Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Just Believe it and Forget it...

It disturbs me deeply that this is happening, but one of my oldest friends is in the process of becoming a Biblical literalist. At the same time, though, it’s fascinating to get a candid, personal look at the internal process of Biblical literalism and understand exactly why it is that science and history don’t penetrate the self-reinforcing thought process that creates the mindset. And in a weird way it’s nice to be able to have a conversation with the implicit understanding that it won’t become an internet flame war. Still, I’d rather my friend not be in the process of becoming a Biblical literalist, especially since it’s partially my fault. We’ve been friends for years now. Since junior high. Back when we met he was Catholic and I was a self-important jackass of an evangelical (I don’t say this lightly, so many stories that I hear/remember from junior high/high school and even later have a very simple moral: I was an asshole. I’m actually shocked that a couple of my friends from then are still my friends now. Seriously. One of my oldest friends recently told me that the only reason he stuck around during high school was because I got a car. And I cannot blame him for that on any level). So I did my best, which apparently involved ridicule and Catholic bashing, to convince him to become the right kind of Christian. Yeah, I wasn’t a good person. I’m probably still not a good person, but at least I’m aware of it these days… And so but anyway, I don’t think I was the immediate cause of his conversion to the evangelical flavor of Christianity, but apparently I was important to that (the other prime cause as best I remember was a member of the female gender who holds the distinction of being the only person I’m incapable of letting bygones be bygones with. I tend to hold a default of forgiving people and giving them another chance and at least trying to overlook their faults and failings. With her I simply can’t). I’m certainly not the reason he’s becoming ever more Biblically literalist, as I was never really in danger of being a literalist. The closest I got was taking one of those day-age approaches to the creation myths in Genesis, buying that science was on the ball with its determination of the age of the universe and trying not to think about it all too much. It was the end of the “try not to think about it too much” part that finally got me. One of my closest friends at the time of my disassociation from Christianity also doubled as the only person I knew who actually believed that the Genesis account was accurate. From her I learned of Ken Ham for the first time. She also thought that Revelation wasn’t to be taken at face value and that Left Behind was poorly written garbage. And she thought that true Christianity resembled Communism more closely than anything else. I didn’t necessarily figure it out at the time, but it was from her that I gained one of my most valuable insights in to the nature of Biblical literalism: it’s entirely arbitrary and pragmatic. Revelation isn’t to be taken at face value because it’s obviously stupid. But if we don’t take the Genesis creation account literally it totally destroys Adam and Eve and the Garden and the Fall, which we can’t have. Because without that we don’t need Jesus. Actually, that last part was my main insight based on my own realizations while I was trying really hard not to think about it all, but I’m about 96% sure that the only reason charlatans like Ken Ham and Kent Hovind get anywhere is because of that tiny little insecurity at the core of all Christians who are even marginally aware of evolution that says, “If science is right then there’s no need for Jesus.” The main problem I had was that I was always too skeptical. The only way I could avoid skepticism was through denial. And I’m not that good at denying a juicy puzzle that’s been placed in front of me. I wanted to be a sci-fi writer when I was younger (and kind of still do). One of the things I realized back about ten years ago was that if we really did go out in to the universe and find aliens, like in Star Trek and whatnot, that it would destroy the Christian story.* This saddened me deeply at the time. It’s those realizations that fed in to my later realizations that if there was no Adam and Eve then there was no Garden of Eden and no Fall, so the science I knew of stood in direct contradiction to the religion I believed in. This isn’t to say that science destroys all possibility of religion, but it sure as shit takes religious fundamentalism out of the equation completely, at least until we find an ancient religious text that describes how the Devil snuck in to god’s universe design lab and hacked bad code in to the DNA structure or something. I now regard that skepticism as a good and useful thing. When I look back on those conversations with my former friend who would say something like, “Ken Ham has some interesting things to say,” and I would actually know enough science to say, “No, no he doesn’t,” I realize that my skepticism kept me from getting suckered by a charlatan (Ken Ham, not the friend). It never got to a real, full-blown conversation, since I was more concerned with preserving the relationship and I was struggling against my own doubts at the time so I would tend to back off and try to change the subject and she knew it was a sore spot for me and didn’t push too hard. But the primary difference between me and her was that I wanted to know what the data showed. She only wanted to know things that reinforced her beliefs. It ultimately wasn’t science that saved me from religion, anyway. It was