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.
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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.

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.
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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?
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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.

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.
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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.
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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.

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.
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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.