the faith hope

an ongoing exploration of a thankless subject

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Location: Adelaide, Australia

Founding secretary of the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics, a club I take very seriously indeed.

Friday, July 28, 2006

bits on evolution, validity, history and knowledge

Clear photographic evidence of Alexander the Great

Looking at religion and Christianity on a number of fronts at present - hard to keep it all together. First, I'm perusing a lengthy article by Scott Atran and Ara Norenzayan speculating on the evolutionary basis of religion's perennial popularity. The abstract is worth quoting in full:

Abstract: Religion is not an evolutionary adaptation per se, but a recurring cultural by-product of the complex evolutionary landscape that sets cognitive, emotional, and material conditions for ordinary human interactions. Religion exploits only ordinary cognitive processes to passionately display costly devotion to counterintuitive worlds governed by supernatural agents. The conceptual foundations of religion are intuitively given by task-specific panhuman cognitive domains, including folkmechanics, folkbiology, and folkpsychology.
Core religious beliefs minimally violate ordinary notions about how the world is, with all of its inescapable problems, thus enabling people to imagine minimally impossible supernatural worlds that solve existential problems, including death and deception. Here the focus is on folkpsychology and agency. A key feature of the supernatural agent concepts common to all religions is the triggering of an “Innate Releasing Mechanism,” or “agency detector,” whose proper (naturally selected) domain encompasses animate objects relevant to hominid survival – such as predators, protectors, and prey – but which actually extends to moving dots on computer screens, voices in wind, and faces on clouds. Folkpsychology also crucially involves metarepresentation, which makes deception possible and threatens any social order. However, these same metacognitive capacities provide the hope and promise of open-ended solutions through representations of counterfactual supernatural worlds that cannot be logically or empirically verified or falsified. Because religious beliefs cannot be deductively or inductively validated, validation occurs only by ritually addressing the very emotions motivating religion.
Cross-cultural experimental evidence encourages these claims.
The article usefully provides a working definition of religious belief (according to which the North Koreans' worshipping of their Great Leader - which I've taken as an example of speedily manufactured religious belief - would not qualify, as not supernatural enough), and raises lots of fascinating issues outside the realm of Christianity per se - for example, whether the old philosophical arguments pro and contra God have been a waste of space. I'll be posting on it later.

Returning to Christianity, I had a conversation the other day with someone currently embarking on theological studies at Tabor College. She's been getting some historical background in her first lectures, and breathlessly announced that 'less is known historically about Alexander the Great than is known about Jesus'. I was rendered speechless.

It's the sort of thing you might expect from a place like Tabor, and it's easy to see how, if you take the gospels seriously, you might feel that you really know Jesus after reading them, for they provide intimate accounts. You're taken with Jesus in his peregrinations, you hear his responses to those who want to be healed, you hear his arguments with the Pharisees and his own disciples, you listen to his parables, you see his miracles, you attend his vigil in the garden, his resurrection etc.

On the other hand, many of the big movers and shakers of history, such as Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan, are much more remote figures. There are no intimate portraits. Nevertheless, the reliable, verifiable historical data on Alexander and his career is many many times more extensive than that of Jesus. The sixties Life magazine edition devoted to the Bible, which I was reading at Victor Harbour, naturally included an article devoted to Jesus. These articles were clearly all written by believers, but they were scholarly enough to admit that the external evidence is so scanty that the issue of whether Jesus ever actually existed is still unresolved, though it's generally agreed that he probably did. Still, the fact remains that, outside of the New Testament, there are only a couple of passing references to Jesus' existence - one from Tacitus, another from Suetonius, whereas Alexander's conquests can be reliably mapped to the square kilometre and dated to the day and the hours of battle. Also, as he was the son of another conquering ruler, Philip II of Macedon, we have reliable knowledge of his birth and antecedents. The exact opposite is the case with the apparently 'lowly-born' Jesus, whose origins are obscured rather than verified by the Messiah cults of his time, the need to link every possible leader with the house of David.

There's knowledge and there's knowledge. I suspect that Tabor College's epistemological framework would rightly be rejected by any standard university.

