Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Scientific Argument against the Bible

Much could be said about the Bible's lack of regard for how the world really works, how it really began and how many other things came to be. Some have said that the Bible has simply collected an array of folk legends, while others claim those legends to be true in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Does science give us a tool to point out the backwardness of the Bible?

To answer that question, we shall need to examine exactly what it is which seems so out of sync with reality. We can grab the infamous creation story in Genesis 1 and the story of Noah's flood. There is undeniable evidence that the universe is many billions of years old, that the Earth is a few billions of years old (hence, that neither were created in short periods of hours or a week), as well as there being absolutely no reason to believe, from a scientific perspective, that there was ever a global flood that wiped out all the living creatures on the Earth, with the exception of some in a boat. Needless to say, we now know that the incredible diversity of life did not come about at some exact moment some half a dozen thousand years ago, but over a much longer time via processes described by biology. The argument would then be:

1.  Any person, collection of persons or document(s) that assert the aforementioned falsehoods is wrong and errant. (P implies Q - asserting these things implies the asserter is wrong)
2. The Bible asserts these things. (P: Scripture does indeed document those stories.)
3. Therefore, the Bible is wrong. (Q: therefore, by modus ponens, the Bible is wrong)
 Stripped of rhetoric and word play, this is what the argument is. Evidently, one can embellish the argument by calling the Bible "a collection of Bronze age myths", but really, the point Christopher Hitchens makes with that remark is that the Bible is old, it was written before humankind knew very much about how the world operates and therefore, people should move on from such nonsense.

Actually, even though I reject the second premise entirely, I would not be particularly distressed even if the conclusion was true. So what if we have an errant Bible? So what if it is wrong about cosmology and biology? Indeed, in the next entry when I discuss the historical argument against the Bible, this conclusion may well be inescapable. For this particular version of the argument, it seems to clearly fall down at premise 2.

Am I going to justify that statement? Nope! What I will instead do is cite this survey from the United States which indicates that most of the denominations of Christianity do not declare there to be any reason to believe that there is a conflict between the Scriptures and modern science, including cosmology, geology and evolution.
Some denominations look like "Pac-men", but I think the Roman Catholic Statement has it best:
"It is important to set proper limits to the understanding of Scripture, excluding any unreasonable interpretations which would make it mean something which it is not intended to mean."
And also the Church of England's:
"There is nothing here that contradicts Christian teaching. Jesus himself invited people to observe the world around them and to reason from what they saw to an understanding of the nature of God (Matthew 6:25-33)."
 Whether or not you agree with the Roman Catholic Church's dogmatic stances, they have a very prudent and un-dictatorial view of the Bible and science.

If you would like to know how I myself understand these passages (which are incredibly rich once you stop trying to get them to say something they do not), feel free to shoot me an email.

Monday, 18 February 2013

The Immoral Argument against the Old Testament

The core question of ethics, "what ought one do?" is one of the foundational questions of philosophy. Christianity seems to get ethics from the Bible, but is it really a good source? If one looks at the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, then it may seem very plausible. Yet the earliest gentile Christians realized that it was not quite so simple - they were going to have to contend with the seemingly abhorrent actions committed by Israel, codified into Mosaic Law and commanded by God. Can an argument from the immorality of the Hebrew Bible suffice to reject the Bible as authoritative on matters of morality?

Allow me first to bring up some of this "evidence". From things Israel committed, see Numbers 31
where Moses commands the Israelites (it can be reasonably argued from verse 7 that God was the one who really commanded, but it is possible that the brutality was not God's - in this instance) to destroy the Midianites, and then Moses complains further when the Israelites have not killed every woman. These Midianite women and the men (referred to as boys in the passage) are to be put to death. The virgins, however, are kept as plunder "for themselves".

If the ownership of women seems unlawful to you, then this only complicates matters, as the law of Moses clearly speaks of women as property[1], for instance, in Exodus 22:16-17. Christians can speak of Jesus abolishing this law all they like, but the gospel according to St Matthew is insistent on the fact that Jesus' role was fulfilment, not abolishment - and if the sinless man fulfils it, then the Mosaic law must be the standard of morality to judge sin by. Furthermore, if Christians are adamant that Jesus actions mean we can ignore the law of Moses, why does St Paul refer to it as good and holy? (see: Romans 7:12)

One final piece of evidence: God's own explicit commands. Where better than the genocide of Joshua, commanded in Deuteronomy 7? I take this last instance to be common enough knowledge, and if not, then Deuteronomy is clear enough.

Now comes the logic part. It seems to be the case that these have nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus, about compassion on loving on another - but they do, for Jesus claims to be the son of the God of Israel and no other. The modus ponens argument I suggest is as follows:

1. To commit or command the actions listed above is immoral. (P implies Q - commanding these actions implies that the commander is immoral)
2. God commands the actions listed above. (P: God does indeed command these actions)
3. Therefore, God is immoral. (Q: therefore, by modus ponens, God is immoral)

The logic of this statement is valid, but one may also attack the truth of the premises. Some Christians reject the first premise, saying that it is not in all times, cultures and places immoral to kill others or enslave them. Some say that it may be for most, but not for God, because God can do whatever he likes. Phrased in a more sophisticated manner, God has no moral obligations, as nothing is above God to impose them.

Very well, but that neither seems biblical nor does it seem to bode well in philosophy, either. If God does not, by his very own righteous nature, impose standards on his own actions, then how does he impose standards on ours? Where does this standard come from in the Christian view, if not from God's own essence? Either we propose an authority above God from which morality emanates, thereby constraining God, or we reject this and propose that the standard is, in fact, from within God and then he must have moral obligations; to himself.

But the second premise can also be challenged. Is biblical infallibility a terribly out-dated doctrine that ought to be left aside? It would certainly be helpful to reject it at times like these! Or at least, do we really need to take things so literally, word-for-word true, leaving aside the human element inherent in it?

In fact, I would opt for something along the lines of the latter. There are however, problems with this view, and there exist tensions which I am not wise enough to solve. Succinctly, the most crucial is that the New Testament writers all valued the Old Testament very highly, if not as inerrant. For some more discussion on this topic, see Why the Old Testament Cannot be Waved Away.

[1] It has come to my attention that the Roman Catholic Church actually (quite prudently in my opinion) has the decalogue (10 Commandments) arranged in a different way. These commandments are numbered 10, but there are in fact 13 "you shall not"s, and so it falls upon the translators to combine them to make 10. Catholics combine the "first two" and separate wives from property, avoiding this problem.