Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Scientific Verdict on God (Part 1): Models

The sciences do not try to explain, they hardly even try to interpret, they mainly make models. By a model is meant a mathematical construct which, with the addition of certain verbal interpretations, describes observed phenomena. The justification of such a mathematical construct is solely and precisely that it is expected to work.” ~ John von Neumann [1]

One of the greatest misperceptions about science entertained among the general public today is that science is a noun. In other words, most people tend to erroneously think of science as a monolithic thing whose primary function is to manufacture proofs, instead of looking at science as it really is: a model that describes reality and how to build it. The viability of a given model is based entirely on (1) how reliable it is, (2) how usable it is, and (3) whether or not it is consistently reproved and continually open to revision by the evidence we have found or may yet find.

It is important to recognize the word “model” in science-based discussions, because many people very often use the word “theory” (which is itself a much misunderstood word) when they should be using the word “model.” The practice of science, at its most basic, involves making observations of the physical world. The set of basic assumptions that all scientists start out with must always be based on observations. Consider, for example, the concept of time. A scientific investigator is certainly going to start with time when trying to describe almost anything. But how does one go about defining “time”? Not even philosophers have been able to arrive at a consensus on how time should be defined. The definition that Einstein came up with is that time is what one reads on a clock. And clocks are a human invention, allowing us humans to define “time” in terms of whatever basic units we wish and agree upon. The basic unit of time, the second, was redefined in 1967 by international agreement as the amount of time required for a caesium-133 atom to undergo 9,192,631,770 vibrations [2]. Prior to 1967, the second was defined as 1/86,400 of a mean solar day. The new definition was chosen simply for the sake of convenience, as it more fully accounted for irregularities in the rotation of the Earth and thus allowed for comparatively simpler equations. In 1997, the time standard was further refined to specify that the caesium atom used to define time was to be one at rest at absolute zero.

In conventional physics, all the other various observational qualities follow on the heels of this pragmatic approach: Distance is what you read with a meter stick, a meter being currently defined by international agreement as the distance light traverses between two points in a vacuum during 1/299,792,458 of a second. Temperature is what you read on a thermometer.

These are known as operational definitions, the establishment of which marks the first step in the practice of science, especially physics. Ideally, the operational definitions physicists make are based on specifically-prescribed measuring procedures and informed by empirical observations, and only then do physicists proceed to carry out those measurements. Scientists are highly concerned with making their measurements quantitative. If scientists can be quantitative in their approach, much of their work is complete, thanks to the seemingly elusive quality of precision that is thereby achieved. The quantitatively-oriented physicist is then ready to build models to describe her observations. If the models work, then they are useful. If they do not work, they are not useful. As long as a given model is useful, it does not matter whether it has any correspondence with ultimate reality. In other words, whether or not an electron actually exists in reality, one can still use the electron model to calculate to a high degree of accuracy the current flows in electronic circuits. Never does metaphysics enter the issue at all. As particle physicist Victor Stenger explains,

[T]he true reality of the universe is not necessarily composed of objects that possess attributes such as position and mass which we assign them in the process of doing physics. These variables, after all, are human inventions with no precisely definable meaning beyond their measurements as performed with specific apparatuses such as clocks and meter sticks.

Describing nature in terms of physical variables is like sketching or photographing an object. Isn’t it rather foolish to equate images on a piece of paper with the real thing? Confusing an image with reality is a common characteristic of small children [3].

Another illustrative example of a model is the earth’s sun. We usually instinctively regard the sun as an orb travelling across the sky. If you are a traveler journeying from east to west, you can use the sun to guide your direction; by heading in the direction of the sunset, you know you are heading generally west. Although you must correct just slightly for longitude, you can successfully use the model of the sun as an orb moving across the sky. The ancient Greeks believed that the sun was Apollo pulling a chariot across the sky. That understanding constituted the dominant metaphysics of the time. The ancient Chinese, meanwhile, understood the sun to be a golden bird flying across the sky.

Does it really matter which of these metaphysics was correct, if any? Obviously, we know today that neither one of them was true. But the instructive point here is that it does not matter what the particular metaphysics happens to be. Both the ancient Greek traveler and the ancient Chinese traveler could still use the sun as a traveling guide in the exact same way.

Scientific models work the same way. We use them to more fully grasp, and apply to, practical needs. The better the model becomes and the more universal its application grows, the closer the model comes to being called a “theory.”

A wide application is crucial to the life of any model; the model must apply not just toward small and isolated situations, but instead to many different situations. The more general a model happens to be, the more universal it becomes. And the more universal the model is, the more universal the accompanying theory therefore becomes, and the more widely it can then be applied. But throughout this whole process of maturation, what we have is still merely a pragmatic model, a human invention. For example, we know full well that the earth is not flat. But the Flat Earth Model is still useful, because it is employed whenever we construct buildings. Locally speaking, it does not matter at all that the earth is actually a sphere. In some cases, we even go out of our way to make the earth flat where it is not in order to apply the model to practical situations.

Scientific Models vs. Religious Models

By methodological necessity, scientific arguments about the sun remove intent from the hypothesis of whom or what is hauling it across the sky, if indeed it is being hauled at all. The hypothesis that the sun is a chariot flying across the sky, on the other hand, inherently involves intent. The god responsible for the sun’s movement could arise the next morning and arbitrarily decide that he is not going to haul the sun across the sky. As anyone who has read The Iliad or The Odyssey knows, the Greek gods were very uncertain beings to rely on. When working at the level of deities, science becomes an exercise in second-guessing the supernatural. You could wake up one day to find that the sun did not go across the sky. In fact, such a thing is bound to happen in this scenario; every once in a while at least, the god would decide that he just does not want to fulfill his role. Thus, the fact that the sun has never failed to appear every morning should constitute evidence that the original model of a chariot being pulled along is dead wrong. After all, does Apollo never get sick? Does he not have to take a vacation at some point? Is he going to pull the sun around forever just because he likes us humans so very much?

Science provides the ability to consistently recreate one’s worldview, because science can recreate from scratch, through observation and experimentation, the models it previously built up. The models may not be exactly the same after reconstruction; there may be something else in the place of the current quark, for example. But whatever may end up standing in its place in the reconstruction aftermath of our hypothetical loss of accumulated knowledge will have the exact same function as a quark and behave exactly the same way. However arbitrary the basis of scientific models may be, whatever it is we have decided to call “quarks” will always be the building blocks of protons and neutrons, but never of electrons. We can rename or even shuffle existing names of the six kinds of quarks we have identified (up, down, strange, charm, bottom, and top). We can decide to arrange them differently than they are now, in order from lightest to heaviest in weight. Nothing fundamental would change; all “quarks” would continue to have opposites we call antiquarks. They will always have positive charges, complemented by the negative charges of their antiquarks, no matter what we call them.

On the other hand, imagine the drastic differences that would obtain if one tried to reconstruct a religion from scratch. What emerges is never going to be the same as what we now have. The models of science change, or are dismissed entirely, in the face of new scientific discoveries. This is how good science works. However, the basic methodology underlying the practice of science has not so much changed as it has been refined over the centuries. “Science began thousands of years ago,” writes Stenger, “and although the volume of knowledge has expanded enormously in that time, the nature and methods of science have changed little. What is often interpreted as a great paradigm shift can be more accurately described as a clarification or reformulation of principles that were previously dimly perceived” [4]. For example, even in the wake of the twentieth-century revolutions in physics that saw the success of non-deterministic quantum mechanics and Einstein's theory of relativity, the three laws of motion developed by Isaac Newton continue to work as successful predictive models. They continue to be applied in virtually every facet of modern technology. In fact, our understanding of Newton's law of gravity, F=G (m_1 m_2)/r^2, is what allowed us to fly to the moon.

Religion, on the other hand, possesses its models and nothing else. There is no discovery in religion; everything must be forced to fit into the given model at hand. Religionists must wedge all outside discoveries into their existing, supposedly changeless model, but they also cannot allow such discoveries to alter the religious model too much, or else their model ceases to be definable as a religion.

A perfect example of this practice of forcing data into a given religious model is found in the work of religious scientists like William Dembski, Michael Behe and Francis Collins, each of whom are notorious for placing the proverbial cart firmly before the horse in their approach to reconciling science and religion. It is somewhat difficult at times to believe that mathematician Dembski and biochemist Behe, the main representatives of the “Intelligent Design” movement, actually believe their own words. It seems they are both knowledgeable enough, that they both have access to the same information that all other mathematicians and biochemists have managed to understand. Yet they both sit with crossed arms and staunchly deny this readily-accessible information.

To wit: During Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (the 2005 legal battle over the constitutionality of teaching intelligent design in public schools that was waged in Dover, Pennsylvania), Michael Behe testified under oath that he had never seen any studies or papers that provide answers to his challenge that the immune system is “irreducibly complex” and therefore could not be the product of evolution. The response from his cross-examiner was very telling and damning to Behe’s credibility. As Judge John E. Jones III noted in his decision,

Between 1996 and 2002, various studies confirmed each element of the evolutionary hypothesis explaining the origin of the immune system. [2:31 (Miller)] In fact, on cross-examination, Professor Behe was questioned concerning his 1996 claim that science would never find an evolutionary explanation for the immune system. He was presented with fifty-eight peer-reviewed publications, nine books, and several immunology textbook chapters about the evolution of the immune system [5].
Having personally read Behe’s famous book Darwin’s Black Box [6], it seems to me that Behe genuinely believed that he had hit upon something compelling, that he was not consciously lying. In this book, Behe makes several statements to the effect that no explanation, deriving from gradual evolutionary changes over time, exists for the examples of “irreducible complexity” that he lists, when in fact there were an abundance of explanations he could have easily found had he looked. Behe, who is a biochemist and not an evolutionary biologist by training, was simply unaware of the scientific literature that documents numerous robust examples in nature of organic systems undergoing functional changes during its evolution [7]. He was even unaware that the evolutionary biologist Hermann Joseph Muller, who in 1946 won the Nobel Prize for his work in biology, had already provided an evolutionary mechanism for so-called “irreducibly complex” systems six decades earlier [8].

