

The priests also claimed at this time to have found 'the book of the law' (which is now known as the book of Deuteronomy) in a temple and told Josiah about it.

The priests' strategy seemed to have worked. As a result of this warning and what was in the book, King Josiah of Judah purged his own land of all other gods to avoid the same fate. But as is often the case, god did not seem to be appeased by this act of obedience and further disasters befell the people of Judah. Even after the strict enforcing of monotheism, the people of Judah were also conquered and sent into captivity and exile in Babylon in 586 BCE. The early Jewish priests were not the last religious people to try to interpret political developments and natural disasters in ways that served their own ends, only to find that following their advice did not prevent future disasters and setbacks.

A reason why the advent of monotheism might have led to the Bible is given by Lazare: "A single, all-powerful god required a single set of sacred texts, and the process of composition and codification that led to what we now know as the Bible began under King Josiah and continued well into the Christian era."

Thus began the creation of a single narrative that sought to retroactively create a past, justify the present, and to lay the groundwork for a new social order in the future.

Of course, we should not assume that just because there are better historical records after 700 BCE or so, that what the Bible records after that period is completely accurate. The process of massaging the Biblical text to create a particular message did not end with that initial compilation. As I wrote about earlier, the fact that the Bible had to be copied by hand until the advent of the printing press by Gutenberg in 1440 allowed it to be changed over a period of two thousand years to serve various agendas as it was handed down through the generations.

The Bible should not be taken seriously as history. Instead it should be seen more as a guide to what, at various times in the past, people believed, how they perceived themselves, and how they wanted to be perceived by others.

November 30, 2006

The Bible as history-4: How science unearths the past

(See part 1, part 2, and part 3.)

The two main tools that are available for trying to piece together the real history of Biblical times are those of literary analysis and archeology. In the former, the analysts carefully examine texts for literary clues as to the dates and places where events are reported to have occurred. In the latter, fieldwork in the area tries to find concrete evidence of the rise and fall and migration of societies. And when the two methods are combined, it becomes possible to reconstruct events and see what Biblical stories hold up and what don't.

And what it seems to show is that the stories of the Bible that occurred earlier than around 800 BC have little or no support and are often contradicted outright. A key myth that was overturned was about Abraham having lived around 1800 BCE, and the wanderings of a people associated with him. This story has been completely undermined by a combination of literary and archeological analysis and there is no reason to believe it to be true.

For an example of the kind of analysis that is done, take simple facts like camels being used for transport. The Bible frequently mentions camel caravans during the various migrations of people, including those of Abraham. As Daniel Lazare says in his March 2002 Harper's article False Testament, nowadays we tend to take for granted that camels were always domesticated animals, routinely available to be used for transport purposes. But in actuality, studies of ancient animal bones show that as far as that region was concerned, camels were not used for such domestic purposes until well after 1000 BCE.

If you try to shift the dates of Abraham's travels to overcome problems like that with the camels, you run into other problems.

Subsequent research into urban development and nomadic growth patterns indicated that no such mass migration had taken place and that several cities mentioned in the Genesis account did not exist during the time frame Albright had suggested. Efforts to salvage the theory by moving up Abraham's departure to around 1500 B.C. foundered when it was pointed out that, this time around, Genesis failed to mention cities that did dominate the landscape during this period. No matter what time frame was advanced, the biblical text did not accord with what archaeologists were learning about the land of Canaan in the second millennium.

Another problem arises with the exodus from Egypt. The evidence points to the fact that such an event did not happen.

The most obvious concerned the complete silence in contemporary Egyptian records concerning the mass escape of what the Bible says were no fewer than 603,550 Hebrew slaves.
. . .
Not only was there a dearth of physical evidence concerning the escape itself, as archaeologists pointed out, but the slate was blank concerning the nearly five centuries that the Israelites had supposedly lived in Egypt prior to the Exodus as well as the forty years that they supposedly spent wandering in the Sinai. Not so much as a skeleton, campsite, or cooking pot had turned up, [Tel Aviv University archeologist Israel] Finkelstein and [journalist Neil Asher] Silberman noted, even though "modern archeological techniques are quite capable of tracing even the very meager remains of hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads all over the world." Indeed, although archaeologists have found remains in the Sinai from the third millennium B.C. and the late first, they have found none from the thirteenth century.