history. Evolution might have told me that Adam and Eve could never really have existed, but history told me that the Garden of Eden was an impossible construct, that the Jewish Bible wasn’t a particularly reliable document, and ultimately that the Gospels weren’t written as historically accurate biographies. It also helps that my particular areas of academic competence are history-related and not science-related. So that brings me to my friend who is becoming a literalist. He’ll be the first to tell you he’s not a scientist or a historian and that’s the problem. It’s not that he’s deluded or stupid, it’s that he lacks the intellectual curiosity that fuels skepticism and is willing to take the explanation that seems to make more sense over the one that requires more specialized knowledge. We had a long discussion on Wednesday that came down to a series of bizarre absurdities. I was pulling my punches as much as possible but also trying to use half- or quarter-remembered high school biology and chemistry lessons to explain things like why carbon dating works (honestly, I kinda wish I’d recorded that chunk so I could play it back for a chemist so they could laugh at me). He’d come at me with arguments that literally started, “I heard a story…” or, “I read somewhere…” This, I realized, is a huge problem in any conversation like this. Assuming it was even possible for me to “win,” to use the quickest shorthand to explain, I would have had to be a specialist in everything to accurately counter the arguments I faced and come out with the winning argument. I also had to be able to pick appropriate comebacks for a collection of strange arguments. At one point he hit me with a story he read somewhere about a mountain that suddenly appeared in Arizona or somewhere. A scientist went and tested it and said it had been there for 10 million years when it had only popped up in the last ten. No, seriously, this was the entire story. My response, being the good historian I am, was, “I want a citation on that story.” This was the wrong response. See, when someone throws out a story that’s as obviously crazy as that and they weren’t originally interested in checking to make sure it was accurate and can’t even add in rudimentary details like the name of the “scientist” and whether he/she said that the mountain had been there for 10 million years or was made of 10 million year-old material, then the goal isn’t to debunk the story. This, of course, is impossible to do in this situation. What you need to do is be quick enough on your feet to come up with a counter story. The one I hit upon – far too late, sadly – was simple. I have a coffee table in my living room. It has been in my living room since October of 2008. But if someone came in and studied said coffee table they may well discover that it’s actually two years old, since it’s a particular type that was discontinued in 2007 and sat in a warehouse for a year before I bought it. Or let’s say they had some way of dating the wood itself (which they don’t, but for the sake of argument…) and discovered that the materials that make up my coffee table are 100 years old because that’s when the tree it’s made from was originally planted. Which of these numbers is correct? The answer is, “All of them,” y’know, assuming I wasn’t just making shit up off the top of my head. So from here I could have gone back to that mountain story and explain that the nameless southwestern mountain may have sprung up overnight, but it’s made up of rocks that have been sitting around for a long time. So a scientist may well have discovered it’s made of materials that existed for millions of years and were pushed up in some sort of tectonic shift or something. But someone who then says, “Ha! This disproves scientific dating methods!” is either ignorant of science or trying to sell a lie. And the entire goal of the huckster selling a lie is to keep those who are ignorant of science ignorant. I do think that I got one thing right. He even threw the old, “Darwin even repented on his death bed,” line at me. On that one I said, “No, he didn’t. That got passed around as a rumor after he died and certain people jumped on it in an attempt to discredit evolution.” Then I was able to explain why that doesn’t work, anyway. Science is about ideas. Religion is about people. The goal in science is to prove or disprove the idea, while the goal in religion is to support or discredit the people. So it doesn’t matter who Darwin was or what he did. What matters is that he laid down an idea that has been proven to be correct time and time again through repeated experimentation and the accumulated knowledge of the last 150 years. So science builds on science and the important question isn’t, “What’s the origin of this theory,” but, “What does the latest data say about it?” The goal in religion, though, is to support the initial creator of the religious movement. So as we get closer to current days it gets easier to debunk the words or discredit the actions of the most recent disciples of the religion, but that doesn’t hurt the religion itself, since those newer figures serve to insulate the originator. The goal of a religious debate, then, is to dig through it all and discredit that original holy person. This is why both sides talk past each other. The non-religious person says, “Look at all the horrible things that the religious are doing right now,” and the believer shrugs it off and says, “So what? They’re not real Christians, not like Jesus.” And the complete butchering of the understanding of history, coupled with the fact that any self-respecting historian knows that we can’t say anything completely definitively about anything that happened 2000 years ago, means that I can’t actually go all the way back to Jesus and say, “You shouldn’t believe in Jesus because of this, that, and the other thing.” It’s simply not possible. Of course there are those for whom even that wouldn’t be good enough. It’s all about faith, don’tcha know?