The only thing to which we are justified in attributing this is ignorance on Behe’s part, the same sort of ignorance that religious scientist Francis Collins displays on almost every page of his bestselling book The Language of God [9]. Collins, a geneticist and proponent of a theistic framework through which to understand evolution, is simply unaware of all the scientific as well as theological work that refutes or disputes his claims. But while it may seem as though it is not possible they should be unaware of all this literature any longer, part of the blame lies on other academics in the pertinent fields, academics who do not bother to criticize the likes of Behe and Collins because of the mistaken impression that the Behes and Collins of the world are promoting their cause. More evolutionary biologists, biochemists and geneticists need to read Behe’s and Collins’ books, and they need to criticize and refute them in a mainstream capacity. They need to publicly point out that they are obviously not aware of the literature on the subject. Whereas many theistic apologists very often make arguments from ignorance, Behe and Collins seem to be making arguments from voluntary ignorance, because they have not bothered to investigate the literature that bears on their subjects.

William Dembski, on the other hand, knows his business much better than Behe. In his books and articles [10], Dembski really is knowingly cooking up claims that suit his preconceived and very dubious ideas [11]. Ultimately, the preconceived end the religious apologist wants to reach constitutes their entire motive, not a genuine regard for science and investigative honesty.

Of course, one can try to get people to imagine a wholly new religious model, to make up a religion of their own from scratch. Doing so may even result in something better than any religion we now have (then again, it is somewhat difficult to come up with something worse). When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in early 2006 to allow the religious use of hallucinogens for a small religious group (the União do Vegetal, a fringe Christian sect) in New Mexico, they may have helped make that particular brand of religion much more popular than it previously was [12]. After all, prospective members knew they can legally get high if they came in to that church. But nevertheless, the point remains that the models of science, in their ability to consistently arrive at the same conclusions even after reconstruction of lost data, is demonstrated to be superior to the fickle models of religion.

NOTES

1. Quoted in J. Tinsley Oden, Acceptance Remarks, 1993 John von Neumann Award Winner, United States Association of Computational Mechanics Bulletin 6, no. 3 (September 1993).

2. Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (BIPM), “Unit of time (second),” The International System of Units (SI) 8th ed., 2006, Section 2.1.1.3., pp. 112-113.

3. Victor J. Stenger, Physics and Psychics: The Search for a World Beyond the Senses (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1990), p. 233.

4. Ibid., p. 294.

5. Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, Federal Case No. 4:04-cv-02688-JEJ Document 342, Judge John E. Jones III presiding, filed Dec. 20, 2005. Decision, 78.

6. Michael Behe, Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: Free Press, 1996).

7. See Robert Dorit, review of Darwin’s Black Box by Michael Behe, American Scientist (September-October 1997); Kenneth R. Miller, Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for a Common Ground between God and Evolution (New York: HarperCollins, 1999); Robert T. Pennock, Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), pp. 166-72, 263-72; Mark Perakh, Unintelligent Design (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003); David Ussery, “Darwin’s Transparent Box: The Biochemical Evidence for Evolution,” in Matt Young and Taner Edis, eds., Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004).

8. H.J. Muller, “Reversibility in Evolution Considered from the Standpoint of Genetics,” Biological Reviews 14 (1939): 261-80.

9. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006). For a thorough and comprehensive refutation of Collins’ book, see George C. Cunningham, Decoding the Language of God: Can a Scientist Really Be a Believer? (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009).

10. William A. Dembski, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999); No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).

11. For refutations of Dembski’s work, see Brandon Fitelson, Christopher Stephens and Elliott Sober, “How Not to Detect Design – Critical Notice: William A Dembski, ‘The Design Inference,’” Philosophy of Science 66, no. 3 (1999): 472-88; David Roche, “A Bit Confused: Creationism and Information Theory,” Skeptical Inquirer 25, no. 2 (2001): 40-42; Jeffery Shallit, review of No Free Lunch by William Dembski, Biosystems 66, nos. 1-2 (2002): 93-99; Victor J. Stenger, Has Science Found God? The Latest Results in the Search for Purpose in the Universe (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003), pp. 99-130.

12. Religion News Blog, “High Court Sides with Church in Hallucinogenic Tea Dispute,” ReligionNewsBlog.com 21 Feb. 2006, http://www.religionnewsblog.com/13721/high-court-sides-with-church-in-hallucinogenic-tea-dispute (accessed 27 December 2011).

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Do Atheists Exercise Faith in Unbelief?



One of the most popular apologetic responses theists direct towards atheists, especially when they have been painted into a corner and have exhausted all arguments from reason and logic, is the assertion that everyone is religious, even atheists. They argue that we atheists evangelize often, and that we even have our own “prophets,” such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Robert M. Price. The argument is often hinged on the assertion that because one cannot prove there is no god, and because faith is belief without evidence (which they have at this point admitted if they are making this argument), then atheists therefore must have faith and are therefore religious. I have even heard several Christian apologists declare that “I could only be an atheist if I had more faith than I already do.” In 2004, Crossway Books published a book by Christian apologists Norman Geisler and Frank Turek entitled I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be An Atheist. This line of reasoning follows a grander theme that is usually pushed by the mainstream and prominent apologists, such as pastor Douglas Wilson of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho. Wilson, who embarked on a debate tour with Christopher Hitchens in 2008 (excerpts of which became the 2009 documentary film Collision), actually confronted Hitchens with the following arguments:
There’s no such thing as a standard-less worldview. Every worldview has standards, express or implied, and you can’t function without appealing to those standards constantly. I want to base everything on the Bible. And if you were to say, “Why do you do that?” and I said, “Well, as it says here in Romans . . .” right? You’d say, “Wait, wait, wait, wait, I’m challenging, I’m challenging your authority; you can’t just flip to a verse,” right? Because you’d say I’m begging the question, reasoning in a circle. Well, I would say the same thing here. If a person says, “I’m going to base everything, my whole worldview, on reason,” and I would say, “Why do you want to, why do you do that,” when he turns to give me a reason, what’s he doing? He’s flipping open his Bible.

Every finite creature has to start somewhere. All of us have certain fixed axioms, and we reason from those axioms. My axioms are Christian.

This is a bizarre argument, but the motivation of those putting it forth is easily understandable. If the definition of “religious” applies equally well to believer and unbeliever alike, then who can criticize the faithful without taking on equal damage? According to Douglas Wilson, the foundations of all belief systems are chosen arbitrarily, without exception. But then we must ask: If we are all religious no matter what we believe or do not believe, then what is the designation of “religious” really supposed to mean? It would seem that, in their last-ditch effort to deflect criticism, advocates of this argument have effectively diluted their own position to the point of being meaningless. After all, if I can choose my axioms arbitrarily, then all I need do is simply choose whatever conclusion I want to arrive at, and then subsequently select the specific axioms that will get me to that desired conclusion. A case can therefore be made that such postmodern arguments are not even proposing anything of substance at all.

Apologists with this kind of postmodern bent have thus saved the village by destroying it. They are in essence admitting that their worldview is completely arbitrary. When this thinly-veiled concession is exposed, one is obliged to ask them why they are even debating atheists and agnostics in the first place. The line that “atheists exercise religious faith too” is the apologists’ way of saying: “Do not bother me. Every belief is an arbitrary positing, and every worldview grows out of that arbitrary starting point. All ideas contain their own criteria of plausibility.” This of course means that, according to them, a so-called “explanation” can be made available for everything that derives from any relative standpoint, explanations that seem plausible and probable insofar as they accord well with a given premise and reinforce it. But again, if there is in fact no objective criterion for both sides to appeal to, why are the two sides even debating? Religious apologists who take this approach (e.g., “You atheists are just doing the same thing we are, so get off our case”) only demonstrate that they rejoice to live in a bubble reality that is self-contained.

I find this apologetic approach very suicidal. Are religious believers really willing to say, “Yes, I am standing in mid-air”? Shouldn’t this concession alarm believers at least a little? Perhaps the reason alarm or caution is rarely expressed by such apologists is because most of the time they do not fully realize just what they are saying, which is: “I have made up my mind; do not confuse me with the facts. You do not have any right to try to confuse me with the facts, because you have just made up your mind arbitrarily as well.”

I hope to show clearly in this essay that this charge against atheists (and unbelievers generally) is not true. To begin, let us take as a concrete example the debate between those who criticize the authenticity and reliability of the Bible and those who affirm it as authentic and reliable. The fact of the matter is that both sides have only one thing in common, namely the spoken, working hypothesis that in order to understand the Bible, we must interpret its contents with the aid of historical background, cultural background, ancient grammar conventions, etc. Apologists for the reliability and truth of the Bible generally do not resort to allegorizing (except when they attempt to harmonize discordant and contradictory texts in the Bible). They claim to be restricting themselves to the evidence presented by the text, just as the critics are doing. There, I would contend, we do have legitimate grounds for debate. But what do the apologists actually do when we go beyond claims and examine their practice? They very often attempt to short-circuit the entire critical process and, by dragging their presuppositions into the discussion, fail to appeal to any real historical method. It is my contention that it is merely a pretense on the apologists’ part when they express interest in studying biblical texts with controllable and objective methods.