Another myth that was overthrown by archeological studies was that the land of Canaan was captured by Israelites returning from Egypt after several epic battles. In actuality, Lazare writes:

Resurrecting a theory first proposed in the 1920s, an Israeli named Yohanan Aharoni infuriated the Israeli archaeological establishment by arguing that evidence in support of an Israelite war of conquest in the thirteenth century B.C. was weak and unconvincing. Basing his argument on a redating of pottery shards found at a dig in the biblical city of Hazor, Aharoni proposed instead that the first Hebrew settlers had filtered into Palestine in a nonviolent fashion, peacefully settling among the Canaanites rather than putting them to the sword.
. . .
Rather than revealing that Canaan was entered from the outside, analysis of ancient settlement patterns indicated that a distinctive Israelite culture arose locally around 1200 B.C. as nomadic shepherds and goatherds ceased their wanderings and began settling down in the nearby uplands. Instead of an alien culture, the Israelites were indigenous. Indeed, they were highly similar to other cultures that were emerging in the region around the same time--except for one thing: whereas archaeologists found pig bones in other sites, they found none among the Israelites. A prohibition on eating pork may have been one of the earliest ways in which the Israelites distinguished themselves from their neighbors.

Another story that is strongly believed to be true but is very likely to be a myth is the story of David and Solomon being powerful kings who ruled over a large region of territory and lived in some splendor.

If the Old Testament is to be believed, David and Solomon, rulers of the southern kingdom of Judah from about 1005 to about 931 B.C., made themselves masters of the northern kingdom of Israel as well. They represent, in the official account, a rare moment of national unity and power; under their reign, the combined kingdom was a force throughout the Fertile Crescent.
. . .
According to the Bible, Solomon was both a master builder and an insatiable accumulator. He drank out of golden goblets, outfitted his soldiers with golden shields, maintained a fleet of sailing ships to seek out exotic treasures, kept a harem of 1,000 wives and concubines, and spent thirteen years building a palace and a richly decorated temple to house the Ark of the Covenant. Yet not one goblet, not one brick, has ever been found to indicate that such a reign existed.

The battle of Jericho that has been immortalized in song as where Joshua caused the walls to come tumbling down also lacks any supporting evidence. "Although archaeologists claimed in the 1930s to have uncovered evidence that the walls of Jericho had fallen much as the Book of Joshua said they had, a British archaeologist named Kathleen Kenyon was subsequently able to demonstrate, based on Mycenaean pottery shards found amid the ruins, that the destruction had occurred no later than 1300 B.C., seventy years or more before the conquest could have happened. Whatever caused the walls of Jericho to come tumbling down, it was not Joshua's army."

Needless to say, these recent archeological discoveries have not gone down well with those who want to believe the myths. Lazare says "the facts turned up by the new studies predictably angered the establishment that wanted to preserve the old ideas and cling to the Biblical view of history as much as possible."

This kind of scientific research poses the same problem for religious believers as evolution by natural selection does. At some point you have to choose whether you want to follow the path of science and go wherever the evidence leads you, or whether you want to go counter to the evidence and believe myths and folklore.

Next: Why the Bible was created

POST SCRIPT: Interesting talk TODAY

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History FRONTIERS of ASTRONOMY Lecture Series is having what promises to be a very interesting talk TODAY, Thursday, Nov 30, at 8:00 pm

University of Chicago and Fermilab physicist Edward Rocky Kolb will be talking about "The Quantum and the Cosmos."