*** The most eye-opening moment in the conversation, though, was this: I’d just finished on a bit about my favorite historical inaccuracy in the Bible when my friend said, “Yeah, but how do you know that the Bible’s account of that isn’t correct?” So I went off on how we find multiple sources and test claims and he said (more or less), “See, that’s the part I don’t get. But the Bible says that this stuff happened this way and it’s all right there, so I believe it.” That’s the problem. The hucksters who have been selling Biblical literalism have gotten an audience and a following not because all people who agree with them are stupid or ignorant or intellectually lazy. They’ve gotten where they are because they’re selling a product. The product is convenience. So in this Ken Ham is no different than Vince the Slap Chop guy or Ron Popeil. “We know you’re busy,” they say, “And you don’t have time to learn enough biology to see the markers for evolution, to learn enough astronomy to get how we’ve calculated the age of the universe, enough chemistry to get why radio carbon dating works, and enough history to figure out whether the Persian succession went Cyrus the Great - Cambyses II - Bardyia - Darius or Darius - Cyrus. You’ve got that big project due at work and dinner to make and you’ve got to pick up your kids from soccer practice and call the credit card company to figure out why there’s a $65 charge from Amazon from something you never bought. Well I’ve got something to make it all easier.” It's an alluring sales pitch, especially for those to whom the nature of the universe isn't an every day concern. And the sheer overwhelming amount of knowledge out there is often more of a barrier than an aid to understanding. It’s impossible to know everything about everything any more. The fact is that when it gets down to science and skepticism there’s still a lot of stuff I have to take on faith. I can’t begin to understand how we figured out that the universe is 13.5 billion years old and expanding faster than the speed of light. I don’t really get how genes get turned on or off and certain times to express things like arms and hands instead of wings. So on some level I have to take it on faith that the scientists who figure all that stuff out aren’t just talking out of their asses or flat-out lying to me. Fortunately I know enough rudimentary science and understand the scientific method well enough to be able to draw accurate conclusions about who is trustworthy, but I am incapable of checking their results myself, so ultimately it is a matter of faith in something outside of myself that I don’t fully understand. But by the same token I know that Darius didn’t precede Cyrus and I can sure as hell explain why I know that. And if there are any scientists out there who just don’t have the time or the inclination to study random historical minutiae like that but still need my assistance in dealing with someone who thinks they should be able to answer every question under the sun I’m more than willing to help out… ------------------------------- *Interestingly enough there was a Catholic scientist on with Colbert last night or Monday who said otherwise. Colbert was talking about a meeting in Rome about what would happen to the RC Church if aliens were found to be real.** Colbert’s response was basically, “What would happen? There’d be no more church!” Then he brought some random dude in who spouted some nonsense about how it would just show god’s great creativity and they might have their own parallel Jesus. So it was basically C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy. Of course there’s no fucking way an alien culture would have a religion that sounds appropriately like Christianity, so what would happen if religion survived the experience is rather disturbing to contemplate: interstellar religious war. I mean, Christians and Muslims can’t get along and they ostensibly have the same religious basis. Hell, Catholics and Protestants fought ruinous wars for centuries and they ostensibly have the same exact religion. **The sheer, unadulterated chutzpah of that question ASTOUNDS me, by the way. I mean, seriously, let’s say Coca-Cola had that same meeting to ask the question, “What will happen to Coke if aliens are found?” Then again, Reese’s Pieces really took off when they captured the fugitive alien demographic in E.T., so I’m guessing the answer is, “A new market to conquer!” Congratulations, Omicron Persei 8, you’re the new China! ***That’s actually one of the more insidious things that’s come out of the Emerging Church Movement, but I know it’s been around a lot longer. Folks like Rob Bell have said things to the effect that there didn’t have to be a real Jesus for the Jesus story to be worthwhile and to possess saving grace. This is built, at least conceptually, on the work of Paul Tillich and (as I recall) Hans Frei and shares a lot in common with Martin Buber, so it’s a very postmodern idea, but it’s been a thought in Christianity for a very long time. It may well go back to the original Gnostics, but unfortunately this isn’t something I’ve really thought of before, so I can’t say much about it. Either way, it’s almost a prevent defense against the undermining of the historical reliability of the Bible, sort of a pre-emptive, “Yeah, we know there’s no Jesus, but it doesn’t matter, anyway! Nyah nyah!”


