Gospel Disproof #12: The FISH Symbol

One of the oldest symbols of the Christian faith is the fish, chosen both for its simplicity of design and for the fact that its Greek name happens to make a handy acronym for the Greek phrase meaning “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” I think it’s time we re-purposed both the symbol and the acronym (in English) by using it to remind ourselves of the four all-too-human sources of information about God.

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“So why don’t you believe in God?”

“I just don’t see any evidence for it.”

“What are you looking for? What would it take to convince you that God was real?”

“I dunno. What would it take to convince you that the sun sets in the north?”

“The sun sets in the west.”

“I know. But what would it take to convince you that it sets in the north?”

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Investigating the Marian apparition at Zeitoun

[Originally published Feb. 9, 2009]

[A commenter named] Jayman brings up a fascinating subject in a comment on my post about the frequency of divine intervention.

Starting in 1968, and continuing over a 2-3 year period, an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared over the Coptic Church of Saint Mary in Zeitoun, Egypt. It was witnessed by millions of people of different religious beliefs, it was photographed and videotaped. Miraculous cures were also experienced. Investigations into the matter found no natural explanation. Time to start moving the goal posts?

Zeitoun is a great example to use as a typical “miraculous” apparition, but before we get to that, I’d like to say a little something about goal posts. There’s a psychological trick that apologists sometimes use in connection with claims of the miraculous, if the skeptic says there ought to be evidence of God showing up in real life. The trick is to show the skeptic some questionable evidence, and then insist that he believe, based on that evidence. If the skeptic admits that the evidence is genuine, then he must either admit that God showed up in real life, or he must admit that he is unwilling to look at the evidence. If he questions the quality and validity of the evidence, though, he gets accused of moving the goal posts. “Oh, you said you wanted evidence, but now that we’ve shown you evidence, you want something more. I seeeeee…”

We’re not really asking for anything more. When we ask for evidence, what we mean is we want genuine evidence of God genuinely showing up in real life. It has to be good evidence, valid evidence, evidence that can withstand cross-examination. That’s not asking for too much, surely? Once we have verified that we are indeed dealing with genuine facts and not misperceptions or intentional hoaxes, then we can move on to the question of what the evidence means. We haven’t moved any goal posts until we at least arrive at where the first set of posts stood. And that means having genuine evidence of a genuine appearance.

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Contextual gullibility

Following up on yesterday’s “Rabbit Math,” post, let’s look at the interesting question of why people revert to using rabbit math when they have a far superior math at their disposal. Granted, it’s harder than rabbit math, but still, you can do a lot better than rabbit math without getting into theoretical physics. People can do better, and in other contexts they do think more clearly. But somehow, in religious contexts, they become gullible to the point of actively participating in fooling themselves. Why is that?

I can think of 3 reasons. One is fear: fear of death, fear of the unknown, fear of the unexpected, etc. We’re small creatures in a big world, after all, and therefore it’s appealing to adopt a mode of thinking that’s tuned in on reassuring us there’s some friendly Big Guy up there taking care of us. “Rabbit math” makes it easier to reach the desired conclusion, therefore it’s preferable to many people.

Another reason is laziness. It’s easier to jump to superstitious conclusions than to go through all the work of digging out all the facts, sorting the relevant from the irrelevant, analyzing the data, and drawing rigorously logical conclusions. In some ways it’s arguably a more efficient use of your time and resources: if you can tell when it’s going to rain by assessing “the mood of the sky god,” and if you’re right as often as you would be if you spent years charting barometric pressure, humidity, temperature, wind velocity, and so on (especially if you’re not terribly good at the latter), then maybe you are just as well off with the superstition. (Speaking as a devil’s advocate, that is).

I think there’s a reason that’s far more compelling than either of these two, however.

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Gospel Disproof #11: Rabbit math

In the world of Watership Down, the largest number in rabbit language is five, because rabbits can only count to four and thus anything more than that is “five.” The author doesn’t go into rabbit math in detail, but if we think about it, this is really a pretty simple mathematical system. The sum of anything more than 2+2 is five, the product of anything more than 2×2 is five, five minus anything is probably going to be five, and there is no division because rabbits can only multiply.

This strikes me as resembling certain modes of thinking. The whole appeal is its simplicity. Anyone can do it. Granted, there are some drawbacks: if all you know is rabbit math, most of real math will be incomprehensible to you. But rabbit math has a way of dealing with that incomprehensible complexity. It’s all just “five.” That’s all you can say, and in rabbit math that’s all you need to know. Much better than real math, which gets notoriously harder the farther you go. Even people who like math are going to have to do considerable work to master more than the basics. Rabbit math is easier.

