Monthly Archives: June 2012

Feedback

I haven’t posted in a while because I’ve been pondering some feedback on this blog.

Two Christians I respect have told me that some of my critiques of my former, evangelical faith have hurt them. This was not my intent. They are from the more liberal end of the spectrum, which is not the direction at which I’ve tried to aim my remarks.

Of course, I did not intend to hurt conservatives, either. Mostly, I just want them to engage on some issues that deeply trouble me. I admit that has been a little frustrating, not just on this blog but for the years leading up to my starting it. I did allow myself to get snarky once, but — ya know — after years of unfailing politeness that gets nowhere I become ready to try another tactic. And there’s always the Beagle’s Bark label to warn away the faint of heart.

Anyway, like me, liberal Christians are troubled or even appalled at some of the alleged acts and commands of God in the Bible. Although they respect the Bible, they see it as “documenting humanity’s evolving understanding of the divine, rather than as an accurate historical record of God’s words,” as one of my correspondents put it.

In some of my posts, I’ve used language like “God says such-and-such” as shorthand for “the Bible records God as saying such-and-such.” My liberal friends rightly protest that I’m attributing things to their God that they don’t claim he said.

In other posts, I have used “Christian” as shorthand for “evangelical Christian.” Although the context would make it clear that I’m only talking about conservative Christians, my language was broader than it should have been.

So, I’ve revisited my posts to date and decided to revise several of them to use more specific language.

To the extent that my liberal friends feel some kinship with their conservative brethren, I suppose I might still give offense. I regret this, but feel it’s my duty to speak out on some issues. I hope everyone will understand.

Here are the posts I’ve revised. If you think I should revise others, please let me know.

By the way, in case you’re not sure what an evangelical Christian is, here’s the Statement of Faith of the National Association of Evangelicals. I’ve bolded the parts that, in my estimation, most distinguish them from the mainline and liberal branches of Protestantism.

  1. We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.
  2. We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  3. We believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His personal return in power and glory.
  4. We believe that for the salvation of lost and sinful people, regeneration by the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential.
  5. We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by whose indwelling the Christian is enabled to live a godly life.
  6. We believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they that are saved unto the resurrection of life and they that are lost unto the resurrection of damnation.
  7. We believe in the spiritual unity of believers in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Incidentally, the NAE’s Statement of Faith is very close to the Statements of Faith of the evangelical churches I attended over my 40-year stint as a Christian.

Catholics, like Protestants, come in all varieties, but I don’t know them as well. I hope my Catholic readers will evaluate whatever I say that may apply to them, and ignore the rest.

Hierarchy of Methods

Last time, we considered Richard Carrier’s two common-sense ways of deciding whether a method for finding the truth about anything is reliable:

  • Does it (can it) make predictions that come true?
  • Does it produce a convergent accumulation of consistent results?

It’s almost comical to see how we humans prefer the worst methods and shun the best. Actors and sports stars earn millions for their paid endorsements because they exert a strong and measurable influence on our buying decisions, yet what could be less reliable than the bought-and-paid-for testimony of a non-expert?

At the other end of the spectrum, it is said that popular books on science lose half of their remaining readers with every equation. And those are readers who are presumably interested in science in the first place!

Although I have never paid much heed to celebrities and I love equations, I am shocked to look back on my life and see how unsound my epistemology has been. Even my logic and reason has often taken as its starting point the conclusions of less-reliable methods. I have been far too impressed with expert testimony, choosing to trust people because they shared some of my views. A shared (inbred?) set of views ought to have made me cautious, not trusting. I thought I was using the critical-historical method when in fact I knew next to nothing about what distinguishes a sound historical investigation from hear-say.

With all that in mind, here is Richard Carrier’s list of methods, from best to worst. Quotes are from his book, Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism, chapter 3. As you go down the list, see if you agree that those near the top have the most “predictive success” and “convergent accumulation of consistent results.”

The method of pure reason by logic and mathematics takes first place. “The logical-mathematical method is supremely successful [because it has] produced the broadest, most complete and most consistent success. Moreover, when a proposition of logic or mathematics is challenged and seriously debated, the most widespread and solid agreement is achieved in comparison with any other method or subject.” Unfortunately, this method is not always available, so we continue with…

The method of science. Science is not perfect, but “we have proven again and again that the results of thorough scientific investigation are more reliable than the results of our own casual observation, producing far more extensive agreement and far more surprising successes, with the most impressive examples of convergent knowledge in history.” When careful science is not possible, the next best thing is…

The method of experience. Although “I saw it with my own eyes” may seem to establish the strongest possible case, Carrier cautions that “if someone comes up with a scientifically or logically well-proven claim that contradicts our direct experience, then we have good reason to believe that our experience is in error, because a single unexamined experience cannot possibly be more trustworthy than a hundred well-analyzed and tested ones.”

The critical-historical method is next. What distinguishes sound, critical-historical investigation from sloppy, biased work is a huge subject in itself. Carrier (an historian himself) says that our skills here are much better than they used to be, but this method still “takes fourth place [because] lacking the ability to observe its object directly, its results are as indirect as its evidence, and by being less direct, [are] less certain.”

