Extrange

Dear Alice

Mon, 3 Nov 2014 | norman

Dear Alice,

When we were chatting last week, I really struggled at times, because I was trying to hide some of my thoughts from you.

It has been bugging me ever since, and I need to come clean.

But I also want to explain how I got to this point. It's a long story, and I want to start at the beginning.

If I had to pick a moment when my journey began, I guess I could go with a conversation I had with Wilfred over a glass of wine, on a summer evening. I'm not sure how the conversation started, but I must have mentioned church, and I asked Wilfred which church he goes to. I thought he was an Episcopalean or something, but he said that he doesn't go that often any more.

I asked him why. He was a little hesitant, I think. He said that after a while he had grown away from the church. With a little more prodding he told me that he felt that the definition that everyone at his church used for God felt too narrow for him. I asked what he meant. He said it felt a little bit too Sunday School, and not enough grown-up. He explained that the more he thought about God, the less the traditional understanding—what he had been taught, and what the people around him at church talked about—made sense. However you understand God, your understanding must allow for the fact that children die of disease. You can't excuse that away with "free will", he said. If you belief the Bible is the word of God, you have to explain the stuff about genocide, and rape, and all the other stuff that the Bible reckons is kind of OK, but we don't think is OK any more. Why does medicine work better than prayer?

I objected. Of course prayer works. People get cured by miracles that medicine can't do. People get cured of cancer by prayer. Medicine can't do that. And the medicine we do have is because God made us clever—if it wasn't for God we wouldn't have medicine.

But Wilfred wasn't convinced. I mean, I'm not surprised. He went on about "anecdotal evidence", and "regression to the mean", and "confirmation bias". But I couldn't let it go. And the next day I e-mailed him.

Fundamentals

I still have all our e-mails. This is what I wrote.

Hi Wilfred,

Thanks for the great conversation yesterday. It would be cool if we could pick up in e-mail where we left off. Some of the things you said got me thinking, and I think you might have missed some things.

Cheers,

Rick

He replied.

Hi Rick,

Thank you for your e-mail. I'd love to continue the conversation. But I want to confirm a couple of things before we get stuck into this.

  1. You know that it is OK to question anything. Questioning something is never evil. It is just how we learn and understand things better.

  2. It is OK to admit when you don't know something. Sometimes it's harder to admit this to yourself than admit it to other people. I will never think you are stupid for not knowing something. I will only think you have the courage to say so.

  3. When you make or hear a statement, you know that there are only two ways to tell the difference between something that could be true, and something that is just made up: Logic; and evidence.

  4. The scientific method uses logic and evidence to extend our knowledge. The method is made up of four steps:

    1. Observe something you don't understand.

    2. Hypothesize an explanation.

    3. Test your hypothesis. Use the logic and evidence of the outcome of the tests to support or reject your hypothesis.

    4. Share your results, so that everyone can learn from them.

  5. The scientific method never proves a hypothesis. It can only disprove it. If someone comes up with a better hypothesis, one that allows us to make more accurate predictions, or is a simpler explanation for an observation, then the new hypothesis will trump the old hypothesis.

  6. Lastly, just a few definitions. People throw around words like "theory" and "law". I'd like to agree on some meanings. A theory is a hypothesis that has been tested thoroughly, and has a lot of evidence to support it. A law is a generalization of a bunch of observations. So a theory answers the question "why", but a law doesn't. e.g. Newton's law of gravity predicts the behaviour of objects with mass, but Einstein's general theory of relativity offers an explanation for that behaviour.

Let me know if there's anything here you disagree with. And if we're OK to get started, I'd love to learn the stuff I'm missing.

Warm regards,

Wilfred

What About Witnesses?

His reply was pretty thorough. It kind of took me by surprise, really. But Wilfred is a smart guy, and I thought he was being pretty nice about all this. I wouldn't expect anything less of him, he's probably my favourite uncle, but I've had discussions like this with friends, and they aren't always this chatty, if you know what I mean. People get pretty heated up pretty fast. I had a good feeling about talking with Wilfred though. I thought he was maybe a little patronising. But I wanted to hear what he thought about the gaps in his logic.

