Saturday, 4 August 2012

Resurrection Of The Dead

Over the next few weeks, I will be taking a look at what I consider to be some of the most powerful arguments that theists have in favour of belief, and in particular those arguments used by evangelical Christians. 

Arguably one of the most convincing pieces of evidence that religious believers - and especially fundamentalist Christians - often use in suport of their beliefs is the testimony of people who claim to have died, seen the afterlife, then returned to live again on Earth.  The list of people who have died and returned is extensive, their testimonies are consistent, and often their resurrection has taken place in circumstances that appear to be the miraculous result of divine intervention. 

A few years ago, I was made aware of the testimony of Ian McCormack.  McCormack was scuba-diving off Mauritius when he was stung by box jellyfish.  (As an aside, part of the story told about McCormack when I heard it stressed how venemous box jellyfish are; as I recall it, it was claimed that even given his excellent physical health at the time, he would not have been expected to survive.  Their Wikipedia entry, however, describes them as 'extremely painful and sometimes fatal' (my emphasis).  I may, of course, have mis-remembered.)  Although rushed to hospital and treated, he was declared dead.  Fifteen minutes later, he returned to life with a story of having been in a black void which he somehow knew to be Hell.  He then followed a tunnel of light to a paradise where he met Jesus and his own dead mother, before being offered the chance to return to Earth. 

Clearly, there are some aspects of McCormack's story that could be investigated further (Was he really an atheist, as he claims?  How strong was the influence of his mother's Christian faith on his upbringing?  Can anyone at the hospital verify his claims?),  

More recently, the subject has come back to my attention due to the media attention to footballer Fabrice Muamba's survival after his heart stopped for 78 minutes.  Although there was nothing mysterious about his survival, and he did not return with stories of post-mortem divine encounters, his family very publically attriubted his survival to their own Christian faith.  This fits in with what appears to be a growth cottage industry in 'afterlife tourism' books as a form of evangelical Christian (for want of a better word) propaganda with titles such as Heaven is for Real or The Boy who Came Back from Heaven

There are two aspects of this that I would like to look at.  The first is whether these visions give us a good reason to believe in the literal truth of a Christian afterlife.  The second is whether there is good evidence that people can miraculously return from the dead as a result of prayer. 

The first of those points can then be split into two challenges to sceptics to be explored.  Most obviously, for those who do not believe in Christianity, there is the direct challenge of how this evidence can be explained away, given that deliberate fraud seems implausible (though of course cannot be absolutely ruled out).  But there is also the question of why we would feel the need to 'explain away' this evidence.  Where we see multiple eyewitness evidence in other cases, we are happy to accept this at face value, so why should we not also accept these claims about the afterlife?  If the answer is simply that the conclusion we would draw goes against our pre-existing assumptions, we would seem to be on sketchy ground indeed. 

Why Not Just Believe The Testimony? 

'Hey, Dad, did you know Jesus has a horse? [...] a rainbow horse. I got to pet him. There’s lots of colors.'
- Colton Burpo

Firstly, let us address the question of whether this subject actually needs attention at all. 

The problem here is that there are so many theories of life after death, each of them apparently supported by eyewitness testimony.  Much of the testimony from Christians is indeed remarkably consistent, even where young children are involved.  Colton Burpo and Paul Eicke, for instance, were just 3 years old when they has their (separate) experiences, and Alex Malarkey was 6. 

All of these told remarkably consistent stories - winged angels, God, pearly gates (no, really) and encounters with deceased relatives who instruct them to return to their lives.  (Ted Harrison, writing in Fortean Times #291, August 2012, cites blogger James Morrow as pointing out that Burpo doesn't seem to understand the orthodox Christian concept of the Trinity, instead viewing Jesus and 'his Dad' as two separate people.)

Yet if we move outside of the cases promoted by specifically Christian media, this consistency breaks down entirely.  This link is fairly typical - a young boy who seems to know more about WW2 fighter planes than we would expect, and who also seems to know details about the life of one particular pilot.  Were we presented with that case (and there are many other similar examples) rather than the Heaven and Hell visions, we would by the same logic be justified in believing them.  Yet surely both cannot be true (though both could be false).  If we are prepared to accept two contradictory things based on the evidence, surely we have set our standards of proof too low, and we need to raise them.  Yet if we raise them, it is hard to see why we would accept either of the options, since neither seems to have markedly more evidence in favour of it than the other.  (This is a slightly simplistic approach; in fact we should be looking for a third theory that can explain both sets of experiences.  I will suggest one such theory below, but I should also note that it may be possible to integrate the two beliefs - Christianity and reincarnation - in some way.  Perhaps some people are reincarnated and others go to Heaven?  Of course, even if we allow this possibility, it is not Christianity as understood by proponents of the 'afterlife tourism' school.) 

Although we might come to various conclusions here, the idea that we should just accept the testimony at face value is, it seems to me, fatally undermined by the fact that the available testimony is contradictory.  To select only certain testimonies to believe would be unconscionable (although that is, of course, precisely what most religious groups do). 

So How Can These Experiences Be Explained? 

'Directly behind Jesus was a circular shaped opening like the tunnel I had just traveled down.  Gazing out through it, I could see a whole new world opening up before me.  I felt like I was standing on the edge of paradise, having a glimpse into eternity. 
'It was completely untouched.  In front of me were green fields and meadows.  The grass itself was giving off the same light and life that I had seen in the presence of God.  There was no disease on the plants.  It seemed as though the grass that it would just spring back to life if you stepped on it. Through the center of the meadows I could see a crystal clear stream winding its way across the landscape with trees on either bank.  To my right were mountains in the distance and the sky above was blue and clear.  To my left were rolling green hills and flowers, which were radiating beautiful colours.  Paradise!  I knew I belonged here. I had traveled the world looking for paradise, and here it was.  I felt as though I had just been born for the first time. Every part of me knew I was home. Before me stood eternity - just one step away.'
-Ian McCormack

So I am satisfied that we need not take these reported experiences as literal guides to the reality of life after death.  There remains the question of how these people have come to report the experiences they have done. 

The simplest explanation, of course, is that they are simply lying; they are motivated by profit, the need for celebrity, or a simple desire to promote their own faith.  And of course, this can never be disproved, and would certainly fit all the available evidence.  It is very likely that in at least some cases, this is what has happened. 

But do we really need to jump directly to this conclusion about all - or even most - such testimonies?  My experience is that very few people actively lie about things.  If at all possible, we should seek to understand how the McCormacks, Burpos, Eickes and so on can genuinely believe they are telling the truth, even if their visions do not conform to the actual facts as we understand them. 

The 'party line' among rationalists and skeptics seems to be that many of the features commonly observed can be explained by a lack of oxygen to the brain - anoxic euphoria causes the feelings of calm and peace, the better resistance to oxygen starvation of the cones (near the centre of the retina) than the rods (which give peripheral vision) leads to the perception of a 'tunnel of light', and the remainder is filled in by the experiencers' cultural expectations of what an afterlife should look like.  Indeed, so well-rehearsed is this argument that I am slightly wary about advancing it unchallenged, and have put some effort into researching it, starting with the frequently bandied around 'fact' that people from non-Christian cultures have non-Christian experiences of the afterlife. 