Next, I want to provide a personal view of Jesus based on my reading of the first two of the synoptic gospels.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

some stray comments re the Bible

one of nature's gentlemen - and he looks so Anglo-Saxon, too

As mentioned, I recently read Testament, an edited version of the bible. I'm also now reading The Message, a slangy Yank version of the New Testament, clearly designed to appeal to the young, comme moi.

My major motivation for reading this stuff is plain. I'm often faced with the claim, mainly but not always from believers, that the western world's morality is based on Christianity, or Judeo-Christianity. Now I know that people don't read philosophy much, but I occasionally do, and I've read some sophisticated and subtle probing of moral behaviour, language and the like from thinkers ranging from Plato and Aristotle to Peter Singer, which owe nothing much to Christianity. All this and my natural scepticism has made me wonder if Christianity, and the Bible in particular, has really had the moral impact that's claimed, pace the innumerable chapter-and-verse quotationers throughout the length and breadth of space and time.

There's very little systematic morality in the Old Testament. Obviously, many will except the Decalogue or Ten Commandments from this claim, and I'll examine that at another time (my first impression is that they were derived from earlier laws and that they aren't particularly original, reflective as they are of the attitudes and concerns of tribal groups of the time - some of them having near-universal application, others less so).

The New Testament is a very different set of texts, and for convenience I'll separate them roughly into the gospels and the Pauline writings. These latter I found v heavy going and soporific, and I'm mainly reading The Message to have another go at Paul, so I'll leave his work aside for the nonce. The gospels of course don't provide any logical ethical framework for living, instead they offer a handful of prophecies, wise saws and parables, many of them open-ended enough to allow a potentially infinite range of interpretations to fuel an infinite number of sermons to warm the innumerable flagstones of God's manifold houses throughout Christendom and beyond. It's possibly this body of written and spoken interpretation and rationalisation that's being unconsciously referred to when it's claimed that the west's morality is largely built on Christianity - and it might be that Paul's various letters constituted the first of these glosses.

As you might expect, I believe this says more about the human ability and compulsion to provide glosses than it says about the inherent wisdom or ethical value of the bible or gospels. All it takes is a few preferably ancient and mystic-fog-enshrouded texts with a bit more content to them than the phone book, and away we go. As to the parable form, so often lauded and held sacred by hot gospellers as if unique to their hero, some very cutting edge thinkers (eg Mark Turner) have argued that it predates language itself...

So I'm afraid I can't see what the fuss is about. Having said that, maybe it's a few simple, easily digestible remarks of a moral sort, remarks that constitute their only knowledge of the bible, even for many ardent believers, that makes the Christian message so potent - the meek shall inherit the earth, love thy neighbour, do unto others, turn the other cheek etc.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

everything's connected to everything else

Baal was a fiery bloke

There are so many directions to go with this stuff, it's a bit bewildering, and my various acquaintances aren't helping matters. On getting wind of my new blog and its aims, one good friend bought me, in the spirit of irony, a book called God: a biography, by Jack Miles. I fully expected the book itself to be essentially ironic, but it isn't - nor is it really a biography (though it won the Pullitzer Prize for biography). It's a piece of literary/textual analysis, looking at God as a literary figure through the writings of the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible. As such it's a real mind-spin, and is very persuasive in its account of God's contradictory and composite nature (intimate personal god versus aloof universal creator god, god of all humanity versus god of the Israelites, etc), as well as on some of his historical antecedents (eg the flood story comes from a Babylonian myth with marked similarities, even though it involved the clash of two gods, the creator Marduk and the destroyer Tiamat, both of whom plausibly contribute characteristics to the later deity, and the god-as-burning-bush is a manifestation derived from the Canaanite god, Baal).

I'm not sure that a book like this helps me much on the psychology of religion, but that doesn't matter, it's thought-provoking on the detail of how particular religions are forged from elements of earlier religions, and after all, many of the Old Testament tales are intrinsically fascinating, and finally, I'm prepared to drift along anywhere in the company of an enlightening commentator.

I've also been reading The Message, a hip Yank modern version of the New Testament, mainly to get a sense of the different Jesus stories offered in the gospels, and to look more closely at the differences between Paul's approach to religion and that of Jesus's disciples insofar as they can be discerned. Also, while at the Harbour cottage - which is full of old literary gems, such as a well-preserved set of the literary magazine Blackwood's dating from the time of my birth - someone unearthed a 'blockbuster' edition of Life magazine, dated 1965, dedicated wholly to the Bible. I spent a bit of time taking notes from it, though I didn't get much time on my own. I was tempted to borrow it and bring it home, but I resisted, unfortunately. Especially as, now that I've unpacked, I can't find my notes....