Long before plants, stars or galaxies emerged, the Universe consisted of an exploding quantum soup of "elementary" particles. Encoded in this formless, shapeless soup were the seeds of cosmic structure, which over billions of years grew into the beautiful and complex Universe we observe today. Edward Kolb explores the connection between the "inner space" of the quantum and the "outer space" of the cosmos. The inner space/outer space connection may hold the key to the nature of the dark matter holding our galaxy together and the mysterious dark energy pulling our universe apart.

Admission is free. For more information, please go to the CMNH website and click of the "Calendar of Events."

November 29, 2006

The Bible as history-3: Enter modern archeology

An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 21, 2000, p. A19) describes the surprising results of recent archeological research into the period covered by the Bible. As the tools of archeology developed and became more refined within the past two decades, and archeologists themselves felt no need to have their findings conform to a particular religious narrative, their results went in surprising directions.

So how much of what we believe to be historically true based on the Bible now stands up under the scrutiny of modern archaeological evidence? Very little, it turns out. The Bible is not only a poor source of science and cosmology, it is not even a good source of history.

In the Chronicle article, Tel Avis University archeologist Ze'ev Herzog is quoted as saying: "This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom."

The article says that among academics there is broad consensus on most features, although scholars differ about details. Reporting on two recent conferences, it says: "None of the scholars speaking at either conference believe that the Bible's historical sections can be accepted as literal, accurate descriptions of historical events. They also agree that the extra-biblical evidence for events described in the Bible dwindles the farther back in time one goes. King Ahab of Israel [who reigned around 850 BCE] is well-documented in other inscriptions from elsewhere in the Middle East; the united monarchy of David and Solomon is not. Evidence exists of the rise of the new Israelite nation in the Palestinian highlands during the late Bronze Age [1600-1200 BCE] - the age of the Judges - but it can be interpreted in different ways. There is no external evidence at all for the patriarchs and, in fact, the biblical description contains contradictions and anachronisms that, scholars generally agree, seem to place the patriarchs in the age of the Judges rather than several generations earlier, as the Bible has it."

Daniel Lazare confirms this modern view in his March 2002 Harper's article False Testament. He says that the new version of history unearthed by archeologists is quite different from what most people believe.

Not only is there no evidence that any such figure as Abraham ever lived but archaeologists believe that there is no way such a figure could have lived given what we now know about ancient Israelite origins.
. . .
A growing volume of evidence concerning Egyptian border defenses, desert sites where the fleeing Israelites supposedly camped, etc., indicates that the flight from Egypt did not occur in the thirteenth century before Christ; it never occurred at all.
. . .
Rather than a band of invaders who fought their way into the Holy Land, the Israelites are now thought to have been an indigenous culture that developed west of the Jordan River around 1200 B.C. Abraham, Isaac, and the other patriarchs appear to have been spliced together out of various pieces of local lore.
. . .
Moses was no more historically real than Abraham before him.
. . .
[A]rchaeologists believe that David was not a mighty potentate whose power was felt from the Nile to the Euphrates but rather a freebooter who carved out what was at most a small duchy in the southern highlands around Jerusalem and Hebron. Indeed, the chief disagreement among scholars nowadays is between those who hold that David was a petty hilltop chieftain whose writ extended no more than a few miles in any direction and a small but vociferous band of "biblical minimalists" who maintain that he never existed at all.
. . .
The Davidic Empire, which archaeologists once thought as incontrovertible as the Roman, is now seen as an invention of Jerusalem-based priests in the seventh and eighth centuries B.C. who were eager to burnish their national history. The religion we call Judaism does not reach well back into the second millennium B.C. but appears to be, at most, a product of the mid-first.

This is not to say that individual elements of the story are not older. But Jewish monotheism, the sole and exclusive worship of an ancient Semitic god known as Yahweh, did not fully coalesce until the period between the Assyrian conquest of the northern Jewish kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. and the Babylonian conquest of the southern kingdom of Judah in 586.

I must admit that all this came as a surprise to me, although this knowledge seems to be widespread in the archeological community. And given my past religious training, my interest was piqued by the question of why all this was not more well known and taught as part of routine Bible study.

