Books


The God Delusion is Dawkins’ evangelistic primer on modern atheism, making the case for atheism as rational, moral, brave, and fulfilling. I accept this basic case. There are many good arguments which justify atheism (but many that justify theism, too). Certainly, atheists can be moral; indeed, atheists have a much lower divorce rate and crime rate than religious people. Atheism is surely one of the bravest public stances to take, especially in the United States where atheists are trusted and accepted far less than even Muslims and homosexuals. And despite Neitzchian arguments for the absurdity of life without God, millions of atheists report happiness, meaning, and fulfillment, and I have no reason to disbelieve them.

Writing a beginner’s book, Dawkins necessarily spends many words debunking common myths and presenting atheism on its own terms. It takes him 9 pages to explain that Einstein was not a theist, several more to explain that the U.S. founding fathers were mostly deists and atheists, and still more to define agnosticism vs. atheism. His 8 pages on the privledge of religion in U.S. society are more interesting (one can get away with hate speech by calling it freedom of religion, one is allowed to challenge any stance but a religious stance, etc.).

Like most theistic apologetic books for the layman, The God Delusion compares the worst of its enemy (theism) to the best of its cause (atheism). Dawkins does not mention the serious theist free thinkers and philosophers, genuinely selfless theist servants of humanity, the common theist who gives and loves as she can, etc. He does spend a lot of time on the most irrational and absurd (and unfortunately, the most popular) claims of general theism – which argues against the beliefs of more than a billion people, but in response to serious theist thinkers he mostly attacks straw men.

Dawkins makes some good points about NOMA, the idea that the lack of evidence for God is excused because science cannot adjudicate spiritual matters. A universe with a God would look very different than a universe without a God, and indeed this is what theists claim. Thus, science should have something to say about the likelihood of God’s existence, just as it has something to say about the likelihood of there being unicorns or a magical teapot orbiting earth. And of course, when scientific evidence supports theist claims, theists build it up like a holy grail. But philosophy, of course, has even greater access to questions of metaphysics (via a partnership with science and other disciplines of course), and Dawkins is no philosopher.

This is quite clear in chapter 3, in which Dawkins pretends to debunk all major philosophical arguments for God’s existence that have been offered throughout history in 33 pages. The chapter is as effective as it sounds.

His primary argument against God is not, surprisingly, the Problem of Evil, but rather what he calls the Ultimate Boeing 747 argument. Hoyle argued that the likelihood of [insert complex organic system here] forming by chance is akin to the likelihood of a windstorm blowing through a scrapyard and building a Boeing 747. Dawkins rightly points out that natural selection is not pure chance at all; but heavily guided design of a natural sort. He goes on to say that whatever the improbability of, say, life coming from non-life, it is vastly more improbable that a living being of infinite complexity such as God should arise from nothing. God is the ‘Ultimate’ Boeing 747. This is a great way of demonstrating the inconsistency of intelligent design and irreducible complexity arguments, but again Dawkins attacks straw men: while naturalists do claim that life came from non life, theists do not claim that God came from nothing. Rather, they claim that God has always existed. As paradoxical as this sounds, it is perhaps no less paradoxical than the recent findings of quantum mechanics, and thousands of pages of philosophy have been written to support it (and deflate it). Furthermore, such infinite material complexity (i.e. if God is material) is indeed the most improbable thing ever conceived, but again Dawkins attacks a straw man; theists have not claimed that God is a material entity.

Dawkins’ vehement rhetorical attacks have all the intellectual substance of George W. Bush. His arguments of sarcasm and anecdote against straw men are not convincing. But despite my objections to The God Delusion, I am grateful to atheist evangelists like Dawkins. They challenge blindly held ideas and promote free thought.

Midway through the book, Dawkins plays to his strengths: clarifying evolutionary processes, extolling their beauty, and using them to explain phenomenon like the birth and mutating spread of religion. Then he returns to his vehement attack on religion, religious society, religious education, religious morality, and more. He makes many good points, but they are so jumbled in rhetoric and volume that I doubt disentangling the mess would be worth the energy it would require.

I’ll conclude with an extended quote which illustrates the timbre of Dawkins’ book: snarky and humorous and without any real argumentative continuity:

All religious beliefs seem weird to those not brought up in them. [Anthropologist Pascal] Boyer did research on the Fang people of Cameroon, who believe “that witches have an extra internal animal-like organ that flies away at night and ruins other people’s crops or poisons their blood. It is also said that these witches some- times assemble for huge banquets, where they devour their victims and plan future attacks. Many will tell you that a friend of a friend actually saw witches flying over the village at night, sitting on a banana leaf and throwing magical darts at various unsuspecting victims.”