A quick search of the internet (not, I realise, necessarily the best way to come to conclusions on the relative statistical frequency of such things) brings up an awful lot of very similar Christian images of the afterlife, alongside a lot of reports of reincarnation (which is arguably not an 'experience of the afterlife' at all).  It is noticeable that accounts by Muslims, for instance, are almost totally lacking.  Could this then be evidence that there is something unique about the Christian experience (the slightly forced reason for dropping reincarnation notwithstanding)? 

Well, interestingly, although I have been unable to locate any Islamic testimonies, I have found a group of Hindu examples - though I had to search hard to find them.  This suggests that Christians are rather better at promoting their stories than Hindus are (at least via the Internet and 'western' media), which in turn suggests that the apparent uniformity of Christian experience is due to a form of 'anthropic effect' rather than the nature of the experience itself - in other words, although we think we are looking at a random sample of afterlife reports when we look at the Internet, the fact that we are using the Internet actually means that the sample is heavily biased in favour of 'western' religions such as Christianity and 'new-ageism'. 

So although Hindu testimonies are rare, I think those that exist are extremely informative.  (Why accounts of afterlife experienced - like reports of miracles - seem to be entirely absent from Muslim thought requires an explanation which I do not have.) 

On the whole, then, it does seem that the formula of oxygen starvation plus cultural indoctrination is the best available explanation, and does seem to cover all the evidence.  But within that 'cultural' label, there are many confusing aspects that I would like to see explained. 

Can Prayer Raise The Dead? 

'Affected by these extraordinary events, everyone waiting outside including my mother entered the mortuary and saw that I was alive! My parents praised the Lord for his love, greatness and faithfulness through this momentous event. And I give all the praise to the Lord, for he is the only one who deserves it.'
-Tim Yattara

My final remaining query is based on the testimony of those who did not themselves 'die'.  In some of the more remarkable cases, the recovery of the victim seems to coincide very closely with (usually Christian) prayer.  At least on the face of it, this seems to be more than we would expect from coincidence alone.  So is there any non-religious explanation for this? 

The only recognised medical explanation for 'Spontaneous Restoration of Circulation' (aka 'Lazarus Syndrome') is that although heartbeat may have been undetectably weak or slow, 'true death' has not actually occurred. 

It is of course virtually impossible to actually check whether the patient was 'truly dead' when the events occurred.  So let us first consider what we would expect to see if miraculous recoveries from 'true death' did not in fact occur. 
There would, of course, still be very occasional mis-diagnoses.  We should expect that these (and therefore reports of post-mortem recovery) should be more common in certain circumstances: when no obvious or uncontroversial cause of death is present (for instance, poisoning rather than decapitation); when medical examination has been cursory or non-existent, for whatever reason; when the latest medical equipment is not available.  This is not to say, of course, that modern medical practice can completely eliminate mis-diagnoses of death, but it should significantly reduce them; we might also expect that those cases that do arise in 'modern' countries might be better documented and more widely circulated.  We might also expect that cases will arise based on urban myth, chinese whispers and so on; again, such cases should be more common when they are hard to pin down in terms of verifiable names, dates, etc.  Finally, there are cases - such as that of Muamba - where heartbeat and respiration may have ceased for an extended period, but exceptional circumstances allow survival and resusciation.  This might be due to immediate access to advanced medical support, or simply extreme cold slowing the metabolism. 

As a final note, we might also expect that if a resurrection is truly miraculous - the result of supernatural intervention by an intelligent, all-powerful agency - there will be no lasting side-effects or handicap.  Although this is difficult to argue from first principles, it seems intuitively obvious that a divine being capable of miraculously granting renewed life can do so perfectly, without the niggling side-effects that plague conventional medicine. 

A genuine statistical analysis is beyond me, and I suspect that no-one has collected such data.  Flicking through the Fortean Times article mentioned above, we see the following: 

  • The Biblical story of Lazarus.  Clearly, this ticks virtually every box listed above, being long before any medical examination was usual or modern medicine available, and so poorly documented that we cannot be certain it was a real incident at all.  (For some reason, no other Biblical resuscitations - that of Jesus, for instance - are mentioned.) 
  • Fabrice Muamba, who although technically 'dead' for 78 minutes, received immediate and comprehensive medical attention meaning that his blood never stopped circulating.  There is no particular reason to look for any literal supernatural cause here (despite the comments from his family in the newspapers). 
  • Arun Bhasin (London, 2010), who was revived after 3 1/2 hours.  In this instance, both low temperatures (-10 C) and possibly advanced medicine ('a revolutionary new cardiac support machine', according to FT) apply.  Again, this would seem not to be a miraculous raising, particularly given the lasting brain damage and personality change that Bhasin seems to have suffered. 
  • Ng Swee Hock (Malaysia, 2011).  Collapsed after an argument (so no obvious cause of death), was declared dead in hospital and then revived 2 hours later. 
  • Michael Wilkinson (UK, 2009).  Found 'collapsed in bed', rushed to hospital, pronounced dead but pulse returned 30 minutes later.  Unfortunately, Wilkinson died 2 days later (it is not specified whether he regained consciousness); a post mortem found an undiagnosed (and unspecified in the article) cardiac condition.  The A&E consultant at the hospital attributed the recovery to the drugs that Wilkinson had been given. 
  • Dr Sean Thomas George (Brisbane, 2008).  Heart attack, dead for 85 minutes, attributes his recovery to 'a simple prayer' said by his wife.  George was in a modern hospital and was treated by well-qualified doctors during this period, without result. 
  • Tim Yattara (Mali, 1985), three years old.  Died from yellow fever, came back to life in a morgue five minutes after his mother prayed over him. 
  • Annonymous (Columbia, 2010).  Apparently died from 'a nerological condition' and later recovered. 
  • Judith Johnson (USA, 2007).  Heart attack - she was taken to the morgue before breathing was noticed, but a timescale is not given. 
  • Oran (Scotland, 6th century).  Exhumed alive a day after being buried - then burned for heresy after saying he had seen visions of Heaven and Hell. 
The first half of the article concludes with some words on possible medical explanations for 'Lazarus Syndrome':

'Several explanations for the phenomenon of Lazarus Syndrome were explored in [the journal Anesthesia & Analgesia].  One suggestion was that the heart might start following a delay in a previously administered dose of adrenaline reaching it.  Another explanation involved a gradual intracellular shift of potassium after previously administered bicarbonate.  [...]  Outside the hospital, a misdiagnosis of death might be a more likely explanation, probably due to a pulse being too faint for an untrained person to detect.'  It goes on to note that the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine has suggested that 'Rapid manual ventilation without adequate time for exhalation can lead to dynamic hyperinflation of the lungs [...] leading to delayed venous return, low cardiac output and even cardiac arrest.'  In other words, normal circulation might return after artificial respiration is ceased. 