In hindsight, it is easy to see that I should never have taken the Biblical stories seriously. Religious texts, whatever the religion, are unlikely to be reliable sources of history. Their authors are not disinterested writers. They are usually religious people, perhaps priests and leaders or scribes working under their direction, and are essentially trying to provide a rationale for people to believe in that religion and to provide authority for religious leaders to enforce discipline on their members. It is in their interest to embellish the historical accounts in order to legitimize the status quo, to give people a sense of inevitability about their status, and to provide legitimacy to the priestly class. To do this, they have to create a grand narrative to describe god's special interest in them, the rules that they must follow, and his dislike for people of other religions.

If we want to know what really happened in the deep past, we must not believe the accounts given in religious texts unless they are confirmed by investigations using the painstaking, evidence-based methods of science.

Next: How scientific analysis of the past works.

POST SCRIPT: We should have known

Observers of soon-to-be-former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when he was relishing the idea that he was a brilliant thinker will never forget his famous quote:

Reports that say something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know.

But as BBC's Radio 4 points out, while this may sound initially like gibberish, actually Rumsfeld simply did not go far enough.

November 28, 2006

The Bible as history-2: Why people think much of it is true

Until very recently, I had (like most people) the vague idea that the basic Biblical story of a people being in captivity in Egypt, then somehow escaping and settling in the land that is now known as Israel and Palestine was true. Of course, one had to allow for the fact that the stories may have been embellished over time, with all kinds for spectacular miracles and tales of heroism added in to make it more compelling drama. The stories of Moses parting the Red Sea, the Sun being made to stand still, and similar miracles all violate well-established scientific laws and cannot be taken seriously except by those who are determined to believe them because they want to.

But the credibility of the basic historical outline was enhanced by the fact that as we got to periods later that about 600 BCE and approached the time of Jesus, there were other non-Biblical contemporary records that corroborated some of the historical events written about in the Bible. These corroborations of some later events enabled people to believe that the earlier events must also be true. In addition, early archeologists in the Middle East began with the presumption that the Bible stories were entirely true and interpreted all their findings to corroborate them, thus adding to the credibility of the Biblical history.

The earliest challenges to the Bible's historical accuracy came in the late nineteenth century from what is called the "higher criticism," which applied the techniques of linguistic and textual analysis to written documents. The study of the language used in the Bible, and the allusions and references that were used therein, enabled scholars to deduce important information about the chronology of events and when the books were written.

Such careful scrutiny of Biblical texts led scholars to conclude that the first five books of the Bible were not written by Moses (as popularly supposed), but were created after the period of Babylonian exile and captivity (586-538 BCE) by Jewish scribes who tried to put a collection of older writings into some order.

It is important to remember that the precursor to the modern Hebrew language only became codified around 800 BCE and thus the first books of the Bible only were written about a century later. But if you take the calendars deduced from the genealogies of the Bible at face value, the early events involving Abraham must have happened about 1800 BCE. Thus, when they were being actually written, the books in the Old Testament were describing events that supposedly happened well over a thousand years earlier. Thus most of the Biblical 'history' of that earlier time had to be based on myths, legends, and oral histories, all of which are notoriously unreliable and susceptible to distortions introduced either unwittingly or deliberately by their creators in order to serve political and nationalist and religious goals. At best, these books must be viewed as representing nothing more than a codification of folklore, oral traditions, and propagandizing.

Of course, this does not prove that the events described in those books never happened but it does suggest that those stories should be treated on a par with Norse and Greek and Indian mythology in terms of their credibility.

The only reliable evidence of events of times earlier than the first millennium BCE are those that have been unearthed by scientific methods, such as archaeological studies. Oral and written histories can mislead, but the trail left by the ruins of past societies, the rubble of their homes, and the remnants of their pots and tools and bones and other debris, provide a much more unbiased record of how people lived and migrated. People write with a conscious purpose and future audience in mind, but they live for the present. In our daily activities, we do not deliberately set out to create evidence to guide future archeologists. If I am writing my autobiography, I do it with an eye to what future readers will think of me, but when I take out the trash, I am not wondering what the detritus of my life will say about my society and me a thousand years hence.

