The New Testament | I. G. Mansfield

Friend Iain recently read the New Testament and reviewed it. He made some comments on it, including the observation that the early Church members thought that Jesus would return within their lifetimes. This prompted some comments giving the standard evangelical gloss on these passages (see also), to avoid the conclusion that the Bible contains errors. I wrote a comment:

http://de-conversion.com/2008/11/09/the-psychology-of-apologetics-biblical-inerrancy/ is worth a read to understand what’s going on in the comments here 🙂 Short version: Quine says evidence alone doesn’t compel us to change a particular belief, because we can modify another one instead. Quine was writing in the context of scientific theories: if you don’t measure a difference in the speed of light in two directions, say, maybe there’s no luminiferous aether, but if you really think there must be one, maybe the Earth sort of drags the aether with it, or your instruments were faulty, or something. Paul thought Jesus was coming back within his life time, but if you really want Paul’s writings to be without error, what Paul actually meant is that you should live with a sort of Buddhist detachment to the things of this world.

Quine has clearly got something over the sort of naive falsificationism (i.e. if your theory is disprovedcontradicted by a single experiment, it’s curtains for that theory) which is supposed by some to be how science works. Nobody discards a trusted hypothesis so easily.

Still, something seems to have gone wrong with a theory when it allows anything: if you started from the position that the Bible contains no factual errors (call this innerancy1), you probably would not have predicted what Paul wrote in 1 Thess or 1 Cor 7:29ff, 1 Cor 15:51 (“sleep” = “die” here) etc; yet there they are, and what-evangelicals-call-inerrancy (call this inerrancy2) is somehow compatible with them. I think this means that inerrancy2 doesn’t compress anything: it’s just a list of what happens (the Bible) with a cherry on the top (“this list contains no errors or contradictions”). I’m using Eliezer’s ideas about http://lesswrong.com/lw/jp/occams_razor/ here.

Evidence that doesn’t demand anything very much

A couple of the blogs I read recently had discussions on the resurrection of Jesus: Common Sense Atheism and Parchment and Pen.

The wrong kind of God

In the comment thread over at Comment Sense Atheism, I wondered about the role of natural theology (that is, stuff like the Kalam Cosmological Argument) in preparing the ground for belief in the resurrection. When William Lane Craig debated against Bart Ehrman, Craig said “That Jesus rose naturally from the dead is fantastically improbable. But I see no reason whatsoever to think that it is improbable that God raised Jesus from the dead.” According to Ayer (that is, the commenter over at Common Sense Atheism, not the logical positivist), “Natural theology shows the existence of the monotheistic God; the resurrection, in its religio-historical context, shows that that monotheistic God is the one described by Jesus and the disciples, whose redemptive purpose is laid out in the Bible.”

There’s an unwarranted assumption here. Suppose we grant, for the sake of argument, that the Kalam argument is valid. This gets us as far as deism. To get to Christianity, we need the resurrection, as Ayer says. But if God didn’t do it, the resurrection is fantastically improbable, which I think means the New Testament evidence alone shouldn’t convince us unless we assume that God is the sort of god who might raise Jesus from the dead. But why should we assume that? Remember, we need that assumption to bolster the NT evidence sufficiently for us to believe it, but the only available “evidence” that God is that sort of god is the resurrection itself, the very thing we’re seeking to prove. I’ve not seen an argument from Craig (or any other apologist) which avoids this apparent circularity.

Simple explanations

So we’re stuck with being deists, which is a bit boring: as far as I know, they don’t have any choons. Perhaps we might instead argue that the New Testament evidence is sufficient on its own: it shows Jesus rose, and hence (if we’re feeling charitable about it) that there’s a god of the right sort, Christianity is true, greatest hits of Charles Wesley here we come.

This was what the Parchment and Pen posting was about. C Michael Patton argues that alternative explanations are less simple than just accepting that Jesus rose from the dead. There was a thread on the local newsgroup, cam.misc, where another Christian made the same argument.

I remembered that Heinlein once said the simplest explanation is always “The lady down the street is a witch; she did it.” What’s wrong with that explanation? It hides complexity behind language, as Alex Selby explains. I ended up saying that the Christian account is “simpler” in some sense, but not in a sense that lends it credibility. In this sense, the “simplest” explanation for what you see in Derren Brown’s stage shows is that mind reading really works and he’s a master at it: all that other stuff he does to achieve the effects is extremely convoluted in comparison. Alex doesn’t think we should describe that sense as simple. I can see his point, and perhaps I should have said that the Christian account feels simpler, rather than that it is.