[Compare this with]:

• In the time of the ancestors, a man was born to a virgin mother with no biological father being involved.
• The same fatherless man called out to a friend called Lazarus, who had been dead long enough to stink, and Lazarus promptly came back to life.
• The fatherless man himself came alive after being dead and buried three days.
• Forty days later, the fatherless man went up to the top of a hill and then disappeared bodily into the sky.
• If you murmur thoughts privately in your head, the fatherless man, and his ‘father’ (who is also himself) will hear your thoughts and may act upon them. He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world.
• If you do something bad, or something good, the same fatherless man sees all, even if nobody else does. You may be rewarded or punished accordingly, including after your death.
• The fatherless man’s virgin mother never died but ‘ascended’ bodily into heaven.
• Bread and wine, if blessed by a priest (who must have testicles), ‘become’ the body and blood of the fatherless man.

I’m feeling silly today, so I’m going to list… my favorite gospels!

My favorite gospel is Luke‘s. First, because of it’s historicity. I’m fairly certain it actually was written by Luke the physician, companion of Paul. The author uses “we” when describing his journeys with Paul in the second half of the work (Acts) and shares much doctrinal phraseology with Paul’s letters. In addition, all extant 2nd century theologians agreed on Lucan authorship. It is also the easiest to date of all the gospels. Second, because of its content. It is Luke’s gospel which contains the beautiful parables, the socially radical Jesus, and the unusual attention paid to women.

My second favorite gospel is Matthew‘s. Though not as historically sound as Luke’s, this gospel does portray a socially radical Jesus and contains the best version of the momentous Sermon on the Mount.

My third favorite gospel is Mark‘s. The writing is poor and the story bare-bones, but Mark’s gospel is a breeze to read and also likable as the earliest extant gospel.

My least favorite canonical gospel is John‘s. It’s much later than the others and far less historically sound. But also, it shares little with the other three gospels and spends far too much time on theological diversions. It’s also a bit anti-Semitic and Gnostic. And, no parables or exorcisms!

Other gospels are less interesting, except in pieces. For example, the talking cross in the Gospel of Peter and the entertaining stories of a young, rascally Jesus in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

Fun, fun, silly willy!

Letters from a Skeptic chronicles Greg Boyd’s correspondence with his father’s questions about Christianity. Boyd’s answers to some of life’s toughest questions are brief and encouraging but of course incomplete. Here I will summarize his answers to the questions I found most challenging:

Why is the world so full of suffering?

Love without freedom is not love, and freedom without freedom to help or hurt others is not freedom. In free world, there are Warren Buffets and Hitlers. But is it worth it? It is the nature of love to hurt. “People reject us, they die, kids rebel, etc… If a person never loved, he’d never suffer. But then again, he’d never really live.” God is in the same position, on a cosmic scale. Love is the only reason worth creating, and it is very risky – for God and for us.

What about earthquakes and famines?

Famines are mostly caused by human evil discussed above: there’s plenty of food in the world. Earthquakes & company are the natural consequence of God creating anything less than himself. Things must possess certain characteristics that rule out possessing other characteristics. “The rock which holds you up must also be hard enough for you to stub your toe on it.” The natural world is limited because it is real, not because it is evil. Evil spiritual forces may also be at work, but we don’t know much about them.

What’s the point of prayer?

The main purpose of prayer is to build a relationship. Petitionary prayer may represent our bit of “say-so” in the spiritual realm (just as we have say-so in the physical realm). But prayer doesn’t always work; God is not a cosmic vending machine. Many forces interact: free wills, prayer, evil forces, and natural forces. God doesn’t usually override all these because that wouldn’t be a free world.

Why do you think Jesus actually rose from the dead?

1. The Resurrection is attested by three independent sources (the Synoptic gospels, John, and Paul) within 70 years of Jesus’ death (compare to, say, Buddha, whose first biography was written a millenia after his death).
2. Everyone knew where Jesus was buried. One could have easily proved the disciples wrong about Christ’s resurrection by simply digging up Christ’s body.
3. The resurrection accounts lack characteristics of myth. For example, there is much irrelevant and easily falsifiable detail (the name of the Sanhedrin member who donated Jesus’ tomb, etc.) There is also counter-productive material (which myths usually lack), for example the role of women (who were considered incurable liars) in the story.
4. Paul converted because of his conversion with the risen Christ. Why else would a persecutor of Christians join them, and why would he lie about the nature of his conversion?

