How fortunate then that there is at least one thing to keep me occupied while I wait for the temperature to return to a level at which I can once more doss around in my t-shirt. It's Christian Recruitment Drive up here in Durham once again, this time under the name "Free". A week-long opportunity to seek out people comfortable with their religious beliefs, and then argue the shit out of them.
Today's lunchtime talk was entitled "The Bible -Unreliable and Irrelevant?". The main thrust of the argument was that just because something old doesn't make everything it says total crap, which I've got to say I'm entirely on board with.
In truth, whether or not the Bible is relevant to contemporary life is something I couldn't possibly care less about. Either there is a deity or deities, or there isn't. Either Jesus was the Son of God, or he wasn't. In that sense, it's the reliability of the Bible that's important, though the speaker took pains to point out that there are far more important questions in Christianity than that.
In essence, the talk attempted to justify treating the Bible, not as allegory or metaphor, but as reliable and rigorous eye-witness reports of the life of Jesus, and that said testimony did in fact demonstrate that Jesus was the Son of God.
This could probably be fairly described as a tough sell. As far as I can see, and since I wrote this list after the talk I'm pretty sure this was the thinking being employed (at least roughly) by the speaker himself, one needs to justify the following progression:
- The current English translation of the Bible can be relied upon as being faithful to earlier texts;
- Those texts can be relied upon as faithful to the original copies now lost;
- The original copies are faithful transcriptions of eyewitness testimony;
- The eyewitness testimony itself was an accurate description of what was seen;
- What was seen was actually what occurred;
- Demonstrating power also demonstrates truth.
The other five points were all covered, in various levels of detail. I figured I'd summarise the arguments put forth, along them with my own thoughts.
Points 1 and 2 pretty much overlap. The degree to which you trust the current iteration of the Bible really depends on your faith on the translation skills of various academics through the years. There are already reasons to question the veracity of such translations, partially because of the open question as to how much one culture can ever possibly understand the language of another even if it has been properly transliterated (I'm not just talking about Sapir-Whorf, but that would likely be part of it), but also because a very real possibility that overturning traditional doctrinal thinking is likely an extraordinarily difficult thing to achieve. Religion is almost by definition extremely conservative when it comes to its own structure and theology, and trying to point out that a given word may not have quite the meaning ascribed to it by generations of scholars may not necessarily get you very far.
Much of that is parenthetical to my main point, however, which is that even the speaker himself admitted that the texts from which our contemporary translate do differ in around 2% of the verses. We were assured that none of them were particularly important, but I think I'd like to take a look at some of them to judge that for myself. 98% accuracy is a good figure for a pregnancy test. The Word of God, maybe not so much.
Points three and four were the most thoroughly covered. Thorough isn't necessarily convincing, though. Some of the arguments were comparative. It was noted that the earliest copies of the gospels date back to sooner after the originals were written than do any surviving texts originally written by Plato, and that there are more copies. "It's odd that no-one questions Plato," was the comment made at the time, I believe (I may have paraphrased slightly).
The trouble is, of course that plenty of people question Plato. That's what academics do. We take people smarter than we are and call them dicks. It's absurd in the extreme to suggest that
this is only true when the claims made include the clearly supernatural . I'm also not at all sure why the number of copies of a book is supposed to testify to its truth (the idea that Jeffrey Archer has been slowly warping reality to his own design is one that will give you nightmares).
Other points were more direct, though still not particularly persuasive. Arguing, for example, that were eye-witnesses to have been lying they would have chosen more grandiose lies, amnd ones that cast them in a more positive light, fails because without understanding the motivation behind such hypothetical lies, it is impossible to judge their construction as being strange or counter-productive. Arguing that the Bible contains no counters to the testimony offered is also hardly compelling (it's also worth noting that the argument that there was little to be gained by lying in such a way was presented almost simultaneously with the idea that such large crowds gathered to hear them telling of Jesus that the Bible must be accurate and that many must have seen Jesus' wonder; either a story brings no glory, or it brings so much devotion to it that it must be true, it is unclear as to how you could have both at once).
All that leaves us is the most compelling part of the discussion of these two points, and not coincidentally (at least, I don't believe it was coincidence) the one driven furthest home this afternoon: the sheer number of witnesses referenced in the Bible and elsewhere. To some extent the difficulty here probably lies in how much weight each of us gives to eyewitness testimony in general . Speaking for myself, I'm acutely aware that witnesses are often very unreliable, and that such testimony doesn't carry the weight that many people ascribe to it. Then we need to start considering crowd mentality, folie à plusieurs, and so on. Ultimately, though, you're either convinced or you're not. Unsurprisingly, I take the latter view, mainly because I think that crowd of hundreds (or even thousands) experiencing something inexplicable to them but not inexplicable full stop is vastly more plausible than the idea that there is a God, and he had a Son, and that Son came to Earth, and he turned water into wine but didn't think of rustling up any long-term proof he was who he claimed to be.
In some ways I think point five is the most interesting. Is it arrogant to assume that the people surrounding Jesus in the early years AD were more gullible than we were? Absolutely. But that isn't the point. Gullibility isn't the issue, frames of reference are.
I've seen David Copperfield make the Statue of Liberty vanish. I've seen Penn Jillette run a man over in an articulated lorry. I've seen a man asked just the right questions in just the right order to make him forget his own name . I know that these are illusions and mind-tricks because in the two thousand years between me seeing those things and people watching as water turned into wine humanity has cobbled together a fairly comprehensive idea of how shit works (also: Mr Jillette was kind enough to explain his trick to his viewers, in case we were dense). It doesn't seem unreasonable to assume that complaining that water can't become wine is an objection that carries somewhat more weight when you can point out the requisite re-ordering of subatomic particles that would be necessary. I don't want to suggest the people of circa 20 AD were gibbering idiots, but four hundred years later people were still terrified of werewolves . Science and culture and perception all grow up together. The more precisely we draw the line between possible and impossible, the more seeing something apparently over that line makes us impressed at the lie, rather than swallowing it as truth.
Anyway, that's day one of my intrepid journey into the mists of existential confusion. I'll let you know how day two goes tomorrow.
(Also, in theory you should be able to see more here, but when I tried it crashed my computer. This is continuing proof that if God does exist, he has a fairly odd sense of humour).
 Not that that would be odd in any case; the level of proof required to satisfactorily verify an event is a function of not just the number of accounts but also the plausibility of that event. The more unlikely a phenomenon, the more people need to experience it until it becomes recognised.
 It was pointed out that I have a vested interest in not believing these testimonies since it will mean I can't do whatever the hell I want anymore. This is entirely true, though since the talk concluded by reminding us that Jesus can free us from guilt and fear and death, it seems disingenuous to suggest it is only the atheists who are coming at this without total objectivity.
 That is a lie; I didn't see it. Someone told me it happened, though, so I'm already as much an authority as the gospels are.
 If we turn to our Being Human, of course, we know that the contemporary analog to the werewolf is apparently the paedophile, but that's a somewhat different conversation.