At this point, a popular apologetic move is to accuse your opponent of assuming naturalism, materialism, scientism and other bad -isms (remember: if you have no other arguments, you can always play Spot The Worldview). I’m not sure whether that’s a valid move. I think you’d need an argument that using this informational Occam’s Razor won’t do the job in the case of non-material stuff, which again, I haven’t seen anyone attempt.

Creation Science 101

Gambling at Rick’s Bar

According to New Scientist, Francis Collins’s BioLogos site (wherein Collins, an evangelical Christian, advocates theistic evolution) not only faces the wrath of the neo-militant atheist secularists like Coyne and Myers, but has also been criticised by the Discovery Institute, who advocate Intelligent Design. They have a new site at Faithandevolution.org where they explain why Collins is wrong by quoting the Bible.

I’m a bit puzzled by this, as I thought that Intelligent Design was a hack get around the firewall that is the United States judiciary. The courts say you can’t teach religious opinion as fact in state schools, so if you want to get creationism into public education, you attribute creation to an anonymous Designer. You can then claim that you’re shocked, shocked I tell you (your Honour), that some kids might reach the conclusion that the Designer is the Christian God. I don’t want to tell these people their business, but setting up a web-site full of New Testament quotes gives the game away, doesn’t it?

Sun, moon and bumper sticker cry “Jesus is Lord”

Anyhoo, as it happens, the Discovery Institute quotes Romans 1:20, which I’ve mentioned before as a verse that supports the common evangelical belief that everyone knows there’s a God really, even if they don’t want to admit it. The DI say that Collins’s argument that God could have made stuff happen in such a way that his intervention was undetectable goes against the Apostle Paul’s statement that God’s existence is visible from what has been made.

I got into a discussion of undetectable divine intervention over on gerald_duck‘s LJ. gerald_duck had criticised atheists for saying that evolution proves there is no god, which is a valid criticism (if indeed there are any atheists saying that), but he’s oddly attached to the idea that it’s desirable to be agnostic about unwarranted beliefs, like Collins’s belief that the Christian god did it and carefully hid his tracks. I don’t really understand this. I accept that evolution is sufficient to explain the history of life after abiogenesis, because I think there’s good evidence for it. If evolution is sufficient, I require further evidence before I can conclude that, say, a god was involved. Without that evidence, I do not believe a god was involved (if gods there be: again, this isn’t an argument about their existence), just as I do not believe that any Flying Spaghetti Monsters were involved. I can’t strictly rule it out, but gods and FSMs are one of an infinity of possible additions to the hypothesis which I don’t seem to need, so why bother with any of them?

Over at the Discovery Institute, the cdesign proponentsists part company with Collins on whether evolution is in fact a sufficient explanation. If they could show that it isn’t, and further show evidence of design, they’d be on firmer ground than Collins is. Unfortunately for them, they can’t, but they were really following the evidence (which there’s some reason to doubt), their methods would be more rational than Collins’s.

New Scientist‘s Amanda Gefter has summarised it well:

Watching the intellectual feud between the Discovery Institute and BioLogos is a bit like watching a race in which both competitors are running full speed in the opposite direction of the finish line. It’s a notable contest, but I don’t see how either is going to come out the winner.

A peach / looks good / with lots of fuzz / but man’s no peach / and never was

robhu linked to a post on convert_me in which pooperman realises he’s an atheist after reading Dawkins, Dennett and Harris. There’s some interesting reflection on the origins of scriptural literalism, which is related to the stuff about science and truth in my last post. pooperman writes:

Basically, Harris’ has ceded–on behalf of religion, apparently–the hermeneutic of scripture to the fundamentalists. What Harris fails to understand is the scriptural basis for a more-moderate and more-metaphorical (as well as through the changing lens of historical contexts) interpretation of much of scripture. Also, Harris presumes that the literal approach to scripture is more-primitive, more-fundamental–that the “first” believers in these ancient religions understood and interpreted the texts in a straightforward and unquestioningly literal way.

There is a good chance, IMO, that Harris has this completely backwards. It is entirely possible that religious moderation is more primitive, and that literalism is a more modern corruption of religion–a corruption from the outside, not from within. What is the source of this corruption? It is reasonable to suggest that the rise of science and the increasing rhetorical value of the “objectively true” that science (and, more to the point, engineering) has infected the religious mindset and caused some of the religious to prematurely devalue the indirect truths and insights of a beautifully-complex metaphorical image and to seek to replace these images as images with a direct, parsimonious, and straightforward representation of Truth, without sacrificing the images themselves. The literalists have, I think, slit their spiritual wrists with Ockham’s razor.


I’ve often heard that evangelicalism is a modern heresy, but I’ve never seen the historical evidence for it. Does anyone have any references for that idea?