Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The reliability of the Bible

One of the core tenets of Christian apologetics is, of course, that the Bible is a reliable and accurate historical document, and that Jesus was a real person, and pretty much exactly like described in the Bible. Miles and miles of text has been written by such apologists and theologians trying to argue why this is so.

These are some of the most common arguments they make, and why they are invalid.

"Historians almost unanimously agree that Jesus was a real person."

No, they don't. Some strongly argue for it, others against it. Most are open to the possibility of a person named "Yeshua" having existed, who was the basis of the texts, but they don't assert it. Others propose that the "Jesus" of the text is actually an amalgamation of several people (plus a good deal of embellishment.)

The vast majority of historians would agree that it's possible that the story of Jesus is loosely based on a real person, but that the vast majority of the details about him in the New Testament are inaccurate. They also would agree that it's possible that no such person existed at all. Thus, there is no unanimous agreement.

"Most historians agree that the New Testament is historically realiable."

No, they most definitely don't. This is just an outright lie perpetuated by dishonest apologists.

In fact, there are even many Christian historians and theologians who admit to the possibility that many of the events described in the New Testament probably never happened. (Of course the apologists who perpetuate the lie will just resort to the no-true-scotsman fallacy at this point.)

"There are numerous extrabiblical sources for the existence of Jesus."

Actually, there aren't. None at all. This is another lie perpetuated by these dishonest apologists.

They will cite several historians of the first and second centuries, but in every single case these historians are not accounting contemporary historical events, but instead are describing Christians and their beliefs. Invariably, all these mentions were written many decades (sometimes even over a century) after the alleged events of the New Testament. A document mentioning Jesus is not a very reliable source if said document was written a hundred years after Jesus (allegedly) died, and in context is just describing what Christians believed.

For example, apologists just love to mention Josephus, as he mentions Jesus' followers in his text. What they don't mention is that Josephus was born in 37 AD, long after Jesus' alleged death. Hardly a contemporary eyewitness. (All the other historians that apologists love to cite were born later than Josephus, so they aren't any better.)

"The New Testament is reliable because of the thousands of eyewitnesses."

This is a perfect example of a circular argument. It argues that there were thousands and thousands of eyewitnesses to the events described in the gospels, and thus the New Testament is very reliable. But how do we know there were thousands of eyewitnesses? Because the New Testament says so. There is no other source for these alleged eyewitnesses.

I don't think it's necessary to add anything to that. It's a circular argument in its purest form. (And this isn't even going into the fact of how unreliable eyewitness testimony is, no matter how many witnesses there are.)

"The gospels cannot be inaccurate because the people who lived in those places and witnessed those events would have objected to the inaccuracies."

This is one of the favorite arguments of many apologists, and it's one of the stupidest.

Firstly, the gospels were just some books written by some people, which were copied and spread very slowly. They did not mass-print them for the masses because there was no printing technology. And even if a copy did end up in the hands of someone who had lived at one of those places at the correct time, and even if this person had realized that the described events never actually happened, so what? This person probably didn't know who had written the text, nor had the means to do something about it even if he or she wanted.

Also, even if it did happen, the person could have just thought that he didn't witness it because he was just unlucky. It probably happened on the other side of the city, or when he was not around to see it.

Secondly, the gospels were written several decades after the alleged events. Most of the potential eyewitnesses had died or were too young to remember.

Thirdly, we have actual examples of fictional biographies, or biographies with inaccuracies in them, having been written very soon after a person has died, and with nobody objecting to them or correcting them. (The biography of George Washington is a perfect example.) And these are not biographies written decades after the person's death, but almost immediately.

"The gospels cannot be a case of real history having become legendary because they were written too soon after the events."

This is appealing to the notion that historical writing cannot become distorted by legends if it's written too soon after the events. This is a misunderstanding of the original proposition, and is very demonstrably false.

It also has the big problem that it assumes that there were events to be distorted by legends in the first place. There's absolutely nothing that would have stopped the authors of the gospels from just inventing the events.

You could just as well argue that the Harry Potter books were written too soon after the events they describe in order for them to be inaccurate. It makes absolutely no sense.

"The New Testament is reliable because this or that person, or this or that place, really existed."

A very common, and strange, argument that many Christians present, including these apologists, is that since there are some details in the Bible that are demonstrably true, that means that the entire Bible is reliable.

In other word, since it's demonstrably true that this or that king or head of state existed, then that means that the entire story of Jesus' crucifixion and burial is true. This argument makes no sense whatsoever.