We can add to the above other cases, such as that of Daniel Ekechukwu, who was apparently killed in a car crash in Nigeria, certified dead, and injected with embalming fluid (!) before being resurrected by the prayers of a German missionary called Reinhardt Bonnke.  We are told that the timescale leaves little room for doubt: 'On the third day after the accident, Ekechukwu's body was taken in its coffin to a church in Ontisha, where Bonnke was preaching at a service. The body was taken out of its coffin and put on a table in the church's conference center, where several pastors began to pray [...] pastors lifted Ekechukwu from the coffin in which he had been laid, and were amazed when the man started to breathe again as they prayed for him' (again, my emphasis.) 

Some of these are more suspect than others.  The Ekechukwu case, for instance, seems to have numerous inconsistencies (not leastly that Ekechukwe was apparently alive and conscious for around 3 hours or more before being declared dead from a physical trauma that has left no external marks; and that he appears to be a church minister associated with Bonnke, who has been accused of fraud in the past).  Some, like Muamba, do not seem to require any supernatural explanation at all.  Others are harder to argue with, such as the cases of George and Yattara.  (Though I note that the Yattara case relies on the testimony of Yattara himself, now a pastor - who appears to have reported a story of persucution of Christians in Mali that turns out not to be true.  Whether this inaccuracy casts doubt on the 'resurrection' case I can only leave to the reader's judgement.) 

So on this final point, perhaps the decision is too close to call.  Without a proper statistical analysis (and it is hard to see how such a thing could be done, crossing multiple cultures worldwide equally), it is impossible to tell whether the 'difficult to explain away' cases are more common than we would expect from chance, or more common in the circumstances cited.  All we are left with is our more general objection to (or, for some people, acceptance of) the idea of medical miracles and a mind/body distinction. 

The Documentary Hypothesis

This is Week Twelve of Giford's Bible Study Programme.
In the beginning God created the Heaven and the earth...
- Gen 1:1 - 4:1+
Length: 5/5
Controversy: 5/5
Top Verses Rank: 7 (The most popular verse in this series, by some way!)

There are two main words used to refer to God in the OT. The first is Elohim, which simply means 'God' (or 'the Gods', but let's not go there). The second is YHWH (sometime given as Jehova or Yahweh), the four letters that represent the personal name of the Hebrew God. In the KJV - and most other English Bibles - the former is translated as 'God' and the latter as 'LORD' or 'LORD God'. Now flick through the first few chapters of the Bible (or better still, go through with two coloured highlighters). It is noticeable that - with the exception of the words spoken by the serpent - Elohim is used throughout Gen 1:1, whereas YHWH is used for the next few chapters.

Why might this be? There certainly seems to be some significance to it. If nothing else, it shows a break between Gen 1 and Gen 2-3. So it seems that there is some kind of break here. It is noticeable that this coincides with a break in the narrative. Up to Gen 2:3 is one complete, self-contained creation story. From Gen 2:4 onwards is another, separate story that contradicts the first. (For instance: in the famous six days of creation of Gen 1, the animals are formed before Adam; in Gen 2, they are formed after him and he names each one as it is created.)

So it appears that the first few books of the OT are compiled from several sources which are not always in agreement. This is supported by other evidence from other parts of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). One of these sources is called the Jahwist and another the Elohist, and of course there must have been a Redactor (editor) to combine them, and who seems to have left a few contributions of his own. Although there is still discussion about how many sources were used, how reliably they can be identified and in what order they were combined, it is generally accepted among OT scholars that this is how the first five (or six, seven or even eight) books of the OT came into their current form. Most also believe that another two sources - called the Deuteronomist and Priestly sources - can be detected

The Synoptic Problem

This is Week Eleven of Giford's Bible Study Programme.
Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.
- Matt 27:45
And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.
- Mark 15:33
It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour,
- Luke 23:44
And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom
- Matt 27:51
And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.
- Mark 15:38
and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.
- Luke 23:45
Length: 5/5
Controversy: 1/5

I did promoise in Week Two that we'd come back to the death of Jesus. I would now like to introduce a slightly more complex idea than we've been dealing with up to now. Let us break with habit and actually look at the texts describing Jesus' death.

We were looking, if you recall, at Matthew's claim of the dead rising at Jesus' death. By looking at the first three Gospel accounts side-by-side, we can see that Matthew, Mark and Luke are identical or near-identical in several places, such as those quoted above.
It beggars belief that such close parallels could arise by chance in separate retellings of the same events. If we were police officers looking at witness statements with this kind of similarity, we would certainly believe that the witnesses had colluded. Teachers marking exam scripts like these would naturally assume plagiarism. So we can safely assume that there is some link between the three Gospel accounts, more than just having been written by witnesses to the same events. Exactly how that happened is not so clear - it might be that two of the gospels are copied from a third; that one is copied from a second which is in turn copied from the third; that all three are copied from some now-lost source; or so on. But what is clear is that there is a link between the texts, more than can be explained simply by them being different eyewitness accounts of the same events (although this does remain the claim made by some fundamentalists).

But there is a further problem. Let's look at the text following the above two sections and before the mention of the centurion:
...torn in two, from top to bottom and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion...
- Matt 27:51-54
Mark has no text here:
...was torn in two, from top to bottom. When the centurion...
- Mark 15:38-39
...torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, 'Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!' And having said this he breathed his last. Now when the centurion...
- Luke 23:46-47
Clearly, these are not copies of each other. Indeed, they are rather contradictory - Jesus is already dead by this point in Mark and Matthew, with his last words being 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'. In Luke, Jesus lives until after the curtain has torn and his last words are very different.

Although I have chosen Jesus' last moments to illustrate this, it is a problem that recurs throughout the Gospels (you can look for youself by scrolling up and down on the link above). In places, the 'Synoptic Gospels' - Matthew, Mark and Luke - are so close that they must surely be based upon each other. Yet in others, they are so different that they must equally surely not be based on each other. And the Fourth Gospel, that of John, is never in such close agreement with the first three as they are with each other - in this example, we have no curtain, no 'darkness' and no centurion in John's version - and a third set of last words for Jesus.

This is the 'Synoptic Problem'.

The most widely accepted solution is that Matthew and Luke are each basing their gospels on Mark, plus separate (different) sources. So in the example above, Matthew has added the story of the earthquake and mass resurrection, whereas Luke has added the extra set of last words (and removed Mark's version of the last words). This makes more sense than (for example) thinking that Luke and Mark both independently decided to edit out the same section of Matthew, both here and in many other places. There are other lines of argument pointing to Mark as the earliest Gospel, but they are beyond the scope of this week's lesson.
There are a few problems with this idea, which we will come to in future weeks, but this idea of 'Markan priority' is firmly established among New Testament scholars. Of course, it follows from this that Matthew and Luke (and therefore Acts, which is universally regarded as being by the same author as Luke) are not eye-witness accounts. There are many levels to the Synoptic Problem. 

