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.


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