“God Exists” and “The Bible Is True”

Following is a synopsis of some responses to a viewer mail we received from “Aaron.” I gave up hope that Aaron would be able to go very deeply into a dialog about his own beliefs, but felt it was worth recording for the edification of blog readers.

Hello Aaron:

This may be my last reply, because you demonstrate a level of understanding of the history and reality of your own religion and holy book that really requires a “Bible and Christian History 101” course, not a few letters from an association volunteer. And even though I am involved in Austin with an Educational Foundation, I’m not here to spoon-feed you a semester’s worth of information you could easily find online if you honestly even wanted to know how your Bible came to exist. I suggest you start here and follow the links to educate yourself on at least the basic facts about your own holy book:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bible_Canon

There have been many versions of it—including many “final” versions of it. And today there are in fact at least three “orthodox” Bible versions that are accepted in mainstream Christianity; and these are not all based upon the same set of base manuscripts for their content. When you say “The Bible,” then, you are using a word that refers to at least three different widely used anthologies of early Christian writings that are all considered “THE” holy Bible by different, large groups of people who all call themselves “Christians.”

>The Bible was written by Moses – who yes, was a shepherd

There is no compelling evidence that Moses even existed, let alone that he wrote any part of the Bible. We have wildly exaggerated tales about him, mostly in Jewish mythology, but nothing to confirm this was ever a real man, any more than a figure like Paul Bunyon.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moses#Historicity

The idea Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament is a Jewish myth. Christian Bible scholars know this. May I ask where you obtained this information and who told you this was true? Further, can I ask you why you believed it without researching it yourself? Many Bibles today come with Translator’s notes which would tell you—right there inside your Bible—that we don’t have the identity of the author of the Pentateuch—the first five books that Moses is said to have authored.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pentateuch
“Modern biblical scholars see no signs of Mosaic authorship, but indications of much later writing”

>but also by a doctor/historian (luke)

Again, this is not a valid claim. It is not known who authored the gospel of Luke. It’s just an old church traditional tale:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Luke#Authorship

> and a guy who was a master of Jewish law (Paul).

Again, some books are attributed to Paul. But authorship assignment still requires speculation. There is no “fact” of who wrote the books within the Bible. But it is an undisputed reality that whatever is in there now is a revision of whatever was originally composed (which we no longer have).

Whoever is feeding you your information is unreliable and/or lying to you. Go to a Bible shop and open up the first page of each book in a NIV. You will see a page that tells you who the authors are *suspected* to be (if there is even a suspected author) and whether those assignments are based on scholarly guesses or just old religious traditions. What you will not find is anything conclusive to identify authorship to any high degree of certainty. And what you will not find is any credible Bible scholar who has studied these texts—believer in god or not—claiming they know who the authors actually are.

>Why would guys like Peter put embarrassing things about themselves in book where they’re just trying to gain followers (Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” peter deneies Christ). If you’re tyring to lie to build a following, you don’t do that.

Can you demonstrate Peter authored any book of the Bible and explain how you can be sure he did?

More importantly, when did I claim to know what anyone’s motives were for authoring 2,000-year-old letters? I have no idea what motives some anonymous author had 2,000 years ago for writing a letter—and I am sure you don’t, either. More importantly though, whatever was originally written is now gone. What we have now are altered texts that are no longer representative of the original writings.

I don’t know if you’re inclined to read more. I had been giving you very brief replies. My thinking was that if you couldn’t even recognize your own reasoning was absurd (in my examples of how you reasoned about Gremlins vs. god), I wasn’t sure a lengthy and densely informational response would be of any use to you (and would just waste my time). That said, I did put together a response to you, but mainly to post to our blog for the benefit of others who might actually be inclined to learn from it. However, if my assessment of you is incorrect, and you can follow the information below, here it is for your edification, broken down into three (hopefully easy-to-digest) parts.