My biggest issue with the things he wanted to confirm was the bit about "logic" or "evidence" being the only way to decide whether something could be true. What about witnesses? Courts use witnesses all the time. You can't just disregard them.

Hi Wilfred,

I think I'm OK with everything you listed. I'm a little hesitant about two of them though.

Number 1: There might be dangerous ideas that could potentially damage you. I can't think of an example, but I've heard of people who are driven crazy by their thoughts, like Robert M. Pirsig, who was treated with electric shock therapy. But maybe that's more about the individual, and less about the thoughts.

And number 3: How do you know there aren't other ways of knowing whether something is true? What about witnesses?

You've also put a lot of emphasis on science and evidence. What about experience? What can science say about something I feel, or dream, or sense?

Cheers,

Rick

§

Hi Rick,

You raise some big topics.

Imagine an idea that could drive people crazy just by thinking it. It would make a great movie.

Regarding witnesses, a person might have many different reasons for saying they saw or heard something. Even groups of people might have different reasons for saying they heard or saw something. What establishes whether something might be true is the evidence that supports their statements, not the statements themselves.

If you can be absolutely certain of their motives, their environment, and their state of mind ... then you probably have evidence too, and don't need to rely on their testimony. I worry that courts often give too much credence to witness testimony, when we know how unreliable our own memory is.

You make a good point about experiences. Remember though that experiences are subjective, so other people should accept your experience as valid, but only valid for you—not necessarily for them. If you make a statement based on your own subjective experience, then you can't apply that statement to anyone else.

Warm regards,

Wilfred

Ding Ding Ding! Round One

I was happy to go with that. I was keen to throw him my first punch. The classic "What If You're Wrong?"

Hi Wilfred,

I can confirm the points you made. I'll agree with all that.

When we were chatting the other evening, you said you were a skeptic. You said you wanted more evidence before you'll believe. I'll work on putting together some evidence for you, but first I think there is a simpler point to make ...

What if you're wrong?

I mean there is a lot at stake here, right? If you're wrong, you burn for ever. If I'm wrong ... then one day I just won't wake up.

Wouldn't it be wiser for you just to agree with me, and play it safe?

Cheers,

Rick

§

Hi Rick,

That is a classical question. Did you know it's called "Pascal's Wager", named for a famous French mathematicial?

There are a few problems with it.

It hinges on the assumption that you only have two choices: Christianity (I'm assuming you're coming from a Christian perspective on this one) or not Christianity. But that's not the world we live in. So I could throw this back at you: What if you're wrong about Islam? Have you lost any sleep about that? Does it worry you even just a little bit? And what about Odin? Should you rather believe in the greatest god in the Norse pantheon. He's a great guy, by all accounts, and probably more easy-going when it comes to casual philosophers like us than either Yahweh or Allah. Or Marduk, the most powerful god in the Babylonian pantheon, or Zeus, or ... well you get the idea. If you're wrong about any of those, not to mention the thousands of other religions, you're just as screwed as me.

But for the sake of discussion, let's assume Yahweh is the real god. And let's imagine I go with your suggestion, and live my life as if He exists. If I go to church, and I pray, and I tithe, and I live a pious and observant life, and then I die, do you think Yahweh will not know that I was just going through the motions, but I never really believed in Him? If I ask you to pretend to believe in unicorns because your eternal soul depends on it, would you be able to convince yourself that they exist, or would you just be pretending? I don't believe for a moment that I'd be able to fool God. He'd see right through me, wouldn't He?

I don't think Pascal's Wager really offers us a valid choice. It ignores the thousands of competing religions, and it assumes that you'll get away with lying to God about your true beliefs if you are lucky enough to guess right.

Your question makes me wonder. Was Pascal's Wager the thought process that lead you to Christianity? Which particular Christian beliefs do you subscribe to? And how did you choose them?

Warm regards,

Wilfred

What I Believe

Well, Alice, after that I felt my first blow had been deflected. But I thought Wilfred's points were valid—I didn't feel bad about it—I'd learned something. And what's more, he seemed interested in what I believed. I felt encouraged.