You’re right, I’m thinking about religion. Granted, there are a lot of people who think religiously without going all the way to rabbit-math-level oversimplifications. But that’s the limit towards which religious thinking tends. Its appeal is that it simplifies things, and has a place to stick the incomprehensible. Magic (or miracles, if you prefer) covers everything beyond a certain level of understanding, and in religious thinking that’s all you need to know.

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Why evangelicals believe weird things

There’s an awesome article over at scienceandreligiontoday.com, with the irresistible title of “Why Evangelicals Believe Weird Things.”

Lay evangelicals evaluate the arguments made by “experts” in a manner different from many non-evangelicals. The latter will often ask: How prestigious is her academic pedigree? Is she representing the consensus of similarly credentialed experts? Insofar as I can understand her arguments, do they convince me? Lay evangelicals ask different questions: How good of a Christian is this guy? (Or, in evangelical parlance, “How is his walk with the LORD?”) How closely do his arguments line up with my understanding of the Bible? Is this guy one of us?

Evangelicals also tend to come under the sway of those with the biggest microphones, not the best arguments. Although many evangelical scholars are also capable of projecting piety, they rarely have the resources to flood the airwaves or the communication skills to connect with the average believer…

The evangelical community also keeps its scholars in check. When a college’s base of donors, prospective students, and even board of trustees are made up of lay evangelicals, this places severe limits on what its scholars can say publicly. This fact became apparent at my alma mater, Calvin College, when public outcry and the powers that be combined to silence two scholars advocating the acceptance of human evolution.

The comments are a pretty interesting read too.

Christian bigots unhappy over bad publicity

Writing for The New American, Dave Bohon seems unhappy about the negative publicity a certain Baptist university has been receiving lately.

A Baptist university in Georgia is receiving abundant media attention for a “Personal Lifestyle Statement“ it recently updated, that requires faculty and staff to adhere to a set of biblical standards that include shunning homosexual behavior. Employees have been told that they must either sign the statement as a pledge, or face termination.

It’s a private school and receives no federal funding, so there’s no legal issue here. If Christians want to say, “We’re bigots and you have to be a bigot to work here,” then they have that right. What Bohon seems to be unhappy about is the fact that so many people seem to see anti-gay discrimination as bad even when Christians do it.

On its “Gay Voices” page, the Huffington Post highlighted “happily out and proud gay” Rome, Georgia, native Jeffery Self, who recalled the joyful days he spent helping out in the theater department of the college around the corner from his boyhood home. While claiming to understand that, because Shorter is a Baptist college, “certain ‘lifestyle choices’ might not be within their ideas and beliefs,” the aptly named Self nonetheless took the liberty of referring to the school’s pledge as “outlandishly backward, despicable, disgusting, and in no way Christ-like….”

Ooo, “the aptly named Self”—bet that one hurt. But what Bohon fails to understand is that there’s no contradiction here. It’s entirely possible that Baptist doctrines might not allow homosexual “lifestyles,” AND that this anti-gay attitude might be outlandishly backward, despicable, and disgusting. Bigotry doesn’t magically become OK just because Christians do it, any more than raping altar boys becomes ok just because the perp is a priest.

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The Dawkins/Lewis debate

Looks like the fine folks at “Truthbomb Apologetics” have set up an impromptu “debate” of their own between Richard Dawkins and C. S. Lewis. It has this in its favor: it’s short.

Richard Dawkins: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

C.S. Lewis: “If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.”

Notice the difference in the two approaches. Dawkins’ approach is based on reason and evidence: we consider the consequences that would result from having a universe created by a good God for the purpose of bringing souls to eternal bliss, and the consequences that would result from the absence of such a God, and then observe which set of consequences is closer to the data we actually observe. Lewis, on the other hand, uses an equivocation fallacy to make it sound like the evidence has to point to God no matter what form it takes.

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The First and Second Amendments

Slate magazine is sponsoring a debate over the question, “Would the world be better off without religion?” That’s an interesting topic in and of itself, but I had a brief bout of Free Association Syndrome that launched me off on an intriguing tangent. I look at the question “Would the world be better off without religion?” and think, “How does that compare to the question of whether or not the world would be better off without guns?”

What got me going on this tangent was the observation that “religion is not the real problem.” That is, as some folk are prone to point out, religion does not cause people to become evil, and getting rid of religion will not purge mankind of evil tendencies. That was my first reaction to the debate question, but then I immediately thought of the slogan “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” And I realized they’re both the same argument.

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Conference time

Just a quick note: I’m going to be out of town Wednesday through Sunday and may or may not have access to the blog, so please bear with me if you need something and I’m not around. First-time commenters are most likely to be impacted, since I may not get your first comment approved right away, but I’ll get to it in a few days at least.

Take care all.