[My note: The resurrection of Jesus is far from proven, but it does have far more historical support than any other resurrection in history.]

Why does God make believing in Him so difficult?

Even stupendous events can be explained away or forgotten. Even after the plagues, Egypt did not worship God. And Jesus’ miracles could be dismissed as tricks. Moreover, the world is incredibly complex because of the interactions mentioned above, and so there is as much evidence for evil and chaos as there is for a benevolent God.

[Unforunately, Boyd’s answers about the inspired-ness of Scripture and how a loving God could let whole civilizations go to hell because nobody told them about God are unsatisfactory to me, and I won’t reproduce them.]

I’ve been on a journey to rediscover the true Jesus. I wanted a fresh encounter with Jesus unencumbered by 2000 years of theological engineering and religious propaganda.

Resources for my journey included1: two 12-hour lecture series by agnostic Bart Ehrman: From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity and Historical Jesus; the four canonical gospels, which I read while doing my best to filter out all my indoctrination and pay attention to the actual words and deeds of Jesus; The Challenge of Jesus by Anglican scholar N.T. Wright; and The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide by Protestant theologians Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz.

My journey enflamed the mystery of Jesus and Christianity, which must always be the result of eschewing indoctrination for an authentic investigation that respects multiple viewpoints. Now, let me share a few highlights of my frustrating journey.

Jesus vs. Paul

Jesus preached repentance and preparation for the coming Kingdom of God. But Paul (and subsequent Christianity) preached something very different: the death and resurrection of Jesus as the salvation of mankind. Jesus was entirely Jewish: he quoted Jewish Scriptures, observed Jewish law and custom, trained and taught as a Jewish rabbi, and said that “…until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter… will disappear from the Law.” But Paul preached that Gentiles should, in fact, not follow many Jewish laws. And Christianity has historically placed as much or more emphasis on the teachings of Paul than on the teachings of Jesus. My dad put it this way: We’ve been reading Jesus through the tone and structures of Paul. Perhaps we should be reading Paul through the words and deeds of Jesus instead.

Problematic gospels

The gospels are not necessarily problematic for people using them to support views about God or the best way to live; and indeed, most Christians are principally concerned with using the gospels to inform their theology and ethics, not to build viable arguments about the historical Jesus. But the gospels are immediately problematic for someone seeking to discover who Jesus actually was and what Jesus actually did.

Of course, the gospels were not written as historical records, but as proclamations about Jesus. And they were written by ancient monotheists, who were often more concerned with symbolism, tradition, and meaning than with rational, historical accuracy as we are today. So it is not surprising that the gospels are often contradictory or spurious.

Make a list of the events of each gospel, compare them, and you will find many general similarities. You will also find agreement between them and other independent sources, for example the writings of Paul. But you will also find many differences.

Many of these differences can be reconciled by recognizing that no gospel is a complete record of Jesus’ life. For example, Mark wrote2 that Jesus, Pilot, the Jewish leaders, and the crowd were in one place during Jesus’ very short trial, during which Jesus spoke only a few words. In John’s account, the Jewish leaders refused to enter Pilot’s headquarters because they didn’t want to be defiled just before Passover. So, Pilot walked in and out of his headquarters throughout the trial to speak with the Jewish leaders and then Jesus, who gave two long speeches. Christians reconcile these accounts by saying that Mark’s gospel is merely incomplete, and doesn’t bother to record Pilot’s many trips back and forth or Jesus’ long speeches. This may not be correct, but it is one way to argue that both accounts can be true even though they seem very different.

Another way to reconcile differences between gospel accounts is to claim that an event actually happened twice. Mark wrote that Jesus threw money changers out of the temple in the last week of his life, and John wrote that Jesus did this at the beginning of his ministry. To reconcile these different accounts, one may claim that Jesus threw money changers out of the temple at least twice, and that Mark recorded one such instance, and John recorded an earlier instance.