Hi Wilfred,

No, I'm not a Christian because of Pascal's Wager. As you know, I went to church since I was a kid. It's been a journey, though. My beliefs have changed over the years, and who's to say they won't continue to change?

Let me give my position on the hot topics: creation, marriage equality, and abortion.

I believe that the universe and the world was created over a long period of time; 13.8 billion years. But I believe God not only began the process of creation, but that it's an ongoing process; He guided evolution so that it resulted in us, and He continues to influence the world all the time.

I don't believe that God meant humans to be gay. I think some humans are born with congenital diseases, and I don't know why, but I think it's tragic. Similarly some humans are born with a tendency to be attracted to the same sex, but I don't think that God wants them to practice homosexuality. If heterosexuality is not an option for them, then I think God must mean for them to abstain; to focus their energies on other things.

But not all gay people are Christians. While I would not condone their choices, I do think they have a right to make those choices. We live in a country where people are free to make their own lifestyle choices, and I support that freedom. We allow Hindus to marry according to Hindu tradition, and Muslims to marry according to Muslim tradition. If gay people want to get married, as long as they are not trying to change the Christian tradition to accommodate their own wishes against the wishes of other Christians, I think they should be free to get married. Gay marriage is not Christian marriage, but if they want to make it a thing, that's their business, and they should be free to do that.

Abortion is different though. Gay marriage is a matter between two consenting people but abortion is not consensual. One person is killing another person. I appreciate that it's a tricky issue, because the unborn person is making huge demands on their mother. But I think all debate is settled by the fact that it is a person who is innocent, and has not voluntarily given up its right to life. You can choose to decide that personhood begins at some arbitrary later stage, but that's an arbitrary choice. There are only two moments that are not arbitrary; birth and conception, and considering that the moment before the umbilical cord is broken a baby is the same person as the moment after, choosing the moment of conception seems to be obvious to me.

I hope that answers your question. My beliefs about abortion I'm sure are the same as every other Christian. And my other beliefs about Christianity are also, I'm sure, the same as every other Christian, so I don't think there'll be anything unusual for you there.

Can I just say that I'm really enjoying being able to chat with you about this stuff.

Cheers,

Rick

§

Hi Rick,

Thanks for your answers. You explained yourself well. But I was actually hoping for more about the "usual" stuff. I like your thinking about gay marriage, and I don't really want to chat about abortion—I think it's a bit of a red herring at this stage—but tell me about God. You might be surprised to know that among Christians, not all believe in a literal resurrection, or even a literal God. I'm curious about the things you say "every other Christian" believes.

I don't really want to get side-tracked with "Is a Christian who doesn't believe in a literal resurrection really a Christian". I'm not so interested in what people call themselves. I'm just interested in your beliefs.

Maybe it'll help to start off with the Creed. I'd love to know how you interpret this, which you're probably quite familiar with:

We believe in one God,
    the Father, the Almighty,
    maker of heaven and earth,
    of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
    the only Son of God,
    eternally begotten of the Father,
    God from God, Light from Light,
    true God from true God,
    begotten, not made,
    of one Being with the Father.
    Through him all things were made.
    For us and for our salvation
        he came down from heaven:
    by the power of the Holy Spirit
        he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
        and was made man.
    For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
        he suffered death and was buried.
        On the third day he rose again
            in accordance with the Scriptures;
        he ascended into heaven
            and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
   He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
        and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
    who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
    With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
    He has spoken through the Prophets.
    We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
    We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
    We look for the resurrection of the dead,
        and the life of the world to come. Amen.

I'm sure you'll find that going through this word-for-word is tedious, so maybe just talk me through the bits that jump out for you.

Kind regards,

Wilfred

§

Hi Wilfred,

Wow. OK. I'll see what I can do.

I do believe in a God that literally exists. Of course He isn't physical though; He created the physical universe, and so He isn't physical Himself.