You could use the exact same argument to claim that the Harry Potter books are reliable history because they talk about real cities.

"Martyrs wouldn't have died for a lie."

This is an even stranger argument given that people die all the time around the world because of their convictions. Surely these Christians are not going to argue that all belief systems are accurate because of that?

(Of course apologists will respond to this with special pleading, claiming that Christianity is in this regard somehow different from all those other thousands of belief systems.)

"If Jesus didn't rise from the dead, then how did the church begin? You have to give a plausible alternative explanation."

(Yes, this really is an argument that some apologists, even very high-profile ones, make.)

I don't even understand this argument. We have countless religion around the world and over all of history. How did they all begin? First a small group of people start believing in something (often the ideas of one single person) and they start gathering more and more people. As time passes, they develop more and more intricate details to their new religion. I don't even see what's the problem here.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Anything goes (as long as it's not science)

I have written about this subject previously, but it just never ceases to amaze me.

There's an almost frightening amount of people in this world who would believe almost anything. The only two criteria that they seem to apply to what they believe are:
  1. It's believed by a significant amount of people.
  2. The scientific community does not accept it.
(And by "significant" I don't mean millions. I mean hundreds.)

As unbelievable as it sounds (and to me it still does), there really are many people out there who will accept almost anything as long as it's something that science does not accept. It literally doesn't matter how completely crazy and clearly made-up it is, as long as a group of people believe it, and as long as science does not, they will believe it too (or, at the very least, consider it possible and be completely uncritical about it.)

Scientific claims are believed only if they pertain to the person's immediate practical surroundings and experience, or if they have no significance to their other beliefs. Scientific claims that contradict their other beliefs will be freely dismissed without thought or rationale.

Naturally scientific claims that can be used to bolster some of their other beliefs will be used. Or rather, a completely distorted-beyond-recognition version of a simplified "reader's digest" version of the scientific theory (ie, not only will an inaccurate overly-simplified version of the scientific theory be used, but even that will then be distorted to accommodate and support whatever claim the person wants.)

Just to give a taste, here are two actual examples of what some people accept completely uncritically:

They believe that some ten thousand years ago people from Mars arrived to Earth, and many people today are their descendants. And why exactly do they believe this? Because one person a couple of decades ago claimed to have a vision where he got this information (among a ton of other even crazier stuff.)

That's all. There's exactly zero evidence of this other than the claim of this one man that he got this information in a vision. And thousands of people today believe this completely uncritically.

Another example is the claim that in recent years hundreds of "super-psychic" children have been born in China. According to this claim, these children can do almost anything (including telepathy, levitating and moving objects, moving through solid objects, and so on.)

Why hasn't this hit all the news media around the world? For the flimsiest of excuses: According to these people, the Chinese scientists are afraid to publish these results for fear of ridicule. (They don't seem to be fazed by the contradiction that this poses: How do they know about this event if nobody in the news media knows about it? Why hasn't this leaked?)

The people who uncritically believe these things demand no evidence. It's enough if many other people believe it too, and someone who is charismatic enough makes the claim.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Birds and dinosaurs

For some reason creationists are in a crusade to try to discredit the notion that birds have evolved from dinosaurs. It's probably their second-most popular specific claim that they oppose about evolutionary history (the most popular being, of course, that humans and apes have a common ancestor species.) I don't even understand why they hate the notion that much. Even the creationists who accept 99% of the theory of evolution (without using that name, of course) still oppose the notion that birds are dinosaurs.

There are a couple of scientists who, while not being creationists, also loudly oppose the notion that birds evolved from dinosaurs. They are very vocal, and are sometimes quoted in tabloids and blogs.

Naturally creationists often cling to these tabloid articles as well. It really helps bolster their anti-evolutionary movement when they can quote newspaper headers like "birds have not evolved from dinosaurs after all, say scientists".

There's a huge irony in this, however. Those few scientists are not defending creationism. Their claim is that birds and dinosaurs have a more ancient common ancestor, rather than birds having evolved directly from dinosaurs. (This claim has been discredited by paleontologists and evolutionary biologists time and again, but it's still a somewhat rational and scientific hypothesis to make. It simply puts into question where exactly birds branched out in the evolutionary tree, and proposes that it happened earlier.)

In other words, the creationists are promoting an alternative evolutionary tree for birds, without realizing it. Those scientists who create those controversial tabloid news headers are not claiming that evolution didn't happen. They are simply saying that birds evolved from a more ancient ancestral species than dinosaurs.