Sunday, 15 July 2012

The Problem of Evil - Solved

This is Week Ten of Giford's Bible Study Programme.
Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan came also among them. And the LORD said unto Satan, 'Whence comest thou?'
Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, 'From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.'
And the LORD said unto Satan, 'Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?'
Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, 'Doth Job fear God for nought? Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face.'
And the LORD said unto Satan, 'Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand.'
So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD.

Job 1:6-12
Length: 3/5

Controversy: 0/5

The Book of Job is one of the truly great philosophical treatisies of the ancient world. It deals with timeless questions, such as how people of religious faith can understand the existence of suffering in a divinely ordered world, and why good people suffer while the evil prosper; and the author does not seem to feel compelled to come to easy answers.

Unfortunately, it appears that a later writer has added a prose introduction and coda to the poem, in which we are given a simple reason for Job's suffering: Satan has made a bet with God. So the book as it stands today offers a trite and simplistic vision of a cruel and whimsical deity as the explanation for evil.

The central, and much longer, part of the book (also believed to contain a lengthy insert by a third author) deals with Job's friends trying to explain to him why a just man such as himself must suffer. They try a range of arguments, with a heavy emphasis on 'You must have done something to deserve this, God must have His reasons for torturing you, and it is not for you to know them.' With the addition of the introduction quoted above, we can of course see the answer to this. God's reason for torturing Job is because of a pompous bet with Satan, and God Himself later shows up and refuses to explain this to Job in what can only be described as a rant:
Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? [...] Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; [...] Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? [...] Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct him? he that reproveth God, let him answer it.
- God
The foundations of the Earth are a subject we will be returning to.  There will be more on unicorns in Week 15.

Daily Mail Turns 50 Shades of Puce

As is so often the case, what the Daily Mail finds 'outrageous', I find quite amusing. 

I notice that (as so often seems to be the case in Daily Mail articles) it is not actually specified who is 'outraged'.  Presumably not any avid reader of the Bible, who will be familiar with passages such as
My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him.
I rose up to open to my beloved; and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh, upon the handles of the lock.
I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone

Saturday, 7 July 2012

The Real Ten Commandments

This is Week Nine of Giford's Bible Study Programme.
And he said, Behold, I make a covenant: before all thy people I will do marvels, such as have not been done in all the earth, nor in any nation: and all the people among which thou art shall see the work of the LORD: for it is a terrible thing that I will do with thee. Observe thou that which I command thee this day: behold, I drive out before thee the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite. Take heed to thyself, lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest it be for a snare in the midst of thee: But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves: Ye shall destroy their altars.

For thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God: Lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods, and one call thee, and thou eat of his sacrifice; and thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make thy sons go a whoring after their gods.

Thou shalt make thee no molten gods.

The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep. Seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, as I commanded thee, in the time of the month Abib: for in the month Abib thou camest out from Egypt.

All that openeth the matrix is mine; and every firstling among thy cattle, whether ox or sheep, that is male. But the firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb: and if thou redeem him not, then shalt thou break his neck. All the firstborn of thy sons thou shalt redeem. And none shall appear before me empty.

Six days thou shalt work, but on the seventh day thou shalt rest: in earing time and in harvest thou shalt rest.

And thou shalt observe the feast of weeks, of the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the year's end.

Thrice in the year shall all your menchildren appear before the LORD God, the God of Israel. For I will cast out the nations before thee, and enlarge thy borders: neither shall any man desire thy land, when thou shalt go up to appear before the LORD thy God thrice in the year.

Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven; neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the passover be left unto the morning.

The first of the firstfruits of thy land thou shalt bring unto the house of the LORD thy God.

Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother's milk.

And the LORD said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel. And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.

Exod 34:10-28
Length: 3/5
Controversy: 2/5

It will come as no surprise that there is one - and only one - set of commandments described in the Bible as 'The Ten Commandments'. What might be slightly surprising is that it's not the list that most people think of.

Although these are clearly described as 'the ten commandments' in the text, and the more familiar set (of which there are not ten) are not, this is a step too far for many Christians. I have yet to hear of any Christian group demanding that these be displayed in courtrooms in the US, for instance.

For more details, see here and here.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Bath Forum

Now here's a funny thing that I noticed in the press recently. 
There is an organisation local to me known as Healing On The Streets, or HOTS.  I have come across them a few times, setting up banners offering faith healing in the local city centre, and sending a delegation to a local Creation / evolution debate (ironically serving to undermine the Creationist, who was trying to argue that Intelligent Design is not a religious viewpoint).  They seem to include members of Bath City Church, based in the Bath Forum - hence the title of this post. 

It seems that they have been taken to the Advertising Standards Agency over claims made on their website and some of their fliers.  An article appeared on a local news website.  Under the headline 'It's official: God does heal say Advertising Standards Authority ruling', it reads in part:
A Christian group is to be allowed to claim that ‘God can heal’ following a ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority yesterday. 
But Healing on the Streets has been told it can only use the phrase on its website and cannot include it on printed material.


Speaking after the ruling, a spokesman for Healing on the Streets, which is based in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, welcomed the ruling and said the group would “continue to express our beliefs”. 
He said: “The revised adjudication does not apply to what is on our website, meaning we can continue to express our beliefs that God can and does heal, as well as providing information and testimonies explaining all about Healing on the Streets.

“HOTS Bath will continue to fulfil its commitment to demonstrate the love of God through healing of body, mind and spirit on the streets of Bath and elsewhere.”
A spokesman for the ASA confirmed: “We acknowledged that HOTS volunteers believed that prayer could treat illness and medical conditions, and that therefore the ads did not promote false hope.

“However, we noted we had not seen evidence that people had been healed through the prayer of HOTS volunteers and concluded that the ad could encourage false hope in those suffering from the named conditions and therefore were irresponsible.”
So how does that sound?  A win for the faith-healers?  A bit 50/50? 

Well, flick over to the actual verdict from the ASA

There were three points of complaint brought against HOTS.  The first of these was:  
the claim that the advertiser could heal the named conditions was misleading and could [not] be substantiated
and the second:
the ad was irresponsible, because it provided false hope to those suffering from the named conditions ['Back Pain, Arthritis, MS, Addiction ... Ulcers, Depression, Allergies, Fibromyalgia, Asthma, Paralysis, Crippling Disease, Phobias, Sleeping disorders or any other sickness' were mentioned in the leaflet] 
Ruling: 1. & 2. Upheld
The ASA acknowledged that HOTS sought to promote their faith and the hope for physical healing by God through the claims in the ad. However, we were concerned that the prominent references to healing and the statement "You have nothing to lose, except your sickness" in combination with the references to medical conditions for which medical supervision should be sought such as arthritis, asthma, MS, addictions, depression and paralysis, could give consumers the expectation that, by receiving prayer from HOTS volunteers, they could be healed of the conditions listed or other sicknesses from which they suffered. We concluded the ad was misleading.
Pretty clear-cut.  So it must be the third point that was the win for HOTS, right? 
The ASA challenged whether the ads could discourage essential treatment for conditions for which medical supervision should be sought.