It must be emphasized that this is not what us critics of Christianity and religious theism in general are doing. This issue almost never fails to surface in debates surrounding Thomas Kuhn’s great book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962, rev. eds. 1970, 1996), in which Kuhn makes the point that all revolutions in scientific thinking are not so much matters of discovering new data (though, of course, this does happen), as they are matters of creating new paradigms, new heuristic hypotheses that are imposed upon the data to see what sense these hypotheses can make of the data, to see if they will render hitherto anomalous and puzzling data newly intelligible. This is very similar to the concept of the hermeneutical circle which was developed and formulated by philosopher Martin Heidegger and which the prominent German theologian Rudolf Bultmann adopted in his interpretations of the Bible. The “hermeneutical circle” describes a process by which a text is approached with a series of questions that the one studying it wants the text to answer. As one reads and interacts with the text, the questions may have to be adjusted. The student of the text may realize that she is barking up the wrong tree, that the author was not interested in what she is asking of the text. What is the author writing about? Once expectations are adjusted, that which the author is actually saying starts to make much more sense.

This is the way historical texts are always approached by scholars who know what they are doing. The late philosopher-historian R.G. Collingwood argued that this must be the precedent in all historical methods [1]. A fact is only a fact given a particular frame of reference, and this frame of reference is defined as an initial sketch of what is historically plausible in the situation that is being studied, whether we are studying the Civil War, Genghis Khan or Jesus Christ. The historian develops a tentative sketch to see what sense it will make out of the data at hand. If the tentative sketch makes no sense of the data, then the historian must go back to the drawing board. This method is always being applied at all steps in the study of history.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn eventually begins to compare paradigm shifts to religious conversion, since the data that occasions paradigm shifts is construed from within:
The man who embraces a new paradigm at an early stage must often do so in defiance of the evidence provided by problem-solving. He must, that is, have faith that the new paradigm will succeed with the many large problems that confront it, knowing only that the older paradigm has failed with a few. A decision of that kind can only be made on faith.

. . . But crisis alone is not enough. There must also be a basis, though it need be neither rational nor ultimately correct, for faith in the particular candidate chosen. Something must make at least a few scientists feel that the new proposal is on the right track, and sometimes it is only personal and inarticulate aesthetic considerations that can do that. Men have been converted by them at times when most of the articulable technical arguments pointed the other way. When first introduced, neither Copernicus’ astronomical theory nor De Broglie’s theory of matter had many other significant grounds of appeal. Even today Einstein’s general theory attracts men principally on aesthetic grounds, an appeal that few people outside of mathematics have been able to feel [2].

But Kuhn is jumping to unwarranted conclusions on this point; his own argument implies that paradigm-switching involves much more than what can be reduced to the concept of religious conversion. Paradigms are in fact preferable if we can show that a paradigm interprets the data in question in a more economical manner, without adding unnecessary epicycles (a term drawn from Ptolemaic astronomy). We should not cringe in embarrassment to embrace a given paradigm, if that paradigm involves less multiplying of ancillary hypotheses and reduces the addition of ad-hoc factors, e.g., My interpretation would work if x was true or if y was true. What reason is there to think that x is true or y is true? Answering that “The reason for thinking they are true is the help they would be to my paradigm” is unacceptable. A good paradigm must make simple and economical sense of the data, and as much sense as possible without reading in hidden assumptions and variables. Whoever supplies such a paradigm is the current winner, and the hope of the current winner should be that if there exists any data that does not fit within it, someone will revise or replace his paradigm. Thus, the point of bringing into focus a successful new paradigm is not to claim credit for it and copyright it. The point is to advance the discussion. Competent historians and scientists cannot have hobbyhorse favorites. Some do, but they are being bad scientists, bad historians, bad literary critics, etc. Favoritism towards particular paradigms does not even help anybody’s agenda. It cannot be emphasized enough that the correct question to ask is “What would make most sense of the data?

This is precisely why Creationism, for example, is not science. From the very get-go, it cannot be science, because Creationists are not simply looking at the data and inductively trying to construe it in such a way that it makes sense. Rather, they are insisting that the data be forced to fit within an alien paradigm, namely Biblical Cosmology. The late independent scholar Immanuel Velikovsky is famous for committing this fallacy with other ancient writings [3].

Thus, there is an objective and over-arching criterion to attain to; there is no point whatsoever in simply believing anything arbitrarily, because the criteria do exist. Of course, all these criteria are probabilistic. The ultimate truth might possibly be something that is wildly improbable, as well as something that cannot be arrived at by any means. But this possibility should lead us to agnosticism, not fideism. The probabilistic nature of all objective criteria does not entitle us to assert that since we cannot really ascertain deep questions empirically, we are justified in just choosing to believe x.

The approach of the religious apologist who is committed to defending the texts of the New Testament as a reliable record of truth can usually be summed up as follows: “We cannot really be sure that the original New Testament manuscripts, the autographs, read the same way then as we read them now, because there is no real evidence that goes back that early. Therefore, let us just assume that our copies are accurate and proceed from there.” The fact that this apologetic approach is widely used is indication that religious faith has replaced a proper agnosticism, which is understandable from a psychological point of view. After all, nothing can be done with agnosticism in the picture. The jig is up, and we cannot play the game anymore.

And if the game cannot be played anymore for certain issues, it is time the apologists concede that we just cannot play it. Apologists have been abusing postmodernism for far too long, using it as an excuse to say, “Do not confuse me with the facts” in a way that is disguised by what might seem to be clever and sophisticated language.

Faith as Ultimate Concern

Having established all this, I will say that there is a point to the claim that atheists can be religious, but only within a very specific context that evades traditional definitions of “faith.” I refer especially to faith as defined by the late Paul Tillich, the Christian existentialist philosopher who is considered one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. In his book Dynamics of Faith (1957), Tillich argues that “faith” should not be understood as meaning belief in a certain list of items, such as historical claims that cannot be corroborated. Credulity, says Tillich, should be distinguished from faith, as should the attempt to force oneself to believe something. Deep down, the one forcing belief in uncorroborated claims knows at some level that they are acting arbitrarily. Besides this, such people are brainwashing themselves whether they realize it or not at any subconscious level. Tillich insists that this is not faith.

Faith, according to Tillich, is being grasped at the deepest level by a particular question or concern:
Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned: the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of man’s ultimate concern. Man, like every living being, is concerned about many things, above all about those which condition his very existence, such as food and shelter. But man, in contrast to other living beings, has spiritual concerns – cognitive, aesthetic, social, political. Some of them are urgent, often extremely urgent, and each of them as well as the vital concerns can claim ultimacy for a human life or the life of a social group. If it claims ultimacy it demands the total surrender of him who accepts this claim, and it promises total fulfillment even if all other claims have to be subjected to it or rejected in its name [4].

This ultimate concern can be the historical Jesus, for example. Having ultimate concern for the subject of Jesus’ historicity does not necessitate having a positive opinion on the matter (i.e., that Jesus was a real historical figure). This ultimate concern can also be concentrated on the question of the existence of God. It is difficult to think of anyone who was more exercised over the question of God than Madalyn Murray O’Hair. That was her ultimate concern, yet she did not believe God exists. Her ultimate concern, her Tillichian faith object, was to combat the delusion that God is real, a concern that I personally applaud.

Tillich is claiming that only the apathetic hedonist (whose sole response to the question of God’s existence is a shrug and a “whatever”) has no ultimate concern. Such a person is an atheist, if only implicitly, and really does lack faith of any kind. But if one is concerned about anything, even if it is unworthy of concern, that state of being ultimately concerned with it is faith. Tillich was not trying to get away with anything by sly apologetic maneuvers with this argument. He is simply interested in cutting the pie differently. He has often been accused of being an atheist himself! He is not attempting to claim that unbelievers are or have the potential to become some sort of Anonymous Christian, as the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner argued [5]. Rahner’s point was a very different sort of claim, one that is liable to be confused as being similar or identical to Tillich’s points.

On the other hand, there is at least some justification in saying that militant atheists who are overzealous to deconvert religious people are displaying a kind of quasi-religious zeal. I concede this point with some reservation and a few caveats, since “militant atheism” can only be designated as such if the militant atheist is interested in much more than simply provoking religious believers to question their worldview, which is all I as an atheist am “militantly” interested in. Still, there are atheists who heavily politicize their unbelief, and it is this camp that can arguably be said to be playing the same game as the devoutly religious, and that they have merely switched teams. There is an irony in that which I personally would like to avoid, as much as I would love to see people reject the delusion that is theistic religion.

Do Atheists Exercise Faith?

Finally, let us address directly the question of whether “faith” in the conventional, traditional sense of the word is required in order to be an atheist (e.g., Bertrand Russell said it, I believe it, that settles it!). I do not doubt that there are indeed nuts like this out there. But atheism, properly construed and understood, cannot accurately be caricatured in this way. Atheists such as myself generally approach the God debate by saying that, on a strictly theoretical basis, there could be a God. But we also understand that on the same theoretical basis, there could be four-armed Tharks living on Mars outside the range of our telescopes. Having granted this, I do not see any reason to take that possibility seriously.

I approach the question of God in the same way. My working hypothesis is that no god exists. Likewise, I do not see any reason to take the existence of Zeus seriously, either. Why should I? This is what atheism properly defined implies. Technically, what I am describing is agnosticism. But when the term “agnostic” is used as a qualifier by us atheists, we almost always use it to mean, as the late 19th century philosopher William James put it, that belief in God remains a live option:
Let us give the name of hypothesis to anything that may be proposed to our belief; and just as the electricians speak of live and dead wires, let us speak of any hypothesis as either live or dead. A live hypothesis is one which appeals as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed . . .

A living option [the decision between two hypotheses] is one in which both hypotheses are live ones. If I say to you: “Be a theosophist or be a Mohammedan,” it is probably a dead option, because for you neither hypothesis is likely to be alive. But if I say: “Be an agnostic or be a Christian,” it is otherwise: trained as you are, each hypothesis makes some appeal, however small, to your belief [6].

In the case of the God Hypothesis, the rational appeal is very small, but it remains a live option nevertheless. If there is indeed any reason to believe in God, it simply has not been made definitive, and we are therefore stuck where we are. As an atheist, I do not claim to know what the case is, only that there is currently insufficient evidence to suggest that any god exists.

The 19th century English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (who is credited with first coining the term “agnostic”) understood agnosticism in much the same way:
Agnosticism . . . is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle . . . Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable [7].

This is a principle that gives much credit to the possibility of God, nothing more. The atheist therefore does not exercise faith. Speaking for myself, I find that I simply cannot take the concept of god seriously; again, I have not been able to find any reason to believe that any god exists. Technically, a god may really exist. But on a theoretical level, who really knows? We are all agnostic whether we admit it or not, whether we be agnostic atheists or agnostic theists. Nobody can sanely claim to know everything about the universe, but does this mean that I as an atheist have any reason, pragmatic or otherwise, to think a god exists? The answer is no, and I am currently in no position to be able to give any credit to the God hypothesis.

This is not a faith posture on my part. Any apologist who tries to construe it as such is just a spin doctor. Not only that, but once again they will find themselves cutting off the limb they are sitting on by their implication that all beliefs are equally and completely arbitrary. In fact, I am indebted to the apologist who wants to move forward with that argument, because he or she will only win the debate for me.

Notes

1. R.G. Collingwood. The Idea of History. Revised Edition. Ed. Jan Van Der Dussen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

2. Thomas S. Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Third Edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996, p. 158.

3. Immanuel Velikovsky. Worlds in Collision. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1950.

4. Paul Tillich. Dynamics of Faith. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1957, p. 1.

5. “Anonymous Christianity means that a person lives in the grace of God and attains salvation outside of explicitly constituted Christianity . . . Let us say, a Buddhist monk . . . who, because he follows his conscience, attains salvation and lives in the grace of God; of him I must say that he is an anonymous Christian; if not, I would have to presuppose that there is a genuine path to salvation that really attains that goal, but that simply has nothing to do with Jesus Christ. But I cannot do that. And so, if I hold if everyone depends upon Jesus Christ for salvation, and if at the same time I hold that many live in the world who have not expressly recognized Jesus Christ, then there remains in my opinion nothing else but to take up this postulate of an anonymous Christianity” (Karl Rahner, Karl Rahner in Dialogue: Conversations and Interviews 1965 – 1982. Eds. Paul Imhof and Hubert Biallowons. Trans. Harvey D. Egans. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1986, p. 135).

6. William James (1896). “The Will to Believe.” Essays on Faith and Morals. Ed. Ralph Barton Perry. Cleveland, OH: The World Publishing Company, 1962, pp. 33-34.

7. Thomas H. Huxley, F.R.S. (1889). “Agnosticism.” Essays Upon Some Controverted Questions. London: Macmillan and Co., 1892, p. 362. The complete text of this essay is also available online at http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/thomas_huxley/huxley_wace/part_02.html.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

On the Ontological Argument for the Existence of God

The theistic Ontological Argument is at its core an attempt to define God into existence. An a priori theistic case reformulated from its medieval origins and newly popularized by Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, the Ontological Argument seeks to prove the reality of a supreme being axiomatically, that is, from the concept alone. The basic “reasoning” behind the argument invites us to imagine a being that is in all ways perfect and maximally great. Existence is a necessary quality that this being must possess, because if said being did not exist, then he/she/it would be less than perfect. God therefore exists, because by virtue of being defined as the greatest conceivable being possible, God cannot be conceived not to exist. It is a delightfully circular argument, in which the axiomatic first premise is equal to the conclusion [1].

Expressed as a syllogism, the classical Ontological Argument for the existence of God is as follows:

1. Let us define God as the greatest imaginable being, a being than which no greater can be conceived.

2. All else being equal, a being or entity that exists is greater than one that does not exist, or one that merely exists as an idea or concept.

3. Therefore, God exists in reality.

This argument was first formulated and expressed in the 11th century by the Benedictine monk St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his book Proslogium:

[E]ven the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it. And whatever is understood exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.

Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality [2].

Even Anselm’s contemporaries in the 11th century recognized the flaws in his arguments. Most notably, another monk by the name of Gaunilo of Marmoutiers is remembered for his short work In Behalf of the Fool, in which he used Anselm’s reasoning to “prove” via reductio ad absurdum that the “Lost Island,” a maximally perfect island paradise, exists somewhere in the ocean. When we substitute Gaunilo’s Lost Island for Anselm’s God, the syllogism runs as follows:

1. The Lost Island is the greatest imaginable island.

2. All else being equal, it is greater to exist in reality than merely as a mythical concept or idea.

3. Therefore, the Lost Island exists in reality.

Indeed, by using Anselm’s logic, one can “prove” the existence in reality of any number of things, such as unicorns, Shangri-La, Hercules, etc. This is because the argument ultimately reduces to a “proof from definition,” which is a very basic fallacy. Anselm’s argument attempts to demonstrate the reality of a synthetic statement as if it were an analytical statement:
Analytic statements are those which can be said to be true or false by reason alone. For example: "A triangle has four sides", is an analytical statement and it is false because it is against the definition of a triangle. Also analytic is "There is an infinite number of prime numbers". This is true, although it is a lot harder to prove. However, reason alone can do it. No additional sensory information is needed.

There cannot be any discussion about the truth-value of a analytic statement. Either it is true, it is false or one cannot prove either of those possibilities. One cannot differ in opinion when looking at a analytic statement.

Synthetic statements are those that are not analytic. Synthetic statements cannot be answered by reason alone, in addition one needs evidence given by the senses. "An apple always falls to the ground" is synthetic; I can try to prove this by empirical evidence, but I can find no mathematical proof of it. It is impossible to prove any synthetic statement with 100% evidence. Therefore, in the case of synthetic statements, we can do two things: believe them, disbelieve them or suspend judgement [3].

The difference between analytic statements and synthetic statements will become important later on.

Confusing these two types of statements is the inevitable consequence of attempting to prove the reality of anything without any reference to what is known about the physical universe. Thus, to convince one who is consistently impressed by such definition-driven ontological arguments of the existence of unicorns, for example, one need only present the following:

1. Let us define a unicorn as a magical equine being that has one horn, and that exists.

2. Such a being must necessarily exist, given the above definition.

3. Therefore, unicorns exist [4].

The Failure of the Second Premise

According to the Second Premise of the classical Ontological Argument, a being or entity that has the attribute of existence is greater than one that lacks this attribute. But, as many philosophers have argued, existence and non-existence are not attributes of an object; they cannot logically be considered to properties in and of themselves. Most notably, the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant noted that “existence” is not a state that can reasonably be associated or tied in with the definition of any object, the way things like “temperature” or “size” can be. Kant argued that the existence of any thing is presupposed by its possessing any properties in the first place. Therefore, “’Being’ is obviously not a real predicate; that is, it is not a concept of something which could be added to the concept of a thing. It is merely the positing of a thing, or of certain determinations, as existing in themselves. Logically, it is merely the copula of a judgment” [5]. To consider existence as a property of anything is thus to indulge in a useless tautology, i.e. (in this case), “God exists because God exists.”

Furthermore, even if it made logical sense to view existence and non-existence as attributes (which we have seen does not), there is no logical justification for the claim that existence (and, by extension, necessity) is greater than non-existence. As Darrin Rasberry argues,
A brief statement about the classical version of this argument is necessary, particularly about the necessity of "necessary" being an inherently positive quality in and of itself, without regards to its referent in reality. This is not entirely clear; a fantastic counterexample would be certain events in the context of human history, which as an A-time theorist I hold to be necessary facts of existence. Suppose, for instance, that Adam and Eve existed and chose to Fall. Then, unless one is a high-Calvinist, the necessity (by asssumption [sic]) of the Fall would be a negative quality, as opposed to a positive one, as the action in the Fall brought death and damnation to Adam, Eve, and subsequently, to all of us. Therefore, it cannot be established that necessity qua necessity is an inherently positive quality of existence [6].

But perhaps the greatest illustration of the fact that the superiority of existence over non-existence is not at all established by logic is one that goes beyond the implications of necessary versus unnecessary reality and strikes at the quality of existence versus non-existence itself. This illustration is found in “Gasking’s Proof,” a piece of philosophical satire written by the late philosopher Douglas Gasking. Gasking’s Proof brilliantly parodies the Ontological Argument, using the argument’s own premises to turn the argument on its head and “prove” the superiority of non-existence over existence.

(1) The creation of the world is the most marvellous achievement imaginable.

(2) The merit of an achievement is the product of (a) its intrinsic quality, and (b) the ability of its creator.

(3) The greater the disability (or handicap) of the creator, the more impressive the achievement.

(4) The most formidable handicap for a creator would be non-existence.

(5) Therefore, if we suppose that the universe is the product of an existent creator, we can conceive a greater being – namely, one who created everything while not existing.