Expert testimony is surprisingly far down the list. But when you think about it, expert testimony even at its best is only derived from the more reliable methods above. Sometimes, testimony is given on very thin evidence. As Carrier says, in some fields “we find very little agreement among qualified experts [i.e., little convergent accumulation of consistent results], and a vast influence of ideological bias that is rarely placed under any objective control.”

The method of plausible inference, like expert testimony, starts from the more reliable methods and extrapolates from them, so it must be less reliable. Still, it is sometimes valid to make inferences from a few facts to general principles.

Pure faith has proven to be the least accurate. This is not a slam on any particular religion; it refers to the method of faith in general, not your faith in particular. Many religious people cite evidence from the other methods to support their views, and you may be one of them. Still, Carrier urges us to consider the number of claims based solely on faith have been overturned through history. This ought to make us cautious about faith as a method.

What do you think of this list? Is it as sobering for you as it was for me? Do you aspire to shift your thoughts higher on the list?

Sound Method

In Software Patches for the Brain, I quoted Richard Carrier:

…if you don’t employ a sound method routinely and vigorously, then your entire belief system will be unsteady and imperfect.

Carrier offers two common-sense characteristics of a good method:

  • predictive success and
  • convergent accumulation of consistent results.

These attributes are easy to understand and have obvious merit, yet many of us muddle through life oblivious to them. When our method makes predictions that prove false (or is unable to make an predictions at all), we make excuses. When contradictions arise, we call them truths-in-tension.

Predictive Success

A method that predicts things (especially surprising things) that are later confirmed is more credible than one that cannot make predictions or makes false ones.

The most spectacular example of predictive success may be the discovery of microwave background radiation from the Big Bang. The Big Bang Theory had predicted such a thing, but nobody had observed it. In 1964, Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson discovered it by accident as they tried to find the cause of mysterious static on their radio antenna.  Score 1,000 points for the theory. Add 1,000 bonus points for the most understated title of a Nobel-prize-winning paper in history: A Measure of Excess Antenna Temperature at 4080 Megacycles per Second.

Not only was that a victory for the Big Bang Theory; it demonstrated the power of the scientific and logical-mathematical methods.

Convergent Accumulation of Consistent Results

If we find our belief-system spawning more and more contradictions for which we must fashion more and more ad hoc explanations or ugly contortions, that’s bad. On the other hand, if the arrival of additional data confirms our ideas, then we are probably on the right track. That’s especially true if the additional confirmation comes from different directions.

The best example I can find is the evidence for the Theory of Evolution. At one time, I was a creationist. After I read the book, Scientists Confront Creationism, and saw that independent disciplines ranging from paleontology to molecular biology all converged on the same evolutionary conclusion, and creationism could only accommodate these diverse data by twisting all honest thought, I had no choice but to change my view.

Not only did I change my view about creationism, but I was duty-bound to question the validity of the method by which I had come to believe that idea. That was the method of faith, and trust in authority.

These examples show why Dr. Carrier puts the methods of logic, mathematics and science at the top of his list, and ranks methods like faith and expert testimony lower.

More on that next time!

Sex-Selective Abortions

[This post is a Beagle's Bark.]

President Obama recently stated his opposition to a House bill that would have jailed doctors who knowingly perform abortions for sex-selection.

Predictably, the president has been roundly criticized by the Religious Right. Even his defenders acknowledge, “Banning abortions based on sex-selection is something everyone can sign on to in principle.”

I confess that I am uneasy about abortion. Even the most ardently pro-choice people are at some point (surely at 8-1/2 months!). I also think that the reasons the president’s deputy press secretary gave for the president’s position are dubious. So, I am not writing to defend the president’s decision on a bill that I have not even read.

Instead, I would like to challenge those who criticize the president based on their biblical convictions to take the plank out of their own eye before they attempt to take the speck of sawdust out of the president’s.

If sex-selective abortion is bad, surely sex-selective infanticide is much worse. I humbly ask my Bible-believing friends to grapple with the fact that the Bible claims God ordered exactly that.

I am thinking the book of Numbers, chapter 31. God has commanded Moses to take vengeance on the Midianites. In verses 17 and 18, Moses commands:

…kill all the boys, … but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

Lest we think that this was just Moses’ idea, remember that the chapter makes it clear throughout (verses 7, 31, 41 and 47) that Moses was doing as the Lord commanded.

So, according to the Bible, we have God selecting which children will live and which will die based solely on their sex. Isn’t that exactly what we object to in the case of sex-selective abortions? (The excuse is that this was an act of divine judgment, but see my post here for a response to that idea.)

Next, consider Psalm 139:13:

…you [God] knit me together in my mother’s womb.

The Bible says that God fashions the developing child in the womb. How does that square with the fact that up to half of all pregnancies terminate with spontaneous abortion? Are these “acts of God”? It may be argued that miscarriages are the result of The Fall, but the Bible says that God is still active in “opening and closing the womb.” One of the prophets even implores God to cause miscarriages. The Bible does not depict God as standing idly by while the consequences of The Fall work themselves out.

I will continue to grapple with the abortion issue. In return, will my religious friends wrestle honestly with these troubling Bible passages?