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

social solidarity isn't enough

The problematic Monsieur Durkheim

Many people, not necessarily religious themselves, have expressed annoyance and worse at certain writers and thinkers - Richard Dawkins being the most notable example - who have poured scorn on religious belief, equating it with primitivism, wilful ignorance and such. They've accused Dawkins and co of engaging in a 'new positivism', which largely misses the point of religious belief systems.

Take this quote, from a comment sent to me:

A crucial difference between science and religion is that factual knowledge as such is not a principal aim of religious devotion, but plays only a supporting role. Only in the last decade has the Catholic Church reluctantly acknowledged the factual plausibility of Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin (Geitner 1999). Earlier religious rejection of their theories stemmed from challenges posed to a cosmic order unifying the moral and material worlds. Separating out the core of the material world would be like draining the pond where a water lily grows. A long lag time was necessary to refurbish and remake the moral and material connections in such a way that would permit faith in a unified cosmology to survive. Religion survives science as it does secular ideology not because it is older than, or more primitive than, science or secular reasoning, but because of what it affectively and collectively secures for people. Religion underpins the “organic solidarity” (Durkheim 1912/1995) that makes social life more than simply a contract among calculating individuals. It creates the arational conditions for devotion and sacrifice that enable people and societies to endure against even terrible odds.
It's a familiar enough argument, and there's some truth in it. I've already argued that religion is about solidarity, often, though not always, under a comforting paternalism. But though it might be incontestable that religious devotion is at bottom about something other than knowledge, the fact remains that many many Christians - as proven by the scary number of websites devoted to this sort of thing - are all too keen to contest and abuse a form of knowledge that they find incompatible with the Divine Word, ie science. It's absurd, and they've already lost the battle, but it's an attitude that more or less inevitably creates the kind of virulent response that comes from Dawkins et al.

Also, the above quote is too vague in its remarks about religious devotion, as if all religions are the same. I agree that the impulse to religious devotion has a kind of universality, but the particular religions into which these impulses are channeled are often very different. Christianity, for example, depends heavily on certain supposed historical events - namely the life and death, the words and deeds of Jesus. Jesus's divided character as man and god placed him in a curious position as both object of devotion/protective figure and historical personage whose life and deeds operated as an example of how to live. The historical personage is constantly being highlighted in sermons and exhortations, and indeed remarketed in attempts to appeal to the young. Considering such presentations and refashionings, evidence of the historical Jesus has to provide a touchstone (though in fact, evidence of the real Jesus is so scant as to be virtually non-existent).

I should also add that I often find the 'sympathetic' justifications of religion by 'anti-positivist' secularists to be ultimately condescending. Religion is depicted as a feel-good, enriching experience which builds up bonds between people and cushions them from the long dark night of the soul's contingency. As the above quote has it, it 'makes social life more than simply a contract among calculating individuals'.

This, to put it mildly, is a highly contestable depiction of social life amongst non-believers, but I suppose that playing up the positives of religious devotion entails playing up the negatives of non-belief. Ultimately, though, the argument is along the lines of, let them believe whatever, as long as it makes them feel good and behave well. They're much more interested in comfort than knowledge, bless their souls, so who are we to seek to strip them of their illusions?

While I recognise that many people feel compelled by their faith to engage in admirable works of charity and self-sacrifice, and while it may be true that believers by and large enjoy a measure of contentment that I can only dream of, I find these benefits, such as they are, to be a distraction to the main issue, which is how the world or the universe actually works and how we humans came to be a part of it and to play a part in it. These are knowledge issues, and obviously part of this knowledge is how religion works and what impels so many of us towards it. My 'bias' is that I'm not personally drawn to it, and I find its justifications unconvincing, if not delusional. So far, I've also been unconvinced by the justifications offered by the 'anti-positivists' and the compatibilists (those who believe that religion and science deal with different spheres of life and are therefore compatible), but I'm happy to explore them further.