1. Your support for your belief using “you can’t prove it’s not true” is irrational. And here is why:
You asserted god exists and the Bible is true; and you challenged someone who does not believe god exists and the Bible is true by asking if the claims “god exists” and “the Bible is true” could be disproved. However, you admitted you could not disprove gremlins exist; and when you admitted that, you acknowledged only that “maybe” they exist, but you “don’t know” (meaning you aren’t committed to saying if they do or do not exist).

But as someone who did not believe gremlins exist, who admitted he could not prove they do not exist, if your argument (i.e., I believe god exists because that claim cannot be disproved) is convincing, why do you not now believe gremlins do exist? Until you say it is true that gremlins exist, you are not a person who believes gremlins exist. That is you are still a nonbeliever in the existence of gremlins. Your position is merely it is possible they could exist, not that you believe they, in fact, do.

If you do not find an inability to prove gremlins do not exist to be a convincing argument for their existence, why did you use that same line of argumentation with me for your god, repeatedly? If even you demonstrate you don’t accept it as compelling–what on Earth made you think anyone else would find it compelling?

2. “The Bible is true” does not make sense based on my understanding of the word “true.”
“True” as I understand it, generally means “correlating to demonstrable reality.” So, when you say “the Bible is true,” I assume you mean that if we examine all of the best evidence for things claimed in the Bible, it will show a consistent positive correlation to what the Bible claims about reality. Since this is not the case, I don’t know how you’re using “true.” Here are two examples of what I mean, one addressing extra-Biblical reality, and one addressing internal Biblical reality.

Example 1: Extra-Biblical example:
You asserted not that evolution is false, but that you believe god was the catalyst for evolution. If you aren’t disputing evolution, then we can say that, in fact, we agree the Bible is not true in the case of Genesis and the account of how humans came to exist on Earth. According to the Bible, man popped fully formed and already communicating using language. And ultimately this same first human was wearing clothing and using agriculture–straight from his magical beginnings from dirt.

If we look at what evolutionary biologists put forward as the model of human evolution, then the Bible is not “true.” There is fossil evidence, DNA, and beyond b
iological evolution, a demonstrable history of how and when human agriculture is first evidenced compared to how long humans had existed previously in nomadic or hunter-gatherer cultures. Additionally we can tell from excavations approximately when people began to fashion tools (and by proxy when the idea of “manufacturing” things, such as clothing, may have been introduced), and there is simply no evidence to support that the earliest humans would have been “truthfully” represented by the Genesis account. All of the evidence appears, in fact, not to correlate to that account as “true.”

Example 2: Internal Biblical Example:
The New Testament passage (Gospel of) John 7:53-8:11 is as good an example as any. As an atheist, I have no objection to agreeing that the men and women who are hired to translate the best modern translations of the Bible are qualified people for the job. They are expert at reading and interpreting ancient languages that the average person wouldn’t begin to have a clue about. Additionally, they are devoted specifically to the texts used within the Bible. These are men and women who have devoted significant portions of their lives and careers to the Biblical manuscripts specifically. And I accept them as “expert” when it comes to claims about those manuscripts.

In the NASB and NIV versions of the Bible (both reputable translations), if any person takes an interest in doing so, they have a wealth of input from these experts, literally, at their fingertips. There are marginal notes, footnotes, endnotes, etc., right on the pages where the text appears. Anyone can see what the translators have to say about the texts Christians are reading in their Bibles. And I can’t imagine anyone claiming the people inserting these notes are not qualified to giving the best opinions of what the best and most current data demonstrates about what is “true” about these texts.

Throughout the pages, there are many insertions of notes that alert the reader that the text is in question or is disputed. It will alert you that this or that verse here says X, but in some other available manuscripts it does not say X (or says Y instead).

I chose John 7:53-8:11, because it is probably one of the most famous stories in the Bible about Jesus. It is the story of the adulterous woman–who is brought before Jesus for judgment. He there puts forward the famous line “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” This has become a very popular story with Christians.