For a long while, the archeological records seemed to support the basic ideas of Biblical history. Daniel Lazare, in the article False Testament in the March 2002 issue of Harper's magazine, sums up the situation that existed until about two decades ago. He says that "it seemed clear that the Israelites had started out as a nomadic band somewhere in the vicinity of ancient Mesopotamia; that they had migrated first to Palestine and then to Egypt; and that, following some sort of conflict with the authorities, they had fled into the desert under the leadership of a mysterious figure who was either a lapsed Jew or, as Freud maintained, a high-born priest of the royal sun god Aton whose cult had been overthrown in a palace coup. Although much was unknown, archaeologists were confident that they had succeeded in nailing down at least these few basic facts."

This pretty much is the kind of hazy idea that most people have of that time and it seemed to be supported by evidence. The support that earlier archeologists who went to the Middle East in the 19th century provided for the basic Bible stories was not an accident, though. These early archeological studies were done by people who were themselves deeply religious and they were confident that their studies would uncover facts that would be fully consistent with the Bible. They took the basic Bible narratives as more-or-less factual and sought to find, or at least interpret, evidence that confirmed those accounts. Hence, as Lazare says, "The first archaeologists were thus guilty of one of the most elementary of scientific blunders: rather than allowing the facts to speak for themselves, they had tried to fit them into a preconceived theoretical framework." Because of this "Evidence that buttressed the biblical account was eagerly sought out, while evidence that contradicted it was ignored."

As a result of this earlier work, the strong perception was created over time that there has been a consistent pattern of evidence being unearthed that buttressed the basic stories of the Bible so that we can regard at least that part of the document that occurs after Noah's flood and begins with Abraham as historically true. This is the image that is widespread today. But that view has changed dramatically with the rise of a new generation of archeologists who did not feel constrained, as their predecessors had done, to interpret their discoveries to be consistent with the Bible.

Next: What modern archeology reveals.

POST SCRIPT: This amazing universe

This video clip of the Galaxy Song from Monty Python's Meaning of Life never loses its appeal, because of its scientific accuracy, the cleverness of its lyrics, and the reminder it provides that, thanks to science, we are able to comprehend so much about this vast and amazing universe that we have been fortunate enough to be born into. The last words of the song are:

So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space,
'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth.

November 27, 2006

The Bible as history-1: The basic early story

There are two views of history. Academic history is that which is painstakingly recreated by historians, trying to reconstruct as accurately as possible events from long ago using source materials as close to the original time as possible along with other kinds of evidence. But then there is the view of history as consisting of that which we remember long after our courses in history have ended. W. C. Sellar, R. J. Yeatman, and Frank Muir humorously recounted the latter kind of English history in their book 1066 and All That, while Dave Barry did it brilliantly for US history in Dave Barry Slept Here, one of the funniest books I have ever read.

The fact is that to the chagrin of historians, most people's ideas about past events are quite vague and consist of bits of stories they remember from various sources stitched together to provide some sort of quasi-coherent narrative that may differ wildly from the actual sequence of events.

In researching and writing that many-part series about our common ancestors (which you can find by typing in the keyword 'ancestor' in the search box) something that surprised me was how few contemporary records exist of what happened earlier than (say) the first millennium BCE. I realized during the course of that research how little I knew for certain about the past and that most of what I knew I had acquired in the course of religious instruction using the Old Testament of the Bible. I began to wonder just how much of the Bible was actually true as history and decided to do a little digging.

Even during the most religious phases of my life, I had never taken the Bible literally as a source of cosmology and other origins. The Genesis stories of how the universe came to be, Adam and Eve, Noah's ark and the like were to be understood as fiction. Of course, like other 'modern' religious people, I took these fictional accounts to be metaphors signifying deeper truths about the role of god in the world.