Michael Mock said...

"the Devil snuck in to god’s universe design lab and hacked bad code in to the DNA structure or something."

Write this story, I'm begging you.

jessa said...

It is obvious to you and it is obvious to me that many many people are being intellectually lazy and relying on others to tell them what to believe. Yet one argument I heard over and over for why Protestants are better than Catholics (though they wouldn't have phrased it so bluntly) is that the Catholics didn't let people read the Bible themselves and the priests we the keepers of the text, so to speak. Even if Protestants are reading the Bible themselves (and many aren't despite telling everyone else what what the Bible says), the fact that they have been told what to believe about it ahead of time gives their reading a heavy bias. I imagine they would say that they trust their pastors and celebrity theologians to help them interpret to boost their understanding, which is fine, except that is exactly what the RCC (Roman Catholic Church) was doing all along. Maybe they are "choosing" which pastors and celebrity theologians to trust to aid their understanding, and think that makes it better, but there is too much marketing and branding and other manipulations in place for that to be much of a choice. It's the same for most things, deciding who you will trust about them, but you can admit it and not malign other people for doing the same thing.

Geds said...


Now that you mention it, that would be a pretty funny story. I'll have to mull it over a bit.


Ah, yes, the old, "We read the Bible and you don't," argument. The weird thing is, most of the people I remember getting that from are former Catholics who went all evangelical. I suppose I always took it as a given that the priesthood of all believers was a good thing.

Oddly enough, though, ever since I've stopped hanging out in evangelical circles I've questioned that. I rather like the set up of the Presbyterian church where there's a governing body that keeps churches from throwing their pastors out every couple of years. I also somewhat understand the drive to have the priests as the arbiters of the word. I've found that Catholics in general are far more comfortable and flexible with their faith than your average fundamentalist. They're usually more interested in the ceremony and figuring out what rules they don't care for than making sure that everyone believes as they do. At least, like I've said, for the sampling of Catholics I've met.

But I like the point you make that people still pick and choose. I remember that at the end I liked Phil Yancey, Rob Bell, and (sadly) John Eldredge but couldn't stand Rick Warren or Joel Osteen, didn't care for Chuck Colson and most of the political Christians, and actively despised Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

Of course, those choices were entirely dependent on who I agreed with. You can't make an objective decision on the issue of whether Yancey or Robertson has a more correct interpretation of scripture, since they'll both get a lot wrong depending on what they highlight and what they ignore. This is the nature of the Bible.

That's where I ultimately can say I'm far more comfortable "taking it on faith" that science and history largely have it right while the Bible doesn't. Even if I don't understand the data I know the difference between someone presenting data and someone who is just telling stories. I also know to ask the question, "Who reviewed this article/data?" If the answer is, "These other highly qualified scientists," I can know I'm probably okay. If the answer is, "No one," I can know I should be really skeptical.

Religion has no peer review system. I mean, unless you consider that pastor I used to know telling me that Philip Yancey was an idiot hippie who's not a real, true Christian as a form of peer review. Which I really, really don't.

Anonymous said...

At one point he hit me with a story he read somewhere about a mountain that suddenly appeared in Arizona or somewhere. A scientist went and tested it and said it had been there for 10 million years when it had only popped up in the last ten.

In some cases, similar results have been achieved by (deliberately or otherwise) using the wrong dating method. The reason why the dating method can be known to be wrong without circularly assuming the age beforehand is best seen by analogy. Imagine you're weighing a dog. Consider the different results you would get if you weigh the dog on a kitchen scale (dog weighs at least 2 pounds) a bathroom scale (dog weighs 40 pounds +/- 2) and a truck scale. (dog weighs less than 200 pounds).

The mountain dating story is basically saying "some guy weighed a poodle [on a truck scale] and it was 200 pounds. Therefore you can't trust any weight 'they' tell you."

- YetAnotherKevin

sbh said...

I recently stumbled onto your blog (while looking about for history blogs) and was struck at once by this entry. Having a degree in history myself I very much get your distinction between confidence in material outside your area of expertise and material inside. For me it's sort of a sliding scale; I spent enough time digging up fossils during my misspent youth to be well aware that the fossil record does not support the order of creation given in either the P or J accounts, for example, though I am in no sense whatsoever a geologist. Having had high-school biology I am also aware that Jacob's little trick with the flocks would never have worked, though I have very little idea of what evidence actually lies behind our modern notions of procreation and inheritance. (I'm learning a lot more about that now than I ever wanted to know, since I have an nephew majoring in biology who rents a room in my house.) But when I read that Joshua conquered a city that had been in ruins for a millennium before the earliest date he could have appeared, or that "Darius the Mede" conquered Babylon before Cyrus the Great, then I'm closer to being on home turf, and I have no problem concluding that the books of Joshua and Daniel are simply wrong on these points.

I wouldn't describe my attitude toward knowledge outside my area as "faith", however. Whether I take the Merriam-Webster definition "firm belief in something for which there is no proof" or the Ambrose Bierce definition "Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel" as my guide, it seems to me that confidence in conclusions reached by people who have examined the evidence and submitted it to peer review requires no faith at all.