Yet, according to the translators’ notes, it isn’t included in the oldest and most reliable manuscripts. They say outright and boldly, right on the pages of the NASB, that the story was added to the text later. These are translators who have a vested interest in the production and sale of Bibles being a successful industry. They have no cause to undermine their source of income by claiming “it’s a fake!” And yet, that’s what they’re saying if you are someone who accepts this book as “true.” If any group had a reason to lie or be biased about the Bible including reliable content, it would be people who work in the Bible-selling industry, selling to people who, like you, want very badly to believe it is “true”–and yet they’re telling you (and me) it’s not.

So, the best and most reliable evidence, considered by the best experts in the field, with no reason for bias against the text, does not align with your claim “the Bible is true.” And you can see this yourself–as any Christian who is interested can also–just by opening a good Bible translation that includes translator notes.

So, I have no idea what you mean when you say “the Bible is true.” I see no evidence that it should not be considered to include lies, errors, falsehoods–whatever you want to call them—basically statements that do not correlate with the best evidence we have to judge against in reality.

3. Your claim “god exists” is so far a meaningless statement, to which I cannot respond—since it makes no sense as you have stated it.
So far you haven’t really explained what this claim means. I don’t know what you’re calling god, so I have no idea what to say about whether it exists or not. But for example, I accept the existence of many things—books, water, chairs, even oxygen (which can be demonstrated using balloons and fire, and many other methods). To me, “exist” is a word we use to assert that a particular item manifests in some way in demonstrable, material reality.

This is why it’s interesting that you said only that “gremlins may exist” after admitting you could not disprove them. If I were to go into a classroom of 10-year-olds and ask them if gremlins exist, they would inform me gremlins are fairytale, mythical creatures that do not, in fact, exist. Their assessment has nothing to do with gremlins having been disproved. It would be a statement of the extreme lack of evidence for the existence of gremlins. In other words, the people who assert gremlins cause machines to malfunction, have never been able to produce a demonstration of what they’re talking about. This leads the reasonable 10-year-old to assert that gremlins do not exist. That is, their manifestation within reality so far cannot be discerned from nothing.

So, we have two bins. One labeled “nonexistent” and one labeled “existence.” Everything starts off in the “nonexistent” bin. And once it unambiguously manifests in reality in some way—either on its own, like the sun, or by some demonstration, like oxygen–it goes into the bin of “existence.” What we don’t do is put items into the “existence” bin BEFORE they are demonstrated to exist or before they manifest self-evidently in some measurable fashion.

Interestingly, a 10-year-old gets this, but you are so unwilling to admit your argument “you can’t prove it doesn’t exist, ergo it’s reasonable to accept that it does” is a fail, that you have demonstrated you will even dishonestly assert you can’t really say gremlins don’t exist—even though you and I both know that if you were honest, you’d admit you don’t give a second thought to asserting gremlins are myths. A 10-year-old is not only more reasonable than you, then, but also more honest.

My question to you is whether this thing—whatever it is you’re calling god—”exists,” in that it demonstrates a manifestation in reality that we can discuss. Or whether it is indiscernible from nothing? And if it’s no different than nothing, I can’t agree that “nothing exists.” And I can’t really examine what we’re supposed to be talking about in such a case—and I can’t see how you could, either? I have no data points to confirm to even begin a dialog with you about it. When you have some manifestation or demonstration, come back and we’ll have “something” to talk about (rather than “nothing”).

Thanks for writing.

-th

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I’m sorry to say that after this exchange Aaron replied that he’d rather believe in god and be wrong, than not believe. That’s right, he threw Pascal’s Wager at me, after all this trouble I went to jotting down these notes. But knowing it would go to use at the blog allowed me to avoid feelings of futility and disappointment.

When I replied that Pascal’s Wager is a fail, but that he’d have to research it to find out why, he sent back a fairly large cut-and paste-apologist’s Web site content that asserted Pascal’s Wager was a fail because god demands devotion and real belief, not just someone playing a part.