We know from the Gospel of John that Jesus was part of the creation process; that the Word of God is instrumental in how God created the universe. Genesis is an explanation in terms that we can understand of something more complicated. It had to explain the creation of the universe in a way that bronze-age people would understand.

Jesus is the perfect physical representation of God. That is why Mary must have been a virgin; because God was showing us that Jesus did not have any of Joseph's DNA. He didn't have any of Mary's either—He is 100% God.

I believe Jesus literally died, and then literally came back to life. His resurrected body was supernatural; He could be both physical and spiritual at will.

God doesn't have a physical right hand; but Jesus is with the Father, and has metaporical pride of place in heaven. One day He will return, and establish God's kingdom, which I think will probably be a spiritual reality but I don't know.

I believe these things because I trust the Bible. That is a conscious choice.

I hope that is the kind of answer you were looking for.

Cheers,

Rick

Trust

I was really looking forward to seeing what Wilfred had to say. He took a few days to reply, and I was a little surprised by his response, but I guess I shouldn't have been.

Hi Rick,

This is exactly the kind of answer I was looking for. This is great.

I have a whole lot of little questions to ask, but only two big questions. I'll worry about the little questions later. The big questions, I think, are much more important.

Firstly, I like that your choice was a conscious one. I've heard that true love is not a feeling; it's a decision. And choosing a religion is potentially much more important than choosing who to love. Love potentially lasts until death, but religions claim to last forever. And as we've already discussed, you could be tortured forever if you make the wrong choice. So my question is, of all the books out there to choose, why did you choose the Bible?

And my second question is closely related: Why does trusting the Bible make the things you believe true? A lot of people who chose the Bible still believe different things—some slightly different, like whether Adam was literal or mythological, and some extremely different, like whether the resurrection was literal or metaphorical. How do you know that they're wrong and you're right? Very, very few Christians take the entire Bible literally; so how do you know which bits are literal, which are metaphor (like the parables, for example), which are allegory (like the story of Jonah perhaps), which are myth (Adam and Eve maybe), and which are just illustrations of people making mistakes so that you might learn from them (like, perhaps, the examples of genocide and the annihilation of cities in the Old Testament)?

Warm regards,

Wilfred

These are not easy questions! Alice, I'm kind of curious how you would answer those. I've got to admit, I felt like I'd just been thrown in the deep end. I asked Google, "Why should we trust the Bible?". And the problem was that Google replied with a range of sites, from ones I agreed with, to ones I really didn't, like if you trust the Bible then you should believe that the Earth is only 8000 years old (or whatever). Well, I did what I could, and this is what I wrote back:

Hi Wilfred,

There is a lot more concensus on what the Bible means than you might think. Sure you get your outliers, but if I would guess what percentage of Christians agree that the resurrection is literal, I'd guess close to 99%.

There is a huge amount of evidence supporting the Bible: Thousands of manuscripts, and third-party corroboration of famous Bible characters like Pontius Pilate and King Herod.

Regarding which bits are literal and which figurative, I am not a theologian. I must defer to experts who study the Bible. But there seems to be a majority consensus on a lot of these things. The Vatican agrees with both evolution and the big bang theory of the origin of the universe. It supports a literal resurrection, but not a literal Adam.

So, to answer your two questions: I chose the Bible because of the overwhelming evidence for it. And I accept which bits are literal and which are figurative based on the consensus of experts who have studied it.

Cheers,

Rick

Evidence and Experts

I thought I'd done quite well, considering the gravity of the questions Wilfred had thrown me.

Wilfred's reply was the start of a personal project that took me a long time. I think I can even break it into two stages, although they kind of overlapped. First, I watched a lot of videos and read a lot of books. And then I did a lot of thinking. You might think that the thinking happened at the same time, but the "Stage Two" thinking was a different kind. When you watch a video of a debate with Christian apologist William Lane Craig the thinking you do is about the debate. But "Stage Two" thinking is really thinking about yourself. I thought about myself over months and years. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Let me start with Wilfred's reply.

Hi Rick,

I expected you might say something like that.