(6) An existing God, therefore, would not be a being than which a greate [sic] cannot be conceived, because an even more formidable and incredible creator would be a God which did not exist.

Ergo,

(7) God does not exist [7].

Ontological Disproof of the Third Premise

Because (as we have shown above) the conclusion of the circular Ontological Argument is exactly equal to its First Premise, a demonstration of the inadequacy and fallacy of that First Premise implies an equal fallacy in its conclusion, an implication that yields profound results for the strong-atheism position (“God cannot exist,” as opposed to the weaker position that “God does not exist”). This conclusion was drawn out by the late philosopher John L. Pollock in his 1966 essay “Proving the Non-Existence of God,” in which he succinctly and straightforwardly demonstrated that the only thing that can possibly imply the necessary existence of anything is the actual existence of the thing in question. If the actual existence of God is not demonstrated independent of mere synthetic conception, we can progress no further than the First Premise, and the Ontological Argument dies after that. Because the concept of God is synthetic rather than analytic in nature, the existence of God is unattainable from the definition alone. Conception in this case cannot instantiate existence, and therefore (contrary to Anselm’s insistence) the statements “God is the greatest imaginable being than which no greater can be conceived” and “The greatest thing that exists is not God” are not contradictory at all. As Victor Gijsbers points out, “The one is a matter of the imagination, the other is a matter of reality . . . If the greatest island that exists is Australia, that doesn’t mean I can’t conceive of Lost Island” [8].

But, as his title suggests, Pollock goes even further than this, presenting an ontological disproof of the existence of God:
The most common analysis of logical necessity is to say that a proposition is necessarily true if and only if it is true by virtue of the meaning of its constituent terms. This means that the proposition that God exists is necessarily true just in case the meaning of ‘God’ requires that He exist, that is, just in the case the definition of ‘God’ entails that He exists . . .

[R]ecall that our concept of God is such that if He exists, then He must exist necessarily . . . But then, simply by modus tollens . . . ~ Eg, that is, God does not exist. Furthermore, this is a conclusion we have proven by logical means, so it is not just true, but necessarily true, that is, [N]~Eg. Thus, it is necessarily true that God does not exist. The existence of God is a logical impossibility [9].

There are certain limitations to Pollock’s case, of course. In particular, Pollock’s use of the concept of perfection as a central part of his case limits the scope of his case, since perfection can only be defined relatively. Pollock’s case for the non-existence of God is therefore is first and foremost an incoherency argument, proving only a contradiction between the consequences of a theological understanding of perfection and the criteria by which logical necessity is established.

However, reviewers of Pollock’s case and of the Ontological Argument tradition have proposed ways in which Pollock’s argument can be applied to the god concept as a whole, without invoking the problematic concept of perfection. For example, Francois Tremblay points out that “Since any hypothetical god would be logically necessary, N(Eg -> NEg) would hold true for any god also . . . If we presuppose that the god-concept is coherent in total and in parts, then N(Eg -> NEg) must hold true. Therefore I see no reason not to apply the Ontological Argument to the god-concept” [10].

Given the blatant circularity of the theistic Ontological Argument and the very basic and elementary logical fallacies it commits, it is somewhat difficult to believe that there are a great many people who favor it in debates with atheists and agnostics. But there certainly are a great many theists who are impressed by it for one reason or another, mostly having to do with their a priori commitment to their god concept which blinds them to the weakness of the argument. This is not an argument that is likely to persuade anyone who is not already a strong theist.

Moreover, the selfsame ontological arguments will probably never persuade the theist who favors it that my skin is green with a spattering of purple polka dots. But herein lies their inconsistency; according to the skewed logic of the Ontological Argument, ideas translate into reality proportional to the greatness of the idea. And since I can imagine that the greatest human beings have green skin with purple polka dots, the statement of the content of that imagination means that my imagination has a counterpart in reality.

For the same reasons that lead me to reject the existence of any naturally green-skinned and purple polka-dotted people, I must also reject the theistic Ontological Argument, and with it the being whose existence the argument attempts to establish.

NOTES

1. Fatfist, “Pastor Alvin Plantinga’s Ontological Argument for God – REFUTED!” Hubpages.com 76, http://hubpages.com/hub/Pastor-Alvin-Plantingas-Ontological-Argument-for-God-REFUTED (accessed 30 June 2011).

2. Saint Anselm, Basic Writings 2nd ed., trans. S.N. Deane (La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Company, 1962), p. 8.

3. Victor Gijsbers, “Is Atheism Based on Faith?” PositiveAtheism.org, http://www.positiveatheism.org/faq/faith.htm (accessed 30 June 2011).

4. Thanks to Russell Wain Glasser for this example.

5. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason trans. Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1961), p. 504.

6. Darrin Rasberry, “On Plantinga’s Ontological Argument,” Debunking Christianity 17 January 2009, http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2009/01/on-plantingas-ontological-argument.html (accessed 30 June 2011).

7. William Grey, “Gasking’s Proof,” Analysis 60.4 (October 2000): p. 369.

8. Victor Gijsbers, “Theistic Arguments: Anselm’s Ontological Argument” PositiveAtheism.org, http://www.positiveatheism.org/faq/anselm.htm (accessed 30 June 2011).

9. John L. Pollock, “Proving the Non-Existence of God,” Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy and the Social Sciences 2 (1966): p. 195.

10. Francois Tremblay, “Ontological Argument for the Non-Existence of God,” StrongAtheism.net 2 January 2005, http://www.strongatheism.net/library/atheology/ontological_argument_for_nonexistence/ (accessed 30 June 2011).

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Book of Genesis: A Parent's Guide


In 2009, controversial artist and illustrator Robert Crumb – a man who has distinguished himself as an uncomfortably-subversive satirical commentator on traditional mainstream values – completed a four-year effort to produce an illustrated version of the Book of Genesis. The epic graphic novel attracted immediate controversy, for Crumb did not rewrite or leave out a single scene from the first book of the Bible. His complete faithfulness to the text resulted in a warning being printed on the cover: “Adult Supervision Recommended for Minors.”

The Book of Genesis Illustrated was condemned by religious groups almost immediately, and ultimately what The Telegraph described as a “Biblical sex row” reared its ugly head:
A sexually explicit illustrated Book of Genesis by controversial artist Robert Crumb, which features Bible characters having intercourse, has been condemned by religious groups.

The book, which is released this month, carries the warning "adult supervision recommended for minors", and is described as "scandalous satire" by its publishers.

It includes graphic illustrations of Bible characters having sexual intercourse, and other scenes depicting naked men and women as well as "gratuitous" depictions of violence.

Crumb, the book's author, is most famous for his creation Fritz the Cat, a sexually graphic "underground" comic strip. It was turned into a film that became the first animation to receive an X rating.

He has said he does not believe that the Bible is the word of God. "I take it all for myth from start to finish, with probably some faint relation to historical reality." he said.

"They're great stories. But for people to take texts as something sacred, handed down from God... that's pretty backward, I think."

The Book of Genesis illustrated by R. Crumb has been criticised by leading religious groups such as the Christian Institute.

"It is turning the Bible into titillation," said Mike Judge, of the Christian Institute, a religious think-tank. "It seems wholly inappropriate for what is essentially God's rescue plan for mankind.

"If you are going to publish your own version of the Bible it must be done with a great deal of sensitivity. The Bible is a very important text to many many people and should be treated with the respect it deserves.

"Representing it in your own way is all very well and good but it must be remembered that it is a matter of people's faith, their religion.

"Faith is such an important part of people's lives that one must remember to tread very carefully."

Other leading religious figures have been more supportive of the work. "I didn't think it was satire," said the Bishop of Croydon, the Rt Rev Nick Baines.

"He set out to say; 'this is important, fundamental myth' and it seems to me he's done a good job."

A spokeswoman for the Bible Society said she hadn't seen the book but that reviews had suggested that Crumb had "really engaged" with the Book of Genesis.

"It may surprise people but the bible does contain nudity, sex and violence. That's because it contains real stories about real people.

"If by reading the book people are encouraged to re-engage with the Bible then that can only be a good thing."

A spokesman for the Church of England said: "I haven't seen the book but I think trying to sell something by emphasising the sexual nature of some of the scenes doesn't seem to be a good way to pass on the message of the bible." [1].

What I find amazing and extremely ironic is the shock and offense with which Crumb’s work was received by certain religious people and groups who claim to know and revere the Bible as a divinely-inspired work. Why this reaction to an artist who merely reproduced through illustrated depictions, faithfully and without any omission, the entirety of a book from their guide to life?

The answer is simple on one level at least. Many of those Christians who identify with the conservative, right-wing persuasions and sensibilities do not fully know what is contained in their own Scriptures – the selfsame Scriptures they use to police and censor the creative output of others whose creations, whether literature, film, music, etc., even slightly disrupt their delicate worldview and challenges them to think beyond the box they have built around themselves and want to build around everyone else.

The warning label printed on Crumb’s graphic novel is certainly warranted. I applaud Crumb for confronting people with what needs to be said about the quality of a book that is revered by millions but read by very few. Crumb’s work has inspired me to write this overview of the content found in the Book of Genesis that justifies such a warning label, not just on Crumb’s graphic novel but on all Bibles. In fact, I am in favor of having the Bible classified as “indecent” by authorities, so that only those over the age of 18 could buy the book, which should be sealed in a wrapper with a statutory warning notice [2]. Of course, I do not endorse censorship or banning in any way, shape or form. My tastes being what they are, I would personally continue to read and enjoy the Bible.

Without further ado, let us dive into this overview of Genesis, which I strongly hope will be read by parents, religious or otherwise, who have not read the book and are concerned about what they expose their children to.