Ruling: 3. Upheld
We understood that HOTS volunteers were instructed to give a letter to the recipients of prayer which told them they should not stop taking their medication or following the advice of medical professionals. However, we considered that, because the leaflet made claims that through the prayer offered by HOTS volunteers people could be healed of specific medical conditions for which medical supervision should be sought such as arthritis, asthma, MS, addictions, depression and paralysis, the ad could discourage people, and particularly the vulnerable or those suffering from undiagnosed symptoms, from seeking essential treatment for medical conditions for which medical supervision should be sought. We concluded the ad breached the Code.
Erm, so hang on a moment.  What the ASA has actually ruled is that the advert is misleading, that claims of healing cannot be substantiated, that it breaches 'CAP Code rules 1.3 (Social responsibility), 3.1 and 3.6 (Misleading advertising), 3.7 (Substantiation), 12.1 and 12.6 (Medicines, medical devices, health-related products and beauty products).'  But the ASA has ruled that websites do not fall under its jurisdiction. 

So this is the great victory leading HOTS to claim that 'God can heal' - that misleading, unsubstantiated and socially irresponsible advertising is outside the remit of the ASA when placed on a website.  Colour me unimpressed. 

Monday, 11 June 2012

Pericope Adulterae

This is Week Eight of Giford's Bible Study Programme.
And every man went unto his own house. Jesus went unto the mount of Olives. And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them. And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.
John 7:53 - 8:11
Length: 3/5
Controversy: 1/5
This is one of the best-known stories in the New Testament. For many, the central aspects of Jesus' teachings are summed up in this one brief story. Top Verses ranks part of this passage as the 144th most popular verse in the entire Bible.

Yet despite this, it is one of the most mysterious and enigmatic verses of the Gospels. What was it that Jesus 'wrote on the ground'? Why is the man involved not being stoned? How do we square this story about discarding the old laws with Matt 5:17, where Jesus says 'Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.'? And is Jesus really saying here that the Old Testament laws no longer apply? Or that only some do?

But all these are secondary questions. This entire story is simply absent from the oldest and best versions of the Gospel of John. When it does turn up, its placement varies, with versions known where it appears after John 21:25 or even Luke 21:38, before it finally settles in its current location, after John 7:52. There are (so I'm told by experts) also stylistic differences between this story and the rest of the fourth Gospel.
Biblical scholars are as unanimous as Biblical scholars ever get; this story was not part of the Gospel of John when it was originally written. Bart Ehrman ranks this story - known as the 'Pericope Adulterae' - second (and third) in his list of Bible verses that were not originally in the New Testament.

It was almost certainly a separate story about Jesus (or someone else) that was so good that it came to be incorporated into various gospels, possibly as a marginal notation to begin with. The story first appears unambiguously in the fifth Century, although there are hints earlier - a possible reference to it being in the (non-canonical) Gospel of the Hebrews as early as 125 AD, a mark indicating a possible alternative reading was known at the end of John 7 from a fourth Century manuscript, and around the same time Didymus the Blind refers to it being present in 'several' Gospels. 

Christian Responses

St Augustine claimed that the passage was excluded from some manuscripts because opponents of Christianity were using it to claim that Christians supported adultery. Modern scholars don't accept this, pointing to the stylistic and placement problems noted above.

Conservapedia has (as ever) their own unique take on this: only non-Bible-believing liberals (like the Catholic Church and Mel Gibson) like this story, because it excuses them from condemning others (be sure to read the Talk page too!).

A Magic Spell to Cause Abortion

This is Week Seven of Giford's Bible Study Programme. 

Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man's wife go aside, and commit a trespass against him, and a man lie with her carnally, and it be hid from the eyes of her husband, and be kept close, and she be defiled, and there be no witness against her, neither she be taken with the manner; and the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be defiled: or if the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be not defiled: then shall the man bring his wife unto the priest, and he shall bring her offering for her, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense thereon; for it is an offering of jealousy, an offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance.

And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the LORD and the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is in the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water: and the priest shall set the woman before the LORD, and uncover the woman's head, and put the offering of memorial in her hands, which is the jealousy offering: and the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that causeth the curse: and the priest shall charge her by an oath, and say unto the woman, 'If no man have lain with thee, and if thou hast not gone aside to uncleanness with another instead of thy husband, be thou free from this bitter water that causeth the curse: but if thou hast gone aside to another instead of thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee beside thine husband: then the priest shall charge the woman with an oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman, The LORD make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the LORD doth make thy thigh to rot, and thy belly to swell; and this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot': And the woman shall say, 'Amen, amen'.

And the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall blot them out with the bitter water: and he shall cause the woman to drink the bitter water that causeth the curse: and the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter.

Then the priest shall take the jealousy offering out of the woman's hand, and shall wave the offering before the LORD, and offer it upon the altar: and the priest shall take an handful of the offering, even the memorial thereof, and burn it upon the altar, and afterward shall cause the woman to drink the water. And when he hath made her to drink the water, then it shall come to pass, that, if she be defiled, and have done trespass against her husband, that the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot: and the woman shall be a curse among her people. And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed.

Numbers 5:12-28

Length: 3/5

Controversy: 3/5

My, that was a mouthfull - all that cursing (and from a priest!) and some form of magic ritual - that much is clear. But what is its purpose? It's clearly to discover whether a woman is guilty of adultery, but it's not clear what the outcome is supposed to be.

The phrasing given in most translations is 'her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot', or something similar. Others (e.g. the footnotes to the NIV) give 'cause her to be barren and have a miscarrying womb'. It is left to the reader to decide which makes more sense in the context (female sterility or withered legs as a punishment for extramarital sex?) - is God giving instructions for a magical abortion?

Sunday, 20 May 2012

From Cottingley to Mumbai

The blogsphere seems to be alive with the story of Sanal Edamaruku, the 'Indian Skeptic' who debunked a 'miracle' at a Catholic church in Mumbai (Bombay) and was arrested for blasphemy. 

It is of course a shocking reflection on both the Catholic church and Indian society that this could happen - especially, as Edamaruku's defence committee has pointed out, in a country whose Constitution, written just 65 years ago, states that:

It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop the scientific temper, humanism and spirit of inquiry and reform. 

It is certainly to be hoped that any sensible court will exonerate him 

There is another point I would like to make, however.  Edamaruku has come up with an explanation of how this could be occurring without a miracle; that does not mean that he has found the only such explanation.  I am reminded of CSICOP confidently declaring that computer analysis of the Cottingley Fairy photos had revealed the strings holding them up, thus showing them to be fakes - before the perpetrator admitted that they were fakes, but pinned into position, not hung. 

We should be wary of declaring a case 'solved' when a potential solution has been found.  And if Edamaruku has found the wrong explanation of this 'miracle', his legal troubles may get far worse.

War Crimes

This is Week Six of Giford's Bible Study Programme.