About the evidence for the Bible. I want you to read some of the work of Bible scholars who, as a result of what they learned by studying the Bible, no longer believe that they used to believe and what you currently believe. Please read the work of Bart Ehrman. Also read Richard Carrier. The two of them both write well. They agree on some things and disagree on others. It's important to know what they agree on and why, and what they disagree on and why. Perhaps read David Fitzgerald's book "Nailed", which he wrote because he started with the same beliefs that Bart Ehrman has now, and as a result of his research changed his mind to end up agreeing with Richard Carrier.

I'm also not an expert, but it seems to me that not only is the evidence not as strong as you think, many of those who say that it is might be saying so for one of two reasons: They have too much at stake to evaluate the evidence with sufficient depth or honesty to themselves; or they have evaluated the evidence thoroughly, and they have too much at stake to be honest with other people about their findings. In other words, expecting Christians who have made a career out of studying the Bible to change their minds if they find that the Bible is not the inerrant Word of God is a lot to ask of them, and they will either never allow themselves to reach that conclusion, or if they do they just can't tell you that.

There is even a foundation called The Clergy Project, for clergy who, for whatever reason, cannot be honest about what they really think. Maybe they have family who rely on them to remain clergy. Things can get complicated, and telling everyone your deepest secrets might not always be the right thing to do. The fact that such a foundation exists, and seems to be well populated, should give you pause. They are the experts you talk about, but they've changed their minds. What is it that they know that you don't know? Don't you have a duty to yourself to learn more?

About what to interpret literally, and what to interpret figuratively, I see that what you have done here is appeal to authority. Saying "I'm not an expert, so I'm going to go with the experts." I think is fair enough ... but, as I've just mentioned, some of those experts might not be telling you what they truly believe.

The difference between consulting an expert and the fallacy of "appealing to authority" is evidence. Remember what I asked you to agree with right at the start of our e-mail conversation? This is where it's important. It's all very well that there is third-party corroboration that Pontius Pilate was a real guy, or that King Herod ruled Judea from 37 BC to 4 BC. But that doesn't help us figure out whether Jesus was really dead, and then was really alive again. It doesn't even tell us whether Jesus was a real guy, or some kind of metaphorical character representing a biblical interpretation of a Hellenistic Jewish mystery cult. Can you point me to the evidence that your experts are using to support their belief?

... Actually, before you show me the evidence, first read Fitzgerald's "Nailed", because it's quite likely that your evidence comes up in his book.

When you do your reading, I'd like you to mull over something: You are not a Christian—you are a person who currently holds Christian beliefs. But your beliefs are not your identity. Beliefs change all the time, and that's a good thing. But you'll still be you, no matter how many times you change your mind about something.

Let me know how you get on. I'd love to hear your thoughts on these things.

Kind regards,

Wilfred

§

Hi Wilfred,

Thank you for the book recommendations. I'll start with David Fitzgerald. I see the full title of his book is "Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed At All". That's a pretty bold claim! I'd love to see what evidence he comes up with to support that.

One other thing. It would be a mistake to leave out that Christians believe what they do because of faith. Hebrews 11 defines faith as follows: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."

That doesn't mean believing blindly. It means trusting in God that He will make good on His promises. The chapter continues with examples of people from the Bible who placed their trust in God, like Noah, Abraham and Moses.

God promises eternal life through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus. That is what we trust in, and it makes no sense if His sacrifice didn't actually happen.

Cheers,

Rick

§

Hi Rick,

How much of the Bible have you read? Read the whole thing, paying close attention to the bits that they skip in Sunday School, like how God kills 42 kids just for teasing Elijah (2 Kings 2:23-24), or considers a bat to be a kind of bird (Levitcus 11:13-19).

And read the gospels side by side. Mark's Jesus has a completely different personality to John's Jesus. It's hard to believe that they're writing about the same guy.

It also makes the most astonishing claims, and we have insufficient evidence to support those claims. So I don't think the Bible is trustworthy at all.