Noah's Nakedness - Genesis 9:18-27

Shortly after disembarking from the ark that saved him and his family from a global flood, Noah plants a vineyard. He becomes drunk from the wine he produces and passes out naked in his tent. His youngest son Ham comes into the tent, and upon finding his father passed out naked, approaches his two brothers Shem and Japheth outside to tell them. Shem and Japheth then take a garment and walk into their father's tent backwards to avoid seeing their naked father and cover him with the garment out of respect. When Noah awakes and finds himself naked and covered with a garment, he finds out what Ham had done and what he had failed to do. Ham had seen his nakedness, while the other two respectfully covered him. According to the story, Noah was a highly honorable man. He was so honorable, in fact, that God found him to be the only righteous man in the antediluvian world and destroyed everybody in the world except this naked drunk and his family. Because of this high standing Noah enjoys in the eyes of God, Noah decides to place a curse upon his son Ham, declaring that Ham and all of his descendants (the Canaanites) would be slaves to his brothers and their descendants forever.

The sheer insanity of the rationale behind Noah's curse is striking. Essentially, Noah puts the screws to Ham because he got drunk and was caught.

Lot's Incestuous Daughters - Genesis 19:30-38

This passage relates what happens to Lot and his two daughters after they escape the judgment that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Initially, the trio takes refuge in the city of Zoar. But Lot fears the city, and with his daughters he dwells in a cave in a mountain. The two virgin daughters, now isolated from society and thus from any possibility of a future mate, fear that teir father's seed will not be preserved. Their solution is to make their father drunk on wine and seduce him. One night, the older daughter sleeps with him in his drunken state. The next day, she reports that the plan was a success to her younger sister and encourages her to do the same. After causing their father to get drunk again, the younger daughter heeds the suggestion and sleeps with him. Both daughters become pregnant by their father.

This story is related with a very black-and-white straightforwardness. Lot's two daughters get him drunk and have sex with him, each conceiving a child as a result. But there are logistical problems I never hear addressed and which the otherwise straightforward text does not elaborate on. Lot's daughters manage to get their father drunk two nights in a row. In making sense of this story, how are we to believe that Lot did not learn a lesson the first night when the first daughter took advantage of him with the help of wine? We are told he allowed his daughters to get him drunk a second night! Another question that should be obvious is how Lot's daughters managed to procreate with their father while he was drunk to the point where he did not realize he was having sex with his daughters. If a person is drunk to that extent, he is not going to be very capable of performing sexually.

A more relevant question that should be asked about this story is whether there is not even the slightest trace of a creep-out factor for the ministers who believe the book that contains this story is the inerrant and perfect word of their God. And if, as many such ministers would say, the incestuous actions of Lot’s daughters were ultimately a part of God's plan for history, does that not make the story even creepier? Of course, this story and other equally obscene stories in the Bible sometimes are featured in the Sunday morning sermons of the Christians and the Saturday afternoon service of the Jews. But their rare willingness to illuminate such passages do not excuse the reason they often have for preaching from them. The fact remains that we are teaching our children these stories, and yet many of these people stridently wish that the secular community was not allowed to teach children real science in the classroom.

Like Father, Like Son - Genesis 20, 26

Many characters in the Bible were not very good at planning ahead, or in learning from their mistakes. In Genesis 20, Abraham journeys to the city of Gerar, where he pretends that his wife Sarah is his sister. Abraham had exercised this same deceptive routine in Chapter 12 of Genesis, when he and his wife sojourned in Egypt. His reasoning was thus: "Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see thee, that they shall say, 'This is his wife: and they will kill me, but they will save thee alive. Say, I pray thee, thou art my sister, that it may be well with me, for thy sake; and my soul shall live, because of thee" (Genesis 12:12-13).

The two accounts of what transpired as a result of this lie are almost identical. In Gerar, Abraham allows Abimelech the king to sleep with Sarah in order to convincingly maintain his lie. Before Abimelech has a chance to sleep with Sarah, however, God appears to him in a dream. He reveals the truth to him concerning Sarah, and commands him to return her to Abraham if he wishes to avoid fatal divine judgment. Abimelech (who is inflicted by God with a sickness that will not be lifted unless Abraham intervenes with prayer on his behalf), heeds this warning and summons Abraham the next day to reprimand him for his deception. In addition to returning Abraham's wife to him, the fearful king gives them sheep, oxen and servants. Abraham then prays to God on behalf of Abimelech so that God will not put the king to death for the "crime" of believing Abraham's lie. This prayer also lifts the curse that was placed on Abimelech's wife and maidservants, who were not able to bear children while Sarah resided with them.

Interestingly enough, Abraham's son Isaac tries to use the exact same trick to the same person in Genesis 26 (or possibly Abimelech's son; the king in this story may have been the son with the same name). His motivation for lying is of course identical to his father's: "And the men of the place asked him of his wife: and he said, 'She is my sister': for he feared to say, 'She is my wife'; lest, said he, 'the men of the place should kill me for Rebekah,' because she was fair to look on" (26:7). In this particular case, Abimelech looks out his window and catches Isaac and Rebekah "sporting" in a romantic and intimate fashion. He summons Isaac and irately demands to know why he lied. He pointedly tells Isaac that this deception might easily have brought guilt upon him or his subjects, as Abraham's lie did. After reprimanding Issac, the king then charges all his people not to touch Isaac or his wife on pain of death.

Apparently, the Mosaic concept of "visiting the iniquity of the fathers to the third and fourth generation" (Exodus 20:5, 34:7; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:9) has an equal application when it comes to the moronic deeds of the father.

Testicular Allegiance - Genesis 24:2-9

In this passage, Abraham beseeches his servant to place his hand under his thigh and swear an oath, which the servant does. This custom is repeated later in Genesis (47:29). The words "testimony" and "testify" both derive from the word testis, or testicles. This etymology is well established; the manner in which one swore allegiance and honesty in these ancient times was to place one's hand on the testicles of the person being sworn to. In the English translation, "thigh" is very closely related, both literally and physically, to the crotch region of the human body. This understanding is confirmed by passages such as Numbers 5:11-31, in which the word "thigh" is used in the context of a description of the procedure prescripted to be conducted on women to determine if they have been sexually faithful to their husband.

Because a man's genitals are his articles of procreation, they were considered highly sacred in biblical times. This explains why the swearing of a sacred and solemn oath would entail placing one's hand under another man's testicles, as in our modern-day custom of swearing on the Bible itself. This bizarre and obscene custom also sheds light on the harsh Mosaic pronouncement against women who touch the genital area of a man she is not married to, even if on accident. Deuteronomy 25:11-12 describes one example of a situation in which this may happen. The penalty for such a woman is to have her offending hand chopped off.

Jacob's Daughter Dinah - Genesis 34

In this story, we are introduced to a woman named Dinah, Jacob's daughter. While going out "to see the daughters of the land," she is raped by Shechem, the prince of the Hivites. After raping her, Shechem falls deeply in love with Dinah and asks his father Hamor to procure her as his wife. By way of crucial background, Dinah is Jewish and Shechem is a goy, which would render marriage between them an unlawful act on the part of the Jews. Hamor, accompanied by Shechem, goes to Dinah's father Jacob to speak with him as well as Dinah's infuriated brothers concerning the matter. Hamor proposes a peace treaty through marriage between Jacob's family and the Hivites: "The soul of my son Shechem longeth for your daughter: I pray you give her him to wife. And make ye marriages with us, and give your daughters unto us, and take our daughters unto you. And ye shall dwell with us, and the land shall be before you: dwell and trade you therein, and get you possessions therein" (34:8b-10).

The sons of Jacob, who have come in from the field, inform Hamor and Shechem that their sister cannot be given in marriage to one who is uncircumcised. But they agree to consent to Shechem's request only if he and his father convert and become circumcised. In fact, Jacob's sons demand that the Hivites as a whole must convert and be circumcised before any treaty is formed and before any daughters are married off between them. Evidently, Dinah was drop-dead gorgeous, because not only does Shechem agree to be circumcised, but his entire tribe also agrees to be circumcised. The entire Hivite tribe convert and are circumcised to compensate for one of their own raping a Jewish girl and to seal the peace treaty. In the light of what the circumcision process entailed, this is real dedication [3].

Three days later, "when they were sore" (v. 25) and possibly regretting their decision to convert and be circumcised, two of Jacob's sons come into their city bearing swords. They slaughter every male in the city, including Shechem and his father. After taking their sister Dinah out of Shechem's house, the rest of Jacob's sons show up and plunder the city. They take livestock and wealth, and take captive all the children and all the wives of the slain men. One wonders what Jacob's marauding sons planned to do with the women they stole and took captive. Seeing as they were treated as little more than objects of plunder along with the livestock and wealth, rape is certainly not to be put past them. Furthermore, this slaughter and raid was Jacob's sons' way of avenging the rape of their sister. Jacob's sons would be acting consistently with the general "eye for an eye" concept if their intention was to rape all these captured women, even though the scale is clearly disproportional. Then again, the price Shechem and his fellow Hivites pay for raping Dinah and then marrying her into the tribe is also extremely disproportional. As we discussed above, the punishment for the crime of rape was for the violator to pay fifty shekels of silver to his victim's father if she was not betrothed (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).