I congratulated him on finding one reason Pascal’s Wager fails, and gave him a few others as a bonus point for having looked it up at all. Then alerted him that copying and pasting without giving credit to a source is plagiarism, because it’s like trying to claim someone else’s ideas as your own. He had asked me if maybe
Matt would write back to him. I told him Matt is copied on all the tv e-list correspondences, but that his probability of a reply from Matt was quite low for two reasons:

1. He’d already said he’d rather believe and be wrong. If someone asserts they don’t care if they believe falsehoods, what is the point of anyone arguing with them about the their beliefs? I can’t imagine a greater waste of time to enter into.

2. The last copy-and-paste note (paragraphs and paragraphs of material) was indicative of a problem we often see with some mail correspondence. We ask people to contact us to discuss what they believe and why they believe it. Sending us reams and reams of what someone else believes for us to rebut is senseless. If they can’t explain what they believe and support what they believe, providing their own reasons, then maybe they’re not ready to assert it as their belief? If the person who wrote the content Aaron had stripped and sent to us wanted to challenge us about his beliefs, he’s welcome to do so. But nobody on our list is interested in arguing with random apologists’ web content through Aaron’s endless relays. What an easy conversation that would be from Aarson’s perspective? He wouldn’t have to think or type or explain anything—just copy and paste while we spend time crafting thoughtful responses using our actual reasoning.

To summarize: Nobody on our list is interested in a one-sided waste of our time.

How the Bible was made

From Christians, we often get letters quoting scripture and telling us the Bible is god’s word. From atheists, we sometimes get letters asking us about how the Bible came to exist–usually because they’re in a debate with a theist online who is making claims about evidence of textual reliability.

When I was a Christian, I was swayed into accepting the religion by a set of claims put forward by professional apologist Josh McDowell. I was a naive 15-year-old living in the days before the Internet, and the claims Josh made that were impressive to me had to do with the meticulous record of Biblical texts and the reliable methods of reproduction of those texts. His foundational argument is that the Bible stories are trustworthy–in so far as accurately representing honest reports by the authors. That is, what people wrote is what they believed they saw. And we can trust the book we read today matches the original texts nearly flawlessly. His further arguments all springboard off Biblical claims. So, the resurrection then requires an explanation–because obviously the events in the gospels are accurately reported–so what did people see to make them think a resurrection had occurred?

Bear in mind most churches do not teach classes on how the Bible came to exist. And before the Internet, unless a child thought on their own to go and look for this information, they would surely be impressed by someone who is describing these events and scenarios in a way that made him sound informed and scholarly. In other words, a kid in this class would be impressed by perceived authority and accept, very likely, these claims without question–having never been told anything different.

It wasn’t until I went to college that I actually met anyone who wasn’t a theist (at least openly). Prior to that, everyone I met was some brand of Christian. And eventually, at college, I was challenged on my parroted claims from Josh McDowell’s courses. In an effort to prove my fellows wrong, I ended up spending hours and hours in the basement of the UCF library where the “religion” section was then housed. It was there I first learned I’d been hoodwinked. From church histories produced by Catholic societies, to secular scholarship, they all agreed on the relevant facts: The origins of the Bible are quite opaque until centuries after the events they record–where they then surface as quite murky for some time further. What is recorded leaves any person with a working mind with the understanding that there is no basis for taking these texts at face value.

It was still many years later until I finally became an atheist. Eventually I found Bart Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus. I loved it because it was as though he took all the research I had done and bound it into an easy-to-read, short book–and then added even more that I hadn’t found, since, unlike him, my life’s work has not been to study these texts in their original languages in great detail.

I’ve recommended this book to many people over the years who have expressed an interest in Bible origins. But I’m always disappointed when I realize that many people simply aren’t readers. Now, however, I’ve found a way to remove all excuses and make, what took me many nights and hours in a university library basement, easy for you. On Youtube there is a 10-part lecture by Bart Ehrman on the topic of Bible origins, where he talks about the information in “Misquoting Jesus.” Even if you don’t have the stamina to sit through all 10 parts, I promise you the first two will be sufficient for you to grasp the point.

If, after viewing this, there is any doubt in your mind as to the level of (un)reliability of the Bible’s content–then you have a mighty faith, indeed!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7cK3Ry_icJo&feature=related

Enjoy!