I also did not take the Bible as a source of science. The stories about seas being parted, the Sun made to stand still, and people rising from the dead were bizarre and unbelievable and inconsistent. The miracles were too contradictory of the laws of science to merit serious consideration.

But what about the Bible as history? Once we got past the early creation stories of Genesis, I pretty much accepted that the Bible was recording actual events, although clearly the authors of the texts had spiced up the narrative with miracles and whatnot to make it more compelling and readable.

Before I report on what I found as to the accuracy of the Biblical accounts, here is a brief overview of what most of us probably remember about history as told in the Bible. I will give here just the bare bones history, leaving out all the rampant sex, incest, adultery, treachery, intrigue, murder, and genocide that fill its pages. People who have not read the Bible themselves and have learned the Biblical stories only from religious teachers and priests may be surprised at all the interesting bits those people left out.

The Old Testament stories can be split up into two parts, before Noah's Ark and the flood, and after. Almost everyone (other than Biblical literalists who believe that everything in the Bible is strictly true) accept that the Genesis accounts up to and including the flood and Noah's Ark are mythological. The real claim to history begins with the story of Abraham when, after some serious begatting following the flood, the world had a fairly large population. Out of this population there came this person called Abraham (who possibly originated somewhere in Mesopotamia) who was taken by god to the area known as Canaan (which consisted of land that would be currently called Israel and the occupied territories and Gaza and parts of Lebanon and Syria) and was told by god that his descendants would occupy that land.

After spending some time in Egypt (because of a famine back in Canaan) he returned to Canaan and had sons Isaac and Ishmael. Isaac married Rebecca and had twins Jacob (who later came to be called Israel) and Esau. Jacob had 12 sons one of whom was Joseph who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers but prospered there, effectively becoming the pharaoh's close advisor and a powerful figure. Eventually his whole family joined him in Egypt and lived there and also prospered.

As the Biblical history continues, Joseph eventually died as did the pharaoh who had been his protector, and a new pharaoh ascended the throne who did not look kindly at the Israelites in their midst and started treating them badly. Then Moses came along and took the Israelites back to Canaan, with the Bible describing the route they took. After Moses got the ten commandments from god on Mount Sinai, the Israelites were punished by god for complaining and general bad behavior and spent forty years in the wilderness.

Joshua, Moses's aide, took over as leader from Moses upon the latter's death and led the conquest of the land of Canaan. Later on David and Solomon were kings who ruled over major areas of the lands known as Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom). This was followed by a whole lot more wars and bloodshed, not to mention rampant sex, incest, adultery, treachery, intrigue, murder, and genocide.

After that the story gets more complicated and confusing with lots of stuff going on, various kings and prophets coming and going (along with the rampant sex, incest, etc.) until finally the people of Israel go into exile and captivity in Babylon (then ruled by Nebuchadnezzar) in 586 BCE. In 538 BCE, Cyrus, king of Persia, the new dominant power in the region, overcame the Babylonians and allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem. The Old Testament version of history stops around 450 BCE and there is then a gap until the New Testament.

That is pretty much early history as told by the Bible.

Next: Why people think the early Biblical history is largely true.

POST SCRIPT: Suspicions confirmed

On November 14, I wrote inThe October Surprise That Failed? that I suspected that the bombing of the madrassa in Pakistan that killed 82 people was done by the US because they thought that Ayman al-Zawahiri was there. The government of Pakistan has now confirmed that this is the case, despite its earlier insistence that they had carried out the attack. The Sunday Times Christina Lamb reports:

"We thought it would be less damaging if we said we did it rather than the US," said a key aide to President Pervez Musharraf. "But there was a lot of collateral damage and we’ve requested the Americans not to do it again."

The Americans are believed to have attacked after a tip-off that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy leader of Al-Qaeda, was present.

The lying by the US and Pakistan governments about their actions in these wars has become so commonplace, and so uncaring about the deaths of civilians, that it is amazing that anyone gives them any credence.