Jacob is furious at his sons Simeon and Levi, the two who orchestrated the slaughter. He is understandably vexed at the possibility that they have ruined him. He had established a peace treaty with the Hivites and sealed it by having them circumcised, only to have his two sons murder every man in the city and plunder it. Jacob tells them, "Ye have troubled me to make me to stink among the inhabitants of the land, amongst the Canaanites, and the Perizzites: and I being few in number, they shall gather themselves together against me, and slay me, and I shall be destroyed, I and my house" (v. 30). His sons answer him bitterly with a short rhetorical question: "Should he deal with our sister, as with an harlot?" This is their sole justification for everything they did. This is also the end of the story; Genesis does not enter into any more detail about what took place after all this, and neither does it elaborate via commentary on the morality or lack thereof of the actions committed by Jacob's sons.

Prostitution Intrigue - Genesis 38

Here we are presented with the brief accounts of two brothers, Er and Onan, the sons of Judah and a Canaanite woman named Shuah. Verse 7 of this chapter tells us that Er was "wicked in the sight of the LORD," so the LORD killed him. The text does not expound on either why or how God killed him. But because he died, Onan was then required by law to marry his late brother's wife Tamar so that she can conceive a child. Onan is not comfortable about this arrangement at all, knowing that "the seed should not be his" (v. 9). Whenever he sleeps with Tamar, Onan spills his seed on the ground instead of depositing it inside her so that she would not conceive. This highly displeases God, so God kills Onan as well. To this day, the "Sin of Onan" has traditionally (and erroneously) been interpreted to be masturbation [4].

Judah had a third son named Shelah, but for some inexplicable reason that is never explained, Tamar does not avail herself of this third option after the years go by and the young Shelah comes of age. Instead, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and sits in a public place outside the town of Timnath. Her plan is to trick her father-in-law Judah (whose wife had since died) into sleeping with her so she could finally conceive a child. Her father-in-law comes into the town and sees her. Thinking she is a prostitute by trade, he approaches her and says, "Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee" (v. 16). Tamar asks him what he will pay her with, and because he has nothing of value on his person, he promises to pay her at a later time with a goat from his flock and leaves her with his seal. Apparently, if one held a position of prominence in this culture, giving a seller a personal identifying seal as a token that he will return with payment later in order to then retrieve the seal was one convenient way of making purchases. But in the case of buying sex from a prostitute, this does not seem like the wisest course of action.

Tamar and her father-in-law have sex that night, and she conceives a child by him. Three months after this child is born, Judah is still without his seal. The prostitute has disappeared, and the citizens of the town tell Judah's inquiring servant that no prostitutes make their business in the town. Judah then receives word that his daughter-in-law hd engaged in prostitution, and that she is with child as a result. Judah responds bluntly: "Bring her forth, and let her be burnt." Judah virulently objected to prostitution to this degree . . . despite the fact that he himself had slept with a prostitute [5]. When Tamar is brought before Judah, she reveals everything (including, by the way, that Judah was terrible at planning ahead). She produces Judah's signets to prove it was him she had slept with, and tells him she is pregnant with his child and future heir. Judah acknowledges these facts and spares her life.


NOTES

1. Ben Leach, “Biblical Sex Row Over Explicit Illustrated Book of Genesis,” The Telegraph 17 Oct. 2009, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/6358134/Biblical-sex-row-over-explicit-illustrated-Book-of-Genesis.html. (accessed 23 April 2011).

2. Nathan Dickey, “The Unholy Bible: A Case Study in Obscene and Perverse Literature,” The Journeyman Heretic (blog) 25 March 2011, http://journeymanheretic.blogspot.com/2011/03/unholy-bible-case-study-in-obscene-and.html. (accessed 23 April 2011).

3. Experts on the circumcision custom as well as medical professionals say that the process is far more painful for an adult male than it is for an eight-day-old infant.

4. The religious injunctions against Onanism is a matter of much later interpretation of the story. The original issue at stake for the writer of this passage was not masturbation. The original issue was the obligation of a kinsman to continue his late brother's line of inheritance by begetting children with the widow. The offspring of this union were considered the dead man's heirs, not the heirs of their actual biological father. Onan was averse to this plan, so he discontinued ejaculating inside Tamar. The failure to meet this obligation was the real sin of Onan and the reason why God kills him. "Spilling the seed upon the ground" has not a thing to do with masturbation, which is never discussed in the Bible.

5. This aspect of the story actually has a number of real-life parallels today. One example that comes to mind is the gambling problem of William Bennett, who is widely considered the leading voice for the promotion of conservative morals. His best-known work, The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993) praised the virtues of moderation and self-discipline. Both he and the organization he co-founded and headed at the time (Empower America, renamed in 2004 as FreedomWorks) opposed the extension of casino gambling in the states. Yet in 2003 it became publicly known that Bennett was addicted to high-stakes gambling and had reportedly lost millions in Las Vegas.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A Bible Story You Probably Never Heard in Sunday School

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.

(II Kings 2:23-24, King James Version)

These two verses relate one of the most obscene stories I have come across in the Bible, on a number of levels. In this story, Elisha is walking into the city of Bethel. He is accosted on his way into the city by a crowd of children who tease or harass him (depending on how one wants to interpret the passage), saying “Go up thou bald head, go up thou bald head.” Elisha turns back upon the mocking children and curses them in the name of the LORD. In response, the LORD sends two she-bears charging out of the nearby forest to rip apart 42 of the children.

To place this scene in some perspective, an average school classroom today holds more than 42 children. The description of the children in II Kings differs only slightly between translations. The New International Version and The Living Bible render them “some youths” and “a gang of youths” respectively, in an attempt to soften the blow of the story. However, the King James Version, which calls them “little children,” is the closest in accuracy in this particular case. The original Hebrew word translated “little children” is na’ar, a word that denotes a boy between infancy and adolescence. This word is not isolated in the text, being qualified by the Hebrew word qatan, meaning “small” or “diminutive,” as in age or importance.

But it does not much matter if the mockers in this story are little children or mature gang members. According to the story, God sent two bears to rip 42 young people to shreds for the “crime” of calling Elisha “bald head.” Imagine the parents of these children arriving on the scene to make an attempt at identifying the pieces of their child from the pieces of other children in this 42-child mass of carnage. If my reader is grossed out, I have proven my point. This is a story contained in one of the most revered books of all time, a story that would be widely considered highly objectionable by most people if it was found anywhere else (for instance, this could not be shown on television, and any faithful and realistic film depiction would warrant an R-rating or worse).

The few Christians who are familiar with this story resort to their usual apologetic contortions in trying to justify the violent excessiveness on display in this passage. A common argument is the one hinted at above, wherein the apologist attempts to make a case that the “little children” of the KJV and most other versions is a poor translation, that these children were actually a group of teenagers and young adults who were threatening Elisha with physical harm. This is highly unusual coming from people who claim to take the Bible literally, because this reading is nowhere to be found in the text.

This story in II Kings is reminiscent of a threat levied by God in Leviticus 26:22: “I will also send wild beasts among you, which shall rob you of your children . . .” Why should God punish innocent children as a means of punishing parents?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

All Agog: A Response to Chris Quintana's Prophecy Challenge


"[T]he whole business is childish and nonsensical. Interpreters of prophecy during the last few centuries have been most of them in the same position; one of them sees in the sublimities of the Revelation the form of Louis Napoleon where two hundred years ago half Christendom saw the Pope, and the other half Martin Luther. The other day one of the seers saw Sebastopol in the prophecies, and now another detects the Suez Canal, and we feel pretty sure that the Council at Rome will soon be spied out in Daniel or Ezekiel. The fact is, when fancy is their guide men wander as in a maze. Spiritualistic interpreters see, like children gazing into the fire, not what is really before them, but what is in their own heads." ~ Charles H. Spurgeon (British Particular Baptist Preacher), 1834-1892 [1].

Rapture Ready Radio,” a lively radio show which broadcasts multiple times each week, is a cult sensation among right-wing doomsday-predicting fundamentalist Christians and a potential source of great entertainment and laughs by its secular listeners such as myself (my masochistic tastes being what it is, I enjoy Rapture Ready Radio almost as much as I enjoy the likes of Ray Comfort and Kent Hovind). A typical show features long tirades denouncing as a false believer any Christian who does not stand with them on every issue and enthusiastic commentary on various natural and political disasters around the globe, which in their mind is supposed to signal the soon arrival of their god-king to whisk them away to paradise.

But on a January 4, 2011 broadcast, Chris Quintana, one of the show’s hosts, presented a challenge to Brian "Box" Brown, an atheist cartoonist who appeared as a guest on the program after featuring hosts Quintana and Matt Buff in a satirical comic. Brown, who held his own well enough during the discussion, understandably had no comment to make on this challenge, being unprepared. But Quintana’s challenge struck me as one that was worth making a serious and substantial response to, given the overly-confident manner in which he presented it:
I'd like to get your take on something here for us. One of the wars that the Bible predicts is found in the Book of Ezekiel, okay? It's in chapters 38 and 39. Here's the interesting thing: For somebody like yourself as a total skeptic, if you're to go ahead and look at the countries that are mentioned there, what you would find is that they are modern-day Turkey, everything that is pretty much south of Russia, all the way down to Iraq as far over as Pakistan, most of the northern portion of Africa with the exception of Egypt. Now, looking at that part of the world, that the time that Ezekiel wrote it, there was nothing whatsoever that galvanized that group of people, their different cultures, ethnicities, continents, everything.

Here's the deal: As Ezekiel writes all of that, there was nothing that galvanized that whole group of people. Now here's where it gets interesting. What Ezekiel saw, and the only thing that those countries now and those groups of people now have in common is Islam. And if you look at the things that those people say, their desire is to see the elimination of the nation of Israel. So here's what I have to ask for anybody who wants to be objective about this: How is it that Ezekiel could talk about a coalition of countries coming after Israel, especially in the last century when, for a good portion of it, Israel didn't even exist. And what else could galvanize that group of people in the modern day, aside from Islam?