When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee. And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it: And when the LORD thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword: But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the LORD thy God hath given thee. Thus shalt thou do unto all the cities which are very far off from thee, which are not of the cities of these nations. But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee.
Deuteronomy 20:10-17

Length: 3/5

Controversy: 0/5

Another of my personal favourites, about which there is little more to say. Genocide, slavery and rape are mandated by God, at least under some circumstances and in some times and places.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Charles Foster in Fortean Times

Reading Barrett in New Scientist reminds me of a two-part article in Fortean Times recently (the April and May 2012 editions) by Charles Foster.  Having conceded in the first half that science can adequately explain all the various mental states usually cited as evidence of the divine, he goes on to argue in the second part that they nevertheless do provide evidence that we are - in the words of his title - 'Wired for God'.  Religion, he contends, has a 'tremendous thermodynamic price' [sic] and altruism is 'Darwinian heresy' (so he clearly hasn't read Dawkins' Selfish Gene, despite referring to him in the very next paragraph as 'the High Priest of the reductionists').  He rejects the idea of memetics on the grounds that 'A horizontal influence [memetics] would be so much stronger than the vertical one [genetics] that the subtle selection of genetic characteristics upon which natural selection depends would be rendered more or less irrelevent.'  (A viewpoint he attributes to Stephen Jay Gould - I am not aware of Gould's views on the subject of memes, but I would find this argument very surprising coming from him.  Isn't that reduction in biological change pretty much what has happened?  Isn't that why we hear all these arguments over whether humans are still evolving?) 

He covers a lot of the same ground as Barrett - children of all ages believe God to be omniscient, whereas they quickly lose their belief in the omniscience of their parents - but goes rather further, seeking to use this as direct proof that 'God is not an anthropomorphic projection.'  He objects to the idea of a Hyperactive Agency Detection Device on the grounds that it doesn't explain all the beliefs about God - cue Norenzayan's distinction between instinctive and analytical beliefs, since contra Foster it would seem that HADD does explain the non-theological beliefs.  He places a lot of emphasis on the (probably correct) belief that early rock art is tied to shamanic visions, though quite how that supports his case is less clear.  Finally, he falls back on the philosophical problem of consciousness, asserting that 'The only point of an 'I' is relationship.  There's no point in an 'I' unless there are other 'I's around to whom I can give of mine.'  He combines this with the further insistence that imagining something immaterial - particularly a consciousness - 'seems [...] impossible if we are merely bundles of neurones.' 

His conclusion, therefore, is that the existence of God is supported by spiritual experience and religion (including altruism), for which he claims there is no adequate materialistic explanation; and by the 'utterly unlikely' idea that 'matter should be able to generate the idea of non-matter'.  Since I feel that there is perfectly adequate explanation for the former, and find the latter not in the least surprising, I am far from persuaded by his thesis. 

New Scientist's 'God Issue'

The 17th March issue of New Scientist was their 'God Issue' special, featuring five articles on religion and science.  The editorial introduction to the issue makes for some pretty depressing reading for the atheist:

'Children are born primed to see religion all around them [...] belief in a god or gods does appear to encourage people to be nice to one another [...] An interesting corollary of this is a deeply held mistrust of atheists [...] "militant atheism" has failed to make headway.' 

It goes on to further state that attacking theology will not affect people's natural belief in God.  While it does also note that 'Religious claims still wither under rational scrutiny', this is not comforting reading in a scientific journal.  So perhaps it is worth a look at each of the articles in turn. 

Perhaps the most surprising article is 'Born believers' by Justin L. Barrett (admittedly an employee of a theological seminary, but let's not hold that against him). 

He argues that almost from birth, children start to make sense of the world around them by recognising 'the difference between ordinary physical objects and "agents" - things that can act upon their surroundings.'  He cites the work of Philippe Rochat at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia - babies too young to speak will watch a red disc chase a blue one around a computer screen for a while, then lose interest.  If the roles of the discs are suddenly reversed, the babies' interest is rekindled, suggesting that they see one disc as a 'chaser' and the other as a 'chasee'. He adds to this evidence that we all (but especially young children) tend to see intent and purpose where there is none (the 'Hyperactive Agency Detection Device', though Barrett does not use quite that phrase).  So 4 and 5 year olds agree with the statement that tigers are 'made for eating and walking and being seen at the zoo', and he further argues that this belief needs to be actively suppressed by education, rather than being something that children naturally grow out of.  He backs this up with a study by George Newman of Yale University; babies (like adults) are unsurprised to see video of a ball knocking over some bricks, but look for longer (i.e. seem surprised) when the film is played in reverse and the ball appears to stack the bricks.  When a face is painted on the ball (turning it into an 'agent'), they are not surprised by either event. 

Barrett then draws a distinction between 'agents' and 'gods' - 'gods' possess superpowers such as 'superknowledge, superperception and immortality', and argues that children again tend to hold these views as innate rather than gaining them in later life.  It is only by around 3 or 4 years old that children are able to develop a 'theory of mind' and understand the limitations (such as death, or incomplete knowledge) that others have. 

He concludes with a note that this explains 'natural religion' rather than more complex belief systems such as Christianity. 

He also includes an intersting side-bar entitled 'The Santa delusion', where he seeks to address the opinion that belief in god(s) is childish and something that should be outgrown.  He uses three basic arguments here.  The first is that people 'sometimes' come to believe in God as adults, but that the same is not true of Santa or fairies.  I am personally unconvinced by this; this seems to me to have more to do with cultural norms than something innate.  (Besides, I think that the move from unbelief to belief in god(s) is relatively uncommon - and the move from unbelief to belief in fairies, though rarer, does still happen; Conan Doyle being a prime example.) 

His second line of reasoning is rather more complex: 'Santa and the Tooth Fairy also fail to fully fit the conceptual space that children (and adults) have because of their natural cognition.  They do not readily account for perceived order and purpose in the nartural world.'  Again, I am unconvinced by this; this seems to me a good way to account for the popularity of belief in god(s), but not really an important distinguisher between 'acceptable' (to Barrett) and 'unacceptable' beliefs for adults. 

His final line of argument is perhaps the most persuasive.  'adults do not typically eat sacrifices placed out for gods and pretend that the gods ate them the way they eat Santa's cookies.  If indoctrination and theatrical acts of deception were the bulk of what gods had going for them conceptually, adults would outgrow them too.'  (My emphasis.)  My only argument with that would be the inclusion of the words 'indoctrination and'; it seems to me that indoctrination into a factually incorrect (but genuinely believed) idea could indeed be self-perpetuating. 

The next article is 'The idea that launched a thousand civilisations' by Ara Norenzayan.  This notes that Gobekli Tepe - the oldest known religious structure in the world, in modern Turkey - predates modern agriculture, and uses this to link a pair of puzzles from human prehistory.  Essentially, Norenzayam proposes that 'Some early cultural variants of religion presumably promoted prosocial behaviours such as cooperation, trust and self-sacrifice while encouraging displays of religious devotion, such as fasts, food taboos, extravagant rituals and other "hard to fake" behaviours  which reliably transmitted believers' sincere faith and signalled their intention to cooperate.' 