Any religion that does not have enough evidence to support its claims relies on faith, whether that's faith as in thinking to yourself "I hear God myself, and He is trustworthy", or faith as in someone else telling you "trust me, I can hear God, and this is what He said", or faith as in just believing or trusting in things you don't have enough evidence for. They all amount to the same thing—insufficient evidence currently to make a reliable choice. And every religion promotes faith as a virtue, and as something that is rewarded, because no religion has enough evidence to support the supernatural claims it makes. Well, as we know from the fundamentals we agreed on earlier, we only know things based on logic and evidence. The only religion I could support is one that does not require faith. Faith is not a virtue. At best, it's a cognitive bias.

Let me know how you get on. And remember that I am here for your questions, and I will support whatever you find. I am very curious to learn anything you discover—I love changing my mind. I've done it often.

Warm regards,

Wilfred

So I did some reading. And then watched some debates on YouTube. (And googled "cognitive bias".) And then I did a lot of thinking.

How I Think and Who I Am

We all have cognitive biases. So many come to mind now. For example, we are really bad at thinking about probabilities. Did you know ten times as many people are killed by hippos than by sharks? And yet we are a lot more afraid of sharks than hippos.

I think badly. We all do. There is a thing that we do called "magical thinking". When I was at school, I used to wear my favourite underwear when I wrote exams. "Lucky underpants". It's hilarious when I think about it now, but at the time I thought my underwear had some kind of effect on how well I did—I didn't think about it in those terms, but that's really the bottom line: If I wore lucky underpants I'd get better marks. How did I think that was going to work? How were my underpants going to affect my grades? It's not possible, is it? And yet, I wore them.

There is another thing we do, called "confirmation bias". Confirmation bias is something our brains do without us even noticing. They draw to our attention those objects or events that confirm a belief or an idea or even just something we've been thinking about. Have you noticed, when you buy a new pair of shoes, that you notice other people's shoes more than normal? Or when you buy a car, suddenly you see all the other cars like yours on the road—much more so than before you thought of buying a car? That is confirmation bias.

It is how astrology works. You read a horoscope. It tells you something about the future in some wishy-washy kind of way. When something happens that could be considered to match that wishy-washy description, your brain draws it to your attention, and you go "Wow! Did you see that? It was true!" I've never gone in for astrology, but that exact experience has happened to me for other things, and it happens to you too.

For my whole life I defined myself based on what I believed. "I am a liberal" or "I am a Christian" or "I am a progressive". Like how my beliefs are somehow who I am. But I've come to agree with Wilfred, that's wrong. I will always be me, but my beliefs will change—they should change—as I learn new things.

That took me a long time to work through for myself. It's one of the things I wish I'd learned when I was small. It's not complicated, and I've realised it's very important.

Wilfred was clever—he never told me the answers. He just encouraged me to find them for myself.

So I'm not sure I should tell you what I found. Maybe you should go and look for yourself.

But I do need to explain what I set out to tell you right at the start: Because of the things I've learned ... not just the answers I've found, but also the answers I expected to find that I've discovered are not even out there, I don't believe what I used to. I don't believe what you do.

I believe that if we're honest to ourselves, and if we care about being honest to the people we love, then it is our duty to find out as much about this as possible. We have to look at it all skeptically, because making up your mind first, and then just trying to find evidence to support what you've already decided, is dishonest, and cowardly.

So for now, until I can find enough evidence, I would have to say that I am Rick, a person who does not believe the claims made by the Bible. I am not defined by my beliefs—I am defined by my character: I am courageous enough to follow the evidence, even if it leads me away from my most cherished beliefs. I am honest to myself. And now, Alice, I am honest to you too.

I'm going to end on a question for you, and the same challenge Wilfred gave me: Are you courageous? Are you honest to yourself? Maybe start the way I did, with Fitzgerald's book. I'll lend you my copy. Watch videos about this on YouTube. Google stuff. Follow the evidence. Be skeptical.

And if you find enough evidence to support what you believe today, please, tell me what it is, and I will change my mind again.

But know that no matter what you learn, I will always be here to listen to you. And if there is anything else I can do for you, just let me know. I love you for who you are, not for what you believe.

Lots of love,

Rick

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