You say that everything that we're telling you is ridiculous and that the Bible is self-fulfilling. I'm giving you an example of something that was written long before the event, and you can't give me a good reason to explain how he could have known this. Nostradamus spoke in generalities and very vague things, but there's no way that you can actually say [it's] like what Ezekiel did. He told us what is modern-day Islam, and all the people that have arrayed themselves against Israel. And I just find it fascinating that you say it's self-fulfilling. How is Israel going ahead lining up all of its enemies under a religion that didn't exist when Ezekiel talked about it? How's that work?

Please, prove me wrong! I'm serious . . . This would be great! You can go ahead and look, and you can prove it through history who he's talking about, okay? This is your great opportunity to take a Christian guy like myself and show me that I'm totally all wet and prove to me where I'm wrong. This is great! Look at the opportunity that's now before you. What I'm giving you is the opportunity to shoot guys like me completely through, you know, as far as our theory, and maybe you can enlighten me through this. How about I give you the places to look, and you can find out who they are historically. And please tell me what they now have in common aside from Islam. I'd love to know it. If I'm wrong, which you think that I am, I'd love to hear an alternate theory.

For one thing, Quintana's argument relies completely on a shaky underlying premise which, when dismantled, undermines his entire case. This premise is the assigning of modern-day countries to countries mentioned in ancient religious texts. Prophecy enthusiasts like Quintana have adopted a slapdash etymology that attempts to say that names read in the original Hebrew correspond to somewhat similar-sounding names of modern geographical locations. But this lacks any linguistic basis or sense.

In the particular case of Ezekiel 38 & 39, identifying Lud and Put in 38:5 to be Persia, Ethiopia and Libya (as the King James Version does) is in fact not far-fetched. There is good reason to think that the text corresponds to those three countries, based on other ancient references. But the traditional prophecy buffs are mistaken when they equate Meshech and Tubal in 38:2-3 to the Russian cities of Moscow and Tobolsk respectively in the U.S.S.R. Russia as a whole also finds its way into these etymological word games based on the word "Rosh" in 38:2-3, which translates to "head," implying a chief (as in the head man of a tribe). "Rosh" is thus said to be Russia, the head of its domains of Moscow and Tobolsk [2].

This is patently incorrect. The name "Russia" derives from the Rus', a tribe of East Slavic horsemen who inundated the steppelands of central Russia and Ukraine from the north in the ninth century C.E. The Rus' have no connection whatsoever to "Rosh" or the "head." Instead, Ezekiel 38:2-3 is describing the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal and does not indicate a third name. Meshech is not Moscow, and Tubal is not Tobolsk. These were two ancient territories located adjacent to the Black Sea. One can find them on just about any old "World of the Bible" atlas. Tubal was the place that the character Tubal-Cain is made an eponymous ancestor of in Genesis 4:22. Being the mythic culture hero that he was, Tubal-Cain is here said to be the inventor of metallurgy, an "instructor of every artificer of brass and iron." Tubal is mentioned in Ezekiel 38 because their people were on the map at the time the text was written, and they were metal workers. They continued the fashioning of weapons in the tradition of their father Tubal-Cain, their eponymous ancestor. Meshech is not much different; the people of this land were known as the Mushki. Neither they nor the people of Tubal have any connection with modern-day Moscow and Tobolsk. Those who claim otherwise commit an error similar to (but even more egregious than) the error of trying to trace the Turks back to the ancient Ionians. While the Turks and the Ionians lived at different times in the same territory, they are completely different ethnic groups descended from different lines. The Turks came in from central Asia much later, during the early Middle Ages.

Now to move on to Gog (the most interesting of the points to be made): The best scholarship we have on this subject strongly suggests that there is only a mythical or semi-mythical association with this name. “Magog” is not a parallel name; it simply means “land of Gog,” to denote the land which Gog rules. In Greek, “Gog” is translated Gugeis (or Gyges if one prefers to Latinize it). Gugeis was a mythical character in Meshech (ancient Lydia), or in the surrounding borders. The king of this territory was Midas. Gog (or Gugeis or Gyges, take your pick) shows up in Middle Eastern mythology as a kind of monster reminiscent of the Leviathan traditions, sometimes associated with Iskandar Dhul-Qarnayn (literally “The Two-Horned One”).

This name, which some scholars conjecture is a reference to Alexander the Great, is found in the Qur’an (Surah XVIII:83-99). According to this passage, Dhul-Qarnayn is said to have imprisoned both Gog and Magog inside a mountain from which they are to eventually escape in the end of days. Gog and Magog are also mentioned in the Book of Revelation in the Christian Bible (20:8: “And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog & Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea”).

In the Old Testament’s Book of Ezekiel, Gog and Magog are pictured collectively as a single Leviathan-like creature: “And I will turn thee back, and put hooks into thy jaws ...” (38:4a). The picture is one of God fishing the great primordial serpent out of the ocean, thereby defeating him as he did Leviathan and Rahab.

Of course, biblical prophecy enthusiasts could argue that this interpretation of the Ezekiel passage is simply mythic allusion intended by the writer himself to metaphorically describe a real state that is monstrous and dangerous in nature and which God will defeat. This may in fact be true, but this argument does not avail the prophecy apologist in any way. For one thing, mythic allusion was used to describe almost all major villains, whether whole nations or individual leaders. Even the mythical Azdahak in ancient Iran, the very first Antichrist figure to be conceived, was intended to symbolize the invading Assyrians. The vast majority of characters in ancient mythologies had political dimensions that were relevant to the times in which they were created and written about.

This means that Ezekiel 38 and 39 is not an example of prophetic writing at all. Scholars are unanimously agreed on this point. If these chapters were written as predictions of the far future, they would be completely irrelevant to the people the prophets were trying to address at the time. Gog and the land that Gog rules (Magog) have come to mean something completely different than what it was originally intended to mean in modern apocalyptic thought. At the time the author of these Ezekiel passages was writing, they were simply meant to describe (through the metaphoric picture of the great sea monsters that God had defeated in primordial times) nations that were believed to be harassing Israel at the time. They were describing current events. Both literary and historical analysis supports this understanding.

This leaves open Quintana’s question of who the armies described in these Ezekiel chapters are supposed to be if not modern Islamic countries. Remember, Quintana says he would “love to hear an alternate theory.” Many scholars say that Gog and Magog represented the historical Scythians, who swept down as mounted horsemen from the northern kingdoms, though they never did get as far as ancient Israel and Judah. However, it was anticipated that they would successfully make it that far, and that is what Ezekiel 38 and 39 are about. I would strongly advise non-scholars like Quintana not to trust the likes of Hal Lindsey and the tradition he represents in his famous 1970 book The Late Great Planet Earth of spinning etymology and history in order to make Ezekiel 38 and 39 all about Russia.

To wrap up, we must address Quintana’s claim that these chapters in Ezekiel must be prophetic of modern Islamist countries and that this is borne out by his claim that nothing galvanized the countries he thinks are mentioned together in any coherent way, until Islam gave them something in common.

For one thing (as I have already mentioned above) if these writings were about the far distant future, they could not have possibly been relevant to the original readers, Ezekiel’s intended audience. For another thing, it is highly doubtful that there exists any evidence for what Quintana is saying, whatever the nature of Ezekiel’s writings. Yes, the countries and geographical regions Quintana mentions were somewhat diverse, but he seems to overlook the fact that they were cheek-by-jowl on the map! They could not have been so different that they had nothing to unite over.

It may be technically improbable that these people would band together for a common purpose, but then again, this is exactly what people are often heard saying today concerning the Shiite and Sunni terrorists. The popular but flawed reasoning has been that there is nothing to fear, because Iraq could never join forces Iran to retaliate against us since one is predominantly Shiite and the other predominantly Sunni. Similarly, we have been told by many that al-Qaeda could never receive any support from the Mullahs of Iran, due to the same Sunni and Shiite differences. This is exactly the naïve, faulty reasoning Quintana is applying in his argument.

But let’s not kid ourselves. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Common causes are made on the basis of this truism alone all the time, and throughout recorded history. Eventually, once victory is achieved, they may turn on each other. But this is certainly not evidence of any kind that they had not once united as a group for pragmatic purposes.

Then again, all this assumes that Quintana and other prophecy spin doctors are correct in their identification of the countries attacking Israel in these Ezekiel chapters. But, as I think I have shown, he is very likely wrong in his attributions. Again, the scholarly evidence suggests that the armies of Ezekiel 38 and 39 were the Scythians. Even the ancient writer himself may have gotten the identification of the armies wrong. But more importantly, I have shown that Quintana does not have a valid argument or evidence to lean on even if he is correct in his identification of the countries.


Notes

1. Quoted in James Comper Gray (1871). The Biblical Museum: A Collection of Notes Explanatory, Homiletic, and Illustrative, on the Holy Scriptures, Especially Designed for the Use of Ministers, Bible-Students, and Sunday-School Teachers. Vol. II. Containing the Gospels According to St. Luke and St. John. London: Elliot Stock, 62, Paternoster Row, p. 179.

2. While Quintana does not in my quotes explicitly claim that Gog and Magog correspond to Russia both he and other hosts of the show have made it clear in other broadcasts that they are strong adherents of this idea. I suspect he carefully avoided mentioning this here, since Russia’s population is made up of slightly more Christians (17-22%) than Muslims (10-15%). This figure upsets Quintana’s “non-galvanized” foothold, so he instead starts with “south of Russia.”