Religion is thus the origin of both larger societies and moral behaviour.  Norenzayan does at least end on a more positive note - it appears possible for sufficiently developed societies to dispense with the religious beliefs that got them where they are and replace them with more secular approaches: 'These [Scandinavian] societies with atheist majorities - some of the most cooperative, peaceful and prosperous in the world - have climbed religion's ladder and then kicked it away.

Robert N. McCauley writes on 'Natural religion, unnatural science'.  This picks up where Barrett left off, with the idea that religion comes naturally to the human mind.  It then points out that much of the justification for religious belief - 'theology' - uses the slower, analytical paths of thought.  Although he offers little in the way to support this, he suggests that attacking 'theology' is a waste of time; it will simply shift and adjust in order to continue to protect the core, non-rational beliefs. 

Finally, Victor J. Stenger and Alain de Botton are allowed to trot out their favourite tropes: respectively, that the existence of God is testable (intelligent design, intercessory medical prayer and so on) and disproven (which is a slight oversimplification, but broadly accurate); and that a secular system of ethics should incorporate a lot of the 'good' (helpful or beneficial) parts of religious moral teaching - rituals that build and bind communities.  I find a lot to agree with, particularly in de Botton's article. 

And as an addendum, in the 7th April issue, a letter from A.C. Grayling argues (very briefly) against the idea of 'God-shaped holes' that seems to be implicit in Barrett's reasoning. 
There is a good reason that I do not bill this as a 'current affairs' blog.  You are unlikely to read breaking stories here.  Nevertheless, I do get there eventually. 

A trawl through some recent back-issues of New Scientist (21st April) has turned up a couple of articles of some relevance to the (various) debate(s) over religion. 

Ken Stedman, of Portland State University in Oregon, has discovered some virus DNA that contains a sequence that seems to have been derived from an RNA virus.  This is very surprising - the divergence between these two types of virus is one of the oldest known, going right back prior to the advent of multicellular life.  The most likely explanation for this would seem to be that a DNA-based virus, and RNA-based virus and a (probably RNA-based) virus containing reverse transcriptase all infected a host cell at the same time.  The reverse transciptase was therefore able to take some genetic code from the RNA virus and insert it into the DNA of the DNA virus. 

Why is this significant?  One of the problems with understanding the early evolution of life as we know it is that it is difficult to see how DNA could have arisen.  Taken by itself, DNA is inactive and therefore pretty useless.  So it seems that it could not have arisen before the proteins needed to 'activate' it.  Yet those proteins are incapable of replication without DNA, so they could not have arisen before the DNA. 

The 'RNA world' hypothesis seeks to resolve this apparent catch-22.  In modern cells, RNA does little - it is primarily a 'messenger', taking information from DNA to the 'protein factories' of the cell.  But this conceals a surprisingly versatile chemistry; it is capable both of storing information (like DNA) and catalysing reactions (like a protein).  So, the theory goes, perhaps life began with RNA before evolving to the DNA/protein combo we see today. 

But this introduces some more problems.  One of these is that we have not yet found an RNA sequence capable of self-replication; this issue will not be addressed here.  Another issue is that moving data storage from RNA to DNA would require some sort of 'translation mechanism' - a little like switching from a video player to a DVD player.  For the casual viewer, this simply means restarting your film collection, but for a living organism the problem is more serious since the information lost would concern replication and thus be essential to life itself. 

So what Stedman has found is of tangential importance to this debate.  Although the exact mechanism cannot be the one used in the RNA world scenario - it requires existing DNA-based and cellular life - it does indicate that there are solutions to this problem.  A tantalising glimpse of a possible solution, but not enough yet to say this problem is solved. 


Another New Scientist article, this one from 5th May, headlined 'Analytical thinking erodes belief in God'.  Humans apparently have 'two cognitive systems for processing information: one fast and intuitive, another slower and analytical.'  Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Colombia believes he has found a link between scepticism and analytical thinking.  Students were asked to rate their belief in God (and other supernatural ideas); then later invited back to repeat the test, having been 'primed' to use their analytical brains.  Naturally, a control group had no such priming on the second occasion. 

What Norenzayan found was that students who had recently been thinking analytically - solving puzzles and the like - were significantly less likely to believe in God.  He is quoted in the article as saying that 'Habitual analytical thinking could be one reason scientists tend to be disbelievers'.  If so, this may perhaps give some hope for a resolution to one of the more depressing results from New Scientist's 'God Issue' (see next post), that belief in God is innate and unlikely to go away even if false.  Perhaps as education improves, using our analytical systems will become more 'first nature' to more and more of us. 

Jesus - The Man

This is Week Five of Giford's Bible Study Programme. (I seem to have missed a week; what, can I say?  Life is tough and fate capricious.) 

they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners.

- Matthew 11:19
- Luke 7:34

Length: 1/5

Controversy: 1/5

CS Lewis famously declared that it was impossible to believe that Jesus was merely a good man. Since he claimed to be God, said Lewis, he was either lying, mad or divine. Of course, Lewis doesn't consider the first two to be sensible options (and nor has he considered the possiblity that Jesus was misquoted - more on that in future weeks but for now just note the two Gospel sources of our quote for this week).

But there is a simpler argument to show that Jesus had his faults as a human being (along with his virtues, as we all do). Jesus contrasts himself with John the Baptist, saying that people don't believe in his Messiahship just because he overeats and drinks too much. ('Publican' in this context does not mean 'innkeeper' - it means 'taxman', a particularly reviled profession at the time for many reasons but not further evidence of drinking on Jesus' part.) Unlike the abstemious John, Jesus appears to be a drunkard and a glutton - enough to shock those who knew him. He is also shown as having a temper (for instance in the famous 'moneychangers' vandalism of John 2:14-16. This might be regarded as 'righteous anger', but there are other examples we shall come to in future weeks).

The context in Matthew is interesting also. Jesus is having a bit of a rant about how people don't believe he's the Messiah. In fact, they seem to believe he is a very naughty boy (Matt 11:22-23: 'It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you ... thou ... shalt be brought down to hell.')

Far from wowing those present with his miraculous ability, Jesus seems to have been most influential among those who knew him least. His family thought him mad - Mark 3:21 'they said, He is beside himself.' and Mark 6:1-6 - and Jesus seems quite happy that the wise reject his teachings (Matt 11:25).

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Randi in Trouble

Interesting little sub-article in Fortean Times this month.  I have checked with my superiors in the Grand Liberal Conspiracy, and it seems that this in not one of ours, so I can reveal the following without fear of being hounded from my day job. 

James Randi, hero of skepticism [sic], relatively recently came out as gay and revealed that he has for long been living with a man known as Jose Luis Alvarez.  Alvarez has been involved with Randi's CSICOP and JREF organisations for some time, often posing as a 'psychic' himself to ridicule the excessively credulous. 

