Monday, 16 February 2009

Adventures With Jesus #1

February is rubbish. A pointless place-holder between the gluttony of Christmas, New Year and Saint Squiderins (15th Jan) and the arrival of Spring, with its new blooms and its hares punching each other in the face, and what have you.

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:
  1. The current English translation of the Bible can be relied upon as being faithful to earlier texts;
  2. Those texts can be relied upon as faithful to the original copies now lost;
  3. The original copies are faithful transcriptions of eyewitness testimony;
  4. The eyewitness testimony itself was an accurate description of what was seen;
  5. What was seen was actually what occurred;
  6. Demonstrating power also demonstrates truth.
Like I said, it's a tough sell. That sixth point, especially, was pretty much entirely glossed over, though if Anonymous McNoname (who has been kind enough to give me a few warm-up arguments to prepare me for the main event) were here she would almost certainly want to know why anyone who saw a man claim "I am the Son of God" before turning water into wine would think "Well, that dudes magic, but is he honest?" Maybe I am just too cynical, though if so I blame Uri Gellar.

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 [1]. 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 [2]. 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 [2]. 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 [3]. 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).

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.


Kim said...

Did they let you ask questions at the end?

Personally I would never give the DICCU a brushing of respectability by having anything to do with them or their week of disrespect. Although if you get bored of telling them the usually rebuffed statements of reasonable thought, try questioning their society. Why are 1 and 3 of their society aims almost the same? Why don't they vote for their exec? (Last time I heard they just prayed about it). And are they really OK with the fact that a man is always the president and a woman always the secretary? (Women aren't allowed to be president)

*re-living the glory days of gnashing teeth in the pub about the DICCU*

SpaceSquid said...

There were questions. Mine wasn't asked (they were written down), but I did corner the guy at the end and directly put it to him that you can't criticise the wisdom of a plan without knowing the intent of it, which he conceded.

I don't think having me turn up anywhere would constitute a brushing of respectability. And of course my problems with DICCU as a society are an entirely separate issue to my desire to understand my own atheism better. And sometimes the only way to do that is to listen to the religious, and work out which bits are the most obviously wrong.

jamie said...

I'm liking this series so far; most of this article I pretty much agree with. I do think there's a slight problem with one of your minor arguments though: in your first para regarding points 1 and 2 you say that one of the reasons why we should question the veracity of translations is that, basically, religious doctrinal thinking is very hard to overturn. I don't really think that logically follows; ok, so that might be a reason why mistakes might remain in translations for a lengthy period of time once established, but it doesn't necessitate the mistakes occurring in the first place

Your point about the conservative nature of religious organisation actually suggests more strongly that, although some mistakes may be made originally, that which is correct stays correct over the centuries, or at least has a better chance at doing so.

Note that I am not defending the accuracy of religious text translation, quite obviously the Bible is full of mistranslations, just that your point isn't really a proper reason to doubt their veracity. The main reasons to do so, I imagine, lie in deep and painstaking scholarship.

But anyway, that was just a minor point of yours, and, as you say, parenthetical to the main thrust of your argument.

As for DICCU, I've had a scan of their Constitution and I saw no mention of how they vote for the Exec, nor any explicit exclusion of female presidents. Of course, that just means that if the latter is going on it's going on illegally according to their statutes, which is arguably more worrying...

SpaceSquid said...

I guess I should have included an extra step. As far as I can see, translation is often an imperfect process, partially due to human error, but also because, like so many other things, our capacity to translate Language X improves with time as more academic thinking is applied, new sources are uncovered, new anthropological theories, what have you, and so early translations may not be the most accurate despite being closest to the source.

Thus the veracity of any translation should be in doubt absent rigorous re-analysis, which in this case the Church would naturally tend to resist.

As to what is right staying right, that is liable to be tru (though one would hope that regular re-evaluation would fix far more than it broke), but that isn't the point. Just because re-evaluation might lead to errors doesn't mean the lack of that evaluation hasn't resulted in errors, too.

Lastly, on the subject of DICCU, I'm pretty sure Kim is right on this one, a woman cannot become President. There is also talk of various pledges that you are required to sign to enter the various levels of the society. At the very least, there's a reason they call themselves a Union rather than a Society, in that they don't meet the criteria necessary to be considered a Durham University Society. It's all very tedious, really.

Kim said...

I generally find that encounters with ridiculous evangelical groups such as DICCU inflames my Atheism for all the wrong reasons. I find my emotional reaction to their objectionable doctrine/fanaticism/disrespect overrides my more cerebral and logical beliefs. Which to be honest is probably the problem they have with me too.

I have found more interesting conversations on beliefs with trained theologians/books rather than aggressive Christians who have never looked beyond the dogma they have adopted and without question or further research tout.

I recently read that the bible is actually very well preserved. Translational misunderstandings not withstanding, as one of the most printed, copied and read books even the early versions show remarkable homogeneity.

However, who decided what versions survived (and keeps them in their lovely vault) and the nature and absence of 'original works' is very open to question.

SpaceSquid said...

I won't deny that I have had discussions with Christians who combined total cluelessness with agressive condemnation, but none of them have happened over this last week.

And yes, I'm sure a trained theologian would probably be a more useful conversational partner than a some random from DICCU, but I think it would be a disservice to this week's speakers to not recognise they've been chosen for more than the fact that they're committed.

The homogeneity point was raised in the talk this post discusses (still my favourite of those I've been to thus far). As you say, it's not clear how relevant that fact is, but it certainly seems to be the case.