But many gospel differences are impossible to reconcile. For example, Mark wrote that Jesus was crucified on the day of Passover, and John wrote that Jesus was crucified the day before. We cannot say that Jesus was crucified twice. Scholars speculate that John placed Jesus’ crucifixion on the day before Passover because that fits with his image of Jesus as the Lamb of God. John is the only gospel author to repeatedly call Jesus the Lamb of God, and he reinforced this image by placing Jesus’ death on the day before Passover: the “day of preparation” during which Jewish priests slaughtered lambs for the upcoming Passover meal. In this way, John showed that Jewish leaders slaughtered Jesus on the same day they slaughtered lambs for Passover, and for the same symbolic purpose (atonement).

This manipulation of truth for symbolic, ritual, or numerological meaning was common among monotheistic authors. One example is Matthew’s genealogy. After opening his book with several “begats”, Matthew remarked that there were 14 generations between each of four critical events in Jewish history (Abraham, David, Babylonian exile, and Jesus). This fits with the systematic, numerical, and Hebraic emphasis throughout this gospel. But the author has manipulated the truth to support his bias. First, Matthew named only 13 generations from the Babylonian exile to Jesus. Second, though he named 14 generations from Abraham to David, there were actually 17 (see the opening chapters of 1 Chronicles). That Jewish authors often manipulated truth to achieve a religious or symbolic effect makes them less insidious but their writings no less historically suspect.

Also, many gospel accounts do not agree with other historical sources. For example, Luke wrote that Joseph traveled to the hometown (Bethlehem) of his ancestor from 1000 years ago (King David) for a census during the reign of King Herod, while Quirinius was governor of Syria. But other historical sources claim that Quirinius was not governor until 10 years after Herod’s death. (Nevermind the absurdity of Emperor Augustus demanding a census of the whole Roman Empire requiring mass migrations of all people to the hometown of their 1000-year ancestors, an epic and unprecedented event that is not recorded in any other historical source.)

As we can see, a close look at the gospels reveals several irreconcilable differences between accounts, an authorial tradition of writing for religious effect at the cost of historical accuracy, and many historically implausible events. The examples given above are just a few of many concrete instances of these three types of problems with the gospels. All this makes an investigation of the historical Jesus through even the canonical gospels – our best sources on the life of Jesus – very difficult and insecure.

The Historical Jesus

Historical investigations use three basic criteria to determine the probability of recorded events. First, independent attestation. If an event is recorded in multiple independent sources, it is more likely to have occurred. For example, every source (Christian, Jewish, pagan) records that Jesus was crucified. Second, dissimilarity. If a recorded event does not support the bias of the author, it is more likely to have occurred (because the author wouldn’t invent stories that don’t support his bias). For example, Jesus being from Nazareth does not support the bias of any Christian or Jewish authors, because prophecies place the Messiah in Bethlehem, and Nazareth was small and insignificant (hardly a birthplace for the Messiah). Third, contextual credibility. If a recorded event does not agree with other historical sources, it is less likely to have occurred. Examples include the gospel discrepancies and the notes on Quirinius, Herod, and the Augustus census above.

Applying these three criteria, and understanding that earliest sources are most valuable – less likely to have suffered telephone game effects (or deliberate corruption) during oral tradition before they were finally written – we might find that the following summary is the most likely story of the historical Jesus3.

Jesus was raised a Jew in Nazareth by Joseph, a low-class laborer, and Mary. He had siblings, spoke Aramaic, and read Hebrew scriptures. He began adult ministry with his baptism by John the Baptist. He took 12 disciples, preached radical ethics, and called for repentence in preparation for a coming kingdom of God. He publicly associated with women, sinners and outcasts. In rural Galilee, he became known as a teacher, healer, miracle-worker, and exorciser. He travelled to Jerusalem, ate a meal with his disciples, was betrayed to Jewish leaders by Judas Iscariot, was tried before Pontious Pilot, and was crucified. Those who believed he was resurrected spread the story of Jesus rapidly about the Mediterranean.

This looks fine until you notice the events that have been specifically excluded because of their failure to pass historical criteria: virgin birth, Bethlehem, a shining star, wise men, teen teaching at the temple, Jesus’ divinity, dozens of miracles, parables, the resurrection, etc.

Miracles like virgin birth and walking on water present a particular problem for historians. Historians seek most probable events. Because miracles are, by definition, highly improbable, a miracle can never, for a historian, be the most probable truth about a particular event4. This can be seen as a special case of historical criterion #3: Jesus walking on water does not conform at all to the known history of Jesus’ context (people could not walk on water). In this way, historical investigation is ipso facto incapable of determining the veracity of miracles, just as scientific means are ipso facto incapable of investigating the supernatural. Unfortunately, this has not stopped some historians from pretending they have something to say about miracles, or some scientists from pretending they have something to say about the supernatural.