Now it transpires that 'the man known as Jose Luis Alvarez' is not in fact Jose Luis Alvarez at all, but one Deyvi Pena, an illegal immigrant to the USA.  This raises questions about how much Randi knew of his partner's illegal activities.  FT is (perhaps ironically) commendably sceptical on the subject, stating that:

'Pena'Alvarez's dual identity only came to light when the real Alvarez (a teacher's aide from New York) tried to take out a passport in 2010 and the federal authorities realised that someone else had already done so - using Alvarez's name, date of birth and social security number - in 1987 [...] A 1986 Toronto Star story on Randi mentions his assistant being one 'David [sic] Pen, a young man of about 20'.  This would suggest that Randi must have been aware that Pena had changed his name to Alvarez by 1988 [...] it appears that, to meet Pena's bail conditions, Randi swore under oath that he had seen Pena's Venezuelan passport years ago.' 

Further research online appears to slam-dunk the case against 'Alvarez'; a slew of witnesses who knew Pena in the 1980s have testified that photos of 'Alvarez' are the man they knew as Pena, he apparently gave conflicting statements to the police about where he was born (New York or Venezuela) and Randi, acting on his legal advice, has declined to comment on the matter but has commented that 'Alvarez' is Pena 'if that's who you think he is'. 

So far, Wikipedia appears to be silent on the subject - but it would appear that there are questions over the honesty of a sceptical great. 

Elisha and the Bears

This is Week Four of Giford's Bible Study Programme.

And he [Elisha] went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.
- 2 Kings 2:23-24
Length: 3/5
Controversy: 1/5

This was one of the verses that really shocked me when I read the Bible. There just seems to be no reason for this extreme violence. I literally had to re-read the verses and context to make sure I hadn't missed something.

Christian / Jewish Responses
We get the usual word-games here. Firstly, to question whether the Hebrew word naar really means 'children' or 'young men', usually by comparison with another verse where naar is used to describe someone clearly an adult - this is slightly dubious, since in this verse the adjective ketannim ('small', 'smallest', 'young' or 'youngest') is used before naar. Then to claim that Elisha acted correctly - 'go up' is probably a reference to Elijah ascending to heaven, and having a 'bald (shaved?) head' may (or may not) be a religious symbol as well. So the Christian (and, presumably, Jewish) response seems to be that being torn apart by bears is an appropriate punishment for adults who insult priests.

It is left to the reader to decide whether
this interpretation is significantly different from the 'literal' reading that so shocked me.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Did Jesus Exist?

One of my favourite weblosophers gives his take on whether we can reasonably say that Jesus existed:

Essentially, Law argues that while we do not have enough evidence to say with confidence that Jesus did not exist, nor do we have enough evidence to say with confidence that he did. 

I have long been sceptical of atheistic claims that Jesus did not exist - the existence of a real miracle-worker seems to me the most parsimonious way of explaining the existence of the early Christian documents and beliefs about Jesus.  However, Law does go some way to addressing some of my concerns, notably his 'principle of bracketing'.  Essentially, this says that if a high enough proportion of a story is miraculous in nature, we are not justified in separating out the non-miraculous portions and judging them by the usual standards.  The non-miraculous simply become a by-product of the miraculous, and if we are accepting that a large (miraculous) part of the story was invented from whole cloth, why should we not also accept that a smaller (non-miraculous) part was (or at least may have been) invented also? 

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Painful to Watch, But Welcome

The Church of England continues its long battle to drag itself into the 20th Century [sic].

Who Killed Goliath?

This is Week Three of Giford's Bible Study Programme.
Elhanan the son of Jaareoregim, a Bethlehemite, slew the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the staff of whose spear was like a weaver's beam.
2 Samuel 21:19
Length: 2/5
Controversy: 3/5

Simple enough, surely? The slaying of Goliath is one of the most famous OT stories outside the Book of Genesis, and at first glance this verse seems to have only a tangential bearing on it. But in fact closer study shows it to be directly relevant, and opens a whole vipers' nest of problems for a plain reading of the Bible.
The trouble is that the phrase 'brother of' simply does not appear in the Hebrew text; it was inserted by the translators to avoid a contradiction with the better-known story of David killing Goliath in 1 Samuel 17:49-51. 

Some translations (notably the footnotes to the New International Version) omit this phrase and state outright that Elhanan killed Goliath.

The fact that these two stories both appear in a single book (the splitting of the Books of Kings into 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel was done for reasons of length by the Greek translators - they are not separate works) strongly indicates that this is not the work of one single author - indeed, modern scholarship regards the Books of Samuel as being a complex mosaic of earlier documents (though this should not be confused with the Documentary Hypothesis, which applies only to the first few Books of the Old Testament). To make matters more complicated, 1 Chron 20:5 says that 'Elhanan the son of Jair slew Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite, whose spear staff was like a weaver's beam.' (The Book(s) of Chronicles are widely regarded as being late in origin, and in Jewish scripture they are placed last in the canonical order in acknowledgement of this. 'Lahmi' is likely a mistranslation of 'Bethlehemite' - i.e. Elhanan son of Jair the Bethlehemite slew the brother of Goliath.)

So we appear to have two possibilities - either Samuel originally meant that Elhanan slew Goliath's brother and the text has inexplicably been changed over the years; or we have contradictory stories in Samuel and an attempt by the Chronicler to rewrite history in order to resolve them. In either event, there are problems with the text; the second option seems both more likely and more problematic to the integrity of the text.

Other Problems with the Goliath Story

We will return to David's story in future weeks. As a side note, Samuel is also slightly confused as to whether David slew Goliath outright with the slingstone (1 Sam 17:49-50: 'David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and smote the Philistine, and slew him; but there was no sword in the hand of David.') or a sword (the very next verse: 'David ran, and stood upon the Philistine, and took his [Goliath's?] sword, and drew it out of the sheath thereof, and slew him, and cut off his head therewith.'). Again, one possible solution to this is that there are multiple sources for this story, brought together by an editor who tried to include them all. Another partial explanation is that a later editor added the name 'Goliath' to the David story to attribute to the hero David the deeds of the unknown Elhanan.

There are other problems with this section also. Although the standard texts give Goliath a height of around 2.9m (9 feet 6), some of the earlier manuscripts give 2m (6 feet 9). For anyone wondering whether Elhanan's father was called Jair or Jaareoregim, the answer is simple: the Samuel version of the name uses 'weaver' as part of the surname in an obvious scribal error. And let's not forget the unlikelihood of a superior army offering one-on-one combat as a means of resolving their dispute. Oh, or giants existing.

One thing is for certain: the text here is a mess of errors and certainly should not be taken at face value. 

Christian / Jewish Responses

There have been numerous attempt to harmonise these verses. The most usual is an insistence that the Chronicles verse justifies the alteration to the Samuel verse (acknowldegement that the text is imperfect and corrupt in Samuel presumably being the lesser of two evils). At least one source says that the contradiction in the two ways David slew Goliath is 'not important' - which again may be true, but does not change the fact that the Bible is in error about something here.

Others suggest that Elhanan is David, or that there were several giants called Goliath.