Conclusion

What is my response? Naturally, we need not throw out all Scripture because it contains errors. We don’t do this with anything else, anyway (if we did, we’d have no viable school textbooks at all). But all this (along with innumerable errors throughout the whole Bible) seems to indicate that the Bible is not the direct word of omniscient God, but of course the work of biased, fallible humans. There is much wisdom and truth in the Bible, but it is dangerous to assume the Bible is historically accurate, and it is dangerous to exegete doctrine from a single passage, especially if that passage does not agree with other accounts. And so, there is much about Jesus’ life and teaching that is in doubt.

Still, a coherant image of Jesus emerges from Scripture. He becons us to join in the current and coming Kingdom of God through sacrificial love for all, a divorce from materialism, faith in God, and continual servanthood. And he points us to communion with God, through which we will come to know God and experience him in obedience.

1 See this page for a nice list of other good sources, and a (very biased) summary of the historical Jesus and early Christianity. Bart Ehrman’s lectures were very informative but employed inconsistent logic. My reading of the gospels only reinforced the many discrepancies among them. The Challenge of Jesus had some value, but it explored the meaning of Jesus’ words and deeds in their original context given that the gospels are consistent and accurate, which of course they are not. My favorite source was The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, a convenient summary of all major historical research and opinions on the historical Jesus.
2 Actually, the canonical gospels are anonymous, but I say that “Mark wrote that…” instead of “the gospel traditionally attributed to Mark recorded that…” for brevity’s sake.
3 A full investigation of the historicity of every recorded event about Jesus fills many scholarly volumes, and is the subject of large research teams and vast databases.
4 This is true despite the fact that millions of people experience and witness miracles every year. That makes it sound like miracles are common, but they are incredibly uncommon compared to events that agree with natural processes. For every disease suddenly healed, there are a million more diseases that go through their natural progression. This is why we can say that the chance of any particular miracle happening is infintessimally small, and therefore historians cannot name any miracle as a “most probable” true event in history.

Roy Hession’s The Calvary Road (1964) was recommended to me by thirdfloorthoughts in response to my brokenness post. Now, I was talking about unwilled brokenness that comes through confusion and sin, and The Calvary Road concerns the willed brokenness that comes through death to self. But I am happy to have read it anyway.

It is a short book, and Hession has a wonderful way of making the Christian journey seem simple and, perhaps, obvious. We may think of our path of sanctification as one of weekly, daily, hourly brokenness before God. Whenever selfishness, anger, fear, or anything that is not of God rises in our heart or mind, we simply return our thoughts to the cross and ask God to break us again so that it is not we that live, but He in us: “People imagine that dying to self make one miserable. But it is just the opposite. It is the refusal to die to self that makes one miserable.”

Somehow I suspect that Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony is a superb book, but I can’t say because much of it went over my head. Two leading theologians lambaste Christian culture and ministry and argue for an alternative vision based not on worldly relevance and personal psychology, but on the radical way of Jesus lived as a colony of aliens resident in the world. These are ideas that excite me, but this book was not, for me, a very accessible presentation of them. I suspect students and graduates of theology will have a better time with it.

Like Freakonomics, The Armchair Economist applies the investigative techniques of economics to answer everyday questions. I think a quoted passage may reveal why I find such books delightful.

Last night my wife and I could not decide which movie to see. She leaned toward Cries and Whispers and I to Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-rama [Luke’s note: yes, this actually exists]. We agreed that the person with the stronger preference – expressed in dollar terms – should prevail. The problem was to determine whose preference was stronger. The problem was compounded because we were both perfectly willing to lie to get our way.

Here is what we did. We each wrote our bid on a piece of paper. The high bidder got to choose the movie but was required to make a charitable contribution equal to the loser’s bid.

It was worth exactly $8 to me to get my way. Because winning meant paying the amount of my wife’s bid, I hoped that I would win if my wife bid less than $8 and that I would lose if she bid more. I was able to insure this outcome by bidding exactly $8. In other words, my own purely selfish motives led me to make an honest revelation. My wife did the same, and the person with the stronger preference won…

An economist is somebody who thinks it is worth wondering why everyone doesn’t choose movies in exactly this way.

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